The Dead London Chronicles: Vol II, July 2016
Catherine Curzon and Willow Winsham
Copyright 2016 Catherine Curzon and Willow Winsham
The house was large and the party busy, so it was longer than it should have been before Mary discovered her mistress, still on the floor where the man who dared to call himself her husband had discarded her. Despite her protestations to the contrary, it was all too apparent to the maid that Alice’s scrapes would need seeing to, denials still ringing in her ears as Mary hurried off to find water and cloth. As she again descended the staircase her anger knew no bounds, both towards her master and her own helplessness to do anything to change the fate of the woman she cared so much for.
Water, Mary told herself, water, and a cloth. She had not thought to bring with her the salve that she had far too often had cause to apply to the injuries inflicted upon her mistress, and she grew even crosser at the oversight, at the suffering that would be caused by the lack of it. She had thought she knew the way to the kitchens but after one wrong turn and then another she realised she was hopelessly lost, doing little to improve her mood, direction something she was usually able to pride herself on, but even that had now deserted her. “Hell!”
It was at that moment that Mary rounded a corner, colliding headlong with the man coming the other way, her exclamation of annoyance loud and most certainly not in terms her mistress would approve of. She was not one of his household, Mishael knew that in an instant, even as he reeled back for a moment, eyes wide with amusement at the word she had uttered. “Madam!”
“Water,” she remembered instantly her purpose, “And a cloth. Where can I find them?”
“Did you know…” he leaned closer, voice a conspiratorial whisper, “It is snowing? In summer.. have you seen it?”
“I don’t give a fig, sir,” Mary declared hotly, the shock of the collision adding to her ill-temper, “For the weather. Water if you please!”
“Forgive me, I did not recognise you!” Mishael bowed very low, flourishing his hand as he straightened. “The Duchess of Devonshire herself! I shall repair and find water at once; please, your Grace, follow me.”
That brought her up short; feeling crosser than ever Mary turned on her heel, declaring, “I will find it myself!”
“Not if you follow that corridor, you won’t,” he called, his tone more placatory when he added, “Please, miss, follow me, I shall find what you need.”
“This place,” she turned back to him, though still riled, “Is like a rabbit warren!”
“And they say the walls change before your very eyes; it is the devil’s house.”
“A pox on the Devil,” she decided, in no mood for mystery, “and his house too!”
“A pox on him indeed,” the man agreed with a flourish of his hand, as though he were not half-dressed and wandering the hallways like a savage.
She wondered then what she was doing, alone in these corridors with this stranger, a man whose eyes, when they settled on her, were unlike any she had seen before, no colour visible, dark and filled with something she couldn’t identify. “Are you sure it is this way?”
“Do you doubt a man,” the footman, for she was sure he must be a footman or perhaps even a stablehand from his careless undress, looked down at his feet, “Without his boots on?”
“I just need,” she told him, following his gaze before looking up again, wondering at what sort of man – Devil or not – would employ someone who walked around in such disarray, “The water.”
“Has something untoward happened?” He did not take her to the kitchen but deep into the house, its walls not moving, but labyrinthine and she was all set to find her own way when the man opened a door onto a pantry where a fire burned bright despite the cool air, the shelves piled high with cakes and food for the feast. “Have a jam tart and I will find you your water.”
“I need to get back—”
Her companion lifted a heavy iron cauldron up over the fire as though it were weightless and then he cocked his head to one side, the glittering black eyes settling on Mary. For a moment he was silent and then he said, “The water will soon be boiled… should I bring it up?”
Alice would not, she knew instantly, welcome that at all, much less did she like the thought of some unknown man in the vulnerable woman’s chamber. “I am not letting a half dressed footman into my mistress’s bedroom, sir!”
“Then you must wait for the water to boil,” he sighed, shaking his head. “I thought perhaps a jam tart might occupy you whilst you wait…”
There was something she couldn’t name in that gaze then, the fight going out of her as she groped for a chair. “Do you vouch for the devil’s tarts?”
“I do!” Her companion nodded keenly, holding out a pastry to Mary. “You are Lady Brandenburg’s maid?”
She hesitated a moment before taking the tart, nodding slightly. “I am.”
He nodded, bowing deeply as she took the offering and when he straightened his back, his eyes glittered with mischief. “Then you must be sure to take her a tart too.”
Mary snorted at that, the thought of Alice eating anything much less a tart far more ludicrous than the thought of the Devil pacing these halls. “It will be wasted on her I fear.”
“Then another for yourself and if you ever feel a little bit… low,” The turned footman back to the now boiling pot of water, “Come back to this pantry and help yourself to anything you wish here; it is the devil’s secret stash.”
“We’ll be gone in the morning,” Mary told him, quite certain of that, softening a moment to add, “But thank you.”
With a nod, the man filled a large china jug from the cauldron and then offered it to Mary with a gentle smile, telling her, “Perhaps next time; it is always nice to talk.”
“Talking,” she realised then, too late, “Causes trouble. You won’t—” she stumbled over the words, “You won’t tell anyone, about this, will you?”
“Especially not the devil,” he promised. “I will tell nobody.”
“Thank you,” she hid her sudden disquiet with a bite of tart, eyes widening as she added, “This is delicious.” The footman positively beamed at the comment, and set the jug down beside the door before he took up a pastry of his own and bit into it. As she chewed he crossed to the window where a gentle snow was falling in the darkness, blanketing the parkland beyond.
“That better not settle….” she got to her feet to join him, frowning.
“I believe it will.”
A shiver passed through her then, another bite of tart not enough to chase away the sudden chill. “We’ll see….”
“If it does,” he smiled, the hand that was missing its little finger passing through his dark hair, “Then at least you will be comfortable here; some of the guests have yet to even arrive… the very guest of honour himself!”
“She won’t like that,” Mary shook her head, thinking again of Alice, “She’ll want to get home….”
“We cannot always have what we want,” was the reply, his shrug rather flamboyant. “Unless it is jam tarts, in which case, we are well catered for.”
She popped the final piece of her own into her mouth, chewing and swallowing as her frown deepened, peering into the night. “Well I shall be praying for a thaw.” With that she turned to the door, lifting the jug and cloth he had provided. Thoughts on her mistress she paused to look at the man once more, telling him, “Thank you. For your kindness.”
The snow did not stop during the night, nor did it lessen but instead it fell heavier than before, blanketing the summer landscape in a thick carpet of white. When dawn came the house slumbered, or some of it did; for the more urgent attendees the snow had meant an escape by night, whilst for the Scottish doctor who had not slept all night, it meant only that his usual early morning walk was taken in this new, cold parkland. In the kitchens and dining room, however, the staff of the devil’s house did not sleep, rushing this way and that to ensure that a breakfast fit for a king was laid out.
Alice had likewise not slept, the pain in her back and head keeping her awake throughout the long hours, her maid likewise where she dozed fitfully at the foot of her bed. She had felt, she was sure, as wretched before, but somehow, in the wake of seeing Robert Faulkner again - her boy - her misery reached new heights, making it as hard as the physical pain to drag herself from the bed come dawn as Mary did her best to clean her wounds and help her dress.
How she would face breakfast, her husband, society, she did not know, yet face them she must. She would pin her hair and lace her stays and be every inch the society hostess she had been trained to be, full of her medicine and suffering with every second.
The pity her maid knew better than to voice was still evident and she fought back the sharp words that she knew the other woman did not deserve, instead managing a brittle smile and a murmur of thanks as she was finally ready, only the deadness in her expression betraying that anything was amiss as Mary carefully escorted her to the stairs.
From here, she knew, she must go alone, no maids to be seen in the dining room where even now she could hear the hushed chatter of duchesses and their dukes. Sophia, of course, would not be there, the girl never an early riser at the best of times, but she would not be absent for long and one who would be there was her husband, Ted never missing the chance to play the genial chap about town.
I can’t, she wanted to say, wanted to turn and flee, out of the front door and into the snow beyond, away from everything, everyone, what awaited her. Even as she thought it her hand closed over the door handle, a small smile for Mary’s benefit before she opened the door and entered.
The first thing she realised was that her husband was not there, that the attendees at the party had seemingly dwindled overnight. The second was that her seat, which the kindly dowager duchess was gesturing her towards, was beside an empty seat. No doubt, she knew as she crossed to greet the others and take that seat, her husband would soon be beside her, the very thought making her skin crawl.
Her smile was brighter yet as she eased herself down onto the chair, the movement agony as she settled her skirts, no sign of her torment clear on her face. She was skilled at this after all, of keeping everything locked away inside.
In fact, the increasingly frail Lady Alice Brandenburg was of no consequence this morning, not when news had arrived from the surrounding lands of violence overnight. A wolf attack, the whispers said, yet without the full moon and it was not only wolves that had torn a carriage load of travellers to shreds, but vampires too. Of course, the viscount who led the debate smiled politely, not well bred vampires like the Prussian gentleman who had so far not shown his face, but those lawless types, the unchristian devils of the night who terrorised the lands by darkness.
Three dead, he remarked, torn limb from limb, they say.
It’s a sorry business.
“Ladies, gentlemen,” Mishael de Chastelaine was already speaking when he swept into the room in a flurry of deep green silk, the ebony cane gripped in one hand. He bowed deeply to his companions and settled at the top of the table, leaning forward as though addressing an intimate friend to explain, “We have had snow! In summer! As a result, my Prussian guest of honour is nowhere to be seen, the Prince of Wales fled in the night and took my burliest footmen to dig their way through the snow—” His eyes suddenly settled on Alice, a small, apologetic smile forming on his handsome face. “Lady Brandenburg, your husband accompanied his Highness to town; he had business that he lamented could not be delayed. Be assured he is safe, his was not the conveyance that was attacked so brutally last night.”
"He has gone?" she cursed herself as the words left her lips, surprise getting the better of her as relief followed close on its heals and then, somewhere, disappointment that the wolves and their brethren had chosen another carriage as their prey. "Of course -- business is not to be ignored. Thank you for informing me, sir."
“I should have done so privately, I apologise—” the door opened again, the arrival this time the rather less flamboyantly dressed and mannered Robert Faulkner. He paused on the threshold, surveying the scene, every eye turned to him and then, with a murmured apology, approached the table and the only empty place setting, that beside Alice. Her heart began to hammer unbidden within her chest, panic rising as she told herself he couldn’t, couldn’t possibly, sit beside her.
“And yet here is Dr Faulkner to keep you company,” Mishael gestured Faulkner towards the chair, the doctor's expression unreadable as he settled, murmuring an apology to Alice even as he did. He looked as awkward as she, as though he wished he could be anywhere but here. She could not leave without causing a scene, but to stay here, sitting beside him, so close her skirts brushed his leg, was the worst kind of torment she could imagine. Alice almost laughed then; she had not thought it possible to almost wish for her husband to be there at that moment, his cruelty and hardness at least predictable, something she knew how to deal with. This-- having him so close after all those years, after their encounter the night before--
“Snow in the height of summer,” one of the assembled peers laughed, addressing the doctor, “You’ve brought the highland weather down with you, sir! Chased the Prince of Wales back to town though, much to the relief of all gambling men here!”
“Quite so,” Faulkner’s reply was polite, reserved, a world away from her boy and her carefree humour. “Let the men of action face the road, I am happy to remain here until the thaw. No consultancy fee is worth risking one’s neck with killers roaming!”
She should speak, Alice knew, but she could find no words, hands knotting her napkin as she told herself this was surely a dream, that she would wake any moment, in the borrowed bed or even back in her own. Her neighbour seemed equally speechless, the conversation buzzing around them as the food was served, Mishael leading the party as well as any devil might. Eventually, however, the doctor leaned a little closer and asked Alice, “Did you sleep well, Lady Brandenburg?”
“As well as one can when not in one’s own bed, Doctor.” The words were plucked from somewhere, fingers doggedly twisting the fabric over and over, good manners dictating that she add, “Yourself?”
“Somewhat grander than my Highgate cottage,” he managed a smile, “One becomes used to one’s feet overhanging the bed…”
“That is not a problem,” she replied stiffly, “That I am familiar with.” She reached suddenly for her glass with one hand, nearly sending it flying in the process as she misjudged.
Faulkner’s hand flashed up to catch the glass and right it, brushing Alice’s own fingers as he did. He was too close, she thought suddenly, aware of the touch of his skin on hers, the gentle tone of his voice when he said, “I believe this weather would be bad even in Scotland…”
“You would know better than I,” she heard the brittle tone of her own voice, “I do not recall much of the weather or otherwise.”
“Dr Faulkner has been in Russia, I believe,” one of the ladies called, “At the Winter Palace; I believe this is summer in Russia! Tell us, doctor, of your travels!”
“Perhaps later,” came his gentle reply, the woman happy to tell some tales of her own instead as the doctor asked Alice, “You have not returned to Scotland?”
Her eyes closed briefly then, the many many times she had desired to do so flooding over her, “There has been little call to, Doctor.”
“I keep a house there; I hope to return permanently one day,” he admitted quietly, bright blue gaze settling on Alice once more, “One can have enough gouty Hanovers.”
“Then I wish you all the best in that endeavour.” She shifted in her seat to put more space between them, barely managing to keep from crying out at the jarring to her back.
She saw his own movement, the slight dip of his shoulders as he reached for his teacup, taking a sip in silence. Of course he did not reply, how could he? What possible reply could there be to such a comment? When he did speak, however, she was not expecting the question to be a very hushed, “Are you hurt, Lady Brandenburg?”
How, she wanted to demand, how could he know? He had always though been able to read her like a book, the expression in those eyes she knew too well as she glanced at him almost enough to bring all manner of confessions spilling from her lips. “I am quite well, thank you.”
“Mr de Chastelaine,” Faulkner drained his cup and stood, bowing slightly, “I find myself in need of a walk in this fine weather we are having.” His eyes barely took in Alice as they moved, watchful and careful, over the gathering. With another bow he left the room, the door closing with a note of finality.
She should be glad, she knew, but Alice felt only regret, for this, for everything that had passed between them, for what had never been. The remainder of the meal she endured in silence, taking small comfort from the fact no one noticed her discomfort when she was finally able to stand, slowly making her way from the room in escape.
Alice’s only intention, her only focus was to find her way back to her own chamber and the kindness of Mary, the closest to a friend she might claim. She might then have some respite from the stays and gowns, the sharp puncture on her back where the corner of the fireplace had sliced into her burning with a heat that seemed ridiculous for the size of the injury. Some rest, Alice told herself, rest and her medicine and all would soon be well.
Head down she started for the stairs, knowing as she did so that each step would be agony, little caring as each would bring her closer to respite. So intent was she on not collapsing that Alice was barely aware of the sound of boots descending the staircase until a shadow fell over her and Robert Faulkner’s voice murmured, “What has happened, Lady Brandenburg? You’re struggling…”
“I had a little fall,” the half-truth fell far too easily from her lips, voice far too light, “I have grown clumsy in my old age it would seem.”
“Can I help you to your room? I could look at the injury, should you wish?” His tone was so formal, so full of professional concern… it was somehow worse than indifference might have been.
“It is nothing,” she heard herself insist, even as she longed to confess everything, to give herself over to his care. “Enjoy your walk, Doctor.”
“Good day, Lady Brandenburg,” Faulkner told her with too much civility, already continuing on his way. “Rest assured I will be away as soon as the weather permits; I would not have you uncomfortable for the world.”
It was far too late for that, her hand lifting briefly before falling to her side once more, a murmured, “Good day” as everything within her cried out at the unfairness of the world.
Alice’s day did not improve, of course, but continued as every day did in its order with reading and needlepoint and endless, dragging hours, the wound in her back stabbing and burning more with every passing moment. With Mary in attendance she was not entirely alone, though of her stepdaughter there was no sign, and Alice remained in her rooms as the daylight faded to dusk, even as the pain blazed through her.
“You need to get it looked at,” Mary’s words reached her through a haze, “You need a doctor.”
“A doctor!” Alice almost laughed then, “There is one, there is one in this house, I was sat by him at
breakfast…” It was hot, suddenly too hot in her room, and she turned for the door, opening it as she told her maid, “I am going to find him….”
She was barely even aware of the cacophony of noise downstairs that had arrived courtesy of two men, a woman, a child and a poodle, one of the more outlandish parties to cross the Hampshire countryside in some time. One of the men was dressed entirely in bright, blazing yellow, the poodle matching though the dog did not share his face full of makeup, her diamond-encrusted collar positively plain next to the many jewels that sparkled on the hands and stockpin of Fabien Renaud. In his arms he carried a little girl, fussing the snow from her golden hair as he announced in an accent more French than France itself, “This was worse than the Revolution! I am not made for sleeping in a barn!”
“You are not,” the girl agreed, “Though you still look quite perfect!”
“Bloody hell!” The second man of the party, somewhat less made up and silk-clad, paused inside the entrance hall to draw breath, “Near twenty four hours in a carriage with three grumpy vampires; I didn’t think I’d make it at time…” he turned to the woman, offering her a grin, “But if you’re going to be snowed into a barn with any man, you can’t do better than Dan Miller!”
“I am not,” the decidedly glamorous redhaired woman responded with a flash of fangs, “Grumpy. You would not like me at all if I were.”
“I always like you, Lucy,” Dan took her hand, drawing her close for a kiss, “Now I need a bath and a beer, it’s no easy job, sun-proofing a barn with only a shrieking dandy and a poodle to help!”
“I told you,” she reminded him, “You should have used the poodle to fill in one of the gaps. And the dandy’s suit.”
“Sabine is not to be used for plugging gaps in barns!” Renaud’s tone was one of pure outrage, the poodle yapping her agreement. “Anyway, sir, watching you work certainly gave me a misty eyed moment, you are quite the strong sort!”
Lucile hissed at him then, as the girl exclaimed upon seeing Alice on the stairs, “Someone is here!”
“Madame,” Renaud bowed low, about to introduce the unusual party when Dan took a step forward, his own Scottish tones considerably less excitable than the Frenchman. Perhaps he saw the pain in her expression, perhaps he had simply had enough of French vampires but whatever it was, he bowed slightly and addressed her.
“Pardon me, madame, perhaps you might point our party towards the host?”
“The host?” his words didn’t seem to make sense, “I am looking for a doctor—”
From nowhere a flurry of well-drilled domestic staff appeared to assist the new arrivals, Renaud in particular attracting more attention than anyone and Dan took advantage of the moment to approach Alice. “We’ve just come through the village,” he said, frowning, “They said there’s a man there seeing people who the cold weather’s troubling… I could go back and bring him up here?”
"No," she shook her head, trying to make her own words clearer, "No, there is one here already, Doctor-- Doctor Faulkner. My—”
“Robert is here?” He fairly brightened at that. “Then let me find him and he can have a look at you?”
“You must tell him,” she decided then, certain she should have done this long before now, “That I am sorry.”
Dan glanced back at his party, gesturing to them to go along with the maids before he turned his full attention on Alice, “Aye, I’ll tell him.”
She became aware of Mary behind her then, a hand on her arm, her maid addressing Dan to tell him, “My mistress needs to see a doctor, can you help us?”
“I hear that Dr Faulkner’s in residence? You can’t do better than him—”
“Dr Faulkner left this morning, sir,” a maid piped up then, dashing Alice’s final hopes, “Business to attend to.”
“I’ll head back to the village,” Dan told Mary and Alice as one, his face betraying a flicker of disappointment at the news of the departure of the man he clearly held in high esteem, “Fetch their man up here?”
“No-” Renaud shook his head. “It is hardly safe-”
Dan silenced him with a wink and promised, “Nine lives.”
“I don’t,” it was becoming harder to focus on the man Alice realised dimly, harder to understand his words, “Want to cause any trouble.” Amongst it all she was hit by the fact that he had left, that he had gone, just like that, leaving her alone again like he had before, abandoning her without a thought.
“Daniel Miller,” the man suddenly announced, dropping into a bow, “Landlord, friend of Dr Faulkner, intrepid traveller in the company of this rabble,” he jerked a thumb towards the group, “And never one to leave a lady in distress. Get yourselves out to my carriage, ladies, I’ll have you with that doctor before you can blink.”
Alice started to protest again, but the words wouldn’t come, the step that she was certain was just beneath her foot suddenly not as she felt herself lunge forwards, hearing dimly her own murmur of alarm as she realised she was falling before everything turned black. It was pure chance that Dan moved just in time to catch Alice before she tipped headlong down the staircase and, with her held in his arms, he looked back to his own group and told them, “That’s me into town then.”
The journey back to the village was one of which Alice knew nothing and one that was, happily, conducted without attack or even the suggestion of incident, no wolf howl to rend the night. Insensible, she felt not a second of the passage of the carriage over the snow-covered ground, nor heard Daniel Miller’s shouts of encouragement to the horses in harness. She did not feel Mary’s tender hand bathing her fevered brow, nor knew the sudden silence when they drew into the courtyard of a country inn where the doctor was preparing to return back to his bed, his consultation with the elderly and vulnerable of the village now at a close. In fact, it was not until she was safely gathered into the arms of that same doctor, who was carrying her into the inn, that she began to stir. Her mind was foggy, everything unclear, and she struggled to remember something, anything, forcing her eyelids open, wetting her lips in an attempt to speak.
“You’ve a fever,” a soft Scottish voice told her, and she felt the edges of a blanket around her face, realising vaguely that she was cocooned in warmth, in an embrace.
It couldn’t possibly be him, she knew, he had left her, abandoned her as he had done before, leaving her to her sorry fate. Yet the fever allowed her to pretend, a soft smile on her lips as she whispered, “I was looking for my boy….”
“Alice?” Her boy’s voice was suddenly clear as day, full of surprise at the sight of her and she felt a gentle hand drawing the blanket back from her face, followed by the warmth and glow of what must be a roaring fire. The embrace around Alice lessened then and she felt a soft mattress beneath her, heard that gentle voice again asking, “Ed, what—”
“We got snowed in on the road,” another man joined the conversation, “And by the time we got to the party, this lady was in dire straits; her lassie said she needed a doctor and I knew there was one in the village. Didn’t know it was you though.”
“The snow was unexpected,” Faulkner was saying, his hands moving softly on the blanket again to ensure Alice was warm as she could be. “I thought there might be people who needed help… I walked from the house to see if I was needed.”
“I thought—” she couldn’t find the words, darkness threatening again, everything too hot, the insides of her eyelids burning.
“I would not go; I was coming back to see you,” Faulkner’s voice was soothing, kindly. A palm pressed to her forehead and then he spoke again, tone considerably more urgent and seemingly not addressed to her, “What can you tell me of your mistress’s illness?”
“It came on very suddenly,” she heard Mary’s voice as if from a distance, “her back—”
No, she tried to warn, no, don’t tell him, don’t—
“Tell him,” Alice heard Dan ask Mary gently as Faulkner gave a murmured hush, his hand closing around her own and squeezing softly, “He’s the best doctor you’ll find.”
She heard her maid haltingly betray her, telling Faulkner that her mistress had fallen, a cut on her back sore and angry, her concern that it had turned bad. Alice closed her eyes, concentrating on breathing, wishing that she could not, that she could resign her life here in utter despair and shame.
“Would you be able to help Lady Brandenburg undress?” The doctor squeezed Alice’s hand again, “Just enough that I might see the wound; Mr Miller and I shall wait outside, of course.”
As Mary murmured her assent, Alice found herself holding tightly to the hand that grasped hers, too many words, too many feelings, too hot to be able to even start to say what she wanted.
“I’ll be in the bar,” Dan told them, the sound of the door opening and closing a moment later yet still the doctor’s hand held Alice’s tightly in turn, fingers twined with hers as they used to all those years ago.
“Are you really here?” She asked, deciding quickly, “No, don’t tell me, if you’re not I don’t want to know…”
“I am here,” the reply was gentle, almost a whisper, “I shall only be gone a few seconds whilst your maid helps you to undress.”
“No,” she shook her head, the movement sending the world spinning as she clutched him tighter. If he left he would not return, would vanish once and for all.
“I will stay,” she heard something in his tone, almost a tremble somehow and then he asked Mary, “Might you assist with your mistress’s clothing?”
“No,” she heard her own voice again, “No, just us, just you and I—” She suddenly did not care what anyone thought, even Mary, the need to have back even a moment of what had been lost, overwhelming above all else.
“Would you—” he sounded almost timid, not at all the man who had seemed so in control. “Your mistress is in safe hands, would you entrust her to me?”
“Of course.” Mary’s tone was far from sure, but when bidden by both she had little choice, Alice feeling a flicker of guilt at putting her maid in such a position before her attention returned once more to Faulkner, to the fact that he was there, expression so soft she could almost believe that he cared for her as she had thought he had of old. Yet this was, she knew, the face he presented to all of those noble patients whose ill she tended, professional concerns as learned as the medicine he practised. It was just the firelight that had softened it so, the blue of this eyes that she stiller recalled of old.
“What has happened to you?”
Did he mean her injury, or the entire sorry story of her life? She laughed, the sound becoming close to a sob, finally managing, “I fell-”
“Will you allow me to look?” The doctor’s hands were assured as he helped her to sit a little, bringing the blanket down around her shoulders. “Where on your back is the injury?”
She gestured, caught again by his voice, his hands, his softness, telling him, “Mary is just fussing…”
“And now I will fuss too,” those hands moved to unlace her dress with utmost care, the warm arm from the fire touching her bare skin as he parted the sides of Alice’s gown and eased it down her shoulders somewhat. With a gentle touch he swept her hair, which had fallen loose somewhere, somehow, over one shoulder, the other hand shifting the edge of her chemise so he could better examine the wound.
“It’s nothing,” she murmured again, everything about his touch kinder than any she had known in years, “I have grown clumsy…”
“What on earth…” Alice felt his fingertip skim the wound, cool and soft and more gentle than any touch she had known in years, even that of her faithful maid. “Where did you fall?”
“In my room….” She tried to focus on the question, “Against the fire place…”
“I just need my bag,” Alice closed her eyes, feeling his absence as soon as he drew away enough to retrieve his case from where it say closed beside the bed. “Your maid has done a fine job, but let’s see if we can’t ease it a little more.”
“It’s hot,” she murmured, finally giving voice to the thought, “Too hot in here.”
“Any other pains?”
Had she? There was the pain her heart suffered daily, the deadness in her soul that was a constant gnawing weight, but he would not want to hear that she was certain. “I hit my head…”
“I wanted to see you, to apologise—”
“Apologise?” The words didn’t make sense.
“I was far from polite this morning,” he opened the case, but she saw a faint flush on his cheek.
“No more,” She coughed, the strange heat in her veins colouring everything again for a moment, “Than I deserve.”
“You say you are hot…” He knelt beside the bed on one knee, studying her face. “Have there been chills too?”
She found she didn’t know, the only thing she was certain of now the concern in those eyes that held her own, that he was here with her, whatever had happened in the past. “I can’t think…”
“There may be some infection, a fever,” his words were more formal than his tone, the look in his gaze betraying something… friendship? “I’ll clean and dress the wound then check your head.” His hand strayed out, brushing her hair, “You’ll soon be well again.”
She would never be well, she knew, not in this life that she found herself in. “Is that why I can see you? Are you part of the fever?”
“I am quite solid,” Faulkner gave a self deprecating smile and took her hand in one of his own whilst the other patted his stomach, coming to rest against the understated finery of his black waistcoat. “Rather too solid nowadays!”
“Am I going to die?” she asked then, uncertain in that moment whether an answer in the affirmative would being her more sorrow or relief.
“I have never lost a patient,” he smiled. “Nor a friend.”
She had been a friend, she wanted to point out, a friend that he had cast aside, abandoned. Through the fever she felt anger rise again, hopelessness following quickly on its heels, her hand tightening on his.
“It will be all right,” was the doctor’s gentle promise before he gently retrieved his hand and set about his business. His hands were assured and confident yet tender too as he mixed salves and potions, applying something with a strong floral scent to the wound, the mixture cooling her burning skin almost immediately. With utmost care he massaged the potion into the injury, all the time telling her that this would take away the infection, that the fever would pass.
“Don’t make me go back….” She heard herself whisper, “Don’t make me…”
“Don’t upset yourself any further,” he hushed, “Just concentrate on being well.”
She felt herself floating then, eyes closed, even as she tried to tell him something, something that was, she knew, of utmost importance.
“There are some bruises…” he murmured, concern in the words. “Do you fall often?”
“Clumsy…” She managed, “Own fault…”
“I can prepare you a balm to ease it,” she felt his hands trace the bruises her husband had left, the touch gossamer light, “The wound is dressed, so just turn onto your back and I shall prepare something for the fever…”
She did so with effort, wincing at the movement of her aching body. Forcing her gaze to focus on him she found the words she had been struggling for. “I’ve missed you…”
“I don’t think a day has passed that I have not thought about you,” he paused, one hand in the medical case, his gaze settling on her with a look of ruefulness. “And missed you.”
His words were, she was sure, a kindness more than truth, though the thought that he might have missed her, thought of her even a little, brought with it a flicker of something that might have been happiness. The soothing salve was working its magic, the relief, however slight, more than welcome as she felt herself slowly start to relax, eyes fluttering for a moment before she forced them open once more, certain he would vanish if she did not keep watching.
“Does that feel any easier?” Faulkner asked, watching her closely. “The wound had some dirt in it, but it’s clean now.”
“You have worked magic…” Alice focused again on his eyes, “I cannot stay too long….”
“We shall travel back to the house together,” was his gentle reply, “And I will keep an eye on that fever of yours, if you will permit it.”
“I would never,” she assured him, a small laugh at how ludicrous the suggestion was, “Send you away.”
His gaze flitted away from hers for a moment, no longer than that, and he nodded, telling her, “You would have been very ill, had you not come tonight.”
“Then perhaps fate has been kind for once….”
“It has smiled.” She tried to keep her eyes open then but the effort proved beyond her, closing despite her best efforts.
The night had been a long one and by the time the carriage saw them safely back to the house of Mishael de Chastelaine, Mary was more than ready for rest and respite. Her worry for her mistress was diminished somewhat by the clear care the doctor was taking of her, but something nagged at her, a feeling she did not know the whole story, as she pulled the door closed on the pair in Alice’s bedroom.
There was little place for her, it felt, and she descended the stairs, finding herself coming to a somewhat lost halt at the bottom. She should remain, she knew, should put her mistress’s honour and reputation above everything yet this was Doctor Robert Faulkner the man entrusted with the health of the queen herself, to whom no scandal had ever attached itself, for whom the finest doors in Europe were opened without question. There was no question of compromise in his presence, and he was a devoted physician, she could see, retiring only to sleep and only then for the barest hours before he was once more at Alice’s side.
With a sigh Mary sat, just for a moment, she told herself, while she gathered her thoughts and decided what to do with herself. The noises of the household went on around her, bringing some comfort in their familiarity in any big home, ad she found herself thinking of jam tarts shared the night before.
She would not be able to find that strange little pantry, Mary knew, let alone the barefooted footman who cared so little for his master that he wandered about undressed, stealing from the kitchens as though it were his right. She should not, she decided, even be thinking of it; a cup of tea and then she would do as the doctor had advised and take to her bed to sleep off the broken night that had gone before.
With that she got once more to her feet, confident she could find the kitchen at least. The house, however, had other ideas and she found herself wandering once more, the sounds of the house petering out into a snow-blanketed silence as she trod the less grand corridors that should have been bustling with servants. It was at the moment that Mary was about to turn and give up that she heard the familiar whistle of the infernal footman, somewhere up ahead. She quickened her step, certain that she was only going to ask the way to the kitchen before leaving him to his own business, whatever that was. Rounding the corner though did not reveal him, and she paused, listening intently.
“Boo.” The word was a whisper, the hand with its missing finger tapping Mary’s shoulder from behind.
She yelped loudly, spinning round to confront the man who had scared her half out of her wits. “It is rude to sneak up on people!”
“Don’t change the subject!” She glared at him, demanding, “What are you doing creeping about?”
“I’m not creeping, I’m whistling!” The face, ludicrously handsome, the sort of face that one saw painted on ivory in a lady’s boudoir, wore a look of comical hurt.
“You are creeping,” she insisted, “And I do not care for it, sir!” Mary peered at him, before adding, “And what is there to be whistling about?”
“How’s your lady?”
“Resting,” she admitted quietly, “The doctor is with her.”
The footman nodded his approval, those jet black eyes glittering when he admitted, “He and I know one another of old; he’s a fine sort.”
“Who is he?” Mary found herself asking, curiosity getting the better of her, “Really? He has been most attentive….”
“He’s the man who Queen Charlotte calls on when she has a chill, whom the late queen of France had tend her nasty toenail…” he smiled brightly, “And who has saved more lives in more ways than he will ever admit.”
“My mistress seems to trust him,” Mary admitted with a frown, “Which is unusual in itself….”
He nodded, walking on ahead as he called, “Come on, you; apple pie and brandy?”
“I was just…” she picked up her pace to catch up, “Going to find some tea…”
The footman spun on his bare heel, walking backwards as he regarded her with something akin to confusion, “Tea? That doctor’s influence is spreading!”
“I relied on tea,” she corrected firmly, “Long before that Doctor came on the scene! Brandy at this time of the morning is asking for trouble!”
“Tea it shall be,” he nodded, then bowed deeply. “I am the man who looks after the household.”
“Look after it?” she wondered at him having anything close to authority here, “I’m sure you do!”
“Positively run the place,” his eyes widened and he asked, “Have you seen the estate? The hellfire caves? You should explore.”
“It if’s anything like this house out there,” she gestured, “I’d never find my way back!” she frowned, struck, not for the first time, with the feeling that the house was not all it should be.
“How can you say that,” he paused suddenly beside a door, a door that Mary was sure she hadn’t seen a moment before, “When here we are at the kitchen?”
With those words, he opened the door onto a bustling kitchen alive with staff and noise, the scent of a feast wafting up to meet her. At the appearance of this rather unusual footman, those nearest the door gave cheery greetings and then he was leading the way into the room, calling for tea and cake as though he owned the house. She followed, more perplexed than ever, though it made sense, she supposed, that such an odd fellow would work for such a master as his was purported to be.
“So,” he spun to face her again, gesturing to an empty seat at the scrubbed pine table in the centre of the room, “What do you know of the devil?”
“Very little,” she resisted the urge to cross herself, the habit an old one that had never quite died, “And I am happy for it to remain that way!”
“Do you believe,” another gesture to the seat, even as his other hand raised to beckon over a lad who was already scurrying to bring the requested refreshments, “He is what they say he is?”
“I’ve never,” she realised it was somewhat of an untruth even as the words left her lips, “Given the matter much thought.”
“The chair,” he frowned, “Won’t eat you.”
Mary had not realised she had been hovering then, frowning again at herself as she sat. “I should hope not!”
“So,” he took his own seat, eyes still on her even as he poured the tea, “The vampires are here?”
“They arrived just as we left,” she remembered the strange party, “They have a child with them….”
“And a landlord… the doctor’s best friend; now that is a tale, but not one for me to tell.”
“He’s the one who took us to him,” Mary recalled the man who had been so helpful, “I never thanked him….”
“Do you know,” the footman laughed, piling the plates with cake, “He had to squirrel three annoyed vampires away after they got hit by the snow? They all went to sleep in a barn and the poor soul had to run around making sure not a chink of sunlight could get in. He’s lucky to still have his head!”
“Some,” she opined, watching with grudging approval, “Would have let the light in and be done with it!”
“And rob the theatrical world of the continent’s most dandified farceur?”
“Some,” Mary continued, “wouldn’t much care given what he is!”
The footman shrugged, telling her, “Then some need to learn to live and let live. There are plenty of humans would do you a lot more harm than a dandified vampire!”
“I didn’t,” she pointed out, “Say that I was one of them.” she met his gaze, remarking to herself again on his eyes, “I have no problem with vampires as long as they behave themselves.”
“You are looking,” he observed, taking a bite of cake, “At my eyes.”
“Would you rather,” she found herself asking, “I looked at something else?”
“Well, here I am in just shirt and breeches… I imagine to a ladies maid of your pedigree, I am virtually naked?” He smiled, eyes sparkling, “What a debauched household we are!”
“You say that,” she pointed out, “Like it is a good thing!”
“Snow in July,” a buxom lady commented as she bustled past, arms full of what appeared to be half a roast pig, “And naked chaps in the kitchen!”
“What does your master think,” she asked, curious, “At you wandering around like that? “
“I am the man who looks after the household,” the footman reminded Mary, “I have no master.”
“Wouldn’t let him hear you say that….”
“I don’t care who hears me!” A bite of the cake and he added, “Not one bit!”
She reached for her own slice, taking a bite as she decided, “Then that is one thing we have in common.” “
“But you’re always more dressed than I.”
“That,” she shot back, “Does not take much.”
“No in between for this one,” the cook wandered back, one hand now holding a fresh loaf as her free fingers ruffled the footman’s hair affectionately, “Either in his linens or draped in silk like a proper macaroni!”
Mary let that go, certain she couldn’t imagine the man in anything less than a state of undress as she took another bite of cake.
“They don’t respect me,” the man whispered playfully, blinking his jet black eyes. “Do you see?”
“Do you respect them either?” the question was, Mary found, a genuine one.
“I would not be without any one of them,” his own words seemed more serious in turn, “We are a family here.”
That did not fit with her experience of service, it being herself and her mistress against the many who would snoop and pry and spy if given half a chance. “That must be nice…”
“And while you are here, you are part of our family!”
“I have no family,” she told him, surprised at her own bluntness.
“You have your mistress,” the footman piled another slice of cake onto her plate, “I think you and she are family to one another.”
“That is different—-”
“No,” he shook his head, “I don’t think so.”
Mary had no response to that, busying herself instead with the cake, taking another bite and chewing carefully as she thought again of the attentive doctor, the way her mistress seemed to trust him implicitly. Her companion was silent in turn, yet the bustle around them seemed almost companionable, Mary allowing herself to be lulled by it, by his talk of the companionship of servitude, of the family here. The footman’s mischief did not seem cruel, after all, even if his manner was a little unusual, but this house seemed like a shrine to all things unusual.
“What,” she asked finally, “Do you make of this snow?”
“Snowmen.” He blinked. “Or snowballs!”
“That wasn’t what I—” The second slice of cake went down as well as the first, Mary deciding that a third would be an indulgence too far as she somewhat regretfully got to her feet. “I should let you get on….”
“Come and find me,” he smiled, standing to bow, “Should you ever wish for silly chatter, cake and tea. Or even brandy.”
The story continues in Volume III, available August 2016 or online at deadlondonchronicles.blogspot.co.uk.
Step back in time for volume II of an 18th century world where highwaymen roamed the roads, artists faded in obscure unhappiness, silk-clad poodles held London society enraptured and viscounts couldn't feel their own thumbs. Here be monsters, magic and lonely doctors with a penchant for the work of the old masters, not to mention a cavalcade or rogues, royals and revelry. These are The Dead London Chronicles. The threads of the tapestry are still being woven, and what the Chronicles contain, we can only guess. The story updates weekly on its own dedicated website or here in collected monthly editions, written by Catherine Curzon and Willow Winsham.