“Miss Ann! Miss Ann!” A soft, insistent knocking at my door along with the repetition of my name finally penetrated my sleeping brain. I opened my eyes and sat up in bed as I heard Julia call again. “Miss Ann! You must get up. The constable is here. He says he must talk to you.”
“Julia? Come in, please. Come, dear, tell me what is happening.” I pulled on my dressing gown as one of the housemaids crept through my bedroom door. Her eyes were huge. She quivered with nervous excitement.
“Oh, Miss Ann! Colonel Forrest is missing. When Perkins brought morning tea to his room at the usual time, he discovered the Colonel’s bed had not been slept in. After looking through the house, Perkins raised the alarm and had one of the stable boys summon the constable. Now the constable wants to talk to you.” Her words came out in a rush. She flushed a bit then continued, “Perkins says you had a row with the Colonel last night, Miss Ann. He says you threatened to kill him. Is that true?”
I took a moment to gather my thoughts. “Don’t worry, Julia,” I said. “Tell the constable I will be down as soon as I dress and make myself presentable. Truly, there is nothing to worry about.”
After Julia left my room, I sat on the edge of the bed and pondered my situation. Colonel Forrest was a frequent visitor to this household and my encounters with him had been rancorous. He was an odious man, the type who believed that any young woman in service was his for the taking. I loved my position as governess here. I loved the children. My employer, Mr. Gentry, seemed a kind and honorable man. But the Colonel had made my position here untenable. We had argued last night. Or rather, I had reached my breaking point and called him exactly what he was: an arrogant, uncouth boor. My last words to him had been, “Oh, how I wish you were dead!” I never did learn the womanly art of holding my tongue.
I entered the drawing room a short time later and found myself facing four sets of solemn male eyes. Mr. Gentry was there, of course, along with Perkins the butler. Roddy Markham, another family friend, was there. And, standing deferentially to one side, Constable Janes from the village.
“Gentlemen,” I said. “How may I help you?”
“You! You threatened the Colonel,” cried Perkins. “What have you done?”
I waited for Janes to speak but he remained stolidly silent. I addressed him directly. “Constable Janes, do you know what has happened to the Colonel?”
“Well, no, miss,” he replied. “All we know is that he can’t be found. His valise and other belongings are still in his room. He is not in the house. The grooms and some of the other household staff are searching the grounds now.”
“Then I fail to see how I can help you,” I said. “You don’t know that anything untoward has happened to him. For all you know, he could have spent the night with a woman somewhere. That certainly is his nature. What has this to do with me?”
“I am sorry, miss,” he said. “But the gentlemen here insisted I talk with you about the argument you had with the Colonel last evening. They believe you may have been angry enough to, well, to cause harm to the Colonel.”
At that, I looked round the room once again. Mr. Gentry stared at me sadly, as if I had disappointed him in some way. Roddy Markham looked dim and confused — his usual state. Perkins remained in his accusatory stance. Constable Janes had an expectant air, clearly waiting for me to speak. I took a breath and recounted my last row with the Colonel. I explained his unwelcome attentions. I expressed my opinion of his character. I admitted my momentary wish for his untimely demise. I stated that he was a hale and hearty pig when I left him. Once again, I asked how any of it was relevant when the Colonel’s whereabouts were unknown. They stared at me without answer. I kept my gaze steady and guileless in return.
Mr. Gentry broke the silence. “Miss Mills. Miss Ann,” he said. “I am distressed and dismayed by your conduct towards a guest in my home. You will stay here with the constable until this matter can be sorted.”
I opened my mouth to retort when one of the grooms came rushing through the door. “Sir! You must come quick, sir!” He cried. “We have found him and he’s certain dead!”
The men ran out in pursuit of the groom. I picked up the hem of my skirt and dashed after them.
“Miss Mills, there is no need,” Mr. Gentry began.
“You instructed me to stay with the constable,” I interrupted. “And so I shall!”
We ran through the gardens and across a field until we came to a small stand of old oaks. It was readily apparent what had happened. A huge, rotten branch had broken off from one of the largest trees and fallen on the Colonel.
“Don’t look, my dear,” said Mr. Gentry.
“Oh piffle!” I replied. “There’s nothing to be seen but one booted foot sticking out from under the debris.”
As we stood and contemplated this tragic scene, rotund Roddy Markham finally caught up with us. “My word!” he exclaimed. “My word! You can’t see old Forrest for the tree!”
I stifled a sigh and turned my steps back to the house. Men! What was Our Creator thinking when he made them?
© Karen Kleis – All Rights Reserved
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