Betje climbed onto my lap. I shifted to accommodate her and wrapped my arms around her tightly.
Snuggling against my breast, she tilted her head back. "We won't be able to do this anymore once Papa is home, will we?"
"We'll have to stay in the nursery again, won't we?" said Karel quietly from the bed, staring at the toe of his boot.
"We won't, my sweetlings, and," I said softly to Karel, "you will. Papa is a very busy man. He doesn't like to be disturbed."
"But we want to disturb you, not him," said Karel.
I bit back a smile.
"Papa doesn't like a lot of things," said Betje, with the innocence of childish observation. She stared out the window.
No one replied.
"The sky is angry," she said in an awed voice. "That means God is as well, doesn't it?"
I followed her gaze and it struck me, as the rain fell, steady enough to form rivulets on the thick glass, that if God was expressing any emotion, it was sadness. I kissed the top of Betje's head, preparing a reassurance, when something attracted my
Betje saw it too. "Look!" She sat up and pointed. "There's a rider."
The messenger tore by the church walls, his slender mare churning the road. With a lurch, I recognized the livery and wondered what was so important he should be abroad on such a day.
Karel bolted from the bed and squeezed beside us. "Where?" he demanded, his head swiveling until he spotted him. "Look, there's someone else with him as well. They're stopping. Right outside our house!" He pressed his face against the window, the glass turning opaque where his breath struck.
"Let me see," complained Betje, trying to shove her brother out of the way.
Karel was right. The men talked urgently, walking their horses toward the front of the house.
"Oh my," added Louisa from behind. "Mistress—" Apprehension inflected her tone.
I rose, lifting Betje from my lap, eyes fixed on the figure tethering his horse, waiting for the black-robed gentleman beside him to dismount before they strode out of sight. "Louisa, take the children back to the nursery, would you?"
"But Anneke " they chorused.
"Come now," said Louisa, authoritarian. "You heard what your sister said. Out with you."
Once I heard the nursery door close, I checked my hair, straightened my tunic, and, taking a deep breath, went back downstairs.
* * *
As I reached the bottommost stair, I almost collided with Will, the footman. "M . . . Mistress Sheldrake," he said. "I was just coming to get you." He stepped back and bowed, his face hot.
"Thank you, Will," I said. "The office?"
"Aye, mistress. Master Makejoy's here . . ." he hesitated. "Mistress Jabben's there as well."
Will opened the door and stepped aside.
My father's office always roused mixed emotions. It was a forbidden, hallowed space, long and narrow, like a tomb. Sepulchre-like, a lone candle flickered on the desk. Though he wasn't there, my father's presence lingered in every corner, in the ebony wood of his desk, in the stools against the walls, the folios, vellum scrolls, maps, star charts, and ledgers stacked on the shelves, the metal safe under the table, even in the cracked sill of the small, shuttered window that opened onto the shop.
"Mistress Sheldrake." Leonard Makejoy handled Lord Rainford's business affairs and, by default, my father's as well. As I entered, he clambered to his feet, and in that action banished the ghost of my father. With what passed for a smile, he came forward, one arm held out to clasp my waist, the other to take my hand, as if I were an invalid in need of assistance. "God give you good day. Come, sit down."
Attempting not to recoil at his touch, I raised a hand. "If it's all right with you, Master Makejoy, I would rather stand." His attenuated fingers retreated and instead discovered each other. Wringing them, he nodded gravely, his eyes traveling to the piece of paper unfurled on the desk.
"Very well. But with your permission, I'll resume my seat."