Today we have a guest spotlight. Please welcome Madeline Archer, who is showcasing her book, The Changeling.
November 1, 1867
Frances March hurried cautiously along the stable wall. So distracted by their conspiracy of mercy, she nearly jumped out of her shoes at the nicker of a horse. The sooner this deed was done, the better.
Pressing flat to the wall, she listened for the stableman, but heard only the muffled sound of stabled horses and the hoot of a distant owl. It was imperative that no one — upstairs or down — see her. She peered around the corner and watched as her sister disappeared through the hedge. Pulling her shawl tightly around her and the bundle she held, she scurried across the gardens to the library and slipped inside quietly. The head butler was waiting.
He stated rather than asked, “You’re certain no one saw you . . . ”
With a nod she went to warm herself by the fire, her bundle held close. The grandfather clock in the hall struck one.
Osgood checked his watch against it. He pressed, “Did you explain to your sister she must never speak of this again?”
“Yes, Mr. Osgood. As I said before, Agnes says no one would believe the truth of it anyway. She’d be ridiculed…her reputation ruined. And there’s always the possibility she could be blamed for the other. It is unbelievable, no?”
“It is at that.” Osgood nodded. “I scarcely believe it myself, Fanny. What about the poor still babe?”
Her eyes brimmed with tears. “Agnes will see him to the cradle and hopefully none will be the wiser. Mrs. Benton will think her own baby died and he’ll get a decent burial. And that’s pretty much the truth, isn’t it? Her own son is as good as dead. Poor, poor laddie, wherever he is now.” She crossed herself.
Osgood peered out into the night before locking the French doors and drawing the heavy curtains closed. “It’s as it should be.”
“Is it? Was it wise to switch them, Mr. Osgood? I mean, the baker and his wife —”
“— Had their child taken, with nothing to be done for it. They have seven living children to love, Fanny. Her ladyship has four in the grave. Five now.”
Frances frowned. “Has her ladyship awakened?”
He shook his head. “Doctor Fischer administered a sedative. Lady Amelia was done out. She went to sleep believing her child alive and has no idea of the tragedy that occurred but half an hour later.”
“My poor lady. To go through that long labor and, in the end, the babe too weak to survive.” Emotion welling, Frances wiped her eyes. “What do you suppose they do with the babies they take?”
Osgood blinked his own sentiment away. “I can’t say. My old Welsh grannie said the fae only took the sickly ones. But back then it was only legend.”
“My Scottish gran told us the same,” Frances said, shaking her head. “But Agnes says Libby Benton’s baby wasn’t sickly but strong and healthy. Nearly every child of the Benton’s is as towheaded as their father, except for the two with the ginger hair like their mother. Agnes said Libby’s babe was destined to be ginger.”
Osgood went to the decanter and poured two small glasses of sherry. He handed one to her before downing his in one swallow. “Did your sister witness the switch?”
Frances sipped then shook her head. “When Agnes went to tidy the mother, she left the sleeping babe in the crib with no one to watch him. And, why would she think he needed to be watched? She helped bring the others into the world without fuss. It was minutes only that he was out of her sight. When she went back, another, with black hair, was in his place. That’s when she told Libby the babe was asleep and she should rest a while. So distressed was Agnes that she ran up to the hill to find me.”
He nodded. “It was fortunate she did. Another hour and everyone might have known.”
“Oh yes, it was fortunate. Libby’s husband was at the bakery mixing his dough, and the other children were sleeping up the stairs . . . one more child to such a large family brought little interest in him, you see. There was no one to witness the deed. Will you be telling Mrs. Smithson?”
“No, Fanny. No one in this household, save you and I, will know. Of course Mrs. Smithson would keep the secret if I asked her to, but that isn’t necessary. We shan’t burden anyone else with the truth.”
Frances uncovered the bundle in her arms. Looking down, she smiled. “He’s a handsome laddie, don’t you think? I’m no expert, mind, but Agnes and I both suspect the babe is of mixed race. His little ears . . . ”
Moving to her side, Osgood broke into a smile of his own. The little bundled boy was sleeping. He ran a gentle fingertip over the small, slightly pointed ear. “Yes, he very well could be. And yes, he’s a handsome little man — dark like Master Evan was. May his soul in heaven forgive us.”
The lady’s maid put a reassuring hand on the head butler’s arm. “He wouldn’t want her ladyship’s heart to be broken more than it already is. You know how he loved her.”
“I do,” he nodded. “As I see it, the baker’s child is no more, taken away to some faery hill no doubt, never to be seen again, if the old stories are true. This little boy did not belong with the Benton family anyway. He’s black-haired, for one. He’d grow being different, maybe disliked or mistrusted, even despised by his father as another man’s bastard. Danny Benton is a highlander. You know how they are — with their superstitions — when they feel something isn’t quite right. The child would suffer for a situation not of his making. It harms no one that he be raised a Pendry.”
She nodded. “Yes, you’re right Mr. Osgood. If nothing else, this is the better life of the two.”
“It most certainly is. Master Evan is gone and Master John has been missing for a fortnight. Solicitors across London have been inquiring high and low for his whereabouts, but it isn’t looking good, Fanny. Should anything have happened to Master John, there is no other heir living. This little man may very well become the 10th Earl of Pendry.”
To the babe, Osgood leaned down and whispered, “And the family name will continue because of you. Shall we meet your mummy little sir?”
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