WITH EACH CREAK in the floorboards above, Imogen’s nerves tensed. She wanted to sleep, needed to. The fire in the parlour had gone out, but it wasn’t a particularly cold night, and the warm glare of firelight seemed too harsh an interruption to the soothing darkness.
Again, the footsteps overhead. The doctor had been upstairs for hours now and this late night vigil did not bode well. If the man should die, she might at last have the liberty she’d so long desired. But where would she go? How would she live? Yet there were concerns more immediately pressing. The shameful circumstances of her life here, the events which had led up to the tragic finale of the evening, these secrets must come to light. Perhaps the doctor was hearing of them now.
It had not been her intention to hurt him. She had only meant to stand up to her uncle. She had reached her limit and she could take no more. She wanted the torment to end, the daily battle to hold onto the last vestiges of self-respect that still remained to her. But now she sat in this limbo between freedom and ruin. If he lived, could she leave him? If he died could she stay? Her conflicting and tumultuous emotions betrayed themselves only in her occupation of busily fingering the fringe of her paisley shawl. Out of date, it was her mother’s and she wore it often. She wore it for comfort.
A knock at the parlour door startled her from her meditations. Mary entered, followed closely by the doctor. He paused a moment before crossing the threshold, his frame a black silhouette against the lights that burned in the hall.
Imogen sat up, pulling her shawl more tightly around her.
“Your uncle requests his solicitor, Miss Everard.”
The doctor returned to his patient, leaving her once more to her dark thoughts, interrupted only by the creaks and groans of a centuries-old house and by the hall clock as it marked off, second by agonising second, the passing of time. And of one man’s life.
It was not an hour later when she heard the doorbell ring, followed by the sound of voices. The doctor and the lawyer held a brief and hushed conference before climbing the flight of stairs to her uncle’s rooms. What secrets were being relayed in those indistinct and earnestly offered words? How many more must know before this would all be over? Would it ever be over? She closed her eyes upon the unanswerable question. And waited.
* * *
A pale autumn sun was just beginning to rise when the gentlemen returned downstairs with the news. The doctor spoke kindly before taking his leave, offering his heartfelt condolences and advising Imogen to get some much needed rest.
The lawyer remained.
A man of imposing stature and stern demeanour, Mr. Watts might be called intimidating by some. For many years he had been in her uncle’s service, and in that time he had become Mr. Everard’s confidant. Perhaps not a friend, but an advisor and a bearer of his secrets—and now, presumably, of her own as well.
“You have aunts,” he began without preface.
“You’ll go to them. They’ll take you.” It was as much a question as a statement.
“Yes, of course. But–” She hesitated to say more.
“You don’t wish to go?”
She averted her gaze, unable to answer.
“Have you alternatives?”
“No, sir, not that I can see.”
The lawyer leaned back in his chair. “You have a cousin. One in particular, I think. Your aunt’s nephew by marriage. Is that not an option?”
For a woman in her position, alone, without resources, with hardly a character to speak of, marriage was the only conceivable option. Still… “I’m not sure it is, sir. Not just at present.”
Another long silence followed as he examined her carefully. At last he reached into his coat pocket and withdrew an envelope.
“If you’ll be so good as to examine this, Miss Everard,” he said. “I’ll return in a few hours’ time. We can discuss matters in further detail then.”
Imogen looked at the letter but did not take it from him. Patiently, he laid it on the table before rising to gather up his coat and hat.
“I’ll show myself out,” he said.
Imogen saw him as far as the drawing room door, where he turned once more to speak.
“I’ve already sent word to the family. You can leave the formalities to me.”
“Thank you, sir,” she answered, relieved to know that these burdens, particularly that of informing her aunts of their brother’s death, would not be hers.
“Get some rest if you can,” he said, and turning, shook his head before shutting the door behind him.
Rest? There was no rest to be had here. Not with her uncle lying upstairs. Not with the family coming any hour now.
The sight of the letter still lying on the table reminded her that she had an obligation to read it. She took it up but could hardly bring herself to break the seal. She placed herself in one corner of the sofa and smoothed the document across her lap. And read. Yet it took some doing to convince herself that the words she saw were the words that had truly been written.
So he had thought of her, after all. Ten years under his roof and now he regretted. Now he wished to do something for her. In disbelief she stared into the newly resurrected flames. If only they could offer some answer as to what she ought to do.
“You look an absolute wreck, Imogen.”
She awoke to the sound of the familiar voice and, seeing him, arose to greet her cousin. Roger placed a kiss on each cheek and then, her hands still in his, he stood back to look her over more studiously. Tears had gathered by now. She felt the prick of them, but would not allow them to spill over.
“Are you really so very sorry?”
“I’m not inhuman, after all. He raised me, provided for me since…”
Roger reached out to her, but she drew away and returned to her place on the sofa.
“They’re here, then?” she asked him. “My aunts have come?”
He sighed in frustration. “I came ahead of them.”
“I’m so glad,” she said with a look of honest relief. “Yours is the only face I can bear to look at just now.”
He smiled and his manner relaxed once more. “I was unsure whether I should come, you know.”
“Why should that be?”
“Well,” he paused and looked at her pointedly. “You’ve been rather unpredictable of late.”
“Have I?” she asked and looked away.
“Well, yes, if you want to know.”
She knew it was true. Since the day, nearly three months ago, when she had quite suddenly come to realise the nature of her value to her uncle, and to the gentlemen who came to borrow money from him, she had begun to see the world in a very different light. She understood now what dangers lurked behind the seemingly innocent smiles and glances offered between a man and a woman, the friendly touch of a hand on her arm. How quickly these turn into something more, crossing the lines of propriety when no obstacles are set in place to check them. To such things, her uncle had turned a blind eye. If it meant keeping business then who was he to deny a man some little reward for his trouble?
Roger had always treated her with respect, but she was no fool. She knew very well that, underneath it all, he was little different from the others. For the names of the card rooms, and the gaming houses, and those other houses, all of which she ought to have known nothing, were the same, whether they were mentioned in reference to her cousin’s exploits or to her uncle’s more practical business dealings. Perhaps they were all the same at heart, these “gentlemen”. But Roger would never hurt her as others had done. He would never force her to give him what he desired. She knew that. But neither could she freely give what had already been taken. Not to him. Not to anyone.
“What is this?” Roger said, observing the letter that had been dropped upon his entrance and which now lay haphazardly on the floor. He picked it up and, with a look, made his request.
She nodded her answer.
Roger unfolded it and read. Finishing it, he laid it down and looked up at her in astonishment. “What do you make of this?”
“What do you think?” And she really wanted to know.
“It looks to me as though your darling uncle has attempted a last gasp attempt to buy back his soul, if you want my opinion. It should be a relief to you, truly. You may live your life as you like now.” He examined her a moment. “You should be happy.”
“With my family, everyone I’ve ever known, looming over me, ready to prey upon my good fortune? Do you think my aunts will be happy to know that my uncle overlooked them in favour of me?”
He rubbed at his forehead. “And so what do you propose to do?”
“What can I do? I’m not yet twenty-one. I’ll still require a guardian for another year or more. A year, Roger! My aunts will insist, and what then?”
Roger sat down beside her and watched. A dark coil of hair fell across one shoulder as she lowered her head to hide the tears that would come, however hard she tried to stop them. He brushed her hair from her face, and a tear or two as well.
“Dear Imogen?” he said, that pleading look once more in his too penetrating eyes.
Imogen moved to free the strand of hair he’d just taken between his fingers. “Roger…please.”
“What other choice do you have?” He was clearly trying to be patient, but his irritation showed. “Besides, of course, the one I’ve been persuading you to consider these many months now.”
“Which you know you don’t mean.”
“I know no such thing. Imogen, I am in earnest!”
“So am I.”
“You will not marry me?”
“Of course you can,” he said with a wave at the letter that now lay on the side table. “You can do whatever you like now.”
“The money, Roger. It complicates things.”
He rose to his feet and began pacing before her. She waited for his remonstrance, for some vain assurance. It did not come.
“I don’t mean to accept it. I don’t want it.”
Roger started, his eyes wide as he faced her. “Are you mad? This is what you’ve been waiting for. For heaven’s sake, take it and set yourself free!”
“I can’t take it and have any respect for myself. It’s payment.”
Roger stopped and turned to her once more, a look of disgust upon his face. “No. No it isn’t,” he said, his hand slicing the air as if scolding a wayward child. “Not like that. It’s—”
“They’ll wonder why he gave it to me,” she said interrupting him. “I’ll never have a moment’s peace. They’ll wonder why and they’ll find out if they can, though I’m sure they know enough already.”
“Drake Everard was a vulgar brute and deserved to be hanged for what he’s done to you!”
“Roger!” Imogen said, stopping him again. “You don’t know…anything…” The unspoken question, “do you?” hung in the air.
Roger sat down beside her, his hands clasped tightly before him. “I know what he was capable of,” he said in a voice low and hoarse with the effort to suppress his anger. He did not look at her. “I know that those fellows who came to him for money would like to have taken much more away than a few pounds of liquid cash.”
So he knew. He could guess, at any rate. Clearly he did not know all, but his understanding, so far as it was formed, convinced her that only by the most drastic of measures could she ever hope to separate herself from a history that had so far defined her and would prejudice all against her. Herself included.
The sound of hooves outside brought Roger to his feet. He crossed to the window and looked out.
“Have they come, then?” Imogen asked.
Roger turned, but hesitated. “Yes, they’re here.”