The Fear suffocates me... February 1852
Jaylon stepped out onto the Wittmer’s large terrace, elated to be away from the multitudes of annoying people from inside. He wandered to the railing and leaned down, resting his elbows on the damp marbled surface. One corner of his mouth drew up and twitched, but it no means resembled a smile.
The same thought kept running over and over in his head; he wished Camille had never insisted he attend this gaudy affair. He straightened his shoulders then raised his hand to pull a cheroot from his inner coat pocket, elevating it to settle on his bottom lip.
Striking a match, he lifted it to the waiting cheroot and inhaled until its tip turned into a blazing red ball. He coughed into his hand as his lungs saturated with the pungent plume of tobacco smoke.
He examined the terrace below, and he regarded that he wasn’t the only one seeking to step outside, begging for a reprieve from the stuffiness inside. A gathering crowd appeared to be staring and pointing at an unknown situation developing on the walkway below. A disgusted smirk flowed from his lips with the realization of what people wouldn’t do to try and attract attention to themselves. He lifted his hand to draw on the twisted paper again, producing a cloud of smoke as he discharged it from his lungs. Suddenly, the grating noise of someone clearing their throat came from behind him. The sound lured him to peer over his shoulder, and almost immediately, he wished he hadn’t.
“Are you hiding out here, Jaylon?” Lizy quipped, stepping to settle herself beside him.
Jaylon smirked. “Why would I desire to hide Lizy?”
She lifted her hand and let it drift up his forearm. “I can think of one very good reason,” she provoked, lifting her gaze to study him. “What’s wrong, Jaylon? Did she deny your advances? Or, did she hurt your pride by refuting the love you claim that you have for her?”
Narrowed eyes stared down at her. “What do you want, Lizy?”
She gaffed at the malice in his tone. “I crave you to admit to yourself that we are husband and wife. She doesn’t want you any longer, Jaylon. You need to face reality.”
Turning to face her, Jaylon grasped her arm and leaned down inches from her face. “Go back inside, Lizy,” he ordered between clenched teeth.
Having no fear of him, she reached up and settled her hand onto his cheek. Her thumb caressed his skin as she sighed. “I know the truth hurts Jaylon, but you need to face the inevitable.”
He glared down at her for a moment, then lifted his hand to settle on hers and casually pushed it away.
Camille strolled up to them, and her eyes flitted from one to the other. Sensing their hostility, she settled herself between them. “What is going on down there?” she mused while craning her neck to get a more favorable view.
Adverting his attention to the crowd below, Jaylon shrugged his shoulders. “I’m uncertain,” he answered blandly. “Perhaps some overly sensitive woman came down with a fit of the vapors. You know how women can be.” He turned and glanced at Lizy. Her offended expression caused him to smirk under his breath.
Camille lifted her chin, minding her brother. “That was an exceedingly cynical thing to say, even for you, dear brother,” she scoffed with a snort. When she noticed he didn’t even break a smile, she settled a hand on his arm. “Come back inside and waltz with me,” she petitioned, seeking to draw him away. “I have as yet found anyone one of these dull men to my liking.”
He peered down at her, and the corner of his mouth edged up. “I am afraid I will have to decline your offer, Camille,” he asserted flatly. “I’m leaving.”
Camille’s eyes grew wide, and her lower lip jutted out in a mock pout. “What? Why would you desire to leave so soon,” she whined, stamping her foot. She turned to Lizy for help but was only greeted by her departing form. “Everybody I care about is leaving, and this whole ball is turning into a rather drab affair.”
Chuckling at her tantrum, he became curious. “Who else is leaving? There is a whole ballroom full of people begging to be at your mercy.”
“I’m pretty sure Aniela left,” she pouted, pursing her lips. “I can’t seem to locate her anywhere now.”
He lifted his gaze and stared straight ahead. “It unnerves me that you care so much, Camille,” he sighed. “Go back inside and enjoy the rest of your evening. I am leaving.”
“You should...” Camille paused and turned her focus back to the mob of people below. “Did I just hear someone call for help?”
Interest piqued, Jaylon stepped closer to the railing, attempting to get a more favorable view. “I think that I heard the same thing,” he declared.
“What’s going on,” Lucian asked as he and Jessie walked up to settle beside Jaylon? “Someone came in and reported a woman fainted out by the carriages.”
An uneasiness settled over Jaylon, and he inhaled one more time from his cheroot, then crushed its existence into the ground. Looking at the crowd of people, he pivoted to Jessie. “Did you see Aniela before she left?”
“No,” Jessie answered, shaking her head. “Did you?”
Jaylon cleared his throat and glanced down at his feet. “I talked to her privately for a few minutes. I’m not positive if she left immediately afterward or not.” He lifted his head and peered at his sister, giving her a silent warning to remain quiet.
Jessie caught the glimpse between the two. “What is going on?” she asked, with her eyes suddenly drawn. “Did something happen...” She broke off as they all heard the shouts for help again. Each one of them turned in the direction it came from. Lucian stepped suddenly to the railing when he noticed their coachman amid the crowd. “That’s our chauffeur, isn’t it?”
“What?” Jaylon exclaimed with alarm. “Are you positive?” But he didn’t linger for an answer and took off running in the direction of the mob.
When he finally reached the crowd, he forced a path through until he glimpsed her emerald color gown. Fear settled over him, and he started shoving people away.
When he saw Aniela’s unconscious form lying on the sidewalk, he felt all rational leave his mind. He crouched down and lifted her into his arms. “What happened to her?” Jaylon called out to the crowd. “Did anyone here witness what happened?”
Their coachman pushed his way through to him. “She came down and requested for me to retrieve her carriage,” he painted, obviously unnerved. “When I came back, I noticed her with a man. I assumed they were embracing and expressing their goodbyes. When I called to her, the man released her, and she collapsed to the ground.” He looked down at the ground, ashamed. “I-I am sorry, my Lord. If I had realized the man was hurting her, I would have stopped him. I swear.”
Jaylon didn’t squander time admonishing him. “Where is her carriage?” he asked feverishly.
The coachman turned and pointed. “It’s that one there, Sir.”
Jaylon walked past him, carrying her limp body. “Let’s go,” he ordered, looking over his shoulder. “Take us back to the Matthews estate.”
The coachman sprinted past Jaylon to the carriage and speedily opened the door just as he got there.
Lucian and Jessie remained in bewilderment as they observed the carriage pull away.
Neither knew Aniela was in trouble.
Jaylon held her in his arms and was making every attempt to draw her to open her eyes. “Aniela,” he whispered as his hand brushed her cheek. Blood appeared smeared around her mouth and chin, but it was the dull purplish bruising on her neck that distressed him now. “Please, Aniela. Open your eyes.” He repeated her name until she began to stir.
Her hands slowly moved up to her throat, and her eyes fluttered open to a slit. She must have understood that she was traveling in a carriage because she abruptly sat straight up and flung herself into the opposite seat, facing Jaylon with wild panicked eyes.
The terror he witnessed in her eyes caused him to pause. “Aniela,” he said, with a steady, gentle tone. “You are safe now.” He reached out to touch her, but she recoiled away from him, sliding across the seat to establish a greater distance between them.
She shook her head frantically from side to side. “No,” she rasped, her voice raw from the trauma inflicted upon her. She lunged for the door handle and pulled up, attempting to open it.
Jaylon grabbed her hand, stopping her. “Aniela,” he exclaimed. “What are you doing? The carriage is moving.” He watched her pull away from his touch again, and he recognized she wasn’t seeing him. All she could see was the man who attacked her. “Aniela,” he said, reaching out, making another attempt to soothe her. “Aniela, look at me,” he whispered. “It’s me, Jaylon.”
She continued to shake her head and brace herself tightly to the seat, looking from him to the door. He knew at any moment she would attempt an escape again. “Aniela, please listen to me,” he said calmly. He rose and pushed in her direction. “I don’t know who did this to you, but it’s me, Jaylon. I am here to help you.”
She continued to shake her head and scooted farther away from him with her hands fanned out at her sides, ready for battle. “No,” she rasped, her voice barely creating a sound.
He sat down beside her and reached out to capture her hand. He could feel her trembling beneath his grasp. “Please, Aniela,” he implored. “Who did this to you? Tell me what happened.” He could see it in her eyes the moment she understood she was no longer with her assailant. Her eyes softened, and her ridged body began slowly folding into itself; then, the tears commenced to flow. He slid gradually across the seat until his thigh pressed up against her, and he tentatively wrapped his arms around her.
He held her as her body quaked with uncontrollable sobs. He didn’t propose any further questions because he didn’t think she was capable of responding. Within ten minutes, her sobs ceased, but he wasn’t altogether certain if she blacked out or just simply fallen asleep from exhaustion. Jaylon’s mind raced the whole way back to Matthews’s hall, wondering why anybody would desire to hurt her this way.
Aniela opened her eyes to discover herself lying safely in her own bed. Her eyes skimmed the muted darkness, and they settled on Jessie sleeping on an armchair beside her. She swallowed and felt the raw burning of her throat. The vision of Gordon trying to strangle the life out of her came flooding back, and her hands rose, settling on the tender bruises.
Looking down, she lifted her blanket and noticed someone had undressed her. She remained now merely in her shift. Her face grew warm, having little doubt Jaylon had been the one to remove her clothes and placed her in bed.
She watched Jessie begin to stir and open her eyes. When she noticed Aniela was also awake, she rose and sat down on the bed next to her.
Jessie grabbed her hand, offering it a tender squeeze. “Are you okay?” she asked, toiling to maintain the emotion out of her voice.
Aniela nodded her head and tried to talk. “Yes,” she answered in a gravelly whisper.
Jessie’s eyes wandered across the bruises on her neck, arm, and face. “You don’t need to talk. I know the bruises must pain you terribly.” Jessie had to pause, battling to maintain her composure. “Who did this to you, Aniela? Why would anyone desire to hurt you this way?”
Staring at her for a minute, Aniela turned her head away from her. “It doesn’t matter,” she whispered. She knew there was no way she could ever reveal Gordon’s name and his house of horrors. She couldn’t live with herself if he came after anyone else in her family.
“What do you mean it doesn’t matter,” Jessie cried? “If our chauffeur hadn’t interrupted the attacker, this man undoubtedly would have killed you!”
Aniela eyed her sister, recognizing she meant well. But she could feel the tears pooling in her eyes, and she didn’t wish to discuss anything right now. “Can you please go, Jessie?” she whispered, her voice void of emotion. “I wish to be alone.”
Jessie tried to conceal her frustration as she nodded her head. She wiped a solitary tear as it slid down her cheek. “Okay, I will talk to you in the morning,” she whispered. She leaned down and kissed Aniela’s forehead. “Please, Aniela,” Jessie whispered, reaching for her hand. “Swear that we will discuss this tomorrow. We merely desire to help you.”
Aniela watched her sister pull away, and she stared at her for a moment. “No one can help me,” she whispered, then curled onto her side.
Jessie hung her head, wiping at her tears. “Get some rest. I will come back in and check on you in a little while,” she whispered between sniffs. Then she rose and walked to the door, leaving her alone.
Jessie stepped into the library and walked straight into Lucian’s arms. She allowed him to hold her awhile before she could even find her voice to speak. “I feel so powerless for her,” she cried into his chest. “She had been making considerable improvement, and now I don’t know if she’ll ever recover from this.”
Lucian messaged her back as his eyes scanned everyone in the room. “We will get her through this,” he declared. “I promise.”
Roseanne stepped forward. “Did she offer you any hint at who her attacker could be?”
Jessie shook her head. “No,” she sniffed.
“I would wager a hunch it to be the same man who attacked her before,” Lucian proclaimed. “She probably never expected him to be at the ball, and he most likely took her by surprise.”
Jessie lifted her head to gawk at her husband. “She informed me her captor always wore a mask, and she wished to leave ball because all the masks were inducing uneasiness for her,” Jessie cried. “My God, we set her up for this. She didn’t even wish to go, but we persuaded her.”
Tightening his arms around Jessie, Lucian tried to placate her fears. “Don’t do that to yourself,” he soothed. “You could never have known this would happen.”
Roseanne nodded her head. “He is right, Jessie,” she admitted. “If you demand to cast blame, we are all at responsible.”
Leaning her forehead on Lucian’s chest, Jessie whispered, “I can’t possibly go with you now to your fathers Lucian. There is no way I could leave her alone with Camilla. I won’t do that to her.”
Picking up her chin, Lucian made Jessie look at him. “I am not leaving you here. If you don’t go, then I don’t go.”
“But what about your father,” she pleaded, setting her hands on his chest. “You have to go. You made a commitment to him.”
Lucian shook his head. “No,” he argued. “I could be gone for months. I will not...”
“I will remain here with Aniela,” Jaylon suddenly chimed in. “Camille and I will both stay.”
Until this moment, Jaylon had remained mute on the distant side of the room. They all twisted and looked at him, each pondering his statement.
Roseanne adamantly shook her head. “No,” she said, rejecting his offer. “That is not the proper thing to do. Could you imagine how people will talk? No, I refuse to allow it.”
“Camille will be here with us,” Jaylon argued.
“No!” Roseanne remained adamant.
Lucian turned Jessie around to look at him. “He is right, Jessie. Aniela would be safer if Jaylon stayed here until our return.”
Jessie nodded her head, then turned to peer at her aunt. “She would be safer with Jaylon in the house,” she implored Roseanne. “I don’t want to leave, but Lucian has an obligation to his father. We have to go, Roseanne.”
“Then I will remain here with her,” Roseanne blurted.
Jaylon looked at Roseanne incredulously. “And you think that will keep her out of harm’s way?” Jaylon countered, aghast by her statement. “What are you more frightened of Roseanne? My being alone with your niece or the possibility this man could get to her again?”
Roseanne stormed at him. “Do you have any understanding of what it will do to her reputation if you stay in this house with her for weeks?”
Jaylon squared his shoulders, not backing down. “What difference will it make if this monster gets to her and kills her next time?”
Roseanne’s face burned red. “I think you are overlooking one profoundly important issue, Jaylon,” she countered. “You are a married man. What do you think Elizabeth will have to say about you taking up residence at Matthews Hall?”
“Do you honestly think I give a damn what she thinks?” Jaylon contested.
Lucian stepped between them and provided them both with a heated gaze. “This is ultimately Jessie’s decision.”
They all turned towards her.
“I-I agree with Roseanne,” she stammered, keeping her eyes downcast to the floor. “But I concede that Jaylon should remain here until Lucian and I can return.”
Roseanne spun around in disbelief and charged from the room. Jessie was on her heels, preparing to plead out her decision. Lucian and Jaylon remained as the constrained silence permeated between them.
“Do you honestly believe Elizabeth will let you stay here?” Lucian asked, feeling the solace seep into his bones.
Jaylon hung his head. “Lord, help me,” he gasped with indignation. “Again... I don’t care what Lizy says. I will remain here at least until your return.”
Lucian eyed his friend. “You will vow to keep her safe,” Lucian finally asked. “Won’t you?”
Stepping to the closest chair, Jaylon sat down hard and lifted his hands to travel down his face. “I will do my best,” he exhaled, feeling an overwhelming stress take hold.
“Do your best?” Lucian repeated, with mild irritation. “That is not the answer I desired to hear.”
Jaylon’s eyes narrowed. “What do you crave me to say?” he exasperated.
“The correct response is, I would give my life for her,” Lucian said.
“Are you serious,” Jaylon scoffed, advancing from the armchair. “Did you genuinely feel the need to ask me that? You know I would give my life for Aniela. How could you even imply...”
“I’m sorry,” Lucian exclaimed, halting his words. “I didn’t mean to imply anything. But you need to understand, Jessie means the world to me, and therefore, so does Aniela. I can’t allow anything to happen to her.” He strode across the room to the liquor cabinet, pulled two glasses out, then promptly filled each half full. He turned with a glass in each hand and held one out for Jaylon to accept it.
“Here’s to keeping Aniela safe,” Lucian said as he lifted his glass in the air.
Jaylon followed suit, and they both raised the glasses to their mouths.
The silence hung densely in the air again. Jaylon stared down at his glass and after a few moments, he asked, “So that’s it then? I will be moving in?”
There was a lengthy hesitation, then Lucian finally said, “You should go home and collect some things. I am going to go find my wife and seek to calm her and Roseanne down.” He promptly turned and left the room.
After a few minutes, Jaylon stepped towards the door and wavered at the threshold. He couldn’t shake the abrupt feeling of foreboding and unease that was beginning to settle into his body.
He glanced towards the stairs leading to Aniela’s room, and before he could reason to himself why, he was scrambling up them, taking two at a time.
Standing outside her bed-chamber door, Jaylon leaned in and set his ear on the hardwood, and listened. He could hear no sounds coming from inside, so he straightened his posture and lifted his hand, rubbing his chin.
Why was he having this powerful sense of unease?
He glanced in either direction down the hallway, and no one was in sight. Before he could stop himself, he placed his hand on the doorknob and turned it. To his dismay, the doorknob clicked, and he gradually nudged the door open. The room was dark, with merely a subdued glow coming from the moonlight spilling in through the parted curtains. Turning around, he closed the door behind him. The loud click it produced almost caused his ears to grimace in agony, and he held his breath.
He peered over his shoulder towards the bed, waiting to determine if the noise stirred Aniela, but the room was dark, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. And when they did, nothing prepared him for the shock of seeing Aniela sitting on the edge of her bed.
He stepped cautiously over to her. “Aniela,” he whispered. When she didn’t respond, he advanced towards her to settle at her feet. “Aniela, are you okay?” He cocked his head to the side, puzzled by her absence of response and unmoving form. He surmised she must be asleep, so he turned and lit the lamp on her dresser. Once the room illuminated with a dull glow, he turned back around. It completely took him off guard when she lifted her eyes to look at him.
“Hello, Jaylon,” she whispered in a weak voice.
His eyes traveled over her pale face, and he knew something was terribly wrong. “Aniela,” he whispered, stepping towards her. Her cheeks were marked with the dampness of her tears, and more pooled in her eyes on the threshold of spilling over. He observed her as she dropped her head to stare at her upturned hand. And that’s when he suddenly noticed what she held there. He collapsed to his knees in front of her. “Aniela,” he whispered desperately. “What are you proposing to do with these pills?”
She blinked a few times, then lifted her gaze to him. “I figured this was the best means to do it,” she whispered, her bottom lip quivering.
He settled his hand on top of hers. “Do what, Aniela?” he asked, his voice fractured with Fear. “Did you take any of them?”
Her body swayed a little; then she lifted her eyes to him. “Someone prescribed my-my father laudanum when he was ill and I... and I remembered where he stored his pills,” she whispered, her eyes pooled once more, and a lone tear slipped down her cheek. “Can you believe after all these years they were still here in their little brown bottle, tucked away in the same exact place?”
He raised his hand to rest under her chin and forcing her to look at him. A fear like he had never felt before surged through his body. “Aniela, did you swallow any of these pills,” he demanded, making sure he spoke calmly.
She nodded her head, then dropped her eyes to watch Jaylon lift the pills from her hand. “I have messed up everything; haven’t I?” she sniffed.
“No, you haven’t messed anything up,” he implored, shaking his head. “Aniela, please look at me. Did you take any of your father’s pills?”
“I did,” she hiccuped a sob. “I-I know what laudanum does.”
He peered more clearly into her eyes, and he noticed they appeared glazed, and her pupils were small as a pin. “How many did you take Aniela?” Jaylon implored again.
She dropped her gaze and stared at her hands, lying in her lap. “I sailed away from you,” she whispered, her voice weakened and throaty. “You loved me, and I left you. Why-why would I choose to do that?” She wept, wiping at her tears with the back of her hand, and her body began swaying back and forth. “I didn’t even know where the ship was sailing to,” she murmured, making little sense. “Toulon was a beautiful town. It was a beautiful place.”
Jaylon stared at her, recognizing she was inadvertently giving him information on what happened to her after she wandered off his ship so long ago. But her safety was his sole concern at the moment. He lifted his hands and fixed them on either side of her face. “Aniela, you need to tell me how many pills you took.”
She stopped swaying. “Have you ever been to Le Mourillon, Jaylon?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper. “The families there are so kind and they took me in. They helped me.”
“Aniela, how many pills...”
“I-I swallowed three pills,” she admitted cutting him off and holding up two fingers.
He exhaled a sigh of relief, knowing three laudanum wouldn’t harm her. At this moment, she was feeling nothing more than a strong sense of euphoria. But he had to be certain. “Are you confident you only swallowed three,” he whispered as his hands settled on her face making her look at him.
“I know what laudanum does to you,” she repeated, in a guarded whisper. “He forced me to swallow it, and the taste would burn my throat like it’s burning now.”
Jaylon’s eyes narrowed, and his abdomen muscles clenched at what she was revealing to him. “Who is he, Aniela?”
She shook her head, then leaned down and settled her forehead onto his chest. “I-I can’t tell you,” she whispered in a half sob.
Believing she was on the verge of divulging the identity of her attacker, he lifted her into his arms. Then he settled his knee onto the mattress and laid her down gently onto the bed. He bent down and placed his hand on her cheek, his thumb caressing her skin. “Are you speaking about the man who did this to you?” he whispered, hovering over her.
She peered up at him with hooded eyes. “Yes,” she sighed.
A sense of rage rolled through his body. “Tell me his name, Aniela?”
She turned her head and remained silent for a moment. Then she sighed heavily. “I can’t. Be-because I won’t let him hurt them,” she whispered in a faint voice.
He drew her chin, forcing her to look at him once more. “Hurt who?” he demanded to know. “Has he threatened someone else?”
Lifting her arm, she settled it over her eyes, shielding herself from his burning gaze.
“Aniela, has he threatened someone else?”
She nodded her head. “Yes,” she choked.
“Who?” Jaylon watched her striving to articulate the names. “Aniela, who?” He pleaded.
Dropping her arm to rest beside her body, she lifted her gaze to him once more. “Jessie and Olivia,” she finally admitted breathlessly.
His brows drew together, attempting to comprehend the significance of her words. Laying down beside her, he gathered her into his arms. “I won’t let anyone hurt you ever again,” he whispered against her hair. “I swear it on my life.” He felt her tentatively wrap her arms around him and his hands drew her tighter to his body. “Please tell me you weren’t going to swallow all your father’s pills,” he begged in a throaty whisper.
She closed her eyes, not answering him.
He lifted his eyes to the ceiling, knowing what no response from her meant, and he battled to reign in his emotions. If he hadn’t pursued his intuition poking at him, this could have ended tragically for everyone involved.
Lowering his head, he cupped her chin, needing her to look at him. “Swear to me,” he begged against her lips. “Swear you will never take his pills again.”
“I am so tired, Jaylon,” she sighed and began mumbling incoherently. “I just want to go home. Please Meetza, I have a father and Aunt Roseanne. They-they love me... I’m sorry Jaylon. I should never have...”
His eyes searched her face as her fogged brain rambled on, and before he could reason with himself, his lips settled over hers.
She sighed softly into him. “Meetza... Meetza..Mee...”
Jaylon lifted his head and listened to her words. His fingers moved up to caress her cheek, and he watched her eyes drift slowly shut. Three laudanum would deliver her into a profound and hopefully dreamless sleep. He bowed his head and allowed his lips to drift over hers. “Promise you will never scare me like this again,” he whispered against her parted lips. He didn’t expect her to respond. The declaration was more for his peace of mind.
He folded his arms around her, and it didn’t take long before he joined her in a dreamless sleep.