Fortitude by Lorraine Jean
As the family members straggled in from their various search efforts, they learned that Archie had arrived safe and sound and was resting in anticipation of the coming night. Lady Frances volunteered no particulars regarding the circumstances of his disappearance, nor of his return. Even though the girls importuned her with as much cunning as they employed when angling for permission to visit distant friends, their mother thought it best to wait until dinner and let Archie himself tell them as much or as little as he wanted them to know.
Of all the reactions to Archie's return, Sidwell's was the most subdued. He did pretend to look pleased, she had to give him that, but the expression failed to reach his eyes and so did not convince her. In fact she doubted it convinced anyone, if the covert looks cast in his direction were any indication. If the family could react so when they had yet to hear him accused, how would they view him when they knew his perfidy? At least he would not dare try anything further with the whole family suspicious of him.
Lady Frances went up to wake Archie a half-hour before dinner. She found him sleeping so soundly that she hated to disturb him, and yet he must be up and fully aware to face whatever the coming night would bring. She called his name, softly at first and then more loudly when he did not respond. Finally she had to shake him. He opened his eyes and looked at her with cloudy incomprehension.
“Get up, Archie, dear. Dinner will be served soon. The family is assembled and asking questions. I don't know how much longer I shall be able to put them off.”
She had helped him out of bed and into his clothes and had even brushed his hair before he gave any indication that he knew what was happening around him. It was not unheard of for Archie to awaken disoriented after sleeping during the day. In his early days at home, when she had stopped frequently to look in on him as he slept, she had seen him jolt out of sleep under the impression that he was late reporting for duty. She had also seen him start up out of a vivid dream and take her for someone else. But this sluggishness was not like him, however soundly he might have slept. What could be the matter?
Her eyes fell to the bedside table, where someone had placed a small pitcher of water and a glass for his convenience. The pitcher was three-quarters full, while the glass contained a residue of liquid that did not have the same colorless clarity as water. She picked it up and sniffed it. There was an odor, faint but unmistakable. A drug of some sort, perhaps a sleeping potion. Had he taken it intentionally? She sniffed the contents of the pitcher, dipped a finger into it and tasted it. Water, with no additional color, odor or taste. So the drug, whatever it was, had been introduced into his glass alone.
Still he did not respond, but sat upon the bed exactly as she had left him. Praying he would understand why she had to do it, Lady Frances slapped him hard enough to leave an imprint. As the left side of his face reddened and his eyes watered, she thought she saw a glimmer of intelligence return. She held the glass where he could see it.
“Did you take something to make you sleep?
He blinked. “No. Why should I?”
“Did you take a drink of water?”
“I don't think so.”
“Please try to remember, Archie. It's important.”
He touched the side of his face where she had struck him, not as a reproach but rather as if puzzled by the sting.
“I did not take anything.”
Could someone have administered the drug without his knowledge? Held the glass to his lips and urged him to drink? If he were already groggy from sleep, and knew the person holding the glass, would he accept it without question?
“Did anyone enter your room after you went to bed?”
“Not that I recall. Why? What is this about?”
“You have been drugged. Someone does not want you awake to meet Dufaux.”
“That would be my guess, too,” Lady Frances agreed. “You do not recall his being here?”
Archie shook his head.
“If this was your brother's doing, he may have planned an encore for dinner. We must watch him carefully. Please, Archie, do not accept anything at table that you have not observed being ladled from a dish from which everyone is served. That applies equally to any liquid. If you see it poured from a bottle, and no one's hand hovers over the glass before or after, then and only then should you take it. When Sidwell sees he has failed to incapacitate you, he may try in some other way. Do you understand what I am saying?”
Archie nodded. He did not look completely alert, but his normal function did seem to be returning. A good meal in his stomach should help him counteract any lingering effects of the drug.
It was a lively group at table, the young ladies keeping the conversation going when it might have flagged otherwise. Poor Archie tried to address their questions, but obviously found it difficult to stay focused. Perhaps this was all to the good, for his answers remained vague enough that they did not definitively implicate his brother, giving the impression instead that he had absent-mindedly locked himself in the crypt with no connivance from any other quarter. Despite her warnings, he was no in condition to observe the handling of his food and so Lady Frances did it for him, all the while keeping up her end of the conversation so that Sidwell should not think her unduly vigilant.
For his part Sidwell passed a few general remarks and then concentrated moodily upon his food. His behavior could be excused as preoccupation with the trouble ahead, or it could be seen as the disappointment of a man whose plans had gone awry. Halfway through the meal, when it looked as if he would escape without facing the accusations he so richly deserved, he visibly relaxed. He raised his glass and proposed a toast.
“Let us drink to our happy family. All together and safe once more.”
The others raised their glasses. All except Archie, who seemed to see in Sid's upraised glass and hand an image that resonated in his memory. The look on his face stopped everyone else from completing the toast. They looked at Archie, who fixed his gaze upon his brother.
“It was you. I didn't remember at first, but I see it now. You pressed a glass to my lips when I was half-asleep and bade me drink. It was you who drugged me.”
In the silence that had fallen over the table, Sidwell carefully avoided his brother's eyes and said, “You are mistaken, Little Brother. Or perhaps you dreamt it. I did not go near your room today.”
Before Archie could answer, their father spoke. “Then you will have no objection to accounting for your time, and to providing the names of people who can vouch for your presence in each of the places you cite.”
“Don't be ridiculous, Father. No one can do that. There are times in every man's day when he is alone and cannot conveniently produce witnesses.”
“But you were not alone at the time,” his father reminded him. “You were with Archie. He remembers you there.”
“You cannot take him seriously, Father. Look at him. He is drug-addled still. He's imagining things.”
“So you do believe he was drugged,” Sir Emlyn pressed him.
“I presume he took something himself, to help him sleep or to ward off his demons.”
Lady Frances could keep quiet no longer. “Archie does not use sleeping powders. From what I have observed of him, I would say your brother prefers to endure discomfort or even pain rather than addle his brain with any sort of medication at all.”
“You know more about it than I do.” Sidwell shrugged.
“Only someone unacquainted with his habits would think to get away with drugging him.”
“Have a care, Stepmother. What you say may be true, but it would apply equally to every person in this household, save those of you come up from London.”
“So you would place the blame on one of the servants, is that it?” Sir Emlyn said.
“If that is where the blame lies, certainly.”
“Stop it. Please.”
They all turned to Archie, whose pained yet determined expression said that he had shaken off the worst effects of the drug and was in command of himself once more.
“It's getting late,” Archie resumed quietly but with no less authority. “Let us stop bickering among ourselves and prepare for what lies ahead. I need to have everyone together in one place that I can defend. Your wine cellar would be ideal.”
“My wine cellar! What do you propose? That the ladies wait until he has broken down the door and then pitch bottles of wine at him? Do you have any idea at what cost I have accumulated that cellar? My wines are the finest -”
“Yes, Sidwell,” his father interrupted. “Knowing you, I am sure your wines are the finest my money can buy. The fact remains, the cellar is an ideal place to gather the women and children. You and I can defend the door while Archie deals with his foe.”
“But we want to help!” Letty cried.
“You will help me best by staying out of Dufaux's way,” Archie said gently. “If I must watch out of the corner of my eye to see what each of you is doing, I will be too distracted to defend myself. I need my wits about me tonight.”
Sidwell grunted, but Sir Emlyn stopped him from voicing any real dissent. “You would do well to agree to your brother's plan, Sid. I have seen enough of Dufaux to realize that he is an uncommon and powerful adversary. Let Archie deal with him in his way.”
After a moment's hesitation Sidwell answered, “With pleasure, Father. I promise I will not lift a finger to interfere.”
Reluctantly, Sidwell helped his father and brother with their preparations. Their insistence upon weaponry with silver content puzzled him; however, the senior Kennedy would be satisfied with nothing less, and so Sid went through the armory with them and gathered what they requested. His father's glee at finding an ancient claymore in the pile made Sid shake his head in something nearing pity. Why arm oneself with such a heavy weapon when the newer weapons forged of steel were so much lighter, stronger and more efficient? As for Archie, he looked as if he could barely lift a claymore, much less wield it in battle. To his credit, Archie passed over the clumsy broadsword in favor of a pair of light dirks that he concealed about his body. Sid, for his part, chose a modern French saber, one of the spoils of war Duncan had left in his keeping on his most recent leave.
The ladies trooped down to the wine cellar with the light spirits necessitated by the presence of little Thomas and Alice, who must be got out of the way but not unduly frightened. And so they made a game of it, and the children went along none the wiser.
The clock in the great hall had struck twelve when the first hint of a disturbance reached their ears. In the hours before midnight Sid had listened as his father told of the fierce wind that had preceded Dufaux's appearance in their London home. Such a wind raged now that Sid silently gave thanks for the sturdy granite walls that surrounded them and the slate roof covering the hammer beam ceiling above their heads. If it blew any harder it would surely shatter the windows, but even that would not grant the demon entrance, unless he could also dissolve the stone mullions that held the panes in place. The door would hold, for heavy beams barred it across the inside. Their position should be well nigh impregnable.
Nevertheless Archie looked worried. He paced the length of the great hall, glancing now at the windows, now at the door, now up to the gallery and from there to the corbels that supported the roof beams. Finally his gaze dropped to the fireplace.
“There,” he said. “That's where he will enter.”
“Don't be a fool,” Sid sneered. “There's a fire laid. If he comes that way he'll get himself singed for sure.”
“We could build it up,” their father suggested. “Make it so hot he'll not come down.”
Archie agreed and so they spent the next minutes heaping logs upon the fire.
“Careful, you'll smother it. And leave some logs for later. We need to keep it steady.”
“Will it stop him, do you think?” Sir Emlyn asked his younger son.
“The truth?” Archie wiped his brow with a sooty hand, leaving a black smudge. “He will get in; the question is when. Our job is to keep him out until the sun rises, when his power will be diminished.”
“What sort of creature possesses such power? And why does he want you?”
“His power is an aberration of nature, Sid. I can't explain it any other way. As for why he wants me, who knows? Have you never seen something and simply had to have it, no matter the cost?”
“Lots of things,” Sidwell said and then guffawed at the thought of any creature wanting Archie in the way that Sid coveted a new racehorse.
“I'm glad I am able to provide you some sport,” Archie said without a trace of humor.
“Gentlemen, please. Let us focus our animosity where it will do some good.”
Archie glared at Sidwell, who looked back at him with a broad smile. Really, the image he had conjured almost made up for the humiliation of being bested by the youngster in full view of the family this morning. And the best part was that Archie could not guess why he was smiling.
A tremendous pounding at the door made all three of them jump. They turned to face it. Whatever the demon struck it with, it made every bolt in the door rattle. Sid began to fear - just a little - that the door would not hold after all.
Outside the night sky turned a stark, brilliant white for a few seconds, followed by a deafening crack of thunder. Sid ran to the nearest window to see if lightening had struck one of the park's ancient oaks. He could see nothing beyond the hail of pebbles that rose from the drive to pelt the door and windows without any hand to guide them.
They were still facing the windows when a suffocating quiet filled the air, stifling even their ability to breathe. Archie whirled to face the fire. His father and brother followed suit.
The man who stood between them and the fireplace was more imposing than Sid had imagined he could be, given that he had been described in general terms as tall and clothed in black. Such innocuous words for a being that emanated pure evil! And the way it looked at Archie, with lust and hatred mixed together, was a wonder to behold. Sid felt a momentary twinge of lust himself, aimed at a being that could satisfy its craving in so elementary and so brutal a manner. Had he been standing beside Archie he might have shoved the younger man toward the beast, just to watch it pounce and devour him.
The creature smiled at Sid as if it had heard his thoughts, then turned its wolfish grin in Archie's direction. “I do believe your brother has murder in his heart, Archie. You must forgive my informality, but there are three Monsieur Kennedys standing before me, n'est-ce pas? And so I must be precise, so you do not mistake my meaning. Your brother Sidwell looks upon us with bloodlust in his eyes. He is anxious to witness the kill.”
“Now, wait a minute!” Sid cried. “How can you know what is in my heart?”
Dufaux's answer dripped with disdain. “Tell your brother what you were thinking, then, Monsieur Sidwell. I am sure he - and your father - would love to hear it.”
“Don't answer him, Sid,” Archie said evenly. One of the concealed dirks had appeared in his right hand. Sid grudgingly had to admit it was smoothly done. “He is trying to come between us. We must present a united front.”
“But Sidwell does not intend to stand with you, Archie. He never did. He is here to make certain I obtain what I want. Are you not, Sidwell?”
The creature stared at Sid with eyes that burned red like coals carried from hell's own fire. How different from his brother's eyes, that reflected the cool, clear blue of the heavens on a cloudless day. And yet . . . Archie's pure gaze made him squirm every bit as much as the creature's did, as if they both had the power to see into his soul. Given a choice, Sid suspected he would fare better by submitting to his brother's righteous anger than by tempting one of hell's minions. Yes, much safer to side with the angels, if they would have him.
“It's true,” Sidwell said. “So help me, Archie, it's true. I want - I wanted - him to kill you. You are so much finer than I am; you make me look wretched by comparison. I've always felt it. I've always wanted you dead.”
“You're jealous of me? But why?”
“'Tis a story for another time, Archie. I'll stand with you now, if you'll have me.”
“Do you credit this turncoat, Archie? He would have you believe that he is now on your side. I submit to you that your brother Sidwell is a rank opportunist. I'll wager that as soon as the battle turns in my favor, you will see him switch sides yet again.”
“And you, Mr. Dufaux, are worse than an opportunist,” Archie said through clenched teeth, “for you play one side against the other with no other objective than to create havoc. If my brother wishes to join me, I welcome him.”
“How touching,” the vampire said with another insincere smile, “and how very foolish. Very well, gentlemen. Do your worst.”
Goaded to action, Sid raised the French saber in his hand and charged the creature. An explosive force came at him from nowhere, lifted him off his feet and hurled him across the room. He landed hard against the granite wall and dropped like a straw man, the wind knocked clean out of him. Strewn about him were the pieces of a chair that had shattered with the impact of his falling body. Also beside him, the saber lay in two pieces, its much-touted strength as false as its luster.
In the center of the room he saw his father and Archie circle away from each other and the beast, weapons at the ready. If what he had already experienced represented the creature's typical fighting stance, they would do best to strike simultaneously. That way, though the vampire should lash back at one of them, the other might land a palpable hit. A heartbeat later he saw his father down on the floor with the claymore still in his hand. How had the vampire accomplished it? Sid had not seen him lift a finger. Dufaux, it seemed, had only to stare at an opponent to make him fall like an aged tree split by lightening. Would Archie fall as easily? Or did his intimate knowledge of the creature give him a fighting edge? As Sid watched, Archie successfully dodged a hail of small objects that had suddenly become airborne and came at him from various parts of the room. Sid looked around him for another weapon.
Silver, Archie had said. Aside from some pieces of plate, the only silver in the room was a three-branched candelabrum on the table near the fire. If he could get to it while Archie kept the vampire busy ... In the meantime, he grabbed the first weapon that came to hand - a piece of the wooden chair that had broken his fall.
Archie forced himself to keep a clear head, not easy to do amid such distractions as Sidwell's unexpected confession and the fact that Dufaux had so quickly removed both Sid and his father from the field of battle. On the other hand, he had been granted his desire - he was free to face the vampire alone. Now if only he had something more substantial with which to fight the creature. Despite their long blades, the dirks were useless at a distance. They were designed to stab, and in order to stab, one had to be within arm's reach of one's opponent. Dufaux would never let him get that close.
It did not help his concentration that the vampire had launched a rain of objects to pelt him. Some of them had greater nuisance value than potential to harm, like the scarf one of his sisters had left behind and which Dufaux animated so that it tried to wrap itself around his legs and trip him. Others, like the books that flew from a shelf mounted on the wall, could do some damage if they hit him just right. So far they were small things, easily dodged so long as they came a few at a time, but heaven help him if chairs and heavy tapestries suddenly tore through the air in his direction, or if the smaller things increased their velocity.
Dufaux, it must be said, appeared to enjoy watching him dance away from each new volley. Archie would not have thought the room contained so many small items, or perhaps it only seemed that they were great in number, because objects no sooner fell to the tiled floor then they rose and came after him again. A few of them proved fragile and shattered on impact, the broken pieces providing additional, and in some ways lethal, ammunition. Would Dufaux never tire of this game? As long as it went on, Archie was forced to defend himself and could not mount an attack.
It occurred to him that, in the midst of the airborne clutter, the vampire might not notice an extra projectile. Archie stopped sidestepping long enough to take aim and launch one of his dirks. His intent must have been transparent, for the vampire reacted immediately to counter. He raised a hand and Archie watched in disbelief as the dirk reversed position in midair and continued on its way hilt first. But if Dufaux meant to catch the weapon and fling it back at Archie, his calculations had failed to take into account his inimical relationship with silver. Instead of catching the dirk, or even powering it back toward Archie without touching it, the vampire was forced to let it drop harmlessly to the floor.
Tightening his grip on the remaining dagger, Archie rushed Dufaux. The objects peppered him mercilessly, scoring more frequent and more direct hits, but he kept on. He was almost within reach. Another foot would do it. And then he seemed to collide with a wall, invisible but as solid and unyielding as stone. Though it stopped Archie cold, it did not keep Dufaux from penetrating it from the other side. An unseen hand gripped Archie's right wrist with such pressure that he dropped the dirk and yelped with pain.
“Archie, Archie. This is not worthy of you. You have the power to fight me on my own terms. Why do you batter yourself against me as a fly trying to escape a lantern?”
“What - what do you mean?” Archie tried to flex the fingers of his right hand. It felt as if the bones in his wrist were broken.
“I mean, mon cher, that you retain your vampire nature. As I told you last night.”
“I don't believe you.” Archie gingerly massaged his wrist. He was finding it difficult to concentrate on Dufaux's words through the pain. Blood from a cut on his temple trickled into the corner of his left eye. At least the assault with inanimate objects had stopped. “I'm mortal,” he said, using his sleeve to wipe the hot, sticky proof from his face. “Mykel promised me.”
“Not entirely. Tell me, Archie. Do you find yourself sleeping through much of the day? And are you then restless and wakeful at night?”
Archie stared at him. It was the loss of blood that made him sleep during the day, or so Doctor Tregaryn explained it. After such a loss his body required a long time to rebuild its strength. Surely it was coincidence that Dufaux slept during the daylight hours and walked at night.
The vampire regarded Archie like a cat playing with a mouse. “Here is one you cannot deny,” he purred. “For some reason, a vampire exudes a peculiar charm that most ladies are incapable of ignoring. And so I ask you, do women find you irresistible?”
This struck too close for comfort. Lady Frances. Lavinia. Laetitia. All had become staunch allies without any request or encouragement from him. His sister-in-law Agatha, too, within moments of meeting him, had pledged her support in defiance of his brother's objections. Come to think of it, not even Kitty Cobham had proved immune, pouring out apologies and attentions she would not have offered two years ago.
“Not convinced? Then try this. A vampire has the power to bend lesser minds to his will. If you doubt me, wait and see what your brother will do. If I alone wield vampiric power, then Sidwell will turn on you in battle. If you also wield the power, and if your appeal to his darkest heart was stronger and more heartfelt than mine, he will fight beside you. Disbelieve the rest, if you can, but in this you must accept the evidence before your eyes.”
“You have a talent, Sir, for twisting words. My brother's change of heart has nothing to do with my alleged power or yours. Please credit him with the intelligence to see the difference between right and wrong, to acknowledge that he has been wrong in the past and to make amends. You are trying to confuse me, to make me doubt both my allies and my ability to wage a successful fight. I will not let you do that.”
Indeed, the vampire was closer to success than Archie liked to admit. If by bending lesser minds Dufaux meant that he could influence any mortal, then here was proof of Archie's mortality. Succumbing to doubt and insecurity now would doom his enterprise, as Dufaux clearly intended it should. He must be strong, not only for himself but also for his father and brother and all the rest of the family. He must not waver. Too much depended on him. What had Mykel told him? That he was always there, even if Archie did not see him? He called Mykel's image to mind and drew strength from its purity and warmth.
A few feet away, Dufaux regarded him - and his obvious mental and moral struggle - with amusement. It could not have escaped his memory that he had not trained Archie to defend himself from others of their kind. He would know that Archie would act on instinct, and no doubt trust that those instincts would fail him in the crucial moments.
One instinct Archie knew he could trust was the one that told him to cloak his thoughts. If the vampire did not know what Archie was planning to do, then he could neither anticipate his moves nor counter them until faced with direct action. It seemed to him that Dufaux nodded in recognition of this truth. Archie acknowledged him with grim resolve and battle was engaged in earnest.
Emlyn shook himself awake and stared at the tableau before him. He must have lost consciousness for only a short time, for Archie still faced Dufaux, and Sid was making his way stealthily from the corner of the room where Dufaux's power had cast him. Except that neither of his sons held the weapon he had started out with. One of Archie's dirks lay on the floor almost at his feet, amidst a clutter of objects from all over the room. How had they come to be there? Where was Archie's second dagger? He was holding his right wrist as if he had sustained an injury. And what had happened to Sid's saber? He advanced upon Dufaux now armed only with a jagged piece of wood. If Emlyn could reach Dufaux first, he could harry the vampire with his claymore and give the lads time to arm themselves properly. Using the broadsword as a staff, he began to climb to his knees.
Like two wolves, one a dominant male and the other an upstart challenger, Dufaux and Archie circled one another. Why did Archie not pull his other dirk? Then Emlyn saw it on the floor some feet away, near where Dufaux had been standing earlier. Dear God, that meant Archie was unarmed as well as hurt. Did he intend to fight the creature with his bare hands?
A sudden movement drew his attention back to the combatants. Dufaux, no doubt with one of his bursts of demonic energy, had thrust Archie aside and flown - there was no other word for it: he had literally risen as if borne on wings - up to the gallery, where he looked down upon Archie and gloated.
Archie, his fall broken by a large trestle table, winced and held his side.
“Come, Archie. Fly to me. Let me show you how to fight without bruising your ribs on the furniture.” The vampire's laughter echoed throughout the high chamber.
“No,” Archie breathed. “I will not. You must come down to my level or else forfeit the fight.”
“Ah, Archie, you have so little imagination. But then, you never did enjoy flight, did you?”
Why did Archie not retrieve the daggers while Dufaux crowed from the gallery? Could he be in so much pain that he was incapable of action? Emlyn considered sliding the claymore across the floor to him, but if Archie were hurt he would not be able to make use of it. In the blink of an eye Dufaux stood at arm's length from Archie. He had not even bothered to fly this time, but had merely disappeared from the gallery and reappeared on the floor. It was too late. Emlyn rose to his feet.
Sid, who had diverted his path toward the stairs to the gallery only to be cheated of his objective as he reached the top, now came down again. He still held the piece of wood in his hands. The way Emlyn saw it, he could use it in one of two ways, as a cudgel or as a stake. Given what he had observed of the vampire, Emlyn doubted either would do much good, but if it occupied Dufaux long enough to give Archie a chance to strike, it would do well enough. If only Archie had a weapon!
Dufaux took a single step in which he closed the gap between Archie and himself. Hemmed in by the table on one side, the fire behind him, and the vampire blocking any egress from the remaining two directions, Archie froze. Emlyn watched helplessly as Archie tore his gaze from the immediate threat and cast about him in desperation. He met his father's eyes for an instant, then quickly settled on one of the dirks Emlyn had observed earlier. To Emlyn's utter amazement, the dirk rose from the floor, sailed through the air, and landed with its hilt firmly in Archie's right palm. He winced as he closed his injured hand around it. A moment later the second dirk flew to his left hand. Archie brought them together before him, their blades forming a St. Andrew's cross. Was it a deliberate move on his part? Or the surfacing of an ancestral memory? Either way, the crossed silver appeared to stop Dufaux's advance, allowing Archie to ease away from the fireplace.
At the same time, Sidwell made his move. From the way he held the wood, his intent was clear. He meant to impale Dufaux on it. To distract Dufaux from the coming stake, Emlyn raised his claymore and stepped forward. He sensed the bolt of power before it struck and dipped the claymore to meet it. Though the broadsword shivered from the impact, it did not shatter. In fact, Emlyn had the impression that the sword not only deflected the bolt, but returned it to its sender. A heartbeat later an unearthly shriek proved his hunch correct.
Sid chose that same moment to drive his stake, in his fury pushing it deep into Dufaux's body, until Archie's horrified expression indicated it had come out the other side. Archie sprang aside as Dufaux pitched forward. He grabbed Emlyn's broadsword and, with a strength Emlyn did not know he possessed, swung it over his head and down, severing Dufaux's head from his body.
The three Kennedy men stood around the remains of the vanquished vampire and looked to one another in astonished silence. Sid was the first to recover his voice.
“Tsk, Little Brother. What a mess!” He broke into a broad, Kennedy grin.
“Me! You're the one pushed his innards out.” Blue eyes meeting green, Archie mirrored his brother's grin.
“Lads, lads. Before we go any further in our rejoicing, may I say I don't like the way he's twitching? It's almost as if he would pick up his head and put it back on again.”
“Allow me, Father.” Archie picked up Dufaux's head by the hair and heaved it into the fire, which coughed a spectacular fireball up the chimney, showering sparks and fouling the air with an acrid, sulfurous odor. He fanned his face. “That should do it, I think.”
“Was that respectful, Archie?” Emlyn asked.
“Respect? For a creature that would have killed you all and enslaved me forever? I've shown him all the respect he deserves by sending his evil mind back to the hell that spawned it. And if one of you will help me, I'll send the rest of him - including his black heart - after it.”
Sid grabbed the vampire's feet while Archie took his hands. Together they swung the body until it had enough momentum to land it squarely in the fire, then released it. Wrinkling his nose with distaste, Archie rubbed his hands on his clothes. Sid was still grinning.
“A good night's work.”
“Aye,” Emlyn agreed. He expected Archie to echo the sentiment, but the lad's attention seemed fixed upon something over their shoulders. He turned to see what it was.
A man stood there. As tall as Dufaux, or taller. As broad in the shoulder, if not broader. Clear of visage, with blue eyes and golden hair. He smiled at them. No, not at all of them. His smile was definitely aimed at Archie. Come to think of it, he looked a bit like Archie, or as Archie might look in years to come.
“You did not need me after all,” the stranger said brightly. “You were strong enough all by yourself.”
“Not by myself,” Archie said. “I had help.”
The man nodded. “You found your confidence. That is good.”
Emlyn could have sworn the man was fading. Where he had appeared solid only moments ago, now the furnishings behind him were coming steadily into focus. What sort of creature was this?
“Before you go.” Archie took a step toward him. “Please. You told me I was human again. Dufaux said I was still a vampire. Which is it?”
“Dufaux's hold over you is broken, Archie. The effects of his poison will leave you now. I am sorry it had to take this long, but you needed to effect the break yourself, without my intervention. I merely enabled you to regain as much of your humanity as you required to accomplish that end.”
“Is he really gone? Or must I expect a repeat visit in the future?”
“You yourself consigned his body to the fire. If that does not convince you, then take the ashes when they have cooled, have them blessed by a man of God, and scatter them at sea. No vampire can return from that. You have my solemn promise.”
The stranger raised his hand in a wave or a benediction and vanished.
After a brief, reverent silence, Emlyn said, “Archie? Who was that?”
“His name is Mykel.”
“Never mind who he is,” Sidwell said. “What is he?”
“I think he may be an angel.” Archie's glance challenged either of them to disagree.
“You'll get no argument from me, Archie. I only wish I had thanked him for restoring my son to me.”
“I'm sure he knows how you feel, Father.”
Sid passed a weary hand over his face. “I sure wish I knew how I feel. Promise me something, Archie. Promise you'll tell me what this was all about. Later, after we've all had some sleep.”
“I'd be happy to. For now, we had better let the ladies out of the cellar.”
Archie rose at first light, anxious to clear the unholy ashes from the fireplace and unwilling to let anyone else risk contamination. Although he still felt tired, there would be time for sleep later, as much sleep as he desired. For now his priority lay in ridding the house of the last traces of Alcide Dufaux, who would not have befouled it at all if not for Archie. Wearing an apron he had swiped from the scullery to protect his clothes, he knelt on a towel, his sleeves rolled up and a kerchief covering his mouth and nose, while he swept the fireplace methodically from side-to-side and back-to-front with a brush and a dust pan. At the sound of a heavy footfall he looked up to see his brother approaching. He wiped his hands and forearms carefully on a clean white cloth. Only when he was certain that no residue of Dufaux's ashes remained on his hands did he remove the kerchief. He stood to greet his brother.
“You could have left that for a servant, Archie.”
Archie shook his head. “I could not risk it, Sid. If even a minute speck of Dufaux survives to pollute this house ...”
“You mean if someone were foolish enough to keep a charred remnant as a souvenir,” Sid smiled.
“I do not speak in jest. How well do you know your household staff?”
“Well enough to swear that none of them has ever flirted with witchcraft?”
Sid was silent for a few moments. “Maybe not so well as that.”
“Then you will excuse the precaution. All it takes is a piece of bone, or a lump of charcoal that may be more than a lump of charcoal, if you take my meaning.”
“That's what you want with the mortar and pestle, is it? To reduce any pieces to a harmless powder.” Sid nodded toward the implements in question, which awaited Archie on the nearby table, along with soap and a bucket of water.
“Look Sid, just humor me in this,” Archie said. “Better safe than sorry.”
Sid held up his hands and shook his head. “Peace, Archie. I want no quarrel. In fact, I'm here to apologize for a lifetime of bad behavior, if you'll let me.”
“So that was not said just for effect last night? You really are sorry?”
“Why am I sorry?”
“No, why do you hate me? A little brotherly competition I can understand, but you say you wanted me dead. And I can only say again, why?”
Sid pulled a chair close to the fireplace and sat down. Archie settled on the bench by the table. He rubbed the front of his trousers with the cleaning cloth, wadded it carefully with the ash on the inside, and then gave his brother his full attention.
“You said it yourself last night. I was jealous, Archie.”
“I had fits. What was there to be jealous about?”
“I'm six years older than you, Archie. I was old enough when you were born to sense the difference in the way our mother responded to us. Duncan and I, we were rough and tumble lads, devil-may-care and disobedient, the sort of boys fathers love and mothers despair of. We were a pair of wild horses, always ready to upset the whole stable. You, on the other hand, were a thoroughbred, finely built and with a thoroughbred's nervous disposition. How Mother doted on you! Her feelings were plain from the day you were born. It may have taken her three attempts, by Jove, but she had finally got it right. Duncan and I ceased to matter on that day.”
“Funny, that's not how I saw it. I always thought of myself as the runt of the litter. I wanted more than anything to be like you and Duncan.”
“I idolized you. And when you shunned me and made fun of me because of my fits, I felt myself even more unworthy.”
A grimace puckered Sid's florid, fleshy face. “Oh, God, Archie! And to think the happiest day of my young life was the day Father packed you off to the Royal Navy. At last, I thought, I can court a girl and not have her fall hopelessly in love with my little brother.”
“You thought your lady friends were in love with me?” Archie's mouth hung open. This was too much, even from Sidwell.
“Too right, they were. Remember Eloise?”
“It matters not a jot now, but she took one look at you and her whole demeanor toward me changed. She had the nerve to ask me to introduce her to you.”
“I don't remember meeting her.”
“You don't honestly think I would have honored her request, do you? I turned my attentions elsewhere without delay.”
“Were there others?” Though he didn't like to ask, Sid had piqued his curiosity.
“Oh, aye. Several. I don't stand up well next to you, Arch. It was ever so.”
“I never knew you felt that way. You never said - ”
“It's not your fault. Though I wanted to make it so. If you had not gone to sea, I should in all likelihood never have married and got an heir.”
“Thomas turned out well.” Archie offered this opinion without having much to go on, for his contact with his nephew had been limited to a few minutes yesterday evening, when the children were transferred from the nursery to the cellar. He would make up for the lapse later, if Sid allowed.
Sid glanced at him with an unusual expression. He looked slightly abashed, as if surprised at himself for what he was about to say. “He'll turn out even better if he has the opportunity to spend some time with his new uncle.”
“I would be honored, Sid.”
“Good. Good. I was thinking - if you do not go back to sea, and if it would please you to learn something of the land in its stead, you might agree to spend some time with us. With me. I should like to get to know you better, Archie.”
“And I, you.”
“Will you consider my offer?”
“To spend some time here? Yes, I would like that.” Archie paused, unsure whether he should tell Sid that this had been their father's plan all along. Perhaps Sid had mellowed to the point where he would accept his father's meddling in his affairs, but again perhaps not. Then his brother spoke and the opportunity was lost.
“Good. That's settled, then. I'll let you get back to scraping Dufaux out of the fireplace.”
A family conference over breakfast determined that the local vicar, the Reverend Mr. Honeyford, was perhaps better suited to blessing newlyweds, children, cattle and crops than he was Dufaux's ashes. If he did not find the matter spelled out for him in a book or in a directive from his archbishop, the poor man balked at performing any sort of ritual that required a modicum of initiative or imagination. Sidwell expressed himself confident that the man had never been (nor would ever be) called upon to exorcise a demon and would most particularly decline to pray over ashes not destined for hallowed ground.
This begged the question of what to do if no one professed himself willing to pronounce a blessing. No clear consensus of opinion appeared until finally Agatha recalled the existence of a small monastic house on the western road some ten or twelve miles distant. Everyone agreed that the monks, whose lives seemed to revolve around solitude and prayer, might have a greater understanding of how to dispose of this sort of evil than would a simple parish curate. Archie declared himself ready to leave immediately.
Declining the use of his father's carriage, Archie set off on horseback and presented himself and his odd request later that same day. If the young monk who answered the door thought it strange that the visitor would not enter, but requested that someone come outside and talk to him instead, he gave no sign of it. Ten minutes later the door opened and a different monk, one whose years could be read in his seamed face and graying tonsure, if not in the energy that radiated from him, came out into the yard.
“I am Brother Philip,” he said in greeting. Though he did not offer Archie a hand, the look of expectation on his face was kind. “How may I help you?”
Archie had dismounted and waited respectfully beside his horse. “My name is Archie Kennedy. I have something here that would dishonor your house were I to bring it inside, and so I must remain outside while you hear me. Will you hear me?”
“Would the contents of that box dishonor the stables, too? I ask only because your horse looks like it could do with a drink of water. As do you, Mr. Kennedy.”
He could indeed do with a drink, Archie reflected ruefully. He had discovered to his chagrin that keeping his legs on a vessel that bucked the seas and retaining his seat in a swaying saddle required distinctly different sets of muscles. A hard day's work, indeed! As for the beast, he was no judge of how hard he had ridden it, but he would not begrudge it any fitting reward for its service.
“Thank you, Brother Philip,” he said. “I think I speak for the horse as well as for myself when I say that a drink of water would not meet with disdain.”
The wiry brother smiled. “Come, Mr. Kennedy, there is a garden bench yonder. Sit down and rest while I see to your - and your beast's - needs. Then you shall tell me what troubles you.”
Archie sat and stifled a grin while the man declared his priorities by attending first to his horse, and then to him. When Brother Philip at last joined him on the bench, and after Archie had slaked his thirst, he found himself pouring out far more of the story than he had intended. Perhaps it was because he was tired, perhaps it was because he sensed the presence of a sympathetic ear, perhaps it was because the contents of the strongbox he had set on the ground before him still had the power to unsettle him and he needed to exorcise his fear. For any or all of those reasons he unburdened his heart to this stranger who was kind enough to listen.
When he had done, the monk sat in quite thought for several minutes. Archie turned the empty cup in his hands, closed his eyes and waited.
“Tell me something more about the man who told you how to dispose of the remains, Mr. Kennedy.”
Archie described Mykel in detail, and related as much of their conversation as he remembered from both times he had seen him. “He called himself my guardian. I mean no disrespect - and I should tell you that I am not of your faith - but I believe he is an angel.”
Brother Philip smiled. “I take no offense, Mr. Kennedy. Indeed I, too, believe that you have been visited by one of the heavenly host. As for this fellow,” he nudged the strongbox with the toe of one sandalled foot, “I will most certainly bless the ashes. It will not enable his soul to enter into the kingdom of God, but it may keep the Dark One from attempting to reclaim them for the purpose of making mischief.”
The monk recited something softly in Latin and made the sign of the cross over the ashes.
Archie echoed his “Amen,” and added, “Thank you, Brother Philip. You have no idea what this means to me.”
“I think I do, Mr. Kennedy. Now, would you be offended if I offered you my blessing as well? Something to see you safely on your way until you can dispose of him.”
“I should be a fool to take offense, Sir.” He bowed his head and listened in deferential silence as the monk prayed. At the end of it he felt a great weight lift from his heart.
“When your journey is done, I would be pleased if you would visit me again. I sense something in you, Mr. Kennedy. Something spiritual. I would appreciate the chance to talk with you at greater length.”
“Thank you, Brother Philip, I will.”
There remained but one step to perform to rid himself of the stain of Alcide Dufaux. This one required some planning, however, for Lord Shelburne did not own a sailing vessel and would need to make arrangements with a fellow peer who could accommodate Archie with a short voyage out to sea and back again. In the meantime, the strongbox stood as a mute reminder that the job was not done, and that something once immeasurably evil lay within.
Archie refused to let the strongbox lie in Shelburne House. If it must be housed anywhere in the interim, it must be in a hallowed place which might mitigate its evil influence. Shelburne House had once had its own chapel but it had been converted to a library long ago. That left only the crypt. The family accepted this without argument, but not Archie's intention to stand watch over it in person.
“I will not hear of it, Archie,” his father said. “You have reduced the corpse to ashes, pulverized those to a powder, and had a holy man pronounce God's blessing upon it. It that does not render the remains harmless then there is no hope for us. Place the box in the crypt for the time being if you must, but your further vigilance is not required.”
But Archie's clear sense of responsibility told him that he must watch over the remains until he could consign them to the deep. “I disagree. I do not mean to distress anyone here, especially the ladies, but have you considered the possibility, Father, that something evil might come to collect the remains? I cannot let that happen. That is why I must keep watch.”
Sir Emlyn finally agreed to let Archie keep vigil through the night.
Archie had barely settled into the crypt with a lantern, a jug of water, and some cushions to sit on, when Lady Frances let herself in and greeted him.
“I brought you a blanket to ward off the chill. I imagine this place can become quite dank at night.”
“It's well I thought to ask for the extra key. Why have you locked yourself in, Archie? Those who already rest within are in no danger of getting out. Nor will the evil you say you fear be deterred by locks and bolts. Or were you afraid that your family would interfere? As I am doing,” she added with a smile.
“I locked it without thinking.” Archie looked at her quizzically.
“I would like to keep you company for a little while, if I may. The time will pass more quickly if you have someone to talk to.”
He opened his mouth to argue, then said simply, “Thank you, Lady Frances.”
“You must be fatigued after your journey today. You have had no time to rest.”
“I am tired,” he agreed, “but like the time, it will pass.”
He was more than just tired, he was exhausted. Even a seasoned horseman would feel the effects of riding some twenty-odd miles both ways carrying the weight of Dufaux's evil on his shoulders, and Archie had not ridden a horse since he entered the Navy. There was more to it than that, but it was not something he wanted to share just yet, not even with Lady Frances. In fact he considered this vigil an atonement for the evil he had visited upon the household. Of all of them, Lady Frances would probably understand it best. He would tell her about it sometime when he was not so tired, when he could articulate his thoughts without feeling that his head was stuffed with cotton wool.
Lady Frances, always sensitive to his needs, allowed Archie to keep his own counsel. It was enough for her now simply to sit beside him and wait until he felt like easing the burden of his heart. After a while, his regular breathing told her that he had fallen asleep. Without waking him, she rearranged the cushions to support his body, covered him with the blanket and cradled his head in her lap. She stroked his hair gently and watched him sleep.
“I think you love him as much as I do.”
The unexpected female voice so startled her that she instinctively wrapped her arms around Archie to protect him. Then she looked in the direction of the sound and relaxed her hold. She needed no introduction to tell her the speaker's name. Lady Frances had studied her portrait often enough and closely enough to know every curve and line in her face, as well as the placement of every hair on her head. Even without the portrait she would have known the woman immediately for the uncanny resemblance she bore to her son.
“I doubt I could equal his own mother's love, Mairi.”
“I am glad you came into his life, Frances. His father and brothers never understood him as I did. I think only another woman could.”
“He and Sidwell have made a truce. I think they begin to appreciate one another for the men they have become rather than as the children they once were. And he and Emlyn are getting along famously.”
The apparition smiled. Oddly enough, it was not Archie's smile, for all that he had his mother's features. Archie's smile, on the rare occasions he let it shine forth, was pure Kennedy.
“I'm glad. Your doing?”
“Not at all. Archie won them over on his own merits. Mairi,” Frances hesitated slightly before she continued, unsure how her revelation would be received, “I have a confession to make. You left a packet of letters in your desk, letters from Archie when he went to sea. I read them. I hoped to gain some insights before I met him for the first time. I must apologize. I had no right -”
Mairi's ghost made an impatient gesture. “Do not apologize. I should not have kept them if I did not mean to read and reread them. Nor would you have bothered to read them if you did not care about him. They did help, didn't they?”
“Yes, they did. I wanted to ask you: Did you guess, both from what he said in them and what he left unsaid, that he was being mistreated on board his ship?”
“His tone changed so completely that I knew he had suffered some distress. I did not know if it was the loss of someone dear, an illness, or a terrible disappointment. Whatever it was, I hoped he would tell me when next I saw him.” She looked at her sleeping son sadly. “I did not see him again until yesterday.”
Frances also looked down at the sleeper. His eyelids fluttered gently as if in a dream. She hoped it was a good dream and not some horror from deep within his memory.
“He admitted having been abused by one of his gaolers when he was taken prisoner in France. The way he talked about it gave me the impression that he was no stranger to this sort of mistreatment, that it had happened to him before.” Not knowing how sheltered Mairi's life had been, it was difficult to judge how much to tell her. Frances continued carefully, “It is the way of men, sometimes, when they want to hurt and humiliate another, to use him as they would use a woman. My first husband, who was a sea captain, learned of several instances of such abuse during his service.”
“Archie said something of it yesterday. He named his tormentor as one Jack Simpson, though I did not understand what sort of torment he had endured.” The apparition shimmered as if it would disappear. “Any group of men or boys will always have a bully. I thought he might have been beaten, but nothing beyond that.”
“I'm sorry. I should not have mentioned it. It was not my intention to distress you.”
“No. No, I am glad you did.”
She did not look glad of the knowledge now, but perhaps she would be, once she had grieved over her son's cruel loss of innocence and accepted it as part of what had made him the man she saw today. Lady Frances could only hope so.
“Mairi, may I ask you something? Can you see into the future? Do you know what lies in store for him?”
The apparition smiled sadly. “Archie asked me that, too. Alas, I am not permitted that keen a vision.”
“But you can see something? If only dimly?”
“It is only an impression, without form or definition. If I could guide him into the future, I would tell him only to avoid the sea.”
Was she reacting to what she had just learned, or did she really possess enough intuition to equate the sea with danger? And how did this prediction, if one could call it that, affect Archie's self-imposed mission to dispose of Dufaux's remains?
“Are you aware that he plans to scatter the vampire's ashes at sea? He will leave in the next day or two, depending upon how soon his father locates a vessel that will take him.”
“Will it be a long voyage?” Mairi's voice seemed to come from a great distance, as if she were already returning to the place from whence she came.
“No. I should think not. The Channel is too dangerous, with the possibility of encountering both French and Spanish ships. I would expect him to sail west, perhaps into the Irish Sea."”
“Tell him to go no farther than the Irish Sea. I implore you, Frances. Tell him.”
“I will,” Frances answered, although the quality of the silence all around her said that Mairi was gone. Archie gave a small, muffled cry in his sleep and then was still.
“I had the strangest dreams,” Archie said the next morning when asked how he had slept the night before. Looking around the table he saw an exchange of restrained smiles and secretive glances. Puzzled, he continued, “It seemed to me - in my dreams, that is - that I was not alone during the night. But perhaps the rest of you know more about it than I do.”
“Oh, Archie,” Laetitia chortled. “You have not guessed, have you? Oh, Mama, may I tell him? May I?”
“I have a feeling you will whether you have my permission or not,” her mother answered dryly. “And I think your brother does suspect the truth.”
“Well, in that case,” Letty said, “you will not be surprised to learn that you were not alone in the crypt. Mama, Step-Papa, and Sidwell took turns sitting with you. And you slept through it all!”
“I remember Lady Frances, but no one else.”
“Agatha, Vinia and I wanted to be of the party as well, but Mama and Step-Papa said absolutely not. I think they were afraid we would disturb your slumber.” Giggling she turned to her compatriots, who reddened and would not meet his eyes.
Archie turned to the three who had kept his vigil and said lightly, to disguise his apprehension, “I trust there were no other visitors.”
“Nothing of the sort you were expecting,” Lady Frances assured him, although by her tone and the way she looked at him he knew she had something more to tell him. He would speak to her later, when the girls were not hanging on every word.
After breakfast he joined his father and brother in the library.
“I must find a ship of some sort and quickly. We have lost a full day already,” he said.
“Not lost entirely, Archie,” his father answered. “Whilst you rode to the monastery I made some inquiries locally. There is no one hereabouts who owns a likely vessel; however, Mr. Jessup in the town recommended a shipping concern in Bristol with which he does business.”
“Jessup is a purveyor of fine imported goods,” Sid explained. “I have had dealings with him before and believe he is an honest man.”
“Bristol,” Archie repeated. The merchant's honesty or lack of it was of no consequence. “How far is that?”
“A half-day by coach should do it, more or less depending upon whether you use a public conveyance or one of your brother's carriages.”
“Wouldn't a horse be faster?”
“It would, Archie, but I forbid it. You would ride hell-for-leather, and your body is not accustomed to such abuse. After yesterday I should think you would have realized that.”
“Time is of the essence, Father.”
“Frankly, it is not worth killing yourself over a difference of an hour or so. No, it's settled. We'll take a carriage, and wait in Bristol for your return. You should be at sea for no more than a day at most.”
They departed Shelburne that very morning, Archie, Sir Emlyn and Lady Frances. His father and stepmother would spend the day in Bristol, visit the shops and explore the neighborhood until his return, staying the night in an inn if necessary. Bristol being a shipping town, there should be numerous opportunities to hire a boat for a short excursion. Even if Mr. Jessup's contact could not satisfy Archie's needs himself, he should be able to recommend someone who could.
On the journey, Lady Frances related her experience with the ghost of Mairi Kennedy.
“I saw her the day before,” Archie said, “when Sid locked me in the crypt.” Seeing the look of disappointment on his father's face, he added, “I'm sorry she did not also appear to you, Father.”
“Ah, well,” Sir Emlyn sighed. “I am glad she is looking out for you. That's what matters.”
“And she told you that I should not put out to sea? Are you sure that's what she said, Lady Frances?”
“Quite sure. When I told her that you were going to sea to scatter ashes, she said that you must go no farther than the Irish Sea. She sounded fearful, Archie.”
Archie let his gaze wander to the pastoral scene outside the carriage window. After a minute he said, “At the time she died, I had been lost at sea and presumed dead. I wonder if that is the basis for her fears. She is a ghost, after all. She died thinking me lost, and perhaps that event has stuck in her mind and remains a fear to this day.”
“Hmph!” Sir Emlyn snorted. “It could also mean that under no circumstances should you resume your service in His Majesty's Royal Navy. Or it could mean that you should never again set foot on any sort of ship. The fact is, it could mean any of these things or none of them. In short, she does not know.”
“In other words, I should not let a ghost dictate the conduct of my life.”
Lady Frances got in the last word. “I agree; however, a bit of caution never goes amiss.”
For a while it looked as if Archie would have to book passage on a vessel bound for Dublin and return on the next available ship, a journey measured in days rather than hours. After further inquiries, however, they found a local man with a boat to hire, who did not mind taking a passenger a few miles out into St. George's Channel for the purpose of fulfilling a man's dying wish to be buried at sea.
Archie hated stretching the truth, but this was one instance where absolute honesty would hinder cooperation. The small lie had the added advantage of discouraging conversation on board, convincing the skipper of the Amelia-Louise to leave Archie alone to grieve for his “friend” instead of plying him with inconvenient questions. All Archie had to do was to appear quiet and sad, as if he were mourning. In truth, the feeling of sadness came over him all by itself, as soon as the sails filled and the salt breeze caressed his face and tousled his hair, as he felt the small boat rise and fall on the waves like a softly heaving bosom. He had not thought he could miss the sea, and yet here he was, not two miles out, and already tears were streaming down his cheeks. It must be the tang of the salt air, he told himself, or the release of tension after several days of harrowing events. But his heart knew better.
He let the boat go out another three miles before he opened the strongbox. Dufaux's ashes were gathered into a small canvas sack inside the box. After judging the direction of the wind, Archie positioned himself so that no ashes could blow back on him and opened the sack. He experienced a moment's queasiness as he held his breath and shook the sack, half-afraid that something other than ashes would come out. But a few minutes later he had satisfied himself that most of the ashes had dispersed over the surface of the water. He weighted the sack with rocks brought along for the purpose, tied it and tossed it overboard. Then he closed the box and nodded to the skipper that they could return to shore.
To his credit, the man held his curiosity in check until he had tied up in his mooring and run out the gangplank for Archie to disembark. Then, apparently unable to contain himself any longer, he said, “It's a hard thing, saying good-bye to a friend. You can be proud you held to your promise and gave him the send-off he wanted.”
A friend? Never that. So far from it, in truth, that for a moment Archie felt at a loss to answer. “I have no words to express what he was to me.” That much at least was true. “I thank you, Sir, for your assistance.”
The skipper touched his hat brim in salute.
“Why so pensive, Archie?” Lady Frances asked him on the journey back to Shelburne the next day. “I should think, with Dufaux scattered to the winds and currents, that you would go forth with joyful step and light heart.”
“Don't nag him, Frances. The man is probably still tired. I know I am, after facing that monster two nights in a row and chasing all over the countryside betimes. Try not to bring any more vampires home, will you, Archie? They're a damned nuisance to get rid of. Not to mention the broken windows, glassware, furniture, and the like.”
Archie managed a small smile for his father and stepmother. “I was not thinking of Dufaux, particularly.”
“What? Is that all you have to say? Unsporting of you to leave it there, Archie. You might at least tell us what is on your mind.”
“Don't nag him, Emlyn. The man has the right to the privacy of his thoughts.” Lady Frances, sitting beside her husband in the forward-facing seat, winked at Archie.
Archie envied them their easy banter, evidence of their close and fond relationship. Witnessing it now, unfortunately, only increased his melancholy.
“I was thinking of something the skipper of the Amelia-Louise said to me,” he answered, “about how hard it is to say good-bye to a friend. He meant the supposed friend I was burying at sea, but it made me think of Horatio. When I bade him farewell, I assumed I would be returning to sea myself before long. Now I wonder if I will see him again. It makes me wish I had said a proper good-bye. We parted somewhat hastily.”
“You'll see him again, Archie. He's bound to come ashore sometime. He's got your sea chest, hasn't he?”
Archie wondered how his father came by such unfounded confidence. “Of course he'll come ashore. But I won't know when or where. As for my sea chest, he'll send it on to London, and if I'm lucky he'll remember to send a letter with it. But we won't meet again.”
“Then you must write to him. Tell him the next time he's in England, you expect him to visit. It's not an invitation, tell him, it's an order.” Sir Emlyn's imitation of Lord Treviston's haughty manner, even to the long look down the aristocratic nose, was so spot on that Archie was forced to smile in spite of himself. “By the time he comes calling, you'll be either a proper country squire or a diplomat in the foreign service, so you'll have plenty to tell him. Not that you don't have plenty to tell him now, as far as that goes. Are you saying you've not written him yet?”
“No, Sir. I have not.”
“Then you must sit down as soon as we reach Shelburne House and do so. I will remind you myself, lest you forget.”
“He means that he will nag you, Archie. In your place I should comply with alacrity, or he will ride you hard.”
“Aye aye, Sir.”
Lady Frances turned to her husband. “What did you mean, Emlyn, by saying Archie might be a diplomat in the foreign service? I have heard nothing of this new plan of yours.”
“That's because we've only just hatched it, Archie and I. Recent events have borne this out: He has a particular talent for talking troublesome characters out of their ill-humor, as well as an easy charm with the ladies. It seemed a natural progression from that to a career in diplomacy.”
“Not all troublesome characters,” Archie demurred. “Alcide Dufaux certainly proved immune to my influence.”
“Dufaux,” his father snorted. “He was a law unto himself, that one. You couldn't expect him to be talked out of anything he wanted.”
“Perhaps I misunderstand,” Lady Frances said, “but would not a career in the foreign service necessitate travel abroad?”
“Well, of course, Frances,” said her husband. “That goes without saying.” Emlyn winked at Archie, as if to say, Leave it to a woman to overstate the obvious.
Undaunted, Lady Frances continued, “And in order to get off this island in order to travel abroad, is it not necessary to go to sea?”
Archie saw where she was going, but before he could comment his father answered, “Crossing the Channel is hardly going to sea, Frances. Mairi's ghost told him to venture no farther than the Irish Sea. She said nothing of traveling in the other direction.”
“Is a diplomat permitted to choose his postings? What if they send him to the former Colonies? Would you have him turn down an assignment on the grounds that a ghost warned him not to travel over water? How long would his career last if he made that claim, do you think?”
Archie finally managed to get in a word. “Obviously, it's a plan that requires closer examination.”
His father and stepmother exchanged satisfied glances and changed the subject.
An hour later they entered the long drive into Shelburne Park and the interminable carriage ride drew to a close. The family must have been taking turns watching for them, because the front door opened and the ladies spilled out together, with the two children in their wake.
“No sign of Sidwell,” Sir Emlyn said as he looked out. “I suppose he's engaged in pressing farm business and cannot spare the time. Tell me, isn't there an extra female in that gaggle?”
Lady Frances, who was on the wrong side of the carriage to see the welcoming party, had to wait until the curve in the drive allowed her to look out in the same direction. What she saw made her break into a huge smile.
“Hortense! `Tis my sister, Hortense. I wrote and asked her to join us here. She's come at last.”
“Oh, well, she's all right.”
“What do you mean, Emlyn? Hortense is more than `all right.' She is sensible, good-natured, big-hearted, easy to please, and by far my dearest sister.”
“It also helps,” Sir Emlyn confided to Archie, “that she is her only sister. Guess what gender her offspring are. I swear there are naught but females in that family.”
“Hortense's husband is very much alive, Emlyn. For all you know, he may be waiting inside. Or else inspecting the yearling colts with Sid.”
The carriage slowed to a halt by the front steps. The footman barely had time to open the door and pull down the step before the ladies swarmed around them. Lady Frances stepped down first, only to disappear in a swirl of brightly colored skirts amid a chorus of soprano voices.
“Mama, Mama! Look who's here! It's Aunt Hortense.”
“Yes, Letty, I can see for myself. Hortense, my dear sister. I was beginning to fear you would not come.”
“How could I not, after reading your intriguing letters?”
“And is my brother-in-law not with you this visit?”
“Bram is out in the kennels with young Sid, looking for a bitch to breed to his favorite hound.”
“And my nieces, Caroline, Mary Rose and Charlotte?”
“I didn't want to impose, so we left them at home with their nurse.”
“Hortense, my dear, it is no imposition.”
Her sister's lowered voice nevertheless reached into the carriage. “So you say, Frances, but it is still Sidwell's house, is it not?”
“It is Sir Emlyn's house,” Frances corrected her, “and if my nieces are not welcome to visit me, then I should worry about my own welcome.”
“I wish now we had let them come. Especially as your daughters have regaled me in your absence with the most fantastic tale. I cannot wait to meet the dashing young hero of it.”
Emlyn, who had stepped down behind his wife but so far stood ignored by the chattering ladies, turned and gave Archie a meaningful glance. “You're a wanted man, Archie. If I were you, I'd go out the other door and hightail it around to the side entrance. Quick before they see you.”
“Too late for that, I think, Father,” Archie said as Lady Frances deftly maneuvered around her husband and reached for Archie's hand as he descended from the carriage. There was nothing for it but to follow her into the circle and meet his step-aunt.
“Hortense, my dear, may I present Emlyn's youngest, Archie Kennedy. Archie, this is my sister, Mrs. Hortense Lydell. Her husband Brampton is inspecting the kennels with your brother, so you'll meet him later.”
“So this is the young man I have heard so much about.”
Hortense looked at him with a sweet but generous smile, very much like her sister's. She appeared to be some years younger than Lady Frances, her figure trim and her gown extremely fetching. Not that Archie knew anything about fashion, but he recognized that women who dressed in styles that became them always seemed to exude a special confidence. Or was it rather that confident women always knew how to dress to their advantage? Archie's immediate impression was that Mrs. Lydell would be every bit as easy to like as Lady Frances. He bent over her hand and kissed it, eliciting an even more enchanting smile.
“Lady Frances has been a very good friend to me, Mrs. Lydell. I am deeply honored to meet her sister.”
“Archie. I may call you Archie, mayn't I? It would be too confusing otherwise, with two other Kennedy men present, and one of them your father.” Assured that she could, she continued, “And may I say what a joy it is to meet a young man who remains both gracious and unaffected despite being saddled with devastating charm and inordinate good looks? I anticipate spending a delightful few days in your company, Archie Kennedy.”
The thought occurred to him, as she linked her arm through his and let him escort her into the house, that she reminded him strongly of another woman whose bold tongue and confident manner had thoroughly captivated him. The realization almost made Archie ask Mrs. Lydell if she had ever pursued, or thought of pursuing, a career in the theater.
“You have a lovely smile, Archie. Very warm and genuine. I pray we will be seeing much more of it.”
Yes, he thought happily. They most certainly would.
Fortitude by Lorraine Jean