Monday, 6 June 2016

Chapter Three

The Dead London Chronicles: Vol I, June 2016 is now available FREE at SmashwordsApple and Kobo!

On with the tale...

If only fate had smiled down on Alice and dismissed her from the ballroom thirty seconds earlier, she might have found a very different path. For at that very moment Robert Faulkner, the boy lost to her half a lifetime ago, had passed that very doorway in his search for some respite from all this society, from the cooing ladies who adored their doctor, the men who cared only for politics and the voluptuaries of both genders who sought some cure for their gout. He was not a man for noise and dancing, not anymore, not since her, he wanted only peace, escape, solitude. Where he would find it in a house so full as this, where his very room was assailed by desperate patients of all stripes, was another matter.

As it was, she found herself in the gilded hall, frantic and flustered as she told herself she could escape now, make her way upstairs and plead her usual infirmity. Between herself and the stairs however was an effusive countess bearing down on her, and with mounting desperation she turned, seeking refuge through the nearest doorway.

Escape. Wonderful, peaceful escape... a library, the sort of place where Faulkner, cup of tea in hand, could happily hide himself away from those who plagued him until the halls fell silent and he might go about his real business. He was about to settle in an almost too luxuriant armchair when he heard the sound of the door handle turning, which elicited a groan of annoyance from the doctor. There really was nowhere to hide in here, nowhere, that is, other than the heavy damask drapes that hid the windows.

The room was, Alice realised with relief, empty. She thought for a moment to lock the door behind her but soon dismissed the idea at the thought of the trouble it must surely result in. The scent of flowers from the garden beyond struck her as she surveyed her resting place, the sudden urge to escape yet further and to hell with the consequences hitting hard. She would not of course; she would only slip behind the drapes to peer out, breathe in the scent of the pleasures denied to her. With that she pulled back the opulent fabric, slipping behind and out of sight.

For a man so firmly rooted in the here and now, the prosaic, the business of the day, Faulkner was a little caught by that same fragrance of the blooms that swayed in the gentle evening breeze through the polished panes. He paused, teacup raised to his lips, every nerve-ending suddenly and vibrantly alive to the presence of another, yet there was none of his usual inner-disappointment that his solitude had been stolen, only the sense of this being the moment in which life had somehow changed.

All of this passed in a second and he barely noticed it as it did, yet he turned very slightly, lowering the cup as his bright blue eyes alighted on the new arrival.

"My apologies--" whatever else she might  have uttered died on her lips then, eyes widening. "Oh my--" She had, she knew, finally lost her mind, the mental instability everyone so feared finally claiming her.

The doctor was in turn speechless, not quiet, not reserved, just utterly without words. The tea cup fell from his hand, the dregs that remained within seeping out onto the priceless rug where it landed as he wondered what was in those leaves he had brought back from India.

"I'm sorry, I should--" the world spun alarmingly as she stared at the vision before her.

It was a matter of professional pride and necessity that Robert Faulkner, tall, quiet, thoughtful and utterly unaware of the effect he had on his noble patients, had become well-used to catching  the swooning ladies of fashionable Europe. After he caught them was another matter, of course, and if they were hoping to be swept off their feet they instead found themselves supplied with a tincture of something or other and presented with a more than generous charge. 

In this case though his concern was more than professional, hands shaking even as he took a step forward and caught Alice about her narrow waist, snatching her neatly from the fall. She felt unreal there beside him, looked it too, tired and drawn despite the golden hair and the beauty he had dreamed of more times than he could count.

This was the girl who ran, the girl who mocked... this was the girl who froze his heart.

"Robert--" the name fell from her lips unbidden, her hand clinging to him, heart hammering harder 

"Hello," the whispered word was ridiculous, unbidden, helpless and inwardly he felt the heart that he thought frozen blanch and beat.

"Hello," the word was a breathless whisper, certain that she was drowning, falling, unable to tear her gaze away.

His arm was stronger around her than it had been in his youth, the tall, skinny boy rather more a man now and he held her with a confidence that belied his own confusion. This was not him, not the doctor entrusted with the health of the house of Hanover, with any number of illustrious patients and secrets of the realm, this was not the Robert Faulkner he had tried so hard to become.

Her hand lifted unbidden to his face, memories surfacing of years before, of a girl who she had thought dead - who surely was dead now, because there was no other explanation for this vision now, either that or she was mad, utterly mad. 

For the briefest moment his bright blue eyes closed, lips parting slightly to allow him to murmur, "You swooned..."

"I was going to escape out the window," she heard herself whisper, "Am I going mad?"

Faulkner's first instinct, born out of good breeding and gentlemanly conduct, was to actually glance at the window as though he might be able to help, as though it was as simple as preparing a poultice or splinting a bone. Less than a second later though he found his voice, not recognising it as the stern, serious tone that was so familiar to those who knew him, but a little light-headed, almost shaky.

"What are you escaping from?"

"Everything," she laughed then, the sound humourless and unnaturally high, "Have they sent you to torment me?"

Torment her... the words stung more than they should after so many years, recalling too clearly the mocking tone of her last letter, her dismissal. Faulkner told himself that he did not even hear it, that it did not pain him even as it was a knife in his ribs. He had survived physical tortures that hurt less than the letter that was still inscribed on his soul and even now she pushed, that strange laughter ringing in his head.

"I meant only to prevent you from falling," was his careful reply, "I was sent by no one."

"Was it him?" she continued as if she hadn't heard, "Or is this the girl's doing? It is cruel, oh how very cruel!”

"I am sent by no one," was Faulkner's assurance, his anger beginning to melt in the face of her obvious distress. With one arm still protectively around Alice's waist he drew a silver flask from his coat and offered it to her, urging, "Drink."

"What is it?" her voice was tinged with suspicion, the lesson to trust nothing one she had learned the hard way.

"The late king of France's favourite brandy, but don't hold that against me" he managed a slight, awkward smile.

Alice took the flask before she had even fully realised, expression almost defiant as she took a deep swig, spluttering a moment later. He wanted to say something, but what? What could he say that she could possibly want to know, that might hold her interest? No, he reminded himself, he was not that lovesick boy now, he neither sought not wanted the interest of any woman, least of all this one. 

"I do not often," Faulkner finally confided, "Hide behind curtains."

"Then why are you here?" she demanded, taking another swig, "God, if they find us--"

"I'm here-" To assuage my guilt? Because I lost myself somewhere and need to make amends for those I let down? "Because I needed a moment away from society."

Society!”

"Why are you climbing through windows?"

Because, she suddenly wanted to tell him, because I cannot stand the thought of being in my own life one moment longer. "A need for air--"

"If I open the window will you promise not to jump out?" Faulkner was glad for her words, suddenly needing air himself, his head swimming.

"No one would care if I did," she declared, wondering where the words came from, the usually perfectly composed mask torn asunder, "It would be what they expected!" 

"I would care," he looked down at her, suddenly painfully aware of how much he had changed in the years, how much he had loved her and how she had left him wrung out, hollow, "Because I'd fall out too."

She had no response to that, managing after another sip of brandy, "Well!"

Faulkner moved forward a little, free hand closing around the window sill and levering it open a good few inches. The scent of the flowers assailed him again, fragrant and sweet. 

"Do you remember--" 

"I remember every second," he admitted, "Every summer."

"I shouldn't be here--"

He knew then it was he who shouldn't; that Alice Brandenburg, the poised, dignified wife of a decorated nobleman had more right to be in this place than he would ever have.  "Forgive me, madam," the words were formal, yet the tone betrayed more pain than he would have wished, "I shall summon your maid."

"No!" her eyes were wild then, hand gripping his arm with sudden strength. "No, please, don't - you must help me--"

"Alice!" Concern jolted through him, every fibre of all that he was focused on the obvious distress, the terror in her gaze. "What's wrong?"

"Help me--" She broke off at the sound of the door opening beyond, voices filling the air. He pressed his finger to his lips, drawing her closer behind the curtain. She could feel her heart hammering, his closeness and the impending peril stealing her breath, grip tightening.

It was a man and woman, their voices lowered in whispers of mirth and something more, the promise of a stolen assignation. Faulkner was unmoving, catching the floral fragrance again and her face was pressed nearly against his shoulder, the small space stifling, the scent of flowers and the brandy leaving her more dizzy than ever. Unmoving, still as marble he held her closer, the threat of discovery somehow intoxicating.

Some more laughter, followed before sounds of a decidedly more intimate nature, then the woman declaring, "Not in here, the books are looking at us!" Her companion gave a murmur of agreement and then the door opened and closed again, leaving them once more alone. 

The woman's sentiment, innocent and intimate all at once, provoked the ghost of a smile from the doctor, yet it was chased away by the memory of Alice's heartfelt plea for help. Alone again he addressed her urgently, meeting her gaze with his own and seeing only exhaustion, desperation where once there was a vivid fire.

"How can I help you?"

"You can't," she realised then, cursing herself for the momentary weakness, for the added danger she now brought to herself as she pulled from his grasp, "Forget that I spoke - I must go--" 

"Please-" Faulkner began, reaching for her hand again, "Alice--"

"I must go," she repeated, "I'm sorry." With that she pushed out through the curtains, stumbling but managing to right herself as she hurried for the door.

"Will you be here tomorrow?" The thought of what she might do, the desperation in her expression, had struck too deep. "Don't run away!"

"We leave in the morning," the words were rushed, and then the door pulled open, Alice gone a moment later.

And his heart was torn out again. Just like that, after all these years spent losing that boy, closing off the emotion, becoming Faulkner, he was undone by the girl who broke him in two. 

He turned back to the window, telling himself that her plea for help was another game and yet he knew somewhere in him that it could not be, that whatever had passed between them, she was not so cruel as that, that the pain in her eyes, the pallor and exhaustion in her face, would not lie. 

"Damn,"  the word was a hissed whisper, his forehead resting momentarily on the cool glass of the window, the fragrance of flowers heady. He would help her, of course, because he would help anyone in need no matter what he tried to tell himself, and maybe he would get his flask back too.



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