In the parlour of her uncle’s London house, Imogen sat alone. The fire, burning low, provided the only light in the darkened room. With each creak in the floorboards above, her heart stopped. Then started again with violent but predictable irregularity.
Again, the footsteps above. The doctor had been upstairs for hours already and this late night vigil did not bode well. If the man should die, she might be at liberty. But where would she go? How would she live? And 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 eventually. Perhaps the doctor was hearing of them now. She felt her anxieties rise, and with them, fear and desperation.
A coil of dark hair fell across her shoulder as she closed her eyes and rested her head in the palm of one hand. 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 Out of date, it was her mother’s and she wore it often.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.
At last he approached, and as he came within the glow of the fire, a more kindly light was cast upon him. No look of harsh judgment appeared there, no accusations, or, worse and worthier, repulsion. Sympathy was all she saw. But pity was just as difficult to bear.
“Your uncle requests his solicitor, Miss Everard.”
Obediently, silently, Imogen arose and crossed to the writing desk, where she began to compose, in a shaky hand, the dreaded missive. She finished, blotted and sealed it, and then made the directions for its delivery. The doctor returned to his patient, leaving her once more to her dark thoughts, interrupted now and again by the creeks and groans of a centuries’ old house, by the hall clock as it marked the passing of time. And the passing of a life.
It was not an hour later when she heard the ring at the street door, and then the sound of voices. The doctor, it seemed, had come down to meet the lawyer upon his arrival and the two gentlemen 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 to the thought. And waited.
* * *
The gentlemen returned downstairs as the sun’s rays began to turn the London air from impenetrable black to a dull and hazy grey, marking the end of the night, and of one man’s life.
The doctor spoke kindly before taking his leave, offering his heartfelt condolences and advising Imogen to get some much needed rest. For all her efforts, the strain told quite plainly upon her face.
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 Mr. Everard’s service, and in that time he had become a close confidant of that man. Perhaps not a friend, but an advisor and a bearer of 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-”
“You don’t wish to go?”
She averted her gaze, unable to answer.
“Have you any alternatives?”
“No, sir, not that I can presently see.”
“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, of course 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.
In the interim, Imogen took a moment to contemplate the room, the centre of the house that had been as good as a prison to her. Everything was so dark. From the heavily covered windows, to the somber browns and greens of the papers, and the gleaming wood of the panelled wainscoting, every detail conspired to oppress her.
At last the lawyer leaned back in his chair. From his coat pocket, he withdrew an envelope.
“If you’ll be so kind as to peruse this, Miss Everard,” he said laying the letter down before her. “I’ll return in a few hours’ time. We can discuss matters in further detail then.”
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 the informing of 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 upon 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. Calmly, determinedly, she placed herself in one corner of the sofa and with a snap between deft fingers, the wax crumbled. She smoothed the document across her lap and read. It took some doing to convince herself that the words she saw were the words that had truly been written, but after reading it a second and then a third time, there was simply no denying it.
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 dancing 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.”
“Of course not, my dear,” and he reached out to her, to take her in his arms as he had done so many times before.
She moved away from him and returned to her place upon the sofa.
“They’re here then?” she asked him. “My aunts have come?”
He sighed and answered. “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 I should come, you know.”
“Why should that be?”
“Well,” he paused and his gaze shifted awkwardly, darting towards her face before examining the room. Then, lowering his brow, “You’ve been a bit unpredictable of late.”
“Have I?” she asked cautiously 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 realize the extent 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 upon her arm. How quickly these turn into something more, crossing the lines of propriety when no obstacles are set in place to check them. And they were not. To all this, 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 to uncle’s more practical business dealings. Perhaps they were all the same at heart, these “gentlemen”. Indeed, what reason did she have to believe otherwise? 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 been forcefully 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 upon the floor.
He picked it up and, with a look, made his request.
She dared not deny him. With a nod she acquiesced, and Roger unfolded it and read.
“What do you make of this?” he asked her in astonishment.
“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. But it should be a relief to you truly. You are a wealthy heiress now. You may live your life as you like. You should be happy.”
“With my family, everyone I’ve ever known, looming down upon me, ready to prey upon my good fortune?”
He threw a hand through short brown hair. “And so what do you propose to do?”
She should have known he wouldn’t understand. “What can I do? I’m not yet twenty-one. I’ll still require a guardian for another year or more. My aunts will insist and what then?”
“But the laws are changing, will change. If you’ll just be patient.”
But she couldn’t be patient. She had no reason to expect that the laws of men would ever provide the liberty for which she, and thousands of women like her, hungered. Similar reforms had been passed already, after all. None of these had the power to protect her. And now the hope she had so briefly entertained, that her life might at last be her own, had been dashed like so much dust in a burned out hearth.
Roger sat down beside her, and watched. And when, at last, the first tear fell, he reached up and gently, carefully, tenderly wiped it away. She dared a smile of gratitude, but the look on his face gave her little comfort. She had not meant to encourage him.
“You have not forgotten my offer?”
“What other choice do you have?” He was trying to be patient, but his irritation showed. “Besides, of course, the one I’ve been trying to convince you of for 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?”
“You don’t love me, Roger.”
Slowly, he shook his head. “That’s simply not true. You don’t love yourself, and so you cannot believe that anyone else should.”
“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.”
Roger started, his eyes wide as he faced her. “Are you mad? You’d give it up to them?”
“Yes. Perhaps. I don’t know,” she said, the quaver in her voice betraying a hint of the desperation she felt.
“Certainly it will provide you the independence you’ve always wanted. Take it, Imogen. For heaven’s sake, take it and set yourself apart! There must be a way.”
But if there was, she couldn’t see it.
“I can’t take it and have any respect for myself. It’s payment.”
Roger stopped and turned to her once more.
“No. No it isn’t,” he said, his hand slicing the air, one finger extended as if scolding a wayward child. “Not like that.”
Imogen was silent for a moment, fighting back the tears. “They’ll wonder why,” she said at last. “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!” There was a look of terror in Imogen’s eyes. “You don’t know-” she said in something between a whisper and a hiss, “-anything.” The unspoken question, “do you?” hung in the air.
Roger sat down beside her, his hands folded before him. “I know what he was capable of,” he said in a voice low and filled with emotion. 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 debt and 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.
Roger stood, then crossed to the window and looked without.
“Have they come, then?” Imogen asked.
Roger turned. “Yes, they’re here.”