Fortitude by Lorraine Jean
My dear Sister, I must acquaint you with the latest development in the ongoing saga of Sir Emlyn's prodigal son. Strictly speaking, I should not refer to him as prodigal; he left home with none of his father's fortune so heaven knows he had nothing to squander. Nor would he be a wastrel whatever his means, from what I have heard. It is how his father refers to him, however, and so I have unwittingly come to think of him also.
First, you will recall, there was the letter from his captain, Sir Edward Pellew, saying that the young man was dying; then hard upon its heels came the second saying he had died. Thirdly, as I wrote you last week, came Archie's own brief note (one can scarcely call it a letter) saying that the other two letters were in error and that he was alive and coming home. Dare I say that we have been awaiting him anxiously ever since? When five days passed without further communication or any sign of him, Sir Emlyn would not be restrained but he would depart for Portsmouth at once to see if he could locate the young man. He would have me believe that he is not unduly concerned, that Portsmouth is but a minor detour from his route to the home farm and that it is past time he conferred with Sidwell on estate matters anyway. After two years of marriage I can confidently say I know better. He is worried.
I have taken advantage of his time away to do something that I would heartily censure in another. Hortense, dear, what would you say if I told you that I have come upon a cache of letters from Archie to his mother, which that dear lady kept in a secret compartment of her desk in the morning room? (The very desk at which I now write to you.) I know not if Sir Emlyn is aware that the compartment exists, or that Mairi Kennedy, the first Lady Shelburne, hoarded these letters from her youngest son as if in the certain knowledge that she would never see him again. My dear Sister, scold me if you must but I have read their correspondence. I have read it for all the wrong reasons, knowing that I am prying into a private and most sacred relationship, that between a mother and her son. I have read it, too, for what I believe to be the right reasons, chief among them being my desire to gain some understanding of this young man before I meet him for the first time. God grant that Mairi, if she be looking down upon me from heaven, sees what is in my heart, for then she will know that I mean Archie nothing but good.
It is a curious correspondence. It begins innocently enough, when the lad of sixteen has departed for his first posting as a midshipman aboard the Justinian. His first four letters (in the beginning he wrote dutifully once a week) are full of a boy's enthusiasm for the wonders he beholds all around him. He is full of praise for his captain and his shipmates, as well as full of information about the ship itself, as if he wants his mother to see exactly what he sees so that she can imagine herself beside him at any time of day or night. They are chatty, endearing letters, marked equally by a respect for the institution of the Navy and by a wicked sense of humor that sometimes treads upon the toes of that very respect.
Then, the fifth letter. The boy has been away for five weeks. From this time forward his tone changes. His words are guarded; everything is so carefully and so innocuously phrased that it is as if he writes knowing his letters must pass a censor's eye. What little humor he allows himself suddenly seems forced. What has happened? He does not say. I know something of the Navy, dear Sister, as you well know, for my own William was a captain for some years before his death. I know what can happen to a boy in the company of men. I am not sure that such a thing has happened here, however. These are not men who have been at sea for months on end without ever laying eyes upon a woman. The Justinian is moored in Spithead, and it appears that women are quite free to come and go as they (and the men) please.
Did Mairi understand her son so well that she knew what was wrong without his telling her? Or did she never suspect that things were not as they once had been? Her letters to him might tell me. Archie seems the kind of son who would keep his mother's letters unless forced by circumstances to relinquish or destroy them. What I would not give to see them!
The letters decrease in frequency once Archie transfers to the Indefatigable and puts out to sea. It is not for lack of anything to write about, as he explains, but rather because of the difficulty of getting letters to and from a moving vessel whose patrols routinely take it through enemy waters. For a while the sense of restraint is absent; life aboard his new ship is endlessly fascinating and exciting. Then the letters stop altogether. There is a heartbreaking letter from Captain Pellew saying that the boy has been lost in action and must be presumed dead. The ink is blurred almost to illegibility in spots, for I doubt not that the poor woman has shed many a tear over it. Then, nearly three years later, Archie writes again. He has been in prison, first in France, then in Spain. It is no longer a boy's voice, writing. It is a man's voice, physically weary, disillusioned and emotionally wrung dry. And yet there is a tiny speck of vitality, a small spark that has not been damped and will surely flare again. One can only thank God that Archie did not then know his mother was dead. . .
At the sound of the knock, Frances Kennedy, Lady Shelburne, put down her pen and turned to face the door. It opened ahead of Poppy, the downstairs maid, who bobbed her a curtsy before speaking.
“Beg pardon, Ma'am. There's a gentleman at the door. He wants Lord Shelburne. I told him his Lordship is away but he says he'll see you, Ma'am, if you're at home.”
“Did he leave a card?”
“No, Ma'am. He says his name is Archie Kennedy.”
Lady Frances rose. “Archie is here?”
“You know him, Ma'am?”
“Poppy, Archie Kennedy is his Lordship's youngest son. We have been expecting him.”
“I'm right glad, Ma'am,” Poppy gave her an impish grin. “He's ever so handsome, he is, most particular in his blue uniform.”
“Careful, Poppy. He'll hear you.”
“Oh, no, Ma'am. He can't hear from out on the front steps.”
The front steps! “Poppy, you haven't left Mr. Kennedy outside?”
“I couldn't let him in without a card. Biddle said so.” Poppy stuck out her lower lip in an unattractive pout. Had the butler really given her such an instruction, or had she misconstrued what she had heard? How unfortunate that Biddle should be suffering from crippling pain and stiffness in his joints today of all days. Poor Poppy was no substitute for the veteran Biddle, who knew instinctively whom to admit and whom to deny admittance. And what a poor impression Archie must be forming of his stepmother's household because of it.
“Poppy, I think we may safely say that, card or no card, anyone who presents himself as a Kennedy should be admitted, at least into the front hall. Now, please let Mr. Kennedy in. I will see him here.”
Lady Frances cleared off her writing desk, putting away both her own letter to her sister and the incriminating bundle of correspondence she had been reading earlier. It would never do for Archie to recognize his letters and realize that someone other than their intended recipient had been studying them. Whatever would he think of her then?
Poppy's steps echoed in the marble hallway well before the girl escorted the visitor into the room. Lady Frances arranged herself in front of the fireplace to receive him.
“Lieutenant Archie Kennedy, Ma'am,” Poppy announced, bobbed a curtsy then withdrew, wreathed in a most ridiculous smile.
The young man who entered glanced at her shyly. He made her a formal bow and said, “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Lady Shelburne.”
What a soft, sweet tenor! How had he ever made himself heard in a household dominated by his boisterous older brothers and their equally stentorian father? The lieutenant looked uncomfortable, as well he might if he had been accustomed to meeting his mother here. This would be his first time in the room since that good lady's passing; his memories must be bittersweet indeed. Lady Frances smiled and walked toward him.
“Please, Archie, call me Frances. You need not stand on ceremony with me.”
“Thank you, Ma'am - Frances.” A most becoming blush spread across his fair features. “I'm sorry to disturb you. I had hoped to find my father here.”
Lady Frances took his hand and led him to an upholstered settee. Ignoring the even more furious blushes her familiarity induced, she sat beside him. “Your father has gone to Portsmouth in search of you.” This statement produced a look of such alarm that she quickly sought to reassure him. “He will soon realize that he has missed you and either come straight home or go on to the home farm. If you wish, I will send someone after him to bring him back.”
Archie did not look reassured. “He'll be furious,” he whispered, gently extricating the hand that Lady Frances still held.
“I do not see why he should be. Portsmouth is not London but it is a large enough town. I should be more surprised had your paths actually crossed.” At the risk of alarming him further she added, “He would not have made the journey had you followed more closely upon the heels of your letter.”
“It could not be helped. I felt obliged to notify the Admiralty that the death notice they had received was in error. They kept me waiting for days while first one and then another deliberated over which of them should receive my report, and then deliberated further over what to do about it.”
“And have you settled your affairs with them?”
“Not at all. Foolishly, I thought all I had to do was present myself: `Leftenant Archie Kennedy, reporting for duty. Alive and well, as you can see.' They all but accused me of being an imposter and insisted I produce witnesses. I begged the landlord of the inn where I died to testify to the Admiralty on my behalf, which he did most gladly, but that did not satisfy them. They want the doctor who pronounced me dead. He has vanished without a trace. And they want Captain Pellew and Lieutenant Hornblower, who must be several hundred miles out in the Atlantic by now and may not return to England for many months if not longer. Even Captain Wright of H.M.S. Fortitude, to whom I was to report with my new commission, has put out to sea with another lieutenant in my place. And I am left high and dry until they all return.”
“I sometimes wonder if those who direct the activities of the Navy from within that pile of stones have any concept of the world outside their walls,” Lady Frances murmured. At Archie's inquisitive glance she explained, “My first husband was a naval captain, Archie. William Ogilvy was his name. You would not have known him. He died in action ten years ago.”
“I'm sorry to hear that, Ma'am - Frances. About your husband, I mean. Although I cannot argue with your assessment of the Admiralty. On the one hand they are so desperate to man their ships that they send press gangs ashore. And yet they refuse to reinstate an officer whom they have prematurely stricken from their lists.”
“That is what happens when a man trades his ship for a dusty office. When he sails nothing but a desk, it is scarce surprising that he can no longer see or think clearly. But tell me, Archie, if you are prevented from pursuing your naval career for up to a year, how will you fill your time?”
The young man pushed a stubborn lock of blond hair out of his eyes, only to have it flop right back again. When was the last time anyone had trimmed it for him?
“I am afraid I must throw myself upon my father's mercy. The Navy will not even release my back pay until witnesses come forth to support my story. All that I possess at this moment is the uniform on my back and one other change of clothing.”
“But your sea chest - ”
“It had been set aside to be returned to my family after my death. Somehow it found its way back onto Indefatigable and is now at sea.” He looked at Lady Frances in evident confusion. “There were two new suits of civilian clothing in my name at a Portsmouth tailor's. I have no recollection of how or when they came to be bespoke. Even the tailor could not remember. His ledger shows my name and no one else's. No one took my measurements at any time in the recent past, unless they did so on my deathbed. That might account for the one that looks like a suit of mourning. But then why did they not bury me in it? I had to leave it behind after promising the tailor I would return for it later. I found I had insufficient funds on hand to redeem both and to take care of my food and lodging for the week, too. A pity that whoever commanded the work did not pay for it in advance. As if that were not enough, the Navy has ordered me to stop wearing my uniform until I can prove to them that I am entitled to it.”
“Why did you wear it today, Archie?”
“I was afraid my father would not know me dressed in any other fashion.”
It was not difficult to follow the line of reasoning that had produced this statement. His father had sent him to sea; his father would expect a naval officer to come home. The uniform was proof that Archie had dutifully conformed to his father's expectations.
“Would it help if your father were to speak to the Admiralty on your behalf? No one can doubt that he can identify his own son.”
Indecision furrowed the lieutenant's brow. “It might establish that I am who I say I am,” he said hesitantly, “but it will not address how I came to die and be resurrected. I think that is what concerns them, more than my identity. But thank you for offering. I don't know if my father would agree to such a thing in any case.”
“Why should he not?” Lady Frances rose from her seat and pulled the bell to summon the parlor maid. “If it will help you return to sea - ”
“Indeed, when you put it that way - of course he would wish me to return to sea with all expediency.”
Taken aback by the bitterness in his tone, Lady Frances studied him before resuming her seat. The young man could not have looked more hurt if she had slapped him, and yet there was something in the set of his jaw that spoke of a grim resolve. Before she could comment, the door opened and Poppy presented herself for orders.
“Tea, please, Poppy. With some tea cakes and bread and butter, I think. Cook will know what to send up.”
After the girl left them, Lady Frances again sat beside her stepson. She laid a hand upon his arm. “Archie, what is it that you are not telling me? Is there some difficulty between you and your father? And if so, how may I help?”
“There is nothing you can do,” he said quietly. “Thank you all the same.”
“But what is the trouble? Archie?”
“I don't know if I can put it into so many words, Lady Frances. My father has always viewed me as a disappointment. His measure of a Kennedy, after himself, is my eldest brother, Sidwell. My second brother, Duncan, is formed from the same mold. Even when we were children, I looked up to them and knew that I could never be like them. They stood tall and strong, and they got what they expected from life because they were not afraid to ask - or to take when asking was not enough. Neither has ever suffered a moment's doubt in his life or if he did, he would not let anyone see it. In truth they are both of them tyrants, but they command respect because they believe it is their absolute right.
“And then you have me, as different from them as black from white. Not only was I small and insignificant, I had fits. My brothers were embarrassed to be seen in company with me because no one could predict what would set me off. Even the animals could sense something wrong with me. It got so I could tell when a fit was imminent because the horses would shy away from me and the dogs would whine and bark. Sidwell likened me to a witch, seeing my effect on them. I have never forgiven him for that. Archibald the Witch. The name stuck with me for years. Even now I cannot bear to be called Archibald.”
For one who doubted his ability to articulate his feelings, the young man had done an admirable job of conveying the sense of inadequacy that must have shadowed his early years and apparently followed him to this day. Sidwell's cruelty especially struck her. Six years separated the eldest from the youngest of Sir Emlyn's boys. By the time Archie's malady had progressed to the extent that repeat occurrences were expected, Sidwell would have been old enough to know how deeply his taunts would hurt his little brother. Lady Frances made a mental note to refrain from using Archie's given name.
“Would it help if I told you that your father was much affected by the news of your death? He shed tears, Archie. I have not seen him do that for anyone else, before or since. I believe he loves you dearly. It is just that he regards demonstrations of affection as being unmanly.”
Archie shrugged but said nothing. How like a lost child he seemed, convinced of his rejection by the one person whose esteem would have meant the world to him! And how pale and tired he looked, no doubt the lingering effects of his recent ordeal. Instead of keeping him talking, she should put him to bed and let him rest. She would do so as soon as she had given him tea and a bite to eat.
Poppy's return with the tea tray put a temporary halt to conversation. Lady Frances settled Archie with a cup of tea and a plate of buttered bread and cake, which the young man eyed with an indefinable expression before setting it down, untouched, on the nearest table. Perhaps she had misjudged him. Meat, cheese and fruit might better have suited his taste and appetite. Or perhaps, she reflected on seeing how his hand trembled, he was simply too fatigued to eat.
“Archie,” she said, taking a seat across from him, “much as I dislike prying, I need to know what happened. How did you come to be declared dead? How could a physician make such a terrible mistake?”
“I can only conclude that he was a charlatan. I made inquiries about him last week around Portsmouth. The doctors I spoke to had never heard of him.”
“How did he come to be engaged in your care?”
“According to the innkeeper, he appeared when he was needed, as if by a miracle. He asked for a room. I suppose he was a traveler just stopping for the night.”
“A traveler who might or might not have been a doctor, but who was assumed to be one.”
Archie stared. Had her words recalled an image to his inner eye? His features settled into a masque of such eerie beauty that she could do nothing but hold her breath and wait. After a few seconds he resumed as if nothing had happened.
“I have no memory of his tending me,” he said. “With Horatio and Captain Pellew at sea, I have only the innkeeper's word to go by, and he was not present during any examination or treatment, nor at the time of my supposed death. All I know is that I became ill, that medical attention - of a sort - was provided, and that after a time my appearance convinced everyone that I was dead.” He shook his head, as if even now he found this difficult to believe.
“Captain Pellew's second letter said he had officiated at your burial.”
Archie bit his lip and stared at the floor. “I awoke in total darkness - in a wooden box. I knew immediately what had happened. I panicked. I couldn't help myself. Even though I knew it would do no good. I knew I would shortly die - in agony - in a box - in the ground. And no one would ever know.” His voice broke. Tears traced a silent, shiny path down either side of his nose.
Lady Frances moved to his side. She felt him stiffen as she put an arm around his shoulders, then he seemed to accept the intended solace and relaxed into her embrace.
“But someone did know,” she prompted him. “Someone came, or you would not be here now.”
He sniffed, nodded. She gave him her handkerchief. “It was the doctor,” he said when he had composed himself. “He must have mistrusted his diagnosis. I remember him helping me out of the coffin. I remember nothing after that.”
She counted it a blessing that he remembered no more, for what he did remember was the sort of horror that must scar all but the most unfeeling soul. Even though he seemed to pull himself together he looked tired and spent, and she resolved to hold further questions until he was rested. To pursue them now would be cruel, and all who knew her would vouch for the fact that Frances Kennedy, Lady Shelburne, was not a cruel woman. It was unfortunate that Sir Emlyn was away from home, for he would doubtless require Archie to tell it all over again. Perhaps she could forestall a complete recital by repeating as much of it to her husband as she could remember. The telling might not come so easily. As for remembering, she suspected that she would recall every sad word of it to her dying day.
Some time later, Lady Frances took up her pen and continued her letter:
Dearest Sister, I have just spent three-quarters of an hour in the company of Lieutenant Archie Kennedy and I confess I have lost my heart entirely. Never have I met such an endearing young man. And yet the very qualities that endear him to me - his gentleness, his sensitivity, his utter lack of self-importance and, yes, even a certain want of confidence - make me question his fitness for a naval career. I must assume that he has other qualities not revealed to me, for Captain Pellew did write of his heroism in battle. Yet it occurs to me that his heroism may not be what we traditionally understand by the term. Archie may seek in battle the paternal approval he feels he has been denied because he is not the same sort of man his brothers are. The poor dear wears his heart on his sleeve, and it is a bruised and tender heart indeed.
I suspect that some of his emotional fragility is due to his recent brush with death. For the most part he is lucid, although there are intermittent gaps in his memory. In his shoes I should probably deny that the terrible event had ever occurred, in an attempt to keep body and soul from flying apart in horror. That he does not deny it, but faces it head on, suggests a fortitude that few can claim to possess. I wonder if he will remember more with time, or if time will be kind and soften the edges of his pain.
I have put him to bed for now. That he went without argument shows me the extent of his exhaustion. He has spent the past week trying to reclaim his career from the Admiralty, which seems content to leave his name inscribed among those of the fallen. But do not let me start on the British Admiralty. Well you know my feelings on that account from my William's years of service. I do wish Archie luck in that endeavor. If he feels he must continue to sail the seas in the service of his king, then he must do as he must do. I for one would think no less of him if he decided to turn his hand to something less likely to kill him.
I hope, dear Sister, that you do not picture Archie as a big, strapping man like his two brothers. Duncan and Sidwell always put me in mind of a pair of warlike Celts masquerading as gentlemen. One would think that the Highland blood would have been mannered out of them after so many generations on English soil. That it surfaced twice in succession in the same generation is nothing short of astonishing. What must the beautiful, genteel Mairi have thought of her first two sons, so alien in form and temperament? I can only imagine the relief she must have felt upon beholding her third son, who is so much her image. I could not help stealing an occasional glance at her portrait as Archie spoke to me. (Nor could I fail to notice that Archie seemed incapable of looking in that direction himself. How he must feel her loss!) He has the same golden hair, wide, cornflower blue eyes and sweet expression. I think it will grieve his father exceedingly to look upon him.
I fear, too, that my girls will take up Archie's cause once they are acquainted with him. They are at a dangerous age. Lavinia at seventeen is more woman than child; her thoughts turn increasingly to marriage. Laetitia at fifteen is still more child than woman, but that is changing, as much from observing her sister's entrance into society as by her own progression toward that state. When they are not out visiting with friends, as they are today, they consider themselves very dull at home. Why? Because they have no captive males upon whom to practice their wiles. All three Kennedy brothers were living away from home even before their mother's death: Sidwell married and managing the home farm, Duncan serving in the Army, Archie serving in the Navy and twice presumed dead. Imagine how the girls will react when they discover that their youngest stepbrother, whom they have never met, has come home for what may be an extended stay and that, moreover, he is nothing like his blustering older brothers but is instead soft-spoken, unassuming, and still sufficiently unwell that he will fail utterly to keep their tender mercies at bay. It will not be a fair contest by any means.
I should have warned him of their existence, but he was so fatigued that I had to help him out of his uniform. He fell asleep even as his head touched the pillow. What worries me is that the girls will return before he wakes and I shall either have to keep his presence secret or else risk that they will storm into his room to gaze upon him. Once they do I fear they will give him no rest.
That reminds me, I must send for the family doctor. If, as Archie indicates, the doctor who attended him in Portsmouth was a charlatan, then he may be suffering from some ailment that has not been adequately treated and may soon trouble him again. I shall send for Dr. Tregaryn as soon as I close this letter, which I do, my dear Sister, as always,
Dr. Desmond Tregaryn had served as the Kennedy family physician for upwards of twenty years, as Lady Frances understood it, so it was with every confidence that she admitted him to see Archie. After his recent experiences, it would comfort the young man to see a familiar figure whom he had come to trust in his youth. She left them together but stayed within range should the doctor need something or want to ask her a question. He came out of Archie's room a half-hour later and signaled that he wanted to talk.
Lady Frances led him downstairs to the morning room and seated him on the same settee where she had earlier seated Archie. She took the chair opposite.
“I will not mince words, Lady Shelburne,” the doctor began with a frown. “His care has been badly managed. Is he correct in saying that the man who attended him in Portsmouth was a charlatan?”
“That is what he told me, Dr. Tregaryn. It seems likely the man was no physician at all.”
“If he were, I should see him drummed out of the brotherhood. Sad to say, there are some physicians for whom the first and sometimes the only course of treatment is a good bloodletting, no matter what the ailment. Our mystery physician would appear to be one of them. As nearly as I can determine from my examination, he has bled Archie almost to the point of death. It will be months before he regains his full strength. In other words, Lady Shelburne, if the Navy wants him to return to active duty, it will have to wait.”
“Did my stepson not tell you? The Navy believes him dead and will not reinstate him without first talking to those who witnessed his death.”
“None of whom can be found. Yes. So Archie said. If he had any sense he'd shake the sand from his feet and walk away from His Britannic Majesty's Navy, but that is only my humble opinion.”
Something in the way he spoke, so uncharacteristically harsh in tone and judgment, gave Lady Frances pause. Assuming that he would not elaborate unless she pressed him, she asked, “What has the Navy done to him, Dr. Tregaryn?”
“Let me say, first of all, that I have known Archie since he was a little lad. I attended him for all the usual childhood ills, as well as for his seizures. It was against my recommendation that Sir Emlyn enlisted him in the Navy. He felt it would make a man of Archie, teach him to stand up to people who taunted him.”
“I agree that the Navy is as good a place as any for a man to test his mettle. It is no place, however, for a lad with seizures. I tried to make Sir Emlyn see the dangers. Archie might fall overboard or plunge from the rigging onto the deck, or suffer a fit at a critical moment in battle and let an enemy run him through. The odds of his surviving the experience were greatly stacked against him from the outset. Sir Emlyn would hear none of it. It's my fault. I once told him that many who are troubled with such an affliction in childhood find they outgrow it as adults. Sir Emlyn clung to that belief as to a solemn promise and insisted that the Navy would be the making of Archie's future.
“I blame myself, Lady Frances, for not insisting more strenuously that Archie not go to sea. There were other dangers for which I did not give him sufficient warning. I suppose I entertained a vain hope that Archie would be spared. To my everlasting shame, I admit now that I was wrong.”
“My first husband was a naval officer, Doctor,” she reminded him, sensing what he wished to tell her despite his obvious reluctance to do so. “He discussed things with me that he could not tell anyone else. You need not spare me the details.”
The doctor nodded. “You know that on an official level, at least, the British Navy classifies buggery as a crime punishable by death.”
Lady Frances nodded in turn. She hoped she had not flinched at the vulgar term the doctor had employed. “That is the official position, yes. I know, too, that some captains turn a blind eye to such behavior. While they do not overtly condone the act, they will not prosecute those who engage in it.”
“Then it will not surprise you to learn that those who practice such abominations become quite clever at covering up their crimes. It is all too easy to beat a young, frightened victim into submission and silence. Especially one who is already cowed by the necessity to conceal an illness that makes him unfit for service.”
“Are you saying that Archie - ?”
“He did not like it but he allowed me to make a full examination. I am assured that he surrendered to his tormentor only under duress.”
“I feared as much. He is a handsome young man. As a youth he would have presented an irresistible target.” Feeling the heat rise to her cheeks, she said, “Doctor, should we be discussing this? I feel almost a conspirator in his violation.”
“I would not have broached the subject, Lady Shelburne, except that the task of caring for him will likely fall to you. I felt you should know what to expect.”
“What of his fits? Will they complicate matters?”
“According to Archie, he is rarely troubled by them now.”
It was a small blessing, but a blessing nonetheless. She had no experience of dealing with seizures. “What manner of care will he require, Doctor?”
“Nothing that you cannot easily provide, Lady Shelburne. Adequate rest in quiet surroundings to begin with, followed by fresh air and moderate exercise when he begins to chafe at inactivity. His appetite is disturbed, so give him nothing heavy in the way of meals, at first. Clear broth or consommé, as much as he will take. Lean cuts of meat, fresh vegetables, fruits and cheeses - remember to keep everything light and fresh. Keep his portions small until he is able to handle more. Eschew gravies, sauces and pastries. Allow red wine in moderation. I think you follow my drift.”
Lady Frances smiled. “It sounds a regimen from which we all might profit.”
“Indeed it is.” Doctor Tregaryn rose to take his leave. “Follow it yourself for a month and see if you do not find your corsets easier to lace.” From any other man such a comment would have been an insupportable familiarity. The doctor delivered it with the easy impunity vouchsafed by his profession.
“One thing I cannot promise is the quiet surroundings.” At the doctor's raised eyebrows she explained, “You know that I have two lively daughters who will quite burden him with attention. And his father is expected back at any time. I cannot guarantee that they will not be at each other's throats.”
“I trust you to restrain your daughters, my Lady. As for Sir Emlyn, you may leave him to me. I know he and Archie have had their differences in the past. I know, too, that it was not lack of affection on Sir Emlyn's part, but a combination of disappointment and embarrassment in reaction to Archie's illness. Now that Archie is a man I trust they can find common ground on which to meet. If not, I will impress upon Sir Emlyn the necessity to grant Archie a period of grace in which to recover his health. No father can refuse his son that.”
“Amen to that, Doctor Tregaryn.”
Sometimes, Lavinia Ogilvy decided, the best part of a visit to her friend Miranda Halburton's home was the drive home in Miranda's father's carriage. It was not that Lord Whitingford kept a finer equipage than Lord Shelburne, for they were roughly comparable. Nor was it that she had had a disagreeable morning. On the contrary, Miranda had boasted only half as much as usual about her upcoming removal to the family's estate in Norfolk, and slightly less than usual about her newest gowns and accessories. Indeed, Lavinia had almost delighted to hear that Miranda's chief regret was the distance that would soon separate her from the current object of her unrequited affection, the Honorable Hugh Lethbridge. She could hardly wait until they were safely home so that she could discuss the visit with her sister Laetitia. Of course, it would never do to attempt such a discussion here, where the Halburtons' driver might overhear and carry tales. Until they could talk freely, there was nothing for Lavinia to do but bite her tongue and look out the window.
As they drew up in front of the Kennedy family home a short time later, another carriage pulled away. Lavinia studied it carefully. She said, as she and Laetitia alighted from the carriage onto the pavement, “That looked like Doctor Tregaryn's driver. I wonder if Mama is ill?”
Letty stared after it. “I'm sure it is the doctor. But it will not be Mama. Don't you remember? Old Biddle did not come down this morning. He is lame again.”
Both girls started up the steps to the front door, Lavinia in the lead. “Doctor Tregaryn does not treat servants, Laetitia. He is Sir Emlyn's personal physician,” she said with the unwavering confidence of two years' seniority.
“Then Step-Papa must be home. Perhaps he has the gout?”
“Sir Emlyn does not suffer from gout,” Lavinia reminded her sister. In the two years since their mother's remarriage, Laetitia had adapted the more easily to the dilemma of what to call their stepfather. Step-Papa seemed to come naturally to her, whereas it stuck in Lavinia's throat. As far as Lavinia was concerned, she had one father and he was Captain William Ogilvy, late of His Britannic Majesty's Navy. In her mind her mother's second husband would always remain Sir Emlyn, and no amount of good-natured cajoling on her mother's part, or on Letty's part, would change that. The gentleman in question, it must be admitted, seemed to prefer Sir Emlyn to Step-Papa. It was to be hoped that he did not delude himself on that account, for it was not respect that prompted the form of address but rather a sense of the impersonal. He may have married their mother; he had not married them.
The maid, Poppy, opened the door for them, her eyes fairly dancing with anticipation. “Oh, Miss Lavinia, Miss Laetitia. You'll never guess. Someone has arrived.”
“Well, it cannot be Sir Emlyn,” Lavinia said. His comings and goings generated no such excitement in the servants, although his goings seemed to result in a certain lightness about the house.
“Nor Aunt Hortense,” Laetitia said. “She was not expected, at any rate.”
“No, Miss. I'll give you a hint. He's a Kennedy.”
“Well, that does limit the choices, somewhat.” Letty grinned. “Sidwell or Duncan. Shall we lay odds, Vinia?”
Lavinia considered the parlor maid more closely. Poppy was both smiling and blushing as she took their wraps; she could hardly stand still. Neither Sidwell nor Duncan inspired such reactions in the female staff. That left only one other Kennedy to her knowledge, and he was expected.
Poppy must have seen the recognition in her face because she smiled even more broadly and said, “Yes, Miss. The one that was dead and has come back to life.”
“Archie?” Letty said.
“That would explain what Doctor Tregaryn was doing here,” Lavinia mused. “Well, well. And how does our stepbrother seem to you, Poppy?”
“Oh, Miss! He's ever so handsome. Not at all like his brothers, begging your pardon and all. They treat a girl like a servant. He treats a servant like a girl.”
“A fine distinction. I can hardly wait to meet this paragon of a stepbrother. How say you, Letty?”
“He sounds an improvement over Duncan and Sidwell, at any rate. Where is he now?”
“Lady Frances put him to bed, she did. And then the doctor come. And now the doctor's gone but Lady Frances went back up and hasn't come down again.”
“So we may deduce from all this activity up and down stairs that Archie Kennedy is in bed somewhere in the upper regions of the house,” Lavinia teased.
“It's the gray bedchamber at the back, with the Chinese silks,” Poppy said with a pout. “I'd have told you if you'd give me the chance.”
“Letty, what say you we go upstairs and change for luncheon?” And if they should happen to pass by a certain gray bedchamber with Chinese silks, what could it hurt if they stopped in to say hello?
“A capital idea, Sister.”
“Oh, Miss! Please don't tell Lady Frances I told you. I mean, if he's had the doctor it's on account of he don't feel well. And if he don't feel well he may not want a visit. And Lady Frances will be right angry with me for letting on, she will.”
“Don't fret, Poppy. We have to dress for luncheon anyway. We have every right to be in that part of the house.”
Poppy went away with their wraps, muttering to herself. Lavinia heard the words “left outside” and “dismissed” and wondered what else the poor parlor maid had done this day to incur her mistress's displeasure.
There was no time to worry about Poppy, however, for Letty was already on the stair, her eyes on the far landing. Lavinia had no intention of being left behind.
In the hallway outside their bedchamber they paused and looked at one another. The next part would be tricky, because the bedchamber in question was the last room on the corridor. One did not pass it on one's way anywhere. It stood alone, beyond the door that led to the back stairs, so that not even the servants passed it, which made it the quietest room in the house. No doubt their mother had chosen it for that very reason.
After some deliberation, they decided to seek out their mother to tell her of their visit. She would want to know, after all; she always did. As far as they were concerned, she was readying the room for Archie's arrival; it was not for them to surmise that he was already here.
Stealth would give their enterprise the lie, so they set off down the carpeted hallway with their usual amount of noise, discussing the new gowns Miranda had shown them. They had come within a few steps of their objective when the door to that room opened and their mother stepped out, only to close the door firmly behind her.
“Ladies? I trust you enjoyed your visit. If you are here to meet your stepbrother you shall have to wait until this afternoon. He is resting at the moment.”
Honesty would appear to be the best approach, now that their mother had seen through their ruse. Lavinia said, “We saw Doctor Tregaryn's carriage leave. At first we feared you had taken ill.”
“We were pleased to learn it was not you,” Letty added, then hastily amended, “not that we are pleased that our stepbrother is ill. We are very sorry if it is so.”
“Thank you, Laetitia, dear. As I am sure Archie thanks you, also.”
“Is he very ill, Mama?”
“No, Lavinia. He is not. But he tires easily since his ordeal. I trust you will help me to make him comfortable while he recovers.”
“You can count on us, Mama.”
“What is he like, Mama?” Letty asked. “Poppy was all a-flutter. She thinks him very handsome.”
“Why don't you wait and form your own opinions? The reality is often quite different from the expectation, is it not?”
“Will you not give us a little hint?”
Lady Frances appeared to consider this request, then she said, “Study his mother's portrait in the morning room.” Letty was halfway down the corridor before her mother had a chance to add, “Make sure you are dressed for luncheon first.”
“We will, Mama.” Lavinia said as she followed her sister with slightly more decorum.
It was mid-afternoon before Archie satisfied the sisters' curiosity. He awoke feeling both refreshed and disoriented, for although he had slept well he did not immediately recognize the room in which he lay. Something about it felt familiar, however, and he rose and went to the window. What he saw there confirmed his initial suspicion. This had been his room as a youth, the grown-up room to which he had graduated upon leaving the nursery. Someone had redone it as a guest room since he had occupied it last, not unattractively but to the point where he would not have known it but for the view of the garden from the window, a view that was imprinted upon his heart.
What had they done with his things, he wondered? There had not been much, for all that his father was a peer and could buy what he wanted without worrying about the cost. In truth, a large part of his father's fortune went towards the upkeep of the London town home and the Shelburne estate in the West Country, as well as the support of the estate's home farm, where Sir Emlyn bred horses and hounds. Less money had been lavished on the children, who were thought to need little but the clothes on their backs, adequate food and shelter, and sufficient education to enable them to make their way in the world. Horatio would be surprised at how spartan Archie's early years had been, for outside the grandeur of the rooms through which he was suffered to pass on his way to and from the nursery, the youngest Kennedy had grown up with no more privilege than the son of a country doctor.
Still, he had had a few possessions, mainly books and the odd bits and pieces that small boys collect as they investigate the natural world around them. What had his father done with them? Probably they had been packed away the first time Archie was reported dead and remained in some dusty corner of the attic to this day.
As for his current possessions, they were even fewer. It was almost pitiful, really. Here he stood in a borrowed nightshirt, whose exactly he did not know, and he did not even have a spare shirt to call his own. Someone had laid out his uniform on a nearby chair. It looked as if it had been brushed and cleaned while he slept. The other suit of clothing, still in its wrappings from the tailor's, lay underneath it. He debated putting on the new suit. Would it be wrinkled beyond wearing after a week tied in paper? Perhaps he should open the package and see.
In the end he settled for his lieutenant's uniform. He dressed, then brushed and tied back his hair and studied his image in the mirror. What he saw made him wince. Although he felt rested he did not look it. A ghost of his former self stared back, a colorless wraith with prominent bones and a bruised, haunted look about the eyes. A being as insubstantial as a wisp of smoke. No wonder they had taken him for dead, if this was the face they had looked upon. Seeing it, he would have closed the lid upon the coffin, too.
No. He would not allow himself to think such thoughts. That he was again among the living was all the proof he needed that he was meant to live. He would not dwell upon death. And if that meant that he must not look too closely in the mirror, then so be it. He was turning aside when something tickled at the back of his mind. It did not stay long enough to identify itself, just touched him and then withdrew. Was it the sun's reflection on the mirror that prompted the almost-memory? He could not say. Nor could he say that he would welcome its return.
Perhaps it was hunger that triggered the hallucination. He had not eaten in some time. Judging from the position of the sun in the garden he had missed luncheon; it must be approaching teatime. Maybe he could slip down to the kitchen and see if cook would prepare something for him. On the other hand, he had been away from home for so many years that there might be an entirely new kitchen staff belowstairs, especially with a new chatelaine in the house. Lady Frances did not look like a woman who would dismiss staff on the grounds that they had been employed by her predecessor. Unless he misjudged her, she would not hold past loyalties against them but would give them a decent interval to adapt to her way of doing things. But there would always be staff who would not or could not adapt to such a challenge and who would sooner pack up and seek their fortunes elsewhere. Had cook been one of them? She had been absolutely devoted to Archie's mother. Maybe he had best stay out of the kitchen for the time being.
Archie made his way downstairs, gaining confidence with every step as familiar sights met his eyes. Indeed, Lady Frances had changed little of the furnishings that he could see, unless she had preferred to make her mark in the rooms themselves and not in the corridors. At the bottom of the stairs, having run the gantlet of Kennedy ancestors that lined the stairwell, he paused to check the time on the grandfather clock. It was almost four.
Faint strains of music reached his hears. A harpsichord, if he was not mistaken. It had been years since he had heard such sweet sounds. His mother had occasionally played the lute. Was it Lady Frances who played the instrument, or one of her daughters? Should he go and see for himself, or would that appear too forward? He was suddenly aware that despite appearances this was someone else's home, someone whom he did not know at all. Archie sat down on the third step from the bottom, his confidence completely evaporated. Now he understood what it was to sail a plague ship, unwelcome in any port, condemned to roam the seas until all aboard either perished or else proved without a doubt that they were plague-free. Feeling the unmistakable onset of a headache, he rested his head on his crossed arms and closed his eyes.
The clock struck the hour, jolting Archie out of his stupor. Somewhere nearby a door opened. He heard footsteps. Before he could regain his feet Lady Frances rounded the corner where he sat. She looked pleased to see him.
“Archie, you've come down at last. My daughters are impatient to meet you. They have talked of nothing else all afternoon.”
“I - I don't know if I am quite presentable,” he stammered, standing and automatically dusting off his white breeches. What was he doing? The stairs were spotless. She would read his action as a criticism of her housekeeping. His headache was intensifying. Pray God it was due to hunger and nothing worse.
“Nonsense. You look every inch the naval lieutenant. They will be impressed.”
It was kind of her to say so but he knew what sort of appearance he presented. “Lady Frances, I don't know how to say this. I'm sorry - I hate to ask. I - I will need some new clothing. I cannot keep wearing my uniform, and my other suit does not even have a shirt. Could you - if you would not mind - advance me a small sum until my father returns?”
If his request had taken Lady Frances aback she gave no indication of it, for which he was grateful. He felt mortified beyond description. To have to beg money - and of his stepmother, no less. Whatever had possessed him? Headache or no headache, his request was impertinent if not downright unconscionable. His father would flay him alive.
But Lady Frances only smiled and said, “You poor dear, of course. Consider it done. I shall go through your father's receipts and see which tailor he favors. You shall put your purchases on his account. Do you want me to accompany you, or would you prefer to go there on your own?”
“Thank you, Lady Frances. I'm sure I can find my way.”
“Excellent. Now, come with me.”
She led the way to the music room. Not until she began to open the door did Archie hear the clear girlish soprano that sang to the harpsichord's accompaniment. He did not have time to enjoy it, however, for the singer stopped as Lady Frances preceded him into the room. A few chords later the harpsichord also ceased. Its player rose from her seat and advanced with her sister to greet him.
“Archie, these are my daughters: Lavinia and Laetitia Ogilvy. Girls, this is Sir Emlyn's youngest son, Archie Kennedy, Lieutenant in His Britannic Majesty's Royal Navy.”
The girls curtsied and Archie bowed, everyone formal and correct. Once the awkwardness of the moment was past, they each took him by a hand and pulled him to a nearby window, in front of which several chairs had been arranged as if in anticipation of a tete-a-tete. That they were totally at ease helped to make him easier. Still, it had been so long since he had been in female company that he did not quite trust his reactions, and had to remind himself that these were not his messmates on board ship and that he had better mind his manners.
“Will you be home for long, Archie?” the elder girl asked when they were all seated. This was Lavinia, if he had got the names straight. She wore her dark hair severely pulled back and knotted at the top of her head, but she had allowed curly tendrils to escape here and there in a delicate and flattering frame around her face. Her brown eyes regarded him intelligently from under well shaped brows and a smile played about the corners of her generous mouth.
“That rather depends upon my father,” he answered. “I should like to stay for a while, if I may. At least until I can return to sea.”
The younger girl, Laetitia, said earnestly, “We should like you to stay for as long as you wish, and we shall tell your father so, if that will help.” She had a round, guileless face, its expression enlivened by a sprinkling of freckles and laughing hazel eyes.
“Are you so impatient to return to sea?” Lavinia asked. Her voice held just a hint of disappointment.
Was he? In all honesty it was hard to say. He had been so long at sea that he felt out of place anywhere else, yet he felt increasingly as if the tide that had cast him back on land had done so for a purpose. Conscious that his stepsisters were waiting for his answer, but unwilling to subject them to the tortuous turnings of his mind he said, “At the moment I am quite content to stay here.”
Laetitia smiled, setting her golden freckles dancing. “We shall have to give a ball! Oh, Mama, please may we give a ball? Archie has been away so long, he will not know anyone in town. We must introduce him to everyone.”
Lady Frances, who had hovered in the vicinity of the harpsichord straightening sheets of music, now came forward to stand just behind Archie's chair. He started to turn towards her, then realized that she had placed herself deliberately so that her daughters could see her face but he could not.
“I think it is early for a ball, Laetitia - ”
“Oh, no, Mama. The season is underway. We have had three invitations already.”
“That is not what I meant, Letty, dear. I think we might plan a quieter celebration. An intimate dinner perhaps, for a few close friends. Your stepbrother is here to rest, not to outdo himself and every other swain upon the dance floor.”
Letty burned a furious shade of red and looked at Archie with eyes full of remorse. “I am so sorry, Archie. I did not think - ”
Archie knew from the warmth flooding his own face that he was blushing, too. Much as he hated to be thought a weakling, the idea of a grand ball in his honor turned his stomach. His head throbbed so fiercely that he no longer feared he would be sick but simply wondered when.
“Besides, Letty,” Lavinia said with a sly glance in his direction, “Archie has been away for so long, he has probably forgotten how to dance. You and I shall have to teach him the newest steps.”
“Oh, yes!” Letty cried. “Vinia and I are very good dancers. Everyone says so. We can teach you, a little bit each day, so that when you are ready - ” Whatever she had intended to say, her mother must have signaled to her to stop. Letty clamped her lips tight upon the end of her sentence.
The silence that descended upon their little group threatened to put an end to conversation. Archie tried to think of something to say. The rules of polite discourse required that he let Laetitia know she had not offended him, whatever she had or hadn't said. He was not offended. He understood youth's tendency to speak first and think afterwards. Heaven knew how often he had blundered in that very way himself. He wanted to offer a word of comfort, of understanding, but his own physical discomfort prevented him. Lady Frances finally stepped into the breach.
“I quite forgot to mention it, Archie. We have had word of your father. He has gone on to Shelburne House. We shall not see him for several days, I should think.”
“Does he know I am here?”
“By now he should. The messenger has followed him. He sent word back by coach before riding on from Portsmouth.”
“It seems I should have gone directly to Shelburne House.”
“Then your father should in all likelihood have waited here. Do not fret at having missed him, Archie. He needed to see Sidwell on estate matters one way or another. This has merely prompted him to make the journey that he was putting off.”
“How is my brother? Have you seen him recently?” He asked because they would expect it of him, not from any desire to know. Sidwell no doubt thought of him as infrequently as he thought of Sidwell.
Across from him Laetitia grimaced. “We saw him at Christmas. He was well in drink, as I recall.”
“Letty!” her sister whispered in horror.
“Well, he was. It's no secret. Sidwell drinks well and often. At first it makes him jolly, later it makes him cross. By the end of the festivities he was very cross indeed.”
“Pay no attention to my baby sister, Archie. She often speaks out of turn.”
“It would seem that telling the truth has become unfashionable,” Letty retorted.
“Sometimes,” Lady Frances interjected, “the better part of truth is what is left unsaid.”
“I agree,” Letty said, to everyone's surprise. “When one is speaking with strangers it is more polite to dissemble. But we are among family here. May we not be completely truthful among ourselves?”
“Not if it will hurt someone's feelings,” Lavinia said. She did not need to look in Archie's direction. They could not fail to know whom she meant.
“Archie?” Laetitia appealed to him.
“First of all, I am flattered that you consider me family. Secondly, my feelings are not hurt. Sid began his flirtation with the bottle when I was still at home.” It was something that Sidwell had lorded over Archie, the fact that he was man enough to drink himself insensible, having somehow deluded himself that Archie would be impressed.
Lavinia assured him, “Of course you are family. You must not on any account think otherwise. You are a Kennedy, which neither of us shall ever be. Mama at least has married into the family, but we are just tag-alongs.”
Archie was saved from having to remonstrate with her by the timely arrival of the maid, Poppy, with the tea service. Lady Frances poured for her daughters, then for herself. To Archie's questioning glance she said quietly, “I have had something else prepared for you, Archie. On Doctor Tregaryn's recommendation.”
There was nothing he could say to that. He could only wait and hope that the chink of fine porcelain and the music of the ladies' conversation masked the sound of his stomach growling.
Archie quickly settled into the routine of the house, so different from the routine on board a ship at sea but not so very different from what he remembered of his home when his mother lived. All in all, his step-family seemed to be going out of their way to make him comfortable. There was nothing they would not do for him; he had only to ask and his wishes became reality. He was much afraid that he could grow to like the attention, perhaps even come to expect it. That would spoil him for any return to active duty for certain sure.
Even his father's tailors, the venerable establishment of Hubbard-Woolin-McDay, proved most accommodating. Of course it was in their interest to be so, for Lord Shelburne's custom was something they valued, as they let Archie know several times during his visit. But they had perhaps gone overboard in their insistence that he needed clothing for outdoor pursuits and for formal occasions, as well as for day and evening, not to mention a greatcoat, shirts, nightshirts, hose, boots and shoes. Mindful of his father's temper, he tried to keep his purchases to a bare minimum, especially as Messrs. Hubbard, Woolin and McDay would not compromise on quality. It was difficult when faced with the possibility of up to a year ashore. Even if he did not feel up to it now, there undoubtedly would be social engagements at some time in the near future for which he would need to be properly attired. And if he did not order what he needed at this time, he would only have to return and go through the process all over again. Still, all things considered, he did not want to be in the house when his father received the invoice.
His father, meanwhile, tarried at Shelburne House, almost as if the knowledge that Archie was safe in London precluded any need to hurry home. Archie dreaded their first meeting. It would be awkward no matter how he approached it. Would his father be happy and relieved to see him? Or would he be angry that Archie had allowed himself to become embroiled in such a muddle? Of course it would not be Archie's personal predicament that concerned him, but the perceived damage to the family name. On the other hand, Sir Emlyn had never expected much of Archie, so maybe he would not be terribly disappointed after all.
Their meeting, when it came, caught him completely unawares. Archie had taken to spending part of each day in the library. It was a large, comfortably furnished room, lined from floor to ceiling with bookshelves, most of them crammed with books and stacks of maps, prints and charts. His father's massive oak desk commanded the room from one end much like a ship's quarterdeck. A long table, its surface covered with estate maps and stud charts, occupied the middle of the room opposite the fireplace, while two smaller tables and a number of well-padded chairs made up intimate groupings at the far end. It was a room designed for lingering, whether with a book or with one's thoughts, and Archie frequently did both. He especially liked to sit in one of the window seats, where he could rest his eyes from reading by gazing into the garden below. Every so often, the sheer peacefulness of his surroundings would lull him to sleep. So it was that his father found him.
Afterward he could never be sure exactly what had awakened him, whether his father's approach startled him so that the book on his lap fell to the floor, or whether the book fell first, startling both Archie and Sir Emlyn. All he knew for sure was that he awoke with a jolt to find his father standing a few feet away from him, his expression no doubt a mirror of the surprise Archie himself felt. His father was the first to speak.
“Just for a moment I thought it was your mother sitting there.”
Sir Emlyn had changed little in the years Archie had been away. His hair was perhaps a bit grayer, his waist a bit thicker, but the brusque manner remained. Well, maybe not so brusque as Archie remembered. His father had sounded just a trifle wistful.
“I did not think I looked so much like her,” Archie said softly, wondering why neither of them could manage a simple, “Hello, how are you?” like other people did.
“The sunlight on your hair - the shape of your face - so much like my Mairi.” His father paused, seemingly overcome. After a visible struggle he continued. “You have her eyes, Archie. Those wonderful pools of blue that spoke volumes even when she said not a word. I loved her so much.”
Was this his father speaking? Archie had never heard Sir Emlyn sound so - what was it? Sentimental? He could hardly believe his ears and must have betrayed his astonishment, for his father spoke again.
“Is it so strange to hear an old fool admit he loved his wife, Archie?”
“No. No, I never doubted your love for her. I only wondered how you could love her and hate me so much at the same time.”
There it was, the burden he had carried through much of his young life, the fact that had colored his perception of everything around him. He had never expressed it to his father in so many words. At the time his father would not have listened to him had he tried. How would his father receive it now?
In the silence that fell between them, Sir Emlyn moved his desk chair over to the window and sat opposite Archie. They faced at each other for a few moments without speaking. Finally the elder Kennedy broke the ice.
“I never hated you, Son. I was hard on you, I will admit, but that was in an effort to stiffen your spine. I was afraid for you, when I saw how your brothers bullied you and you did not fight back. I knew you had to learn to stand up for yourself or else let others dominate you for the rest of your life. Was I mistaken in assuming that the Navy would do that for you, Archie?”
“The Navy has taught me to accept that I am not the master of my own destiny,” Archie said slowly, “and that others will always have the final word on where I go, what I do, what I wear, when and what I eat, where and when I sleep, whether I live or die. Is that the lesson you meant me to learn?”
His father looked dismayed. “Put that way, I would needs say no. You were meant to become an officer, to learn to command other men - ”
“Even the captain of a ship takes orders from those above him, Father. And a midshipman is the very least of officers, for he takes orders from nearly everyone.”
“So, the Navy has taught you not self-reliance but submissiveness?”
Archie had to think about that one. He noticed the book at his feet, picked it up and set it aside before he answered. “Not so much self-reliance as a reliance upon rules and regulations,” he said at last. “The Navy prescribes specific behaviors in specific situations. If everyone follows them, then the outcome of any situation can be predicted. A man who relies upon his own wits in battle, as opposed to following well-rehearsed routines, runs the risk of producing an unpredictable outcome, not the least of which is the loss of life. I'm not talking of hand-to-hand combat here, but of the kind of fighting that requires the disciplined execution of complex maneuvers, such as firing cannon. In the end, I suppose the only acceptable form of self-reliance is a man's reliance upon his training to see him through. If that is submissiveness, then yes, that is what the Navy has taught me. I'm sorry if that is not what you wanted to hear.”
“Not at all. I appreciate your honesty, Son. And I sincerely regret that I did not steer you in a completely different direction from the start.”
“That is the difficulty, is it not? What would you have done, Archie, given the choice to set your own course in life?”
“I don't know. I never let myself think too much about it. There seemed no point, for there was nothing I could do to change my lot. Wishing otherwise would only have made me miserable.”
“But now you can change it.”
“Have you heard from the Admiralty?” Archie looked at his father in alarm. “Are they determined not to have me back?”
“No, I have heard nothing. But this is your opportunity, should you wish to make a change. What would you like to do?”
A choice, at this late date! Archie groaned. Why could this offer not have come years ago, when he still greeted each new day with enthusiasm, instead of now when circumstances so oppressed him that each day presented another prison wall to breach rather than a gateway to long-forgotten dreams? His father looked at him as if he understood.
“I do not need an immediate answer, Archie. Take all the time you need. After all, you will be with us for some time if Doctor Tregaryn has his way.”
“I am totally ignorant of anything but the Navy. I don't know what options I have. Would you - would it be possible for you to help me?”
“Help you decide? Or help you start anew? I will do both, Archie. It is the least I can do to make up for the misery I have inflicted on you, albeit unwittingly, all these years. With my connections, you can do and be anything you want, within reason.”
“In other words, I should not set my sights on becoming the next Lord Shelburne.” The corner of Archie's mouth quirked in amusement.
Lord Shelburne responded with a full smile of his own. “I am glad to see you have recovered something of your sense of humor, Archie. But no, unless a plague takes both your brothers, you should not envision yourself as the future Lord Shelburne. Although Sidwell might be willing to take you on in some capacity. You could do worse than learn estate management, you know. You will probably marry into a landed family. What is it, Archie? Have you an understanding with a young lady already? Or are you opposed to marriage itself for some reason?”
Not for the first time in his life Archie cursed the open, expressive features that so readily gave away what he was thinking. “I had not thought of marriage one way or the other. No, I was thinking of Sidwell. He never had much use for me, you know.”
“It was the age difference, I expect - ” Sir Emlyn began.
“It was the fits, Father,” Archie's voice hardened. “Sid was absolutely merciless, in case you had not noticed.”
“You do not seem much plagued by them now.”
“They have all but disappeared.”
“Then Sidwell should have no objection to you. Unless you have an objection to Sidwell?”
“In all fairness, Father, I have not seen my brother in eight years. He may have grown into a perfectly fine fellow, for all I know.” Remembering what his stepsister had said of Sidwell's drunken state at Christmas, Archie bit his lip.
“I believe Sid could use your help at Shelburne House, Archie. If the two of you can agree to live under one roof without coming to blows, it would be an ideal solution to your dilemma.”
“What is it you are not telling me, Father? I know you have just returned from Shelburne House. In what way does my brother require my - or anyone's - aid?”
The gaze Sir Emlyn focused upon Archie was so frankly appraising that Archie suspected he would be judged wanting as had so often happened in the past. But no, his father nodded in a manner that seemed to indicate approval.
“Very well, Archie. You deserve to know the worst. I think it will not surprise you to learn that your brother's middle name is Excess.”
“What sort of excess, Father? Drink? Women? Gambling?”
His father grimaced. “Probably all three, and more. Sidwell fancies himself a bon vivant, if the reports that reach me can be believed. He behaves as if I have a bottomless purse and can finance his endless purchases, parties and general high living without question or demur. I am not against spending money when it is necessary, nor do I frown upon the occasional luxury. The keyword, which Sid fails to recognize or accept, is moderation. If his neighbor buys a new carriage, Sid must buy a bigger one, or worse, he buys two. If another neighbor creates a water garden in his park, Sid must do the same, on a grander scale. Archie, I am not certain the home farm can continue to support him in the style to which he believes himself entitled.”
“What can I do? He will not welcome a minder, you know. Especially me.”
“I know Sid can be unpleasant when he feels he has the upper hand. I would hate to put a manager over him, as a sign that I do not trust him, and it is pointless to give him a second-in-command for he will continue to do as he pleases and probably corrupt the hired man into the bargain. But he can have no objection to a younger brother who comes to him to learn the business. That he has something of value to impart should flatter him, especially if he thinks he is grooming you to manage someone else's land.
“I realize I am asking a great deal of you, Son. Sid will not give you his respect for the asking. You may have to wrest it from him by force. And make no mistake, he will resent your interference. But I think you can have a steadying influence on him. He will see that you are not the same boy who went to sea eight years ago, that you have matured into a capable, clear-headed young man. With your experience of command on board ship, you can play the able lieutenant to his swaggering captain, at the same time as you keep me informed of his latest schemes. Between us, we may be able to counteract his mistakes before they threaten our livelihood. Just take what he has to teach you, watch him unobtrusively, and keep the farm from going under. Do you think you can do that, Archie?”
“If I understand you correctly, you are asking me to spy on my brother.”
“Spy on him, yes, but also act if necessary to keep him in check.”
“How can I do that, Father? He is my elder brother and your heir. I have no authority over him.”
“I will give you the authority you need, in a legal document if need be. He will remain my heir, but you shall be the executor of the estate, as if he were a minor.”
“You would make me a regent over my brother?”
“It cannot be helped. Sidwell may be my first-born, but he is not blessed with good sense. He has shown me that over and over again in recent years. You, on the other hand, have shown me that I am dealing with a man who takes nothing for granted, who thinks before he speaks, and whose experiences in life have made him appreciate what he has. I trust you, Archie. If you tell me I am wrong in my assessment I will seek to revise it, but I think you will not tell me so because I am right.”
Archie regarded his father in silence. How and when had he gone from the least of Sir Emlyn's sons to the one in whom he placed his trust? And how could he possibly justify that trust? Sid would hardly echo the same sentiment. In all likelihood his brother would expect to ride roughshod over Archie as he had in their youth, while Archie would feel constantly under pressure to prove himself capable in his own, his brother's, and his father's eyes. Their differing expectations almost guaranteed conflict. And if Sid even began to suspect that Archie was spying on him for their father . . .
“If Sidwell and I can keep from doing each other bodily harm, I would deem it an honor to serve you in this way, Father,” Archie heard himself say. Time would tell if he was making a mistake.
“I'm glad that's settled,” his father said. “We will give you a few more weeks to rest and regain your strength. Once you are yourself again, you can take on your brother. Between now and then, I will teach you something of estate management myself. It will give you something to fall back upon when Sid is feeling less than cooperative.”
“Thank you, Sir. I would appreciate that.”
“We will start your lessons when you are feeling better. You ought to be in bed, Archie. You look ready to drop.”
“I will, Father. In a while. Only - ”
“What is it, Son?”
“Sir, I'm sorry. It's just that - you have said nothing about - about the reason I have come home. Do you not want to know what happened?”
“I do indeed, Archie. Do you feel up to talking about it now?”
The events surrounding his supposed death and mysterious resurrection were not something Archie wanted to talk about, now or ever again. But he owed it to his father to relay the full story, or as much of it as he remembered. He told Sir Emlyn what he recalled of the experience, what he had learned from talking to others, as well as what he suspected but could not prove. It must have cost his father no small effort to listen without interruption, for Archie could see his jaw working and his eyes flashing as if he would erupt in typical Kennedy fashion. Listening to the silence that greeted the end of his tale, Archie imagined he heard the sound of the sea and tried to read in it the coming storm.
“I am sorry, Father,” he said in an attempt to bridge the uncomfortable void. Archie did not question why he felt so contrite, nor did he find it odd to be apologizing for deeds and circumstances completely outside his control. It was enough that he found himself at the center of the maelstrom, that without him there would be no maelstrom. “If I could erase everything that happened I would do so gladly. I would never willfully dishonor you or our family name.”
Sir Emlyn sighed. “I cannot fault you, Archie. You are the victim of foul circumstance, to be sure. And although I would very much like to speak to the doctor who attended you, I fear we will not see him again.”
Archie shuddered involuntarily at the mention of the man whose curiously timed intervention had caused so much trouble and pain. Where had he come from? And where had he gone? Even more to the point, who was he? Why had he put himself forth as a doctor if he was nothing of the sort?
“The more I think about it, the more I doubt that his appearance was coincidental. The landlord assured me that the man asked for a room only after I was taken ill. But he might have been in the taproom earlier, unnoticed. What if he was there by design? If he was, who sent him? And why? Who would want to harm me, other than Captain Wright? He might well prefer to see me dead rather than take me aboard his ship. But even Captain Wright would not have had the means to make me ill, unless he sent a poisoner ashore to watch for his chance. Surely there are less drastic means by which to deal with an unwanted posting.”
His father looked at him with a thoughtful expression. “It need not have been someone who wished you ill personally. Heaven knows, Sidwell is abrasive enough in his dealings with those outside his circle, nor has the Army tempered Duncan's hot blood. Someone with a score to settle against either of them might strike at any member of the family within reach.”
Archie shook his head. “Then I am the least likely family member to be followed and attacked, simply because I am so seldom ashore. They would be far more likely to strike at you or Lady Frances or the girls. No, it must be something else. Someone with a grudge against Captain Pellew, perhaps, who went after me not knowing I had been transferred out of Pellew's command. Or against Horatio - Lieutenant Hornblower - and who struck at me because I am his friend.”
“Someone with a grudge against Pellew or this Hornblower chap would also needs wait a long time for satisfaction, even if he were to ascertain from the Admiralty just when your ship was expected.”
“Then we are back to Captain Wright. I fell ill almost immediately after leaving him, yet I cannot imagine him acting so quickly. Surely his resentment would have taken some time to fester before he settled on a means to be rid of me.”
“And, as you say, he would have had recourse to less drastic measures to keep you off his ship. Are you sure there are none aboard your own ship who carry a grudge against you? Someone whom you might have passed in promotion?”
“It's usually the other way around,” Archie responded wryly. “As a rule I am the last to be remembered when there are honors to be handed out.” In truth, he had lost track of the number of times he had been ignored, rejected or just plain forgotten, whether it was a question of assignments or prizes or something as basic as shore leave.
“Always we come back to who and why? I think once we know the answer to the first, we shall know the second. As for the how, you believe it was poison?”
“There had been nothing wrong with my health until then.” Other than his fits, which at their worst had never laid him so low as that. “To find myself so suddenly in death's embrace - what else could it be?”
“And then the so-called doctor, who may well have been the poisoner, disinterred you and administered the antidote to reverse the poison's effect, then kept you hidden until you had recovered sufficiently that he could make his escape knowing you would survive. It makes a perverted sort of sense, I must agree. Still, we are no closer to a motive - or to the ultimate murderer, for we must suppose this man to have been a mere hireling. Which then begs the question of why he turned against his employer and resuscitated you. I must look into this further, Archie. I cannot rest knowing there is a person at large who has once already tried to take your life. He may try again.”
For all the thinking Archie had done on the subject, that possibility had not occurred to him. Why had he assumed that the danger was past and that he could go on with his life unmolested? He should have realized that his sense of safety was an illusion. He felt the blood drain from his face and clutched the edge of the window seat with both hands to keep from pitching forward. Sir Emlyn was beside him almost instantly with a steadying arm. His father's unexpected gentleness proved almost too much for Archie to bear and he choked back a sob.
“I am sorry if I have distressed you, Son,” Sir Emlyn said. “Leave everything to me. There is no need for you to involve yourself in this. Concentrate on regaining your strength, and I will concentrate on bringing our mysterious evildoer to justice.”
His emotions already too close to the surface, Archie could only nod and hope his father knew the depth of his gratitude without words.
Fortitude by Lorraine Jean