Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fleur de Lys Part 11


Do they matter, those dreams from the pit?
You can drink, and forget, and be glad-
And no one will say that you’re mad.
For they’ll know that you’ve fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit!
Seigfreid Sassoon

There were two little boys in their white shirts and dark blue knickerbockers, sailing their boats on the ornamental lake while the nursery maid picked daisies and Mrs Grey sat on the rug in the grass, darning from the small pile of socks in her lap. The gardener, on the other side of the bank, was keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings and once or twice had used his rake to hook back a straying boat into the children’s reach, and he was patiently answering their questions and chatter, as his uncle had been a sailor. Cook’s brother was also a sailor and she’d let them see the postcards and pictures that he sent, but she never remembered any more than the name of his current ship.
When Rob’s boat went down for the third time, Deverel cast a cautious look back at the rug and sat down to take off his shoes and stockings.
“It won’t float properly unless you’re holding it, I told you.”

”You can’t hold it, the lake’s too deep.” Rob said placidly. “It’s all right, I just need to ask Daddy to re set the rigging. He said he’d do it for me when he came home next week.”
Since next week was too far away to be worth giving any consideration to at all, Deverel gave the rug one last look to check his safety and got up, stepping out into the water.
“It’s not deep if you’re careful, I know where the deep bits are.”

He was wading carefully through the water lilies when the gardener’s shocked voice reached them- even then in an undertone that both boys knew with appreciation was an attempt not to attract the attention of Mrs Grey.
“Lord Deverel you’ll catch it if you get seen in there, you come out right now!”
“I DO know where the deep bits are.” Deverel pointed out reasonably, reaching for the listing boat and shaking the excess water out of its sails. “It’s quite safe really.”
Rob didn’t argue, just moved discreetly in a way that meant he was blocking any view of Deverel. And he, like Deverel, realised that it was nearly four thirty and they’d have to go inside for tea and a bath anyway in a minute, which rendered threats of being sent back to the nursery fairly ineffective.
With a careful hand Dev replaced the boat on the surface of the water, keeping a guiding hand on its stern, and this time she balanced beautifully, sailing back towards the shore.
“Look. She sails perfectly.”
Rob’s answer was a smile, his usual sweet and quiet smile that Daddy said he’d inherited straight from their mother, and Dev loved it quite as much as Daddy did. Partly because he loved Rob, and partly because his father was the absolute expert on every known aspect of life.
“Lord Deverel!”
Emma, the nursery maid, sounded every bit as horrified as she did when she found spiders in the bathroom. And her cry of horror preceded her rushing down to the bank, her skirts flying around her and her hands full of daisies.
“Come back out of there this minute!”

”It’s quite safe Emma.” Deverel pointed at the darker stretch of water to the front and to the side of him. “That’s a deep bit there- and there-“

Mrs Grey had neither moved from her rug, nor stood up to give that order, but unlike Emma she was not given to negotiating. Resignedly, Deverel pushed the boat back towards his brother.
“Oh all right, I’m coming.”
Rob picked up both boats and Emma hauled him out by his arm with a little shake as he reached the bank.
“Heaven knows what’s in that water!”

”Water lilies and goldfish mostly.” Deverel picked up his shoes and stockings, following Rob bare foot back to the rug where Mrs Grey gave him a level look.
“Bed for you, straight after tea. Put your shoes on.”
“It wouldn’t sail straight.” Rob explained, putting the boats down on the grass and folding his arms around Mrs Grey’s neck from behind to lean against her. She laid her darning aside and reached around for him, pulling him down into her lap. 
“That’s no excuse. Emma, you can take the mending and those daisies up to the nursery and get ready for tea please, we’ll be up as soon as Lord Deverel looks like a Christian again.”

Gathering up the socks and the balls of wool, Emma departed back across the lawns towards the side door that led up their stairs. The quiet side of the house where the nursery party could come and go without disturbing the more important people residing there.
Rob, watching his younger brother struggle to get his stockings back on over wet feet, lay back against Mrs Grey.
“It’s still warm out here. Can’t we have one more chapter of Alice?”
He wasn’t exactly coaxing. Deverel, watching him, knew Rob’s frank sincerity that worked on everyone in the house- from Winton if they wanted something that strictly speaking they weren’t allowed to have– to Mummy if they wanted permission to stay up or to do something that strictly speaking they weren’t supposed to do. Rob never pleaded, or employed any arts- he simply asked, with a politeness and a regard for other people’s feelings that usually made them want to say yes. And even Nanny Grey was not immune.
“Your tea will be waiting.” She said, but without severity. “And Mr There’s No Such Thing As Drowning over there doesn’t deserve to be outside a minute longer.”

Deverel, very well aware that there was no bite in her tone, grinned at her and she sighed, reaching over to push his hair back off his forehead.
“Half a chapter then.”

She held out an arm and Deverel sat comfortably under it, leaning against her where he could see the pictures while Rob, in her lap, held the book and turned the pages as she read. And the last of the afternoon sun began to dip behind the poplar trees, casting long fingers of gold down the smooth green lawns towards the house.

The swan tipped it’s head on one side and gave Alick a hopeful look. Alick tossed it the last of the bread, brushed off his hands and leaned back against the bank. The swan, disappointed, swallowed the last crumbs and waddled back to the lake where it launched itself into the water lilies and sailed regally away, its land bound inelegance instantly transmuted to perfect grace.
Deverel watched it go without lifting his head from his arms, his eyes tracking its progress down towards the bridge. He was lying on his stomach, something he had to do somewhat awkwardly since his stiff leg didn’t straighten enough, but it was his most familiar position. And the one he most often slept in. Alick watched him, wondering yet again what- if anything- he thought about as he lay here in silence hour after hour.
It had been something he’d done on instinct- dragged Dev out here, out of the dust and the gloom of the house. It had taken almost a physical battle the first time, as if he was terrified of leaving the prison he’d created for himself. But out here, well away from the house, he would sleep sometimes for hours at a time, and it was a quiet, peaceful sleep undisturbed by the nightmares that tormented him in his bed. The terrible, choking dreams had gone on the night he fully remembered the retreat, as if the memory had been gripping at his throat in its demand to be recalled and acknowledged. They had talked it all out in hours of discussing, remembering, comparing what they’d seen, until there was no detail left un raped. He had not had one of the drowning dreams since. The tension had gone, to be replaced with simpler and more explicit nightmares that woke him screaming, several times a night, and made him terrified to close his eyes; and with a numbness during the day that the doctor called depression, and that Alick hated with a passion he’d never managed to summon up towards a bosche stormtrooper.
From the afternoon shadows, it was approaching half past four. Alick picked up the book again, propping it on his knee. They had another quarter of an hour or so before Winton would serve tea in Deverel’s rooms and they would begin the long, evening rituals that inevitably led into the open hell of night.
The book was Deverel’s. One of the several Winton had brought down, as having belonged to Dev in the dark ages before the war. He had found other things too, things Alick would never have thought to ask for: dominos. A chess set. A Backgammon board. He’d brought down with them a small tin monkey in a soldier’s red jacket that beat on a drum and revolved slowly when the old clockwork was wound up- he’d said something about finding it on top of the chess set in the nursery and remembering it- but Deverel had left the room instantly at the sight of it, and Winton, shocked and apologetic, had taken it away.
Deverel tolerated the presence of the books. Alick had approached them somewhat warily. It was a laborious job for him to read and decode them, skipping the words he didn’t recognise, and the entire set baffled him. Alice through the Looking Glass. The Swiss Family Robinson. Treasure Island. Having grown up in a working family without the time for imagination or the money for books, he found it difficult to relate to these fictional children and the fantasies surrounding them. But to Dev they held some deep meaning. He hadn’t the attention to even read the paper; he could do nothing at the moment for more than a moment or two, his attention flitted and wandered like a moth. But Winton had casually picked up one of the books one night when he brought up the tea tray, and started to read aloud. And Alick had seen the response in Dev’s eyes. He’d stopped Winton within a minute or two, but it was the first time in his life that Alick wished he’d paid more attention at school, to be able to pick up one of these books and produce that smooth flow of words that unlocked something within Dev, something that had meaning for him.
Dev rolled over on the grass and Alick looked down at him, taking in as he did every day the bruised look around his eyes that was the familiar mark of exhaustion. The gauntness, since it took coaxing to get him to eat anything at all and he was incapable of sitting down to a meal. The afternoon shadows were getting longer. Alick shut the book and got to his feet, gathering up the rug they had been lying on.
“It’s just about tea time.”

Deverel stumbled to his feet, not asking for help or even looking for it. Alick steadied him, pocketed the book and followed his limping pace back across the smooth green lawn towards the house. They came to the same place day after day uncaring of the weather- they had slept in snow and freezing mud: clean grass, even wet clean grass, was a luxury. And the lake had been an obvious place to Alick, who had been born and bred by water. It was some comfort to him if not to Deverel.
The side door had been opened and Alick caught a glimpse of one of the under servants watching for them. Winton’s work. They had barely reached the foot of the stairs before Winton silently appeared and took Deverel’s other side, helping Alick steer his limping steps up the three flights of stairs to his room. He caught Alick’s eye over Deverel’s head and Alick mutely shook his head. Not a good day.

Deverel’s room was warm, the fire had been stoked, a tray lay ready on the table and the windows were opened the little Dev needed. He couldn’t bear closed walls around him. Alick stood Dev before the fire and peeled him out of his coat while Winton went to pour tea. It must have been a strain on his other duties but he inevitably waited on them himself. He was the one servant Deverel tolerated and the only other person in the house he showed any other sign of recognising or liking.
“Her ladyship came home this afternoon.” He said calmly, putting a cup within Deverel’s reach. “A most enjoyable visit she said. And she and his lordship are looking forward to a private dinner tonight before their guests arrive tomorrow night.”

They sent gently worded requests to Deverel every night to join them for dinner: Alick suspected Winton now refused them on Deverel’s behalf, just as gently, without passing the messages on. Both Lord and Lady Standen visited these rooms at intervals, Lord Standen regularly. Alick watched the visits with pity for Deverel’s parents and an awareness of Dev’s agony when they came near him. He couldn’t bear them in the room although he made a tangible effort to present the most normal face to them he could. Lord Standen was kind and very gentle with him, and tried to interest him in the small affairs of the house and the estate with names he must at one time have known. Lady Standen’s distress was painful to Alick and scalding to Deverel. Several times she had been unable to keep back tears and her already sporadic contact with her son had waned away to almost nothing. They shared this enormous house without seeing each other and avoided the other’s presence. Alick was reminded of something Dev had told him before. About feeling like a ghost. A living ghost within his home.
“I’ll have the hot water sent up directly.” Winton said to Alick, pausing beside him as he made his way out of the room. “Will you need anything else?”
“No. Thank you.” Alick gave him a small smile and gripped the older man’s arm as he passed: a brief gesture of comfort as much as thanks. He and Mrs Grey were his mainstay of support. Mrs Grey’s presence made herself known in many ways, from the food sent up from the kitchen to the several brief and kind letters that Winton passed to Alick, but she had long since realised her presence upset Deverel and she made sure he didn’t see her in the house or on the estate. A gesture of understanding that Alick respected as much as he appreciated.
“My lord.” Winton said to Deverel with his usual nod and bow, and he withdrew, shutting the door softly behind him.
Alick picked up Dev’s cup and went to him, standing behind him with his arms gently fencing Dev in, the cup held in front of him. And with his hand over Dev’s, Dev stood still and drank, his eyes on the garden beyond the window. Alick stroked his narrow waist where his hand rested, aware again of his own lack of – concern.
Winton was deeply anxious. Lord and Lady Standen were grief stricken and Alick was aware that in their own minds they had given up. They’d accepted the fact of Deverel’s destruction as they’d accepted their eldest son’s death. And since the Deverel they must remember, the lively teenaged boy they’d known before the war, was clearly as extinct as Rob was, Alick could understand.
But to him this WAS Dev. He’d always seen the under current of this withdrawal, this lostness, under pinning the vibrant and hot tempered young man he’d known at Lys. It was a known facet of Deverel. And Alick had known plenty of other men who’d suffered and responded in this way in France, he’d lived along side them day by day, he’d gone through it himself. It was a fact of life. All he saw in Deverel was the strain of a man too young to have the experience to realise that this would in time pass, and who had no idea about keeping boundaries and safe reserves in his life. Deverel never had. He just had all the excesses and extremes of passionate youth. He’d always needed someone else to impose limits on him to keep that passion safe, to prevent him giving to exhaustion, to committing past safe return.
He stripped Deverel before the fire when the two footmen brought up the buckets of steaming water and placed the heavy bath on the hearthrug. It caused muttering in the servants’ hall, but Deverel was much more relaxed in his own rooms than he was in the bathroom down the hall with all its modern plumbing. And left alone in peace, Deverel lay back in the water and let Alick bathe him, combing the soap out of his dark hair with his fingers and handling his slim, unresponsive body with gentle hands.
And afterwards he lay silently on the bed, naked and still while Alick massaged his back and shoulders and the stiff, slowly healing knee. With the tension soaked and wrung out of him, done thoroughly enough, he would fall asleep by ten and sleep soundly for at least a few hours before the nightmares began.
The physical contact soothed both of them, just as the unfailing daily routine helped and stabilised them. To Alick it had become a strange and oddly tranquil retreat from the world- just he and Dev, these rooms, and the very few other people who made contact with them within their safe and slightly unreal existence. After the years of noise, uncertainty, strain and an externally ordered and unpredictable existence, there was an enormous peace to ordering their own day, and to having nothing to do but be companion and nurse to Dev, to manage what he needed managing hour by hour. To simply be with him.
~ * ~
The room was filled with expensive perfumes, the scent of cigar smoke and brandy, and the swirl of brightly coloured skirts in soft fabrics that brushed across his face as he edged through the crowd. The orchestra were playing at the far end of the room, and beyond them people were dancing, couples turning and floating past in intricate steps and perfect time. Faces turned to him as he walked, women’s faces who lit with smiles under the feathers and the fans; men whose eyebrows raised or who chuckled behind their beards as he pushed through to the open windows leading out of the ballroom onto the stone veranda and the steps that led down into the lamp lit garden.
“Got a wanderer there Robert old boy.” A man behind a thick grey beard commented, and Daddy turned around with his usual look of gentle surprise, as if he’d forgotten all about what you looked like.
“What are you doing out of bed old boy? Did we wake you? Where’s Nanny?”
Putting away linen in the cupboard at the end of the hall- right where the open door obscured the stairs. Deverel had made quite sure of that before he slipped past her.
Mummy, gorgeous in a blue shiny dress that made her look as though she was surrounded by a cloud, was talking to a group by the hearth and people were listening avidly, bursting into laughter when she did, all eyes fixed on her. Deverel thought that was right. Mummy was like a painting: always perfectly coloured and finished, he and Rob always touched her with the same respect and care they’d been taught to touch the other treasures and art pieces in the house. Deverel loved to simply sit on the stairs sometimes, at a respectful distance, and watch her. Winton, discreet and immaculate in a black suit and white gloves every bit as smart as the gentlemen stood around Daddy, appeared at Daddy’s elbow and cleared his throat.
“If I may, I’ll take Lord Deverel back to bed my lord-”
The first of the fireworks burst in the garden, lighting it in a shower of coloured sparks. Deverel gasped at the brightness of them, clutching for his father’s hand. Daddy hesitated for a moment, then held his hand more firmly.
“In a while, Winton, thank you. Perhaps you’d better let Mrs Grey know she hasn’t lost him.”
Bare feet cold on the familiar, smooth stone of the veranda steps, Deverel stood holding tightly to his father’s hand, champagne fizzing in his nose from the taste his father had offered him from his own crystal glass, and the sky filled with the breath taking cracks and bangs and showers of light.

And every crack and bang and beautiful shower of light lit up the muddied, pitted destruction of what had once been farm land. Where no trees were left, no grass, where the ground was thrown up in waves and tides by explosions and whole landscapes were re formed. Where some men crawled up the sides of the shell holes, and other screamed where they lay. Where other terrified men robbed the bodies of the dead and the dying for guns and ammunition as they passed. Where a horse, its back legs twisted under it, struggled on its front legs to rise, shrieking in terror. Where he gripped his pistol with fingers too numb to feel it, and gave orders in a voice now so hoarse it was more a rasp than speech, and urged men on past him, out of the safety of what little shelter they found on the ground.
Where a group of men in white ties sat behind the silver and crystal of their meal, looking shocked.
Deverel blinked, The main ballroom had been closed off by the connecting doors: this small area had tonight been set up a dining room to allow the view through the open doors onto the veranda. It was often used this way on warm evenings when guests were staying in the house. The expressions of shock on the faces gradually filtered through. Even the footmen standing against the walls and trained to keep their faces expressionless, all looked horrified. Deverel looked down at himself, aware of his own shivering, and realised he was standing in a nightshirt, bare foot on the smooth veranda stone. No longer four years old. No longer innocent or excusable. The sheer absurdity of it bypassed him in a wave of humiliation and he began to laugh, seeing the looks of horror deepen in the older men’s faces.
“It’s all right. Terribly sorry.” He managed between gales of laughter. “Mr Rochester’s wife don’t you know? Just looking for the way up to the roof.”
Winton, looking just as shocked, was moving around the table towards him but his father got up with no horror in his face, just a gentle and awful concern that was not funny in the slightest.
“It’s all right old boy. It’s quite all right. Come along old son, I’ll give you a hand upstairs.”
“I don’t want to go upstairs.” Deverel pushed Winton’s hand off his arm and stepped unsteadily away from him. His father’s hands were stronger and less easy to detach. He was steered gently into the wide, emptiness of the hall where the marble busts and statues leered down from their pedestals in the flickering of the lamp light. There Deverel pulled away from him and sat down on the foot of the stairs, shaking nearly too violently to stand. His fingers were blued again. Maybe that was one of the indicators of madness.
“Come into the library then.” Daddy was saying, his voice still very calm, painfully kind. “There’s a fire in there. It’s all right old son. Come and tell me about it.”

”Tell you about it?” Deverel began to laugh again at the sheer ludicrousness of that offer. It was nearly as mad as the group sitting down in that civilised way in the dining room. As if it mattered any more what you wore to dinner, or which fork you ate with first- that ridiculous, meaningless ceremony, as if these stupid little details meant anything at all in the real world. And those faces gazing at him as if he was a ghost who’d risen up in the middle of their meal with a particularly bloody crime on his hands.
“It’s a secret,” he said, still laughing. “The whole thing is some fucking secret, we shouldn’t have told anyone at all. I should never even have come home. You can always rely on me to bloody get it wrong, can’t you?”
“Come and have a drink old son.” His father tried again, softly. Deverel pushed him away and buried his throbbing head in his hands.
“I don’t want a fucking drink. Go back to your party. I’m sorry. I’m fine. I’ll be all right. Tell them I was drunk. I wish I was. Actually I wish I was dead, but that’s not exactly dinner conversation, is it?”
Alick’s voice. And not pleased either. Deverel’s stomach lurched, partly with an apprehension he hadn’t felt in years, and partly with flooding relief. Alick, roughly dressed and in his shirtsleeves, ran down the stairs several at a time, took his wrists and brought him to his feet in one strong tug, supporting him with an arm around his waist that was too powerful to argue with.
“What are you doing down here you silly bugger? I’m sorry my lord, he slipped past me.”
“It’s all right Alick,” Lord Standen said quietly, “He’s got the right to go anywhere he wants in his own home.”

”Not half naked and looking like the ghost of Captain Cook he doesn’t.” Alick said shortly. “Come on you. Upstairs.”
Deverel moved where he was led, leaning heavily on Alick and on the banisters. His rooms were brightly lit and shockingly warm when he reached them and Alick put him down on the sofa. Winton followed them in a moment later, looking anxious.
“His lordship asked me to make sure you had everything you need?”
Alick answered, with a glare that Deverel saw and recognised as he poured a splash of brandy into water he had heating by the fire.
“We’re fine, I’ll see to him. And I’ll lock the bloody doors this time. He’ll be all right, go on back down.”

Winton didn’t argue. With a dinner party below of twenty assorted diplomats he didn’t dare stay away long. Alick locked the door behind him, pocketed the key and took the brandy and water back to Deverel. Deverel put a hand up to take it but Alick didn’t relinquish the glass, sitting on the arm of the sofa and holding it while he drank.
“What the hell were you playing at, eh? I looked for you all over the bloody place. HEY. Start that giggling again and I’ll crown you.”
The bark sobered him. Deverel gulped brandy, feeling the warmth spread out from his throat, down into his stomach.
“Just went for a stroll.”
Deverel looked up at him and Alick pushed a hand through his hair, roughly shaking it back out of his eyes. There was a grimness as well as sympathy in his touch.
“I don’t know.” Deverel admitted. “I just found myself in the middle of a dinner party. I thought I was dreaming.”
It wasn’t the first time Alick had caught him in the middle of some waking dream, as though reality and memory tangled together into his mind.
“And what was all that ranting to your dad about?” Alick said just as shortly. “I heard most of it. If that was my dad standing there you’d have had your ear clipped for you at best.”

What had he said? Deverel flushed at the memory of giggling like an idiot at the table full of diplomats.

”Something about Mr Rochester’s wife- it seemed funny at the time.”
He shuddered at the memory and Alick put the glass down, putting him on his feet.
“You’re freezing, get yourself back to bed. And you stay put this time.”
He emphasised his point with a sharp slap to Deverel’s backside through the thin nightshirt, that stung but in a vague sort of way was comforting. Deverel moved without question, settling under the rumpled covers and watching Alick turn out the gas in the sitting room before he followed. Alick pulled his shirt over his head before he laid down, leaving his trousers and braces on over his bare chest.
“Come here.”

”What?” Deverel gave him a curious look. Alick took his wrist and yanked him over, reminded of the glimmer of the boy he’d seen over a year ago in the hay loft at the rest camp. A glimmer of mischief, teasing, studied innocence and a sharp sense of humour- it was in there somewhere. And sometimes, at these worst times of the night, Alick felt he got closest to it.

Deverel crashed onto his chest and shifted to get comfortable, allowing Alick to wrap both arms tightly around him.  
“You’re a bloody savage you are.”
~ * ~
Winton mentioned it at breakfast at the end of April with a studied casualness as he laid fresh logs in the fire.
Alick was standing behind Dev at the wash stand, where Dev, naked to the waist, was more or less shaving. Periodically he started to put the razor down or walk away and each time Alick returned him to where he stood in front of the mirror, putting his hands back in position. A few times in the early days he’d had to put his hands over Dev’s and guide him to finish the job, but now Deverel tended to shave, and wash and dress and eat with the same grim expression, for no other reason than he knew that Alick wouldn’t let him go until he did it.
Neither paid any attention to what Winton saw: he was too used to them and too familiar a presence in these rooms now, and he always chattered quietly to Deverel while he worked, telling him of the house gossip even if Deverel appeared oblivious to it. He’d been describing the re organisation of several rooms to make way for another large guest party over the weekend.
“So her ladyship had the furniture from the Severn room rearranged, and the old Duchess bed brought down for another guest room.”

Deverel shook off the razor and turned away towards the window. Alick put both hands on his hips and turned him back to the mirror and the washstand.
Puppet like, Deverel began again.

”She asked me to place the small Chinese cabinet and the piano from the Severn room in the Georgiana dressing room.” Winton went on, getting up.  “She thought you might care to have the key my lord.”
He would have placed the key on the mantel- he never pressured Dev to respond- but Deverel abruptly put out a hand to him and Winton put the key into his palm. Then he took a towel from the wash stand, wiped his face and went, still bare chested and barefoot towards the connecting door beyond his bedroom. Alick had looked through the door a few times- all the rooms in this wing opened out of each other in a long and inconvenient line, and the room beyond contained nothing except white sheeted furniture. The sheets had been moved and the heavy curtains drawn back this morning, and a small, upright piano with an intricately carved lid stood by the window. Deverel stood looking at it for some time before he put the key in the lock and lifted back the lid. Alick stayed where he was in the doorway, watching him.
“It was Lord Robert’s piano.” Winton said quietly beside him. Deverel pulled out the wooden stool before the piano and sat down. It was nearly fifteen minutes before Alick heard one single, uncertain note. Another long pause. And then sudden Deverel started to play, rusty, shaky in places but with a skill that was surprising.

He played on and off for hours every day from then on. Certainly through much of the night when he was too disturbed to sleep.  Children’s pieces at times, music he must have learned before the war. At others, popular songs or fragments of classics. Pieces perhaps that once his brother had played. Winton stood once with Alick in the doorway listening and Alick saw in his face a genuine pain.
“Did Rob used to play like that?” he asked bluntly. Winton thought for some time before answering, then smiled faintly.
“I knew them both from the day they were born. Lord Robert was a very kind boy. Like his father. Very gentle.”

”Not like him.” Alick said dryly, nodding at Deverel. Winton hesitated.
“Lord Deverel was very young before the war. Still very much a boy even at seventeen, quite different from Lord Robert. He was a very lively, very charming boy, he pestered the living daylights out of the staff but they would have done anything for him, and he got away with rather too much because it was never any use trying to scold him. He was so determined and he could make anyone laugh, even as a little boy.”
He’d had the same gift in the lines. The power to take any man, wet, cold and miserable, and gain his trust, remember his name, be able to make him laugh. Make him listen.
Alick had a sudden, flashing memory of Deverel’s eyes burning into him in a dug out at Lys.
“Swear to me you won’t hit anyone else. And if you do I’ll see to it that you pull duties that make the Somme look like a kiddies’ tea party.”  

Deverel paced a lot that evening as it began to get dark, which was never a good sign. Alick tried for some time without success to distract him with cards and with the piano, but whatever was going on inside his head brought him to his feet within a few minutes and he went back to his silent, restless pacing in front of the windows. The one thing that really calmed him once he got to this point was a bath and a massage, and despite the earliness of the hour, Alick rang for hot water. Winton, bringing the first of the jugs up, crossed Deverel’s path on the hearthrug and Deverel came to an abrupt halt, voice rising to the bark Alick knew well.
“YOU man! What the devil do you think you’re doing with those up here! Get back to the support trench and get a bloody helmet on for Christ’s sake!”
Somewhere in his pacing he’d slipped over the edge. Alick, who’d been moving the bath as close to the fire as he could, let it go and went to take his arm, skirting around Winton who had frozen in shock.
“Dev. It’s all right, leave him be, he knows what he’s doing.”

”And you shouldn’t be here either.” Deverel snapped at him. “Get back and find Dickson, tell him to get a platoon issued with shovels and up here to me now while it’s quiet. It’s TOO damn quiet. I want the forward trenches cleared before any more poor bastards have to go and stand in them. MOVE!”

”Mr Lindley’s taking care of it sir.” Alick took his arm, guiding him out of Winton’s way. “There’s a platoon on their way down now with him, and he’s just come on duty. You come and lie down for a bit.”
“Not until the wiring party’s down.” Deverel gave him a rough shove, but Alick held onto him, gripped his shoulders firmly and pushed him through into the bedroom.
“They got back hours ago, they’re all safe. You lie down for a while and let Mr Lindley do the worrying.”

That appeared to calm him. Deverel lay down without protest, let Alick undress him and settle him into bed and settled rapidly into a doze. Alick sat with him, more than prepared for him to start up into another hallucination or for his current confusion to find its way out in a series of nightmares. It often did. The doctor had left him a bottle of bromide and chloral for nights when his brain was excited enough to start these waking dreams, and it certainly put him to sleep, but it tended to aggravate the nightmares badly and make it nearly impossible to wake him out of them. Something Alick felt was too cruel to consider unless things were really desperate. He’d left the door open into the sitting room and he knew the voice behind him, soft but not Winton’s. James. The footman.
“Mr Winton said you wouldn’t be wanting the water.”

”No.” Alick said quietly and shortly, not looking round.
“Suit yourself.” James said shortly. “It’s only us got to haul it up and down all those stairs as if there’s nothing better to do. How’s himself?”
Alick got up and gave him a flat stare, taking in the footman’s uniform and the malicious stare as he walked across, pulling the door to behind him.
“What do you want?”
James gave him a brief grin. “What are they paying you to keep him quiet? Below stairs they reckon you keep him drugged to shut him up.”

Alick jerked his head. “The door’s that way.”

”You know there’s bad blood in the family?” James said, deliberately propping his shoulders against the door frame. “Mr Winton’s seen the ghost. This wing was used for a lunatic seventy years ago, they locked him up in here-“

”Did you see any active service?” Alick snapped. “Any idea what happened to him?”
James sniffed. “I saw HIM in his nightshirt, wandering around the table at his Lordship’s dinner party like Lady Macbeth. ‘Lack of moral fibre’ they call this in the paper, these nervous breakdowns and such. Only happens to weak characters.” James glanced past Alick at what they could see of the bed through the half closed door.
“Reckon it’s crossed his Lordship’s mind it’s a shame it was Lord Robert that bought it. Lovely young man was Lord Robert-“

From the time that he was a child, Alick had known that sensation of power: alarming because it was so strong, and alarming because at the back of his soul, it felt good.
The blow flowed, James hit the floor hard and Alick reached down with his sight starting to blurr, to haul him to his feet.
Alick dragged James up and could no longer see his face for the red mist as his fist balled.
“Cowan let him go. NOW.”
The voice was familiar, barked and in a voice of command Alick found himself responding to without thinking.
Swear to me you won’t hit anyone else, Cowan-
Deverel pulled James out of his grasp and shoved him back. Alick blinked, feeling his breath start to come back in pants. James was staggering, both hands to his nose which was streaming blood, and Deverel was standing between them, his head up and his eyes blazing.
“Get out.” He ordered James. James started to object and Dev’s voice soared up to the quarter deck roar Alick knew so well.
“I said get out! I’ll deal with you later!”

James went, not quite daring to the let the door slam. Dev swung round on Alick.
“Are you allright?”
“What?” Alick leaned both hands on his knees, still panting with the residue of rage and adrenaline. Dev pulled up his right hand and grunted.
“You’ve split your knuckles.”
”Habit of mine.” Alick straightened up and sucked them, cursing. “Sorry.”
“Wash it you fool.”

Dev lightly tousled his hair and went past him to ring the bell. Alick heard him talking to Winton while he soaked his knuckles under the bathroom tap down the hall. Winton met him in the hallway, leaving Deverel’s rooms, and raised his eyebrows at Alick, voice low.

”I’ll send James up again tomorrow. Perhaps you should try blacking his other eye.”
~ * ~
Continue on to Part 12 of Fleur de Lys
Copyright Ranger 2010

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