A Shot In The Dark
Robert needed to think. Was he doing the right thing by everyone? How would she respond to him when she discovered who he really was, though hopefully that would not happen too soon, and perhaps not until she was well on her way to recovery? And then what? He had better be prepared for the worst. Cross each bridge when he came to it. He had never gone into battle so fearing the outcome as he felt at this time.
Despite that, he began to feel, at last, that he could now relax in one way if not another. It had been a trying home-coming; not knowing what to expect, fearing that she might be beyond help. That uncertainty was now behind him.
Selena would eventually wake up to the fact that he was not her husband and then he would be seen very differently. He would not allow that to happen easily, even if it meant continuing this deception for as long as he could. He and his brother had often switched identities when they were growing up, and he knew that he could easily continue for as long as necessary though he would have to ask Nurse about certain things that he would not know; about developments on the estate, what plans they may have had, or anything else he should know that might make things easier for him. His brother had made a good marriage, though Robert had known that from Charles’s many letters, and was abreast of some of their plans and changes, so he would not reveal himself by his ignorance. Although he might be able to plead that he was more forgetful of things after the accident and that bump on his head.
Nurse would never easily approve of anything he chose to do. She could imagine only the worst possible outcome between them, seeing them as two firebrands brought together. Nurse was justifiably concerned that Selena would throw herself at Robert, believing him to be her husband, and knew that Robert, in turn, would be more than ready to be seduced in that way. She also suspected that Robert would be too ready to initiate whatever might happen, given the opportunity. However, she also could see the need to continue this dangerous deception for the benefit to their patient, the longer the truth was withheld from her. She was not sure which would be the greater evil.
It seemed unusually cold outside, but he knew that was because of the sudden transition from the extremely warm room he had just left and his own overheated feelings. He was also only lightly dressed.
He turned and walked along the wide, elevated flagged walkway that passed entirely around the house. They had run around it often, as boys, he and his brother, or staggered around it, playing horse and rider, with him astride his brother’s shoulders, or his brother on his.
As boys, he and Charles had balanced along the stone parapet at the edge of the terrace, though it had seemed tame, and without challenge for two such youths, until they had trundled a wheelbarrow along it with one riding inside. Others had soon put a stop to that. Then they had decided that it would be just as exciting to jump from it, out into the trees at the edge, and catch hold of the branches of certain of the trees that overhung it. Their increased daring had resulted in several falls, the last one of which had landed him abed with various injuries. When he went out after that, some days later, he found that the trees had all been cleared back from around the walkway. Another avenue for adventure had been closed off to them.
They had both been sent off to different universities—their mother believed it would be safer that way—with them re-uniting again on weekends and on the holidays. As the second son, even if only by a few minutes, he became aware that he could expect little from the estate once his father died, though his brother would happily have provided him with whatever he might have asked for.
He brought his thoughts back to where he was and what he was doing before he blundered into anything in the dark.
The partial moon, which had cast its brilliant silvery-cold light over everything when he had looked out across the lawns earlier, had now disappeared. It was now as dark as it would get; the darkness before the dawn, with hundreds of thousands of pinpricks of light perforating the dome of the sky above him. All of the stars and familiar constellations were as he had seen them on board his ship. The gigantic Orion; Ursa Major—the plough, also known as the Great Bear, the Big Dipper or Charles’s Wain (or wagon); and Ursa Minor. There was the familiar, but not very bright, pole star; the star most mariners looked for when they first came on deck, so that they might gauge their heading.
Sunrise was still at least an hour away. There was just barely enough light to see where he was going and the outline of a few trees against eastern horizon, though there were weak lights from within at least one of the rooms. His eyes soon adjusted to what little light there was.
This was the time he liked best. It was quiet, with few distractions. He had frequently walked on the deck at night, showing no lights to alert the enemy to their proximity while they steadily bore down upon them. Then, just before first light, he would draw abeam of the enemy ship by sound alone and, guided perhaps by the ashes of a pipe carelessly tapped out; by the light from an opening door, the flapping of the sails, or the creaking of the rigging, would then close fast, often undetected, and lay into them with every gun they had. There were no snipers in the rigging at that hour, or in that light, and by the time the gunners on the other vessel might be aware of what was happening, it was too late, and their fate had been sealed. But that kind of darkness was uncommon, and such surprises were rare.
The enemy crew was usually aware of his presence somewhere close by from the sounds of water on another hull, and was always ready to turn the tables. Penfield’s fast closing of the distance between them, before they could get themselves fully prepared, was the greater surprise, but it needed a disciplined crew who could work in the rigging without having orders shouted at them, and a good ship. The Selena had been such a ship, and her crew, such a crew.
Robert recollected himself at the last moment before he walked into the statue at the corner of the building. He stopped and looked out over the dim expanse of open ground. Already, there was the suggestion of a ghostly mist forming above the lawns. There would be a heavy dew over everything by first light.
He turned and looked at the building façade and saw the single glow from the bedroom window above him, faintly illuminating the stonework at the side of the large windows. That was the room in which Selena was resting. It would be difficult for her when she realized what the truth of it all was and recovered enough of her conscious state to know that he was not Charles. What would he not have given to have been Charles at that moment! And not only for her sake, but for his own.
He turned and retraced his steps, tripping over an uneven piece of the flagstone and began to fall to his knees. At the same time, there was a sudden noise beside him, and he felt numerous stings on the side of his face.
He dropped down to the walkway where he was hidden by the parapet, waited and watched through the stonework until his wits and his hearing returned.
In his distraction he had been taken by surprise. Someone had taken a shot at him as he had been briefly outlined against the lower window. If he had not tripped the shot might well have hit him. It had hit the stonework beside his head and sent small splinters of granite from the edge of the window into the side of his face. Fortunately, it had not broken the window he had been outlined against or damaged his eyes.
Already there were other lights beginning to appear in two of the windows along the walkway after the noise of that shot. Others would be out, shortly, to learn what had happened.
He remained still, hearing a gentle rustling in the shrubbery off to one edge of the lawn. At any other time, he might wonder if it were a fox or a badger on the hunt for birds or vermin, or the many rabbits that seemed to live on the lawns.
Then he heard the movement of a much larger animal, and then a few moments later the sound of a horse moving away from the house and through the woods. Whoever had shot at him would assume that they had hit him, with him tripping and falling like that. Let them continue to believe it. He would make no outcry, but he would be sure to take better note of everything around him after this. He felt the anger growing within him, that someone might be so bold and so reckless as to think to kill him on his own property and so close to his home.
Even as he recognized all of these things, he was moving. One of his questions was at least better answered now. The attack upon him as he had come here, had not been because of any mistaken identity confusing him for Gilbert Bascombe. He had been shot at, both times, for being who he was; Penfield. Robert began to suspect who it might be that had ordered that. His uncle!
Someone had been watching the house, and watching that window above, possibly waiting for him to show himself, as he had. It was a pity Robert had not thought to bring a gun out with him. It was a habit he would have to adopt again. His carelessness might have cost him his life. Surely what had happened to him on the road as he approached the estate should have alerted him, but then he had not been thinking clearly, and had assumed that whoever had tried to injure him might have assumed that he was Bascombe. He now knew better.
There was nothing else to hear. Better if he alarm no-one about this, though they would all have been able to hear the shot. The less anyone knew, the better.
The shooter would remain in cover of the trees as long as he could, and would keep away from the driveway, so would be able to move only slowly for fear of being impaled on a branch. He would make for the meadow a half mile off to one side where he might make better progress without injury, and without being apprehended. He would rejoin the road where it went through the gates.
Robert did not hesitate, but set out at a run, down from the walkway, and across the lawns. He might beat him to the gates and close them. There was no other easy way on or off the estate, especially after dark. But what then? He would learn what he could from the man, of course. That would be the price for being allowed to ride away with his life. The man would not know who he was, or that he was not armed in that darkness.
Thirty minutes later, he walked back across the dimly-revealed lawns to the house. There was indeed a mist hanging over everything, and his feet were wet from dew, but he was satisfied with what he had learned, and without further injury to himself. He had put the fear of death into the man, as he deserved, and that man would, in turn, put the fear of death into his uncle, with visions of dancing a jig at the end of a rope. That had been the price for being allowed to live.
His uncle would not remain in England long, now that he knew his nephew was aware of all of his efforts and would beat a fast retreat to save his own neck and before Robert would decide to look him up, as he had suggested he would do, to his henchman.
When Robert got back to the house, he would say nothing of what he had learned or of what he had done and would express his own curiosity about the shot. Better that way than to alarm anyone unduly now that he considered the matter dealt with.
He spoke out to his gamekeeper when he was challenged in the half-light.
“It’s me, Armitage.” He cringed at his use of English. “I was out for an early morning stroll.” They might think him an idiot to be so far out in the pre-dawn, and so lightly dressed.
“Thank god you are safe, sir. We all heard the shot and did not know what to make of it and knew that it would not be you shooting off a gun at this time of night. Mr. Benson has had us out and scouring the area close to the house when we realized that you were not inside.”
“I was curious about the shot myself and took off to see if I could find out what it might mean. Some careless poacher, I expect.” Armitage knew better, but if his lordship did not wish to say more, he could do nothing about it.
“I am safe, as you can see. Go back to your rest and collect up the rest of those who were sent out to look for me. Nothing too serious.”
Robert was met at the door by Benson, aroused from his bed some time before, and unable to rest until his lordship had returned.
Benson saw only calmness. Robert was aware of at least one other person in the background. There was a pale face, that of a female he could see peering around the turn in the corridor. He thought he recognized Deirdre. He would say nothing to discomfort either of them. Others had also been aroused from their sleep.
“Are you alright sir? We… I, heard a shot.”
“Yes. Poachers, I believe. Rather close for them I would have thought.”
“There is blood on your forehead and cheek, sir.”
Robert’s shirt was also torn, with perspiration stains on it, and his shoes were muddy, as though he had gone across that soft place in the meadow bottom, but that was some distance out.
“Yes, Benson, I know. I have grown clumsy in my tiredness. I walked into the vine on the corner, and I tripped too. The flagstones on the terrace are slightly uneven. I thought I might be safer on the open lawns after that.”
There was too much he was not saying, and that gunshot had been far too close. Benson would learn more in the morning.
“Go back to your bed, Benson. Nothing to fuss about. So many things I should have taken note of before I went for a stroll in the dark. I’ll see to bathing it myself, before I retire.”
Benson knew better than to argue. He’d drop a word in Armitage’s ear to keep his eyes open. He’d go out himself at first light and have a look around. His Lordship had been shot at. Not the first time either from the calm way he seemed to take it. It also looked as though he had been in a struggle, and not with that vine that he had mentioned. He had also been hiding a broken musket in his hand, while trying to keep it out of sight.