It was only a little later on that they all reconvened in the salon of Freudesheim, home to many parties over the years but never one quite as important as this. As Millie, Phoebe, Sphinx and John slipped in, the last of the group, Charlie was just entertaining them all with an impression of Joey, had she been there to witness the excitement.
“And thank goodness Jack's dose has worn off,” she was declaring to a laughing Augusta, and even Charles was managing a weak smile. “I don't know why he thinks I need so much rest, I managed eleven children. But we really must be off again, it'll be just like the time I saved Elisaveta from her mad cousin – have I told you about that before? It was the term before Grizel ran away and then Rob was captured by a madman. But another time! We must try and find Hilda before the beatniks get her.”
Here she paused, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Once, she had been foolish enough to do her Joey impression to Stephen, while John was in the room. Naturally, the next time they saw grandma, he'd demanded that she do so again – much to Charlie's discomfort. Luckily for all concerned, Joey merely let forth a peal of the golden laughter that had won so many girls to her in her time, and declared that imitation was indeed the most sincere form of flattery.
“We made a find,” inserted Millie at this point, for maximum effect, and was gratified by every head in the room turning to her. “Some tyre tracks, in the woods, and broken branches.”
“Not a struggle?” gasped Charles quickly, turning to his eldest daughter, pale. Quickly, she shook her head. “Well, that's one thing – if she was in any state to struggle and didn't. If she couldn't – well – it's too late to do anything now. I was just going to say that perhaps we should call it a night and start again early tomorrow morning.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Augusta with a large, convincing yawn. She could see that Charlie was nearly done in, and Charles was little better. Herding her brood together, she made polite conversation while they all fetched various outer garments which had been cast to the four winds, and finished with, “I'll be knocking at sunrise, don't let the side down! We can let ourselves out.”
Once the Emersons had disappeared, the rest bid each other good night in subdued tones. While Millie's find might be significant, it might mean nothing at all, and even if it did mean something they would have to figure out what that was. Thus it was that, not for the first time in the house, several people were to be found praying ardently that night, for Hilda's safe return and their own safety, too.
“What if they come for me next?” asked Charles dully, once he and Charlie were in bed, the light turned off. He was curled around her, his arms crossing over her stomach, hands linked. All he could smell was her hair, familiar, comforting, and the delicate perfume she wore which still lingered around her. “If they wanted her for political reasons, they might want me. Anything for a bargaining chip, and we're vulnerable up here. What if they take -”
“They won't,” said Charlie too quickly. She couldn't bear to hear that her children might be in danger. “They won't come for any of us, we're nothing in the public eye, not like Hilda. I mean, if you kidnap the Prime Minister of Great Britain, that's only one step away from the Queen, the whole world almost is in your hands. One minor politician with a name a few people might vaguely recognise, that could get you a couple of thousand at most.”
“Well, it's nice to know I mean so much,” he joked, at an attempt at lightening the heavy atmosphere, but nothing could take the worry from his mind. Suddenly, he leant right over, and kissed Charlie heavily on the cheek. “I do love you,” he whispered. “I'm so glad that we made it through everything. I wouldn't be without you now.”
“I wouldn't be without you either,” she murmured back, shifting slightly so that she was more comfortable. Squeezing his fingers, she shut her eyes, but sleep wasn't easy to find, and she could feel his heartbeat as she lay in the darkness. At long last, the silence compelled her to ask, “The children, they – they will be all right, won't they?”
“I'll look after them,” he promised. “I'll look after you all. Always.”
With which, time and tide caught up with the two exhausted adults, and ten minutes more saw them both firmly asleep, completely unaware of the tiny flame outside. The shadowy figure standing next to the hedge, obscured by the outline of the house, dragged on the cigarette and watched, silent.