The stench in Mrs. Pratt's small cottage was nothing short of fearsome.
Grateful she had never been the swooning sort, Elnora Prescott gazed from the besmeared and fly-flecked window across the rolling green Devon fields, deliberately blocking everything else from her mind as she desperately sought to summon the image of Dulcie's errant lover.
She had met him once but, to own the truth, she had paid little attention to the unprepossessing young man at the time. How could she have possibly foreseen the dreadful series of misfortunes that lay in store for Dulcie?
To the best of her recollection, he had brown hair and brown eyes, but even of that she was uncertain. She greatly feared she would fail to recognize the scoundrel even in the unlikely event he should walk into the room at this very moment.
Though she had never actually set foot in a place quite this noxious, her many years devoted to looking after the unfortunates in her father's parish had done much to prepare her for the dirt, the disorder, and the foul smells inside Mrs. Pratt's cottage. No one she had met during those years, however, had quite prepared her for Mrs. Pratt herself. Questioning the woman had been a well-nigh hopeless task.
She turned away from the window, determined to make one more effort to wring an ounce of sense from Mrs. Pratt's babble. Otherwise what could she do but choose the girl baby she believed to be the right one? But what if her choice proved wrong?
To Elnora's surprise, there was now someone with Mrs. Pratt, a handsome dark-haired gentleman who had evidently walked in through the open door while her back was turned. Could he possibly be Dulcie's betrayer spurred here by a guilty conscience? No, for if she had met this particular gentleman before, she had not the slightest doubt she would have remembered him.
Elnora remained where she was, watching and listening. "Good God, woman, this plaguesome place stinks worse than the Augean stables." The elegantly dressed gentleman grimaced in disgust.
"I does me best, sir," Mrs. Pratt insisted unctuously. A plump, graying woman in her middle years, she wore a gown as filthy as the rooms she lived in. "Little 'uns can be a great trial."
"Nonsense!" the stranger snapped, waving his hand dismissively. "Properly cared for, children are no problem at all. Come, now, tell me the names of these three."
Elnora suppressed a smile as she anticipated the answer, having asked that very question not more than ten minutes before.
"And how should I be knowing that, sir?" Mrs. Pratt succeeded in combining indignation with humility. "Those as what leaves 'em here often as not don't leave nothing else. 'Tis a lucky day the poor wee tykes come to me with so much as a stitch of clothes on their backs."
The man regarded her with baleful disbelief. "Surely you inquire as to a child's name when you take it in."
"No, sir. Never. Them as don't want 'em, don't want no names made known, if you see what I mean."
He scowled. "Very well, then, which of these"--he nodded at the three approximately year-old babies penned in a corner of the room--"are females?"
"Why all of them, sir. They all come to me in the same week, the three of 'em. Calls 'em One, Two, Three, I does, after the way they come."
"Who brought each child?"
Elnora shook her head. She had already been through this with Mrs. Pratt. He was unlikely to learn anything more than she had about this grievous muddle, and she had learned nothing at all.
"Floyd," said Mrs. Pratt, "a man what knows I take in babies. Floyd gets 'em from here and there, but he ain't around for ye to talk to. 'Twouldn't be no use if he was. Kinda simple, Floyd is."
The stranger gave her one last scathing look, then turned to stare down at the three babies. When he did, Elnora, threading her way carefully between the piles of rubbish on the floor, walked toward him.