A New World
That moment was when three very young girls—his brother’s children—came stumbling into the room in noisy disarray, having discovered where he was at last, and fell silent the moment they saw him. They were wide-eyed, excited over something and out of breath, but then they saw something else which caused them to reconsider their precipitate entrance. The two younger girls stood slightly behind their eldest sister, to shield themselves from the strange sight outlined before them in the bright light of the window; of a large man, seemingly larger than life, as they half expected, and with a bare sword with blood on it, and blood also soaking his sleeve and dripping onto the floor. They recoiled for a moment, but then resolutely stood their ground.
This apparition was looking at them intently. In the glare from the window behind him, he was not too easily or clearly seen for a few moments. That soon changed.
“Father?” The oldest of the three girls spoke, almost fearfully in some surprise. She moved forward as though to run into his arms, but then stopped, and held the others back. There was something different. His manner seemed strange. He did not immediately drop to his knees to embrace them welcomingly as he invariably did when he returned to them after being away for even a day. She did not understand. He was not the one she had at first thought him to be. But then he still might be. It was something she could not immediately understand.
This man was not their father, but perhaps his spirit, or a ghost come back to say goodbye. Had he fought his way out of heaven? Why? To see them, of course.
It was not their father, but he so looked like him against the light from the window. She regretted her first impulse. He seemed like an apparition, or an angel with the bright light behind him, and she was not sure that he might even be alive.
She resolutely stood her ground, with her younger sisters holding onto her dress behind her and looked him over with no obvious sign of fear, but an abundance of puzzled curiosity. She was pale, and unsure what was before her.
Robert could not resist growling slightly to see what effect that would have upon them.
There were a few little cries, and two of them tried to turn and escape this horrifying vision. Perhaps they thought he was a ghost? The eldest girl was not so easily intimidated and stood her ground. She was more curious than afraid and needed to understand who or what this vision was.
Robert knew who they had to be. These were his nieces, and the eldest had stood her ground, with the others returning to stand with her until they might have an explanation.
Nurse entered and blocked their escape. “Now what’s this?” She was rooted to the spot for a few moments, not sure she could believe what she saw. Anyone else seeing her at that moment might describe her as being caught in that forthright, but vulgar expression—gobsmacked. She was not that way for long.
“Oh, Master Robert.” She rushed over to him and hugged him, ignoring the bare saber in his hand. “We knew you would come, but not so soon. Thank god for that.”
He held his arm away from his body, so she might not be covered with his blood or interfere with his wound. After a few moments of coming to grips with what was happening, he returned her affection with some surprise. She had never before been this pleased to see him, but he had been the difficulty, rather than her.
“You are still here, Nurse. Almost like old times. You do not seem to have changed in all of the years. He looked at her as she stood back from him, recollecting that she should not have been so demonstrative. “Do I see some signs of grey?” He touched her hair “But I seem to have driven these three young ladies into mute surprise.”
Benson took the opportunity to quietly leave, and to sort out some other clothing for his Lordship. He was more pleased than he could say that his Lordship had come as soon as he had. He was sorely needed in a house that was facing more than its share of difficulties.
The girls soon recovered their wits and began to argue among themselves, expressing a mix of feelings, and not sure what they were seeing.
“Hush girls, there is nothing to be afraid of here. Come and meet your Uncle Robert.” The eldest girl looked at her siblings as though to say I told you so. “He is your father’s younger brother, I think, though only by a few minutes, and very like him.”
He smiled at them and spoke to them kindly. “Not only his younger brother, by a few minutes, but I am his twin brother. Did no one tell you I was his twin? One would think you had seen a ghost.”
They nudged each other and whispered a little, before the eldest girl spoke up again, but not addressing him directly.
“He does look a lot like Father, except for his clothing and his untidy hair.” Robert had not yet seen himself in a mirror. “And that look in his eyes. But he has a sword, Nurse. And he’s all bloody.”
“Is he?” Nurse stepped back from him to get a better look. Her hand flew to her face in surprise that she had so easily missed something so obvious. “Oh, my goodness, yes, so he is. Yes. Almost like old times indeed.” She took control of something she understood and began to fuss. “Up to your old tricks again so soon, are you? Who did you wound this time? No one in this house, I hope.”
“No. No one in this house, Nurse. What old tricks would those be? I was not responsible for this, and they deserved what they got. Well, I was responsible for some of it. No denying that.”
“But you are wounded yourself. Like old times, indeed. We’d better get you seen to.” She pulled the bell cord, not realizing that Benson already had.
“Now, girls, despite his ruffianly appearance, he is one of the kindest and most gentle of men you are ever likely to come across, or he was when I last remembered him”—she smiled wryly up at him for what she said next—“after a difficult start and some rough going. But we don’t need to go into that.”
“Nurse! Such disrespect and such awkward qualifications – ‘ruffianly appearance’ indeed, and such a whisker! You know that I am neither a kind, gentle man, nor a gentleman. You told me often enough. But then so did my parents and everyone else.”
“No, it is not a whisker, sir. At least not in most circumstances it wasn’t, though you turned out alright once you went away.”
“That’s better! At least you qualified it properly that time. And I do not present a ruffianly appearance.”
“Then you cannot have seen yourself in a mirror, sir, for you do. There is a wild look about you. Your hair is askew, as though it had been cropped with a sickle, and though you may not think it out of place, there is a bloody saber still in your hand.” She began to see more. “And a bloody coat is not the usual accoutrement of a gentleman. We need to get you seen to, though you do not appear at death’s door just yet.”
He moved to glance at himself in the mirror above the small table, and had to agree with her. “Yes, I am quite a sight, am I not? I didn’t look like this when I left London. But then I rarely finished any day, looking quite as neat as I started it, and often more bruised, knocked about, and bloody.” He tried to smooth his hair, but it would not lie flat. It was not well cropped, for it had been done hastily before he had stepped ashore, almost as though it had been done with a saber, or a sickle, as nurse had suggested, and not the surgeon’s scissors, wielded by his friend.
Nurse continued with her disclosures about him. “I brought him up, just as I did with each of you, I also helped him into this world, just after his brother, or before him (there was that inevitable uncertainty again), and listened to his first cry, and he’s never cried since, that I was ever aware of.”
The girls approached, cautiously, after that kind, but unlikely description, not sure what to believe, although they discovered that, despite his stern appearance, he was smiling at them. He had not expected this kind of welcome or…. The eldest stepped forward resolutely, curtsied then held out her hand, ignoring his bloodied arm.