Mahindar’s eyes widened in astonishment. Mrs. Terrell, who had been staring out the window and paying no attention, jerked around. Juliana quickly handed Mrs. Dalrymple a napkin and tried not to cringe when the lady spit out the chewed cake.
“Poison,” Mrs. Dalrymple rasped. “You must send for the constable at once.”
“Nonsense.” Juliana snatched up a cake from the tray and took a bite. The flavors were unexpected but ones she now recognized. “Cinnamon, cardamom, and a bit of black pepper, that is all. How lovely. Please extend my compliments to your wife, Mahindar.” She smiled, trying to convey to Mahindar that if he valued his sanity, he’d flee the room now.
Mahindar made a polite bow. “Thank you, memsahib.” With dignity intact, he turned and silently departed.
“You see what I mean about them creeping about?” Mrs. Dalrymple said. “And putting pepper into a cake? How ignorant. How foolish. Plain cooking is beyond them.”
“Mrs. Dalrymple,” Juliana said, no longer bothering to keep her temper in check. “If you have come here to insult my servants and disparage my food, I must ask you to leave.”
“You know very well why I came today,” Mrs. Dalrymple said.
Mrs. Terrell nodded. “We’ve come to give you another warning, is all, dear Mrs. McBride.”
Mrs. Terrell was about thirty-five but she might have been fifty, round faced, her hair going to gray, a woman who would die rather than stoop to artifice to cover the gray threads. She wore clothes made well of costly fabric, but they were painfully, almost boastfully plain. Her entire being shouted, My husband has money, but I am frugal and will never bring him shame…unlike some wives who wear gowns of dull poplin to receive guests.
“Another warning,” Juliana said. “Please tell me what you mean.”
“Mrs. Dalrymple has telegraphed to Scotland Yard, and an investigation has begun. Murder is a very serious crime, Mrs. McBride.”
“Indeed, yes,” Juliana said in freezing tones. “So serious that one must prove it without doubt. It is not an accusation to be made lightly.”
“And I do not make it lightly,” Mrs. Dalrymple said. “Archibald was a fine youth. Almost like a son to my husband.” She blinked her light blue eyes rapidly, though Juliana could discern no tears. “Mr. Stacy said he was off to visit your husband at his plantation one day, to see how he fared after his ordeal, and the next thing we know, Mr. Stacy is missing, presumed dead. A witness saw the two of them together, and then, Mr. Stacy was gone.”
“What witness is that?” Juliana asked. “I would like to speak to him.”
Mrs. Dalrymple gave her a wise look. “I will keep the name to myself. We have been advised to.”
Juliana felt a cold chill but kept her tone confident. “Investigate away, Mrs. Dalrymple. Mr. McBride believes, however, that Mr. Stacy is still alive.”
Mrs. Dalrymple jumped, and a bit of tea sloshed to the saucer. “Still alive? He can produce him, then?”
Juliana hesitated. “Not at the snap of a finger, no.”
“There, you see?” Mrs. Dalrymple said. “Your husband has told you he left Mr. Stacy alive in India, and Mr. Dalrymple and I are going to prove that he didn’t.”
“She is adamant, my dear,” Mrs. Terrell said to Juliana.
Juliana sat still and burned with anger. She had decided last night, lying in bed alone, to put her faith in Elliot. Yes, he might behave like a madman sometimes, but that did not mean he was wrong.
Her natural fear in the face of Mrs. Dalrymple was that Elliot was wrong, and that whoever he thought was lurking in the woods was not Mr. Stacy.
But no, Juliana had weighed all the arguments in her head before drawing her conclusion. She would stand by Elliot. She would not be like her mother, who’d disparaged Juliana’s father to all and sundry whenever she could. Juliana’s mother, a beautiful woman, had been hopelessly spoiled by her own family and had chafed at the quiet decorum of the St. John household.
Juliana drew a breath to tell Mrs. Dalrymple to do her worst, when Elliot himself walked into the room.
Juliana nearly choked on her tea. Elliot wore a threadbare kilt, scarred boots, and a linen shirt, all covered with dust and plaster, because he’d been helping the men saw, hammer, and haul away debris. His hair was also coated with dust, as was his face, and from this mess his gray eyes blazed with a wild light.
“Juliana,” Elliot said, then broke into a Highland brogue so broad Juliana herself scarcely understood it. “I heard ye had comp’ny. Are these th’ wee lassies?”
Juliana cleared her throat. “Mrs. Terrell, our neighbor, and Mrs. Dalrymple, her friend from Glasgow.”
“Och, aye,” Elliot said. Then he spurted a string of words that sounded like, Gae nae leaver due gran doch blochen. Gibberish nonsense.
“Quite,” Juliana said, pretending she’d understood every word.
“What’s the matter, lass?” Elliot asked Mrs. Dalrymple. “Can ye nae ken yer own Scottish?”
“I learned long ago to speak plain English,” Mrs. Dalrymple said. “That is the world today, Mr. McBride.”
“Then it’s a foolish world.” Elliot went off into another speech that Juliana truly didn’t understand. The soft consonants and long vowels were not from a language she knew, nor did they sound like the Punjabi dialect Mahindar and his family spoke. However, she continued to sip tea as though nothing were out of the ordinary.