Monday, 11 July 2016

Chapter Eight

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

On with the tale...

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 injry, 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."

Don't miss chapter nine on 18th July!