Authors: Gene Doucette
“Which war was it?” he asked.
He coughed gently, which was for him a polite way of saying I should know exactly what he was talking about. “As you know, sir Reginald, I fought in the American war.”
Reginald was the name I was using at this time. The ‘sir’ was entirely his invention.
“I do, yes.”
“I was on the ground when we evacuated Boston. You strike me as too young to have seen battle there. And we both know you aren’t truly a Britisher. But I also know what I saw this evening. You understand it took five men to subdue you? Two were combat-trained.”
“Did I hurt anyone?”
anyone, so let’s celebrate that.”
I noticed for the first time that we weren’t fully alone. There was the butler with the brandy bottle, but this was the kind of place where the help wasn’t factored into the head-count. The two men standing by the door, though, were definitely not a part of the staff. I wondered if they were the combat-trained men he was speaking of.
“”Don’t worry about them,” Cornelius said, on noting where my gaze had drifted. “I made the necessary arrangements already. Nobody’s going to clap you in iron and drag you off to the asylum so long as I’m here.”
“Is that… was that an option?” Exactly
insane had I acted? I wondered.
“As I said, don’t concern yourself. I’ve seen this sort of fatigue before. It’s all right if you don’t wish to tell me where you saw combat, I was merely curious. You are a complicated man, and I will allow you to keep your own counsel. But since I have put you in my charge for a time, I hope that even though you aren’t willing to unburden yourself of your past with me, you
take my advice.”
I looked at the men at the door again. “Your advice.”
you here, or anywhere. You’re not a prisoner. It’s only that I’ve spoken for you, and if you manage to go mad again and start attacking noblemen while reciting that African tongue—or whatever in the
that language was—it will reflect poorly on me. Your reputational risk has become mine, Reginald. I hope that you will take this into consideration when weighing your options.”
“I understand,” I said. “And thank you for speaking up for me. I’m sure I must have been a sight.”
“I fear you also may have some… issues in a number of social circles just now, as fully half the court believes you possessed by demons. So. I have a place in the country. I’ve told you about it before, I think.”
“You have, yes.” It was a few dozen acres of land and something that sounded like a small palace. Cornelius was mostly to be found there when he wasn’t in his apartments in the city. It was where his wife spent most of her time, if I recalled correctly.
“War isn’t something we want the women to understand,” Cornelius said, “but we can’t pretend it isn’t still inside of us either. Sometimes we need a place to go to face that war, in privacy, where nobody can be harmed. I speak from experience when I say these things. And so, when the need arises I have been known to collect wayward souls such as yourself and offer them the use of my estate, which is far too large for my family alone. My advice is to accept this offer. We have a carriage waiting.”
* * *
I accepted the offer.
There were other options. I could have abandoned my station in life entirely and gone off somewhere alone, but the fact that I was on an island at the time—an island rapidly filling up with civilized people—made disappearing into any remaining wilds less feasible. It wasn’t exactly a temperate zone either. If I let go and became completely unhinged, when winter came I’d probably end up hurting someone just in the interest of finding a warm place to stay. I also didn’t know how close I was to becoming that completely unhinged person, so getting out of the city was probably a good thing.
Helping my decision was the fact that every time I looked at one of the two men at the door I swore I was looking at king Khufu of Kemet, an Egyptian pharaoh who had, needless to say, been dead for some time. I took heart in the fact that the other guy didn’t look like anyone in particular. Hopefully that meant I was only about 50% insane.
Cornelius’s mansion did not end up being nearly as countrified as I might have hoped, but it was quite large and quite private, taking up what had to be a sizable portion of the county of York. It was one of those vast structures that made one think of Versailles in terms of architectural ambition if not grandeur and pomp.
We arrived at the door of the estate by mid-afternoon the following day, having not bothered to rest or pack clothing. We literally exited the gentlemen’s club, hopped in the carriage, and rode straight off without a break. He didn’t say so, but the sense was that I had been legally remanded into his care with the understanding that he would be getting me out of London as quickly as possible.
My friend’s penchant for collecting wayward souls was clearly no exaggeration on his part, as became evident the instant the carriage came to a stop before the main entrance. There was no way to get advance word to the house to expect us because we didn’t delay in any way and there were no phones or telegrams back then, and carrier pigeons were no longer in style. The closest thing to advance word was the horn Cornelius’s man sounded when we crossed the gates. Despite this, Cornelius’s wife—Margritte, whom I’d met only twice—his youngest daughter Joanne, and five members of the household staff were all standing there when we arrived as if our appearance had been anticipated for days.
“Why Mr. Bates, it is
a pleasure to have you!” Margritte exclaimed, clutching my hands with the strength of a drowning woman. (I was using several surnames at this time, and Bates was one of them. The more money I had the more last names I found it necessary to collect.)
“It’s lovely to see you again,” I greeted back. “Thank you for opening up your home to me.”
Margritte was a handsome woman for her age, the echo of a great youthful beauty still detectable. It was more obvious in her children—all daughters—who had inherited most of it. The eldest daughter, Mary, was the kind of beauty men told stories about. Appropriately enough, she was wed to a viscount.
Joanne was the least fortunate of the sisters, genetically. She was quite lovely, but not breathtakingly so, which in this family made her unattractive by dint of comparison. She was the only unmarried daughter left for Cornelius and Margritte, but if the rumors were to be believed, it was not due to lack of suitors.
This was my first time in her company, but our formal introduction would have to wait, for she nodded, turned, and went back inside without a word. It was a mild social rudeness everyone present chose to ignore.
* * *
There was a room prepared for me already, after a fashion. The estate had enough guest rooms to host a king and his retinue, so I was really just taking one of the many already-prepared bedrooms as my own. It was a whole lot better than any prison I might have otherwise been enjoying had someone not spoken for me, so I had no complaints.
I also had no clothes. I’d attended the evening’s events in my finest suit, and fled London in that same suit, and everything else I owned was in an apartment for which I had the only key. Cornelius offered to send a man back for my things, and that was fine, but I had to tell this man what to fetch and where to find it, and so far I was having trouble arranging my thoughts around that task. The problem was I couldn’t seem to visualize the flat in my mind, because whenever I tried I realized I was actually thinking about this little home I used to have in Italy about fifteen hundred years earlier. And when I was able to get that out of my mind the next three locations that came up were a Spanish villa, one of my homes in Carthage, and the top floor of a bordello in southwest India. Not only were all of those places utterly wrong, they ceased to exist long ago. (Except possibly the bordello.)
I could have sent his man along with the key and let him figure out where my clothing and so-on was, but the other problem was that I couldn’t remember if I’d left anything nobody else should see and/or get their hands on. Two or three times in my life I’ve had things in my possession that were harmless to me but not to people with normal immune systems. Beyond that, I’ve been known to keep things that are just difficult to explain to people who don’t know I’m extremely old. Like the occasional skull of a dead friend. (Long story.) And on top of
I kept company with creatures most humans just don’t know about. What if I had a pixie in the apartment? I couldn’t remember.
But I also couldn’t wear the suit constantly, so Cornelius donated some clothing. He was (or so I thought at the time) the only one there with a decent amount to spare other than the women, and I was confused enough at the time that dressing in drag probably would have only made it worse. On the other hand, a dress might have fit better.
I didn’t emerge from the room for close to twenty-four hours, during which time I mostly slept and tried to keep a grip on where and when I was. This wasn’t all that easy. I had a set of windows overlooking the carriageway in front of the property, which was helpful because while carriages are as old as Rome, the designs have a generational flavor to them. Of greater pertinence was the existence of glass in the windows, for while glass as a creation had been around for centuries, we didn’t get good enough at making it to put it in windows until comparatively recently. That helped keep me grounded. On the other hand, Margritte was French on her mother’s side, and decorated her home—or if not the entire home then the room I was in—in a style that made a lot more sense in Paris, and not even the current Paris; the Paris of about a hundred years earlier. So when I was awake I wasn’t sure if I was in England in the eighteen hundreds or Paris in the seventeen hundreds, and since the latter location meant I was probably in a good deal of trouble (very, very long story) I kept having mini panic attacks.
On emerging, I wandered around the mansion for quite a while before discovering the veranda, which became my new favorite place in the world. It jutted out from the back of the house and led to a nicely manicured lawn that went on for a quarter of an acre before ending at a densely wooded area. It was a lovely view, the weather was perfect, and I felt a certain peace I couldn’t seem to obtain in either the city or the room I’d consigned myself to.
As soon as I picked a chair at the edge of the railing, food and tea appeared on the small table beside me, and I realized the reason I had decided to leave the room was that I was extremely hungry.
I stayed in that seat for the rest of the afternoon, and then returned to it the following morning, and again the morning after that. Nobody approached me aside from the girl bringing food and tea, and I only left for long enough to avail myself of a chamber pot when there was a need.
I can’t say I was surprised to have all that time alone. The way I was dressed suggested I’d recently lost a tremendous amount of weight and grown three inches taller. The pants were actually cinched with a curtain stay, since I couldn’t find a belt that was tight enough to do the job. Not that anybody else knew this about the pants, since the shirt I had on was long and loose and hid the waist, but I knew. And none of that probably sounds all that terrible, but this was in a time when men wore suits to the breakfast table and women buried themselves under five layers of petticoats before they took tea. My clothes marked me as a person not to be approached, and I was still sane enough to be embarrassed by them.
It was for the best though, because while I seemed to have been able to arrest a total slide into madness—it was touch-and-go in the Parisian-themed bedroom—I couldn’t completely stop myself from seeing things that weren’t there.
succeeded in isolating the things I was seeing to the wooded area at the edge of the lawn. This was fantastic as it reduced the number of odds of my mistaking an actual human for something else significantly, and also made it easier for me to sleep at night. But at the same time I couldn’t quite take my eyes off of those trees, at least not for the first few days. At first it was because I just didn’t know when something horrible was going to sneak out of there so I wanted to be ready at all times, but that soon morphed into my trying to force myself to not see what I was seeing.
I knew what I saw wasn’t real, but that awareness didn’t appear to help. Every shadow was a predator of some kind: a dragon, an angry tribe of satyros, an ancestral species of cat, or something worse. Twice I thought I saw a unicorn, which I’m sure sounds lovely to everyone who never encountered a real one, but they’re awful.
I even started seeing things I’d never witnessed. The satyrs used to worship a god called the Duh-ryadh, and this god was supposed to be the most terrifying thing in the forest. I had no reason to think it actually existed, except for the one time thousands of years ago on the Greek peninsula when I ended up fleeing from something that sounded very real and very large and really awful. Sitting on the veranda and staring into the woods, every time a tree moved in the wind I worried that this was the thing coming for me.
Considering my fallback plan if I couldn’t get my head straight was to disappear into the wilderness, it was alarming how frightened I was by a few trees.