It could be worse.
The phrase repeated itself over and over in his head like the irritating refrain to a little-liked song.
Winfield Elliott, Viscount Stillwell, stared at the façade of Fairborough Hall and tried to ignore the leaden weight in the pit of his stomach, a weight that had settled there since the moment late in the night when he and the rest of the household had been roused from their beds by cries of fire.
“It doesn’t look nearly as bad as I thought it would,” his cousin, Grayson Elliott, said in what he obviously meant to be a helpful manner. It wasn’t. “A bit scorched around the edges perhaps, but not bad, not bad at all.”
“No, it doesn’t look bad.” The two men stood some ten yards from the house at the foot of the circular drive that linked the long drive to the main gate. And from here, given this precise angle and in the cold light of late afternoon, there was indeed little to indicate the destruction within the stone walls of the hall. Certainly what was left of the front door was charred and the glass in most of the windows in the center section of the house had shattered, but the east and west wings appeared untouched. All in all it really didn’t
“Appearances, cousin, are deceiving.” Win started toward the house, barely noting the puddles of soot-laden water or trampled, filthy snow or the chunks of charred wood lying about. Nor was he especially aware of the pervading aroma of smoke and acrid burned matter or the brisk breeze and his lack of suitable outer garments. “It is much worse than it looks.”
It could be worse.
“Fortunately,” he continued, “everyone in the house escaped unharmed. And no one was injured battling the blaze.”
“Something to be grateful for,” Gray said at his side.
Any number of people still milled around the building, mostly male servants: the gardener and undergardeners, the stable hands, the footmen. The hours since the fire had been discovered blurred together in an endless moment or day or eternity. Win had lost track of the time (although it was now obviously late afternoon), as well as exactly who had been here. The fire brigade from the village had responded and help had arrived from neighboring estates, but the snow had made the going slow. Still, it had also helped put out the blaze. While it was certainly cold, the lake was not frozen and the estate pumping station had supplied the water needed to fight the flames.
Win stepped over the threshold and gestured for his cousin to join him. Gray had been in London and Win had sent word to him shortly after daybreak. After all, Fairborough Hall was as much Gray’s home as it was Win’s.
Gray stepped up beside him and sucked in a hard breath. “Good God.”
“I should think this was the work of a hand considerably lower than heaven,” Win murmured. It was indeed a scene straight from hell. Or perhaps it was hell’s aftermath.
Haphazard heaps of blackened wood littered what had once been the grand entry hall. Here and there a whisper of smoke drifted upward from still-smoldering debris. A blackened skeleton was all that remained of the magnificent center stairway. The glorious ballroom ceiling with its intricate plaster moldings and painted scenes from Greek mythology was little more than a charred memory, open now to the floors above them and all the way to the scorched roof timbers.
Gray started into the house, but Win grabbed him and pulled him back. “Careful, Gray. The integrity of the floor is still in question and will be until we can get in there, start cleaning out the debris and assess the destruction.” He ran a weary hand through his sooty hair. The aroma of smoke drifted around him. Odd, he would have thought by now he was immune to the smell of smoke.
“Of course.” Gray’s shocked gaze scanned the damage. “I can’t believe how much is gone.” He glanced at his cousin. “Were any of the furnishings saved? The paintings? Uncle Roland’s books?”
“We did manage to get the family portraits and most of the paintings out, those hung low enough to reach, that is. Thanks to Mother, really.” He forced a wry smile. “While Father and I and Prescott and the other male servants were trying to prevent the spread of the fire, Mother was directing the housekeeper and the maids in rescuing the paintings and whatever else she could think of.” At this point he didn’t want to consider how much had been lost. Time enough for that later. It had been nothing short of chaos, and the fact that they had rescued anything at all now seemed something of a minor miracle.
“It looks like the fire was confined to the middle section of the house.” He glanced at Win. “So the library was unaffected ?”
It could be worse.
“With any luck, given its location,” Win said. “The east and west wings appear untouched although I fear there might be a great deal of smoke damage. Oddly enough, the stone walls between the wings and the main portion of the building were widened at some point in its history, providing a fire break all the way to the roof. Father mentioned something about that when we realized the fire had been contained, but it’s not original to the building of the house. I had never given the width of those walls much thought—indeed, I’m not certain I ever noticed—but they kept the fire from spreading.”
“Wasn’t a previous earl a witness to the Great Fire of London in 1666? And was terrified of fire from then on?”
“Perhaps we have him to thank then.” Nonetheless, it was difficult to manage any semblance of gratitude for a long dead ancestor. Win was fairly certain allowing any emotion, even one as simple as gratitude, would open the floodgates for despair, and for that he simply didn’t have the time. “I had always thought the house was essentially unchanged from the day when it was built by the first earl. I can’t remember when.”
“Fifteen ninety-two,” Gray murmured.
“You always were good at dates.”
Under other circumstances, Win would have replied with something appropriately sarcastic and witty, but, at the moment, he didn’t have the strength. The fire had awoken them some fourteen hours ago. It seemed like forever.
“At least the roof is still intact,” Gray said.
It could be worse.
“That’s something, I suppose.”
“Any idea how it started?”
“It could have been anything. A spark from a fireplace. An untended lamp.” Win shrugged. “I daresay we’ll probably never really know.”
“How are Uncle Roland and Aunt Margaret?”
“Bearing up. Mother is made of much sterner stuff than I had imagined. She and I insisted Father rest. I sent them to the dower house.” Win managed a slight smile. “It is a testament to the serious nature of the day that Mother did not protest although it was all she could do to make Father leave.”
“How is he?” Gray’s worried gaze searched Win’s.
“As well as can be expected, I suppose. He’s getting older and all this . . .” Win’s throat tightened. He shook his head, turned and stepped outside.
Gray followed him. His parents had died when he was very young and Win’s parents had raised him as their own. Even though Gray had left England for more than a decade, he was still Win’s closest friend and very much his brother. Gray grabbed his cousin’s arm. “Win.”
“He’s tired, Gray, that’s all.” Win blew a long, weary breath. “We’re all tired.”
“I hope he looks better than you do.” Gray studied him closely. “You look like you’ve been through hell.”
“I can’t imagine why.” He glanced down. His clothes were filthy; there was a tear in his coat sleeve and a nasty burn on the back of his hand. Odd, he hadn’t even noticed it.
“So . . .” Gray looked back at the house. “What happens now?”
“There’s nothing more to be done today. I have men here who will stay the night and make certain the fire does not reignite. Tomorrow, we’ll assess the east and west wings to determine the damage. Hopefully, it’s minimal.”
It could be worse.
The refrain echoed in his head. He ignored it. “For now, most of the servants have family in the village they can stay with. Mother, Father and I will stay in the dower house, along with whatever servants need a bed. It will be overly crowded, but we shall make do, at least for tonight.”
“Prescott will love that.” Gray smiled. “He’s never approved of making do.”
Even the thought of their eminently proper butler making do in tight quarters with the Earl and Countess of Fairborough failed to ease Win’s mood. “Will you be going back to London tonight?”
“Absolutely not.” Indignation sounded in Gray’s voice. “I know I haven’t lived here for years, but this is still my home, Win. I intend to stay right here for as long as you and Uncle Roland and Aunt Margaret need me. And, given the looks of it, that will be for some time.”
“The dower house is already overcrowded,” Win said wryly.
“I’ll stay the night at Millworth Manor.” He paused. “Aunt Margaret and Uncle Roland would probably be more comfortable there as well, as would you. And it’s only a half an hour carriage drive from here.”
“That is something to consider for tomorrow, but as for tonight, we’ll stay here. I’m not sure I could drag Father away as it is.” Win gestured at the destruction. “I don’t know that he’s really accepted all this.”
It wasn’t easy to watch your heritage—the house that had served as your family’s home for nearly three centuries as well as all those treasures one didn’t realize were treasures until they were gone—go up in smoke. Win had known, in a rational sense, that his father was growing older, but Win had never seen his father as aged until he saw the fire reflected in the older man’s eyes. And the sorrow. Win had known as well that one day he would be the next Earl of Fairborough, but last night that inevitable inheritance had for the first time been very real and all too close.
He shoved the thought aside. Father was in good health and there was no need borrowing trouble. They had enough already.
accepted all this?” Gray asked.
“I don’t know.” Win’s gaze drifted over the house once again. The overcast skies only added to the dreary scene. It was as if all color had vanished from the world, leaving everything gray and black and dull and dingy. He wasn’t entirely certain it hadn’t all been a dreadful dream brought on by something he’d eaten that disagreed with him or some odd story he’d read that lingered in the back of his mind. “I shall have to, I suppose.” He glanced at his cousin. “Have you?”
Gray stared at the house for a long moment. “I was able to prepare myself, I suppose, after I received your telegram. Waiting for the next train and the hour-long trip here, I had the time to imagine the worst and ready myself.”
Win started down the drive toward the dower house. “You should see Mother and Father. They’ll be pleased that you’re here.”
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” Gray took a last look at Fairborough Hall, then shook his head and joined his cousin. “It could have been much worse, I suppose.”
“That’s what I keep thinking.”
A crash sounded behind them, reverberating through the air and the ground beneath their feet. The two men swiveled back and stared at the house. A cloud of ash and dust hung directly above the mid-portion of the building. Win winced.
Gray’s eyes widened. “What on earth was that?”
“I’m fairly certain that,” Win said with a weary sigh, “was the roof.”
Yes, indeed it could have been worse.
And now, it was.