September 1890, London
“You said you saw her?”
“With your own eyes?”
James Crawford whistled and sat back in his chair before the fire. They had met today, at their London club, where they could share a drink and a cigar and discuss the recent news from home. There had certainly been a lot of it of late.
The brothers were not so close as their proximity in age might have suggested. As boys they had been the best of friends, but as young men they’d begun to grow tired of each other’s company. David, always serious and rather intense at times, did not find much to admire in his younger brother’s more flippant and irreverent manner. They had little in common, indeed, save for their opinion of their elder brother and his recent matrimonial pursuits.
“It was a week ago you saw her?” James asked. “Why didn’t you mention it?”
“It didn’t matter then.”
“And she is . . . ?”
“Finish your sentence, if you will,” David answered, and contemplated his brother’s somewhat rakish appearance. He looked tired. As though he’d been out all night—again—and had slept in his clothes. He needed a shave.
“She is . . .” James shook his shaggy blond head loosening a lock of hair, which fellow over one eye. He needed a haircut, as well. “. . . as common as we supposed her?”
“It’s hard to say.”
“No it isn’t. Say it. She is common tenant riff-raff, a wanton opportunist and a mercenary grasper.”
“I couldn’t possibly tell all that simply by looking at her.”
“Then what did she look like?”
David turned the glass in his hand methodically. He was always methodical. It was a fault James liked often to point out.
“Good heaven! Don’t tell me she’s turned into a stunner?”
“I never said anything of the sort.”
“You didn’t need to.” James looked at him, and then laughed. “David Ransom Crawford, are you that soft?”
“Well, you don’t think Ruskin would be moony over a plain faced waif, do you?”
James took in a deep breath and released it with his answer. “I suppose not . . .” he drawled. “But as you say, it doesn’t really matter, as she’s not to come after all.”
“Oh, but she is. In fact she’s to arrive within the week.”
“Good lord! You can’t be serious?” James examined David more carefully. “You are, aren’t you!”
David offered no reply, only took a sip from his glass and laid it down again with that concentrated calm he always possessed no matter how trying the situation. It certainly helped him when he was working with the facts and figures that were his current method of employment. It was a great boon to him in knowing just when to buy and how long to hold onto the shares he invested in on behalf of his father and the estate. It did not always serve him so well, however, where James was concerned.
“So she’s changed her mind, has she?” James asked now. “I ought to have supposed she would.”
“I believe she is ill, actually, and so must come, it seems.”
“Must now is it? I doubt that very much. And how was it she was to come in the first place? Will you tell me that? I still can’t quite understand it.”
“I’m not sure there is any understanding it, really. Not while we’re both from home, at any rate. Of course you knew that her father had recently died.”
“Yes, and I’m sorry to hear it. I rather liked the fellow.”
“Did you?” David asked, a little surprised.
“He was a good man. Knew his place, you know. Not like his confounded daughters. I had occasion to talk to him back when I was the one assisting our father on the estate.”
“It may be Ruskin’s right, as the heir, to manage things,” said David, “but I still think they should have left you to it. You were better off then. So was the estate, in my opinion.”
“You might have said before.”
“Perhaps I ought. For all the good it would have done.”
James caught his brother’s sarcastic air, and returned it. “I was too young, then. I hadn’t enough experience, is what our Father said. Sent me to University. And you know I never wanted to go.”
“I’m sure it’s good for you in it’s way.”
James took a resentful puff of his cigar and nodded at a passing acquaintance. “It was unreasonable, if you ask me. And impractical, too. Which brings us back to the topic at hand. Mr. Gray passed on, God rest his soul and all that. But what has it to do with the girl?”
Though David shared his younger brother’s frustration, he nevertheless did not appreciate his tone. “Well, they were alone then, the sisters, and in need. Our father took it upon himself to help them. And to make Ruskin acquainted with their trials.”
“Well he was successful there, wasn’t he! And once again, Ruskin’s spied something he wants and so he’s decided he must have it. But our father can’t truly have meant to encourage him to consider our late overseer’s daughter as a candidate for marriage. It’s absurd!”
“I think he meant to engage him, through them, in the tenants’ plight, and from there with that of the workers. To make him see that things were in a bad way and could not remain so. It seems impossible he could approve of Ruskin’s attachment to her, and yet . . .”
“He makes no objection,” James finished for him. “And as if he cannot see where it must lead, he invites her to live amongst us. What can our father be thinking?”
“I haven’t the foggiest,” David answered. “But at least it’s just the one now, and not the both of them.”
“And why is that? Do you know?”
“Less competition, I suppose. I don’t know. I have a suspicion it has something to do with you, to be honest.”
“Me? Whatever would I want with the overseer’s child?”
“She’s not a child anymore, James. It’s been three years, you know, since you’d have seen her last. They do grow up, or haven’t you heard?”
James considered this. “Just the one then, is it?”
“Just the one.”
“Well, ill or not, she can’t stay, and that’s a fact,” James declared and stubbed out his cigar.
“And what do you mean to do about it?” David’s question was a rhetorical one, but a rather wicked look was playing upon James’ face. “What are you thinking?”
“You don’t want to handle it, I take it? You have your work to keep you in Town?”
“Yes, I have. And no, I most certainly do not want to handle it, as you say.”
“You’ll trust me to do it, then?”
David laughed. “I trust you can find a way to mitigate the risks posed by our good parents’ new pet project, but do I trust you to do it without causing further trouble? Of that I’m not so certain.”
James merely answered with another narrow and too cunning look.
“Do take care, will you?” David admonished him. “I have the impression her life these last months has been a bitter trial. If you want to discourage her from staying, or even coming at all, that’s one thing. Just promise me you won’t do anything to . . . hurt her.”
James, with a frustrated breath of air, arose and threw his coat on. “You can trust me, you know. I’ll soon have it all under control, and it’ll be as though she never existed at all. You’ll see.”
But David was not certain he did see. There was nothing more to say on the subject, however, and his brother, draining off his glass, set it down with a parting nod and turned from him.
“Have I told you that you smell of cheap perfume?” David called after him.
“And watered brandy, yes,” James answered. “Twice today.” And the door closed behind him.
David finished his drink and set it back down. He studied the empty glass, recalled the events of that day, not more than a week ago, when, out of curiosity, he had paid a visit to an unnumbered house in a quiet London borough. The signet ring he wore on his right little finger clicked against the polished wood of the chair’s arm as he considered what he had seen there; a young woman, hauntingly beautiful, plainly distraught and looking altogether lost. The spell she had cast had mercifully been broken by another, but he understood now how easily his eldest brother had been ensnared. And now she was to come, after all! Why still remained the question to be answered. And he really wondered at it, for it was all bound to cause more problems than it could possibly be worth. She had succeeded, there was no need to wonder how, in ingratiating herself with his elder brother. She wanted, no doubt, what she could get from them; wealth, station . . . it didn’t matter. And who was she? The overseer’s daughter. A common tenant! He could hear the gossips already. Well, James would know just how to deal with that problem. David rubbed at his brow, for the thought, as much as he wished it to, did not give him much comfort. Pray God he would not have to clean up James’ mess, too.