Warnings: Something silly and stylised- it is Sunday afternoon after
all, and I'm in a Georgette Heyer mood.
The Black Corinthian
Sunlight was streaming most agreeably through the bay casement onto the rich, Persian carpet below, and across the high-glossed hessians of the gentleman sitting on the windowseat. However, although his gaze was fixed upon his boots it seemed doubtful from his unseeing expression that he was even aware of their gleam. The fair-haired gentleman pouring port on the other side of the window lifted a glass across to him and put a hand on his shoulder, saying gently,
"Now come along Exander. Have a drink, there's a good fellow, and we'll forget this ever happened."
"Why?" his companion demanded hoarsely. "Why, damn you? You know- you must know that I meant every word-"
"My dear fellow of course you did." The honourable Timothy Fleet sat down beside his friend and gripped the big shoulder comfortingly. His face, a little lined with fifteen years additional age to his companion's, was kind and a little sad, but he spoke calmly, as if repeating a lesson to a schoolboy.
"My dear fellow, you must know that you are telling me about loneliness, not passion. You are not in love with me, nor have you ever been. Besides which, little as I care for convention you must know I am very fond of Maria! Affairs and companions are one thing my boy. The kind of friendship you are asking for is something very different, and I have a wife I would not see hurt for the world."
The younger man stared into his glass. He was in his early thirties, a wide-shouldered, tall and well-built man who turned heads and broke hearts for many reasons other than his considerable fortune. He might be a second son with no title to inherit, but matchmaking Mamas planned nonetheless each season to capture him for their daughters, for after all, he was a Northam. A family that most damsels dreamed of marrying into. But Exander Northam had no interest in society or in debutantes. Mr Fleet sighed, and wished that he had.
"Exander. My dear fellow, you'll than me for this in time-"
"You know I meant every word I said." Exander said with difficulty.
Mr Fleet resisted the urge to tousle the untidy, dark hair and merely said gently,
"I told you how it would be when you insisted on returning to the Peninsular."
"It was Belgium."
Mr Fleet smiled wryly. "The location hardly mattered."
"Justin died at Salamanca. I could find the very spot. Damn it, I buried him."
"I know." Mr Fleet said gently. "My dear boy, you've re-opened every wound you had. All the pain you'd put behind you-"
"I had to go to Waterloo." Exander thrust away the arm and stood, staring unseeingly into the street below the window. "Do you think I could have stood by while the regiment- Justin's regiment- returned to finish the campaign Justin gave his life for? If I owed him anything, I owed him that! I saw Napoleon finished, Timothy. I saw him taken. I saw the French columns retreat."
His dark face was satanic with anger and with a triumph so bitter that many would have been afraid. Mr Fleet felt only a deep pity. Exander drained his glass in one draught and placed the glass on the table with a precise click that told Mr Fleet that it was not the first drink his friend had taken that day. He rose, anticipating Exander's next move, but the younger man was ahead of him and already reaching for the door.
"I am sure you have borne with me long enough, Timothy. You have admirable patience! Well you may wish me at the devil. I am already there."
"Exander." Mr Fleet said quietly. It was an exertion of all the bonds of friendship that stood between them. Mr Fleet was well aware that he was privileged to be one of the two men left alive who could have called Exander Northam back. Exander did not turn; only stood still with his hand on the door.
"My dear friend." Mr Fleet said sincerely. "You may not believe me now, but you will come to realise I have done you a very good turn here. I am not the man for you. You will find someone you can love in the way that you loved Justin and I know you well enough to understand that you will never be satisfied with anything less."
"Justin was my heart and soul." Exander said very softly. Mr Fleet looked at his stiff back with pity. "You are lonely. You had the courage to face this once, now you must face it down again. My dear fellow, ask yourself- would Justin want this grief of you? If he was to see you now-"
"If you cannot see how worried you are making those who love you-"
"Have no fear!" Exander said grimly as he quitted Mr Fleet's chambers, "I shall not trouble you again!"
Exander had taken up residence in the family house in Brook Street, at least temporarily, although no one currently occupied it besides the servants who ran it all the year round whether the family were in residence or not, and the family secretary. In the five months since his return from the triumphal battle of Waterloo, Exander had travelled the length and breadth of England, never settling anywhere very long. From the family estate in Cambridgeshire, to his elder brother's home in Warwickshire, to the homes of numerous friends- those who loved him had watched his rambling with growing concern, aware that he was looking for distraction and never finding it. A good amount of that concern was written in the face of the secretary as he met Exander on the landing, although it was well concealed in a cheerful smile.
"You know `Xander." Exander's elder brother had commented, when asked for advice, "Light rein and careful patience or he'll kick the traces over and that's the last we'll see of him for months."
And knowing James Northam to be as kindly a friend to his younger brother as any other, Peter Wyndham had taken his advice, although the tightness in Exander's voice and the shuttered look to his eyes touched him to the heart. He could remember so easily the lively, gay young man of five years before, beloved by friends and society alike. Strictly speaking, Wyndham was more of a family friend than an employee. Viscount Northam had taken the orphaned son of his friend into his own home, and Peter had grown up with James and Exander, much as one of the family. He had taken the post of secretary on himself, and as he was a quiet, shy man, little given to the society his adoptive family lived in, he was happy in his role.
"You've missed supper again." He said cheerfully, trying not to look at Exander's face, which was marked with strain, and, he suspected, alcohol. "Would you like me to ring down to the kitchen? I daresay they can find you a morsel or two below stairs."
Exander didn't pause or look at him, voice curt. "I dined with a friend."
Personally, Peter doubted that. He found Exander to be alarmingly thin at present, but he made no cavil, merely smiled and went on down the stairs. "I was going to Almacks for an hour or so. Could I persuade you to join me? It's remarkably less dull with your company!"
"No, I came home only to change."
"On your way to anywhere amusing?"
"Only my club." Exander paused on the stairs above, as though he'd only just heard what he was saying. . "That is if you don't mind, Peter. How abominably rude I am to you!"
"You may be as rude as you please, I shall go to Almacks and drown myself in civilities all evening!" Peter countered gently and for a second, Peter saw his face relax a trifle towards a smile.
"You really are a man of as much good sense as tact, Peter."
Peter returned the smile warmly, but he thought in his own mind that young Captain Northam looked tired and haggard, and he could detect the subtle odour of alcohol on his clothes. While it was not at all unusual that he should have been drinking, it seemed lately he had been drinking a little deeper and a little more often than he had ever before been known to do. Still, he merely smiled and said cheerfully,
"Have a pleasant evening."
Ten minutes later, from the library, he heard the front door close and knew that Exander had gone.
The club was one that both Exander and his brother enjoyed membership of; the select haunt of the notable Corinthians. However, Exander had ensured from his moods and silences over the last months that even those who knew him best, restricted their communication to a brief nod or word.
Exander settled himself in a dark corner with sufficient spirits to dull the turmoil within him. He found himself randomly making plans to escape London at the earliest opportunity and chastised himself sharply with the reminder that he had no reason to go anywhere and that wherever he took himself, he would not leave his troubles behind. He then found himself making darker reflections with a dispassion that troubled him even more. He had become enough of a burden on his family that they would not be too bereft by his death. He let none of his many friends close now, except Timothy who had so kindly rejected him that afternoon.
He had no dependants, no duties; his elder brother had sired three hopeful boys to inherit the Northam titles and names. The more he considered it, the more attractive the shiny and well-kept manton pistol in his coat, became.
He drained his glass and called sharply to a waiter for pen and paper. Once he received them, he thought briefly, then scribbled a terse note and folded it. He was writing the direction to his brother when a quarrel broke out at a neighbouring table, loudly enough to make him raise his head in irritation. It was a group settled around dice, which had been playing late into the evening. Several well- known and respected gentlemen sat with one or two youngsters newly admitted to the club, and one of the youngsters was on his feet. A boy of perhaps twenty, fresh on the town and glaring with bright blue eyes at the Honourable Giles Merlot. Exander knew Merlot a little; a stable fellow with a pleasant temper, who had been an old friend of Justin's. Accusations were being flung freely in the clear voice of the beautiful boy with blue eyes, and he was attracting the attention of most of the room. Giles cut through the ranting with his pleasant voice cold.
"Waiter! Kindly show this young man to the door."
"Damn you!" The boy exploded. A man beside him took his arm, trying to quieten him, but the boy flung him off. "Name your seconds!"
"Don't be a fool." Someone said angrily. The boy's eyes flashed and his head flung back in a gesture as proud as it was foolish.
"Mr Merlot, I will meet you where and when you choose! Unless you admit to cheating-"
Even for Giles that was too much. He rose slowly to his feet. The affair had gone far enough now that no one would dare to interfere. Giles had every right to meet the young fool and to put a bullet in him. Every other man around the table was stiff and silent. Exander got exasperatedly to his feet and came to the table before Giles had time to answer.
"Merlot, don't answer him."
"Too late." Standen said softly at his elbow, "Nothing you can do, Northam old boy."
"He's a child." Exander said brusquely. "A mere cub who can't carry his wine."
"Cheat." The boy said passionately. "Liars and-"
"Be silent." Exander said in the voice that had made the subalterns in his company quake. The room stilled. Giles looked at him.
"A cub." Exander told him quietly. "Take a riding crop to him, Giles. Kick him down the steps. The brat'll cast up his accounts the minute he moves. He's not worth more than a short lesson in manners."
Giles took a deep breath. Exander stood his ground for Justin's sake. Justin would have had the good taste to stand by in distress and in silence while this boy put both himself and Giles in danger, but Exander could never bear Justin to be unhappy. Distress in his soft eyes was so terrible that there was nothing Exander wouldn't have done to take it away.
"Giles." He said quietly. Giles caught his eye and nodded silently. Exander gripped the boy's arm and propelled him forcibly across the room. The boy struggled wildly, using language that only deepened Exander's irritation. He pushed the boy down the steps and heard the porter shut the door quietly behind them. There, the boy wrenched free and turned, nearly spitting with rage. In the ruins of his evening dress, his bright eyes blazing, his fair hair yet more disarranged than was fashionable, he looked younger still.
"How dare you!"
Exander made no answer other than to cuff him soundly. The child staggered, far more than the blow warranted, then turned white, then green, then was violently sick. He rolled up his eyes when the child began to sway and hooked an arm around the boy, steadying him. The youngster was barely capable of standing when the paroxysms ended. Exander shook him.
"You young fool, where are you lodging?"
"Don't-" the boy said unsteadily, "Damn you, I can walk-"
"You can't even stand. Where do you live?"
The boy turned green again. "Berkley Square- 233. Overston."
Lord Overston's house. This cub must be one of his youngest. From all appearances too young and too hotheaded to be allowed anywhere without a nursemaid. Exander dragged the boy to a hack, gave the driver the direction and stood, watching the cab move away.
Now was the time to take the pistol and go to the river- but the altercation with the boy had sapped his will. Tired, sick himself, and unaccountably light headed, Exander dug his hands into his jacket pockets and began to walk instead, oblivious to the onsetting rain.
It was past dawn when he reached the front door of Brook street. Someone had been watching for him, the door was pulled open the minute he mounted the steps. Exander went into the shocking heat of the hall and surrendered his hat to a footman.
"You're drenched sir," someone was saying with concern, "Shall I call…"
He trailed off. Exander laughed. He had not kept a valet since he left for Waterloo and was continually amused by the horror of the servants.
"Mr Exander- sir-"
The stairpost was cold and hard. Exander gripped it and kept on laughing.
"Alexander." A quiet voice said from the hallway.
Exander stopped at once, shocked. His father was immaculately dressed, despite the hour, and standing in the doorway to the library.
The Viscount stepped back, bowing his son politely into the room ahead of him.
"I would appreciate a moment of your time if you please."
The servants melted away. Stunned, Exander found his way to the library and closed the door. The fire's heat was unbearable. The Viscount stood with his back to it, his hands clasped behind him.
"The hour is somewhat early. Or perhaps I should say late? Did you enjoy a pleasant evening?"
"I-" Exander hesitated, not entirely sure, and infuriated at the confusion he'd been cast into. "I was at my club, sir-"
"You were not. I visited Whites myself, shortly after midnight."
"I walked back, sir. I own myself surprised to see you, I thought you were in Leicestershire-"
"So I perceive." The Viscount eyed his drenched clothing. "Doubtless if you had expected me you would have taken the trouble to look a little more respectable. I take it you had some purpose in walking all night in the rain?"
The room seemed unbearably hot. Exander gripped the back of a chair and tried to find excuses, rapidly. "Papa- if you would give me half an hour to change, order breakfast-"
"I came to discuss somewhat more than breakfast."
"I need dry clothes and breakfast before I can talk coherently sir. If you'll excuse me."
His father's gaze was steady and uncomfortably acute.
"Are you drunk, Alexander?"
Exander flushed. "NO sir. I shall not be long."
He ran upstairs, annoyed that he'd allowed himself to become flustered. The pending interview promised to be unpleasant: the Viscount had an acute eye, a sharp tongue, and was never afraid to speak his mind. In his dressingroom, Exander pulled off his boots, cravat and jacket and began to drop wet clothes to the floor, wondering what ill wind had made his father decide to come down to London and at such a peculiar hour of the morning. He was startled by the familiar Cambridgeshire accent behind him.
"It's clear you've had no respectable man near you for months from the way you're throwing that jacket about my lad."
Exander spun, torn between outrage and pleasure. Houghton, who had known him from a small boy, gave him a wry smile and picked up his fallen clothes.
"When they said downstairs that you'd no valet employed, I thought I'd better give you a hand before your lord father skins you alive."
It was not by any means the first time Houghton had stepped in to shield him from his father's wrath. Exander let himself be peeled out of his jacket and watched the big man shake out the material, carrying it away.
"Get out of those wet clothes. What were you doing out half the night?"
"What's my father in town for?" Exander demanded, stripping off his shirt. "What brought him up here, John? You must know, he tells you everything."
"That's nonsense for a start."
"You must know!"
Houghton shook his head, unhelpful.
"All I can say is he was up here on business and he went down to White's to meet you. When you weren't there, he got some tale of a fight."
"Oh lord." Exander took the towel from Houghton and rubbed himself down quickly and harshly. Houghton stood waiting, clean shirt in his hand, and took the towel as Exander finished. "His Lordship's been worried sick about you."
"Nonsense." Exander said brusquely. "I've been blue devilled before John, this is no different. No more than a fit of the sullens."
Houghton caught him before he could shoulder into the clean shirt and eased the linen over the one shoulder that was slightly stiffer and higher than the other. The bullet wound was not too long healed and Exander was more than indifferent to it. Houghton was well aware that the scar was deeply painful, and the sight of it, still only partially healed, goaded him beyond caution.
"Aye, but the house servants have been talking, and they've made me afraid for one-"
"Afraid of what, man?"
"Of you harming yourself, by neglect or by violence." Houghton said bluntly.
"Your steward says as you barely come home to eat or sleep, and I don't like to see you carrying pistols-"
Exander snorted derisively, picking up a comb to drag through his rough and still damp hair. Houghton hesitated, then touched his shoulder.
"I've known you from a little boy. Even if you turned me off-"
"I didn't hire you John, and my father wouldn't let you go."
"No sir." Houghton said gently. "But I wish you'd think of Mr Justin."
Exander shook him off and jerked the jacket straight with more irritation than care.
"Damn it, will no one keep from casting that in my face! I think of nothing else! Stop maundering on for pity's sake John! You're in serious danger of becoming an old woman."
"I wish you'd try a little to think of what he would say to you now." Houghton picked up Exander's boots, unresponsive to the reproof and thinking with some wistfulness of the days when Exander had been young enough and small enough to be effectively dealt with in mid tantrum. "You dress and mind your temper. His lordship never cared for being kept waiting, and he won't care for that tone either."
Viscount Northam had been aware from the time of his second son's infancy that Exander made up for all his brother's lack of adventure. James was naturally good tempered and level headed. While Exander equally had no ill in his nature, his father was well aware he had the make up that led all too easily to trouble if not properly handled and occupied. For that reason, the Viscount had taken his second son in hand very early on, seeing to it that his energy was not thwarted into mischief making, and ensuring that his natural temper and wilfulness had no chance to warp into the qualities that could easily destroy a young man.
As a result, father and son understood each other well, which made Exander still more reluctant to allow the Viscount to see him in such condition. For his own part, the Viscount keenly regretted the loss of Justin, who had been able to manage- and check when necessary-, his younger son, with the same sensitivity he had himself for an intelligent and high-spirited colt.
He was justly proud of both his sons, for they were tall, well-built and handsome young men, but this early morning, he looked on his youngest son with deepening concern. Exander had been thin when he returned from Waterloo: now he was gaunt, and the hard excitement in his eyes had given way to something far darker and grimmer. Viscount Northam now clearly understood the warnings his eldest son had given him two days ago, and why James had been so insistent that he should see Exander for himself. Exander joined him in the small saloon the family had always used for a dining room when only themselves were present, and servants, routed out of bed and yawning at shortly past six in the morning, brought hot plates to the table. When Exander showed himself inclined to bury himself in coffee and no more, the Viscount filled a plate with bacon and eggs himself and placed it quietly in front of his son.
"What caused the trouble at White's last night?"
Exander pulled himself together with an effort. "Some young cub with more wine than sense. Accused Giles Merlot of cheating."
"I trust Merlot did not accept his challenge?"
Exander snorted, a wry sound of amusement. "No thank God. He allowed me to kick the child down the steps for him. One of Overston's sons I believe."
"Ah. This must be young Michael. I've heard of him."
Viscount Northam sat back in his chair and watched his own difficult youngest pick at his breakfast. Exander felt his father's eyes on him and abandoned any pretence of eating.
"Are you staying in London long, sir?"
"I came to attend to some business with Cottersham. As it is, I may find myself staying longer than I had planned."
Well trained, Exander was showing no more than absent and polite interest. The Viscount laid his napkin aside.
"Alexander come with me."
Out of the earshot of the servants. One should always hold disagreeable family scenes well away from the servants. Exander followed him to the library and closed the door, standing while his father paced ahead of him to the fire.
"I have never been fond of prevarication and I shall not do so now." The Viscount said bluntly. "When I reached White's last night, I was given a billet which you had left, addressed to your brother."
"Oh God." Exander said wearily. His father eyed him, narrowly.
"A laudable prayer. Do you need to re acquaint yourself with the contents of this letter, or shall we proceed directly to your explanations?"
"I might ask for myself sir, how you came to read a letter not directed to you." Exander said with a trace of heat. The Viscount barely lifted an eyebrow.
"I would ask who has better right to know your affairs my boy? James would have acquainted me with its contents directly he received it. Save by that time, according to the letter, it would have been past time I was able to intervene in the matter."
"It has nothing whatsoever to do with you, sir."
The Viscount quirked one immaculate eyebrow. "If you imagine I will allow you the freedom to carry out such intentions, Alexander, then I have allowed to you grow up in shameful ignorance of both my character and my responsibilities."
"I am past thirty, sir. Your responsibilities towards me are long discharged."
"I shall debate that point with you when you have a son of your own." The Viscount said courteously. He withdrew the letter from his pocket and offered it. Exander accepted it grimly, and did not unfold it. The Viscount gave him a steady look with the same grey eyes that were in Exander's own face.
"I sincerely hoped that you were drunk last night. I would have preferred you to enter the house incapable than to demonstrate that you wrote this in your own and sober mind."
"Peter will confirm that I was half sprung sir." Exander said evenly. The Viscount raised an eyebrow.
"Peter merely confirms that while you have been drinking more frequently and more deeply than usual, you have never returned to the house anything less that coherent. No Alexander. I require more of you than that."
"What would you wish me to say sir?" Exander said with a trace of acid. The Viscount froze him with a look.
"I spoke to your brother two days ago. He made me aware then of his concerns for your health and your safety, which I thought were somewhat exaggerated. I now see that both he and I have placed too much confidence in your good sense."
Exander didn't move, nor change his tone.
"There is nothing that you can do sir."
The Viscount shook his head slowly, voice soft but very certain.
"On the contrary, Alexander. If I consider it necessary, I can and will take steps to ensure your safety until I am convinced beyond the remotest doubt that you mean yourself no harm."
"I do not believe you have the authority to do that, sir." Exander said stiffly.
"I should be reluctant to take such a step," The Viscount agreed, "But do not imagine for a moment that I should let such a consideration prevent me. Your note states only intentions, not reasons. What trouble are you in?"
"None." Exander muttered. The Viscount's eyes raked him.
"Debts? I never knew you to play at the clubs, but-"
"No." Exander said impatiently. "No, there's nothing of that nature. I swear to you sir, there's no secrets I'm keeping."
"Then what would drive you to write a note such as this?" the Viscount demanded. "Alexander? I understand what you suffered at the peninsular, I understand what it was to you to lose Justin, and I could wish you hadn't returned to Waterloo, but it's been five months boy!"
""I can't explain it sir!" Exander said angrily. "I would to God the waiters would mind their own business and let scraps of paper lie!"
"This was in your mind." The Viscount said grimly. "You can't deny that."
"I did not act on it."
"This time." The Viscount took the note from his hand and placed it in the fire. "Believe me, you will not have the opportunity for a second attempt."
"You cannot stop me sir."
"You mistake yourself. The servants in this house are employed by me, they will follow my orders." His father said quietly. "The doors are locked, you will not be permitted to leave this house save on my orders. Neither Houghton nor I will let you from our sight if need be."
He saw that shaft go home. Exander's head reared back and his eyes blazed.
"This is unnecessary and ridiculous drama sir!"
"Is it? Then explain to me!"
Exander angrily walked away to the window. The Viscount watched him, troubled and alarmed by the set of his shoulders and the whiteness of his face.
"Alexander? What is your mother to make of this."
"Good God sir, I'd hope you had the sense not to tell her!"
"She is alarmed for you as I am. Perhaps you would say to her what you cannot trust to me."
"It is no matter of trust. Papa, I'm sorry you were alarmed, but this is needless."
"It is not needless." The Viscount said grimly. "I read it in your face, in your voice, in every move you make!"
"I-" Exander paused and gripped for a chair back. The Viscount frowned at him, then saw his son's look of faint puzzlement grow as he began to sway. With a quick lunge, faster than a man of his age seemed likely to be capable of, the Viscount caught him before he fell and lowered him gently to the floor.
The door opened at once, too quickly for anyone who had not been standing directly behind it waiting for such a summons. Houghton swore at the sight of Exander on the floor and knelt by his master.
"I didn't hear a fight-"
"He's unconscious." The Viscount pressed a hand to his son's forehead and throat. "Fevered. I should have known. Tell that fool of a steward to call a doctor, at once."
"Let me take him my lord." Houghton said before the Viscount could lift his son.
The Viscount moved back and let Houghton pick his unconscious youngest from the floor, managing him easily with the heavy shoulders and well built muscles of a man who'd handled horses from a child. He followed Houghton and his burden upstairs, barking orders to the house servants in the hallway who scattered to do his bidding, alarmed.
"Don't you worry sir." Houghton said soothingly to the Viscount as he laid Exander down on his bed. "He was drenched to the skin and it was cold out last night. No doubt he caught a chill and that's all."
The Viscount said nothing, merely came to help as Houghton stripped Exander to the skin and put him into a nightshirt, but he was well aware from the gaunt and bony figure they handled, that his youngest son was in no condition to withstand even the mildest of chills.
Dr Bailie looked grave when he straightened from Exander's bedside. The Viscount, who stood looking out of the window with his hands clasped behind his back, turned to face him, waiting impassively. Bailie glanced from Exander's white face and closed eyes to the Viscount's expressionless countenance and saw again the marked similarity between father and son.
"Has there been any sign of illness over the last weeks?"
"I could not say." The Viscount said tonelessly, "I arrived only last night and my son has spent little time in sight of the servants."
Bailie inclined his head. "I would suspect this has been upon him for some time."
"What is it?" The Viscount asked, as if inquiring the weather.
"Pneumonia." Bailie said bluntly. "What might have been a chill or influenza then has had time to develop with carelessness. I must warn you, sir. He is not in the best of conditions to brave a serious illness."
"I am aware."
"Will you have a nurse for him?"
The Viscount dismissed that thought as quickly as he considered it: quite apart from that at present he trusted Exander with no one other than himself or Houghton who had always been well able to handle him, Exander had never in his life responded well to women.
"Houghton will do all that is necessary. You may give your instructions to me."
Bailie sighed. "There is little you can do. He is young, that is in his favour, but he has taken little account of his health and I cannot speak for his strength. Keep the room warm, keep him quiet and still, I will give you pastilles that may ease his breathing if you burn them near to him. Other than that, bathe him to lower his fever when necessary, and try what you can to get him to drink. I'll come again in a few hours."
"You do not expect him to survive this." The Viscount commented.
"It's far too early to tell, my lord." Bailie said soothingly.
The Viscount saw him to the door and paused in the hallway to catch the eye of the butler. "Robertson. You had better have a message sent immediately to Lady Northam, arrange for her to be brought to London."
"My lord." Robertson said tonelessly, although he winced at the order. The Viscount paused on the stairs.
"Has he seemed ill, Robertson?"
"It's been hard to tell, my lord." Robertson said honestly. "We've all been concerned."
All. Including Peter, who had dropped clear hints of his own. The Viscount returned to his son's room to find Peter there, watching Houghton bathe Exander in an attempt to ease the fever that was overtaking him. He gave the Viscount a troubled look but did not speak. Exander stirred and muttered under Houghton's hands. The Viscount sat on the edge of his bed and held his hands down, speaking to him in his clear, matter of fact tones, but Exander didn't respond. Within a few minutes, he had sunk back into unconsciousness and his breathing had become still more laboured and noisy.
"I've sent for his mother." The Viscount said briefly to Peter. Who nodded.
"Should I send to James as well, sir?"
"Perhaps you had better." The Viscount rose and dropped a hand on Peter's shoulder. "Don't blame yourself, Peter. I should have heeded every warning you and James have given me since Waterloo. I am ashamed to admit I thought you were both exaggerating."
Exander woke in the early afternoon and lay, looking somewhat dazedly from his father to Houghton who was making up the fire.
"I am here." The Viscount said calmly. "You have been taken ill."
Exander turned his head to see out of the window. "It's daylight."
"Shortly after noon." The Viscount told him. "I have sent for your mother."
"This is all nonsense." Exander said in puzzlement. "I shall get up in a minute."
He did not move. The Viscount sat on the edge of his bed and when Exander did not look at him, placed his hand over his son's. His skin was alarmingly hot to the touch.
"You are young and you are strong. You need only rest, and you will be a good deal better."
Exander did not appear to have understood him for a minute, then he asked without expression, "Is it dangerous?"
"Yes." The Viscount said levelly.
Exander smiled faintly. Houghton came to him and he lay quietly while Houghton bathed him, trying to cool the fever from his body, but when Houghton tried to lift his head to take water, he mutely turned his head away. The Viscount took the glass and lifted Exander's head himself, voice stern.
"Alexander you will do as you are told."
Exander drank what he was given, but that smile was there again and a distant look to his face that made the Viscount uneasy.
He woke and half woke at intervals, with no awareness of time: only heat, and as time went on, increasing pain in his chest, crushing the breath from him. There was some brink, some edge he had found, but again and again his father's voice dragged him back, forcing him into the unbearable heat of a room with a fire, with suffocating covers that hands continually placed back over him when he thrust them off, where water was tipped against his mouth until he choked and swallowed. That cool, matter of fact voice. At times, stern. Insisting and demanding. Candles burned somewhere near that voice, with hands that lifted and turned, interfering with his dreams. Faces met and argued with him and between themselves in the darkness. Young Michael Overston and Giles Merlot quarrelled over a table while he struggled to placate them. Timothy Fleet rejected and repelled. Exander fought with them, arguing and pleading while at times his father appeared to be attempting to settle the argument. At others, Peter was there, or Houghton, all insisting the quarrels were of no consequence.
At last, Exander gave in, allowing his father to press him back down on the bed and taking no further notice of Merlot or the child, and it was then he saw Justin standing at the foot of the bed. Justin, with his hooked nose and green eyes, his sandy hair and his smile that twisted into Exander's guts.
"Allright." Justin said peaceably, his soft voice cutting over Viscount Northam's and Merlot's without effort. "Don't worry about them, go to sleep."
Exander held out his hands, demanding, until Justin took them. Justin sat close to him, his sweet face fogged with the fever.
"I've got you." Justin told him, and came with him, into the darkness, to the woods where they had fished, the fields they had ridden, the peninsular camps they had slept in. Cool overcame the terrible heat and pain. Exander lay with his head in Justin's lap, the grass cool and damp beneath his shoulders, and heard the running of a stream where Justin's fingers dabbled and flickered like a fish, then tangled, spreading the chilled drops through his hair.
The Viscount heard his wife in the hall below, long after midnight on the third day. He left Houghton at the bedside and slipped outside to the stairs. His wife met him, weary but smiling, and lifted her face to his kiss. The smile almost instantly fell into anxiety.
"How is he?"
There was no way to keep it from her, or to protect her.
"He's been unconscious since noon." The Viscount told her quietly. "Bailie believes it will go one way or the other in the next few hours."
Her ladyship slipped her cloak hood back from her hair and went ahead of him into the bedchamber. Exander looked grey where he had been white, and he was thinner still from the fever. He was quiet now the deepest part of the coma had come: at least his mother was spared the struggles and confused shouts and conversations his father and Peter had dealt with over the last two days and nights. His mother smoothed his hair back from his still-burning brow and kissed him, but he didn't respond. She took the bowl and sponge from Houghton and nodded towards the door.
"If you would bring my valise up, there are things there which might give him some relief."
Houghton bowed and left the room. The Viscount came to lift his son for his wife to change the dampened night-shirt for one clean and dry, and sponge his burning body once more.
"Bailie does not hold out much hope." The Viscount said at last. His wife glanced at him and gave him a faint, abstracted smile.
"Don't let Bailie alarm you. I expected to find Exander at death's
door, and believe me dear, he is a long step from that yet."
She saw her husband's face lighten and returned to her son with renewed care. Whatever Viscount Northam might believe, Exander was by far the favourite of his children. He loved James, but he and Exander understood each other in ways that she and James had never been part of.
Peter woke from an uneasy sleep shortly after four am, unsure as to what had woken him. He got up and pulled his jacket on, running his hands through his hair to straighten it. He, the Viscount and Houghton had all been sleeping for a few hours here and there as they could, and he had lain down fully clothed. A single lamp was burning in Exander's room, the windows stood open and the room was cool. The Viscount was standing by the fire, hands clasped behind his back, watching a handful of dried lavender burn on the coals. It scented the room, and it gave it a curious illusion of peace. There was no sign of Lady Northam but Exander lay still, the covers turned back to let the cool air reach him, his dark hair fallen back from his face. The Viscount didn't look round. Peter paused by the bedside and looked down at Exander's face. It was difficult to see any difference: he was unmoving, white, his hair still dampened with sweat. One hand was flung out and Peter took it gently to move it back across his chest, when the fingers twitched, then moved to grasp.
"Justin." Exander said indistinctly.
"No old fellow." Peter sat down on the side of the bed rather than disengage the clutching fingers. "It's just Peter."
There was another murmur, a more distressed one, and Peter reached instinctively to touch his face, pressing his head back down against the pillow.
"Allright. It's allright Xander. Go back to sleep. Don't worry about it, I've got you."
That seemed to reach him. Exander quieted, his head still thrown back, and Peter reached for one of the folded, dampened towels in the bowl of water by the bed, wringing one out before he ran it over Exander's forehead. The drops of water ran backwards, sparkling against the blue-black of his hair, and Peter reached without thinking, brushing them with his fingers deeper into the hot, soft strands.