Home > A Cold Legacy (The Madman's Daughter #3)(7)

A Cold Legacy (The Madman's Daughter #3)(7)
Author: Megan Shepherd

“Follow me,” she said. “The ground is frozen until spring thaw. We can’t bury our bodies until then, so we hold our funerals inside.”

I hesitated. “Inside? But where?”

Valentina met my eyes, and I realized that I wasn’t certain that I wanted to know where, exactly, the bodies were kept. Nor that Ballentyne manor was anything like the safe haven I’d expected.

“You’ll see for yourself. I hope for your sake—if you truly are the mistress’s ward—you have as strong a constitution as she does, Miss Moreau.”

FOUR

VALENTINA LED THE WAY down the damp cellar stairs with a candle in one hand, despite the line of electric lights running alongside us.

“Best not to rely on the electricity,” she explained over her shoulder. “The lights have gone out on me too many times when I’m down here alone, and it’s blacker than the devil.”

The further we descended, the colder the air grew. My breath fogged in the dim lights. No wonder they stored the bodies here—the temperature and sulfuric gases released from the bogs would preserve them in near perfect condition until the spring thaw, and the stone walls would keep away the vermin.

Montgomery was close behind me, but Lucy trailed at a distance, holding her hem high so as not to drag it on the slick stones of the spiral staircase. At last we reached the bottom, where the distant sound of a droning voice came from a room ahead that glowed faintly in the electric lights.

“It was the plague,” Valentina said.

“Plague?” Lucy asked.

“The ones that died. The plague killed them. Beggars following the winter fair circuit. Several women and children among them, too.”

She spoke casually enough, as though dead children were as common as the sheep dotting the landscape. Lucy gasped, but Valentina’s straightforward attitude didn’t bother me. Back in London, it was all high tea and polished silver. Very refined, very polite. At least these people, sullen though they were, didn’t deny the dangers around them.

Lucy lifted her skirts higher, as if the plague might be lurking in the damp stone underfoot, and Valentina smirked. We followed her through an open doorway into a chamber where a dozen or so servants, most of them young girls, gathered around a brass cross set on an altar.

“A chapel?” Lucy whispered to me. “In the cellar?”

I nodded. I’d heard about places like this. In such cold climates, when going outside was nearly impossible half the year, old households had built chapels indoors. This one, crumbled as it was, looked as though it dated back practically to the Middle Ages.

A few of the girls looked up when we slipped in, curiosity making them fidget. None were dressed as puritanically as Valentina, though all their clothes were rather dour and old-fashioned. It was a stark contrast to their bright eyes and red cheeks. Clearly they hadn’t known or cared about any of the deceased, because I caught a few excited whispers exchanged about Lucy’s and my elegant dresses, and Montgomery’s handsome good looks.

Valentina shushed them and they snapped back to attention.

At the head of the room stood an older woman with a red braid interwoven with white hairs, who wore a pair of men’s tweed trousers tucked into thick rubber boots. She was reading a somber few verses from a leather-bound volume in a heavy Scottish accent. She hadn’t yet noticed our presence.

On closer inspection, I realized all the servants were women, most of them barely more than children. Where was the rest of the male staff, besides the old gamekeeper?

Montgomery stood just in the doorway, as though it would be trespassing to go any further. When I met his eyes, he was frowning.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He leaned down to whisper in my ear. “The bodies. I didn’t expect so many of them.”

The servant girls shifted, and I caught sight of the bodies he was talking about. A dozen of them were laid out on stone benches and the floor, covered with white sheets. My stomach knotted, reminding me of the King’s College autopsy room, where Edward’s victims had been laid out the same way. Dr. Hastings and the others I’d killed would have been laid there as well, after the massacre. Their wives and children would have come to identify the corpses. I suddenly felt sick.

Lucy drew in a breath and crossed herself.

“Don’t worry,” Montgomery whispered to her. “The plague virus will be long gone by now. There’s no danger of us catching it.”

Valentina walked among the servant girls, stepping unceremoniously over one of the bodies, and whispered to the older woman, whose eyes shot to us in surprise as she said a few final words. The servants made the sign of the cross. Lucy and I touched our foreheads as well, though we hadn’t known the vagrants. As soon as the brief service had concluded, the red-haired woman motioned for us to follow her into the hallway.

“Goodness me,” she said, pressing a hand to her chest. “Strangers during such a storm? And to arrive during these poor souls’ funeral, you must never have suffered such shock. Look at you, frozen through and through. You must be starved.”

The woman had a motherly way about her that made me feel safe even standing among the dead, and an enormous weight shifted off my shoulders. At least someone was giving us a warm reception.

“Are you Mrs. McKenna?” I asked.

“I am, my dear. My family has helped the von Steins with the management of this household for generations; you’re in good hands, I promise, and if the mistress has sent you then you’re more than welcome here.” She turned back toward the chapel. “Lily, Moira, you girls go make up the rooms on the second floor for our guests.”

Two of the older girls skipped off into the hallway, more than glad to escape the dreary funeral. Mrs. McKenna took my hands, then Lucy’s, and even Montgomery’s, rubbing them and tsking at the cold as if we were children. “Come with me, little mice. We shall get you warmed.”

I cast one final look back at the bodies. Mrs. McKenna pressed a hand against my shoulder, turning me away from the sight. “Aye, a shame. They took shelter here a fortnight ago—I could hardly turn them away, not with so many children among them. And the mistress would have wanted it. But they brought with them the plague, and it took all of them overnight. I doubt they have any relations who will be coming by to collect the bodies.”

“None of your staff caught the plague?” I asked, as we made our way back up the spiral stairs with Valentina wordlessly trailing behind us.

 

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