Wounded, you say?
“There is a good deal of fresh blood on your sleeve, sir, running down it and dripping onto the gravel as we have stood and talked, and your coat appears to have been damaged on the sleeve. We should get you inside and seen to.”
“Damn! So he did get me.” They walked through the door. “It felt like he did, but I was not about to stop to find out. Only one wound, I hope. It must be a flesh wound or I would have noticed it.” He checked himself further as he looked at his arm and flexed his fingers.
“Just the one. And not so very bad. Highwaymen.” He doubted that they had been highwaymen, but he would need to learn more about Mr. Bascombe before he might know more. “I left two of them dead. One of them came close to losing his head from my saber, so that explains the blood on that, and I shot the second between the eyes, and at a respectable distance too.” He sounded quite pleased with himself at having made such a difficult shot.
“After that I wounded two more before they managed to ride off. They began to doubt their ability to rob me, with four of the five of them out of action. That was almost an hour back, or maybe less.” Benson was clearly shocked to hear that.
“There were reports of one lone highwayman in the area, sir, but never more than one, and there were never any shots fired that I was aware of, other than in frustration or embarrassment after he had left. He seems to be getting bolder. But five of them? That many? Must be a different lot then.”
Robert thought so too but did not say anything. It obviously paid to know the enemies a man had, and their motivations, as well as what a man might walk into when he took over another man’s clothing and carriage, but this was surely too much.
“What should one do about that, Benson? I didn’t want to leave any bodies on the road to disturb womenfolk, but I had little choice.” Now why was he thinking of that, rather than about getting himself tended to?
“I’ll see to it, sir, but I doubt there’ll be anything to see if you left any of them alive to clean up everything behind the others.” Benson seemed to have a similar dispassionate view as his own, about such individuals. “That road is fairly well travelled, so others might have seen to it already.”
“Yes, you are right. They would want to make sure that they left nothing on the road that might lead back to them. But they would also be able to see me on the road far off, after that, as I crested by Laithkirk, so they probably would recognize that they had time to hide their tracks.” He thought of something else.
“Is Judson still here? I half expected him to come and look after the horses, and not some green lad?”
“Yes sir. He was sent for the moment I saw your carriage approaching, though I did not know it was you. He is on the roof of the stable replacing some tiles, so he sent his son in his place. Very capable lad.” He remembered something he had meant to say despite his listener dripping blood. “If I might say so, sir, those are exceptional horses.”
“So, you did notice them. Indeed, they are. Hardly flinched at all of the gunshots, and barely show any signs of the journey. But then I walked them for the last two or three miles. They belonged to a gentleman called Gilbert Bascombe. Dead now. These are his clothes, and almost got me shot. I gather someone might know something about those horses, if not about the man. If so, I would like to know it. I was given the horses, but I have a feeling that I should make a push to buy them if I can find out who might now own them, before I am accused of being a horse-thief to go with my other character failings.” Master Robert still had his sense of humor.
“I’ll ask about, sir. Judson is abreast of all of the sales and has relatives in Tattersall’s.” Benson would have liked to have moved him along faster, but Master Robert was not about to be rushed, despite his arm.
Robert thought of something else. “Where will those trunks go? I don’t know where I will be sleeping, and I will need to go through them and learn what I can of Mr. Bascombe. I will certainly need to change after this mess is seen to. I don’t have any clothes of my own with me.” He was walking slowly, taking in the changes he could see, and leaving drops of blood along the hallway.
“I’ll put you in the front bedroom on the west. Miss Sophia is occupying your old room. It is that much closer to her sister, though she has slept on a cot in her sister’s room ever since she arrived and would not leave her side for anything. There is still perfectly good clothing of your brother’s that will fit you. I’ll see to it, sir, but we need to see to you, first, and make sure that you are not too seriously wounded.”
“Yes. I suppose it would look bad if you let me bleed to death in my own hallway.”
“It would indeed, sir. I did not expect you to appear so soon, nor wounded, either.
“Nor did I. It is a good thing I’m not superstitious. I should change out of these clothes as quickly as I might. The aura of death must hang about them.”
“Undoubtedly you are right sir, with two men dead on the road behind you, and others wounded.” Robert could not help but smile at what Benson had said. He paused and looked at him with a smile breaking out on his face.
“Benson! I meant that comment about an aura of death, to concern me, and my health, not theirs. They got what they deserved.” He looked at him. “Do I detect a note of wry humor there, Benson?”
“No sir. I am a servant. Your father told me that, as a servant, I was not allowed to have a sense of humor.” The slight crinkle about his mouth and his eyes told a slightly different tale. Robert could not help but laugh at his denial, which nonetheless revealed a subtle sense of humor in the way it had been said. “I believe he was being humorous himself at the time, sir. He had a keen and subtle sense of humor, your father. He was sometimes difficult to understand that way, and one never could be sure just exactly what he might mean.”
Robert paused for a moment as he took note of something else. “I see the door was changed. I suppose the scarring and splintering from that old blunderbuss was not very welcoming.” His mind was going over too many things. Benson just wanted to get him into the house and settled, so that his wound could be seen to, but knew better than to try and hurry him.
“I like the new décor. Some of it.” He saw what must have been a recent portrait of himself in full uniform, and beside it was another of his brother. He had not posed for that first one. He hadn’t been home in ten years and yet that painting suggested that he was still a presence in the house. But that had been his brother.
They may have been parted from each other, but they had still been close. Robert’s own small trunk contained similar but smaller mementoes that his brother had sent to him from time to time, including a rolled-up sketch of his wife, nursing their first born, the boy they had named after him.
Their first born had such a brief existence, yet that simple image conveyed everything that had kept him going. Robert had often projected himself into that baby’s place and wondered what conscious thoughts might intrude into his peace, as he had suckled at his mother’s breast and looked up at her face shining with such love upon him. Robert had seen that look himself. Once.
The lad’s life had been so full of promise, but that future had been snatched away before it had even begun. It had been too hurtful for words to express.
In that same trunk there were sketches of each of their subsequent children at yearly intervals, in their new dresses, as well as all of Charles’s letters; those that had reached him. That sketch of Selena was Robert’s most treasured possession, even ahead of his pistols, and had saved his life and his sanity almost as often, but in a different way.
He moved his attention away from those portraits. His brother must have been the subject for both paintings—who might know the difference? But where had he got the uniform? He would ask, later.
“Where was the funeral held, Benson, and who attended?”
“It was held here, in the house, in the small chapel, sir. It was hurried, and not as formal as we would have liked. Nor was it well attended by anyone. Not with her ladyship abed and the children not knowing what was going on, poor little things. Just a few of us, and the new vicar. We did a hurried job of it I am afraid. We shall do a better job of it later as befits your brother, when we have time. It was too sudden, sir, and we are still reeling. Not like for your father, for that was expected, and there was almost a hundred attended that service in the village. He was well liked, your father.”
Robert strolled deeper into the house and did not like what he saw. “You can draw back the curtains throughout the house, Benson, and get rid of all of this crepe from pictures, and the wreaths, and all of the other signs of death and sorrow that will drag everyone down, needlessly. Burn them. I have had more than my fill of death, and we have no need to celebrate it in this morbid fashion. I have lived with it almost daily for the last few years. The dead will be well-remembered by us in our own way. It is the living who are important now. We need to get on with life. It was what my brother would have wanted.”
“Yes sir.” Benson had always liked Master Robert’s no-nonsense approach to everything, just like his brother. Master Robert had been known for saying what was in his mind, even as a stripling, and not caring who he shocked or offended. It had got him and his brother into a lot of trouble, but they had both been that way. Hard to tell, which of them had been the worst at goading their grandfather.
When he had first seen him arriving in that carriage, not five minutes earlier, his heart had almost stopped, thinking that he was seeing the Lord Penfield he remembered, again. The one he had just seen buried! The likeness was uncanny, except for the faint scars on Master Robert’s neck and face. There had been but a few minutes between them at birth, but such small differences can send twins off in such different directions that sometimes defied belief.
Robert’s brother had inherited, while he had eventually been sent off to join the navy.
Where Charles had become much quieter, and more settled after becoming engaged to Selena, Master Robert had gone the other way. Robert had set the house and the surrounding area ablaze with his various shenanigans over the next few years whenever he was home, until his mother could stand no more of it after rumor of a duel and even worse events which involved not just one, but several married women. And then there was his mother’s ever present and almost obsessive fear, that he might meet his brother’s fiancée. Robert would have to go!
To Robert’s father and mother, the obvious solution to their mounting difficulties, was to put him into the navy. If any son of theirs was determined to do so much damage to polite society and risk falling afoul of the law, he could damned well do it to the French, and in service of his own country. No one would think ill of him for that.
From what Benson had learned from Master Robert’s brother and father, the navy did not settle him down. Far from it. It welcomed firebrands like him, and set out to make them worse, by channeling their violent aptitudes to where they would do the most good. It provided Robert with more of an outlet to exercise his special talent for finding trouble and taking advantage of it. The navy approved of what he did, and did with profound and devastating effect, as one account had described it, where his own family and society had not approved.
He was soon promoted to Captain, with all of the responsibility that went with that title. Over the years he had lost one ship after another, but always in such a way as to raise admiration of what he had done and achieved, rather than in condemnation, as was usually the case. He might lose a ship or two, but the French and their allies usually lost three or four to his one, at his hands, and the admiralty could see it.
It was nice to see he still had a full complement of arms and legs and eyes and did not limp or show obvious signs of injury, except for this recent one.
Benson realized that Master Robert—he’d better stop thinking of him that way, and think of him as his Lordship, now—was still playing down his injuries, much as he had as a boy. He’d better get one of the girls to wipe up the blood that had dripped onto the hall floor as they had stood talking, and which was now following them down to the drawing room, but that could be later, after his Lordship had been seen to.
Master Robert (would he ever get used to thinking of him any other way?) had never batted any eye over any of it, as though there were nothing wrong with him. What must he have seen and experienced to engender such a disdain for being wounded, and in a way that would have had lesser men concerned for their very lives. At least he seemed to have been relatively unscathed by his experiences. All of the tales of him suggested that he should have been dead long before now, if he followed navy tradition, the way many of his fellow captains did, and took a sniper’s ball or two like the unforgettable Lord Nelson had, or got blown overboard as others did. Not an enviable life.
Benson put the portmanteau and its scabbard on the floor, the gun case on the table by the door, and then rang immediately for the maid, wherever she might be. He was not sure who would respond to his summons with the entire staff as physically and emotionally exhausted as they were, though rumor of Master Robert’s arrival would be known throughout the house by now. He watched as Master… Lord Penfield, walked resolutely over to the window with his sword still in his bloody hand and threw the curtains back to let the bright light of day flood in.
“That’s better! We should not have the house moping needlessly and driving each other into a fit of the sullens.”
Robert turned at a sudden commotion in the doorway behind him.