?Missus calls,? he said, stating the obvious by way of explanation, as though he felt the need to justify his haste.
I nodded. ?Would you like me to come with?? The bell sounded again, making us both jump.
Withers shook his head. ?Back to bed, little master. You?ve not slept enough.? With that, he left the bedroom, closing the door behind him, and leaving me to my thoughts.
I closed my eyes and attempted to sleep once more, but I could not. I was far too curious. During the course of the seven years, since my infancy, that I had spent in the household of Lady Sara Sebring, I had never known her to be so inconsiderate of her domestic staff as to arouse them from their slumbers at such an ungodly hour of the morning. She was invariably cold, especially to me, but never rude. On the occasions when she rose early, she attended to her own needs, making her own breakfast, running her own bath, selecting her own apparel until the staff had arisen. I could not imagine what the cause of her deviation from habit could be.
I waited, restlessly, for the return of Withers, but when he had not come back by six o?clock I arose myself, donned my dressing-gown, and stepped out in the direction of my own bedroom.
My bedroom was on the second floor, up a graceful winding staircase, third door on the right. It was the nursery in which Lady Sara?s two children, the fancifully christened Minerva and Adonis, had resided, and in which the late Lord Sebastian Sebring and his predecessors had spent their childhoods. I used it only as a bedroom, however, spending most of my time downstairs in the company of the male servants, of whom Withers the butler and Spencer the footman were my closest associates. During the nights when my sleep was disturbed, such as the night preceding this particular morning, I was in the habit of slipping down to Withers in my pajamas and dressing-gown to join him in bed. Withers? was a phlegmatic and soothing character, and I would soon drift off to sleep as we talked quietly late into the night.
Lady Sara?s room was four doors down the hall from mine, and I could not resist the temptation to walk a little further down and listen intently to the conversation within. What I heard startled me not a little.
Lady Sara?s sobs rose fitfully, interspersed with the gentle ministrations of Withers. Although I could not at first divine the cause of her distress, I immediately understood that she had called Withers not for his services but for the comfort he provided.
?He?s coming back,? Lady Sara moaned. ?What am I to do, Withers??
?You want my advice, madam??
?Oh yes, please. I have no one else to advise me. There is no one else who knows, but you and me?and of course Minerva and?him.? She said the last word with a rush of venom that was as foreign to her nature as anything I had ever heard. She recommenced her sobbing, and Withers continued his soothing attentions.
I began to retreat to my room, my curiosity by no means satisfied, when I heard an exclamation from Lady Sara that stopped me in my tracks.
?Hilary!? she shrieked. I froze at the sound of my name. I began to panic. How, I wondered, could she know I was here? Then she continued, ?what if he learns the truth? He mustn?t, Withers, he mustn?t. It would ruin him. It would ruin us all.? And she fell again to wordless sobbing.
Frightened, I tip-toed back to my room, opened and shut the door quietly, and sat on my bed. I could not hear, from that position, any more of the bewildering conversation between Lady Sara and the butler.
I did not dress, too afraid to make a sound, too preoccupied to do ought but think about the exchange I had overheard.
The main source of my confusion lay in the fact that, as far as I knew, I was not in any way connected with, well, anything. As an infant, I had been found abandoned and nameless by Lady Sara one morning as she went out walking on the moors during a visit with some friends of hers in Wales. At that time, Lady Sara?s elder child, Adonis, had just joined the navy, and had left for India, her younger child, Minerva, had left for boarding school, and her ailing husband, Sebastian, had passed away. She was lonely in the once-lively ancestral home of the Sebrings?, and was therefore eager to take in a new charge. I regarded her with much esteem, but little affection; she, in turn, was generous but distant. Unlike many peers of her time, she was unopposed to intimacy with the domestic staff, and in fact encouraged my relationship with Withers. She also allowed me to dine with her, explaining that her loneliness compelled her to forego custom. I did not in the least mind. She would correct my table manners, instruct me in the use of silver-ware, and criticize my posture, but she encouraged my childish prattling and ceaseless questions, although she gave rather vague answers to questions regarding her husband and children, and she absolutely barred questions about my origins. ?I don?t know,? was her invariable reply. ?I found you, Hilary, and named you. Are you not happy? Are you dissatisfied here?? To which I would always respond, of course, no, and I would go to her and kiss her cheek, thus dispelling the tears that began to form in the corner of her eye at such questions.
You will therefore understand, I think, my inability to fathom how I could be at all concerned with the affairs of Lady Sebring.
I had been sitting thoughtfully on my bed for above a half-hour, when I heard movement down the hall alerting me that Withers had left Lady Sara?s bedchamber. I expected him to pass my door and head straight for his quarters below stairs, and was therefore startled when he entered my room without so much as a knock.
His expression was grim and set, and he emanated a cold anger I had never seen in him. He seized me by the upper arm, and, lifting me roughly, carried me out of the room and down the stairs. Withers did not speak, and I dared not say a word, until we were out in the garden, on a path lined on both sides by high rose bushes. It was here that he set me down, and, without warning, slapped me hard across the face. I staggered back, hurt and angry, but he grabbed my arms firmly and lowered his face to mine.
?How much did you hear?? he hissed urgently. ?How long did you listen??
?Nothing,? I replied, almost truthfully.
Withers shook me, hard. ?Try again,? he snarled.
I stammered out all the little that I had heard, and, to my great relief, he relaxed his grip on my arm. The morning had dawned by then, and the air was already warm. I removed my dressing-gown, and Withers graciously carried it for me as we walked together in silence along the rose lane back towards the mansion. The butler was his old self again, save for a rather strained expression, as though he had been over-exerted of late. I was still rattled, and it came as a relief that, when Withers at last spoke, he spoke gently.
?Hilary, Lady Sara and I, were as you know, talking about you. She has decided that it would be best?? his voice trailed off, as though he were uncertain how to word the rest of his message. ?She has decided,? he continued, slowly, ?that you would be better off going to school. It isn?t right, she thinks, that you should be deprived of the society of other children.?
He paused again, expecting a response, one which was not forthcoming. It occurred to me, of a sudden, that my benefactress was aware of my eavesdropping, and had decided to send me away out of disgust.
?Lady Sara wishes you to take breakfast with her today,? Withers said at last. I nodded, but gave no verbal reply. ?I suggest? he went on, gazing at me intently, ?that you return to your bedroom straight away and dress yourself.? I nodded again. We had reached Sebring Mansion, and, as Withers and I parted company, he for below the stairs and I for above them, he said, ?Lady Sara is unaware that you?overheard our conversation this morning. I alone heard the sound of your footsteps outside the door. If I were you, Hilary, I would not mention it to her.? And with that he was gone, leaving me to my misery and my dressing.
When I appeared at breakfast a quarter-hour later, Lady Sara sat straight as a ramrod, per usual, but there was something pained about her expression that belied her self-control. Even to my young eyes, she seemed as one on the verge of emotional upheaval. I had heard her sobbing in her room several times before, when I was on the way to my own quarters, but she had always been, as far as I knew, alone, and she never seemed much worse for the wear afterwards.
Withers waited upon us largely in silence, and, once we were served, he retreated to the kitchen, ready to be summoned once the meal was concluded. Only then did Lady Sara begin to speak.
?Well, Hilary,? she said, ?I trust Withers has told you the news??
?Yes, aunt? I replied, for it was thus that I was wont to address her.
?I am writing today to the headmaster at Harrow,? she continued. ?My husband and his father and grandfather all attended there. They remembered it fondly. I would like very much for you to go there as well. You will be among other boys your age, which I think will do you a world of good.?
I nodded, still unhappy.
?I don?t want you to think, my dear, that I am at all unhappy with you? she continued. ?I have made this decision for your own good.?
I at last spoke. ?But, aunt, I don?t want to go away. I don?t want to leave you.? My voice was low, but whiney and childish even to my ears.
Lady Sara reached over and took my hand. Her touch was gentle, but she spoke firmly. ?I have made my decision, Hilary. No protest from you will do ought but anger me.? and with that, the conversation was closed and the meal concluded. Lady Sara rang for Withers, and repaired to her study to write immediately to Harrow requesting my enrollment. I, in turn, went miserably to my room, to sit and sulk until tea-time.
It was May, then. The earliest that Harrow would have a vacancy, the headmaster informed Lady Sara, would be the fall term. My summer was miserably spent bidding farewell to Sebring Mansion and its environs. The rose lanes and gardens had never looked so beautiful, nor smelled so sweet, as they did during that, my seventh, summer. Seven years, I thought, was far too short a time to spend in such a place.
I feared also that my aging benefactress might pass away while I was gone, which was in itself a terribly sad thought, but I feared also for myself; I had never met, nor so much as seen an image, painted, photographed, or otherwise, of either Minerva or Adonis Sebring. Should their mother die, her children would have no reason to give me harbor in their home. This thought, that I might never be allowed to return, made my sleep fitful, my dreams unhappy, and my society gloomy. I am certain, therefore, that no-one at the mansion was terribly unhappy to see me go. Despite my bad dreams, I had not returned to Withers? chambers, nor indeed gone at all below stairs since that fateful day. I hoped to make my departure easier by weaning myself slowing away from the things and people whom I loved. I avoided the kind old matronly cook, who sometimes gave me little sweets when I went to visit her in the kitchen. I also stayed away from Spenser the footman, a man who was almost as dear to me as Withers himself. The hardest parting, indeed, was that from Withers. He seldom appeared above stairs except at meal-times, during which there was no opportunity between us for intimate conversation. I resolved at last, that the first thing I would do upon arriving at Harrow would be to write to Withers and thus establish with him a regular correspondence.
My journey to Harrow proved, in retrospect, to be fairly uneventful, but at the age of seven, riding a train for the first time, it felt like a great adventure. Lady Sara and Spenser saw me off at the station, and I waved to them merrily from the window as the train rolled away. Lady Sara was teary-eyed, and called after me to write soon. Spenser wished me good luck as he waved his hat.
I was well-received at Harrow. I did not realize until my arrival how lonely I had been for other boys. I made friends easily and well, and, because I was far less intent on mischief than most boys my age, I got along fairly well with the schoolmasters. The letters that I sent home were few but happy, and I had all but forgotten the sad day that resulted in Lady Sara sending me away to school.
Withers wrote often, as did Lady Sara. Those of the butler were far more entertaining. They detailed all the most recent humorous doings as Sebring Mansion, and almost made up for the several-months breach in our otherwise close friendship. Lady Sara?s were stilted and instructional, reminding me to behave myself in class, to eat well, and to choose my friends wisely. Neither of my correspondents said anything of particular note, until one day in early November, when I received an epistle from Withers informing me that Lady Minerva Sebring, who had only just left school, was coming to stay at Sebring Mansion for a week. I took the opportunity to write to my benefactress, requesting that I come home from school during that time in order that I might meet her daughter. To my great disappointment, Lady Sara replied in the negative. She explained that allowing me to miss school would teach me bad habits.
I looked up from the letter in disgust, and said aloud, ?Stercus.? It was the strongest curse I knew, and one which one of the monitors had taught me for a lark.
Beckham, one of my roommates, who was present at the time, looked up in surprise. I do not know if he knew that word in particular, but association with boys our age had taught him to recognize the tone in which I said it.
?What?s the matter, Sebring? You sound dreadfully put off.?
?I am put off, Beck. It?s like this: my aunt?s bringing someone to stay next week, see? Someone I want to meet. Only I can?t because auntie says I mustn?t miss school, otherwise I?ll become a?a?? I searched my limited vocabulary for an appropriate epithet, ?a lout. It?s a frightful disappointment.?
?I?ll bet.? Beckham sat in silent contemplation for a few moments before saying slowly, ?what if you just go without telling her first? The old lady won?t jolly well send you away. Not without dinner at least. Take the last train?then she?ll at least have to let you spend the night.?
I thought it was a brilliant scheme. Several of our friends joined in as well to lend me money for a train ticket. I also needed money to persuade Wilde, a senior boy, whose handwriting was far superior to that of us junior boys, to write and sign a note from my benefactress to the headmaster requesting my presence all the next week. Wilde did a rather professional job, I thought. He even forged Lady Sara?s signature from one of the copious letters she had written me throughout that term.
It was with a light heart and a mounting sense of adventure that I looked forward to Monday next, which night I was to take the train home. I did not bring a bag, since I would have to walk five miles to Sebring Mansion from the train station, and I preferred to be unencumbered. I certainly had enough clothes at home to last me throughout the week, as I wore only the uniform while I was at Harrow.
The school was generous to provide me with a ride to the station. The footman accompanied me to the turnstile, where he gruffly wished me goodnight and abruptly turned back, leaving me alone, and, for the first time, a bit trepidatious about my plan. I considered calling the man back, but then I thought about the questions the teachers would ask, about the jibes from my friends, and I resolutely purchased my ticket, resolutely walked to the platform, and resolutely sat to wait for an hour for the last train.
When at last it came, I was bored and restless, and wished that I had brought a book. The journey itself was just as dull, and I soon fell asleep. It was only a two-and-a-half hour ride, from 6:03 to 8:36, but it seemed like an eternity to my young mind. When I at last alighted on the station platform in my hometown, I wished dearly that I had thought to bring money to hire a carriage for the ride to Sebring House. I knew that whenever Lady Sara had company, dinner was served promptly at ten-o?clock. I had always wondered at the lateness of the hour, but I was now thankful for it, as it gave me almost an hour-and-a-half to complete the last stage of my weary and clandestine journey.
That November night was cold and windy, and snow lay on the ground and fell softly from the sky. I shivered, and tightened my woolen coat around my small body. Like most small boys, I objected to hats and scarves, but now I wished that I had heeded the warnings of my elders. I was bedraggled, fatigued, and very hungry by the time I reached Sebring Mansion five miles and two hours later. The front door was unlocked, and I staggered in, heading straight for the dining-room. I knew that dinner was already in progress, for my eye had caught the hall-clock, alerting me that it was already half-past ten.
Oh, the scene that my appearance in that room occasioned! In astonishment, Withers dropped the platter from which he was serving right onto the lap of pretty, well-dressed young woman who could only be Lady Minerva. She rose, screaming as the hot food ruined her pretty dress and burned her skin. Worst of all, my benefactress fell into a dead faint.
Lady Minerva flew to Lady Sara?s side. ?Mama!? she cried, ?mama, what is it?? When the older woman did not respond, the younger shot a questioning look first at me (poor little fellow that I was, standing awkward and aghast in the doorway!) and then at Withers.
Withers looked as though he were about to choke. ?Yes, miss,? he said at last, ?that is Master Hilary.? Lady Minerva rose from her mother?s side with a sudden cry, and moved in my direction, with such a passion in her eyes that I stumbled backward, out of the room. Withers seized her arm gently, and added, ?I suggest, miss, that you go to your room to change your frock. I will take care of her ladyship and Master Hilary.? Lady Minerva now looked as if she too were about to choke, but she nodded abruptly, and swept out of the room. She gave me such a searching, sad glance as she passed me that I feared I might start to cry.
Withers, meanwhile, rang the bell for Perkins, the maid. When Perkins arrived, she started in surprise at my presence and appearance. I knew she would fain have attended to me first, given my ghastly appearance, but Withers instead instructed her to fetch the smelling-salts. When the maid had left, Withers turned to me. His expression was a mixture of anger and horror, but when he spoke, he said only, ?go to the nursery and change your clothes.?
I obeyed quickly, and ran up the stairs to my bedroom and changed quickly. I then began to make the trek back down to the dining-room, when I was hit with a disturbing realization: I was no longer welcome in my home. Withers had not told me to return after dressing, he told me only to change. And so, miserable, hungry, confused, and alone, I sat on my familiar bed until?hopefully?I should be summoned. I heard footsteps in the hall, moving towards the stairs. They stopped for several seconds outside my door, as though their owner, who I had no difficulty in identifying as Lady Minerva, wanted to knock, but the footsteps soon resumed, and I heard the young woman going down the stairs.
I knew so very little about Lady Minerva. I had been told by Withers and Lady Sara that she was eleven years my senior, and had left for boarding school just before I was found. Lady Minerva had apparently never once returned home from school during the entirety of her career there?until now. I was disappointed that I had not had an opportunity to observe her face at leisure. It was a pretty face, elegant and oval, with a light pink complexion, piercing green eyes, and full, red lips. She had a form, also, that even I, young as I was, could admire. She looked like just the sort of girl, at the tender age of eighteen, for whom men would fight battles, sing songs, or go mad.
At long last, I heard footsteps return, two this time. I could tell from their voices that it was my benefactress and her daughter coming up to bed.
?Perhaps it would be best if I leave tomorrow? the daughter was saying, but her mother cut her off abruptly.
?Nonsense,? Lady Sara scoffed. ?There?s no reason why Hilary shouldn?t see you. He knows you exist.?
?I know, mama, I know,? Lady Minerva replied, ?but it?s so painful for me, mama, I?I can?t.?
?Nonsense,? said Lady Sara again, but they said no more that I could hear and they did not stop beside my door. I heard only their muffled goodnights and the opening and shutting of doors, and then all was silent.
It was but a half-hour later, as I lay trying to sleep, that I heard footsteps coming up the stairs, and down the hall, and then a soft knock on my door. I jumped up eagerly to answer it, and was instantly swept into Withers? tight embrace. I sobbed quietly into his shoulder, whereupon he produced a much-needed handkerchief, took my hand gently and led me downstairs to his apartment. He had set a tray of hot food on the table beside his bed, and I set into it with relish. I ate in silence while Withers sat next to me, brooding, on the bed. As soon as I had finished, however, and pushed away the tray, he pulled me onto his knee, holding me with such affection that I could no longer withhold my ignoble scheme, and I told him all, except for divulging the names of those other fellows who had had a hand in the plot.
When I reached the part about how we paid Wilde to forge the note, Withers shook slightly, as though he might laugh, but he restrained himself.
At the conclusion of my tale, Withers did not lecture me?such was not his nature?but gave me instead a stern look and put me promptly to bed in his own. I had changed into ordinary clothes, not pajamas, but I was at that point so exhausted that I was instantly asleep.
To my immense relief, my benefactress did not scold me at breakfast the next morning. She rose to kiss me as I, still fatigued from my night?s journey, entered the dining-room.
?Hilary, my dear, what a surprise you gave us last night. Take a seat at the table, and Minerva will be with us shortly.?
We sat, and I fiddled moodily with my fork while Lady Sara read the mail which Withers had brought in on a silver plate. We were thus engaged when Lady Minerva entered, much more composed than I had seen her the night before.
?Good-morning, mama,? she said at first, as she kissed the older woman?s forehead.
?Good-morning, dear,? the mother replied, returning the gesture fondly. ?And this is Hilary, who has returned for the week from Harrow. I don?t believe you?ve met.? As I exchanged awkward but polite pleasantries with Lady Minerva, the full impact of Lady Sebring?s words sank in and took hold. Returned for the week. She knew my plan; Withers must have spoken with her before I arrived at breakfast! Furthermore, she was going to allow it! I soon became excited, and in my childish eagerness, accidentally upset the sugar-bowl upon the table and the contents of my entire plate upon my lap, the latter much to the amusement of the women and Withers. I retreated in shame to change my clothes yet again, per Lady Sara?s instructions, while Withers, chuckling, cleared up the mess.
I became rather well acquainted with Lady Minerva during our one-week stay at Sebring House. We shared a fondness for the garden, and we walked together, sometimes in silence, but mostly talking, down the winding paths, and through the rose-lanes. The gardens were and lanes were unimpressive at that time of year. They were covered over with several inches of snow, but my companion and I took the same joy from them as we would if they had been in full bloom. I prattled and skipped, picking up pretty rocks and occasional dead leaves, and, on one or two occasions, a live beetle that had thus far survived the harsh elements. Lady Minerva knelt and examined each and every one of my specimens, even?sweet, dear creature that she was?laughing with delight at one particularly unusual species of wriggling grub.
Lady Minerva planned to leave that Saturday, after a visit of only five days. By Friday, I had secured her promise that she would have Christmas at Sebring House, so that I might see her during that holiday. Also, to my delight, we exchanged addresses.
Saturday dawned bright and clear, and Lady Sara, Spencer the footman, and I left immediately after breakfast for the train station with Lady Minerva. I was sad to say goodbye, but I was already looking forward to the Christmas holiday, when she and I would be re-united. But Lady Minerva was not so complacent. She sat silently in the carriage all the way to the station, and then, as we were saying our final goodbyes, Lady Minerva abandoned her composure altogether, and she wept deeply as she embraced first me, and then her mother. When she boarded the train, she did not lean out the window and wave, as is the custom with train passengers, but instead disappeared into the train, and did not reappear again before the train was out of sight. We waved, just the same, but morosely, knowing as we did so that she did not see it.
We rode home in silence, but, just as we reached the door and I began to turn back to walk towards one of the rose-lanes, my benefactress touched me lightly on the arm.
?Hilary, I must speak with you,? she said grimly. And with that, I reluctantly abandoned my walk in the garden and accompanied Lady Sara to her study.
It was a private room for private matters, such as finance and sacking and employing domestic help. And, as I found out that day, for the private matter of reprimanding a wayward charge. I had never, up until then, been at all devious or mischievous. I never had exhibited any sort of faulty behavior that could not be handled with a gentle scolding or a simple reminder, nothing that could possibly embarrass a child if given in public or in front of the hired help.
This occasion was different, however. Lady Sara gave me to understand that she had not wanted to lessen the pleasure of her daughter and me during Lady Minerva?s visit, and had therefore put off until now what I now realized had been inevitable.
Lady Sara had already written to Harrow?s headmaster, informing him of my ?base deceit? as she called it, and his reply, which she brandished in my face, had assured her that I would be, as the headmaster said, ?properly handled,? a phrase which unsurprisingly failed to endear me to its writer.
Lady Sara alternately sat and stood behind a large oak desk, while I stood shifting uncomfortably in front of it. In retrospect, I realize that I was lucky to receive nothing more than a lecture, but I was devastated at the time. To be called a liar, and a sneak, to have his actions called base and to have his tears, when they came, called cowardly?and to hear all these harsh words from a person whom he has always loved and esteemed?, is quite a trial for a small child of seven to endure.
When at last she had concluded her tirade, Lady Sara sent me back to my room, wherein I was to be confined until Monday morning, when I was to take the first train to Harrow. I was not even permitted to leave the nursery for meals?food would be brought up to me on a tray.
Withers was my sole companion all the rest of that weekend, for it was he who brought my meals. He did not apologize for what I could not help but view as ratting, an ignoble deed, and I was therefore not first well-disposed towards him. I could not long resist, however, the temptation to share my sorrow with my old confidant, and the kind fellow positively cringed as I told him what exactly were the harsh words of my benefactress.
Withers said little when he came to visit with my repast, but instead listened with a sympathetic ear, as I conveyed to him my dread of what awaited me in the headmaster?s study once I returned to Harrow. That dear butler was my only source of comfort during so many such times in my life, for which I am eternally grateful to him.
I apologize to my reader for what may be viewed by him or her as a discrepancy in my tale, but you will please excuse me if I choose to pass over certain events that transpired once I returned to Harrow. They were unpleasant, even painful, and do pertain to this story. Perhaps you can guess?I say only that these events were predictable, and were what I had feared would happen all along.
I prefer instead to skip directly to the commencement of the Christmas holiday. With what joy I looked forward to my return to Sebring Mansion, to my reconciliation with my benefactress, with the renewal of my friendship with Lady Minerva! I had corresponded pleasantly with both these women and with Withers throughout the past month, but it was not quite as good as seeing them all in person.
I alighted from the train straight into the waiting arms of Lady Sara, closely followed by Lady Minerva, and, to my delight, Withers, whom my benefactress had allowed to accompany them, knowing as she did that he was an especial friend of mine. Then a handshake from dear old Spencer and we were off in the carriage heading for Sebring Mansion.
Lady Sara had long since forgiven my grave transgression of the past month, and, as if to compensate for it, was especially affectionate and attentive to me during the drive. Indeed, so much attention was lavished upon me from both the women in the carriage that, by the time we reached the halfway point, I felt almost stifled by it. I begged to be allowed to ride in the driver?s seat with Spencer and Withers. It was a particularly chilly December day, and my benefactress demurred, but her daughter and I persuaded her to let me go, and she soon relented. The carriage was stopped, I stepped out of the compartment and was easily lifted by Withers onto the driver?s seat, where I sat huddled in companionable silence between the two serving-men for the remainder of the journey.
Sebring Mansion was draughty in winter, and so the drawing-room fire was typically the main attraction for company. I was therefore surprised to arrive in the drawing-room only to discover that it was warm, comfortable, and empty. Where were the many guests that attended Lady Sara?s massive Christmas parties? I turned in some confusion to Withers, who had accompanied me thus far.
?No guests this year?? I asked blankly. There had never been such a year in all my memory. Withers merely sighed and shook his head. I saw that he was disappointed. The butler looked forward every year to the Christmas festivities, feverishly planning with Lady Sara the various attractions and diversions, planning with the cook the elaborate meals, and, finally, providing flawless service to the delighted guests.
But not, for some reason, this year. And the man wouldn?t divulge that reason. This new and frustrating secret was almost too much to be borne. It occurred to me that perhaps Lady Minerva?s arrival might be related to the abandonment of the usual festivities, but this conclusion was nonsensical: Lady Minerva was pretty and engaging, there being naught in her person or her manners to create a negative impression or to make her unsuitable for company. The greatest wonder was that Lady Sara was not more eager to show off her beautiful daughter to all her friends and acquaintances, especially since the young lady was about the right age to consider matrimony. Instead, Lady Minerva?s social circle consisted almost exclusively of the family in Wales with whom Lady Sara had been staying when she discovered me.
This family, I learned, were called The Whitmans. It consisted of two maiden aunts of advanced years, two aged parents, and three middle-aged daughters. Indeed, the father was the only male member of the family. Unless Lady Minerva took an interest in Tate, the cook, who was himself on the wrong side of fifty, then one must conclude that matrimony was not, at present, of any particular importance to the young lady. It made me sad to think of that beautiful young woman spending her youth in the moors with such people. It seemed a dreadful waste. What if she were never to meet a young man, and were destined for spinsterhood?
Hoping to save Lady Minerva from this unhappy fate, I at last poured out my concerns to her as she and I sat together in front of the drawing-room fire. I had at that age no idea that my concern?or at least the expression of it?was improper, but my companion did not correct me. She replied only with a light blush, a sad smile, and a change of subject. I pressed her again, more insistently this time, and only then did she inform me of my mistake.
?It is improper, Hilary, to question a lady as to the affairs of her heart,? she said simply, ?especially after she has declined to discuss it the first time.?
I became embarrassed and apologized quickly, but an uncomfortable and not entirely companionable silence followed, and I soon left to visit Spencer and Withers below stairs.
Once there, I of course exhibited a child?s innate indiscretion, and told all my concerns to the serving-men as we played cards in the kitchen, in full hearing of the rest of the staff. They both seemed vaguely amused, and Withers gently informed me that a woman?s heart should not be discussed in such a public place, and he insisted, almost as soon as I had begun, on a change of subject.
My Christmas holiday was very pleasant, sitting by the fire at night with Ladies Sara and Minerva, walking out in the snowy gardens during the day with Withers or Lady Minerva. It was peaceful and comforting until Christmas Eve, when, as we sat at dinner, we heard the front door open suddenly and slam shut. Withers, at a word from Lady Sara, went to investigate, and I was terrified moments later to hear sounds of a scuffle.
?Come no further,? said the grim, stern voice of Withers.
The reply was in the voice of a young man, a voice I did not recognize. ?Hilary is my son!? the voice said, ?and Minerva is my sister! I know they are here. I will not go without seeing them. I have come so far??
?And you will come no further,? repeated the butler, and the sound of a fight had begun.
My companions at table looked as terrified as I felt. Lady Minerva was white as a sheet; her eyes were wide and shining with tears. Lady Sara had hidden her face in her hands, and her shoulders shook, whether with fear or with sobs I could not tell.
?He has come back? Lady Minerva said simply, her voice filled with terror.
?Yes.? Again the man?s voice. We looked up slowly into the wild grey eyes and handsome but haggard face of the stranger. ?Yes,? he repeated, ?I have come back.? His eyes, which were hauntingly familiar to me, roved across the faces of the three of us seated at dinner, finally resting on that of his younger sister. ?Minnie,? he said, stepping towards her, ?it?s me. Remember me? All the fun we had as children? I just want it back, Minnie. Everything can be the same again, between us.? During this little speech, Lady Minerva had risen from her chair, putting it between herself and her brother.
?You should not have come, Addie,? she said softly. ?You are not welcome here.?
?This is my home,? Lord Sebring replied softly. ?The estate is entailed, my dear sister, as well you know. It has been mine since the death of our father. It is only the goodness of my heart that prevents me from sending you and my mother and that blighted Withers who lies bleeding on the front carpet out into the streets.?
?You?ll never have it, you scoundrel,? Lady Sara replied, her voice trembling. ?This house will never be yours. Try?just try to take it from me. You?ll find that no bailiff in this town will take your side against mine.?
Lord Sebring turned his familiar gray eyes upon me?I remembered suddenly his words in the hall. Hilary is my son. His eyes were my own. ?Tell me, boy,? he said, with sudden calm, stepping towards me, ?how much my good mother has told you about your parents. Precious little, eh? I think? and here he stopped in front of me, standing over me in a way that made me tremble like an aspen in a high wind, ?that it?s time you learned. Your mother, you know?? at that, Lady Sara rose with a dreadful cry.
?You shall have it, Adonis, curse you! Take it all. It is nothing to me. But go now.?
Lord Sebring did not go. Instead, he pulled out a chair at the table and sprawled comfortably in it, hooking his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets. ?No mother. I will stay. I will stay until I have in my hand every piece of paper I will need to become the lawful master of this estate.?
And thus he sat, while his mother, weeping softly, left to fetch the papers from her study. The cruel man turned his attentions back to his sister, saying to her soft, soothing words, which, if they had been spoken by a better man, might have provided her some solace. But the gentleness of the words themselves seemed perverted by the evil tongue that spoke them, so that they sounded almost like curses. At one point, Lord Sebring moved towards his sister as if to touch her hand, and she gasped in fear and cringed away from him.
I did not want to leave Lady Minerva alone with her terrible brother, but I feared every instant for the life of Withers, who, if I could take the word of Lord Sebring?of whom I refused to think as father?lay bleeding in the front hall. The instant Lady Sara returned with the papers, therefore, I left the room at a run so fast that I was out of breath when I reached the prone figure of Withers on the hall carpet.
According to the coroner?s report, the cut in Withers? throat was so deep that he had no chance of recovery. Even so, I cringe to this day to picture him lying alone, the life ebbing out of him, abandoned in his hour of dire need by the family which he had sacrificed his life to protect.
The most terrible aspect of the matter for me was the fact that nothing Lord Sebring had done all that night was unlawful. He had been attacked on his own property, and had defended himself. Then he merely requested property rights that had been his to begin with, to which he was entitled by birth.
After that dreadful night, Lady Sara had no desire to continue to reside in Sebring Mansion. Lord Sebring gave her exactly two weeks to move out, and, after Withers? funeral two days later, the joint forces of the domestic staff, Lady Minerva and myself assembled to help the dowager to move in with the Welsh family. Lady Sara took few belongings, merely half of her wardrobe, a painting of her husband?s portrait, and a photograph of Withers and me walking in one of the delightful gardens of Sebring Mansion.
You might imagine with what heavy heart I returned to Harrow after that holiday. I chose to remain at school for the Easter holiday, and the summer holiday. The day in March that Lady Sara had found me and which was celebrated as my birthday (no! foolish Hilary! The day on which I was in fact born. For I understood now that for my entire life, Lady Sara had lied about my origins) came and went two, three, four, five times without me once setting eyes on either my grandmother or my aunt?for it was thus that I had begun to think of the Ladies Sebring. Presents were sent to me every year for Christmas and for my birthday, most of which I traded with my school-chums for either whiskey or tobacco.
Spencer had joined my short list of correspondents. He was the only one of the domestics who neither gave notice nor was sacked upon Lord Sebring?s arrival at Sebring Mansion. He preferred instead to keep watch over the estate, in the interest of ?seeing that as little damage as possible is done by his lordship? as the old man wrote me in a letter. He performed this noble service for half the pay he received from my grandmother, but his financial burdens were few, and it was important to the poor blighter to protect the gardens once the gardener was gone, to keep the priceless tapestries clean once the old maid was gone.
The new staff seemed from Spencer?s accounts to be highly disreputable. They were not well-paid, which might account for their sloth. Despite Spencer?s best efforts, the rose-lanes began to wither and the gardens died. The beautiful tapestries were used as table-clothes by the riotous assemblage that ever accompanied Lord Sebring at his house.
My father proved to be, as a manor lord, an ungenerous debauch. He was universally disliked in the village for his constant leer and wild, hostile eye. He seemed, from Spencer?s account, to be killing himself as quickly as he could, with dink and loose women, a complete lack of exercise, and even poor cleansing. ?His lordship,? Spencer once wrote, ?has become a ripe old fellow indeed. They say in the village you can smell him a mile off.?
It should have been good news to me and to my aunt and grandmother that Lord Sebring was living unhealthily, but he was also digging himself deeper and deeper into debt. The vast fortune of the Sebrings? which had lasted through generations up until now, was being depleted by his lordship?s gambling debts: cards, horses, even football games. It appears that, in addition to the vices of lust and liquor, my father could not resist the lure of the wager. By the time I were to accede to the title of Lord Sebring, the estate?s debts would exceed its assets.
The greatest of all his evils was his aforementioned miserliness. The belongings that my grandmother did not take with her to Wales, including a good deal of expensive clothes, costly jewels, and priceless pottery, was sold to give her an independent income, for the Welsh family, though generous, was by no means wealthy, and could not be expected to support my grandmother and aunt. Nor did the two latter wish to be supported by their friends, and so they soon moved to a small cottage on the moors not far from the Whitmans.
Over the course of a few years, the income from the sale of my grandmother?s belongings became depleted. I had long since gotten a scholarship, and now attended Harrow largely on charity. Lady Minerva had sold most of her nice things as well, and neither woman had received so much as sixpence from his lordship.
At the age of sixteen, I had completed my course of study at Harrow. I was at that time on rather friendly terms with the headmaster. In regard to that event in my first year, Mr. Foxworthy?for such was his name, poor chap?had easily seen that, although I refused to rat out my friends, it was only because of their influence that I had done so daring and reckless a deed. The knowledge of my character that Foxworthy gained from my later years at Harrow further convinced him of my guileless nature, and as a senior boy I was made a monitor.
I had discussed my future with this good man, and we together reached the conclusion that I should choose a profession. I would have to support both myself and my aunt and grandmother, we knew, because my father would leave them to starve. Foxworthy had attended Cambridge, and had been a fellow there for good while. He recommended that I study for the bar, a proposition which I though sound.
When I wrote to my mother and grandmother about my plan, they responded with enthusiasm. My aunt, resolved to become a governess and so raise money for my tuition. It cut me to the quick to think of that gentle girl earning a living, but then I reminded myself that she was no longer such a girl, and that I too would soon be making a living.
I rarely returned home from Cambridge on holiday. My means were limited, for my aunt?s wages were small, and I did not wish to further deplete them by traveling. My grandmother, who was alone in the cottage on the moors, was persuaded by the Whitmans to reside with them once again. With no more rent to be paid, nor groceries to buy, Lady Sara lived fairly comfortably with her friends, much to my relief. It had pained me to think of her all alone in the house, and I wondered briefly if she might find some lost infant to care for and to keep her company in her old age.
When I at last joined the bar, I moved to London and set up a small practice. My flat was small but comfortable, and it was not long before I had settled comfortably into city life. My practice was soon good, if not thriving, and I could pay the rent for my flat and offices without going to too much trouble, and I could afford two meals a day. It was not at all a bad life for a young man.
My aunt had grown attached to the family for whom she worked, and she chose not to give up her profession even when I asked her to come live with me. My grandmother was comfortably settled with the Whitmans. All at last seemed well for our unhappy family.
We should have known that, with such a blackguard as Lord Sebring always in the background, no peace could last. And indeed, it did not.
Less than two years after I had established my London practice, Lady Minerva began to receive letters from her brother demanding money. She sent him as much as she could, even going so far as to borrow from her employer, but my father?s wants were insatiable. He had exhausted the renowned wealth of the Sebrings? and was refusing to economize accordingly. He used his sister?s money to speculate, but that higher form of gambling cost him more deeply than any other before it.
Though already in the pit of financial ruin, my father?s wealth of hatred was far from depleted. He came up to London and found me at my flat one night as I was dressing for bed.
I was startled by the knock. It was already eleven at night, and if I had not been busy with a pressing case that evening, I would have been in bed hours earlier. I quickly threw on my dressing-gown, and hurried to the door. My disgust at what I saw when I opened the door cannot be described. He had once been lean but powerful?he was now shrunken and weak. His once piercing eye was rheumy, and his nose was red from too much drink. I cringed as he stepped forward into the light, for I understood at last what Spencer had meant about his lordship killing himself with loose women. The old debauch?s visage was unmistakably pockmarked from syphilis.
Once I recovered my breath, I pointed to the still-open door. ?Get out.? There seemed no need for more words than that, but his lordship never was one to take a hint. He merely stepped farther into my flat. I seized him by the collar, hoping to throw him into the hall, lock the door, and then call for police out the window, but father twisted nimbly from my grasp and pulled a knife from his trousers-pocket.
?Close the door? he rasped. I helplessly obeyed. I proceeded to follow his orders in pouring for him a glass of cheap wine that I kept for celebratory purposes, leading him to the sofa in the sitting-room where he could sit, and removing his boots?all this done with his knife pressed so hard against my throat that the skin was pierced and blood flowed out, staining the front of my dressing-gown.
His lordship could not decide at first how he could sit on the sofa and still hold the knife to my throat. He resolved the point by forcing me to kneel before him as he sat. Clutching my hair with his left hand and pressing a knife to my throat with his right, he proceeded with the business that had brought him to London.
?Well son,? he began, pulling my head back to force me to look into the rheumy eyes that were once so much like mine, ?now that we?re comfortable I?ll begin. Mother and Minnie have been paying me to keep quiet about this to you, but now that they?ve naught left to pay me with I don?t see why I shouldn?t talk. A boy should know the truth about his father.
?Minnie and I lived up to our names as children, you might say. She was the prettiest little girl, I the handsomest lad. Well, Minnie was the charmer in the family. I was never so well-liked as she, and it burned me that I could perform any feat of daring or strength, and Min had but to smile the right way and I would be all but forgotten. But short of throwing acid in her face, I could think of no way to stop it.
?At that time, I was fourteen and Minnie was ten, but she looked more like my age: tall, filled out, you know. But she was still a child and I was not much more. I was old enough, though, to move out of the nursery, but I knew my presence bothered Min and so I stayed. She begged me to leave, but I would not. She begged our mother to remove me, but mother would not hear of it, even going so far as to strike my sister across the face in her annoyance.
?And Min had reason to be afraid. I?d slip in her bed at night while she slept, and cover her mouth so she couldn?t scream when she woke. Well, I guess it finally took. Good thing for me the girl was too much a coward to tell a soul until it was too late.
?Nine months later, you were born, boy, at the Whitman?s house out in the moors. My father had long since killed himself from grief. My sister, who was but eleven at the time, was sent off to boarding school, while I was sent off to the Navy. Almost eight years I went around the world, until my tour ended. I had caught fevers in India and God knows what else elsewhere before I made my way back to England to collect on the investment I had made almost nine years earlier.
?I sent word to my mother one night that I was coming, but she saw through my scheme and shipped you off to Harrow. I tried to see you there, too, but it seems that mother dear had told Foxworthy that I was not to see you, and so you were kept away from me. But I knew you?d be home for Christmas, and I planned to see you there.
?My scheme throughout has been rather ingenious, I think. At the time defiled my sister, I had no idea that the product of our union would be such a convenient source of income. For the past fifteen years, I have but to threaten to tell you all for my mother and sister to lavish upon me their little all.?
Was there ever a man who was more blackguard than he? Lord Sebring at last left my flat, taking with him a good deal of cash, some of my personal stationery, and the rest of the wine bottle. I was so relieved to see him go that I did not begrudge him these few articles, and would have provided them even if I hadn?t had a knife pressed to my throat. He led me to the door, knife still in position. As my father slowly withdrew his weapon, he hissed ?Farewell my son,? and planted a dry, mocking kiss upon my cheek. I shuddered, but did not struggle, and the moment he stepped out into the hall I slammed and bolted the door.
I was sorely tempted to call the police, but I knew that making my father?s latest crime public would result in his making his earlier crimes public, to the greater distress of my unfortunate family. I watched out the window as he disappeared in the darkness of night. As though he knew I would be watching, his lordship turned and waved at me, his perpetual leer visible by the light of the lamps.
As you might expect, I concealed my knowledge from my aunt and grandmother, but they were not long in ignorance. I had not at first understood why my father had desired my stationery, but it soon became clear to me: he wrote two hideous letters, one to my aunt-mother and the other to my grandmother on it, as proof that he had reached my flat. With this evidence, it was impossible for them to doubt his word. I at last knew all there was to know, in spite of the best efforts of these good women to conceal from me my horrible past.
My father continued to blackmail me for three more years, threatening always to tell the press of the sensational scandal if I did not pay him. It would have ruined my practice, I knew, if the affair became public, and so I restricted myself to one meal a day to pay his fee for silence. I became thin and haggard, my eyes wild and piercing, as his once were. I was a desperate and lonely fellow, for I shrank from the society of even my former school friends. Foxworthy came sometimes to London, and he was soon my only associate, and my only regular correspondent. Ever since my father?s revelations to me, I could no longer view with pleasure a reunion with the Ladies Sebring. I still bore their name, but I wished to God that I did not. I no longer wrote to them, and I did not even open their infrequent letters to me.
How I long for the happy ignorance of my childhood, when I believed myself to be but an orphaned foundling! How grateful I was, and what pleasure I took in the society of the serving-men!
Spencer now was dead. His master gave him no funeral, but I go sometimes to his grave, and to that of Withers.
My father died within three years of our last meeting. It was for that reason only that his blackmail stopped, for his malice knew no limit. His lordship, like poor Spencer, was buried without a funeral. He left me in possession of a now-decrepit estate and over a thousand pounds in gambling debts.
Lady Sara died, in peace, soon afterwards. Her life had been a long and unhappy one, but she could be secure at the end that her family?s disgrace was in no danger of being spread further.
I was financially ruined by my father?s obligations, and I am sure that he consciously left me this awful burden. It probably made it easier for him to die, knowing that he would leave his son in danger of debtors? prison.
Lady Minerva never did marry. She had become worn and haggard from care, as had I. At the ages of thirty-eight and twenty-seven, we both looked closer to sixty: our hair grey almost to white, our faces pale and drawn, our cheeks fleshless. We last met at Lady Sara?s funeral, but not since.
Sometimes, as I walk along the Thames of an evening, I think dark thoughts about bringing my life to a close. It has been an unnatural life, a life that never should have been, and which quickly should be ended. But as I gaze down upon the swirling water of the river, I am seized with a greater fear: to end my unnatural life in an unnatural way seems doubly cursed, and I repent, and stagger on my way, back to my lonely flat.