Fortitude by Lorraine Jean
Sir Emlyn proved to be as good as his word where Archie's lessons were concerned. The very first time they met in the library over the great oak table, Sir Emlyn handed Archie a book on animal husbandry to read in his spare time and showed him where other volumes on breeding and showing horses were shelved. Then they talked. Sir Emlyn showed him maps of the Shelburne estates, stud charts showing the lineage of all his stock, and the records of the Shelburne Hunt, which Sir Emlyn kept up-to-date for his own information even though they duplicated Sidwell's records at the farm. Archie never expected to find anything of interest in the day-to-day workings of the home farm, but his father's conversational style caught and held his attention and engaged him in spite of himself. After a few days he came to look forward to their sessions, not only for the information he gained from them but because he found to his surprise that he enjoyed his father's company.
Sir Emlyn commented on the change in him. “It's good to see you smile again, Son. I was beginning to think you had forgotten how.”
“It's been a long time since I had anything to smile about.”
“I hope that means that this change in your situation is proving to be something more than palatable?”
“So far it appears to agree with me.” He did not mention his continuing reservation about his brother. Sir Emlyn would know what he meant. And what an unusual and heady feeling that was!
“Good. Good. I am glad to hear it.”
“Father, may I ask you something?” Archie ventured, almost afraid to break the spell by examining its workings too closely.
“Of course, Archie. That's why we're here.”
“It's nothing to do with the farm. I was just wondering. What has changed? Between us, I mean. Before I went into the Navy, we never had conversations. You say you wanted to make me tougher, but that should not have precluded talking to me. I always felt - I am almost ashamed to admit it now - that you did not want to know me, that you were happier to wave me aside and pretend that I did not exist. I know the fits were partly responsible - but even so -”
Sir Emlyn looked acutely embarrassed, so much so that Archie immediately regretted having brought up the matter. Before he could apologize and insist he did not require an answer, Sir Emlyn cleared his throat and spoke.
“If you only knew how heartily ashamed I am of that, Archie. Yes, your fits were responsible. In my fear and ignorance I thought they meant your mind was affected, that I had, to my chagrin and without precedence in our family, sired a simpleton. I was afraid to acknowledge you for fear you would touch my heart and I would be forced to love you in spite of myself. It was cowardly of me. I know now that I have missed much by denying you. If truth be told, you are by far the most interesting of my sons. I wish I had known you sooner.”
His father's admission brought a feeling of fullness to Archie's throat. He swallowed with difficulty, almost too overcome to speak; but something his father had said nagged at him and helped him find his voice.
“Would the Royal Navy have taken a simpleton, Sir?” he said respectfully, not wishing to tear the thin fabric of his father's regard.
“It's hard to say. I am sure you have known men on board ship whose mental acuity, not to mention sanity, could be questioned. Whether they joined the service in that state of mind or developed it after seeing battle is beside the point. I imagined the Navy would soon recognize your limitations and find some niche where you could be useful. Please don't look at me that way, Archie. I have told you I'm sorry. I meant it - I do mean it. I have wronged you, and no one could regret it more than I.”
“I often wondered why no one pushed me to excel,” Archie mused, surprised at his lack of rancor even as the painful truth sank in. “They assumed, as you did, that I would accomplish nothing. Did you tell the Admiralty about my fits?”
“No. Forgive me, Archie, but I hoped the Navy could be persuaded that you had developed the condition only after going to sea.”
They might have at that, Archie thought, if Jack Simpson had not begun to torment him while they were still moored in Spithead, long before he ever saw the open sea. No one and nothing could bring on a fit like Jack could. And once Jack had discovered his peculiar power, how he had delighted in manipulating Archie like a puppet, terrorizing him in the most subtle ways imaginable, just to see how Archie would react. Though a conspiracy of silence persisted in his hearing, every midshipman in his mess had witnessed Archie's shameful loss of control. Any one of them (and Jack in particular) might have mentioned it to a superior officer, who would have felt obliged to pass it on. Fully a third of Justinian's crew had transferred to Indefatigable. No wonder Captain Pellew had never entrusted him with a prize ship. But what galled him most was that Archie had never suspected the real reason why.
“I don't blame you for being angry, Son.”
“I was always more hurt than angry, Father. If anyone deserves my anger I do, for refusing to see the truth even when it spat in my face. I told myself that Captain Pellew showed favoritism when he bypassed me for preferment and rewards. I deluded myself that he did not know about my fits, when he must have known, surely. Even if he never witnessed one, others must have told him. Even Horatio, who stood by me and tried to help, might have given me away, thinking he was doing me a favor. I have been a marked man from the beginning, only I was too naïve to see it. How sorry the captain must have been to see me return from El Ferrol. The poor man thought he was rid of me, only to have me turn up again like a bad penny. No wonder he wasted no words welcoming me back.”
“Archie. I don't know what to say.”
“Say nothing. Let us hope I can be a better farmer than a naval lieutenant.” Archie tried to smile but could only press his lips together in an attempt to hold back tears.
Sir Emlyn gave Archie's shoulder a squeeze. “We have a fresh slate before us. Let us make good use of it.”
Archie nodded. There was nothing he wanted more. But before he could thank his father the door opened ahead of Biddle, who entered to inquire if Lord Shelburne was at home to Lord Treviston.
“Yes, of course, Biddle. Show him in.” The butler withdrew. “You don't mind, Archie? Treviston needs to see me on a matter that will shortly come before the Lords. A boundary dispute that has the potential to affect a large number of landowners.”
“Not at all. We can continue when it is convenient for you.”
Lord Treviston's formidable form filled the doorway before Archie could escape, however, so that Archie was obliged to stand his ground. Not that it mattered. Treviston crossed the room toward his objective as if Archie were invisible.
“Shelburne,” he scowled. “Want to have a word.” Drawing nearer, he finally noticed Archie. “Who's this, then?”
“Treviston, you may remember my youngest, Archibald, late of His Majesty's Navy. Archie, this is our neighbor, Gordon Loughlander, Lord Treviston. His estates lie some fifteen miles to the north of ours.”
“So this is Archie?”
Treviston peered at Archie as if at a horse in the sale rooms. The man must be myopic in the extreme or else his rudeness knew no bounds. Archie stood as tall and straight as he could without actually snapping to attention, trying to look both dignified and respectful under his neighbor's scrutiny.
“Yes, my Lord,” he said.
“Well, well. I do remember you, you know. Just a little chap when you left, I believe?”
Not so young as that! “I was sixteen, Sir.”
“Were you? Thought you were younger, somehow. So, home from the Navy, eh? Wounded and out of commission?”
“Yes, Sir,” Archie said. It was near enough to the truth, so long as his father did not choose to elaborate.
“Thought he was dead,” Treviston said to Sir Emlyn. Archie might as well have left the room.
“That was the report from the Admiralty. Erroneous, as you can see,” Sir Emlyn answered. “Now, Treviston, about that matter. I'm sure Archie will excuse us for a few minutes.”
“Hmm.” Lord Treviston's thoughts seemed to be otherwise engaged, so Archie started for the door. “Hold on there, Son, before you go,” Treviston called after him.
“Having a small gathering at my place Thursday evening. Just a few friends and influential acquaintances. You'll come, of course. Emlyn, you and your lady will come as well. Come at eight.”
Archie looked to his father for guidance. He had not been out socially since his return. Did Sir Emlyn want him to accept the invitation?
“Frances and I will be delighted, of course. My son must speak for himself.”
“I would be delighted, my Lord,” Archie lied through his teeth.
“Good. That's settled then. Now, Shelburne, about that boundary folderol-”
This time Archie made good his escape.
Lady Frances spied her stepson taking a turn in the garden. He did not often venture out of doors, for all that a bit of exercise and brisk air might inject some welcome color into his face. What had sent him out finally? She called for her shawl, then went out onto the terrace.
He had disappeared from view, so she slowly walked the length of the terrace until she caught the glint of sunshine on his blond hair through the shrubbery. She went down the stone steps and made her way to the copse where he was sitting. Something in his posture alerted her that all was not as it should be. She increased her pace.
Drawing near, she wondered if he could see her. He was staring straight ahead, his blue eyes wide but unseeing. As she had noted before when he slipped into a trance, his features had relaxed into an expression both hauntingly beautiful and disturbing for the glimpse it allowed of a soul laid bare. She had not discussed these trances with him, so she was still unsure if this was the prelude to a fit or its aftermath. Perhaps it was neither, for she had not yet observed anything that she could identify as a seizure.
Afraid lest she startle him with a sudden noise or gesture, Lady Frances sat beside him on the garden bench and waited quietly. After a little while Archie blinked and looked in her direction.
“What is it?” he said, as if they had been seated there together from the beginning.
“I would ask you the same question, Archie. You seemed to be a hundred leagues away.”
“I was not aware of it.”
Should she broach her fear? She did not want to distress him, yet perhaps it was best to have it out in the open. “I thought you might be about to have a fit.”
The look on his face made her wish she had not spoken. She hastened to reassure him. “I did not witness a fit, Archie. You were so distracted you did not notice me, that's all.”
“Did I look to be deep in thought or just staring at nothing?”
“That was a fit,” he said softly. “Of the lesser variety. I seem to be having more of those now and fewer of the ones where I fall down and twitch uncontrollably.” He bit his lip.
“That is a good thing, is it not?”
He shrugged and would not meet her eyes. The hand that she took and held between her own felt cold and lifeless. She had not seen him look so lost or disconsolate since the day he arrived, barely risen from his deathbed and unsure of his welcome.
“Why are you here, Archie? I thought you were having a lesson with your father. Did you feel the sickness coming on?”
“Lord Treviston interrupted us. I was in the way.”
“You could have joined me in the morning room.”
Archie studied their clasped hands as if he had never seen them before, but he did not attempt to withdraw from her grasp. “I wanted to be alone. I'm sorry, Lady Frances. I don't mean that as ungraciously as it sounded.”
“I know you don't, Archie. You are always careful of others' feelings.”
Watching him, noting the fine lines that had reappeared around his mouth and eyes with the return of full awareness, and how they deepened whenever her words inadvertently struck a nerve, it occurred to her that his unusual sensitivity might be connected to his malady. Perhaps the trances left him in a state of heightened sensation that made ordinary interactions painful. It would explain many things that had puzzled her, such as why loud noises made him flinch, why he himself spoke so softly that it was occasionally hard to hear him, and why he often responded emotionally to otherwise innocuous statements and situations. Even now he squinted as if the daylight hurt his eyes, despite sitting with his back to the sun. He would have a headache later - she could see it coming. If not for the trances she might have attributed his symptoms to his experiences in battle and prison, except that the seamen she had encountered who had survived similar ordeals tended more towards loss of sensation than increased sensitivity. She would have to discuss it with Doctor Tregaryn.
“I think something is preying upon your mind,” she continued. “Will you not tell me what it is?”
Archie sighed and ran his free hand through his hair. “Once Lord Treviston leaves, my father will no doubt acquaint you with the fact that we are invited to his Lordship's home on Thursday for a gathering. I'm not sure exactly what sort of social engagement that may be, or why I have been included in the invitation.”
“An invitation, you say? Are you quite sure?”
“I heard him with my own ears, Lady Frances.”
“Nay, Archie. Treviston does not extend invitations. He issues edicts. I have no doubt whatsoever that we have been commanded to present ourselves. Am I right?”
“You appear to know the man.”
“As well as ever I care to. You do not sound pleased to be included.”
“I have not been out socially in a long time. I fear I will make a fool of myself, or worse, embarrass you and Sir Emlyn.”
“Let me tell you about Loughlander's entertainments, Archie. He invariably calls them small gatherings. You will find his townhouse crammed with people from top to bottom, where they will insinuate themselves into any room whose door is not locked against them. Among these will be the sort of people with whom one of our station normally associates, a smattering of political figures about whom one normally only reads, as well as the occasional questionable figure introduced, I am certain, to spice the mix. We need only make an appearance, present ourselves to our host, stay a decent amount of time so as not to appear rude, then we may leave.”
“I wish I found that half as reassuring as you seem to,” Archie said ruefully, then scowled. “Why has he not included the girls?”
“Vinia and Letty are still too young to have attracted his notice, not that I would permit them to attend such a function if they had. In a crowd of that sort it is too easy to lose sight of a young girl, and too easy for the wrong sort of fellow to attach himself to her.”
“Even if their stepbrother is there to chaperone?”
“Ah, but Archie, who will act as your chaperone?”
“Mine! I am well able to take care of myself.”
“Do not be too sure of it. I would not go so far as to say that some of Loughlander's female guests have seen too much of the streets of London, but they have undoubtedly enjoyed more adventures than a lady should in a lifetime. They will have tired of the men in Loughlander's circle, so you will present them with a fresh challenge. They will find you irresistible.”
Archie looked at her in such alarm that Lady Frances immediately regretted teasing him.
“Don't worry, Archie.” She squeezed his hand before letting it go. “Your father and I will introduce you to the sort of people you should know. You'll be quite safe. You might even enjoy yourself.”
He tried to smile and ended up shaking his head instead.
Thursday came much sooner than Archie anticipated or desired. He considered pleading a headache - indeed, it would not have been far from the truth - but the thought of disappointing his father and Lady Frances made him reconsider. No, he told himself, he had better face his fears and get the evening over with. Only then would he know if he could pass in polite company or if his abortive naval career had made him unfit for society.
His very first test almost shattered his resolve. Coming down the stairs to join his father and stepmother in the front hall, where Lavinia and Laetitia also stood ready to see them off, he felt the family's appraising glances take in his evening attire. Lady Frances and the girls, as usual, seemed pleased with what they saw. Sir Emlyn, on the other hand, looked him up and down and scowled.
“Good gad, boy! Is that the best you could do?”
“What's wrong with it?” Archie reached the bottom step and caught his reflection in a long mirror across the hall. He saw nothing obviously out of place. Sir Emlyn's tailors had done themselves proud, in his opinion, despite having had to rush this part of his order, for the coat and breeches were a flawless fit. Was it the cut, the color or the fabric that his father found objectionable?
“Yes, Emlyn, dear,” Lady Frances said. “What precisely is wrong with it? The blue of the coat brings out the color of his eyes. I think it suits him perfectly.”
The two girls nodded assent but wisely refrained from adding their voices to the discussion.
“Wrong with it! At first glance I thought he was wearing his naval uniform. Color it a few shades darker, add a bit of brass and there you have it. Haven't you at least a brocade weskit, Archie?”
“I'm afraid I don't, Father.”
“Oh, hush, Emlyn! He no more needs brocade than a lily needs gilding.”
“I won't have it said that my family lags behind society when it comes to fashion. Furthermore, . . . oh, never mind.” Sir Emlyn finally seemed to take in the array of disapproving female faces turned in his direction. “You look fine, Archie.”
Lady Frances gave Archie a wink. “In my opinion, Archie looks very dignified. Unlike some of the frills and furbelows that pass so quickly in and out of fashion, simple elegance is always in good taste.”
“That's all well and good, Frances, but Treviston's crowd will be turned out in the latest fashions from the Continent and we shall look like poor country cousins.”
“I could always stay at home,” Archie offered hopefully. His stepsisters, who had earlier made it quite clear that they were put out at finding themselves excluded, brightened at the prospect.
“Not a chance,” Sir Emlyn said. “And another thing. That queue has got to go. Unless you still entertain hopes of returning to sea?”
“Your father does have a point, Archie,” Lady Frances said. “Men are wearing their hair shorter. Though I, for one, shall mourn the passing of those lovely golden locks.”
Archie stood frozen with his mouth agape. This was something he had not taken into account. It was one thing to say he was done with the Royal Navy and to pursue a new career ashore; it was quite another to sever all ties by the symbolic cutting off of his queue.
“Be at ease, son,” Sir Emlyn chuckled. “Your stepmother is not proposing to do the deed tonight. Tomorrow will suffice.”
With the family enjoying a laugh at his expense, Archie took his leave of his stepsisters and joined Sir Emlyn and Lady Frances in the carriage for the drive across town.
Lord Treviston's townhouse was alive with music and lights, along with the noise and heat of too many people crowded into insufficient space, each of them trying to be seen and heard above all the others. Archie had reckoned that, compared to being confined on board a moving vessel with several hundred men for months on end, rubbing elbows for an hour or two with some three-score people should hardly daunt him. He had not counted on the difference a period of illness could make. Disoriented and dizzy at first, he stuck close to Sir Emlyn and Lady Frances while introductions were made. True to their word, they presented him to others of their class, who gave evidence of their breeding by reacting to him much as Lord Treviston had, subjecting him to close scrutiny and then speaking about him as if he were not there. After a half-hour of this Archie had become accustomed to the stuffiness, the movement and the level of noise in the rooms. Reflecting that he could do no worse meeting people on his own, he broke away from his party at the first opportunity.
He accepted a drink from a liveried servant, then found a quiet spot where he could sip it and watch the other guests. Here and there around the perimeter of the room in which he found himself, other unattached guests did the same. One man in particular appeared to be watching him. To test this theory, Archie moved out of his line of sight. After a few moments he saw the man again, so he followed him out of the corner of his eye. When it appeared the man was heading his way, Archie again moved unobtrusively to another part of the room. He couldn't say why he was avoiding the man. Perhaps the fellow only wanted a word. Like Archie's, the man's attire lacked ostentation and he may have presumed from it that they had something in common. Still, the thought of pursuit made Archie uncomfortable. He slipped out of the room altogether.
The conversation next door was livelier, the ratio of men to women roughly equal, with few unattached people of either gender. He circulated among the crowd until his ear caught a familiar cadence and he turned to see where the voice was coming from. Only a few feet away he saw her - the actress Kitty Cobham. She was talking to a tall young man of foppish dress and demeanor. Although she stood with her back to Archie, she turned as if she felt his stare and met his glance.
Archie stepped forward and bowed. “Miss Cobham. Pray do not let me intrude. I only wish to pay my respects. Do you remember me?”
Kitty must indeed have remembered him, for she paled noticeably, the shock extending to her eyes and mouth before she mastered her expression. She turned back to her young man and said, “Please excuse me, Mr. Lethbridge. I must have a word with an old friend.”
“Only if you promise to be here when I return,” Lethbridge replied. He made a deep bow to Kitty, nodded to Archie and left them.
“I'm sorry, Miss Cobham,” Archie said. “I didn't mean to send your companion away.”
“Mr. Kennedy. It is Mr. Kennedy, isn't it?”
“Archie Kennedy, Ma'am. Of H.M.S. Indefatigable.” Perhaps this was not such a good idea after all.
“I remember you well, Mr. Kennedy. And don't worry about The Honorable Hugh Lethbridge. He'll be back, I can assure you, whether I wish him to or not, if you know what I mean.” To Archie's surprise, Kitty took his arm and began to stroll through the crowd with him, much as she had strolled with Horatio when he had first known her. The same thought must have occurred to her because she said, “Tell me, Mr. Kennedy, is Mr. Hornblower with you?”
“Horatio is at sea, along with Captain Sir Edward Pellew and the others of Indefatigable. I am temporarily grounded, as it were.”
“I wondered if you might be. You look - very handsome tonight.”
In her eyes, as well as in the pause that lasted just a fraction of a second too long, he read what she had really meant to say. “You mean I look unwell,” he corrected her gently.
“That's not for me to say, Mr. Kennedy. You were ailing when I first met you, if you recall. In truth I have never seen you looking any other way.”
“Fair enough. I am recuperating from an illness,” Archie admitted. “It's a long story. I would rather not go into it now.”
“Of course, Mr. Kennedy. I quite understand.”
“Please, Miss Cobham. Won't you call me Archie?”
“Only if you call me Kitty.”
Archie smiled. He could not have said why he felt so ridiculously happy all of a sudden. Kitty smiled back at him. Unlike his, her smile was tentative.
“I'm afraid I owe you an apology, Archie.”
“I cannot think why.”
“Hush, now.” She tapped his sleeve once with her closed fan. “Let me finish while I still have the nerve. I did you a disservice, Archie, when you were imprisoned in Spain -”
“You didn't -”
She tapped him again. “Believe me, I did. I had it in my power to alleviate your suffering and I did nothing. The worst of it is I did it for a very selfish reason. You see, Archie, you recognized me. And you were so nearly out of your head with fever that I was afraid you would give me away to our captors. And me with poor Mr. Hornblower's dispatches concealed in my underwear! Had they been found I would have been executed for treason, as would Horatio. So I stayed away when I could have comforted you. Instead of sitting with you and wiping your fevered brow, instead of whispering words of encouragement or reciting poetry, which I think you would have liked very much, I hid myself from you. And then, when you began to feel a little better, I took Horatio away from you and treated him to long, leisurely walks in the sunshine, when I should have begged Don Massaredo to give you the benefit of the same small freedom. I wonder how you can smile at me, Archie. In your shoes I should hate the very sight of me.”
“I never hated you, Kitty. I'll admit I envied Horatio his walks in the sun with a beautiful lady, but I was far too weak to take part even if Don Massaredo had been willing.”
“It's very sweet of you to say so, Archie.”
“That makes me feel even worse. If you only knew how I begrudged Horatio the time he spent with you. I could see that you meant a great deal to him. I was jealous. He would not leave your side, even when you were delirious and did not even know he was there. I am a horrible person, Archie. To envy a sick man like that … It was unforgivable.”
“There's nothing to forgive,” he began, but seeing the look of protest and pain on her face he relented. “I forgive you,” he said softly.
Kitty looked into his eyes. “It's more than I deserve, Archie, but I thank you for that from the bottom of my heart.” She laughed awkwardly and dabbed at the corner of her eye. “Look, what a silly goose I am. You've gone and made me cry.”
“I'm sorry,” he said, helpless in the face of feminine tears.
“You're a beautiful person, Archie Kennedy. Oh, I don't mean on the outside, though heaven knows you've no cause for complaint on that score. I mean you're beautiful inside, where it matters. Don't ever lose that, Archie. Promise me you won't.”
Taken aback, he whispered, “I promise.”
Then, without warning, Kitty kissed him on the cheek. “That's for being so kind and understanding. You're very special. I only wish I had realized it sooner, instead of thinking you were like Hunter and the others. I should have known. If you had been like all the rest, Horatio would not have had you for a friend. Now, I really must get back to poor Mr. Lethbridge. Whatever will he think of me?”
She broke away from him. Fled, actually. He realized only after she had rejoined her young swain that he had not inquired whether she was currently treading the boards upon the London stage, and if he might call on her some night if he happened to be at the theater. But then, given her declarations here tonight, she would probably be too embarrassed to receive him.
“You have scored the coup of the evening, mon ami,” said a French-accented male voice at his elbow. Turning, Archie saw the plain-clothed man he had been avoiding earlier. The man continued, “She is lovely, is she not? For an actress who is no longer young.”
“Miss Cobham is a former acquaintance,” he replied a little stiffly, bristling at the slight to a brave and generous woman.
“You are, perhaps, just the tiniest bit smitten with her, oui?”
“Not at all.”
“It is rumored that Lord Treviston likes to include among his distinguished guests a small number who are not all they should be. That actress is obviously one of them. Perhaps you are another?”
“That is an insult, Sir,” Archie said without raising his voice. For some reason, the hairs on the back of his neck prickled, sending a most unpleasant sensation down the length of his spine.
The man smiled with his mouth closed, as if hiding bad teeth, although when he spoke they looked no worse than many another man's. The smirk did not extend to his eyes, however; they watched Archie with the cold unblinking stare of a viper.
“Oh, no insult was intended, I assure you. For that matter, I, myself, might be among the undesirables here tonight. Do you not think so?”
Was the man being deliberately provocative? Archie did not know what to make of him. Taking a good look at him for the first time, Archie wondered where he had seen the man before, for he was sure that the man was no stranger. It was hard to place him. Other than the plain, dark clothing that seemed to be his own small gesture of defiance against a society that encouraged preening coxcombs, nothing about him would attract anyone's notice, as if he had set out deliberately to blend into the background. The man's cold gray eyes bored into Archie with almost insolent intimacy, an insult that went much deeper than his words. Archie felt that gaze as a wet, icy touch upon his heart and mind that chilled him to his very soul.
Remember me. The words reverberated in Archie's head even though no actual words had been spoken. Like a highwayman's victim held at pistol point on a deserted stretch of road, Archie stood immobile in the middle of the room, pinned there by that rude stare. At last the man withdrew. Far from affording him relief, Archie felt as if a knife were passing slowly through his flesh. Searing pain replaced the initial numbing shock, as when hot blood erupts from a wound in the knife's wake. A blackness pressed upon the outer edges of his vision. No! He would not have a fit in the middle of Lord Treviston's drawing room. He would not!
Cool air fanned his face. If not for the throbbing in his head he might have basked in the blessed relief of it. He focused finally upon the source of that breeze: a lady's fan in vigorous motion just inches from his nose. Behind it, almost lost in the blur, a familiar face appeared, a welcome smile upon it.
“There, now. I daresay that's brought you around. The Honorable Mr. Lethbridge has gone in search of your father. Lord Shelburne, is it? You never said you were a lord's son. I should definitely have treated you with more respect.”
“Kitty,” he whispered.
“Rest easy, Archie. Everything is all right.”
“Did I - have a fit?”
“A fit! No, I don't think so. I didn't see it happen, but I think you fainted.”
That was only marginally less embarrassing. He had attracted a small crowd, he saw as he looked beyond Kitty. They were beginning to disperse, no doubt losing interest now that he had revived. Taking stock of his surroundings, he noticed that he was seated in a chair near an open window. Had someone carried him here? So long as it was not the man in black. Archie shuddered involuntarily.
“Are you cold, Archie? Would you like to move away from the window?”
“No. The air feels good. Thank you, Kitty, for looking after me.”
“Don't mention it. It's the least I could do.” She leaned closer to his ear and murmured, “These gentry are a pretty useless bunch, if you ask me. I think they would have left you on the floor to wake up in your own good time. Probably thought you were dead drunk.”
They would have at that, he reflected, or at least those who knew his brother Sidwell either in person or by reputation. Now he would share in that reputation, especially if he had been holding a glass when he went down.
A small commotion to his right signaled the arrival of Lady Frances and his father. Archie held Kitty's hand, afraid that she would otherwise flee to avoid introductions to more of the useless gentry. He felt inordinately proud of her and wanted his family to know her as he did. Rising to his feet he found that he required her arm to steady him. There was no way she could escape now.
“Archie!” Lady Frances and his father said in unison.
“I'm all right. Thanks to Miss Cobham. Father, Lady Frances, may I present Katherine Cobham, whom I have known since my imprisonment in Spain. Kitty, this is my father, Sir Emlyn Kennedy, Lord Shelburne, and my stepmother, Lady Frances Kennedy.”
Kitty managed a deep curtsey without relinquishing her hold on Archie, although a slight tremor did pass from her arm to his. Archie withheld a chuckle. Were she not the consummate actress, she would be needing his support.
“You have our gratitude, Miss Cobham,” Sir Emlyn said. “You knew Archie in Spain? He has not spoken to us of that time in his life. I assumed because it was too painful.”
“Oh, it was,” Kitty quickly assured him with a glance at Archie. “In fact, he was almost delirious the first time I saw him. Even so, the young scamp recognized me. Nearly cost me my skin, he did. I was impersonating a duchess at the time,” she confided. “I could have been shot for a spy.”
“Is that so!” Sir Emlyn replied, glancing at Archie in turn.
Archie felt his color rise. Why had he mentioned Spain? Kitty's conversation had taken a decidedly injudicious turn. Unfortunately, his father would not know when Kitty was teasing. For that matter, neither did he.
“Oh, but you mustn't think badly of him, your Lordship. In fact, your son is blessed with uncommon valor. He is the most noble young man I have ever met.”
“Absolutely. Only imagine: Acting Leftenant Hornblower gave his word that he and his men would return to serve out their prison term, if the Don would release them to help save a ship that was foundering on a reef. Well, the Don let them go, probably against his better judgment. They saved the survivors of the wreck and were picked up by none other than their own ship, the Indefatigable.
“Now, if you found yourself rescued by your own ship, my Lord, wouldn't you be tempted to remain? Why go back to prison? Captain Sir Edward Pellew informed the men that they were not bound by Mr. Hornblower's promise and that he would think no less of any who elected to stay. Who do you think was the first to speak up to honor Mr. Hornblower's parole?” Kitty moved her hand from Archie's forearm to his shoulder. “None other than the one who had been in captivity the longest and who had suffered the most at his gaolers' hands. Our dear, brave, honorable Archie.”
Sir Emlyn looked from Kitty to Archie with a trace of skepticism on his handsome face. Turning back to Kitty he said, “Might one ask how you happen to know all this, Miss Cobham?”
“Why, Sir Emlyn, I was there! I was a passenger on the very ship that broke apart on the Devil's Teeth, as that reef was so aptly known. This lovely young man was among my rescuers. And him barely risen from his sickbed, too. You can be very proud of him, my Lord and Lady.”
“You are full of surprises, Archie, my boy,” Sir Emlyn said warily. His expression said what good breeding would not let him voice in public, namely, that finding Archie arm-in-arm with an actress old enough to be his mother ranked high among those surprises.
Kitty's theatrical experience no doubt allowed her to read as much in a look or a gesture as in words. She leaned forward as if to share a confidence. “Won't you take our gallant young hero off my hands, your Lordship? You see, I've been holding him up for a while and he's getting heavy.”
Four faces brimming with anticipation greeted Archie at the breakfast table. By coming down late he had hoped to find everyone finished eating and gone about their daily activities, but it was obvious from the detritus of breakfast dishes surrounding them that they had lingered until he should appear.
Last night he had avoided explanations by feigning sleep in the carriage going home. On second thought, he had no recollection of the ride home beyond the moment when Lady Frances took her seat beside him, so maybe he really had fallen asleep. Now, in the light of a new day, there would be no avoiding awkward questions.
Young Letty, never one to stand on ceremony, spoke before he had even fully entered the room. “Oh, Archie! Mama and Step-Papa have just been telling us how they found you in the arms of an actress at Lord Treviston's party. We shall give you no rest until you tell us all the details.”
“There's nothing much to tell,” he said, avoiding four pairs of eyes as he helped himself to eggs and toast from the sideboard and took his place at the table. “I felt a bit lightheaded. Miss Cobham assisted me to a chair and sent Hugh Lethbridge to find Sir Emlyn.”
“The Honorable Hugh Lethbridge?” Lavinia said. “Miranda Halburton's Hugh Lethbridge?”
“He may be anyone's Mr. Lethbridge, for all I know,” Archie replied. “He and Miss Cobham appeared to be together.”
“Poor Miranda,” Letty giggled. “She fancies herself in love with The Horrible. Does she not, Lavinia?”
“It is only a fancy, mind. Much as she would like to consummate it, their affair remains unrequited.”
“In other words,” Letty informed Archie, “The Horrible does not even know she exists.”
“Poor Miranda,” Archie said softly. “Or should I say poor Hugh?”
Sir Emlyn emitted a bark of laughter. “Poor Hugh! Oh, I say, that is choice. Thank you for that, Archie.”
Archie paused in buttering a piece of toast. Was that sarcasm? Or did his father believe that Archie had gleaned some inside knowledge in the few moments he and Hugh had been together? The safest comment in either case seemed to be no comment at all. He bit into his toast and tried to steel himself against the next volley.
“So you more or less fainted into Miss Cobham's arms, is that it?” his father persisted. For some reason, he sounded very like Captain Pellew when the captain had a mind to tease information out of an unsuspecting subordinate, as Archie well knew from experience.
He swallowed and put down his toast. This was one breakfast that would be eaten cold, if at all. “I don't rightly know how it happened, Sir. I was not with Miss Cobham when I - when I fainted. I had spoken to her briefly earlier, and when I regained my senses, there she was again.”
“Hush, Letty,” said her sister. “I for one should have been mortified to fall senseless to the floor of Lord Treviston's drawing room.”
“The comforting thing about it,” said Archie, “is that when one is senseless, it ceases to matter at all. It's waking up that poses difficulties.”
“Tell me something, Archie,” his father said. “How much of that story Miss Cobham told us is true? I am forced to ask, you see, because you have told us nothing of your time in Spain. The letter you sent after your release said only that you had been in prison. It said nothing about meeting actresses and saving survivors of shipwreck.”
“Everything she said is true, Father.” It wasn't easy, because they were all watching him, but Archie forced himself to face his father as he spoke. “I was alone in my prison cell in El Ferrol for close to two years. The others arrived all at one time, after Mr. Hornblower sailed a prize ship into the midst of the Spanish fleet. Miss Cobham was a passenger on that ship. I learned later that she had been in Italy, then Gibraltar, and was trying to make her way back to England posing as the Duchess of Wharfedale. Everyone else thought she really was a duchess, but I recognized her. I had seen her on stage in Drury Lane. She avoided me from the moment she realized I knew her, but I told Horatio. I couldn't let him go on calling her your Grace when I knew she was acting a part. I didn't know at the time that she was hiding his dispatches from the dons.
“Don Massaredo put Kitty - Miss Cobham - on a ship bound for a neutral port, but it turned back at the sight of enemy ships and foundered on the reef near El Ferrol. Horatio did offer to rescue the shipwreck survivors, and he did give his word that all his men would return. I did nothing especially noteworthy during that mission. I suspect they let me come along mainly as ballast, because I was still too weak to take an active part. Nor was there anything particularly heroic about my offer to return with Horatio. Captain Pellew gave me such a cold reception that I could not get off the Indy fast enough. I'm sorry to disappoint you, but there it is.”
Archie looked down. He aimlessly pushed cold egg around his plate with his fork, unable to banish the mental image of Pellew embracing Hornblower with joy and amazement at his return and ignoring Archie altogether. Until this moment he had forgotten how very much it had hurt to be thus slighted after an absence of more than two years. From the captain's reaction one would have thought Archie had never been away. Would it have cost him too dearly to acknowledge Archie with a smile and a “Welcome back”? Or had prison so changed Archie that Pellew did not immediately recognize him? Maybe he had simply forgotten that Archie Kennedy ever existed.
A murmur of voices at the other end of the table intruded upon his thoughts. Lady Frances was speaking.
“Now would be a good time for you to attend to your correspondence, Ladies. I'm sure you have at least one invitation to answer. If not, you might perhaps communicate with some of your friends or even write your Aunt Hortense a letter. You know how she loves to hear from you.”
“Oh, there is no hurry, Mama. We can attend to that later,” Letty said.
“What Mama is trying to say, Letty, is that she and Sir Emlyn wish to speak with Archie. And we are in the way.” Lavinia rose at her place and stared meaningfully at her sister.
“Thank you, Lavinia,” Lady Frances said. “Laetitia?”
“Yes, Mama.” She, too, rose from her place and silently followed her sister from the room.
“Close the door behind you, Letty, dear.” A moment after Letty did so, Lady Frances came around to sit beside Archie. Sir Emlyn likewise left his place and took a chair opposite.
Lady Frances gently placed her hand over Archie's to still its motion, then took the fork out of his hand and set it beside his plate. “Archie, tell me. Why is it so difficult for you to accept praise? Do you really think so little of yourself that you must negate every good thing anyone says about you?”
“Is that what you think I'm doing?” He looked at her, heedless of the turmoil she would read in his eyes.
“Are you not? Last night Miss Cobham called you heroic, gallant, brave, noble and honorable. Not words to be taken - or bestowed - lightly. This morning you hasten to portray yourself in the worst possible light, almost as if you are afraid we might believe Miss Cobham and think well of you.”
Archie was quiet for a few seconds, then he said, “I would not want you to form your opinion of me without hearing both sides.”
“I would hope that none of us would judge you without hearing all sides. But you must agree, Archie, that you have given us little to go on. We have but a vague picture of that time in your life, and no idea at all of why you may have acted or failed to act in any situation. Do you not trust your family to come to a right and just conclusion once we have heard all the facts?”
“You don't know what you're asking,” he whispered.
“I know I'm not your mother, Archie, and perhaps you feel that I am intruding in matters that do not concern me. Perhaps you would prefer to speak of these things with your father alone.”
“You have given me no cause to resent your intercession, Lady Frances,” he hastened to reassure her, and perhaps in the process to reassure himself. “Rather the opposite. I only fear that once you have heard what I have to tell, you will turn away from me in disgust. I value your good opinion of me and would not willingly see it forfeit. Indeed, I could not bear to lose it.”
Lady Frances squeezed his hand. “I cannot speak for your father, but I can promise to hear you objectively. Unless it is not objectivity that you want? Tell me, Archie. Are you waiting until you find someone who is fiercely partisan in your favor?”
“I think I have already found such a person,” he said shyly. Despite her protestations of objectivity, he did not doubt for a moment that Lady Frances was on his side. He would have liked to believe that his father was also, but despite their recent rapprochement he could not be sure. It might have helped if Sir Emlyn had said something to reassure him, instead of brooding silently across the table, as if he knew what Archie would say before he said it and disapproved of him already.
Lady Frances gave him a smile of encouragement. After another agonizing minute of silence, Archie took a deep breath, released it and began to speak.
“If you wonder at my self-loathing, look no further than how I came to be imprisoned. We were to board a French ship, the Papillon, in a night action called a cutting out, where we were to separate her from the rest of the French fleet. On the way over I had a fit in the jollyboat. My good friend Horatio Hornblower had to silence me in the only way he could, by cracking my skull with the tiller, for fear I would jeopardize the entire mission. I was still unconscious when they boarded, so they left me behind. During the action someone cut the boat adrift. I awoke with a monstrous headache and no supplies. I don't know how much time had passed. It was daylight, but it could as easily have been the next day or even the day after that. I tried to make land, but was spotted by a French frigate and hauled aboard.
“The French captain interrogated me. It was a lost cause, for I did not understand his French and he did not understand my English. They threw me in the brig until they could transfer me ashore, where I was taken to a military prison. There others interrogated me, more forcefully, which brought on another fit. The fit must have convinced them that further interrogation would be useless, because they tossed me into a cell and more or less forgot about me.
“Some time later (I am not clear on time because I drifted in and out of consciousness, due no doubt to the blow I had from Horatio) I was summoned before the prison's commandant. He looked me over, then ordered me cleaned up and returned to him. At first I took this to be a token of his humanity, a sign that henceforth I would be treated in a manner appropriate to my rank and station. I was mistaken.”
Archie paused and looked at his stepmother. “I'm sorry, Lady Frances, but I must withhold the details. Not only are they painful to remember, but I would not speak of them in front of a lady.”
“If you recall, Archie, my first husband was a naval officer. There is little of man's inhumanity that has not reached my ears at one time or another. You will not shock me.”
Archie bit his lip, then said, “Perhaps not, but his treatment of me was degrading. I have spent too many nights trying to forget the indignities I suffered. I will not speak of them. Do not ask me to.”
“If you do not tell us,” his father spoke up for the first time, “we shall have no recourse but to rely upon our imaginations, which may in fact be worse than the truth.”
“You cannot imagine anything worse than the truth,” Archie said beneath his breath. This part of his narrative would be the real test of their compassion. If they could accept him after this, they might be willing to accept him in spite of everything. Maybe even in spite of Simpson, although he would never willingly parade that element of his past for their inspection. No matter what set of circumstances might force his hand. He went on with his story:
“I became a regular visitor to the commandant's rooms. Though his door always had a guard on the outside, the windows had no bars. He would give me wine laced with laudanum to drink, to relax me so I wouldn't fight him. I switched our goblets one night without his notice, and after he fell asleep I went out the window. I'll never know how far I might have gotten. In the dark I misjudged the drop, landed hard and wrenched my knee. The guards collared me, beat me senseless, then threw me in my cell. The sun rose and set several times before anyone darkened my door. I began to think they had decided to starve me to death, then the guards came back and once again escorted me to the commandant. He informed me that I had displeased him and would be transferred to another prison.”
He saw no change in their expressions. Had they read between the lines, or would realization dawn only later? Either way, would they understand that as a prisoner he had had no choice but to submit? Ignoring the first twinges of a headache, he pressed on:
“The second prison was farther down the French coast. I don't know how many miles, only that it took almost a week to make the journey and they made me walk every step of the way despite the pain in my knee, with shackles on my hands and feet. No matter how uncomfortable I felt, I thanked God daily for delivering me from my previous situation. Still, I yearned to be free, especially when we camped for the night under the stars and I looked up and recognized constellations we use in navigation at sea. I made my second attempt at escape on the journey, when my guards, who had fortified themselves against the evening chill with a bottle of wine and another of brandy, fell asleep over the campfire. I was still shackled, so I made poor time, but I did taste a sort of freedom for a little while. I came to grief finally on the outskirts of a village when a farmer saw my chains and raised the alarm.”
He paused to raise his teacup to his lips. Though the liquid was tepid verging on cold, it soothed his dry mouth and he drained the cup before resuming. His stepmother unobtrusively refilled it from the pot.
“After that the guards did not trust me to stop for any length of time. They marched me steadily, day and night, letting me rest for only fifteen-to-twenty minutes at a time. The extra hardship did not affect them; they could doze off and let their horses keep the pace. I was forced to carry on as best I could or be dragged in the dirt behind them. We finally reached the prison and I underwent another round of interrogations and floggings, having my sleep interrupted and meals withheld. It went on and on - I have no idea for how long, for time seemed to have stopped altogether. I almost ceased to care. Perhaps my gaolers sensed the change in me. Whatever the reason, the tortures stopped. They left me in my cell, where I lay staring at the ceiling or at the walls, convinced that I had been abandoned and could look forward to nothing but death.
“My gaolers must have thought I was dying, because they sent their priest to visit me. I awoke one day to find him praying over me in French. I understood a word here and there, and surprised him by repeating them after him. He took this as a sign from heaven, I suppose, for he began to make efforts to see that I received better care. They moved me to a makeshift hospital room, and someone tended to the wounds caused by my shackles and by the repeated floggings. I hid my returning strength from them as best I could, for I knew they would confine me to my cell again as soon as I recovered.
“My opportunity came at last. I had not been free of fits during this time, so the guard outside my door was not unduly disturbed when he heard me thrashing and moaning. He did leave his post, as I had hoped he would, and came in to check on me. I was ready for him and knocked him out with the bottom rung of a chair, which I had painstakingly loosened and removed when I was alone. I made it to the courtyard before they recaptured me. For my pains, my French hosts turned me over to their Spanish allies.
“Don Massaredo was courteous at first, but wary. The French had informed him of my escape attempts. He gave me to understand that my actions would determine how he treated me. If I behaved like a gentleman, he would grant me small freedoms. If not, he claimed he could teach his French allies a thing or two about cruelty and warned me not put him to the test. For more than a year I did behave myself. I was so far from England now that even if I escaped it seemed almost inconceivable that I should ever reach home. So I became a model prisoner, because I saw no sense in suffering if I could wait out the war as a guest of the Spanish king and queen.
“True to his word, the don rewarded my obedience. He allowed me out into the courtyard to take the air and exercise. Later he provided me with books to occupy my mind. Eventually he invited me to sup with him and even conversed with me as if we were equals. I should have been content with this; after all, it was by far the most humane treatment I had received at the hands of Britain's enemies. And I was grateful. Do not for a moment think I didn't appreciate the improvement in my situation. But it was still a prison. At the end of every day I was still locked in a cell, dependent upon my gaolers for the basic necessities. The privileges they had granted me they could withhold again at will, with no reason given. I was not free.
“So it should not surprise you that I tried again to escape. I did not plan it. The opportunity presented itself and I took it. One day Don Massaredo let me walk on the beach. He had posted guards at intervals to intercept me if I attempted anything foolish. They never expected me to walk directly into the sea. They and I knew that I could get nowhere by swimming, so at first they did not even follow me. I had it in mind to go as far as I could and then let the sea take me. By the time the guards realized what I was doing, they had to get a boat to go after me.
“Don Massaredo was beside himself. When I had dried out, he informed me that henceforth my privileges were revoked and would not be returned to me no matter how well I behaved. As far as he was concerned, I could rot in my cell until I died or the war ended, whichever came first.
“I had not realized how much I had come to depend upon those privileges. Now that they were denied me, I had nothing to do. Boredom quickly turned to despair.”
Archie felt his voice and spirit fading and took another swallow of tea. Beside him, his stepmother gently massaged the tautness out of his shoulders and neck. He was almost done. If only he could hold out until the end…
“Once a week my guards let me have the materials necessary to shave myself. They watched me perform this procedure, no doubt having been warned that I was wily and might attempt to hide the razor to use as a weapon later. In truth, I hadn't considered using it as such, for my experience with the chair rung had taught me that I would not get far by incapacitating one man among so many. It occurred to me, however, that I might end my misery in another way. If I could cut myself deeply enough, at a place were the veins were near the surface, I might bleed to death before the guards realized what was happening.
“I let several weeks go by after coming to this decision. Despite my misery, I had serious doubts about my ability to perform the deed. It would be painful, and messy, and if I did not succeed I would be even more miserable for certain sure. And then one day I stopped thinking and did it. I took the razor in hand and before the guards could stop me I had cut both my wrists.
“Don Massaredo did not even bother to scold me. He ordered my wrists bandaged, then he put me in an oubliette for a month.” Archie glanced at his father and stepmother to see if they understood the term. Just in case they didn't, he explained. “It was a hole in the ground, with no room to stand up or to lie down. An iron grating across the opening let in daylight, fresh air, and whatever the weather or the guards chose to rain down on me. By the time the don returned me to my cell, I had lost the use of my legs and my mind was nearly gone. And then Horatio was thrown into the same cell with me.
“Seeing him should have given me hope but it had rather the opposite effect. He and Mr. Hunter, a midshipman I had not met before, expressed their intention to escape, but Horatio would not go without me and Mr. Hunter argued that I would hold them back. Mr. Hunter was right, of course, but Horatio would have none of it. I could see the division between them growing as the rest of the men formed into camps in support of one or the other. There would be mutiny before long, and it appeared I would be the cause of it. I saw only one solution. I was already weak; it would take very little to finish the job. I stopped eating. Horatio never noticed, for all that he was supposed to be my friend. Hunter did notice, and helped himself to my rations. It was only when I came very near the brink that Horatio saw what was happening and convinced Don Massaredo to let him nurse me back to health. After I had twice rejected the don's hospitality, I am surprised he gave his consent. Deep down I think he was not as hard a man as he would have had me believe.
“Much of what followed you have already heard from Miss Cobham. After she sailed for a neutral port, Hunter led the men in an escape attempt. Horatio and I should not have followed, for we both knew it was hopeless from the start. But they were our shipmates. We must stand or fall together. Hunter took a musket ball in the leg. Horatio accepted responsibility for the uprising and spent a fortnight in the oubliette, although I'm sure the don knew who was really to blame. I suppose Horatio felt it necessary to play the martyr in order to redeem himself in his own and the men's eyes. And the don, who showed a marked affection for Horatio, allowed him this means to save face. Meanwhile, Hunter's care was left to me. We lost Mr. Hunter to the sea at the Devil's Teeth. The rest you know.”
Sir Emlyn and Lady Frances were quiet, no doubt still taking it all in. Were it not for the headache that had been gathering momentum as he spoke, Archie might have put his head down upon the table and gone to sleep, he was so weary. He hung his head and prayed for any deliverance from the throbbing. Even a fit would be a welcome diversion.
He felt his father's eyes on him and looked up.
“Archie, I had no idea. Miss Cobham was right. You are very brave. I could not have survived half the adversity you did.”
“Where is the valor in three failed suicide attempts?”
“Few people would have the courage to try even once.”
Archie's head ached so fiercely he could barely see the other side of the table. He squinted, trying to focus on his father's face. All else was a blur.
“At one time, when Don Massaredo and I were still on cordial terms, he offered to ransom me. You never answered his letters.”
“I received no letters. Are you certain he sent them?”
“I gave him explicit addresses for here, Shelburne House, and Lords, in case the first two should miss you. How could they all fail?”
“We were at war. If the letters all went at one time - I don't know, Archie. You would have a better idea than I do of the perils that might cause a mail packet to go astray.”
“I thought - I feared you had received them and wanted no part of me. How else would I have found the strength to try and take my life?”
Sir Emlyn's response delayed just long enough to make Archie fear he had offended him.
“I suppose I deserve that, Archie. You could not have known it was not true. Naturally you would think I had rejected you.”
“Enough. Both of you,” Lady Frances spoke up. “Before there are further recriminations, I think we can agree that each of you reacted as his circumstances allowed. And this poor lad has not had his breakfast. I think it is time we left him to it. Archie, I will have cook prepare something fresh for you. After all this time those eggs will not be fit to eat.” Rising to take her leave, she added, “I think you will find that if you eat something, that headache will go away.”
Startled, Archie looked at her. “How - how can you tell?”
“That you have a headache? My dear boy, if you were any easier to read you would not need speech at all.” She caressed his hair, then toyed with the ribbon at his nape. “Let me know when you are ready to part with this.”
“Never fear, Archie.” Sir Emlyn paused on his way out of the room. “Frances cuts my hair - and does a damn fine job of it. Do it, Son. You'll look and feel more like one of us.”
Archie's, “Aye aye, Sir,” was out of his mouth before he had a chance to think, the well-trained sailor responding to a direct command.
The girls did not see their stepbrother again until the midday meal. He had stayed so long at breakfast, first in conversation with their mother and Sir Emlyn, and then having his own breakfast, that they had tired of watching the door to see when he would emerge. Their mother had then closeted herself with him to cut his hair, and before they could intercept him to ask if he would walk out with them later, they learned that a headache had sent him back to bed.
When he appeared at last for luncheon, looking somewhat self-conscious without his queue, both girls hastened to tell him how well he looked without it. As far as Lavinia was concerned, he looked quite devastatingly handsome either way. Their mother had left his hair long enough overall that only from the back and sides could one see that the queue was even gone. Once relieved of its weight, his hair showed a slight tendency to curl that was not at all displeasing.
“Letty and I plan to stroll in the park after luncheon. We hope that you will join us.”
“Do go, Archie,” her mother advised. “You will feel better after taking the air and a bit of exercise. Ladies, I trust I need not remind you to go gently.”
“No, Mama,” both girls chorused.
Once away from the house, Laetitia grinned at Archie. “Poor Mama. She fears we will comport ourselves like little hoydens the moment we are out of her sight.”
“I rather doubt that,” he answered diplomatically. “I'm sure she has every faith that you will behave in as circumspect and ladylike a manner in public as you do in private.”
Beside him, her arm linked in his, Lavinia laughed. “You are too kind, Brother. Shall I tell you what Mama's admonition really means? She fears that Letty and I shall set such a furious pace that we shall tire you out. And that you will be too polite to tell us so.”
Archie blushed. “There may be some truth in that.”
“You must tell us if we walk too quickly, Archie,” Letty said. “Or if you need to stop and rest. Once we reach the park there will be benches handy should you wish to sit for a while.”
“It must be tedious for you, walking out with an invalid.”
“You are not an invalid,” said Lavinia, surprised to hear herself sounding so like her mother. “You are convalescing. And we are so delighted to have you all to ourselves for a change, we shall be perfectly content to go however slowly you like.”
“It's about time you walked out with us,” her sister added. “We have waited for ever so long to show you off to our friends.”
“I shall be pleased to meet your friends,” Archie replied evenly. The look on his face, by contrast, spoke of pure alarm.
Lavinia took pity on him. “Of course, we may see no one at all in the park. We have not arranged to meet anyone.”
“It's too bad Miranda is in Norfolk instead of London,” Letty grinned evilly at her sister, “or you could tell her that Horrible Hugh was out with an actress yesterday evening.”
“I imagine she will find out soon enough, for if we do not tell her someone else will.”
“We are not always so horrible, Archie. ” Letty skipped gleefully ahead and sang back at him, “Sometimes we are even worse!”
“Pay her no mind, Archie. She is such a child.”
Archie's smile was pained, and Lavinia unobtrusively slowed her pace to accommodate him. Passersby would see a lady and a gentleman walking arm-in-arm as was customary. Only he and she knew how heavily he depended upon her for support. She almost inquired about his headache, then thought better of it. He would not like to be reminded of yet another frailty, especially one he believed no one could see.
They entered the park through one of a pair of ornate wrought iron gates and proceeded along a path that wound in and out of the shrubbery. It was not one of London's larger parks, with acre upon acre of land, ponds and outbuildings, but a private enclosure close to home that provided an oasis of greenery away from the bustle of carriages and pedestrians in the street. On sunny days the trees provided welcome shade, while in all seasons but winter the variety of plantings delighted the senses with a potpourri of scents and a kaleidoscope of colors. It was a place of peace and beauty. Surely if anything could revive her stepbrother's flagging spirits and precarious health, this would.
They had not gone far when Letty, whose impatience with their pace was evident in the distance she allowed herself to put between them, returned and said brightly, “Someone has erected a pavilion up ahead. It is rather a small one, and I fancy I saw only one person inside. Shall we go and have a look?”
“Whoever it is will hardly welcome gawkers,” Lavinia said.
“Well, he cannot stop us passing by,” Letty answered. “After all, it lies but a few steps beyond the pavement.”
“What do you suppose it's for? We have no sun today, so it cannot be for shade.”
“Perhaps he anticipates rain. Can't we go a little faster? Archie?”
“Feel free to run ahead. I'll catch up.”
“Yes.” Lavinia tightened her grip on his arm. “You run on. Archie and I will come by-and-by.”
“You need not hold back on my account,” Archie said quietly. Letty had hurried off, leaving her sister and stepbrother to manage as they would.
Lavinia made a small sound of disagreement. “I am not a child, to go running wild on a whim. I much prefer walking with you. I mean that sincerely, Archie, in case you doubt me.”
He looked as though he did indeed doubt her, but said nothing. Not that she expected he would.
They came upon the pavilion beyond a profusion of rhododendrons. As Letty had indicated, it was small. Nor was it fancy, just four wooden poles surmounted by a square of white sailcloth. Its sole occupant stood before an easel, working on a painting. Letty stood silently just off the path, waiting for them.
“An artist!” Lavinia exclaimed rather too loudly, for the man in the pavilion turned around to stare at them. “Oh, I am so sorry. Pray do not let us disturb you, Sir.”
The man stepped back from his easel and bowed theatrically. “You do not disturb me in the least, Mademoiselle.”
Letty advanced a few steps. “May we see what you are painting?”
“Forgive my sister, Sir. She is too bold.”
“Not at all. I would be honored to show her - to show all of you - my poor efforts.” He stepped aside to grant them access.
Laetitia, whose entire acquaintance with art revolved around some drawing lessons both girls had endured in childhood, showed no hesitation in sharing her limited knowledge. “It's quite good. But it's so - what is the word I want? Tranquil. Yes, that's it. It has no movement. In my opinion your scene needs people. Otherwise, it's just a garden.”
Before Lavinia could properly express her horror at her sister's outburst, she heard the artist agree with her.
“Yes, I do believe you're right. The scene is static. No wonder I have labored over it without the slightest satisfaction. It needs a pair of lovely young ladies sitting or walking among the rhododendrons, with perhaps a puppy or a kitten frolicking at their feet. What say you, Mr. Kennedy?”
They all turned to Archie, whose expression was a study in and of itself. He seemed only gradually to understand that they were waiting for him to say something, and it was not until he spoke that Lavinia realized why he looked so startled.
“You have the advantage of me, Sir. Have we met?”
The man's grin was nothing if not wolfish. “Not properly, perhaps. We spoke briefly last night.”
“Last night,” Archie repeated as if in a fog. “Lord Treviston's?”
“Indeed. I believe you were somewhat offended by my remarks about a certain actress.”
“Miss Cobham.” Archie swayed slightly.
“Please forgive my stepbrother, Sir,” Lavinia said, wondering what she should do if Archie were to faint. “He has been unwell of late.”
“I am sorry to hear it.” The man was smiling still, which rather gave the lie to his expression of regret. “Perhaps you would like to be seated, Mr. Kennedy.” He proffered his painter's stool.
“No. Thank you.” Her stepbrother appeared to shake himself free of whatever lethargy had possessed him. He addressed her, “I think we should go, Lavinia, and leave the artist to his work.”
“No, no. Please. What a wretched host I am. Ladies, before you go, may I offer you a token of my esteem? If one of you will agree to sit for me for ten minutes, I will send you home with a lovely sketch of yourself to give to your Mama. Please, ten minutes is all I ask. Surely your stepbrother can wait ten minutes?”
“Oh, please, Archie!” Letty cried. “It will be ever so entertaining. And Mama will be so pleased.”
Archie looked as if he would rather be anywhere but under that pavilion at that precise moment, but faced with Letty's pleading and the fact that the artist had already seated Lavinia on a stool and commenced to draw her portrait, he acquiesced. Ten minutes later, as promised, the artist handed Lavinia the finished sketch.
“Oh, dear,” she said, although she was secretly well pleased. “You have made me look too pretty. I'm afraid it is not like me at all.”
“Don't be silly, Vinia.” Letty looked over her shoulder. “I think it is very like. Don't you, Archie?”
Lavinia took the sketch to Archie, who showed signs of being rooted to the spot. He glanced at it, then at her. “It does resemble you. I think your mother will like it.”
“Perhaps,” said the artist, insinuating himself between them, “if your Mama likes it well enough, she would consider a full portrait in oils? I would not put myself forward except that I am between commissions at present and should like to make good use of my time. If you would care to send me an answer, I am here most days, weather permitting.” He sighed, then added, “I am afraid I must content myself with trees and flowers until such time as I can again paint the flower of young womanhood.”
They accomplished the walk home in silence, the interlude with the artist hanging heavily between them. Archie sensed Lavinia's desire to pepper him with questions in the same way that he sensed the coming of rain, as a palpable tension in the air. Although he could not influence the weather, he discouraged conversation by retreating into a silence sufficiently forbidding that after a few tries Lavinia studiously held her tongue. It was not that he did not wish to talk to her. Far from it. But he needed time to gather his thoughts, without the fog that seemed to have clouded his mind in the artist's presence.
Laetitia had raced ahead of them, so that by the time Archie and Lavinia entered the house, they found Sir Emlyn and Lady Frances in the salon already in possession of the portrait sketch and asking questions.
“Letty tells us you know the artist, Archie,” Lady Frances said as he came into the room. It was clear from the way she addressed him that she held him in some measure responsible for what had happened. His physical weakness aside, his gender and seniority made him the obvious person in charge of the outing. He knew without a word of reproach being spoken that he had failed in his duty.
“My acquaintance with him is, I fear, superficial. I spoke with him briefly at Lord Treviston's last night. So briefly, in fact, that he neglected to tell me his name, as well as the fact that he is an artist.”
“I suppose we can ask Loughlander for a reference,” she replied. “What worries me is that he may turn out to be one of the people Loughlander invites to add an element of excitement or danger to his entertainments.”
“He insinuated as much to me. Right after telling me that Miss Cobham was no better than she should be.” And almost in the same breath that he accused Archie of being no better than either of them.
“Both of you may be overreacting, you know,” Sir Emlyn said. “Do we know anything at all about the man? Anything beyond hearsay and supposition, that is.”
“There's his name at the bottom of the drawing,” Laetitia said, reading the signature. “Janus. It means naught to me.”
“Nor to me,” said her mother. “Archie?”
He bit his lip, shrugged and shook his head.
“I know that look,” his father said ominously. “Out with it, Archie. What are you thinking?”
“This is only supposition, mind. My stepsisters will disagree, but I could not escape the feeling that he was lying in wait for us. He seemed altogether too eager to draw Lavinia, and to recommend himself to Lady Frances for a possible commission.”
“He said he was between commissions,” Lavinia intervened in the artist's defense. She had crossed the room to her mother's side, abandoning Archie in the middle. “That would suggest to me that he relies upon them for his living. I think, were I to find myself in a similar situation, that I should feel quite desperate to secure another. It may be the only thing that stands between him and starvation. For all we know, he has no home to go to. That pavilion may be his only shelter.”
“I disagree,” Archie countered. “For one thing, the park gates are locked at night. He would not be permitted to stay. He must have rooms somewhere, where he can store his materials when he does not need them. I will allow that he may be desperate to secure another commission. His eagerness may have stemmed solely from that consideration. Still, I wonder why he did not tell me last night that he was an artist?”
“Perhaps he intended to tell you, had you spoken with him at greater length.”
“Just as he intended to tell me his name?”
“He may have done.”
“If I may make a suggestion?” Archie made sure he had his father's and stepmother's attention before he continued. “It seems to me that we would not be having this discussion if you did not desire to have Lavinia's portrait painted. In which case, you are under no obligation to hire the first stranger who approaches her in the park. There must be many reputable artists working in London. Any one of your friends who has had a portrait done recently should be able to recommend someone.”
“Archie makes a good point,” Lady Frances said to her husband. “Although the man is clearly talented, we are under no obligation to him. Lavinia did not ask him to sketch her.”
“If it would make you feel better about not using him,” said Archie, warming to his subject, “you could pay him for the work he has done at the same time as you let him know his services will not be required.”
From his place by the window, where he had been looking down to the street, Sir Emlyn chuckled. “I would love to be a fly on the wall when you take up residence at Shelburne House, Son. Sidwell will be quite flummoxed by your practicality.”
Archie ignored the blush he felt creeping into his face and crossed to the window. “May I have a word in private, Sir?”
Sir Emlyn gestured toward the door and followed Archie into the hall, shutting the door behind them. “We can go into the library, or-”
“This will do. I did not wish to alarm the ladies.”
“What is this about, Son?”
Archie kept an eye on the door to make sure it did not open, and lowered his voice lest one of the girls be listening on the other side. “Do you remember the conversation we had about the possibility that someone still might be seeking my death?”
“I do indeed. Are you saying this man -?”
“I cannot be sure, Father. That is the awful thing. When I first noticed him last night, he was watching me. I moved about the room several times to make sure I was not imagining it, and each time I looked up, he stood directly in my line of vision. Then, when he finally caught up with me, I had the strange feeling that he knew me much better than he had any cause to.”
Archie paused. His father listened attentively, making no comment, waiting for Archie to finish.
“This will sound fanciful, I know. Whoever he is, this man exerts an undeniable power over me. It's hard to describe. I was feeling well until I spoke with him, and although he made no overt threat, I felt him as a physical presence in my mind. The moment he turned his back on me I fell,” Archie could not bring himself to admit he had fainted, “as if he had been holding me up and suddenly let go. Again today, as soon as I came into his presence I began to feel ill. I cannot dictate your choice of artist to paint Lavinia's portrait, but I fear for my own well-being if he ever enters this house.”
“You make him sound like some sort of magician,” Sir Emlyn said uneasily. Archie could not tell if his father meant to scoff at the notion; more likely Sir Emlyn was not sure himself. “I can reassure you on one point, however, and that is he will never set foot in this house. Not only for your sake, but for your stepsisters' and stepmother's as well.”
“I am relieved to hear it. Because when you think about it, it is very odd that he should set himself up to paint in our little park. He told me he is there most days. Why there? If he is looking to solicit commissions, would he not fare better in Hyde Park or one of the other large parks? I cannot believe he happened upon ours by chance. Depending upon where he sets himself up within the enclosure, he could be watching this house at any hour of the day. I - I am afraid I may have led him here.”
“I fail to see how. You have not gone out of the house in all the time you've been here.”
Archie shook his head. “I did go out. Three times to your tailors, and last night with you to Lord Treviston's. I was thinking, rather, that I may have led him here from Portsmouth.”
“And he has watched the house ever since? Waiting for you to come out?”
“If he means to finish the job he started, he can afford to wait.”
Father and son stood silently together, weighing the matter between them.
Finally Sir Emlyn said, “In all fairness, I suppose I should ask Loughlander how he knows the man. I would not want to do him an injustice by jumping to conclusions.”
“No, of course not. But please ask my stepsisters to be wary of him - and of strangers in general. They were awfully free in his company, without knowing a thing about him. I shudder to think what might have happened had I not been there.” Or even what might have happened had the stranger turned violent, for Archie doubted his strength would have served him for more than a few minutes, leaving an assailant plenty of time to deal one of them a deadly blow or to spirit a young lady away from her companions.
“You're a good lad, Son.” Sir Emlyn clapped a hand on Archie's shoulder. “I could not ask for better. You realize, don't you, that if I engage a portrait painter for the ladies, I shall have to have him paint you also? We have formal portraits of both your brothers. You are the only one missing.”
“I would be honored, Sir. But it will have to be done quickly. I think, under the circumstances, that I should repair to Shelburne House as soon as I am able. I would like to draw our mysterious friend away from here before he causes any mischief.”
Sir Emlyn shook his head. “Let me think on it, Archie. Where is the sense in drawing him away from here if he will only follow you to Shelburne House? Or do you count your brother Sidwell the better able to deal with a possible confrontation? If you think to spare the family, you would do well to consider that Sid has a wife and children.”
“I'm sorry, Father. I didn't think. He was not married when I left home.”
“He wed the former Agatha Crumfold. They have two small children, Thomas and Alice. They are my only grandchildren, Archie. I should not care to lose them.”
“No, of course not. I agree entirely. Which begs the question, how am I to deal with Janus?”
“Is it his real name, do you think?”
“I doubt it. I think, if I were not so confounded forgetful these days, that I should find his name on the tip of my tongue. I know him, Father. I would almost swear to it.”
“I will call on Loughlander tomorrow and see what I can learn. Meanwhile, do nothing rash. As you say, for the time being he has threatened no one.”
Archie could not fall asleep that night. At first he blamed it on the storm that had been gathering since afternoon, but for all that the sky had darkened early and the air become increasingly heavy, the rain had yet to come. After tossing restlessly for a couple of hours he rose, dressed and went out into the hall. The bedrooms at the front of the house might have afforded him a better view of the street, but they were occupied by his father and stepmother on the one side and by his stepsisters on the other. He would have to see what he could see from the salon.
He descended the stairs with care, his way illuminated only by moonlight filtering through the downstairs hall windows and an occasional flash of lightening. No other light was needed, for he knew his way even in the dark. Nor did he wish to announce his presence by so much as the flicker of a candle flame to anyone watching the house. He hoped he would see nothing. Then he could go back to bed reassured that all was as it should be. But all was not as it should be. He felt it as surely as he had felt Janus inside his mind the night before. His skin, as well as every hair on his head, prickled with each lightening flare, the sensation made all the more ominous by the complete absence of thunder.
Taking up his post in the same window from which Sir Emlyn earlier had observed his and his stepsisters' return from the park, Archie fell into a familiar pattern of scanning the horizon - in this case the street below - for trouble. As his eyes accustomed themselves to the quality of the darkness, they began to identify shapes across the way. Most of them were inanimate and innocent: a lamppost, a tree with a waist-high, protective fence encircling it, a letterbox. Then one form detached itself from the deeper shadows behind it. Archie recognized it immediately.
Damn the man, how dare he watch this house! Archie was sure he had held himself perfectly still, for he did not want the least movement to give away his position, yet Janus appeared to fix him with his stare. Had the lightening that intermittently turned night into day revealed him standing here? A powerful compulsion overtook him, drawing him toward the street. Scarcely aware that he did so, Archie left the salon, walked into the hall, and opened the front door. Moments later he stood on the pavement, with only the empty street separating him from his adversary.
In a heartbeat the man stood beside him. He had not so much crossed the street as vanished from one side and reappeared on the other. Archie felt a chill that had nothing to do with the weather. His heart raced and his breath came with difficulty. As lightheadedness made his world waver, he felt the man's fingertips on his temples, then such exquisite pain that his vision suddenly filled with images so fantastical they could only be the product of his fevered imagination.
“No, not imagination, Archie Kennedy. Memories. Memories that you have denied these many weeks. Now do you know me?” The fiend moved his hands to Archie's shoulders and shook him roughly. “Remember me, Mr. Kennedy. Say my name.”
“A - Al - cide - Du - Du - faux.” Archie stammered.
“That's right. What am I?” Another shake.
“A vam - vampire.”
“Yes. And what are you?” Yet another shake.
“A - alive,” Archie whispered.
He heard the vampire's scream inside his head. It was a sound torn from a storm at sea, blending the shrieks of gulls with the insistent clanging of a ship's bell and the howls of gale force winds ripping sails to shreds. The vampire's hands encircled his throat as Dufaux demanded, “And how is it that you are alive? You were undead. Who remade you?”
“His - his name is Mykel. He - he gave me - back my life,” Archie managed to choke out as the vampire tightened his clamp on his throat.
Again the vampire screamed. He hurled Archie away from him, slamming him into the stone wall that separated Lord Shelburne's property from the pavement. The force of the blow knocked the air out of Archie's lungs and he gasped repeatedly, desperately trying to breathe.
“I don't - belong to you - any more,” Archie wheezed. He clawed at the wall to keep himself upright but was fast losing the battle. Five seconds later he was on his knees, his midsection vulnerable to any vicious kicks the vampire might choose to deliver.
“Let me give you something to chew on, Mr. Kennedy,” the vampire said with deadly calm, one hand raising Archie to his feet with no more effort than it takes to flick an insect off a leaf. “Your Messenger of Light, as you think of him, may have given you back your mortal life, but he has not broken the link forged between us when you shared my blood. I think you may have realized this already, or you will when you have given it some thought. You will never again know robust health, for my blood will remain in you as a venom that will sicken you all the days of your life. Mykel has only delayed the inevitable. You are bound to me for eternity.”
Archie's eyes squeezed shut against the vampire's words, but not before he saw the truth in what Dufaux had told him. And yet - hadn't Mykel promised him that he was intended for the light, not the darkness? How could the vampire retain his hold on him in the face of what must be the greater truth?
“I have been a fool,” Dufaux continued, “to think that your goodness and innocence would keep you true to me. Just as I have been a fool to let Mykel intimidate me. What have I to fear from his Master? I am already damned. I will have you, Archie Kennedy. Not tonight, for I have work to do to make ready. But the next time we meet - and there will be a next time - you will be mine. Forever.”
Archie cowered, waiting for a parting blow, but felt only the first few drops of long-awaited rain. He opened his eyes and looked around. The vampire had left him - for now. The rain began to fall in earnest. Shivering, Archie stumbled up the steps and let himself into the house.
“Archie? What are you doing here?”
Lady Frances's words roused Archie to look around him. For some reason he found himself curled uncomfortably in one of the hall chairs, not six feet from the front door. Behind Lady Frances stood the butler, Biddle, his normally stone-faced countenance showing a mixture of disapproval and alarm. Archie knew immediately which of them had come upon him. As memory flooded back to him he sat up, completely awake.
“Has my father come down yet?”
“Obviously not,” Lady Frances answered with a wry smile, “or he would be standing here in my stead.”
“Then may I wait and answer your question when we are all together? It will save me having to explain more than once.”
“Are you sure you want everyone together? Lavinia and Laetitia, too?”
He thought about that for a minute. Talk of vampires would not likely endear him to anyone in the family, but he owed it to all to let them know exactly what sort of menace they faced. Standing, he noticed that his clothes were in disarray and began to rearrange himself, saying, “They will have to be told sooner or later.”
Lady Frances brushed off his back and trousers, her eyes taking in details of which he himself was probably not aware. He returned her gaze with one that pleaded with her to be patient.
“You have not shaved,” she said, laying a hand alongside his cheek.
“It can wait.”
Sir Emlyn came down the stairs, closely followed by his stepdaughters. He took in the tableau at the bottom and hurried down the rest of the way.
“What has happened?”
“Let us go in to breakfast, Emlyn. Archie will explain everything.”
Another breakfast to be eaten cold, Archie thought, taking his place at the table. On the other hand, if Dufaux succeeded in making good his threat, Archie's food worries would soon come to an end.
“I have regained my memory of the events surrounding my death,” he said, noting with grim satisfaction how everyone hung on his words. “You might be interested to know how I regained it. Last night I could not sleep. For reasons I could not understand, I felt compelled to go downstairs and watch the street. I think you can guess what I saw there.”
“Our mysterious artist,” said Sir Emlyn with a scowl.
“He was watching the house. I went down to meet him. He forced me to remember him -”
“Forced you? How?” his father said.
Archie shook his head, puzzled. “I don't rightly know. May I demonstrate?” he asked Lavinia, who sat to his immediate right.
She nodded, and he gently held her head immobile by pressing his fingertips to her temples. When the others indicated that they understood, he removed his hands.
“I don't imagine you saw your life pass before your eyes, as I did. The man possesses a power such as I have never before encountered. I immediately recalled his name. Alcide Dufaux. I met him in a Portsmouth tavern. I didn't realize it at the time, but he cut my wrist. He put his lips to the wound and drank my blood.” Noting their expressions of distaste, he thought belatedly that breakfast was perhaps not the best time for this recital. “I'm sorry if it sounds repulsive.”
“How could you let him?” Lavinia cried as she brought her napkin to her lips.
“I had no choice in the matter. He induced a trance in me. In that state I had no power to oppose him. When he released me I returned to the Indy, where I learned I had been promoted and must transfer immediately to another ship. What happened next was a nightmare. The captain of the Fortitude flew into a rage when I reported in my midshipman's uniform. He ordered me ashore to wait for my new uniforms, which I did, but before I had been there a day I fell ill. The landlord of the inn where I had taken a room engaged a doctor to look after me. Of course, it was no doctor but Mr. Dufaux, who once he got me alone, again opened my wrist and drank my blood. He told me that my body would die, but that I would be transformed into a being like him. And in that altered state, I would live forever.”
“Archie,” Lady Frances said with even more gentleness than was her wont, “did you perhaps fall last night and strike your head? I ask because when I found you this morning, your clothes were soiled and in disarray. Your hair was likewise disarrayed.”
“I know what you are thinking, Lady Frances. No, I have not taken leave of my senses. I only wish I had. What Dufaux told me is preposterous. More than that, it's an abomination. And yet it's true. I died to the world I had known, woke in a coffin in a hole in the ground, arose with Dufaux's assistance and began to live as he did. You will forgive me if I do not catalog my depredations, for I am appalled at some of the things I did at his insistence. My only defense is that I did what I needed to survive, and tried to do the least possible harm to others in the process.”
At the head of the table, Sir Emlyn cleared his throat. “You are clearly among the living now, Archie. How was the transformation reversed?”
“Another being intervened. I would call him Dufaux's opposite, for he was a creature of light and laughter. He told me that I was not meant to lose my life that way, nor to lose it so soon. As for how he did it, I am unclear. I remember a light-filled room, and pain that shot through me like a lightening bolt.”
“Are you sure you were not abducted by faeries?” Letty said, her girlish ebullience suddenly replaced by the sour note of sarcasm.
“You all think me mad,” Archie sighed, “as well you should. I would disbelieve such outlandish statements myself if I hadn't lived them.”
“You must admit, darling, you do tell a passing strange story,” said his stepmother.
“The worst of it is that I am in danger and no one will believe me.”
“Do you still maintain that this Dufaux fellow, who has been masquerading as an artist, intends to kill you?”
“He means to make me undead, like himself, father. I would appear to die, but my spirit would remain trapped within my body.”
Lavinia interrupted. “How can he be dead, or undead? We saw him, you and Letty and I. He looked very much alive to me -”
“And to me,” Letty echoed.
“- as I am sure he must have looked very much alive to all at Lord Treviston's party.”
“He is a fiend, Lavinia. Do you understand the term? His very existence is a contradiction of the laws of nature and of God. He must drink blood in order to preserve the appearance of life. He can make himself invisible,” Archie shuddered, remembering his own playful experiments along that line, “and transport himself great distances simply by thinking himself there. He can move objects without touching them and he can enter another person's mind, either to influence his thoughts or to make him do things he would not do otherwise. I know this because I have done these things. They are not natural, and those who practice such acts do so against the will and the intention of the Creator. Dufaux called himself a fallen angel, among other things. He is a creature that has set itself against God and is consequently damned. As I shall be.”
Lavinia turned to him with an expression he had never seen upon her face. “You must indeed despise us, to offer us such lies. And to think I fancied myself half in love with you.” She rose in one graceful movement, let her napkin fall to her chair, and sailed out of the room like a frigate with a good wind behind it.
Across the table, Letty also stood, though with far less grace. “I think you are hateful,” she spat before following her sister from the room.
Archie sat as still as a ship becalmed while an old familiar misery stole over him. Even now he could hear Jack Simpson's words as if the man stood over him, half-crooning in mock sympathy, half-laughing in derision. I'd think twice about running to the captain if I were you, Archie. He won't believe a word you say and everyone aboard will despise you for trying to besmirch my name.
“Well, Archie,” his father said, “you certainly know how to clear a room.”
Archie bit his lip and said nothing.
“What I don't understand,” Sir Emlyn continued, “is why you felt it necessary to concoct such an improbable story. If you were trying to win our sympathy, I think you know by now that you have accomplished exactly the opposite.”
“I was not trying to win your sympathy, Father, nor your approval. I know that such a story could do neither. You wanted to know what happened, so that you would have some inkling of the sort of foe we face. I have told you. If you will not believe me, there is nothing more I can do. I will deal with Dufaux alone.”
“Why must you deal with him at all, Archie?” Lady Frances asked.
“Because I am the reason he is here. Don't expect him to go away until he accomplishes his objective, which is to repossess me.”
“Did he try last night? Is that why you looked as if you had been in a fight?”
Archie stared. “Last night was but a shot across the bow. A warning.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“It's nothing, Lady Frances. But thank you for asking.”
“We are accomplishing nothing here,” Sir Emlyn said brusquely. “I will have that word with Loughlander that I promised you, Archie. Beyond that I can promise nothing.”
Archie nodded, lowered his eyes and addressed himself to his cold breakfast.
Fortitude by Lorraine Jean