Authors: Christine Merrill
‘No, you ninny. Someone from another family.’
‘None that I know of, my lord. But certainly it is not impossible. There are those that are lame, aren’t there?’
‘And deaf, as well. And probably without sense,’ Adrian added. ‘For how else can we justify the decisions that are made by them?’
‘I can look into it, if you wish. But I suspect that they would have little choice but to make accommodations for … any peer that was so inconvenienced.’
Good old Hendricks. He had been about to say
—and had taken care to stop himself, lest he be guilty of putting words in my lord’s mouth. ‘Please, do. And let me know what you discover. I have another task for you as well. I need to speak with someone in the Horse Guards to see if there is anything to be done about locating the fate of a soldier. I met the man’s mother in the park today …’
‘In the park,’ Hendricks parroted, as though he could not quite believe what he had heard.
‘Just outside of it, actually. Circumstances had reduced her to begging in the street. And I said that I would attempt to help her, if she came to my rooms tomorrow.’
‘A beggar is coming here, my lord?’
‘Yes, Hendricks. A blind beggar. She is the mother of a soldier.’
‘I see, my lord.’
‘And whether the news is good or bad, if some sort of pension could be arranged for her …’
‘Consider it done, my lord.’ Hendricks set down his cup and rose from his chair, ready to begin his errands. ‘Is there anything else?’ The last was said as though he assumed dismissal was imminent.
‘Actually, there is.’ As the secretary neared him, Adrian passed him the card he had been holding. ‘What do you make of this?’
‘It is a lecture by Jean Passerat, my lord.’
‘I am aware of that, Hendricks. Because I read it.’
‘ The exclamation was so surprised that Adrian suspected it was a hushed prayer and not meant for him at all.
‘You can see how the letters are raised up. I can feel them, Hendricks. It is a laborious process, to read these pinpricks, but not impossible. And it occurs to me that there might be a stationer or a printer who could do something similar. They have the raised lead type already in their possession.’
Hendricks thought for a moment. ‘That is backwards, to make the impression on the page.’
‘But if they could make a mould, somehow. Or if special letters were struck that were the right way round.’ Adrian drummed his fingers on his knee, imagining all the ways that such a system could be
applied. And suddenly he felt eager to be up and doing something. ‘It would be expensive, I suppose. But I have the money.’
‘You do indeed, my lord.’ Hendricks sounded relieved, now. And happy.
‘And if it can be done for me, then I see no reason why other reading materials cannot be made. Perhaps the Southwark Asylum could take some on. I know they do not think it is their place to educate the residents, but I beg to differ on the subject.’
‘And who would know better than you, my lord? You have a very personal interest in the subject.’
‘Which would put me in an excellent position to become a patron of that institution, I am sure. The combination of money and influence could be instrumental in making a long-lasting change in the place.’
‘Of course, for the residents to feel the full benefits of your assistance, a considerable amount of time might need to be devoted to the subject,’ Hendricks cautioned.
Time. And when had he not had enough of it? Days stretched on before him, and the rush to dull the ennui had been at the base of so many of his diversions. Adrian smiled. ‘It seems to me, Hendricks, that of all the mad endeavours of my family, in three generations, the support of a charity has not been on the list. By the traditional standards of the house of Folbroke, I shall be behaving quite recklessly should I rush in any direction other than my own doom.’
‘Very true, my lord.’ There was definite amusement in the voice of his servant. ‘You could very well be the wildest of your family, if you mean to squander your estate in philanthropy.’
‘It would give me a chance to appreciate your dry wit, Hendricks. It is a quality I have missed in our recent interactions.’
‘Of late you have given me little reason for mirth, Lord Folbroke.’
‘Change is in the air, Hendricks. I am my old self, again, after a very long time.’
‘So it would seem, my lord.’
‘Can you not manage, after all the time in my service, to call me Adrian? Or Folbroke, at least.’
‘No, my lord.’ But the title was given with affection, and so he allowed it to pass. Hendricks cleared his throat. ‘But if I might take the liberty of informing Lady Folbroke of your improved mood, she might be most gratified.’
Adrian felt the return of the old panic at the realisation that Emily would get wind of his plans, should they be carried too far before he had explained himself. ‘That must wait until I have had a chance to speak to her myself. But you think she would approve?’
‘Yes, my lord. She still enquires after you regularly. And she has been concerned by your silence.’
‘But she did not respond to my summons.’
‘If I might be so bold, my lord, as to offer advice?’
‘I believe it was the manner, and not the man, she objected to.’
Adrian sighed. ‘I have made so many mistakes with the poor girl I hardly know where to begin to rectify them.’
‘She has not been a poor girl for some time, my lord.’ And there again was that strange sense of admiration that he heard sometimes when Hendricks spoke to him of his wife. And he remembered that the reconciliation he imagined might not be welcomed by his friend.
‘It is my own punishment that I was not there to see Emily blossom into the woman she has become. Too proud to watch her with half my sight. And now I cannot see her at all.’ He sighed. ‘Thank you for taking care of her, Hendricks.’
‘I? I have done nothing, my lord.’
‘I suspect that is not true.’ And what did he expect the man to say? Nothing he wanted to hear. But Adrian could not seem to leave the subject alone.
Hendricks said, after some thought, ‘For the most, she takes care of herself. I do very little but to follow her wishes. But I am sure, if you speak to her for yourself, you will find her eager to listen.’
‘Perhaps I shall.’ And his nerve failed him again. ‘But not today. Today, I think I shall go out for lunch.’
‘Out, my lord?’ He could almost hear Hendricks’s brain, ticking through the possibilities, trying to
decide where he would be drawn so early in the day. And whether there would be a way from dissuading him from whatever fresh folly he had discovered. For though the morning had been full of promise, Adrian had given his poor friend no reason to believe that his good intentions would last to the afternoon.
When Hendricks could not come up with the answer on his own, he responded, ‘When I have completed the tasks you set for me, I will accompany you.’
‘Will you, now? And did I ask for a companion, Mr Hendricks?’
‘No, my lord.’
‘Then you needn’t stir yourself. What I do, I must do for myself. You are not a member, after all.’
‘Not a member? What the devil …?’ For a moment, Hendricks was completely lost. And his subservience slipped, revealing the man underneath.
Adrian reached out into the open air, until he could find the secretary’s arm and give it a reassuring pat. ‘Do not concern yourself, man. I am not an infant. I will manage well enough on my own for a few hours in broad daylight. Now, call for the carriage. And tell the cook I will not be home for supper.’
It was the very bastion of the sort of gentlemanly society that he had denied himself in the months since his sight had utterly failed. He had forgotten how peaceful it was, compared to the taverns he had
been frequenting, and the sense of belonging and entitlement that a membership carried with it. It was a place where eccentricity was ignored. If a man had the blunt and the connections to be invited through the front door, then even aberrant behaviour might be deemed, if not creditable, at least not worthy of comment.
And when comment could no longer be restrained, then someone would most likely get out the betting book. Adrian grinned in anticipation.
‘Lord Folbroke. May I help you with your hat and coat?’
‘You can help me with several things,’ he said, turning to the servant and placing his hand on the man’s arm. ‘It has been some time since I have been here. Have the arrangements changed at all?’
‘My lord?’ The footman seemed surprised, and a little confused at the question.
‘It is my eyes, you see.’ He passed his own hand in front of his face, to indicate the imperviousness of them. ‘Not as blind as a bat, perhaps. But near enough.’
Saying the word aloud felt good, as though it had been trapped on his tongue for an age, waiting to be shaken off. ‘Take my hat and gloves. But my stick must remain with me.’ Then he added, ‘And I would appreciate a brief description of the room and its occupants.’
Once he was aware of what was required, the servant was totally amenable to the task, and not the least bit shocked or embarrassed by the request. He
who and what were to be found on the other side of the threshold. Then he said, ‘Will there be anything else, my lord?’
‘A drink, perhaps. Whatever the others are enjoying. You may bring it to me, once I have found a seat. And please announce yourself when you do so, for I might not hear you approach.’ Then he turned back to the difficult task of re-entering society.
He stood for just a moment, taking a deep breath of the familiarly stuffy air. It was a trifle too hot in the room for him. But hadn’t it always been so? He could smell alcohol and tobacco. But not the foul stuff he’d grown accustomed to. The smell of quality was as sharp as the ink on a fresh pound note.
‘Folbroke!’ There was a cry of welcome at the sight of him, followed by the sudden silence as his old friends realised that something had changed.
‘Anneslea?’ He started forwards, towards the voice of his old friend Harry and forgot himself, stumbling into a table and almost upsetting a game of cards. He apologised to the gentlemen in front of him, and turned to go around, only to feel Harry seize him by the arm and draw him forwards.
‘Folbroke. Adrian. It has been almost a year since I have seen you. Where have you been?’ And then a quieter, and more worried, ‘And what has happened? Come. Sit. Talk.’
He smiled and shrugged, allowing the help of friendship. ‘I have not been very good company, I am afraid.’ Anneslea pressed him to a chair, and almost
instantly the servant returned with a glass of wine. Adrian took a sip to steady his nerves. Suddenly, speaking a few simple words seemed more fearsome than a cavalry charge. ‘My eyes failed me.’
‘You are …?’
‘Blind.’ He said it again, and again there came a small lightening of spirit. ‘It has been all downhill since that flash burn in Salamanca.’
Harry gripped his arm. ‘There is no hope for recovery?’
Adrian patted his hand. ‘The eyes in my family are no damned good at all, I’m afraid. The same thing happened to my father. I had hoped to dodge the condition. But it appears I am not to be spared.’
There was the pause he’d expected. Then Anneslea burst forth with a relieved laugh. ‘Better to find you blind than foxed before noon. When I saw you running into the furniture, I feared I’d have to take you home and put you to bed.’
The men around him laughed as well, and for a change he laughed with them, at his own folly.
Adrian offered a silent prayer for strength. ‘Rupert. How good to see you.’
‘But you just said, you cannot see me.’
Some things had not changed. He still enjoyed the company at White’s—except for the days when his cousin was present. ‘I was speaking metaphorically, Rupert.’
As I was when I said it was good to see you.
‘Although you are not visible to me—’
is a blessing
‘—you can see that I have no trouble recognising you by your voice.’
‘Your other faculties are not impaired?’ Rupert sounded almost hopeful to be proven wrong. Could the man not pretend, even for an instant, that he was not waiting in the wings to snatch the title away?
‘No, Rupert,’ he said as patiently as possible. ‘You will find that I am still quite sharp. And since my brief period of reclusion is nearing its end, I will be returning to my usual haunts, and my place in the Parliament.’
‘And I suppose Lady Folbroke spoke the truth as well?’
he wondered. And then decided to give his wife the benefit of the doubt. ‘Of course. She would have no reason to lie, would she?’
‘I suppose not. But then, congratulations are in order,’ Rupert said glumly.
‘Congratulations, old man?’ Anneslea addressed this to him. ‘You come to me with your dead eyes, and nothing but bad news. But your wife spreads the glad tidings, I suppose. What is it that we are celebrating?’
Not a clue.
‘I will let Rupert tell you, since he is obviously eager to share what he has learned.’
Rupert gave a sigh, sounding as far from eager as it was possible to be. ‘It seems that there will be a new heir to Folbroke, by Easter.’
hen Hendricks came to her that afternoon with news of his errands, Emily could barely contain her excitement. It seemed the blind beggar had done more in the space of a few moments than she had managed in a week. ‘He saw himself in her, I am sure. And has been reminded of the advantages of his rank. Thank you so much, for helping to lead him the rest of the way.’ She leaned forward and clutched Hendricks by the arm, as he sat taking tea with her, so overcome with emotion at the thought of a brighter future that she thought she would burst from happiness.
At her touch, Hendricks gave a start that rattled his saucer, and glanced down at her hand as though he did not know quite what to do about it. ‘You give yourself too little credit, Lady Folbroke. It is your devotion to him that made the difference.’