Authors: Nina Coombs Pykare
Tags: #regency Gothic Romance
"He hardly speaks to me," the earl muttered miserably. "He's so wild, so distant. He needs your help."
He turned to me, grasping me by the shoulders, gazing at me in a kind of desperation. "Hester, please, swear to me by all that you hold holy that you will love my son, stand by him—"
I thought he was worrying again about my leaving them, or about my loving our child more than Ned. So I looked directly into his eyes and said, "I swear to you by all that I hold holy that I will never desert Ned, that he will be to me a son,
son." It was an honest promise, honestly given, but I had no idea what the keeping of it would cost me.
My husband released my shoulders, his features relaxing a little.
As the carriage made its way up the winding road, night fell. The darkness prevented me from seeing the stunted oaks through which we were passing, but the gloom seemed to press in through the windows, filling the carriage with a despair almost tangible.
And then the carriage stopped. "We are home," the earl said.
He handed me down, and as we made our way up the walk toward the door the moon came from behind a cloud. Its light should have been welcome, but it only added to the eeriness of the scene, causing the oaks to throw threatening, contorted shadows around us like so many elusive demons let loose from the nether regions.
I shivered and drew closer to my husband. I had expected trouble, but I had expected it to come in the shape of frogs, snakes, spiders—a boy's idea of frightening—not this aura of impending disaster, of unseen evil hovering at my heels.
As we approached it, the great oaken door swung slowly open. The interior of the castle was dark and for a moment it seemed that the door had opened of its own volition. But I had not weathered so many boys' tricks for nothing. I had strong nerves, and my steps did not falter nor my hand tremble upon my husband's arm.
And then as we drew closer, I saw that the door had not opened by itself. A butler stood there in the gloom, dressed entirely in black. A gaunt man, his features pinched, his face expressionless, he moved like one just raised from the dead.
"Welcome home, milord," he said in tones that conveyed no feeling whatsoever.
My husband didn't seem to notice. We stepped inside, and as the great door started to swing shut behind us I had to battle a strong urge to break and run, back out into the threatening moonlight, down between the twisted gnarled oaks, as fast as I possibly could, all the way back to London.
Of course, I did not run. I stood still and looked around me. The interior of the castle was even grimmer than the outside. Candelabras were stationed along the walls, but their flickering light was feeble and the place dismally chill. True, a fire burned on the great hearth, but it was a small fire and the entry hall was huge—no doubt knights in armor had once ridden their chargers up the hill and in through the front door. To tell the truth, I would have welcomed a knight, even on horseback—anything to relieve the awful melancholy of the place.
Then I straightened my shoulders and reminded myself that God had answered my unspoken prayers, that I now had a definite purpose—I was meant to bring love to this dismal place, love and a new little life. I would remember that, I told myself, the new little life.
"So," said my husband, his dark gaze searching mine. "What do you think?"
Mama had taught me that if I couldn't say something nice I should say nothing at all, but that would not serve here with my husband so clearly awaiting a reply.
I moistened my dry lips. "It is ... it is very big," I ventured.
And my husband broke into laughter and hugged me to him.
It was a very confusing moment for me as a riot of unexpected feeling erupted inside me. Five years had dimmed the memory of the sensations I had experienced in caring for Charles, but I did not recall ever feeling such unexpected warmth or the strange desire I now had to burrow into my husband's waistcoat and beg to stay close to him.
Of course he released me and of course I did not beg to be held close again, but the experience heartened me. Since I did not find being near my husband upsetting, nay, found it very pleasant, the begetting of our child should come more easily.
All of this passed through my mind quite quickly, while the earl's laughter still rang through the great hall.
Then out of the darkness came a quavering voice, which, in spite of its feebleness, carried sharp condemnation. "Such levity is unseemly," it said. "Your father will not like it."
I started and looked up at the earl. "You said—"
"I said my father is dead," he replied sternly. "And he is. Cousin Julia, quit lurking about in the shadows and come meet my new wife."
"The year of mourning is not up," Cousin Julia said querulously. "You should not be marrying."
The earl slipped an arm around my waist and I admit to relishing its warmth. "The boy needs a mother," he said. "Hester will be good for him."
The words were about the boy and yet underlying them I seemed to hear something else, an unspoken plea—and I remembered him saying so seriously to me that he, too, needed love and affection. And in that moment I wanted to give them to him. Smiling, I leaned a little closer into his warmth and strength. "Good evening. Cousin Julia," I said to the vague shape just emerging from the shadows. "How kind of you to come to visit."
Because I was close to him, the length of my side against his, I felt the slight stiffening of the earl's body. "Cousin Julia lives with us," he said, his voice devoid of emotion.
I fixed a smile on my face, reminding myself that the castle was the earl's; he was its lord and had the right to provide homes for any relatives he chose, even this old woman who, now that I could see her, looked as though her principal occupation in life was stuffing herself with anything edible.
Cousin Julia's bright blue eyes gazed at me above cheeks that swelled out like two great rounds of unbaked bread and looked about as puffy. "You're the new wife," she said, nodding sagely. 'The earl said you were coming."
I turned to my husband. "How could you say that? You didn't know I would accept."
"Not him," Cousin Julia said in disgust, her face wrinkling up so that her eyes all but disappeared. "His father."
"But—" I was thoroughly bewildered. Your father is dead."
The earl nodded gravely, but Cousin Julia ignored me. "Just last night," she continued in that quavering voice that contrasted so oddly with her bulk, "your father was telling me—"
A violent fit of trembling overtook me. What kind of woman was this who thought she could speak with the dead?
My husband drew me closer still. "You are chilled," he said. "Come nearer the fire. Hillyer, bring us some hot tea—and something to eat with it."
The butler disappeared into the gloom and the earl led me toward the hearth and several great chairs grouped around it. The fire's warmth was welcome but it did not reach far enough into the great damp room to do anyone much good.
"I believe I'll have a spot of tea myself," Cousin Julia said and plopped herself down on one of the chairs. In an effort to bring myself back to my usual sane sensibility I set myself to making an inventory of her person. She did not look like a madwoman, but neither did she look like a lady. She was short, perhaps five feet, no more, and very round. She wore a gown of some ugly shade of yellowish-green—in the firelight it was difficult to tell its exact color, though it was easy enough to see that the gown should have been larger. Her hair she had powdered and piled high on her head in an elaborate style much favored in the previous century. Evidently no one had told her that ladies no longer wore wigs or the enormous panniers that made her look as round as she was high.
My husband drew a chair closer to the fire for me and, feeling quite weary, I settled into it gratefully, clutching my cloak tighter around me.
Cousin Julia peered at me from her little eyes. "If someone you love is dead," she said, as calmly as she might have mentioned it was raining outside,
can reach them for you."
"Reach?" My mind refused to consider this possibility, and yet my heart cried for Jeremy!
The earl put another chair beside mine and sank into it. "Cousin Julia has lately been studying the spiritualists," he explained. "They believe that the spirits of the dead may be contacted. By some people at least." His tone, too, was conversational, as though he thought such chicanery actually possible.
"But—" I began.
"However," he went on smoothly, "should you choose to let
dead rest in peace, she will respect your wishes. Will you not. Cousin Julia?"
His voice did not change, did not lose its conversational tone, yet the threat was there, not to be ignored.
Cousin Julia heard it and nodded glumly. "Yes, yes. But it really is a great opportunity, my dear. The dead are so enlightened. They can tell us much, divulge such knowledge."
"Knowledge?" A deep voice came booming out of the darkness. "The best knowledge comes from old Lucifer, Beelzebub himself. Just wait till I call him up! Then we can know anything we want!"
The great hall was quiet for the space of some seconds and I considered the possibility that I had arrived not at a castle but at a madhouse. Then a little man walked out into the firelight. He was about the same height as Cousin Julia, but that was the only resemblance between them. Where Cousin Julia was round, this man was thin, thin as a sapling. It would take six of him to make a Cousin Julia.
And while she was dressed in the fashion of some forgotten court, his clothes were of no particular time or style. What I could see of them, that is, under what appeared to be a heavy layer of dust.
He looked, indeed, as though he'd absentmindedly put on whatever items came first to his hand. His drab breeches were old and shabby, sagging at the knees and waist; his stockings were drooping. His bottle-green jacket was threadbare to the point of frayed elbows and missing buttons. His shirt more closely approached grey than white and to this was added a waistcoat of the most garish puce, shot through with threads of silver and gold that hung here and there in frayed strands. All in all, he was an incredible sight.
And then he spoke—and in my nervous anxiety I almost burst into hysterical laughter. For this little man, who seemed to have hardly the frame to support his shabby clothing, had a voice that boomed through the huge entry hall, a voice deep and sonorous. "So, Edward," he said, "you return successful."
My husband nodded. "Yes, Uncle Phillip. I was successful. Hester has become my wife."
"Good, good." Uncle Phillip crossed to me, tripping over his ill-fitting carpet slippers and almost falling at my feet. He righted himself just in time, took my hand in his, and pumped it with much more power than one would expect from such a wizened-looking man. "This place needs a woman's touch," he said heartily before he took the last empty chair. "Glad to have you here."
I inferred from the hard look Cousin Julia sent him that he had been taking a gibe at her, but I had little time for such speculations. In spite of this, the first even half-genuine welcome that I had received in my new home, I was feeling quite put out with my new husband.
I turned to him. "Uncle Phillip lives with us, too?" I asked, and I felt I might be forgiven for the touch of asperity that crept into my voice.
My husband looked a little surprised. Did he think I would
a castle full of relatives? "Yes," he said, his tone soothing. "Uncle Phillip is my father's brother."
"I see," I replied. And then I decided it was time to ask yet another question, one I should perhaps have asked before I ever consented to come to this place. "And who else lives with us?" I asked with some acerbity.
Uncle Phillip laughed, a deep booming sound that fit his voice but not his person. "Should have told her everything, my boy. Don't treat her like your father would have. New brides are inclined to be touchy, you know." And Uncle Phillip winked at me.
I managed to smile back at him. At least he was friendly. But what had he meant talking so familiarly about the devil? Still, Uncle Phillip seemed more eccentric than evil; perhaps he was just amusing himself at my expense.
My husband had not answered me and I turned in my chair again to give him another questioning look.
He merely shrugged. "I have a younger brother, Robert. Sometimes he stays here—temporarily."
Uncle Phillip chuckled. "Temporarily
means till Robert's quarterly allowance comes due again and he can go back to London and the high life he enjoys."
The earl didn't look embarrassed at Uncle Phillip's forthright comments. "My uncle is right. But Robert should give you no problems." A strange expression crossed his face. "That is, if you know enough to disregard his womanizing ways."
From the look on my husband's face, he found his brother's rakish behavior annoying in the extreme.
"So," I said with a sigh of resignation, "that comprises the entire household?"
The earl's nod of agreement was interrupted by Cousin Julia's cackling chuckle. Both he and I turned to her with surprise. "Now what?" the earl asked angrily. My husband had a temper, I thought—a temper rather too easily aroused.
Cousin Julia smirked, there was no other word for it, her eyes almost disappearing into her fat cheeks. "Not quite all. They came yesterday."
"They? Who are they?" the earl demanded with scant patience. "My God, woman, enough!" He leaped to his feet and strode to her chair, towering over her. "Who did my brother bring home this time? If it's some village girl—"
"The twins," Uncle Phillip interrupted. "And it wasn't Robert brought them, it was their mother's brother."
"Why?" the earl snapped. "They have their money. For these seven years."
Cousin Julia tittered, setting my nerves on edge even more. "Of course," she said, "but now they are to live in the castle."
"Here!" The earl's face darkened. 'That is impossible."