"She certainly seemed to be." Pouring hot water into a chipped pot filled with tea leaves, Poppy chattered about some of her discoveries. She had found a lovely rug in one of the bedrooms, and after she had beaten it for an hour, it had turned out to be richly colored and in good condition.
"1 think most of the dust was transferred from the carpet to you," Amelia said. Since Poppy had covered the lower half of her face with a handkerchief during the carpet-beating, the dust had settled on her forehead, eyes, and the bridge of her nose. When the handkerchief was removed, it had left Poppy's face oddly two-toned, the top half gray, the lower half white.
"I enjoyed it immensely," Poppy replied with a grin. "There's nothing like whacking a carpet with a rug-beater to vent one's frustrations."
Amelia was about to ask what Poppy's frustrations were, when Beatrix entered the kitchen.
The girl, usually so lively, was quiet and downcast.
"Tea will be ready soon," Poppy said, busy slicing bread at the kitchen table. "Will you have some toast, too, Bea?'
"No, thank you. Not hungry." Beatrix sat in a chair be side Amelia's, staring at the floor.
"You're always hungry," Amelia said. "What's the matter, dear? Aren't you feeling well? Are you tired?"
Silence. A violent shake of her head. Beatrix was definitely upset about something.
Amelia settled a gentle hand on her youngest sister's narrow back, and leaned over her. "Beatrix, what is it? Tell me. Are you missing your friends? Or Spot? Are you?
"No, it's nothing like that." Beatrix ducked her head until only the reddened arc of her cheek was visible.
"Something's wrong with me." Her voice roughened with misery. "It's happened again, Amelia. I couldn't help myself. I barely remember doing it. I?
"Oh, no," came Poppy's whisper.
Amelia kept her hand on Beatrix's back. "Is it the same problem as before?"
Beatrix nodded. "I'm going to kill myself," she said vehemently. "I'm going to lock myself in the bee room. I'm going to?
"Hush. You'll do no such thing." Amelia rubbed her rigid back. "Quiet, dear, and let me think for a moment." Her worried gaze met Poppy's over Beatrix's downbent head.
"The problem" had occurred on and off for the past four years, ever since the Hathaways' mother had died. Every now and then Beatrix suffered an irresistible impulse to steal something, either from a shop or someone's home, usually the objects were insignificant… a tiny pair of sewing scissors, hairpins, a pen nib, a cube of sealing wax. But every so often she took something of value, like a snuff box or an earring. As far as Amelia could tell, Beatrix never planned these small crimes—in fact, the girl often wasn't even aware of what she had done until later. And then she suffered an agony of remorse, and no small amount of fear. It was alarming to discover one wasn't always in control of one's actions.
The Hathaways kept Beatrix's problem a secret, of course, all of them conspiring to return the stolen objects discreetly and protect her from the consequences. Since it hadn't happened for nearly a year, they had all assumed Beatrix was cured of her inexplicable compulsion.
"I assume you took something from Stony Cross Manor," Amelia said with forced calm. "That's the only place you've visited."
Beatrix nodded miserably. "It was after I let Spot go. I went to the library, and looked in a few rooms on the way, and… I didn't mean to, Amelia! I didn't want to!"
"I know." Amelia wrapped her arms around her in a consoling hug. She was filled with a maternal instinct to protect, soothe, ease. "We'll fix it, Bea. We'll put everything back and no one will know. Just tell me what you took, and try to remember which rooms the things came from."
"Here?this is everything." Reaching into the pockets of her pinafore, Beatrix dumped a small collection of objects in her lap.
Amelia held up the first item. It was a carved wooden horse, no bigger than her fist, with a silk mane and a delicately painted face. The object was worn from much handling, and there were teeth marks along the horse's body. "The Westcliffs have a daughter, still quite small," she murmured. "This must belong to her."
"I took a toy from a baby," Beatrix moaned. "It's the lowest thing I've ever done. I should be in prison."
Amelia picked up another object, a card with two similar images printed side by side. She guessed it was meant to be inserted into a stereoscope, a device that would merge the two images into a dimensional picture.
The next stolen item was a household key, and the last… oh, dear. It was a sterling silver seal, with an engraved family crest on one end. One would use it to stamp a blob of melted wax and close an envelope. The object was heavy and quite costly, the kind of thing that was passed down from generation to generation.
"From Lord Westcliffs private study," Beatrix muttered. "It was on his desk. He probably uses it for his official correspondence. I'll go hang myself now."
"We must return this immediately," Amelia said, passing a hand over her dampening brow. "When they realize it's missing, a servant may be blamed."
The three women were silent with horror at the thought.
"We'll pay a morning call to Lady Westcliff," Poppy said, sounding a bit breathless from anxiety. "Is tomorrow one of her receiving days?"