Author's Note: Well, I had all but given this story up. But with a little encouragement, I have decided to continue it, although I would still love a few more reviews.
So thank you Brandy (billyvmom) and miss1927 for your reviews, here is Chapter 3.
I really hope you were all noticing the dates. You will get confused unless you at least read them and get some idea of roughly when everything is happening. I keep skipping a lot of years. In chapters to come, I will skip back years too. If there is no date at the start of a section, assume it is the same date as the section before.
The young man woke to a splitting headache and a churning stomach, and knew that he'd had too much to drink again. He closed his eyes again, and tried to remember, through the pounding, what had happened last night. It wasn't often he drank enough to forget what happened; he was always the one who remembered, and recounted amusing tales to his humiliated friends.
But today, he couldn't remember, and yet he had a strange feeling that he ought to remember, because something important had happened last night… something bad… something that, for some reason, made his gut twist a little more, with something like fear…
There had been a gambling den… and bloody Sheldon had been playing him dry, and goading him with it… but what had happened afterwards? Small pictures flickered in and out of his head.
A dark bar - down by the waterside somewhere, judging by the smell - where gas lights swung and sailors crowded round the bar… A man there who said he knew the best whorehouse in London…
The cold air and London fog as he stumbled down the street… Bassett's face, round and red with alcohol, laughing as they reeled along, trying not to fall into the gutter…
The sweet-but-sour smell of the whorehouse, which, from the images that passed before his mind now, was certainly not 'the best in London,' but rather a third rate, grimy place… And a skinny girl with greasy hair and talented hands… oh God, he hadn't, had he? In a place like that…? If he'd caught the Clap, he'd bloody kill Bassett.
But what were those other images…? In a darkened house… Where was it? And a woman, who screamed, and a man… a man who lurched and fell, and a pool of dark liquid spreading out from the man's head… In horror, his eyes opened, unwilling to see any more mental images.
What the hell had happened last night? That man… the woman… who were they? The liquid… please, God, say it had been a spilt glass of wine… He looked down at himself for the first time. Oh, Jesus Bloody Christ. His sleeves… stained scarlet on what had been fine white linen… more stains down his front… was he bleeding somewhere? No, nothing hurt except his head. It was not his blood. Almost faint with horror, he looked at his hands. Drying scarlet covered them, smearing his fingers and turning black under the nails…
Tom Spencer rolled over and was very sick over the side of his bed.
Harperstead Point, Northumberland
Harperstead Point, Northumberland
It was raining. Juliet ignored this fact and continued on her solitary walk out towards the lighthouse.
This was a treacherous piece of coast. The sea pounded on the rocks, spray mingling with the rain on her cheeks. Gulls wheeled above her, screeching. It would be dark in an hour or two, and that was when the cliffs became most dangerous. The unwary stranger could easily lose their footing out here, where there were no lamps and the moon was often shrouded in cloud. And the ships out at sea... wrecks were rare these days, since they had built the lighthouse, but horror stories were still told in the fishing villages. There were plenty who still remembered the terrible wreck of fifty years ago, that would have lost the entire crew had it not been for the bravery of the lighthouse keeper's daughter, rowing out to save them. That had not been far along the coast from Harperstead, and the Point itself had seen its fair share of wrecks in the past.
A bit longer ago, and there had been wreckers on this part of the coast. Whispers still went round about a certain family whose great-great-grandfather had been one of the most infamous wreckers on the coast.
The thought made Juliet shiver a little. A shipwreck was bad enough, but the idea of men – human beings themselves – lying in wait for the innocent ships; luring them with false lights onto the rocks, simply to claim the bounty from the hold... That was a truly horrible idea. Juliet could not imagine taking another's life. It was the ultimate evil; a hideous, soul-staining thing. She believed that implicitly, and to Juliet, there was little to choose between the wild, uncivilised code of the old wreckers, and a law that condemned its criminals to death.
It was opinions like that that made people say she was not quite right in the head. Opinions like that that had ended up with her abandoned up here in the lonely house on the point, a millstone round her guardian's neck, and an embarrassment in proper society.
Juliet did not care.
She liked it here, alone with her thoughts and the wind and the calling sea birds. It gave her time to think and read and write. She knew that her manuscripts and scribblings would never see the light of day; that nobody was interested in a study of the birds of the Northumbrian coast done by a young woman. But she persevered anyway, and gave them more reason to call her mad when she appeared in the village with ink on her nose and her collar, and her hair a tousled mess (she ran her hands through it when she was concentrating, and always forgot to comb it afterwards).
Juliet did not care.
She walked out to the end of the point, and stood there in the fading light and the blowing rain. She spread her arms to catch the wind, and joined the calling of the gulls, feeling her lungs fill, and enjoying the noise she could make. A young lady did not scream, and sometimes, Juliet felt the need to like a weight on her chest. Not for any reason. Not because she was angry or upset. Just because sometimes, she wanted to make a noise. So she came out here, and did it with the gulls.
A couple of fishermen pulling their boat up, down in the bay, looked up and saw her. They stared for a moment, then looked at each other, shook their heads and went home to tell their wives that that mad young lady was hollering at the sky again.
Juliet did not care.
"Mister Archibald, Ma'am," the maid announced, with a deferential bob, and stepped aside to reveal a young, smartly dressed young man with a head of blonde curls and a frantic expression.
"Archy!" The woman who rose to meet him was white, with shadows beneath her eyes, marring a face that would otherwise still have been beautiful, despite the lines of middle age.
"Mama!" he strode up to her, kissed her cheek, hesitated a moment, then swept her into a crushing hug that was ruinous to the gown she wore. She did not seem to notice.
"Oh, Archy," she whispered, tears coming into her eyes.
"It's true?" he looked at her with an agonised expression, as if hoping desperately that she would tell him it was not.
She nodded, and he turned away, biting back the curse that sprang to his lips.
"The fool! The... stupid, stupid fool!"
"Don't, Archy," a sob caught in her throat.
"I'm sorry, Mama," he turned back to her, looking repentant, "What has he said? What is to happen?"
She pressed a hand to his mouth.
"Master Archy," a voice spoke quietly behind him, and he turned to find himself facing a tiny, bird-like woman with her grey hair in a bun.
"Harman," he greeted the housekeeper, at a loss for any other words.
His mother had sunk down onto a chair, clearly trying to keep control over herself, and he glanced uncertainly at her, biting his lip. His mother was calm and cool and dignified; he did not think that he had ever seen her weep before, and he did not know what to do. Catherine Spencer was the rock in her household, and if the rock should sink, it seemed that the household must be cast adrift.
Mrs Harman, the housekeeper, looked at him with grave pity before bustling over to her mistress' side, and ringing the bell for a maid.
"Don't ask her question just now, if you please, Master Archy," the housekeeper said quietly, before turning to Mrs Spencer, "Madam, please, you're worn out. Come to your room and rest. I'll send for Pearson..."
Archy watched as his mother agreed meekly to this; as she gave up the struggle and allowed tears to trickle down her cheeks.
"Mama... I shall be in the library, if you want me," he said in a taut voice, "And I shall see you at dinner?" There was a question in his voice at the end.
"Yes," she agreed, her voice catching, "Oh, Archy, what a welcome for you..."
"Don't worry about me," he said gently, "Go and sleep, if you can. I can ask Walters if I need anything. But I know where the drinks are kept. I don't need to be treated like a guest."
Outside in the hallway, his mother disappearing up the stairs to her chambers, he took a deep breath. The unreality of it all was strong, and he felt that the shock had yet to hit him. He still did not know the end of the story. But he could find out, because there was someone else who would surely know. He frowned determinedly, and made for the library.
The slim girl with the smooth fair hair and clear blue eyes, who scrambled to her feet as she heard him enter the room, bore little resemblance to the madcap creature who had once flung herself off the cliffs in an attempt to get to Dover.
"Archy!" she flung herself at him, a book falling from her lap as she did so. He caught her, and embraced her tightly for a moment, her small form feeling fragile in his arms, although he knew that fragile was the last thing Eleanor Mowbray was.
"Oh, Arch, I'm so glad you're here," she pulled away from him and looked up at him with those fierce blue eyes. She had been crying hard, he could see by the redness of her eyes, but they were dry now.
"Did Mrs Harman tell you where I was?" she went on.
He smiled wearily.
"No. She didn't need to. I know where to find you when you're upset, Eleanor."
She tried to smile, and couldn't quite manage it.
"Oh, Archy, I don't know what to do. Aunt Catherine..."
He threw himself down in one of the other chairs and looked miserably up at her.
"She's not doing well, is she?"
Eleanor shook her head.
"Would you expect her to?"
"What happened, Eleanor?" he asked abruptly, "What's going on?"
She sank back into her chair, sprawling backwards in a most unladylike attitude.
"You know... about Tom, I suppose?" Her voice was casual but brittle, and he wasn't fooled.
"I know that the bloody fool murdered somebody," he said ruthlessly, "At least, that's what's being said. Have you seen him?"
"Yes," her voice was barely audible, her face gone as white as chalk, and he regretted his plain words. Eleanor was tougher and more resilient than any other girl he had ever met, but she was still only seventeen, he had to remember.
"I saw him, but I didn't speak to him," she rallied herself, "Your father... was angry..."
"I'm not surprised," Archy put in grimly.
She looked at him.
"Archy... what'll happen if he's caught? Would they hang him?"
"Depends who caught him. Where is he? What did my father say?"
She shook her head.
"I don't know.... not all of it. But he's gone, Archy. Your father threw him out. Disowned him," her voice was steady now, but he could see the wretchedness in her face.
The news was what he had expected, but it was a shock, just the same.
"He gave him money," Eleanor went on, her voice dropping, "Money enough to leave the country. He told him to get away and never come back. I heard that bit. He... he was shouting. He said he never wanted to set eyes on Tom again," she closed her eyes as her voice quivered, "He called him... terrible things, Arch. Oh, Tom!" And her head went down on the arm of the chair, her shoulders shaking.
Archy stared at her, trying to steady his own breathing for a moment. Tom. His brother. The brother he had admired and followed and quarrelled with and loved with all his heart. He remembered carefree days when they had been younger; Tom's laughing face, alight with some plan. Happy and vibrant and so, so strong.
How the hell had it ended up like this?