Dunsany had barely regained his feet, though, when Grey heard voices in the corridor and stood, as well. Hanks had evidently taken matters into his own hands; the butler opened the door, bowing Lady Dunsany and her daughter Isobel into the room, following them with the tray of brandy.
“Lord John! Lord John!”
The advent of the women had much the same effect as his stirring up the fire; the room seemed at once warmer, the cold staleness of Dunsany’s lonely lair dissipated in a wave of feeling and high-pitched voices.
They were in mourning, of course, and yet they brought with them a sense of movement and animation, like a very small flock of starlings.
Isobel was weeping, but as much in gratitude for his presence, he thought, as with grief. She flung herself upon his bosom, and he folded her gently in his arms, grateful himself for the opportunity to provide even this simple service. He feared he had much less to offer either of her parents.
Lady Dunsany was patting his arm, smiling in welcome, though her face was pale and set. Still, he caught sight of the grief lurking in her eyes, and moved by impulse, reached out an arm and drew her into his embrace, as well.
“My dears,” he murmured to the women. “I am so sorry.”
He was terribly conscious, as they must be, of the sadly diminished state of the little family. Memories of other meetings swept him, when both Gordon and Geneva were with them, their friends filled the house, and his own coming was an occasion filled with delight and unceasing talk and laughter.
Hanks had taken it upon himself to pour the brandy, and had placed a glass in Lord Dunsany’s hand with gentle insistence. The old man stood blinking at it, as though he had never seen such a thing before. He did not look at his wife or daughter.
Grey became aware, in the midst of this tumult, that Lord Dunsany’s description of his wife had been neither admiring nor metaphorical; he had been stating a physical fact. Lady Dunsany was a rock. She accepted his embrace, but did not yield to it. “But you have a grandson, I understand, Lady Dunsany?” he said, drawing back a bit in order to look down at her. “I hope the child is well.”
“Oh, yes.” Her lips trembled a bit, but she smiled, nonetheless. “Yes, he is a lusty dear boy. Such a—such a comfort.”
He noticed the brief hesitation. She was dry-eyed, and did not glance at her husband—though Lord John could not recall any occasion on which Lord Dunsany’s welfare had not been her chief concern. Yes, something was quite wrong here, beyond the tragedy of Geneva’s death.
It is all my fault, Lord Dunsany had blurted.
He began to understand his own role here. He was neutral ground, no-man’s-land. Or everyone’s.
Isobel did not appear at tea, later.
“She is shattered, poor thing,” Lady Dunsany said, her own lips trembling. “She was so much attached to her sister, and the circumstances—there was hellish weather, and we arrived almost too late. She was terribly affected. But she will be heartened by your company; so good of you to come.” She did her best to smile at him, but it was a ghastly attempt.
“I’m sure that once the funeral is over…” She trailed off and her face seemed to collapse upon itself, as though the thought of the funeral oppressed her physically.
He began to have an odd feeling, as the evening drew in. The Dunsanys had always been a close and affectionate family, and he was not surprised that they should be deeply affected by Geneva’s death. He had known them in such affliction before, when Gordon died. But on that occasion, their grief had been shared, the members of the family drawing together, supporting each other in their mourning.
Not now. He sat between his host and hostess at the tea table, and might as well have sat on the equator, between two frozen poles of ice and snow. Both spoke pleasantly and with great courtesy—to him. Watching carefully, he thought that the constraint between them was composed of a sense of blame on her part, clearly guilt on his—but why?
He had been cold, he thought, since the moment of his arrival. There was a good fire, of course, hot tea, coffee, toasted bread—but the chill of the day, the house, and the company mortified his bones.
“Oh!” Lady Dunsany started, rather as though she had sat upon a drawing pin. “I had forgot, Lord John. There is a letter for you, come this morning.”
“A letter?” Grey was startled. No one save his family knew he had come to Helwater. What urgency might have compelled them to send a letter upon his heels? The messenger must have passed him on the road.
Thoughts of Hal, the journal page, the conspiracy, flitted through his mind. But what could have happened that would not abide his return? He took the folded paper from Lady Dunsany, expecting to see either Hal’s jaggedly impatient lettering, or his mother’s untidy scrawl—no one in the family wrote with any grace at all—but the direction was in an unfamiliar hand, round and clear.
The seal was plain; he broke it, frowning—and then felt an extraordinary warmth flow through him, reaching even his chilled toes.
There was no salutation. The note was brief:
I had wished to send you a sonnet, but I am no poet, and would not borrow someone else’s words—not even the verses of your friend the Sub-Genius, filled with meaning as they are.
I wish you well in your errand of compassion. I hope it may be quickly fulfilled, and your journey home accomplished even more quickly.
I cannot stop thinking of you.
He stared at this in astonishment, broken only when Lord Dunsany bent, grunting slightly, to pick up something from the carpet near his feet.
“What is this?” He held it up, a faint smile momentarily easing the rigidity of his grief. That was a rhetorical question, as it was perfectly obvious that the object he held was a short, curling lock of dark hair, bound with red thread.
“It fell when you opened your letter,” he explained, handing it to Grey with the shadow of a you-sly-dog look. “I didn’t know you had a sweetheart, Lord John.”
“A sweetheart?” Lady Dunsany’s look of interest deepened, and she leaned to peer closely at the lock of hair in his hand. “A dark lady, I see. It is not that Miss Pendragon of whom your mother wrote, is it?”
“I think it very unlikely,” Grey assured her, suppressing a brief shudder at thought of Elizabeth Pendragon, a Welsh heiress with a very loud voice and immense feet. “However, I am afraid I am in complete ignorance myself—the missive is unsigned.”
He flashed the paper quickly before her eyes, not allowing time for her to read it, before tucking it safely into his waistcoat.
“You’re blushing, Lord John!” Lady Dunsany sounded faintly amused.
He was, curse it.
He refused the footman’s offer to see him to his room after tea; he knew the house well. His path took him past the nursery, though, and he was surprised to see the door standing open, a strong draft blowing out of it that stirred the drapes on the window on the other side of the hallway.
Peering in, he at first thought the room empty. The door to an inner room, doubtless where the child and his nurse slept, was shut; the outer room still showed its history as schoolroom to the Dunsany children. A long, scarred table stood against one wall, shelves full of ragged, much-loved books against another, and faded maps of the world, England, and her colonies fluttered dimly in the light of a guttering rush dip perched beside the door. The window on the far side of the room was open, pale curtains billowing, and he hurried to close it.
A gust of wind carried the curtains sideways for an instant, though, and he saw the slight figure standing in the window, her hair and skirts aswirl in the wind.
“Isobel!” He was seized by a momentary panic, suddenly gripped by the notion that she meant to throw herself out, and he lunged forward, grasping her arm so hard that she shrieked.
“Isobel,” he said, more gently. “Come away. You’ll catch your death.”
“I want to,” she said in a muffled voice, refusing to look at him, though she let him pull her into the room. Her clothes were damp with rain, her hair hanging wild about her face, and her flesh was very cold. Grey glanced at the hearth, but the fire had not been lit. Without comment, he took off his coat and wrapped it round her shoulders.
“I am so sorry, my dear,” he said quietly, and reached to close the window. The wind died and the curtains fell limp, half soaked. She stood unmoving, a small, draggled thing, like a mouse rescued from a cat—perhaps too late. He touched her shoulder.
“Let me take you downstairs,” he said. “You should have something hot, some dry clothes…” She should have her mother, he thought. But of course—she had chosen to hide her grief here, in order not to distress her parents.
She raised her head suddenly, her face a grimace of bewildered grief.
“My sister is dead,” she said in a small, choked voice. “How shall I live?”
He put his arms round her and held her close, making the sorts of soothing noises one made to injured dogs or frightened horses. She was making much the same sort of sound as an animal in distress, for that matter; small whimpers of pain, with now and then a great, tearing shudder of breath. Had she been a horse, he would have seen the pain ripple through her flanks. He felt it, coming in waves that beat against his body.
She did not resemble Geneva at all, being small and gently rounded, blond like their mother; Geneva had taken after Lord Dunsany, tall and lean, with thick chestnut hair. Isobel’s head fit neatly just below his chin.
“It will be better,” he whispered to her. “Bearable. The pain doesn’t go away—but it grows more bearable. It does.”
She jerked back out of his grasp, face contorted.
“But what am I to do now? How shall I live until it does?” She choked, wiped her streaming nose on her sleeve, and turned a wild-eyed look on him. “How can I? What can I do?”
He hesitated, wanting urgently to tell her something useful, knowing there was nothing.
“I…er…used to smash things,” he offered tentatively. “When my father died. It helped. A bit.”
She blinked, shuddering and trembling, and let out a small, hysterical giggle, instantly quelled with a hand across her mouth. Slowly she drew it away.
“Oh, I do so want to smash something,” she whispered. “Please, please.” Wide blue eyes spiked with tear-clotted lashes implored him to find something suitable.
Flustered, he looked round the schoolroom for something breakable and cheap. Not the ewer or basin, the candlestick was pewter…For lack of a better notion, he took down the rush dip from above the door, and lit the chamber stick from it. He would have blown out the wick, but she seized the little pottery vessel from him before he could, and, opening the window, hurled it with all her strength into the dark.
Leaning out beside her, he saw it smash on the wet slates below in a satisfying explosion of fragments. A slick of spilled oil burned briefly, a small tongue of blue flame that wavered for a moment in the windy rain, and went out.
The stronger light of the new candle in the chamber stick showed him her face. Her fair skin was blotched, her eyes were closed, her mouth a little open in slack relief. She tottered, knees giving way, and he hastily grabbed her arm, pulling her back from the window.
“Thank you,” she said, and took a long, shuddering breath. “That…is better. A bit. I can’t go on breaking things, though, can I?”
Groping for inspiration, he found one.
“Your father has a couple of good fowling pieces. Tom Byrd and I will go out with you tomorrow, and I’ll teach you to shoot clay pigeons. They break very nicely.”
She wiped a hand beneath her nose, like a small child. He fished a handkerchief out of his sleeve and handed it to her.
“Not tomorrow,” she said, and blew her nose. “There’s the f-funeral tomorrow.” She closed her eyes for a moment, and seemed to sway. “I think—I think that if only I can live through that, perhaps it will be…” She stopped speaking, as though she had simply found it too great an effort to continue.
“It will be better,” he said firmly. It had to be, he thought. None of them will survive, otherwise.
Isobel eventually suffered him to lead her to her chamber, where a frightened-looking maid drew her in, and he continued on to his own room, wishing that his sense of duty would allow him to send down word that he was indisposed, and take supper in his chamber.
His sense of foreboding was not eased by Tom Byrd, who was as usual a fount of disturbing information, gleaned from the servants over their own tea.
“Not surprised to hear that,” he said, of Grey’s brief account of Isobel’s response to her sister’s death. “Lady Ellesmere was almost dead when they got there, and Miss Elspeth said the bed was soaked right through with blood, and the carpet all round, too. Squished up into your shoes when you stepped on it, she said.”
Grey repressed a brief shudder at the thought.
“The hangings, too, all splashed about, like a butcher’s shop,” Tom continued, evidently determined to give a full report. “She said—”
“Who is Miss Elspeth?” Grey interrupted, not wanting to hear any more grisly details. “Was she there?”
“Yes, me lord. She’s Lady Ellesmere’s and Miss Isobel’s old nurse. She went with Lady Ellesmere at her marriage, but when she died, she came back here to help care for the little ’un. Nice old stick.”
Tom hovered in front of the armoire, assessing the possibilities.
“You’re to be pallbearer for the countess, me lord?”
“Yes. The dark gray do, do you think? Black velvet seems rather dramatic.”
“Oh, no, me lord.” Tom shook his head decidedly. “You wouldn’t, in London, but this is the country. They’ll expect black, and the more dramatic, the better.”