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Inkitt activity this weekend on my books

Monday, January 15th, 2018

I now have 13 book on inkitt that have reached a full count for assessment.  Whether or not anything comes of it we will have to wait and see. I keep hoping.

 

34 melanieung17 added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

2 hours ago

melanieung17 added Tales Told Out Of School. 2. A Mind Of Her Own to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

2 hours ago

noraarao added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Currently Reading

5 hours ago

Sneddon added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

5 hours ago

Gareth Gaid added Erotic Adventures: 4. A Rebellious Turn of Fate. to the Reading list Currently Reading

5 hours ago

Keralyn Mayers added Tales Told Out Of School. 2. A Mind Of Her Own to the Reading list Currently Reading

6 hours ago

ritorvinen added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Currently Reading

8 hours ago

Lupe Tapia added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

8 hours ago

Megan Hoffman added Love Will Find A Way to the Reading list Currently Reading

11 hours ago

Arianna Tennart added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

11 hours ago

codieswallow16 added Tales Told Out Of School. 6. Stuck, On A Ladder! to the Reading list Currently Reading

11 hours ago

venuslen added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Currently Reading

11 hours ago

Andreia Cunha added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Currently Reading

13 hours ago

mbongiad added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Currently Reading

13 hours ago

crosett1114 added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Currently Reading

14 hours ago

Lydia Toloumu added There is No Tomorrow: Of Unexpected Love. to the Reading list Currently Reading

14 hours ago

codieswallow16 added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Currently Reading

15 hours ago

Kaia Marie added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Currently Reading

15 hours ago

rehgelena added Tales Told Out Of School. 6. Stuck, On A Ladder! to the Reading list Currently Reading

16 hours ago

Mutambi Maina added Tales Told Out Of School. 2. A Mind Of Her Own to the Reading list Currently Reading

18 hours ago

hadiyaarain081 added Erotic Adventures: 1. Dear Diary. to the Reading list Currently Reading

19 hours ago

weshaw1 added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Currently Reading

19 hours ago

elementary 36 added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Currently Reading

19 hours ago

Mona Abid added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

20 hours ago

Ahmad Momenai added Tales Told Out Of School. 2. A Mind Of Her Own to the Reading list Currently Reading

21 hours ago

Ahmad Momenai added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Currently Reading

21 hours ago

eatingbread11 added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Currently Reading

a day ago

juliet Ada added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

a day ago

Prasad Kukunur added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

a day ago

Prasad Kukunur added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

a day ago

Kirti Shakdweepiya added Love Will Find A Way to the Reading list Currently Reading

a day ago

sidpen added Saving Selena: Love Lost, Then Found. to the Reading list Currently Reading

a day ago

praneetha raju added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

a day ago

danirayjamer added The Belvedere; A Gentle Love Story. to the Reading list Currently Reading

a day ago

45 Joseph Udee added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Currently Reading

an hour ago

shykhalid21 added The Belvedere; A Gentle Love Story. to the Reading list Currently Reading

an hour ago

adeboyearidegbe added The Belvedere; A Gentle Love Story. to the Reading list Currently Reading

2 hours ago

aafke2001 added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

3 hours ago

Mrsnerdypants added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Currently Reading

3 hours ago

cutiesohijain1907 added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

4 hours ago

berrykardash262 added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

5 hours ago

dayna20120 added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

6 hours ago

Lydia Toloumu added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Currently Reading

7 hours ago

vivihan05 added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Currently Reading

7 hours ago

mickhewett1 added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

8 hours ago

PrincessPj Pastrana added Erotic Adventures: 1. Dear Diary. to the Reading list Asfghlkxz

8 hours ago

PrincessPj Pastrana added Erotic Adventures: 1. Dear Diary. to the Reading list Currently Reading

8 hours ago

hasanah musa added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

9 hours ago

kate flintoff added Tales Told Out Of School. 2. A Mind Of Her Own to the Reading list Currently Reading

10 hours ago

Leah Chance added Erotic Adventures: 1. Dear Diary. to the Reading list Currently Reading

12 hours ago

nery tayo added Tales Told Out Of School. 2. A Mind Of Her Own to the Reading list nt213657

13 hours ago

nery tayo added Tales Told Out Of School. 2. A Mind Of Her Own to the Reading list Currently Reading

13 hours ago

ani milburn added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list OoOH

14 hours ago

ani milburn added Tales Told Out Of School: 7. Eunice Dyson’s Lost Panties to the Reading list OoOH

14 hours ago

ani milburn added Tales Told Out Of School. 6. Stuck, On A Ladder! to the Reading list OoOH

14 hours ago

albader5655 added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

15 hours ago

Shenoa Bello added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

15 hours ago

jordannichols02 added Fate, The Relentless Hunter. to the Reading list Currently Reading

16 hours ago

jordannichols02 added The Belvedere; A Gentle Love Story. to the Reading list Currently Reading

16 hours ago

jordannichols02 added Saving Selena: Love Lost, Then Found. to the Reading list Currently Reading

16 hours ago

rayshahb added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

16 hours ago

rayshahb added Love Will Find A Way to the Reading list Currently Reading

17 hours ago

kmnelson01 added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Currently Reading

17 hours ago

kmnelson01 added Love Will Find A Way to the Reading list Currently Reading

17 hours ago

jordannichols02 added Erotic Adventures: 1. Dear Diary. to the Reading list Currently Reading

18 hours ago

Rachel Lace Daern added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

19 hours ago

Hana Fathima added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Currently Reading

19 hours ago

Hana Fathima added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

19 hours ago

Angela Barretto added Erotic Adventures: 1. Dear Diary. to the Reading list Currently Reading

19 hours ago

ujjesha added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

19 hours ago

Sharvari Gundawar added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Currently Reading

19 hours ago

rlstpn added Tales Told Out Of School. 2. A Mind Of Her Own to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

19 hours ago

amrita doddamani added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Currently Reading

20 hours ago

Anastasia Pratami added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Currently Reading

20 hours ago

Fatuma M Ali added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

20 hours ago

Shradha added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Currently Reading

20 hours ago

feinekesa6 added Tales Told Out Of School. 2. A Mind Of Her Own to the Reading list Currently Reading

21 hours ago

Mansi Rautela added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

21 hours ago

Schmulik added Fate, The Relentless Hunter. to the Reading list Currently Reading

a day ago

53 auradeliaf added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

14 minutes ago

sirishadhanalakota added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

21 minutes ago

2335530 added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

25 minutes ago

2335530 added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

25 minutes ago

Alicia added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

28 minutes ago

Maha haider added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Currently Reading

38 minutes ago

Maha haider added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Currently Reading

an hour ago

alexbatchelor53 added Tales Told Out Of School. 6. Stuck, On A Ladder! to the Reading list Currently Reading

an hour ago

Naomi Bagayaua added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Currently Reading

2 hours ago

john23 added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Currently Reading

2 hours ago

ruheesangha24 added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

2 hours ago

john23 added Tales Told Out Of School. 6. Stuck, On A Ladder! to the Reading list Currently Reading

2 hours ago

shreyabiswas180719 added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Currently Reading

2 hours ago

Ava Violet added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

3 hours ago

Sophie added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

3 hours ago

anon added Erotic Adventures: 1. Dear Diary. to the Reading list Currently Reading

4 hours ago

tamarerasmus added The Belvedere; A Gentle Love Story. to the Reading list Currently Reading

4 hours ago

Rissie Luvii added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

5 hours ago

Eden Pela added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

5 hours ago

Ritz_rina added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

5 hours ago

Chidera Eze added Tales Told Out Of School. 6. Stuck, On A Ladder! to the Reading list Currently Reading

6 hours ago

Chidera Eze added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Currently Reading

6 hours ago

Alessa K. added Tales Told Out Of School: 7. Eunice Dyson’s Lost Panties to the Reading list Currently Reading

6 hours ago

haribo187 added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Currently Reading

6 hours ago

Nikitha Kashyap added Erotic Adventures: 1. Dear Diary. to the Reading list Currently Reading

6 hours ago

monskiui added Tales Told Out Of School. 2. A Mind Of Her Own to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

7 hours ago

paradkarakshata added The Belvedere; A Gentle Love Story. to the Reading list Caroline’s diaries

7 hours ago

leilanigstone20 added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

8 hours ago

Bree Nicole added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

8 hours ago

Nayyrah added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Currently Reading

8 hours ago

owls212 added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

9 hours ago

Missy Writer added Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. to the Reading list Currently Reading

10 hours ago

Stormy Michael added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

10 hours ago

Mercedes Price added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

12 hours ago

miranet95 added Erotic Adventures: 3. A Rude Awakening. to the Reading list Currently Reading

12 hours ago

M.S GASTON added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

12 hours ago

Maris Chris added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Currently Reading

13 hours ago

Tasha added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

14 hours ago

Lois Kanye added Erotic Adventures: 1. Dear Diary. to the Reading list Currently Reading

14 hours ago

Rileen Miack added Love Will Find A Way to the Reading list New

14 hours ago

Reyna deLeon added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

15 hours ago

Moises added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

15 hours ago

Sarra Marie Cureg added Erotic Adventures: 1. Dear Diary. to the Reading list Currently Reading

15 hours ago

Kwame Max added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

16 hours ago

kelemaster70 added Tales Told Out Of School. 2. A Mind Of Her Own to the Reading list Currently Reading

17 hours ago

kelemaster70 added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Currently Reading

17 hours ago

Alejandra Oropeza added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

17 hours ago

Rileen Miack added Love Will Find A Way to the Reading list Currently Reading

17 hours ago

fizuz999 added Tales Told Out Of School: 7. Eunice Dyson’s Lost Panties to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

17 hours ago

fizuz999 added Tales Told Out Of School. 3. On Being A Man In A Girls’ School. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

17 hours ago

fizuz999 added Tales Told Out Of School. 5. A Runaway Situation. to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

17 hours ago

sbnikn added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

18 hours ago

Anonymous Person added Variations on an Erotic Adventure to the Reading list Tease Me Picks

19 hours ago

Deception by Proxy. Chapter Eight.

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

Painful Readjustments, a Conversation Overheard.

 

Within seconds of William’s head touching his pillow once more, he was asleep.

When he awoke just after dawn, fighting down the sudden fear that he was still in enemy territory and had overslept and put himself in danger from a sudden surprise attack, he found the youngest daughter sitting in her nightdress in a chair in his room. She had her legs hugged close to her and up under her chin, with her feet resting on the edge of the chair, in the careless, innocent manner of a child, giving no thought to appearances.

No enemy here.

He relaxed as his momentary panic subsided, and watched her.

She seemed to have been waiting for him to awaken. He observed her for a few moments as she momentarily had turned away to see outside of one of the windows in his room. She had a nut brown complexion and freckles standing out on her face. The effects of the sun and an open-air style of life seemed to characterize the entire family and showed their love of being outside. He could see the rising sun playing upon his hand beside his pillow from the window behind him, and he moved his fingers to cast a shadow upon the bright pool of sunlight on the stark white of his bedroom wall. He made different shapes as he saw that her attention was caught, first by the shape of a rabbit with its long ears, and then of a strange face of a man with a peculiar hat upon his head, and then that of an old hag with hooked nose and chin and seemingly cackling. He animated that face and gave her movement.

The observer was fascinated. He brought his other hand up into the sun and made a rooster with his comb, and then a deer with antlers. She suddenly realized that he was now awake and had made those shadow-shapes for her.

When he stretched and smiled sadly at her, though saying nothing, she quietly unwound herself from the chair and left without saying anything.

Although he was typically an early riser—even before dawn, despite his lack of sleep that previous night—the youngest girl had beaten him to it and had then disappeared.

When he was adequately dressed, he retrieved his toilet kit from his bag, picking up a towel that had been left for him on the dresser, and went downstairs. Mrs. Barristow was no longer to be seen in the parlor where he had left her. He pulled on his boots, noticing that they were cleaner than when he had removed them on the previous night. There were sounds of an active kitchen from deeper in the house, but no one was obviously to be seen. He quietly let himself out and decided to shave and wash himself before others might appear.

He walked over to the trough and proceeded to lay out his gear before he stripped to the waist and prepared to shave. He had propped his small mirror at the back edge of the trough and had filled his pewter cup with water and raised a lather, which he spread across his whiskers and under his neck. He would not be able to sharpen his blade as there was nowhere obvious to hang his strop. He had almost completed shaving when he had the feeling of being watched. He gave no sign that he might be aware of it but continued what he was doing as he adjusted his position relative to his mirror to see behind him. He could just make out a figure standing at one of the upper windows watching him, but he could not make out which of the family it might be.

He rinsed off his razor in the overflow from the trough and then began to wash himself in the cold water—much colder water than he had grown used to in Portugal and Spain, but then this was England and he was lucky that he did not have to break ice off the water before he might do anything.

He dried himself, put his shirt back on, and after leaving his toiletries by the side of the door to pick up when he returned, he strolled off to walk about the kitchen garden and then moved further afield into the larger garden behind the house and then even further about the grounds to get his first look at the entire house and garden in daylight. The gardens were all extensive and well kept, yet there did not seem to be any gardeners involved in doing so—at least not just yet. It was still probably too early with everything still damp from the previous night’s rain and the overnight dew. The house itself, though old and from an earlier time, showed no signs of neglect or of being run-down in any way, so his few remaining fears of the night before had been groundless. It was all an exceptionally well-kept and prosperous property.

On his return to the house, he heard hammering from the coach house and found Thomas busy putting two coffins together. Without a word, he joined into what he was doing and helped him for an hour or so to the point where they were almost finished. He quite surprised the older man, who had not expected any help, by showing that he knew what he was doing without being told and was no stranger to a plane, a drill, or any of the many tools lying about, nor the finer points of joinery. Clearly, he might be described as a jack of all trades, having learned by bitter experience, to fend for himself and his friends, to make life easier and more comfortable under the worst conditions while on campaign. There was a lining for the coffins already prepared for the two still upstairs, to rest upon. Others must have been busy working at that the previous night.

“We are almost done, thanks to you, sir. If you do not mind my asking, where did you learn to work with wood? One does not expect a gentleman to know such things.”

“William will do. I dislike formality. There are those who might argue with that description of my being a gentleman. It will take me some time to learn the rules again. I spent most of my youth, when I was not with tutors, with my father’s grounds men, joiners, masons, or at the dock with my father’s sailors. None of them tolerated an idle youth watching them, and had me working with them. In short order they soon trusted me enough to help them. I was a fast learner.”

“You learned well, I would say. I had not expected to be done before lunch.” His eyes drifted into the rafters above, as pieces of hay were dislodged from the planks above. “So you decided to show up at last, did you, my mousing friend?” He castigated the cat. “The Captain, as we call him,” he explained to William. “Captain Cat. Sad day for all, my furry friend, though you are untouched by it all. No, we are not making a comfortable bed for you to discover when we leave.” The cat was sitting above their heads and licking his paws while perched precariously on a narrow piece of wood. He had seemingly fed well. “They were busy looking for him last evening.”

“He spent part of the night on my bed, but we were both restless. Did you manage to get any sleep.”

“Yes, sir, William, I did. Mrs. Barristow came in shortly after you left and told me to go and rest, as she knew what I needed to get done today. She was surprised that you had come and sat with me and grateful of it, I think. But if Captain spent the night with you, then you were rare privileged, for he is often found with the girls and usually keeps clear of those who are not well known to him, especially men. He ignores me except when I feed him a mouse or two from the feed bins when they fall in there and can’t get out, but he gets enough of those for himself.”

At that moment, a rider came along the roadway at a steady canter, breaking only to a walk as he turned into the gate and approached up the driveway. His horse had not been pushed too hard, but he had clearly come some distance with the mud thrown up onto the horses legs. William thought he recognized one of Lady Seymour’s own grooms. Now what mischief was the old dear up to?

Thomas put his hammer down. “I’d better see what it’s about afore he wakes the rest of the house up. If we didn’t already with our hammering.”

William watched as some few words were exchanged and a letter handed down. “Thank you. I will see she gets it.”

The rider listened to what was being said to him, undoubtedly the offer of some refreshment before he returned, but he shook his head, and then turned and left as he had arrived. Lady Seymour had obviously told him not to impose upon the family, for a messenger from any distance away might expect some refreshment before he returned.

Thomas looked at the folded paper and turned it over. “From near London no less.” He squinted at the nearly illegible name on the folded paper.

“From Se….” he struggled to decipher the scrawl, “Semont? No…Seymour, Lady Seymour.” He did not say what seemed to be going through his mind, but the look on his face said it all. “Aye, bad news travels fast, but she was told of this last night by the lad, as were others. He must have left at first light to have got it here by now, and his instructions were to return promptly. I’m surprised he didn’t get lost.

“Well, I wonder what urgency demanded that he be here with this so early and leave just as soon as he arrived and without wetting his whistle? No doubt sends her commiserations but is unlikely to provide comfort to them, considering what has already happened, but she means well I expect. He should have stayed, for grub’s about to be served up from what I can smell.” They put the liners inside and then covered the coffins to keep the cat out. “You go and eat, sir. I’ll join you shortly. I’d better see missus gets this first.”

William retrieved his gear from by the door and entered the house, with Thomas not far behind.

“A message, Thomas?” She took it from him. “The first of many, no doubt. Good morning, William.” She put a hand on his arm to warmly thank him again.

“Ma’am.” Her eyes were red and swollen from far too many tears, but she strove to be civil and attentive to what was required, no matter how little she might feel to be that way.

She looked with some difficulty at who might have sent it and recognized Lady Seymour’s hand. She sighed heavily; there would be many more like that as the days wore on. She dropped it on the hallway table, unopened.

“I cannot handle this at the moment. You should both come and eat. There will be a more substantial breakfast later when the girls are able to get about. I shall not disturb them just yet. I could hear you working out there, and you cannot work on an empty stomach. I fear I overslept, but I shall leave the girls longer. They must be exhausted too.”

 

A little later, as he was about to go back to the coach-house, he encountered Annis coming down the stairs. He was pleased to note some gentleness in her attitude toward him for she did try to smile.

She had obviously spent a tearful night, as he could see that her eyes were reddened with crying and were swollen. She seemed quite different, and appeared to have retreated from the more severe and critical, even angry reception that he felt had been his on the previous day. However, that may have been her helpless response to the injustice of what was happening about them, and to them, and her sorrow had been directed at all and sundry about her, rather than targeted at him as it had seemed to have been.

“Good morning.”

Her eyes took in his easy and careless manner of dress, with his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows and the neck open. He had obviously been making himself useful somewhere. His eyes were direct, and his hair seemed almost to be even more unruly than it had been the night before when she had first seen him.

“Yes, sir, it is, but alas, I can see nothing that is good about it?” She perhaps was taking him to task for his thoughtless adherence to custom. It was understandable considering the grief that they all had to bear.

He swore inwardly at his forgetful ineptitude and his speaking without having thought of the impact of anything he might say under the circumstances. “Indeed, yes. I am sorry. I did not intend to be clumsy that way. It was a manner of expression.”

She inclined her head to acknowledge his apology. “You should call me Annis, sir, as everyone else does.”

“Thank you, Annis. My name is William. I am sorry that a complete stranger to you such as myself, and one so gauche and stupid, has intruded so badly upon you at such a time as this.”

“It cannot be helped. We must all put up with some inconvenience it seems. You must pay me no mind, sir, and I beg your pardon. For I spoke rudely and with lack of patience when you meant only good. I think your intrusion was welcome and perhaps even necessary for all of our sakes.”

He smiled. “I am also sorry that I blundered into your bedroom last night, for I think I may have disturbed your rest.”

She acknowledged his second apology but could not meet his eyes, for her own were misted. It seems she had known of his presence. He continued. “Please forgive my clumsiness. I shall stay out of your way as far as I can.”

She looked at him and blinked back her tears. “You married my sister, sir. We must also be complete strangers to you too, so I suspect we must learn to live with a little discomfort with each other’s presence for a while until other plans are made. But do you intend to stay? I am sure we do not expect it of you under such awkward circumstances as these must be for you. There is no setting that is likely to be less relaxing or comfortable for you, than to be privy to the grief of so many women in such a confined circumstance as here, when you do not need to be. You were not obliged to do what you did, yet it seems to have been a great help to us. Mama was relieved, and I must thank you for that, though in what way you helped, I do not understand. We should not ask more of you. You must have a good deal to do on your own behalf without having to deal with our grief, and that must have sidetracked you so suddenly from more important things.”

It was difficult to gauge her mood or opinion. She seemed to be offering him reasons and an excuse to go, if he needed one. A few hours earlier, he might have been relieved to have been offered that excuse, but no longer.

“If I am not in the way, I will stay and try to be useful as I may be able to. For a while, anyway.” He said nothing about his promise to her father. “I have no need to rush off, provided I can locate my clothing before I destroy what little I have with me.”

She could see a small separation of the sleeve at the shoulder where he had strained the seam in some activity that morning or even earlier.

“My own late father’s estate has been well managed for the past five years and certainly since my father’s illness over the last years and, indeed, since his death some time ago now. I could be mistaken, but I doubt I am needed there. I may prove to be of more use here at the moment.”

He seemed gentle and well spoken, but she already knew that from the little she had seen of him on the previous night. But to shed tears at their loss as he had—for even her sisters had noticed it and commented upon it with some confusion—was quite surprising. Most men would never dare show such feelings openly and could not feign tears or emotions as some women could.

Somehow, he was different from other young men she had encountered. He was more mature, more assured of himself, and had not appeared too uncomfortable with their grief but had joined it. He had also spent some time privately with her father at her father’s request, and she could not help but wonder what they might have discussed that was so important, with her father as close to death as he had been, and him a complete stranger to them all. She did not know him well enough to ask him directly about any of that just yet.

“At least I hope I may be of some use, though at the moment I am at a loss to know what it might be. I shall stay, unless I appear to be overstaying and trespassing where I am not needed. But then, your mother will let me know if I am, I think.”

“Yes, I expect so.”

“I find myself in an awkward quandary. If it would not be too much to ask, may I request that—when there is a more suitable moment, and it is far too early I know at this time—that you tell me something of your sister when all of this is behind us, though I know I ask far too much of you to consider it at this time. It would be truly a tragedy if I were the only one who knew nothing of my wife.” He deliberately avoided referring to her as his late wife. “I find that I need to know more than I do.”

She was surprised at his request that he might like to know more of her sister, for he had come out of nowhere and might depart just as quickly and conveniently without becoming any more deeply embroiled in their grief. Why he might want to learn more of her dead sister was puzzling, for there had been no affection on such short and tragic acquaintance. He would be wise, and it would be better that he departed at the earliest opportunity and leave them to grieve in peace. He had done what had been required of him, and if he left as quickly as he came, it might be better for all concerned. However, it did not seem that that was likely to happen as soon as it might, for her mother wished him to stay.

“Yes, sir. I shall do that if you wish it. But when that might be I do not know, for there is much to occupy us over the next few days.”

“Of course. I understand.”

“Please excuse me. I need to help Mama.” She had heard the sounds of activity from the scullery and her mother’s voice.

He stepped aside and let her go about her business.

 

Sometime later, while he was in the small study continuing his letter that he had started at Kellands to his sister, he overheard a subdued conversation between Annis and her mother, complaining about a relative—a male, and one who believed that he was directly in line to inherit the estate now that their father was dead. They were concerned that this gentleman was sure to call upon them now that their father could no longer deflect him as he had needed to do in the past to defend them from him.

He listened and learned more of their remarkably poor opinion of the individual. His name was Thackeray; and they seemed to dread his anticipated appearance, for he had the reputation of being an unpleasant individual, with little respect for a woman. Thomas had told him of the man and his father while they had both worked in the coach-house and had painted an unenviable portrait of the pair. It seemed that they had been the ones that Mr. Barristow had felt concern about.

He decided that, if possible, he would probably help them to avoid him and his father, though how to do so was not yet clear, unless they obviously tried to intrude where they were neither welcome nor wanted. He felt guilty overhearing such a personal exchange of views but felt that it would not harm to listen and to learn what he might.

Unfortunately, the conversation turned to him at that particular moment; and though Annis’s voice had dropped, knowing that he might not be far away, he could still hear what was said.

“Mama, I know you try not to think ill of anyone, but Mr. Devane is also an entirely unknown quantity to us. We know so little about him. He may turn out to be quite as bad as either of the Thackerays.”

“Hush, my dear. No, he is not. I did learn something about him from his mother and his sister, remember, even if you did not? Your father said only good of him at the last, and had known his father well, some years ago.”

“Yes, but knowing the father is no indication of the merits of the son, Mama. You and Bella may have learned of him from his sister, but you did not share what you knew with me, and I was not always privy to your conversation. I doubt that his mother or sister are disinterested enough to share any of his failings with relative strangers.”

“They are not strangers to me Annis, but are like sisters. But then no, you are right. We do not know him quite as well as we should, I expect, but we were given precious little choice in doing what we had to do. Whatever his failings may be as you say, they are the least of my concerns at this time. Before you wonder about him being let loose in a house with four vulnerable and grieving females and no male to protect us, I will have you know that I am aware of many of the various earlier accusations that had been raised against him before he went off to war, and I firmly believe them to be without merit. I had the full details from his sister.” He could sense her looking hard at her daughter. “He is not a threat to any of us in that way.”

Annis chose not to argue the point with her mother. “I suppose it must be some small consolation to realize that he cannot possibly be as bad as what we know already of the younger Mr. Thackeray. For he is insufferably arrogant, rude, offensive, insulting—even stupid—as well as dangerous for us. He is an extremely dull kind of person, who cannot take a hint but is likely to try and inflict himself upon us without our father to discourage him now. I did not like him creeping about the house as he did when he was last here and snooping into everything. So, better the devil we know a little about, than the one we know everything about.”

“Oh hush, Annis. Let us not visit there. We have troubles enough without anticipating more, and they are just begun, I fear.”

Annis felt strongly about something. “But there is no adjective scathing enough to use that can do sufficient justice to his poor character, for he is all that I said and worse. He bullies everyone he can, and ignores common decency. He can blunder in where he has no business and openly interferes in situations that do not concern him, for he tried to go through father’s desk until he found it locked after that. He was not suited after making that discovery.

“Now that father is not in his way he will strive to work behind our backs in ways sure to achieve what he wants without any of our interests or needs being protected. He is a weasel. He last came with some obscure intention of asking Papa’s advice upon something, but his clumsy and stupidly transparent intent was obvious to father, and he was firmly steered off and sent away. I doubt that Mr. Devane will put himself out so much to discourage him. Why should he? He knows nothing of us.”

“He married your sister, my dear. He blindly trusted me to allow that to go forward, as I trust him, but not so blindly. He did not have to do that. I think that counts for far more than you might believe.”

“I hope you are right, Mama. That Thackeray individual and his father cannot be trusted. They may even more openly try to sell off that large piece of ground to the squire. Squire.” She went off on another tangent. “He has no right to call himself that, for Papa is—was—by far the bigger landholder and is…was, better considered in the local area.”

“Gently, my dear, gently. Do not get yourself worked up over nothing. We have enough on our plates at this moment. Too much to deal with easily, I fear. Now is not the time for argumentation and brangling. A rose by any other name, my dear.”

“A midden by any other name, more like.”

“Oh, Annis. If it makes him feel good and important to puff himself up in that way, I am sure it cannot affect us in any way, call himself what he will. Your father was more amused than offended by it and gave it no thought and nor should you at a time like this. You should remember that if you cannot say something nice about someone….”

“Then say nothing.” She interrupted and finished off what her mother had taught her many times. “Yes, mama, you are right. I am sorry. I am not making things any easier.”

“He always hoped your father would give that field to him, in the expectation that it would eventually come to him anyway, no matter how many times your father told him that there was no question of the succession—when there may have been, for his persistence put your father’s back up over it—and you know what a complete schemer the squire is to get what he wants. I fear it will all be revived again now.” She paused. “Oh dear. Here was I telling you off and I fall into the same trap. But indeed it is not all misplaced, for it is true. He will have broken the fence down again, claim that his cows did it, and has seen his cattle stream into that pasture already, thinking that no one would notice or dare say anything now that your father has gone and no one to defend our interests.”

“He did that once before, Mama, and father had to go and see him about it and tell him to remove them, or he would shoot them and be well within his rights. They had a dreadful argument about who owned that land, but it was settled well enough—until the next time. Which is probably now. I believe Thackeray may have come that time with the expectation of developing a relationship with Bella and ensuring his so-called ‘rights’ through marriage—so he did start out to be as well intentioned as he might be or at least strove to give that impression, but I don’t believe he seriously considered marriage. She turned him off severely when he persisted, and yet he persisted further, despite what she said to him before he was shown off by Father. He wandered the house the only night he spent here, snooping in and out of everyone’s bedroom. That was too much when he startled Charlotte, and she raised the house telling him to leave her room instantly in a loud enough voice that could be heard out to the road I expect, so you and father insisted he leave before first light. His intentions cannot have been honorable.”

“That was your father that showed him off, dear. But we cannot know he intended any mischief. He was just used to getting his own way. I am so relieved they did not come to blows, for there were some harsh words spoken. But we cannot lock ourselves away nor lose a year in mourning, with all of our futures hanging in the balance and still to think about and resolve. Mourning is a luxury for the rich and foolish who can afford to see a year of their life pass them by. Your father was adamant in his words about that, for he had no patience with such folly as he told me at the end. Made me promise.” William heard her sniff loudly and could almost see her brace her shoulders to fight on.

“Get over it, and get on with life,” was his way of expressing things when the going got rough, and there were times when it was hard and difficult for us in the early going, but we weathered it all. We will weather Mr. Thackeray and his father too, just as we will weather this turmoil, and I do not think that you will find Mr. Devane to be quite as bad as he might have been painted by others, for I do know more than just a little of him.”

“I really do not know enough of him, Mama, to be negative or otherwise, but we should be on our guard. I suppose we can expect them all to descend upon us now and try to turn us out on one pretext or another.”

“All? I don’t think so. The Thackerays—father and son both—are the only ones. I doubt that any other half cousin—or whatever the relationship was—will be likely to show up now, for the one that might, has taken an interest in a rich widow over Lonton-East way and seems to be meeting with some small success from what I heard.”

“Mama, I should tell you that Mr. Devane wandered the house last night too.”

“I know, my dear. He could not sleep either. I do not know how I slept, but I must have done. For I was at the table one moment and then in that chair by the fire the next, with the fire made up and a blanket over me and a cushion under my head, and I did not get there by myself.”

“Oh. Then that was kind of him mama. But he did come into my room too, and most others in the house from what I could hear with floors creaking and doors opening. I think he expected to find Bella, but when he didn’t, he soon left. Most strange. I do not know what he expected to find. He also spent some time with Thomas. He was comforted to see him, I think. I could hear them next door talking together. I could not sleep and listened to some of what was said, yet it seems that I did sleep, or at least dozed off, for I do not know when he left.”

“He visited Bella too, so I hear.”

“So he did eventually find her, did he?” Her daughter sounded surprised to hear that. “Why would he need to do that?”

“He had just married her, my dear. He was curious and could not sleep. Yes. I doubt you might approve of that either. But neither did I get the impression that anyone felt in any danger from him.” For some reason, that feeling did not surprise her. She recalled again her surprise and sudden brief contentment at finding herself in the chair she had intended to spend the night in, and with a blanket over her and not at the table as she had last remembered. “It does not surprise me that he could not sleep either, with all of our grief keeping him awake and other strange noises in a house he did not know, and comings and goings and what had just happened to him. It was a pity we had to embroil him in our grief as we certainly did.”

“Yes. But he shouldn’t have wandered like that.” Annis was speaking. “But I suppose that was different and might be excused as you say. I would say he had no motive that might be questioned. Not from what I observed, for he looked quite sad and then confused when he saw that I was not Bella, whom he expected to find in that bed. But then, men are all the same that way, a law unto themselves, careless of others, always showing off, seeking to intrude and dominate and overrule, and show how superior they are. Though father was not like that.”

“He was your father. That’s different. We depended upon him far more than you seem to know. William is not like that either. A family of women without a man they might trust to look after their interests is like a rudderless ship. You may not like it any more than I do, but this is a male-dominated world where a woman by herself counts for little. But what would you know of men to be so cynical miss?”

“Only what I saw of London society and the little social interactions here in the village. Those Thackerays. They were the worst by far. Insufferably arrogant, encroaching, and argumentative.”

“Annis, I can assure you that William is nothing like the Thackerays. If you look for comparisons, I think you would be wiser to think of him more in the mold of your father, little as you may like that. We may be as dependent upon him in that way now. I can only hope that he does not resent what has happened and feel that he must rush away. In truth, I am not even sure what we accomplished by doing what we did. But we should be careful of what we say. The servants mean well, but we must be careful.”

“Yes, Mama. No. He is nothing like Thackeray. Maybe worse. But he is nothing like father either. Thackeray had the house in turmoil with his outrageous explorations. Especially after one of the house keys was found to be missing Father had told us to place a chair under the door handle to our bedrooms soon after, and I know I did that time, but I forgot last night. But yes, William is different, I will grant you that. For some reason, I did not feel threatened by him as I might have been when he walked into my room. He had not expected to see me there, and he was suddenly confused and almost hurt, I thought. I also remember that he shed tears with us as we all did when he married….” She could not easily continue for a few moments. “He looked so sad and confused, for he held a candle to look down at me, and I tried to make it seem as though I were asleep. Then after he had gone to the other bedroom next to mine where father was laid out, I overheard him comforting Thomas, and Thomas was obviously relieved by his words, so I must thank him for that. No, he is not all bad, I will grant you that, but that is no reason to be so trusting of him so soon.”

“I am afraid we are not out of the woods yet, my dear. There is at least one aspect of this that I find most uncertain….” She sighed heavily, “…that the marriage might be challenged and overturned.”

“How so, mama?”

“Because it was not properly done at the last.” Her voice lowered. “It was not consummated as it should have been, and society seems to place such store by that. There are those who say that there is no marriage at all in the proper sense until…no matter. It is a delicate subject. Oh why could she not have lived for a few more days, weeks, and preferably lived on as she should to avoid all of this? But it did not happen. That could be grounds for challenge and annulment, and would be, if these upstart Thackerays get wind of it, and then we would be back where we started and them buzzing like hornets about us.”

Just as they seemed unaware that William was close by and overhearing more than he was intended to hear, so was Sophia sitting quietly in the window embrasure of the parlor, drinking it all in and not sure what any of it might mean but able to sense that her mother was obviously worried about their future in the home that was all they had known since they were born.

“Better call everyone to breakfast, my love, though William and Thomas already ate before they went back to the coach-house. How I am to eat anything, I do not know, yet I must.”

Annis began to see more than her mother might of those circumstances. Perhaps it might be better if that marriage were overturned. A problem had nagged at her concerning that marriage and the estate. Exactly who did their property belong to now? If it passed to Bella upon her marriage and her father’s death, did that not mean that it had now become the property of her husband? Perhaps they had disinherited themselves in their foolish rush to see Bella married. She felt a headache coming on and could no longer think about such a disturbing possibility and would certainly never dare raise it with her mother. Perhaps it would somehow sort itself out as her father had always told her it would, when she had worried over so many other things and then found that they had never been quite as bad as she had feared.

 

Mrs. Barristow encountered William sometime later as he entered the house from finishing off in the coach-house with Thomas, as they both returned for a proper breakfast.

“I took your coat, sir, if that is what you are missing. Molly is seeing to it at the moment. There was a burn mark and a speck of older blood on the sleeve and another smudge on the side. I feared at first that the blood might have come from…our tragedy.”

“No, Ma’am. They came earlier than that.”

“Well, Molly will do what she can. Neither mark was so obvious, but blood must be seen to before it dries if possible and, if not, then before it gets too old. What a pity we did not notice it last night when you arrived, but it was not to be, with everything going on as it was. I just hope she was able to do something with it. Nothing serious, I hope?” She looked concerned, though she had more that needed to occupy her than a speck or a smudge on his coat.

“No, Ma’am. Nothing serious. A small and unfortunate disturbance just outside of Inchdene yesterday afternoon. Of little consequence, and soon resolved.”

During their more formal breakfast some little time later, he noticed that he was being regarded with some interest ranging from outright curiosity to perhaps reserved judgment by all of the daughters, but mostly in a kindly and curious way. They were not sure what to make of him just yet, for he was almost as much a stranger to them now as he had been last night. If they expected to find him unused to the gentle manners at table after being on the Peninsula, they would be disappointed. He had washed up carefully before appearing at the table and had tidied himself up as much as he might, considering his limited wardrobe, even to the extent of brushing his unruly hair with little success. He did not slurp his hot coffee or drink noisily from the cup; he used a napkin—in fact, he had assisted Sophia with hers as well as helped her cut her ham—and he did not eat with his knife or his fingers. Nor did he reach across the table and load his plate beyond reason as another relative had done when he had been there, but had passed plates as required and had made sure that Sophia was looked after, and even the others too, before he began himself. He ensured that all were sufficiently well-fed before he or Thomas might consider any additional servings for themselves, for they both had the appetites of hungry men. One never knew how they could eat so much and not get fat. All of these things were carefully noted.

They were not to know of the violence of hungry men, half starved, or the not-so-rare fights over the distribution of food that had sometimes accompanied their impromptu dinners during campaign, over a share of the meager rations that had been perceived to be excessive on someone else’s part.

So began an informal mental cataloguing of those small personal observations of the one upon the other four, and of the four upon the one, as they curiously learned of each other.

The youngest girl seated next to him was still shy of him, regarding him with the greatest curiosity, but then he had recognized that she had followed him around after he had returned to the house the first time after helping Thomas and had seemed not to leave him since, but had always been close by. He did not mind. He found it amusing, but recognized that she needed to be distracted as much as he might be able to achieve, so he had spoken kindly to her and showed her what he was doing and why, and had even got her to help him where she might be able to. He began to feel a sense of belonging, when he noticed that she stood close to him and that her hand had intruded into his own from time to time. He began to pay her more attention.

“You will need to forgive my daughters’ attention, sir. They are not used to a relative stranger, a gentleman, dining with us, even though he is…even though you are now their brother-in-law.”

He liked that thought, and that appellation. “Pay it no mind, Ma’am. I used to receive the same scrutiny when I was pied-a-terre, that is, I was billeted with different families in the early stages until the action picked up, and then I found I sorely missed the usual comforts of table and the kindly attention.”

They seemed to listen attentively to everything he might say. They had even watched as he and Thomas had washed up before sitting down at table, almost as though they had never seen a grown man washing before.

It was off-putting to be at the focus of such interest. He knew he would have to get used to it, and it far beat the alternative that he had left behind him and had almost forgotten in this new setting. He had lived with his fellow soldiers in rough conditions for the last few years, devoid of all family life and civil, gentle exchanges. He had had to get used to their coarse language and pointed, sometimes personal, banter and hectoring, and their indifference to good manners and formality; for with the need to cooperate and pull together and fight for each other’s safety under the most taxing and severe of conditions, there had been little formality in their closely confined society. In the heat of battle, with ever-present violence and death, ranks soon disappeared. One ate when one might. They were often so hungry that no one inquired too closely what it might be, but accepted it and ate it appreciatively, often on horseback as they moved under cover of night. Beef was not available, yet it had seemed like beef to hungry men, though there had never seemed enough of it to feed everyone. He had never believed he might relish horse meat, but tough as the meat was, and relatively tasteless, it was not to be scorned, and there was an abundance of it at times after some of the furious exchanges. Changes of clothing were not to be thought of, though in the rainy season or by the larger streams, there was an abundance of water to bathe with and wash out their clothing.

The society at Underby, by comparison, was a pleasant change. To be surrounded by so much gentle and even refined beauty in a proper and more relaxing and peaceful setting without fear of snipers, was restful, despite the recent upset, and he was naturally curious himself. He had never been at a gentle table before with more than just his mother and sister, and now he was surrounded by three beautiful and mature ladies and a young girl. He even seemed to be the centre of attention from time to time when they thought he might not notice, and was being waited on by gentle females rather than his gruff comrades. The society of women had been thin over there, and those few had often been as violent as the men, and different from the women he had been used to at home.

However, the intensity of their scrutiny at this table was at times disconcerting, though they tried to make it not so obvious. Had he cut himself shaving perhaps, or missed some hairs on his neck or under his chin, as he often did in his usual rush to shave? Perhaps he was not dressed as formally as they were used to—and he certainly wasn’t—for his good clothing had gone ahead of him. He did not mind being dressed at this time in only his trousers and shirt with its sleeves rolled up to his elbow and open at the neck, for he had been helping Thomas, who was also dressed that way at table too. It was to be hoped his sister was still at Brooklands to see that what he needed would be sent along.

“My daughter mentioned some damage to your shirt, sir. If you do not mind, I can sort out some of Mr. Barristow’s things for you. He has no use of them now, and some of his larger shirts may fit you.”

“Thank you, Ma’am, but please do not go to any trouble for me. When I can, this afternoon if possible, I will send off to my sister for some clothes from Brooklands. I am working on a letter for her.”

Annis inquired at that moment. “What are your plans, sir—William?” That was the first time she had been able to use his name without prompting, and it had not come easily for her. “We can have no further calling upon your time or patience after helping us as you have.” It seemed that Annis still had reservations about his need to be there.

Her mother leapt in and looked pointedly at Annis. “You have already been more help that you might realize, William. Again, I must ask you to excuse my daughter, sir. She can be abrupt at times and speak without consideration of what is needed.” Annis blushed at being corrected in that way. “You are not required to desert us so soon, and we do not expect it. You are more than welcome to stay for as long as you wish. I am sure you have as many questions to ask of us as we will have of you.”

Annis flashed her mother a glance that was not entirely approving. William noticed her glance and a slight tightening about her mouth. She did not seem to approve of him.

“Thank you, Ma’am. I would like to help where I can, and I can see where there is much that I might do, but Annis is right to be cautious. I am little more than a stranger to you, and I would not care to be an additional burden at a time like this to any of you.”

“You would not be a burden, sir. More of a welcome deflection and distraction at the moment, I think, as you have been already with many things, including my youngest daughter. I hope she will not make a nuisance of herself in that way. We need some point of stability in our lives.”

He smiled down at his young companion and nudged her leg with his own to reassure her. “She is good company rather than a nuisance. She reminds me that I am once again in a more gentle society than I ever seemed to remember. But in any case, I have no significant calling upon my time elsewhere that cannot wait, and provided I do not trespass or impose upon your hospitality too much, I think I would like to be of use in some way that I can see might be of benefit to you. I have seen some things where I might prove to be useful, though I will ask your permission first, of course. There is a pigeon cote in danger of coming off the barn roof with the next strong wind, and there is an old tree about to shed some more branches into your gate with the next wind as it did last night.”

“Yes, there are some things that one does not notice readily when one lives with them all of the time. Please do what you believe is necessary.”

“Thank you. You will be receiving visitations and condolences from many people. So if necessary, as I am not really family, I can keep clear, but I will be close by if you need me.”

“Yes, there will be visitors. But you are now family, William, no matter how recent that is, nor how tenuous at the moment it might seem. You married my eldest daughter and are now a part of my family. But we should not subject you to our grief more than we have already. A strange predicament and situation for all of us. You took a step blindly, based upon more trust than any of us had a right to ask of you, considering how little you knew of us. We arein your debt. You are a recent and welcome addition at a difficult time when all we have seen are losses. I think we would like to get to know you better once this turmoil settles down as it inevitably will.” She sighed heavily. “Life does go on despite all the upsets, as Mr. Barristow was fond of saying.”

Annis had to be satisfied with that and decided not to persist in her cautioning her mother.

“Those who are my friends will be at the service either this afternoon or this evening and the funeral tomorrow or, if they miss those, will not stay long anyway and will confine themselves to the usual hours at such a time. They will be made as welcome as we can.” She looked at Annis as she said that, “for they will offer their help honestly and with genuine sincerity and concern. Others may not, but may seek to see what can be turned to their own advantage. It is them I would like to avoid, but it will be difficult. I do not wish to give offense.”

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Deception By Proxy. Chapter 7

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

Questions. An Enlightening Conversation with One Corpse, a Vigil Over Another.

Visiting with the dead. A learning experience.

William could not sleep. He tossed and turned fitfully, unable to find comfort in a strange bed; though he had slept in hammocks and on straw ticking, in stables, and on hay with less difficulty, despite the predations of biting insects. Perhaps the bed was too comfortable considering where he had found sleep over most of the previous five years. Certainly the social setting was much different. The company of women, ladies, young women—and so close—he was not used to. Had he actually married one of them? Yes he had, and promptly seen her snatched from him too.

His thoughts were a jumble of confusion, trying to find some meaning in the fog of what had just transpired. It was too much to try and fathom how everything had so suddenly rolled along like a gigantic snowball, picking him up in its roll.

Was he really married one moment and then a widower the next? He was used to being caught up in a not easily escapable circumstance in battle, where he knew how to deal with what was happening, even the totally unexpected; for extreme violence and quick thinking usually would solve most problems with expedition. But not here in a family setting. War, even with all of its unexpected qualities, he understood clearly enough. This kind of intrigue and gentle inexorable maneuvering and dealing with heart-rending anguish and gentle feminine emotions could confuse, fog, and enmesh a man more firmly and securely than any ambush or becoming mired in a swamp; for it was subtle and had achieved its end before a man had time to think about what was happening or to back from it, if he might.

His head was feverishly going over the events of the last few hours, trying to make sense of it all. Had he been mistaken in the matter and could his cousin have been the intended groom? As far as Mrs. Barristow had known, they could be brothers with the same father. It might be easy to confuse him for his cousin, for they had shared the same father in so many ways, and there was a notable resemblance in facial features, if not in stature. Nothing he could do about any of that now, anyway. What was done, was done. Besides, the young lady would have been dead long before George might have been able to respond, considering where he was.

From what his sister had related to him in her letters, it had seemed that just such a fate had been planned for him by his mother; though from his guarded conversation with Lady Seymour, it seemed that her thoughts had not been along those lines at all, for she had obviously disapproved of him and found him to be lacking in every way as she always had. Perhaps he should not have led her along as he had done. It had been unwise to give her more ammunition to use against him. Too late now to change any of that, but now was not the time for any regrets either, though the Maxton death had been unfortunate and not intended. He found he really did not care what his godmother thought of him any more than he had as a child.

He wondered for a few brief moments if he had not been caught up in a devious and clever conspiracy hatched by his relatives to marry him off. Could Cousin George have been part of some plot and had known what would happen? A moment’s consideration convinced him that no such conspiracy might also include the untimely deaths of two individuals. His cousin had known none of this; everything had been tragic and unexpected.

He had seen gratitude and relief in the face of Mr. Barristow, looking his last upon the world and the faces he loved, and true anguish and grief in their faces. He had married a woman that had been on her deathbed with blood leaking from her mouth and nostrils. These were good people whose world as they had known it had come to an end—losing a husband, father, sister, and daughter.

He had learned of his fellow man the hard way and had rapidly learned who it was that one could trust and believe and who not. Perceptions were misleading and rarely told the entire story. They had been hard lessons at first, for he had been as green as grass. Mrs. Barristow was a true lady, with never a mean thought, unkind word, nor devious plot in her formidable womanly arsenal. He would trust that perception at least.

But his godmother was not one he might trust other than to serve him ill if she could. That again. There had been that about her that made him uncomfortable as they had met. She had seemed to set out to provoke him for some reason and get under his skin and loosen him up, having got him there on false pretenses, and had tried to read more of his character and about him than perhaps he should feel comfortable about.

What had he got caught up in?

Less than a day ashore after a five-year absence, and already he had seen three people die or had been soon to die, all in his presence. Not only that, but he had also married and was a widower, all within ten minutes. He had seen more of life unfold in a day than most might see in a lifetime. What curse had he brought back with him? Further, he had too easily promised enough to a dying man to ensure he might never get to Brooklands before the month was out, or back to London as he had intended.

As the hours unfolded, he heard the others retire reluctantly and uneasily to their undoubtedly equally restless beds considering what their minds would dwell upon, and then he lay there as the clock struck each hour as sleep still eluded him. His life suddenly seemed to consist of only this one last day, for his mind went repeatedly over his encounter with his godmother—wearisome enough—and then with Maxton and then getting caught up in this. Everything was occupying his mind too strongly for him to rest. He could hear one of the night birds moving through the espaliered branches outside of his window and an owl somewhere, then a fox screaming and other myriad noises rustling outside of his open window that he could not easily identify, along with the constant scurrying patter and prying of rats in the attic above his head. It had not been so long ago that he had learned to relish them for what little meat they carried, but he would relate none of that to any of this family. Those times had gone and would not be missed.

When he was a child, he recalled his mother calming him at night when he could not sleep or had a nightmare. She had told him that if he was ever afraid in the dark, he just needed to look at the cat that invariably spent the night at the foot of his bed. If the cat were not disturbed by some noise, then he need not be either. He had lost his fear soon after that.

That was also when he noted a cat actually lying down near his feet on the bed, taking advantage of his warmth with the cooler air blowing across the bed from the window, wide open. It seemed like a good omen in the midst of such ill goings-on. When the rats then also began to fight and to let out eerie screams like those of a child, and the cat left to investigate that and other noises, he decided that he also had had enough of rest for the moment. There were too many unanswered questions racing through his head and he needed to refresh earlier impressions that refused to let him rest until they had been answered. He struggled to understand what had filled his day thus far.

As the clock below stairs chimed the quarters, then the halves and then the hours, and let him know that it was two o’clock, he arose and dressed and made his way along the landing in his stocking feet, realizing that he broadcast his presence and progress with every step, as the boards creaked loudly beneath his weight. He did not need a candle. There was light enough from the windows letting the moon in, for the rain clouds had cleared, and most of the rooms obviously had some light in them for he could see the flickering of candlelight under the large gap at the bottom of some of the doors.

Pausing at a doorway, he heard a male voice within reciting some religious text. He recognized Thomas’s voice and one of the Psalms. This was the master bedroom that he had been in earlier, where Mr. Barristow was now laid out awaiting what little future above ground was his. It was hard to orient himself with such a darkened corridor where previously it had been quite well lit. He made his way in his stocking feet down the equally complaining stairs to the parlor.

A light still burned there from a single candle on the table, and he was surprised to see Mrs. Barristow with her head down on the table, sleeping the sleep of emotional exhaustion, almost as drained of life as her husband upstairs. A large comfortable chair by the parlor fire had been placed there for her to sleep in, but she had been as restless, it seemed, as he had been, and could find no comfort in it.

He chose not to awaken her if he could avoid it, but she seemed in danger of sliding off to the side and to the floor, risking injury as well as a rude awakening, so he could not ignore her predicament. He sat her up and then lifted her easily into his arms and walked over to the chair made ready for her and carefully deposited her in it. Apart from a slight change in her breathing and some mumbling from the depths of what little consciousness she had, she gave no sign that she was aware of anything that might be different. He placed a small cushion beneath her head, and carefully put a blanket over her, made up the dying fire with as little noise as possible, and then returned upstairs.

He must have gone off in the wrong direction; the house was not so large, but it was a veritable rabbit warren, for he found himself in the corridor opposite the one in which his own bedroom was located. He retreated and found again the master bedroom. He heard a voice, Thomas’s, reciting a poem, a dirge, that was also of Viking origin, but common in parts of Yorkshire, which he knew fairly well: a Lyke Wake Dirge. He listened, as Thomas recited it through.

 

THIS ae nighte, this ae nighte,
—Refrain: Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
—Refrain: And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Sit thee down and put them on;

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane.

From Whinny-muir when thou may’st pass,
To Brig O’Dread thou com’st at last;

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
to Putgatory fire thou com’st at last;

If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
—Every nighte and alle,
Fire and sleet and candle-lighte,
—And Christe receive thy saule.

 

He knew the meaning of that ‘Brig o’ Dread’; that decisive moment when there was a choice to be made whether a soul should pass into heaven or hell.

He moved further, and paused at the next door along the corridor, this time before the door to the bedroom of the lady he had just married. There was a light showing under the door. He entered quietly and moved across to the bed to look down upon his late and short-lived wife, seeing only a pale face on the pillow, barely illuminated by the one candle sitting on the dresser. Her face showed no sign of blood now and even had a look of peace and contentment. He could now see that she was heavily suntanned as though she had led an outdoor lifestyle. She was neither laid out as he might have expected to avoid problems once rigor mortis set in—he had seen enough of the awkward problems that rigor caused when limbs had to be broken in order to bury someone if there had been the rare luxury of a coffin—nor was she covered over completely as she should be.

He almost jumped when the body let out a faint sigh and adjusted her position. He held his breath. She was alive. He stood still for a few moments and puzzled over the situation, realizing that he was in a strange house, whose arrangements he knew little of, and that few things were what they seemed. What he was thinking could not possibly be true. He must have become disoriented, for it could not be the same room; and yet it was, for there was a smudge of blood on the headboard that he had earlier noticed, and there was a bloody towel almost out of sight, under the edge of the bed, perhaps laid there earlier to try and counter the forces seeking to pull life from the body. He had seen others place a knife, a sword, or even a gun under the bed of a wounded man as a means of sympathetically countering the injuries he had incurred from one of those weapons. Like, to like, was the belief. The towel left there must have been an accidental oversight, as this young lady was well, and clearly alive—the healthiest corpse he had ever seen, and he had seen many. She would be alarmed to find him wandering the house, and in her bedroom.

He recognized her now. This was Annis, the young lady, the daughter who had seemed to judge him harshly for whatever reason. But if that were the case, where was his bride who had occupied that same bed a few hours earlier?

He quietly—as far as the groaning floor would allow him—backed from the room and closed the door, relieved to find that he had not awoken her and that there was no one else to see him. He regretted his decision to go for a walk with so many young women in the house who might be afraid, or worse, if he blundered into their rooms, making all of the noises that the floor made with his passing.

He walked back along the corridor and stopped before the door on the further side of the master bedroom from which mumblings could still be heard and beneath which a light also shone. He tried the door, and cautiously opened it and put his head inside, ready to back out if it were occupied by any other. In this case, there, presumably, was the daughter’s body properly laid out as he expected on top of the bed, and this time the entire body was covered by a sheet—also as expected. As before, a single candle was on the top of the dresser in this room too.

He walked silently over to the bed in the dim light and pulled back the sheet from her head and upper body. She was now in a clean nightdress, free of blood. She had been moved over to this room and laid out while the other room had been tidied up. There was that lifeless, pale face, also free of blood this time, which had been wiped away. Here was the lady he had married.

He put his hand on her cheek and was surprised to feel how cold and lifeless she now seemed, though he should not have been surprised. He looked down at her for some time and then retrieved the candle from the dresser, bringing it closer, and observed her more closely, taking care not to drip wax upon her pale face or on the bed in which she lay. He felt even more like an intruder, violating their expectation that a stranger such as he was, would not risk giving alarm to any of these women. They would trust him not to wander the house and possibly risk blundering in where he should not be, as had happened just a few moments before, and especially not with young daughters in the house and him such an unknown quantity. Or perhaps too well known for his own, or their comfort.

They knew nothing of him at all and certainly knew nothing of his disruptive past nor what caused his father to drive him from these shores five years earlier. At least he hoped not. He doubted they would feel so much at ease with him if they knew any of his difficult past. He was thankful that they didn’t know, or they would not feel so trusting or easy in his company, for how could they know that they had nothing to fear from him?

He had met this lady for the first time just a few hours earlier, had married her, and was now able to view her properly for the first time without all of the uncharacteristic emotions that had attended his previously being with her. Yes, he had cried easily, and from the heart at their pain and grief. There was no shame in that. It had been honest emotion. From the little he had seen of her and her sisters, they were all to be described as beautiful women, despite their faces showing signs of grief and anguish. He felt a lump rising in his throat again at the thought of it all, and how utterly desperate they must feel to be so burdened by such losses that even he began to feel yet again on their behalf; for he had lost something himself that he would never be able to experience again, or recover.

He felt the tears begin to flow again for a few moments, though he could not understand why they came so easily now where they had never come for him in any of the last five years of endless death. He recovered his composure and spoke to her gently, no matter how strange it might seem to be addressing the dead, for he felt a bond with her that he had never experienced before with any living woman. Not even his sister or mother. Most surprising, considering that he had married her barely a few hours earlier. He had never before in his life considered marriage, seeing only a disagreeable change in what was expected and required of one—loss of freedom and a change in lifestyle, and rarely for the better considering what he had seen. What might have been had she lived?

He spoke gently. “For what little comfort it may provide you, Arabella, Bella, my wife, I honestly do wish I had come to know you long before any of this happened. Who knows what different course there might have been for you, and for me? My presence then may have turned you aside from this day and that fate. But what trouble were you and your family faced with that you must needs wed a relative stranger—me—in such haste, and one with such an unenviable history as I?” He sighed. “Not only that, but you on your deathbed to do it.”

He brought a chair over to the bed and sat down beside her as he considered how best he might move forward without losing the trust of these vulnerable ladies. He took her bruised hand in his, for rigor had not yet started; and to his own surprise when he later considered his actions, he actually conducted a lengthy, one-sided conversation with his former bride. He told her far more about himself than he had ever shared with anyone in the previous five years, indeed ever. If there were any vestige of consciousness remaining even after death and in that transition to the other life, she would at least be comforted by knowing something—albeit one-sided—of the stranger she had married, from both words and caress. Or maybe nothing of any credit, considering what the general impression of his own relatives was of him.

Strangely, he gained some comfort from it, as foolish as it obviously was, for he believed in none of that intermediate, tenuous state betwixt life and death or of the passage of a soul, if the soul existed even, or even might move—called away upon the death of the body. Death was death. He had seen more than enough of it first hand for a hundred lifetimes and had felt it touch him more than once. No consciousness of any kind afterward, despite those who claimed the ability to converse with the dead. It was devastatingly final, and there was nothing to look forward to afterward. Dust to dust, indeed.

After about five minutes he replaced the candle and the chair, put her arm across her chest again, covered her and retraced his steps to the master bedroom, feeling more confident at what it contained, knowing that Mrs. Barristow would still be safely downstairs. He pushed open the door and entered. Thomas sat there with his eyes wide with fear as the door opened and a ghostly face appeared around it. There was the corpse laid out on the bed, covered fully as was the corpse he had found in the previous bedroom.

William smiled sadly and with understanding. “I see you are not used to sitting vigil upon a corpse?”

Thomas let out an explosive breath after holding it in terror as the door had swung in and a pale face, illuminated in the ghostly candlelight glow within the room, had appeared. He laughed quietly and nervously, but without humor at his own embarrassed fear.

“No, sir, I am not. Death is a fearful thing, even upon someone I knew and loved as I did this man, but I remember him as he lived and not as this one who is a stranger to me now. His soul is gone, and the man I knew is no more. I am not used to this for I was never called upon afore for this duty.”

William approached the bed. “I could not sleep. I was bidding farewell to my bride. A sad moment to meet someone and then see them die so soon after, with neither of us knowing anything of the other. If you wish, I can stay here and keep your vigil, as I cannot sleep either. I have watched over many such as this as they quit this life, and to keep animals off, though in less comfortable circumstances.”

“Well thank you, sir, I would appreciate that, but I shall not leave him. I promised the girls and their mother that I would keep him company at this time, and that he would not be left alone on this night, or they would have had to have done so themselves. It would not have been right putting such young ladies in such an unenviable and awkward predicament, for they would probably be more feared of this than I am, but then again, I’m feared enough for all of ’em, I think.”

“May I see him once more?”

“Well, sir. I expect you can. You have that right, I think. I doubt he’ll complain. Though there is nothing special to see other than that great scar on his neck, though he has a stubble on his face that will need to come off I see.”

“Yes, the hair continues to grow for some time. Quite surprising at first.” William pulled back the cover and saw his late wife’s father for the second and probably the last time in his life. He looked to be at peace without sign of the pain that must have been his lot in the last few moments as the carriage rolled upon him, and then accepting a stranger to marry his daughter dying in the next room. Then the final anguish, seeing his wife and daughters looking upon him tearfully as he slipped into unconsciousness and onto the path out of this life. He touched his hands and was surprised at how cold he seemed also, even as his deceased daughter had been, but then William was sweating for some reason, so everything would seem cold to his touch.

“You say you’ve done this afore, sir?” Thomas looked at him with wide eyes, though less scared now.

“Yes. Many times.” He re-covered the man who had become his father-in-law, and regretted that here lay another individual that he wished he might have known even a little. He moved back from the bed and sat down.

“I recovered the bodies of many of my friends and others from the battlefield on several—no—on too many occasions and laid them out ready for burial; even the French too, where their living counterparts were long gone, stood guard over them to keep away the dogs, and….” better not to speak of that, he realized; he was back in a different society now, “and even buried them with whatever little of the service I could remember. Often, the French and English in the same common grave. Soldiers all, following the same commands and deserving the same sympathy I thought. There were those who thought that was wrong, as they would then continue their interminable fighting in the grave and get no rest, so they got around that by burying a weapon or two with the English so that they might at least have an advantage if it unfolded that way, and earn their future peace. It was all a thankless and disturbing task.”

He suddenly remembered that one of his duties sometime in the near future was to visit the families of some of those he had seen die in his arms or under the surgeon’s knife or on a lonely and filthy cot far from loved ones as their lifeblood oozed steadily from them into the filthy bedding of straw or into the soil. He needed to pass along his memories of them or their final words or wishes. Death had come peaceably to none of them. They had raged inwardly at the injustice and suddenness of it all as he could see from their wild eyes filled with fear. He had promised himself that he would let their loved ones know of their death and that they had been attended to, no matter how poorly, just as he had earlier promised Mr. Barristow that he would look after his family.

He recognized that relating some of his own experiences might take the man’s mind off his own fears. “I have fought in many places, so many that I cannot remember them all—Portugal, Spain, France—small towns and villages whose names I no longer remember, and lost many friends to the enemy. Even onboard ship, when we were being moved about by sea to avoid an awkward trap they had laid for us on land, and encountered enemy ships then, in another trap, trying to sink us and sniping at us from the rigging. They got quite a surprise at the hail of lead in the return fire from marksmen that soon brought them down and emptied their decks and gun ports, but it was easier to dispose of the bodies then, of enemy and friend alike to get them out of the way. A fast trip over the side while the battle raged. I seem to have led a charmed life I would say, for I walked away with nicks and surface scars and nothing worse than wood splinters, a few saber cuts, and minor wounds, where many a better man did not. War was kinder to me in that way than my own society was before I went away. My mother once told me to stay away from ships and the sea. It seemed that too many of our family were drowned, and it was likely to be my fate too, so my mother said, if ever I went out of sight of land.”

He leaned back and stretched his legs out ahead of him. “My father survived the experience though, but I did go to sea many times with him, and alone too, despite her concern. I did not tell her. The sea shall not get me, I think. It’s had enough chances, and father Neptune threw me back ashore each time. I began to think that I did not so much lead a charmed life as one where even death did not want the likes of me. It seems that I shall either be shot in battle or on my home soil, or shall ride a horse foaled by an acorn—hanged–instead, as others predict for me. But I seem to have missed that fate at the docks by just a few days, and another of those unexpected welcomes just a few hours ago. Some welcome home.”

Thomas looked at him sharply at his last comment, but he was looking elsewhere. “I think I’m all right now, sir. The night was dragging too much for me, and I found my mind was playing tricks on me as though he were alive and moving. I could swear I saw him flinch once or twice.”

“You probably did.” Thomas looked startled at him. William explained. “Bodies will do that as their muscles relax or stiffen, even long after all life has gone. I have heard them belch as well and even sigh. When I have seen bodies burned on a funeral pyre, I have seen one or two of them even sit up in the flames and groan as though they were still alive and continue to moan dreadfully, but as one of them was without a head I knew that it was not so. The heat of the fire contracts their muscles and can cause them to make other noises too.”

“Well, I never knew that. I am not normally a superstitious man, but for a while there…. Thank you, sir. I thought I was going mad and that my mind was playing tricks on me.” He looked around into the far shadows with some concern. “Or that there was another power in the room.”

“No. The dead cannot hurt us, Thomas, and they should not frighten us. They may need our presence to make that final passage in peace, and we should not deny them that, though I have difficulty believing it. Only the living need us or can hurt us. There is nothing to fear from the dead. They can neither deceive nor lie nor do us violence when we least look for it. One can trust them, where one might not trust the living man. As for any other power, I think you will find none worse than your fellow man more capable of inflicting death and destruction. I have seen no evidence of any other evil power that one might need to fear, and I have been in many situations where malevolence would thrive and grow if there were any such evil force beyond that which the living can provide in abundance. My grandmother used to say that we were our own worst enemies and that there was no one we would ever be likely to meet that was worse than ourselves and what we could be. I think she was right.”

“You look tired, sir.”

“Yes, I have not slept for too long, for I had a rough crossing from France before I received your mistress’s letter….” he thought for a few moments “…many hours ago now, at least two days I think since I slept. I have not yet slept in England for five years. Strange thought. I think I am overdue.”

“You should get back to your bed then, sir. I’m fine now. Just speaking to one such as yourself about my foolish fears put me right. I need to say my good-byes properly as is fitting, and without fear I think.” He listened as the clock struck somewhere below. “Well there now. It will be getting light soon and there will be someone along to spell me. What rank were you over there, sir?”

“I was a major.”

“You have that bearing about you. I did notice. Also, that horse you came in on? He’s a rare size, but then you’d need a horse like that to carry a man your size too. Strange that that mule is so attached as he is.”

“Yes. But the mule is a she. They will not be separated without a fight for whomever is trying to separate them. Much like many another relationship I think, except that there, there is often fighting leading to the separation, not a consequence of it.”

He stood. “Good night, Thomas. I doubt that this new day or any following one will be better than the one that has passed for this family for a long while, though time will eventually ease all of the pain, and they will get easier.”

“I hope so for all of our sakes but mostly for theirs. My heart goes out for them all. They did not deserve this, and the best of ’em ripped away.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Bella was a rare fine lady. The master was a good and kind man too. I do not know how they or we will all go forward now. Four young women to fend off who knows what. Do you intend to stay, sir?”

“Should I? Yet I must. I promised Mr. Barristow that I would. I feel like a square peg in a round hole as though I were intruding badly into their grief where I feel none by comparison, though I am saddened by their loss.”

“Aye. I know the feeling, sir. I am relieved to hear you are to stay. I was fair worried about what lay ahead without the master. It tears the heart out of me to see how it’s affected all of them since we first learned of it, and helpless to do aught but stand by and see that nothing worse comes about. If you can stay sir, then you should do so. It will be a hard time for everyone for some time, and they may not give in to their grief if you were around, though they will need to do that too and get beyond it, and the sooner the better.

“They will need a man’s guiding hand now and to keep others at bay, at least for a short while; for there are those who would try to take advantage of them, lurking close by as they have been before, and I do not have the authority or the strength to fight them off at my age.” He expressed himself remarkably well, to William’s way of thinking. “I am a known entity to them, and to be neither feared nor respected either, whereas you are not, and that will be an advantage for you. The girls and their mother will need to be distracted too and guided in ways they cannot know at this time. It will be hard for us all, I think, and hard for you too; but if you could stay for a while, it would help a lot I am sure.”

“Thank you, Thomas. I intend to stay but only as long as I am needed. I shall speak with you tomorrow when I have rested, about these others that I was warned of. But if you perceive that they would be better off without me, despite my promise to their father, please let me know. I am unlikely to see what you might see and I would hate to overstay my welcome here because of a promise to a dead man. I have made too many of those promises and have so far been able to keep few of them, but I will if I can. The living, need me more at this time. I have a knack of bringing out the worst in too many of my own relatives even, and I doubt I am better with relative strangers. My promise was to take care of them, and that may better be done at a small distance if I am not fully welcome or needed.”

“From what I have seen of you, sir, you would never be made to feel unwelcome here. They would be hurt if you lodged anywhere but here now. They are too kind to show such mean-spirited qualities when you have been so helpful to them, though I do not know what lay behind any of it. As for the others—aye, I shall tell you of them right enough, for they will be likely to descend upon the family now and try to put them out and cheat them. I am too old to stop them.”

 

Once the major had returned to his room, Thomas took up a quiet conversation with his former master. “Well, sir, I believe that you might now rest in some peace if you saw what I saw, and I know you did with you lying there listening. Nothing wrong with your mind despite the other injuries. If anyone thinks to strut in here and make the womenfolk uncomfortable or try to put them out, they will find their plates full, I would say with that young man. We shall do all right, sir, and God help those Thackerays. But then, he won’t be planning on doing anything of the kind I would say.”


Inkitt.com. New Year.

Monday, January 1st, 2018

Inkitt has made a lot of changes, and has somehow opened things up to more readers throughout the world. I am now getting between 30 and 60 Chapter reads each day since before christmas, and I keep track of them all.

The polite stories just trickle along, but the impolite ones are surging in an unbelievable way.  Well-written erotica with a good story behind it, seems to be what readers want, and that’s what I write.

It’s a good job I enjoy writing it, but I have too many polite novels to get back to, so when this next risque one is finished, I will get back to the others.

Deception by Proxy: Chapter 6

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

A Contract Kept. An Untimely Bereavement.

A Marriage. Two untimely deaths. Protecting a family.

By the time Simpkins, the reverend, new to the area, arrived out of breath at his exertion following Thomas, William was just finishing off a newly presented plate of hot stew and much of the bread. They waited in the parlor for the ladies to appear or at least give them some direction as to what was now expected of them.

William took the needed step of introducing himself to a man about his own age and found that he was not a complete stranger to the gentleman, for he seemed to know something of him and his family from other sources, and clearly not too much to his disadvantage. Once beyond the initial introductions and decrying the unfortunate turn of events that had brought them both to this house and at this time, they somehow put the existing circumstance to one side and launched into a quiet discussion of smuggling, much to William’s surprise, for he had not raised the subject. The reverend seemed to know more of him than was desirable yet had not seemed disapproving of that illegal activity.

Within minutes, there was a steady procession of servants from the upstairs, which quite cut off their conversation, seeing the reverend fall quickly back into his expected role of sober and somber cleric. The last to appear was Mrs. Barristow herself, also breathless, carrying various items of clothing, some still stained with blood. She nervously bundled them into the ready hands of a servant without anything being said, though both were heavily choked up with emotion and futilely fighting back the tears that were evident.

She dried her eyes on her bloodstained smock and turned to her guest and the reverend. “Gentlemen—Mr. Devane, Reverend Simpkins—I see you have met, and I hope you have introduced yourselves to each other for we have no time to waste. You were able to obtain the license, I hope, sir?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I did. I explained the circumstances to my bishop not three hours ago, and he kindly supplied what we needed.”

She sighed. “My husband is slipped off again now for the last time and will not live much longer I think, but we cannot yet mourn nor dwell upon that at this moment. He will soon be in good hands. Now we must see to the rest before that is too late. Please follow me.” She led the way up the narrow stairs again. The servants were aware now that the large military-looking gentleman in the parlor, in company of the new vicar, was there to marry Miss Bella before she might die, but could not fully understand it at all and were not aware why it had to be done so hastily or why it had to be done at all with her on her death bed. There had been the occasional rumor that Bella was soon to be married but that her fiancée, who was not yet her fiancée—all confusing—was abroad and in the war.

But that rumor had been bandied about for the last year or more and had gradually lost any credibility as it did not seem to be well known, for there were a string of other suitors who would not have either been easily tolerated nor would have been paying attendance had they known of any such firm engagement. She had been seen to turn off one of the local beaux after another, though gently, and with consideration for their feelings. It began to seem that she might not marry at all, for it was rare that the family ever went as far as Basildon, never mind London, which is where a young lady as beautiful as Bella should be able to find a suitable husband. It was also rumored that her intended had been killed abroad, though no one said anything of it to confirm it or deny it.

Mrs. Barristow turned before they got to the top of the stairs and spoke as an afterthought to a servant in the doorway below. “If we need anything, Molly—though I doubt we will at this late stage—I will ring or send one of the girls. Thomas is sitting with Mr. Barristow and will alert us if he recovers consciousness again.”

“Yes, mum.”

She turned to William. “We should not waste further time, gentlemen. We have little enough of it as it is.” She continued upstairs on suddenly heavily stressed and loudly complaining stairs with three adults upon them, and led the way into a nearby area of the house, where the floors sloped even more noticeably, and into a small room—they were all small and with low ceilings—brightly lit with candles, though the bed itself was in some measure of shade to protect the patient from the discomfort of too bright a light, even that from a candle.

It was obvious that Mrs. Barristow was exercising considerable discipline upon herself to stave off the growing sense of helplessness and overwhelming sadness and the need to see all of this brought to an acceptable if unfortunate end. Only then might she be able to remove herself from this painful reality and to dissolve into tears. But this was the wrong time and place. She was needed in another way that now demanded her full attention. She drew upon that inner strength that all women have in abundance when the situation is the most hopeless and they are needed in other directions.

The patient, a young lady, in little better state than her father, was awake and watching with conscious awareness of what was intended perhaps, as they entered her room. Her attentiveness was a good sign, if it were possible to believe that any good might exist in the midst of such pain and approaching finality. There was the untidiness and smell of a sick room, even overlaying the cloying smell of smoky candles. There was but one girl—probably another sister—administering to the needs and wiping the face and mouth of the young lady lying propped up in bed. There was blood upon the invalid’s lips and blood leaking from her nostrils, and there was a bloody towel across the coverlet over her abdomen. A bloody basin and other soiled towels had been moved off to one side. Her injuries were obscured by the coverlet over her but were clearly serious, for there to be so much blood evident.

Her helper moved to join others in the shadows, out of the way of her mother and the two gentlemen who had entered the room.

William could see that there were dark lines under her eyes and the drawn look of pain across her face and in her expression—as there had been with her father—as she labored and breathed with difficulty while attempting to hold a cloth up to her face to avoid any blood being thrown about if she were to cough. There were other young ladies in the room—Sophia and the girl who had tended to her sister. That must be the third daughter—Charlotte. It was not difficult to see their resemblance to their sister and to their mother, and there may have been another—Annis—perhaps overcome by what was happening, and behind the other two, but it was difficult to make out figures and faces in the shadows.

Their mother spoke. “Now, young man, William, we have come this far and need to complete this task, or all of this will become history around us, and we shall likely lose….”—her voice caught—“but you need to hear none of that at this moment.”

Now was not the time to be asking for any kind of explanation of the circumstance. He almost regretted giving in to the impulse to see this adventure unfold, for it was clearly much more a tragedy than an adventure, but his difficulties with this were Lilliputian compared to theirs. It was obvious that he might indeed be a widower before morning. He might lose a wife he had never before met and knew nothing of, but they would lose a sister and a daughter as well as losing a father and husband. Now was not the time to ask questions and expect a rational answer nor to become difficult over the strange situation that was already tragic enough without it being added to. He had given his word, but even if he had not, it was not the time to shrink from what seemed to be needed.

The deep tragedy of the events that so clearly and painfully surrounded him reminded him too well of those similar situations that he had just quit on the battlefield. He had felt helpless then, and he felt helpless now to do anything but what was needed of him to ease the obvious pain of such a cruel loss—two of them—to this family of bereaved women. He suddenly felt a great loss himself, in that he had never met the young lady before this circumstance occurred, nor had had a chance to make her acquaintance. He suddenly felt that he would like to have known her, for beneath all of the pain her face was well shaped and in any other circumstance, perhaps even this one, would have been described as beautiful. There was clear intelligence in those bright eyes. She and he were but two ships that pass in the night, unknown, and who was to know with what unfulfilled promises aboard. What might have been possible in life with a slightly different course and a possibly different outcome to this?

The only obvious things to him in the dim candlelight were her long and loose dark hair, untidily framing a pale face—still marked with blood that her sister had missed—and drawn with pain as her father’s had been. She may have been his one true love if such a one existed. But all of that was nothing but the romantic dreams of foolish women who threw themselves headlong into seeking that one supposedly true love, which might not exist, yet his sister Elizabeth, seemed to have found hers. But for him, nothing could come of it now, even if she were that one special person. Nonetheless, he resolved that he would make an effort to find out more about her from her family when a better opportunity was presented, and time had had a chance to allow their grief to fade and their thoughts to be less tragic. Now was not the time to express reservations, caution, or to hold back from what was needed; but those thoughts never entered his head. It would have taken a poor specimen of manhood indeed to deny them this final completion to what seemingly must go forward without delay and for whatever reason.

Undoubtedly, they might just wish to see him gone as soon as maybe, after all of this, so it might be difficult to keep his promise to their father, but he would do as much along that direction as he was able until the problem might be resolved. To welcome a complete stranger into their home at the best of times was trial enough, but at a time such as this, with all of the other baggage going with it, it was unthinkably painful for everyone. But afterward? When the grief and sorrow could be given free rein and with him in the midst of it, both he and they might wish him long gone.

He might have reservations about what he was about to do, but it all paled into insignificance compared to what they were feeling. Besides, he would soon be free of it all. From the looks of her she was not long for this world.

He seemed caught up in a dream and became aware that the reverend had opened his book and was droning on in some formal way as the young ladies sobbed and cried behind him as they held tightly onto each other for what little comfort and support they might find in each other’s embrace. Her mother had a hand laid lightly on her dying daughter’s shoulder as though to keep her in touch with this world she would soon be forced to leave. To lose one member of a family was traumatic enough, but to lose two at the same time was unthinkably devastating. The older girl holding Sophia close, appeared to be much more mature than the sixteen years of age that the record downstairs had indicated. With the responsibilities likely to drop on them all, they would all be changed in ways that no one should have to encounter at so young an age. They were all far too young to lose their father or a sister so close in age to themselves. Their mother stood rigid and pale beside them all, a link between the living and the dying, striving to hold her daughter in this world for as long as she might—the bulwark against all buffeting seas. She would be the strength that they would need now to move forward.

He had made his promise to their father and would provide whatever help they might allow him to provide and in whatever way was necessary moving forward. He had nothing else that needed his attention so urgently that he needed to rush away to attend to his own affairs.

He noticed that the other daughter, Annis, was no longer with her sisters but had left the room as quietly as she may and without disruption of any kind, explaining her position behind her sisters earlier. She had seemed to not fully approve of this union from the little he had seen of her as she had looked at him. As the eldest girl now, or soon to be, she would likely be with her father at this moment, though perhaps from the look she had directed at him as she came down the stairs when he had first seen her, she may not have felt up to attending such a hasty and possibly ill-conceived wedding with one such as him. If they knew anything of him at all—and they seemed to—from what Sophia had let slip, she may have had cause to doubt the wisdom of even such a fleeting alliance. From the intensity of the glance she had directed at him, William had the feeling that Annis, may have known more of him than he might be comfortable with.

It seemed peculiar to him, but the dreadful loss to all of them, so obviously surrounded by such tragedy, began to hit him hard also. It was a strange feeling and entirely foreign to him to commiserate with others so deeply. He had viewed death many times with only men about him, and that was sad enough, but he had remained detached from it out of necessity so that his judgment might not be impaired or slowed down—a reality of war, bottling away his feelings, his grief, his anger at the futility of war, even as the dying man, with stark fear in his eyes, had lain in his arms surrounded by relative strangers, and knowing that his last minutes on earth were now here.

Now, he could let go of all of that pent-up anger and frustrated anguish that had fermented in his own bosom, unexpressed, and bottled up for too many years. He had never seen it so poignantly or painfully displayed as within this tearful family of women and girls, who strove so hard and bravely to hold back their undoubted pain and emotions in the presence of strangers and with the formality of the ceremony, however abbreviated and simple it needed to be. He had seen many men die, friend and enemy alike, and felt some pity for them all, for they were all the sons of women like his own mother. They, unlike these ladies, lived with death every day they arose from their beds.

These gentle women by comparison, not caught up in war, could give in to pain and grief and tears in a way the others did not. This feeling was borne of love. The other had been used to stoke up anger. His heart went out to them all, especially the girls, at their intense and hard-felt grief and loss. Adults grew closer to death with age and recognized that they would one day need to deal with it. But not so suddenly nor tragically as this. He felt a lump rising in his own throat then, felt his lips start to tremble completely beyond his control, and had to blink back a tear himself at the wall of sudden and starkly-felt emotions surrounding him on all sides but did not entirely succeed as he felt first one and then another escape down his cheek. It was a strange sensation. He had never been caught up in anything quite like this before, nor to such a degree in any of the previous five years. Such luxuries as sorrow and grief and gentle mourning had been foreign to him until now. Then, he had felt anger, pity, and frustration and had been caught up for a while in vengeful actions—coldly and calmly thought-through; pitiless, ruthless, and devastatingly effective, with no fear or consideration of death.

He noticed then, through the haze clouding his vision, that the young lady lying in the bed, dying, had fixed him with an intense stare, much like her father had, knowing death was near, and with a furrow across her pale brow. That brief moment of horrified clarity just before the end. She was fighting her own battles and demons. She seemed momentarily confused, and must wonder who he might be and why he might be here and even why he might be shedding tears, for was he not a stranger to them all and to her? Did she know what was happening even?

Then he feared for a moment that she was dead even before the knot had been tied, defeating all of their efforts. He began to feel cheated. A strange response, considering his earlier feelings concerning a marriage he had had no warning of or desire to participate in. He was relieved then to see her blink, to see her glance lessen in intensity and flicker off to her mother and then to her sisters, who had their heads bowed and were keeping their own feelings under as much control as they could but with little success.

It seemed that all of the years of holding back any show of emotion as he had held one after another of his comrades as they died, was now suddenly let loose. How many of them? He had lost count over the years. He felt the tears coursing down his face and dripping to the floor and could do nothing about it.

She suffered a few moments of painful coughing as she held a towel over her mouth and then settled uneasily once more.

His heart went out to them all. He responded as he knew he must. He took her hand, sensing the feverish temperature and trembling and the weakness. He felt suddenly overpowered by the heat in the small room from numerous candles hurriedly moved off to the side before they had entered. He felt anxious to be out of it and heard his wife-to-be, haltingly, in a grating voice and with obvious difficulty, give her responses. She was conscious of what was happening and knew that her death was not far off—a feeling no one needs to be conscious of, though he had seen it often enough himself in the Peninsula as he had cradled one after another of his own dying comrades. He had tried to comfort them as they knew full-well that their last conscious moments on earth were also here before them and in some strange foreign field far from home with nothing he or they could do about it. So much to think about and say, but too little time to say anything before death removed all of their memories and heartaches and feelings and even most of their entire living history as though they had never even lived.

His heart went out to her, where it had not been able to go out to even his own comrades in the heat of the moment and in the rush back to battle. He knew that his own end would eventually be the same, amidst the screams of the dying. A brief pain from a saber cut or thrust, or a lead ball or flying pieces of wood or metal thrown about by a cannon ball. Perhaps a fall from a horse. A helpless bed upon the grass, surrounded by others in the same state. Stony, angry faces of silent pity surrounding him and looking down upon him one last time before turning away. They were the faces of those who would follow him to the grave, and all too soon. Knowing it. This might be how they would end in a few hours, days, or not at all. Regrets? Would he be missed? By some, perhaps. Would anyone notice his passing? Too few. Fading consciousness—all enveloping and final death. Oblivion. There would be memories of him that might survive with others for a little time but not far beyond that generation that entered the world with him. But by some trick of fate, he had survived, whereas better men, more deserving of life, had not. He was here to face the tragedy of death yet again.

From somewhere, rings were produced and according to custom he had encountered in his reading, he placed the one he was given, first a little way upon her thumb, then upon her forefinger, then the same upon her second finger and then finally slid it fully upon her third finger. He omitted the recitation that usually accompanied that gentle custom, seeing the reverend suddenly looking at him with a puzzled look on his face. It slid on her ring finger easily and was clearly the property of others as it was too loose fitting—probably from either her mother or her father. He placed his hand close to hers. With difficulty, she attempted to slide the ring she had been given upon his ring finger, dropping it once into the coverlet from her weak fingers. He retrieved it for her, put it back into her hand, and then assisted her.

He listened as the reverend Simpkins pronounced them husband and wife and told him that he may now kiss the bride. Simpkins had hesitated briefly after that, feeling that it was perhaps inappropriate with the young lady’s condition, but then realized that it could not matter now. It should be done to bring some formal finality to it all. William leaned over and placed a gentle kiss upon his wife’s lips as she looked up at him and into his eyes with a sudden flush upon her face and then he placed another upon her forehead. There was a taste of blood, and salt from one of his own tears, albeit faint, in his mouth. She had flinched as he had unexpectedly kissed her. He hoped he had not caused her pain.

His bride’s hand lay weakly on the coverlet, starkly pale on the darker fabric. He was then given a pen, dipped it into ink, and signed the register that the reverend offered to him, and then watched as his bride attempted to focus upon the page and tried clumsily to sign her name too. She fought to dredge up the strength to do so while he held the book for her to sign which she was able to do once she became focused upon it. Afterward, she relaxed back into the pillows. She could now die with the knowledge that she had somehow saved her family…but in what way and from what?

With that final act, as the quill dropped from her fingers, there was a sudden spatter of rain and leaves blown against the window, causing everyone to pause in wonderment. Her mother had looked up startled, and glanced toward the room next door where her husband lay with her other daughter in attendance, wondering if this might be some sign of his passing as his soul sought to escape. There was no sound from the other room of that daughter alerting them to anything untoward with a cry or other noise. The uneasiness soon passed. Wind was wind, and it had picked up, as a shower had moved through the area and had blown rain and leaves against the window as it had often done in the past. It was all natural, one did not need to seek spiritual meaning in any of it.

As their momentary alertness and bewilderment subsided, her mother and sisters sobbed in some relief at that moment as though a massive burden had been lifted from them, but it was nothing that he needed to be concerned about. The relief could almost be felt pervading the entire room. Mrs. Barristow lifted her head and silently thanked him with her eyes as the tears rolled down her cheeks. In another world not so far behind him, all of this would have fired him up to go out and to kill relentlessly, ruthlessly, without mercy, like the Berserks in all of their ancestry and without concern for his own safety, but there was nothing he might do here except fight back his sudden feelings and control his emotions lest he upset these women even more than they were.

 

“Charlotte. See the reverend has a glass of port or some other refreshment before he leaves, please. There are those who believe that those who are…a toast to their memory and to their life…to ease them on their way. Unless, sir, you are like your predecessor who abjured all forms of alcohol?”

The reverend cast a strange look at her and spoke gently. “I have no such strictures, Ma’am, and I have no objection to those older customs or beliefs. They all serve a purpose that I shall not question. I will raise my glass as needed, but I should not stay longer. I have preparations to make for tomorrow.” His predecessor, Reverend Coles, had no such feelings against imbibing alcohol either. He did not know how they had managed to obtain that impression of him, for the old vicar had a reputation of sometimes digging too deep into the wine and whatever else was offered.

“Of course.”

Mrs. Barristow seemed now relaxed and to some small degree much more contented in all of her pain, having achieved her main goal of seeing her daughter married and, apparently, their future somehow secured.

“Charlotte, see that Mr. Devane, your sister’s husband now….” she hesitated as she said that and her voice caught for a moment as she looked at him in gratitude “…goes to the living room or the parlor. The parlor is the more comfortable at the moment, and we shall join you shortly, sir. At least for a while.”

Her voice dropped so that she might not be overheard by the young lady lying back on her deathbed. “I fear there is not long to go here. After that, Charlotte, you may return here and join Sophia, Annis and me, and we shall see to your father and sister and make their last moments as peaceful and comfortable as we may.”

“Yes, Mama.”

They had tied the knot with too little time remaining, for the news soon spread throughout the house that the elder daughter died not ten minutes later after slipping back into unconsciousness. Their father had died sometime during the brief ceremony that had seen his daughter married to a relative stranger. Perhaps his passing had caused his daughter at that moment to drop the ring she had been putting on his finger, and the suddenly gusting wind and rain had truly been a sign of some kind, of his passing.

Later that evening, it had been a tearful gathering in the parlor once all of the surviving sisters were there, following their preparations of their father and eldest sister. They seemed to need to do it themselves rather than have the servants involved in such deeply personal matters.

William felt immensely out of place—an interloper, a fraud in the midst of all of their outpourings of pain and grief and had been relieved to have excused himself and gone off to bed in some area of the house near where his dead bride and her dead father now lay. It would obviously be an uneasy and restless house all night. Sleep would come easily to no one. He would rather have been a hundred miles away than in this place at this moment, but he could not desert them.

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Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

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Deception by Proxy: Chapter Five.

Thursday, December 21st, 2017

Underby Manor. A Promise Made.

Meeting a distraught mother and daughters.  A promise to a dying man. A Marriage to a dying woman. Two untimely and tragic deaths.  What has he got himself into?

William was relieved to see the carriage ahead of him slow down as the steaming horses were walked for a minute or so along a fairly narrow lane, overhung closely with trees, before they were turned into a broad driveway, dimly illuminated by the lights shining from most of the windows in the house.

These horses too, were labored in their breathing at the pace that had been demanded of them. His cousin would not thank him if they had been injured in any way by the exertion demanded of them on such poor roads by their reckless driver. If any of them had pulled a tendon or went lame after this, there would be some accounting to be made.

William was surprised to see that Underby Manor, the home of the Barristows, was not at all ramshackle, shabby, run down, or what he had begun to half expect and fear. The name had sounded dark, even sinister, and ominously depressing for some reason; though that came from himself, considering what had already happened to him that day. What possible good might come from this new twist and turn of events?

What little light there was to see by, thrown out by well-lit windows and smoky flambeaux lit in front of the house, perhaps in anticipation of his arrival, showed a large and ancient rambling structure with blackened timbers in the usual half-timbered Tudor style, alternating with the external whiter covering of mortar between the timbers and showing up in brighter contrast, even in the darkness. It showed every sign of prosperity and being well-looked-after despite its age. Perhaps in the more revealing and honest light of day, and to closer scrutiny, it might show its age and true character, much like certain ladies once they leave the protective and obscuring darker shadows that provided them with a kindly anonymity.

As Major Devane walked his horse up behind the carriage, there was activity behind the windows as the new sounds from the driveway intruded into the apparent upset of the house, though another carriage was preparing to leave even as he rode in. Fortunately they had not arrived later and encountered each other on the much narrower and tortuous road and in the dark. The doctor was even now just leaving, and the light from the interior of the house flooded across the stone step out of the opening door as he left.

As the doctor’s carriage drove off and as the one that had led William to where he now found himself was taken around to the stables, the stable hand that had seen the doctor off, took his horse, which was breathing quite heavily at the exertion demanded of him. The mule was standing with heaving flanks, observing all, while recovering her wind too.

William gave instructions to the stable hand concerning the stabling arrangement of his horse and mule, letting him know that if he got it wrong, he faced the risk of having the stable demolished by the mule. His portmanteau, which had been in the carriage, had been promptly retrieved by a maidservant even as he had dismounted, and had preceded him into the house.

A lady of uncertain years and a little untidy in her appearance in the dim light outside of the door came forward to greet him and to make him welcome, and he barely noticed another servant removing the more obvious mud from his boots with a dampened cloth before he scraped off the bottom of his boots and then entered the house. The older lady had seemed surprised to see him, but obviously was much relieved to see him arrive, the way she fussed over him. Perhaps she had not been so certain that he might be at Kellands.

He met her with a sinking heart and began to wonder what his cousin might have inadvertently got him into, but did not utter what was in his mind. ‘Lord, what have I let myself in for now?’ He had, some time earlier, regretted giving in to his sense of adventure and responding as he did. Whatever transpired after this could only be his own fault.

“I am relieved more than words can express that you have come, Mr. Devane, and not a moment too soon I fear.”

Her welcome was sincere. She seemed not to doubt who he might be. His arrival had seemingly lifted a great burden from her. No doubt he might feel the weight of it himself in short order, whatever it might be.

She looked at him, showing obvious gratitude shining from her moist eyes as she took his hand and was, for the moment, speechless. She wanted to say much more to him, but her tremulous voice showing her ill-concealed emotions would not allow her. Also evident, though fleeting, was her curiosity, despite her noticeable anxiety and fidgeting; for she had never met him before, to her knowledge, and he could not remember having met her. He surprised her for a moment with his steady intense eyes, adjusting to the higher level of light flooding from the hallway. He looked almost wild, but then he had been out of the country until just that morning (for so she had heard) and would have had little time to settle himself anywhere; and he had not had an easy time either abroad, or in getting here, for Underby was well off the beaten track.

“Please do come in. I must ask you to excuse our disorganization and the mess at this time.” She noticed that he had to bend to avoid bumping his head in the low doorway but did not seem to notice his still questionably clean boots or his rumpled clothing or untidily windswept hair.

“We have no time to stand on ceremony, sir, so I hope you will forgive us. Three years of planning and preparation and all to come to naught through some fateful accident.” She sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with her apron as she struggled with an inner grief that threatened to burst forth but was held under tight control for the moment. Her apron showed disturbing signs of smudges of what could only be blood upon it, with similar marks upon her dress and cheeks, yet she herself did not seem to be the source of it. She had been crying for some time and trying to control it, and the effects on her face were obvious.

“Oh, what a turmoil to lay upon you! Such haste is unseemly, I know, and for such an occasion too, and is to be abhorred in every way; but fate deals with us in some cruel and unavoidable ways. Whoever would have thought that such a thing might happen as it did? I dare not give in to my female weaknesses here.” He knew that allusion to female weakness could be misleading. Women—some women—were by far the stronger of the two sexes in the face of the worst upsets and emotional adversities.

Her mothering instincts caused her to reach up and to straighten his neck cloth a little, and to pull his coat more tidily on his frame, almost as though he were her own son. He did not resist, though he was amused, but not taken aback at her familiarity. His father’s coat was of the highest quality, but it had been made for his father and not for him and still needed some minor changes that he had not had time to allow Mrs. Priddy to complete.

“There is much to be done before we may rest tonight, though there will be little of that I fear. I doubt there can be any consolation in knowing that she is relatively unknown to you; yet if there had been a better knowledge of each other, the hurt might be as hard for you to bear as it is to us, for she has been a good daughter and a more kind and helpful one to both her father and me would have been hard to find. Such a loss as we all face will be hard to endure.”

It began to sound ominous. She is relatively unknown to you. What had cousin George been up to? He was relieved to find that he could not hear the protesting crying of any newborns, but the blood upon her apron was from either a new birth or…that alternative seemed the more palatable of the two at the moment.

She led him deeper into the large house, and he noted that the inside of it was as tasteful in every way as had been suggested by the outside and what little of the grounds he had seen in the dim light, though there was a hint of untidiness about it all. “Yes, Molly,” she interrupted the maid in her surprise at seeing so large a man taking up so much room in the hallway. “Take that bag up to the bedroom we prepared, and make sure that the sheets are properly aired out and that there is an additional blanket. The nights have been none too warm of late.”

She turned back to him. “I must offer you my hospitality for at least the night, sir, and hopefully for much longer if you can bear that thought. There is no way of you returning to Kellands this evening even if you were inclined to do so with the rain starting again, and I am grateful beyond what words can express that you were able to set out so promptly. I was not sure where I might find you or if you could be persuaded to come if we did. All of the horses are exhausted and my servants, too, with the events of the day. But you will not find us wanting for hospitality, and after your ride there is some refreshment being laid out for you in the parlor while we prepare.”

Prepare for what? he wondered.

She fussed restlessly. “Please forgive the disarray. Before this tragedy befell us, we had embarked upon some needed renovations. If only we had delayed another week.” She turned to the coachman, who had now appeared in the doorway. “Thomas. You know as well as anyone might, where to find Simpkins in the village. I know he returned from London, but I expected him here before now. I hope he did not get lost.” She sounded exasperated as well as anxious. “Of all the times to take up a new position and not know his way about. He is aware that we would need him at some time this evening, and that time is now certainly come.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” The servant she had addressed as Thomas went off down the driveway at a brisk walk, unmindful of any fatigue he may have been feeling from his recent jaunts about the countryside and his miraculous survival driving that carriage as he had.

William’s hostess was clearly laboring under an immense emotional burden and could not stay still for long before she was giving instructions in other directions. She was younger than he had assumed. Her hair was unkempt and across her forehead where some strands of it had come adrift from a coil upon her head, but that was understandable. Her clothing was of a high quality, though bloodied, and she was gently-spoken despite what seemed to be a desperate situation. The ruination she had hinted at was not to be seen in either her home or her own appearance, except for the blood stains, nor might be suggested in any obvious way considering the number of servants scurrying silently about the place, or the light that bathed everywhere from numerous candles.

“Unfortunately, sir, our loss is shortly about to become yours also, for you will be a widower all too soon and I, a widow.”

He was surprised but said nothing. A widower? He felt a sinking feeling spreading over him once more. He had not liked the sound of that.

It seemed that a wedding—his cousin’s perhaps—had been planned. Now what was it George had said in one of his rare letters about being married to a French lady? He could not rightly remember his exact words. He could say nothing at the moment until he knew more, and now was not the time to bring forth any suggestion of the undoubted mistake that had been made, both with him and his cousin George. There were too many emotions in play already. But did they not know his cousin better than they seemed to and recognize that the man standing in the middle of the hallway was clearly not him? It did not sound promising.

He was not about to discuss or question the arrangement with such obvious tragedy hanging close by and risk greater upset to this lady, nor protest anything about what seemed to be a planned marriage, involving him at this particular moment, under such circumstances. At least not until he knew more. What had his cousin been up to? Perhaps he had known of this and decided he should be on the continent to avoid it all? A little reflection suggested that that was unlikely to be the case. George had a keen sense of humor, but it never involved such a tragedy as was becoming more obviously laid out by the minute.

It was far stranger than William might have initially assumed. What woman did it seem he was to marry with some haste? What circumstance made it all so urgent? How could it be that he would soon be a widower, unless…?

He would let things move forward as they would, and observe and listen. It might never get to marriage at all if the circumstances were truly as desperate as they described. In truth, he would have rebelled and ran in the opposite direction at the thought of marrying any woman he had never seen, nor even had anything less than an extensive understanding of her character and ambitions, and certainly not so hastily even then, if at all. Yet it seemed that fate now ordained otherwise, for his horses had been put away, his luggage taken up to his room, wherever that was, and he was not sure that he could desert this distraught lady in her moment of sorrow and need, where she had been so overjoyed to see him arrive. He was trapped. He recalled his uncle’s words about the Collishawe woman. But these were Barristows and not Collishawe. Scant relief there, however.

He resigned himself. He had encountered worse situations and had muddled through them before. Now was not the time to become difficult, though he would if the need were there.

“May I know what happened, Ma’am, and what you intend, if you have time and can relate it? I am sorry that my cousin…”

Her mind was rushing along furiously for she did not realize she had cut him off as she did. “Aye, there is time to talk for the moment, but only briefly, and you need to know of the tragedy.” She cast a glance at a young girl sitting in a chair in the parlor and staring out of the window into the dark and steered him away so that they would not be easily overheard by her.

She held him close by his arm. “Oh, sir, my husband and eldest daughter were in a carriage accident this morning when it overturned upon them both some miles away.” He felt her tremble and sensed her pain at that admission of events that had so devastated the entire family. He wanted to reach out and to comfort her but realized that he ought not do that with such emotions in play and with him a relative stranger.

“The doctor has been here all afternoon but was just called out to another accident and will be back when he can, or not. There is nothing more he can do here anyway and was merely giving us some comfort in his presence; impossible under these circumstances and with such a black outlook. He says that we can hold out no hope for either of them. The internal damage to them both is too great and the blood loss too, and my husband is not expected to regain consciousness.’

She raised her apron and wiped at her eyes as she recovered herself.

“My daughter…” her voice faltered, “has other injuries internal to her, and she is coughing and breathing blood and becoming weaker by the hour and is drifting in and out of consciousness. There is nothing of good news in anything that faces us at this time other than your arrival. I only dared leave their sides when I heard that you had arrived, and I must return to them and join my younger daughters who are sitting with them.”

It was not the time to ask for assurances that he was the one she expected to be here or for any more than she had already told him.

There was the sound of movement on the stairs beside them. The lady looked up to see who might be coming down them.

“Annis. My second daughter, sir,” she explained. He watched as the daughter descended the stairs. Her mother took in the look on her face. “Good news is not to be expected in any of this either, I fear. I must go.” She quickly went over to the stairs and mounted them.

That there was no good news to impart was obvious from the look upon the younger lady’s drawn face as she slowly descended the staircase and then sat down on the stairs and buried her head in her hands as though burdened beyond belief. She raised her head and took her mother’s hands as they met and comforted each other, but he could not hear the words that were exchanged. Their tenor was obvious. She had been crying as had her mother, and she still was, for he could see the glint of candlelight on tears as she moved her head.

She appeared to be no more than about twenty years of age; and though she had been crying and still was, she had a determined, if pale, look upon her face as she turned her head to look at him below her; and he found that her large dark eyes blinked away the tears and drilled into his own as though to lay bare and to read his soul in that first moment of tragic meeting.

He decided at that moment that he had no need to rush off. In fact, he surprised himself by wondering at his complete lack of backbone and character to have even considered such a thing when surrounded by those who seemed so much to need his presence. He must see this through. There was much more to this than he could likely take in, in just the few moments since his arrival. Besides, it was dark and he knew nothing of where he actually was and had nowhere else to go, with Brooklands some way off.

His eyes had never left the young lady’s face as she had stared at him. Then she turned to face her mother and spoke to her as her glance flickered occasionally over to him. It was clear that he was the subject of their exchange but that his presence might not sit easily with the daughter at this moment of tragedy.

He had the feeling that she resented him, his presence, and everything about him but could not know why; though with reflection, it soon became apparent. She was probably thinking ‘why this unseemly haste? What was the purpose? Why now?’ Perhaps even, ‘why had he not appeared sooner?’

Why hadn’t George mentioned any of this to him in any of his letters? Perhaps he had not known. But then his last letter from George had been some five months earlier, and too much can happen in five months.

They seemed not only to know something of him, but also to have expected him sooner. It was all puzzling, as they clearly seemed to know little or nothing of his cousin nor of him.

Both ladies ascended the stairs with some alacrity, leaving him standing in the hall. He could not go wandering by himself and decided to wait.

Barely two minutes later, Mrs. Barristow came down the stairs again, her eyes brighter with purpose.

“Sir,” Mrs. Barristow descended the stairs and approached him—“my husband has regained consciousness. We were able to let him know what happened and what we were doing even now. It was confusing to him for a while, but I think he understands the gravity of his situation now, if he didn’t earlier. I told him some of what I had been able to do before the doctor left and before he drifted off again, and now he requests to see you above all others and would not be put off, though how he knew you had arrived….” She did not dwell on what she did not understand. “He knows he has little time and insists that he would like to speak with you. Please wait while I go and see him again and prepare him a little. I shall not be long.”

A servant led him into the small parlor and wiped at his boots once more and brushed off his clothing a little. He washed his hands in the bowl of water brought for him and then he sat down to a tankard of beer as he mulled over the events of the last few moments. The rest of his day since landing at the docks had slipped entirely from his mind.

He could hear sounds of activity from somewhere above his head. The girl sitting by the fire had her legs drawn up with her in the chair and was observing him with curiosity upon her pale and sad face. She was probably about six or seven years of age. She did not like being left out of everything as she must be, to protect her. She must be the youngest daughter perhaps. She seemed troubled by what was happening about her and could not have liked being left out of it.

“Hello.” He decided that he should break the ice with her and try to take her mind off what would be difficult for one so young to deal with. She had been crying too, caught up in so much tragedy and about to see some of her family stripped away from her. It would be more than a child might easily deal with in the short term, and yet she would probably be more resilient than her elders.

“Hello,” she responded. “Are you William? Mr. Devane?”

He was pleased to see that she was not shy. He smiled at her. “Yes. I am. Who might you be?”

“I am Sophia. I am the youngest, for so they keep reminding me. You are suntanned. They will not let me see my father or Bella. Annis thought you would not come to such a hasty summons, as you had not appeared before now either, though you have been expected for years, I think. Mama thought that you might come if you got her letter in time. I think your arrival helped Mama a great deal, for she seemed unable to deal with any of it until she saw you step into the house.”

“And why did Annis think I would not come?”

“I do not know. But you are not old, are you?”

“No, I am not doddering long-tooth old, though I am much older than you.”

She digested that. “You are not fat and bald either.”

“Not yet. Not the last time I checked in a mirror.”

“I heard her say those things—that arranged marriages with strangers usually involved someone old, fat, and bald, often with bad teeth and bad breath, and usually unpleasant manners and mannerisms. She said it to Charlotte so that Mama did not overhear her. But I do not think they were talking of you. Your teeth look healthy. But she said that before any of this happened. But I also heard Mama say that she knows you to be a much better man than the vicious rumors of you might suggest, though she also said that she had never met you either. What are vicious rumors?”

“Your mother sounds wise and probably too trusting.” What vicious rumors? he wondered. Already? And what was this about an arranged marriage?

She was not sidetracked by his comment. “Please, sir, what rumors are those, and why will they not let me see father or Bella?” She seemed close to tears. “Everyone seems to have forgotten me.”

“Rumors are just another word for gossip. Usually untruthful and hurtful gossip.” He left his seat at the table and moved across to her as he knelt in front of her and held her hands as he looked up at her. “I think that they may be trying to protect you. They certainly have not forgotten about you. If you were my sister, you would be impossible to forget. I do not know what rumors your mother referred to either. There are many floating around concerning me, few of them true, and I think you know that rumors are generally to be viewed with caution and should not easily be believed.”

“Yes, sir, I know that.”

A maid entered the small parlor bearing a tray and set the table for him. There was hot coffee and a hearty stew to assuage his hunger and a plate of fresh bread. He was not sure he should eat at a time like this in the midst of so much upset. There was nothing to dampen his appetite, however, though he was sorely aware of the mood of despair throughout the house and felt guilty that he might be able to eat or think of partaking of refreshment at such a time as this with others, even now, dying above his head and with the youngest girl watching him intently.

“Will you join me while I eat, and keep me company?”

“If you wish?”

“I wish. You can help me eat some of the bread and cake if you would like.” He led her over to the table and brought out a chair for her so that she might sit with him.

It was not long before Mrs. Barristow appeared again, surprised to see her daughter eating with their guest as they chatted away. Sophia launched herself from the chair and held onto her leg.

“You can see him later Sophia, and Bella too. Be patient, my dear.” She stroked her daughter’s hair. “We have not forgotten you.”

Sorely disappointed, she returned to her chair.

“I am sorry to interrupt your meal. But please, sir, follow me. We have little time for what must be done, and you may finish that off later.” She led him out of the parlor so that Sophia would not hear her yet again. “He will not be put off, but we did tidy him up and clear some things away. He insists that he will speak to you alone.” She put her hand on his arm as they were ready to mount the stairs. “Please, sir. He is weak and has survived longer than was anticipated, but he always was a stubborn man, and I love him.” Her voice broke at the dreadful emotional burden she was carrying.

“I will try not to tax him nor upset him, Ma’am, and I shall call you in if he seems to need you.”

She sniffed and wiped away her tears. “Thank you.” She led the way up the stairs and into the master bedroom, dimly lit and dark, except close by the bed.

Her husband lay propped up into a sitting position in a large bed in the middle of the floor with yet another young lady, clearly another daughter, sitting by him, this one about fifteen or sixteen years of age. She was also sad and tearful and loath to leave her father in the company of a total stranger, a complete unknown to her. But her mother firmly indicated that she was to go and saw her out of the room as she closed the door behind them all, leaving him alone with Mr. Barristow.

William walked over to the bed and looked down upon the man. He had a pale face, drawn with pain. A bottle of opium by the bed suggested that he was being medicated, though probably not heavily enough. His eyes were sharp and intense, fighting off death and holding onto consciousness.

“Closer.” He waved his finger.

William sat down and leaned over him. He was fighting to hold off that shadowy reaper, he knew lurked just beyond the light, inching ever closer and waiting to pounce on him. There was a film of drying blood in the corner of his mouth.

“I fear I do not have long to live. I do not know you, but I knew your father well, as a true friend, and your mother.” He fought for breath and his eyes flickered over to a glass of water by the side.

William picked it up and held it for him to drink to wet his mouth as he supported his head. He recovered and seemed to brace himself to ensure that he did not falter or give out before he had completed his task.

“You know why you are here?” His voice seemed stronger.

“Yes, sir. I think so. To marry your eldest daughter if that is what is required. But….”

The dying man did not wait for him to finish but seemed to call upon an inner last reserve. “It is required. Urgently. This was not planned to unfold this way. I have nothing to give you by way of dowry other than a daughter, who despite what is said to me to spare me further anguish, may not survive. There will also be trouble.” He breathed more heavily and frowned at that unwelcome thought. “Not a fitting dowry for anyone to shoulder in repayment for a kindness.”

William was used to trouble.

“But you will be doing me and this family a service we might never be able to repay. I won’t be able to in any case. Dreadful way to do this I know…and completely flies against everything proper for you…and against everything that is desirable…cannot be avoided at this time.”

He fought against the weakness that was creeping over him and desperately grasped William’s hand to be sure he was still there, but he also seemed to be finding peace at last where there had been none until this gentleman had arrived. He rallied briefly. “I did not believe it might be accomplished so well and so soon, though almost too late. Though it is much to ask of any man, for she is a stranger to you, I know, though I love her dearly as I do all of them.” He paused and swallowed hard. “I hoped it would not get to this stage so quickly and unexpectedly, but we are not masters of our own fate.” He closed his eyes and breathed a few times and then opened them again. “What would not have been achieved better with another year or two?” He seemed to be losing his strength with each passing minute and was fighting to talk more than he should.

He drank more, and his words were more difficult to find and to say.

“I need you to remain here afterward, if you can.” He seemed to be pleading, for he knew he could not force his will upon this gentleman sitting by him, known to him in so many ways it seemed, despite never having seen him and yet unknown in others. His eyes moved about the room closing in about him, taking in its closeness and familiarity that he would soon lose, but he was not yet finished.

“There are those who will try to overturn what we must do and put my family out and usurp this property, and I cannot stop them now, but you can and must. Violent men who have no respect for a woman unprotected by a man. I have no right to ask this of you, for you do not know me, though I feel I know you. I fear the consequences to those I love if you do not. Will you do that for me and for them, sir?”

“I will.”

“Your word.” He had to have it, it seemed.

“I give you my word as a Devane and the son of your friend. I shall not desert them. I shall protect them to the best of my ability.”

“Thank you.” He seemed able to relax at last as he sank deeper into his pillows and closed his eyes for a moment. He opened them again as though ensuring that he had not imagined this man sitting beside the bed. “You will do. Like your father. We served together on the Hyperion many years ago now. A staunch friend. I needed to see you, to look into your eyes and know that you were just like him, for you are. If she lives, you will do well together.”

William would have liked to learn more, and how he had known his father, for he himself had never met this man nor even heard the name until today. But his father had indeed served on the Hyperion. There seemed to be no mistake. He accepted then, though he did not understand it, that the letter had truly been intended for him and not his cousin. It was all strange. How had this got to this stage without him knowing anything about it? There had been vague references by his sister in her many letters, concerning various deliberations about him and marriage, but she had not mentioned any name that he could recall, probably recognizing that it would be premature, as well as ill-received.

The dying man sank back even more deeply into his pillows, seeking some physical relief that was not at hand for such a broken body, and pointed weakly to the door. The interview was over, and he wanted his family about him now for his final moments.

“I will get them, sir.” William opened it and saw Mrs. Barristow and her daughters immediately enter. They must have overheard little but had heard his footsteps approaching the door. They moved quickly over to the bed to provide comfort to the man lying there, and to be there for the last few moments of his existence, for he did not have long.

Mrs. Barristow turned to him. “Sir. Will you please send up my youngest daughter now? We should all be present at this time.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He returned to the parlor, aware that he should not assume that her words might include him.

 

“Sophia. They would like you to go up now to see your father.”

She was out of the door and scrambling up the stairs as quickly as she might, skirts flying, even before he had finished speaking. “Papa.”

Now why had he promised what he had, and trapped himself? He knew well enough. A woman’s agonized plea was burden and obligation enough, but a dying man’s request must never be denied if it were possible to fulfill it.

He saw that as the youngest girl had fled from the room, a thick folder she had been going through had slipped to the floor and was spilling its contents. He noticed also that his plate of stew had been cleared away. It would have been cold anyway.

He picked the folder from the floor and set it in the embrasure that Sophia had been sitting in and saw that he should try to keep it together and not have it shed pieces of paper everywhere to perhaps waft into the fire.

He opened it and saw that it was a well-thumbed family record that many families often kept of their children and progress through the years. It was originally a large bound book of blank pages, but that the binding had not been well done and had come adrift, releasing the individual quires.

There were the records of all of the daughters, and drawings, well executed drawings, of the children as they were growing from baby to infant and then to child and even young women for the elder three girls. There was a section for each, and in order, as they had been born. The first entries were of the young married couple themselves and were dated from late in the previous century, even as they newly married. There was a sketch of her husband as a younger man, and the features did bear a resemblance to the man dying upstairs. Clearly, Mrs. Barristow had kept the journal, for it was all as neat and as well-written as a young lady might do it, and the writing was as he remembered in her letter to Kellands. Besides, few men were such accomplished artists or had an eye for the minor and intriguing details that all women seemed to dwell upon, and that gave such a journal a personality and an existence.

The first entry for their daughters was for “Arabella Jane Barristow; December 6, 1791. Six pounds and five ounces, twenty-three inches. Bella. Light thin hair. Most difficult birth. Not sure she would ever appear, but then as the sun rose she practically delivered herself with much screaming after leaving me wondering why she made me work so hard for so many hours.”

There were many similar entries tracing her sleeping habits. She had been a quiet baby and had grown well. There were several drawings of her on every page tracing her progress, her ills, her smile; with notes beneath them describing her christening, her first real words, her first steps, and various adventures and illnesses that all children seem to need to encounter as they grow, including falling downstairs, learning not to torment the cat—a lesson accompanied by some scratches—and that roses, for all their beauty, always have thorns.

After twenty or so pages, with the last few blank, there was the start of an entry for “David John Barristow, July 24, 1793. Our first son. Died a few minutes after birth. Devastating loss to us all.

On the next page was the entry for the second daughter; Annabel Mary Barristow, January 28, 1795. Annis. Eight pounds. Black hair, even at birth. Soon after she appeared, she startled us all by screaming loud enough to clear the attics of bats and let the neighbors know that I had delivered. A good sign. An easy birth despite her size. Colicky.

This was followed by similar notes of progress and drawings as there had been for the first daughter.

He tidied the loose papers away as he saw where they belonged.

They had lost only the one child. Their only son and heir. A major loss to them as to any family.

Charlotte and then Sophia had been entered later, with there being quite a few years between the last two daughters; for Charlotte was now sixteen, while Sophia was only six.

A KItten In Delightful Trouble. Review.

Sunday, December 17th, 2017

I just got this kind review today from Susan Marie, on Inkitt.

Tales Told Out Of School. 1. A Kitten in Delightful Trouble. by johnksutherland
Overall Rating  5 stars
Plot                5 stars
Writing Style    5 stars
Grammar Punctuation  5 stars

I was really sorry it ended!

I really like this story its the best one I’ve read on this site. I wish there really was more of it. I would gladly have purchased this on Amazon. The character flood was very interesting. It was written just as any published author today. The build up was intense and I was left wanting more!

Deception by Proxy: Chapter four.

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

The Elusive Cousin George. A Mistaken Identity?

An urgent message… A plea that cannot be ignored…  But to do what?

William arrived at his cousin George’s estate of Kellands an hour or so later to find that he had missed his sister by a few hours only, for she had already left for Brooklands, some distance to the North. Equally disappointing was the fact that he had also missed his cousin by only an hour, for he had taken off to the coast to take passage for France on one of his many trips over there to purchase horses and whatever else might catch his fancy. He began to wonder once more, if news of his arrival back in England had encouraged an exodus of all of his nearest relatives from their usual haunts so that they might avoid him.

Nonetheless, he was made welcome by his cousin’s butler, Henry, who recognized him and made him feel entirely at home.

He learned that his cousin was not expected back for at least a week or two, but Henry had been told to show William hospitality whenever he might arrive, for he had been expected for some time now.

After seeing his horses stabled and fed as well as groomed, he partook of a light supper and settled himself to begin a letter to his sister relating what had happened to him since he had landed just hours before. He also touched upon the unfortunate meeting with their godmother, Lady Seymour, and even a clumsy attempt on his life that had left one of his attackers dead, and all barely ten minutes after he had left her estate to ride to Kellands. So far, the omens surrounding his return to his native shore had not been good ones. He would give it to her tomorrow at Brooklands when he caught up with her unless he missed her again.

Later, he sat back with another glass of port wine and a book as he stared into the roaring fire. He began to feel welcome, warm, and more comfortable for the first time since arriving in England that same morning. He was prepared to be bored to tears for the next few weeks—and planned on enjoying it, provided more troubles did not descend upon him. He could return to the city at a later date, see his tailor and unearth some of his friends, see his mother when she returned from Bath, and get other business out of the way.

Some little time later, as he dozed in front of the fire, not noticing that his book had fallen to the floor, the servant interrupted his peace with the strange news that a messenger had just delivered a letter addressed to William Devane, Esq.

“A message?” He looked up in some surprise and bestirred himself. “For me? Not for George? Are you sure, Henry?” He blinked away his confusion and sleep as he looked at the servant proffering a platter with a letter on it.

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you.” He picked the message off the salver, read its direction, and turned it over. He saw no sign that it was from anyone he knew. “There cannot be more than two people in the whole of London who might know that I am here, and it did not come from either of them.”

It was marked most urgent in large letters. Everyone that he knew, was aware that his cousin answered to the name of George and not William, once they had settled on how they would be identified to the world, for though his elder cousin had been christened William George and he had been George William, they discovered that they had not liked their first names so well and had exchanged them. The family had not objected, though occasionally there still was slight confusion in some of their more distant relatives.

He had never received more than two letters in any month even from his sister, and none from other relatives who regarded his extended absence with some relief, and then to not only receive several when he landed, but also to receive another and at his cousin’s estate of all places, seemed unlikely. No one might know that he would be there. But then that might not be true either. Far too many people seemed to know much more about him than he was aware of, and having spoken with his sister’s butler and his mother’s and others too, none of his plans had been secret. Even Maxton had known where he might be waylaid.

A lot had happened behind his back and around him, and there had been too much going on concerning him even before he had arrived home. His acquaintances would know that he would be either at Mountjoy Street or most likely at Brooklands or on his way there rather than at Kellands. The news seemed to have been widely broadcast that the prodigal had returned and to lock up your daughters and valuables.

No. It was not meant for him. He preferred to believe that it was meant for his cousin. A slight mistake in intention. He easily persuaded himself that it was obviously meant for his cousin, though what trouble he was in, for a letter to be marked most urgent, did not brook thinking about. It nagged at him. He sighed in resignation. There would be no rest nor peace until he had seen to it himself; no one else would or could with his cousin absent, and it might need a response or to be dealt with. Or it might really be for him. George would not mind, for his cousin would have done the same for him. He broke the seal and read the brief missive.

He looked first at the bottom to see who it was from. It was from an Eliza Barristow of Underby Manor. Now where had he read or heard that name before? He could not recall, but it rang a bell, and it was indeed urgent, or so it seemed, from the language involved. He did not drop it on the tray for his cousin to deal with when he returned from France, but decided that it appeared to be of such an urgency—if the lady was not prone to exaggeration and making a great deal out of nothing—that it perhaps could, and should be dealt with sooner. He opened it and read. It seemed to be stained and smeared here and there with water damage, for the ink had run out into the small lacunae. Could they be tear marks? The first few sentences were smeared this way. Those tears had fallen onto them after they had been written, whereas the later part of the letter avoided those same kind of spots, and wrote around the damage. Yes, they were tears. He had better see what he might do. He re-read it.

Dear Mr. Devane,

I realize that this will be sudden for you to have to deal with. Please accept my apologies for disrupting your evening with you so soon returned from abroad. A great tragedy has suddenly befallen us, and I have no one else to turn to. Complete and utter ruin faces us. As time is of the essence, I beg that you set out for Underby at once, and rescue us.

“At once,” was strongly underlined.

I beseech you, sir, that you will not delay a moment longer. Soon after you receive this, my carriage will come by for you. Do not set out on your own, or you will likely be lost, and I fear that if you do not arrive tonight, that all will indeed be lost to all of us. I will tell you all when you arrive.

Your most grateful, Eliza Barristow.

He was not sure what to make of it. He did not know the lady. There were a lot of emotions seemingly in play as she had written this if the damage were tears and not rain spattering. But it had been a fairly clear day, and the letter had been sealed. What understanding did she mean? What had George been up to?

His cousin might know enough to throw some light on the matter, but he was not here. The sly dog. He had given no hint of being in any difficulty about anything. But no matter, the situation had clearly become urgent in some way. Indeed, the lady—Eliza Barristow—was clearly in some difficult situation or felt herself to be, considering her desperate tone. How was he to deal with this? What had his cousin been up to in his absence? A carriage would soon be arriving, and by now his cousin was not likely to be found on this side of the channel, and there was an urgency that needed a cool head, presumably.

He could not ignore it and possibly create a greater problem for his cousin. They had occasionally changed places when it suited them both and responded to the other’s name. Well, the evening had threatened to drag on, for he was restless. He no longer felt like reading, and there was no one to talk to with his sister gone off to Brooklands. He could have retired, but with so much on his mind after the visit with his godmother and the incident later, he doubted he would be able to sleep, although it seemed he had, for Henry had woken him up with that letter. He decided that he would respond to the plea for help, and his cousin might feel some obligation to return the favor when he arrived back.

As he had no idea where the Barristow estate—Underby Manor—was, he was not motivated to set out on what would undoubtedly be a fool’s errand by himself in hopes of meeting the promised carriage, and indeed was half inclined to not believe anything that seemed to be happening. He had the feeling that he should ignore it or, indeed, to run instead in the other direction.

He wondered if his cousin were not playing him some kind of prank or other, as he was noted for his little surprises meant to bring some life into a gathering or to startle someone from lassitude or complacency.

But how could George have got this lark prepared so soon? If it were a lark. George had not known that his cousin was to arrive on that particular evening, although he had been expected much earlier in the week, and the letter was from someone even further from London than he was. It was from a lady who expressed herself strangely and from the heart. Maybe it had been meant for him.

He tugged on the bell pull and spoke with the servant who responded quite promptly to its summons.

“Henry. What do you know of the Barristows?”

“I do not think I am familiar with that name, sir. Although….” he thought further “the name does seem familiar. But then Mr. Devane, your cousin, deals with so many families with his horses and other ventures. Oh. One moment, sir. There was some correspondence a month or more ago I believe, with a gentleman of that name. I think the letter is still on his desk, and I do not believe it was anything too private. I do know he had reached an understanding of some kind with Mr. Barristow. I got the impression it was to do with some horses, but he was secretive about it, as he usually is, until sometime after it is all finalized. I believe his business with that gentleman was concluded successfully, for I did not hear otherwise.”

“Might I read it then?”

“Yes, sir. If it is still there.”

They looked at the untidy desk in his cousin’s study and then risked opening the drawers onto even worse disorganization but could not easily see it. They gave up.

No matter. It seemed that he might be of service to his cousin. Certainly there was nothing amiss that could come from him responding to the most urgent request and straighten it all out with Mrs. Barristow when he saw her and explain that his cousin was abroad for the moment.

 

Almost an hour later, a similar letter with considerably more detail from Mrs. Barristow was delivered to Lady Seymour by the same messenger on his way to London.

She uttered some choice words when she read it and immediately sat down again, tore up the brief letter she had begun earlier to that same friend, Eliza, concerning William Devane’s visit and then started afresh with new purpose and urgency. “Damn the boy! It is to be hoped he was not so accessible as to be at Kellands of all places and too close to Underby, but that was undoubtedly his next stop after leaving her, and where he might readily be found, for he would not have had time to reach Brooklands before dark, after his visit to her.”

She wrote in furious haste, oblivious to the frequent sputtering of the pen and smudging of ink. She had rehearsed so often in her mind what she had long intended to write, that her presentation of it was orderly and quite reasonable, if far too untidily written; but there was the need to get her thoughts down on paper and quickly. If possible, she would see her letter go out of the door that night and if not, then by first light in the morning.

“Oh, Eliza, my heart goes out to you and your girls. Now how best can I help you? Well, I can put paid to that one overreaching ambition of his mother – to see him respectably married—that I should have strenuously objected to when I had the chance.”

She continued writing. “Letters. Letters. Letters. I have never written so many letters in the course of one day as I have on this day. But this must be stopped. Hopefully Eliza would not find William at Kellands. If she did not find him there, she might not waste time looking for him at Brooklands but might search further afield, even to London. Damn him! Why could he have not stayed away another five years or got himself firmly married to one of those foreign women as he should have done, perhaps even to that…that Constanza, rather than inflict himself again on English ladies and have saved us all from this. Better still, why could he not have got himself killed?”

 

Almost a half hour after he had read the message, William heard the sounds of a carriage in the driveway. When it came to a stop, he could then hear the sounds of the harness and of labored breathing and the fidgeting of the horses, which had obviously been pushed to their limit.

The driver asked but one question as both the butler and William approached. “Mr. William Devane, sir?” The horses were severely winded and flecked with foam. A stable hand was standing at their heads, holding them steady.

“Yes, that’s me.” He turned to the servant. “That’s all right, Henry, I’ll see to it.”

The driver of the carriage passed the back of his hand across his brow. He could not believe his luck.

“What a relief to find you here, sir, or I’d have been tooling into London and around half the countryside looking for you, and I am needed back there. Mrs. Barristow had said that your sister felt reasonably sure that you would break your journey at Kellands rather than go on to Brooklands after you arrived. Mrs. Barristow also said I might change horses here to either go on or to return with you.”

William gave a sign to the stable-hand at the horses’ heads, who immediately set too, uncoupling the distressed animals from the carriage as their replacements were being put into harness in the stable.

Within ten minutes after seeing the concern of the driver, who was wondering why William was not, even then, ready to leave with him, William was astride his own horse and following the carriage off, as the steaming horses were being cooled off by walking them around the yard before being stabled. The fresh horses were straining at the harness to be off, and the driver did not seem too inclined to try and stop them.

William began to think that a wiser course of action might have seen him heading back to London, or on to Brooklands instead of following this apparently mad man, who did not care what kind of a scorching pace he set.

The light carriage, with fresh horses of his cousin’s, bowled along at a ferocious clip. More than once, the carriage was running on two wheels. It seemed obvious that it was just a matter of time before the carriage would lose a wheel, break an axle, or even overturn, as the wheels bounced around in the deeply rutted road and seemed likely to throw the driver off his seat if it were not completely overset. He was driving as though pursued by all of the demons of hell at his back. It was to be hoped he hung on, and he seemed to; for if he was thrown and broke his neck, the chances were that those horses knew their way back only to Kellands and not to where the driver wanted to be. Fortunately, its weak lights, once it had become darker, were clearly visible; and the driver had been forced to slacken his pace, or risk greater chance of upset, so William had not had to follow so close and to risk becoming generally spattered with the mud thrown up high by the wheels.

He would be splashed enough with mud from his own horse’s hooves, but mostly just his boots, he hoped. The smaller animal, Pat, was able to keep up with the pace, as she had no burden on this occasion. He dared not leave the mule behind, or he would risk finding himself unseated when Boney, his horse, realized his companion was not following him; for they had been stable-mates for long enough now and would not be separated. William’s portmanteau, saddle for the mule and other gear were undoubtedly being thrown around in the carriage bowling along ahead of them, but better there, than to be bounced off into the black of the hedgerow or into the muddy road from the back of his own horse or the mule.

Also, fortunately, there were no others on the road at that time of night, or there would certainly have been an accident on the narrow, dark, and tortuous road.

His conversation with the coachman had been brief and to the point as well as reassuring. The man spoke well of the Barristows between draughts of the beer he had thirstily gulped down as the horses were being replaced, and he conveyed a sense of urgency but would give no other details. He was obviously concerned over their plight and itched to be returning without delay.

Never having shied away from any adventure in the past, William was not about to do so now, but had been loath to part with his one means of escaping from a situation he was unsure about and did not like. He would ride his own horse and follow the coach. The coachman had not evinced any surprise at that or at the mule that was to keep up with them.

The letter from Mrs. Barristow had intrigued William. She expressed herself well, as a lady in a desperate situation might plead. He decided that if he could help her in any way, he would; for he had never refused the plea of any woman, even though responding to such pleas had twice led him into serious trouble, even of a life threatening nature. Again though, there was that nagging thought about who the intended recipient of the letter had been—himself or George?

He also wondered what kind of situation demanded such urgency and at such short notice. His cousin might not thank him for interfering, but with him likely to be out of the country for at least a week and possibly two, he could at least assess the situation and deal with it in the least damaging way.