The Heiress Effect

The Heiress Effect

Page 24

“As you said, we are an ungodly household. We pray to Ba’al,” Emily said earnestly. “Every evening. And to Apollo, god of the sun, at daybreak. We would like it very much if you joined us.”

Jane had to clamp her lips together to keep from bursting into laughter.

“There are so few heathens in England, and you look like a big, strapping addition—”

Doctor Fallon turned bright red and grabbed the bills from Jane’s hand. “You are right,” he said coldly. “I cannot—I must not stay in this household.”

Alice wordlessly handed him the wicker case she had packed, which now contained the implements of his trade.

“I take my leave of you,” Doctor Fallon proclaimed. “I will not come back, no matter how you might beg, until you repent and accept—”

“What is going on here?”

Jane and Emily turned to the door as one. Oh, God. That was all this farce had needed. Uncle Titus had come into the room. He looked around in blinking confusion—at Doctor Fallon, waving a wicker case that smelled of acid, at the notes that fluttered between his fingers. He looked at Emily, smiling up at the man winsomely.

“Girls,” Titus repeated, “what is going on here?”

“This house!” Doctor Fallon said. “This house—it is a place of heathen infamy. I have been lied to, seduced…” His eyes slid to the bills in his hand, and he clutched them to his chest. “I have been bribed,” he said hoarsely. “I wash my hands of the lot of you, may the devil take you all.”

So saying, he snatched up his case and marched out. It was a good thing, Jane mused, because if he had stayed, he might have explained to Titus that he meant his last statement as the literal truth.

Their uncle watched him go in stunned silence. He waited until he heard the front door slam, before turning to Jane and Emily.

This, Jane thought, was going to be tricky. Very tricky.

“I was in my room,” Jane said cautiously. “And I heard noise. It was the sound of…of ranting.”

“It’s true,” Emily said. “I was sitting here, waiting for a fit to come on so he could test his methods, and suddenly he was pointing his finger at me and making all kinds of horrid accusations.”

Emily was better at lying, and so Jane let her do it.

“I don’t know what set him off,” Emily said earnestly. “He just kept…he kept looking at me. Just looking at me and muttering to himself about how I was seducing him. But I wasn’t. I was just sitting down. I wasn’t doing anything.”

It was a good story, Jane thought. Emily was uncommonly pretty, and even Titus understood what that meant. For a moment, Titus nodded his head, his brow wrinkling in sympathy.

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“Oh,” Titus said. “I…I…” But he didn’t say that he understood. He frowned and wrinkled his nose. “Why was he holding those bank notes?”

“Who knows where he got that?” Emily said. “He had already started ranting about Ba’al. No doubt he intended to reject Mammon, too.”

It was too much. As Emily spoke, Jane caught her eye. They exchanged a look—an unfortunate look that she never could have described to anyone else. It was a look that only a sister could understand, sly and happy and furious all at once. It let Jane know that she wasn’t alone in the world.

It was too much. Involuntarily, they both broke into betraying laughter.

“Jane,” her uncle said, shaking his head. “Jane, Jane, Jane. Whatever am I supposed to do with you?”

In lieu of giving her opinion on the matter—she’d made enough trouble for herself already—Jane looked around Titus’s office.

She wasn’t sure why he called it an office. It wasn’t as if he did real work in it. He had students, but they rarely met here. The only time he did work was when he grew enamored of some idea he heard at some lecture. For months when she had first come, he’d talked of nothing but some man’s take on the Odyssey; another time, he’d become fascinated by a visiting lecturer’s discussion of workers and capital. He’d read industriously, scribbling his own ideas on paper. But eventually, he always gave up, moving on to the next item that caught his attention. It didn’t matter what subject he pored over. Her uncle never altered. He always took whatever it was that he was doing too seriously, and imagined that his involvement, puny though it was, was vital for the intellectual health of the community.

Their discussions had much the same pattern. She couldn’t count the number of times they’d had this particular conversation.

“Jane,” Titus said, “I am so disappointed with you.”

She had been nothing but a disappointment to him ever since he’d found himself guardian to a handful of girls two years ago.

“This was an honest effort,” he told her. “From a good man, one who was willing to take on a patient who offered so little reward as Emily.”

“Did you even ask for his credentials?” Jane said. “Or speak to happy patients he had cured?”

But, no. He looked at her in bewilderment. “He was a good man,” he repeated.

“I had not noticed that there was a paucity of doctors offering to experiment on my sister,” Jane tried again, and then bit her lip. That was enough. She had no reason to antagonize him further. Best to hold her tongue. He’d shake his head at her and be disappointed. And then he’d forget and get wrapped up in the question of which map of the world he should purchase to grace the south wall of his office. They’d hear of nothing but various projections and cartographers for months, and finally he’d settle on just the right thing.

“Up until this point,” Titus said, “I have forgiven your many, many foibles.” He shook his head gravely. “You are argumentative and stubborn as befits the indelicacy of your birth. I have always hoped that my kind, patient attentions would prevail upon you to change your ways.” He steepled his fingers and looked upward. “I begin to despair of my object.”

Quibbling with the label argumentative had somehow never altered his opinion of her.

She donned an expression of contrition. “I’m sorry, uncle,” she said, as meekly as she could manage. “I am trying.”

The faster she expressed an apology, the sooner they could have this conversation over with. The one good thing about having a gullible uncle was that Jane could usually apologize her way out of anything.