Authors: Lord Tom
“Fetch me the light, confound it!”
Thomas, Lord Harleston, third Baron Harleston, stood rubbing his sore head and squinting balefully up at the sign upon which he had just bumped it. There was little moon that night and the streetlights of Calais, unlike those of London, could hardly be said to exist. The doorways, too, were poorly suited to his more than six feet of height, and the faded board which had accosted him had been nearly invisible in the dark. But now with the aid of a lantern passed to him by the postboy and held above his head, his lordship began to make out its faded lettering.
The light gleamed upon his pomaded locks, startlingly blond for a man of two-and-thirty, and shed a softer glow by which he could make out a name. M. Rénard, Proprietor, he read. He lowered the lantern and returned it to the boy, telling him to wait.
Lord Harleston hesitated a moment more before knocking, questioning the lateness of the hour. This must be the shop, he reflected. The name Rénard corresponded to the signature on the message he had received from Captain Johnstone just two days before in Paris. He had been on diplomatic assignment to the newly restored monarchy following the battle of Waterloo when the note came. It had not revealed much, but the appeal was clear. Frowning now, he wondered what misfortune had brought the old beau to this modest dwelling, but reminding himself of the urgent tone of the letter, he waited no longer, but lifted his hand to the shuttered door and knocked.
After a short wait, a narrow shaft of light pierced the gloom and two bespectacled eyes peered out from beneath a night cap. Seeing that he had roused the shop’s owner from his sleep, Lord Harleston quickly gave his name and was gratified by the result. The door was flung open wide and he was greeted with tangible relief.
“Ah, my Lord Harleston! Come in, come in!” cried Monsieur Rénard. “This is wonderful! I had feared
— but you are come in time. How happy will be Captain Johnstone to see you.”
The bookseller’s words confirmed the young man’s unwelcome suspicions. “In time?” he repeated. But the fact that the note had been dictated to Rénard had alerted him to the captain’s condition.
Monsieur Rénard’s eyes lost their gleam. “Yes,” he answered. “I fear that Captain Johnstone will not be with us much longer. He is without the strength to hold a pen, as I told you in my letter. I had feared he would not last until today
—he scarcely interests himself in his toilette—but I am certain that your visit will do much to restore him.”
To anyone not familiar with the captain’s ways, this last remark would have had little meaning, but Lord Harleston understood instantly. He smiled reassuringly.
“I will do all in my power to make him comfortable. But before I go up
residing over your shop, I take it—will you be so good as to tell me what brought him here?”
“But of course,” said Monsieur Rénard, recalling himself. “You have not seen the captain for some time, I comprehend.”
“No,” Lord Harleston agreed. “He sold out after Badajoz in the Peninsula. Debts of honour,” he explained. The old bookseller smiled wryly. “I have not seen him since then, although I’ve wondered frequently if he managed to restore his fortune once back in England.”
Monsieur Rénard shook his head sadly. “No, my lord. Oh, once, perhaps twice, he won heavily at the table. It was enough to stay his creditors for a while. But in the end there was no money and no one left to assist him. When all was lost, he came to me.”
Lord Harleston looked at Monsieur Rénard curiously. But it was not the captain’s ill fortune that surprised him. Captain Johnstone, he remembered fondly, although charming, always had lived beyond his means. He was a gamester and an unlucky one, and something of a dandy besides. When in uniform, he had looked the very picture of elegance. His fob, his snuffbox, his rings were ever the finest, his exquisite linen the cleanest in the corps. Even in the thick of battle he had managed to look dressed to an inch. It was inevitable that such costly living should outrun his meagre fortune, and when it did, he had sold out. But Monsieur Rénard’s role in helping an English captain so soon after the cessation of hostilities
—that was the puzzle.
“It was good of you,” his lordship commented.
But Monsieur Rénard waved a dismissive hand. “It was nothing, my lord. A long story and I must not waste your time. You must go to him. But I will tell you that I owe my life to Captain Johnstone. I would not refuse him anything and this
—” he made another gesture of dismissal “—is nothing in comparison.”
Lord Harleston nodded. “It is the same for me. He was my first commanding officer, you see. If it had not been for him at Ciudad Rodrigo
—” He did not finish, but Monsieur Rénard looked relieved.
“I see. And I was worrying that you might not care to help him. I see that I needn’t have. Now,” he said, turning briskly and leading Lord Harleston through the darkness to the back of the shop, “you must go up to him. I heard footsteps a moment ago so you will not be rousing them entirely and there is really no time to delay. Knock at the first door on the left at the head of the stairs and I am certain he will see you.”
said the baron. Monsieur Rénard turned at the sound of his voice. “You must tell me how long he has been here so that I may better repay you.”
The old shopkeeper looked confused for a moment before, light dawning, he assumed an air of grave dignity. “You misunderstand, my lord,” he said. “It was not to repay me that you were called. Nor was it to assume the care of Captain Johnstone. The captain knows that I shall care for him until there is no longer a need. But there is a matter which I have not the power to resolve and it is for that that you are needed. Please,” he said, holding up a hand and relaxing into a smile as Lord Harleston started to apologize, “go to the captain. He will explain himself to you.” Monsieur Rénard indicated the staircase with a gracious motion of the hand.
Abashed, but with curiosity now added to his concern, Lord Harleston mounted the stairs and, remembering his host’s instructions, knocked on the first door. After a short wait, to his great surprise, the door was cracked open to reveal the figure of a young woman.
“Pardon me,” he said in French, momentarily confused. “I must have made an error. I was looking for Captain Johnstone. Mademoiselle...Rénard?” She opened the door wider now and in the dim light he could see the young lady’s face.
“I am Miss Johnstone,” she said in perfect English.
“Miss Johnstone?” Lord Harleston stared at her dumbly. The young lady before him was a far cry from the aged nurse or valet he had vaguely expected to open the door. She was beautiful.
She was tall and slender, with shoulders and neck so graceful that an artist might have painted them with one fluid stroke. Her dark, almost black hair was tied softly back in a chignon, but even in that poor light it shone with a rich lustre. Her features were fine and delicate and her eyes, too dark to call brown, were large and expressive. Right now, they regarded him with a mixture of reserve, curiosity and suspicion.
Realizing that he had been standing in a most improper silence while staring in the rudest fashion, Lord Harleston recalled his errand and made his introduction. “I have come to call on your father at his request,” he finished, trying to remove the trace of concern he detected.
Her brow puckered slightly. “At his request?” she asked. “I do not recall having written to you for my father, my lord.”
Lord Harleston smiled. He liked the smooth, even tone of her voice with its gently questioning lilt. “The letter was written by Monsieur Rénard, Miss John-stone.” Surprise lit her eyes but she was still clearly perplexed. “Perhaps your father thought it would be more proper to contact me through another gentleman,” he said, dismissing the letter lightly. For whatever reason the captain had need of him, it was obvious that his daughter knew nothing of the matter.
“Perhaps,” she said, flushing. The soft rosy colour spread slowly through her pale skin, tinging it pleasantly. “Please come in, Lord Harleston,” she said suddenly, “and forgive me for keeping you standing in the corridor. I could not be certain . . .” She did not finish her sentence, but the baron could guess her fears on her father’s behalf.
He stepped forward into the room, but unable to take his eyes off her face, he once again forgot to duck and brought his head sharply up against the top of the doorway.
“Ow!” he cried involuntarily as the spot he had hit before suffered its second blow.
“My lord!” exclaimed Miss Johnstone in extreme distress. “I am so very sorry! Please, oh, please, sit down and let me look at your head.” He lowered himself into a chair and allowed her to examine the lump. She was hovering near him with an expression of great pity which, under the circumstances, he found particularly pleasing. The initial pain of the encounter had already passed, but he permitted himself the luxury of sitting to have his head bathed with a cool cloth.
“Oh, you poor man! Does it hurt dreadfully?”
Lord Harleston uttered a groan, despite the fact that her distress was totally out of proportion to the discomfort he was feeling.
Miss Johnstone continued to make comforting sounds and sponged the afflicted spot with such gentle effectiveness that after a while Lord Harleston had to smile at his fraudulent behaviour. She had a sweet, natural essence which seemed to act like a tonic on him and he felt even better than he had before his head had been bumped.
“You will think me the greatest coward, Miss Johnstone,” he said eventually, remembering that Monsieur Rénard had urged him to hurry to the captain. “But that is not at all the case. We military men are tough as nails, you know. It is merely a surface wound, and if I had not just bumped the same spot out in the street, I should have taken the blow like a man.”
She laughed but, pitying him even further, put her hand to her mouth and regarded him with sympathetic anguish.
“I am afraid these old buildings were not designed for someone like me.”
“No,” she agreed, taking in his large frame with a shy smile. “Frenchmen, as a rule, are not so . . . tall.” Suddenly self-conscious, she withdrew her hand from his head. “If you are quite recovered now, perhaps I should tell my father you are here.”
“By all means.”
Lord Harleston followed her with his eyes until she disappeared and then gazed about him at the room where she had left him. It was a small, sparsely furnished parlour with only the one chair in which he now sat. Before the door closed behind Miss Johnstone, he had caught a glimpse of the foot of a bed and another chair upon which rested a basket of needlework and he deduced that Miss Johnstone was in the habit of sitting beside her father’s bed, keeping her hands occupied while waiting to be needed. The parlour must hardly be used.
What the deuce had made the captain drag his daughter into this unpleasant business? he wondered. Until this evening he had not known of her existence. But that did not surprise him, for his friendship with Captain Johnstone, although always of the best, had been purely professional. He could not imagine the old beau spending much time at home. The family hearth was no place for him. He pictured Miss Johnstone’s graceful figure as she had swept from the room and a sudden flash of irritation seized him. What a dreary life the captain had brought her to!
The door to the bedroom opened again, and Miss Johnstone beckoned to him to enter. She was smiling again, although still with a touch of curiosity. “He seems delighted you’ve come,” she said as he entered. “I think your visit will do him good.”
Lord Harleston took a step towards the bed and heard her departing footsteps behind him. The room, he could see, although simple, was clean and comfortable. A lamp on a table threw a light on the wan, lined face on the bed pillows and it came as a shock, even to a man inured to the sight of his companions’ dying, to see the change that had been effected in the four years since he had seen Captain Johnstone. Even in his illness, though, there was a spotless air about him and the cuffs of his nightshirt were trimmed with lace. In a moment, a pale hand waved him over and a familiar twinkle lit the faded eyes.
“So it’s Harleston, now, is it?” teased the gruff voice. “You’ve come into your inheritance since I last saw you. And not sold out?”
“No, sir,” he said, grasping the captain’s hand firmly. “I thought I should see it through to the end. But I suppose I shall have to go home soon and face my responsibilities.”
“Good lad! I thought you would last. Never feared you wouldn’t make it, either, in spite of your madcap ways. You’re too big to fall.” He seemed to gather strength from the young hand in his. “I never would have sold out, either, you know, if that scoundrel Battington hadn’t won my last sou at faro.” The recollection did not seem to trouble him much.