“But I don’t think I understood how badly I had erred until I had my daughter. She’s so…so bright, Amanda. She’s only five now, and the other day, I found her reading Pilgrim’s Progress aloud to her younger brother. I want you to know her.” Maria’s eyes glistened once more.
“Oh, Maria. I would love to know your daughter.”
“I started listening to what I said to her. When she was three, I told her that she couldn’t contradict the boy next door, even when she’s right, because it’s indelicate for a lady to disagree with a gentleman. I told her that she mustn’t run, because ladies never hurry. Every day, from the moment she took her first step, I’ve told her to stop: to stop thinking, to stop speaking, to stop moving about. And I didn’t know why I said any of it. Those words kept coming out of my mouth, passing through me.”
Amanda reached over and gripped her sister’s hand.
“I think that’s when I understood that you only ruined my life because my life needed ruining. Because the life you rejected demanded that I spend all my time telling my daughter to be less and my son to be more.”
“I wasn’t trying to save anyone,” Amanda said. “Just myself.”
Maria gave her a wavering smile. “Well. I started reading your paper a year ago. I would sit at breakfast with your essays and imagine that you were sitting across the table from me. That you had forgiven me for the horrible things I said to you. And then Miss Johnson came to me.”
Genevieve and Geraldine were sitting across the table from them, both silent. Geraldine wiped a demure tear from one eye. But Genevieve was smiling—a fierce, brilliant, perfect smile, one that Amanda could feel from three feet away.
“I’m wearing black,” Maria said. “I sent my number in for the demonstration and black is what I was told to wear. I brought…” She rummaged in a little bag. “This. For the gag.” She held up a dark kerchief. “Do you think this will do?”
“Maria, they’ve quashed the permit for the demonstration. We might all be arrested. You don’t have to do this.”
Maria’s smile faltered a moment. She looked at her kerchief. “Are you still going?”
“Yes,” Amanda said.
Maria looked at Amanda and raised her chin. “Let them just try and hold me, then,” she said. “I’m pregnant. My husband might not be the duke I dreamed of as a girl, but he can still make himself heard if necessary.”
Geraldine sniffed again. “Sisters,” she said.
Maria took Amanda’s hand. “Sisters,” she repeated. “I walked away from you years ago. I’ll be damned if I let you stand alone today.”
BY THE TIME EDWARD and Patrick were called into the small, stuffy chamber behind the room where the Committee for Privileges met, the proceedings had already begun. Most of the lords on that committee likely hadn’t noticed the last-minute alteration to the agenda submitted by Baron Lowery, nor the extra witnesses that he’d had sworn in at yesterday’s poorly attended Parliamentary session.
The entire proceeding had an unreal quality to it.
It seemed impossible that Edward should be here now. Just last night, he’d married Free. Just this morning, they had come down to London on the train together. He’d not been able to keep himself from touching her, public though the ride had been. His hand kept stealing into hers, his leg had brushed hers. They’d parted ways at the station—she to go to her demonstration, he to find his solicitors. He’d had his hair cut respectably short, and he was now garbed in a severe, dark suit, tailored to his form.
She was likely already in the park where they were to gather, issuing placards to the women. Preparing for arrest. She thought he had only a little business to do before he returned. She had no idea who he was about to become.
A man was reciting the substance of James’s claim to the viscountcy in the other room—a dry, dull, monotonous stream of facts about parentage.
He doubted the full committee was in attendance. Likely, they all thought this a fairly routine matter. After all, they were merely seating a lord who had presented his claim to the queen and had the particulars duly approved by the attorney general. Under ordinary circumstances, there would be nothing for them to do but vote at the end. Half had probably sent their proxies by way of one or another member.
Edward was about to make matters deviate from the ordinary.
In the back chamber, a man came up to the two of them. “You’re on the list of witnesses?” He brushed his thinning hair away from his eyes and peered at a page in his hand. “Your names?”
“Edward Clark,” Edward said. “And Patrick Shaughnessy. We were sworn in yesterday morning.”
The man nodded, checking them off the list he held. “If they need you, you’ll be called. Until then, you can have a seat.” He gestured at a handful of chairs and bustled off.
Edward recognized the names that were being recited in the other chamber, loud enough for them to hear even in here. There was a deposition referenced from the vicar who’d baptized his brother. A family servant attested to a continuing acquaintance. He wondered if James had noticed the additions to the witness list, or if he’d brushed them aside.
The man droned on. “As to the immediate family, the eldest son of John Delacey, the fourth Viscount Claridge, was Peter Delacey, who died an infant on August 2, 1849. The second eldest son, Edward Delacey, was born on March 15, 1850. He was in Strasbourg at the time that hostilities broke out between France and Prussia; all attempts to discover him after the region once again became stable were fruitless. Hundreds were killed, the bodies not all recovered. The last letter received from Edward Delacey, presented to this body as evidence by James Delacey, was dated July 6, 1870. Under our law, after seven years have passed without word, Edward Delacey is presumed dead. That brings us to the third rightful son of John Delacey, James Delacey, who is before us now.”
There was an indistinct murmur, one that Edward could not make out.
Then a different voice spoke up. “The chair recognizes Baron Lowery.”
“Thank you. As I understand the law, Edward Delacey is merely presumed dead at the moment. Is that correct?”
“For all legal purposes, yes.”
“But that presumption can be rebutted for legal purposes. Including, I suppose, right now.”
There was a pause and then another murmur.