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Authors: Theresa Romain

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BOOK: Fortune Favors the Wicked
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“If you tell me what I need to know,” added Randolph, “then I'll see to that exhibition.”
Edward hesitated. Since his marriage to an earl's daughter eight years before, he had grown used to having few secrets. Really, there was only one.
Randolph lifted his glass at last. “Regardless of its location, I promise the result will be to your advantage.”
A new Lawrence. A new Turner. As good as Gainsborough.
Edward took up his own glass and clinked it against Randolph's. “What would you like to know?”
Chapter Five
Dinner represented Benedict's first acquaintance with both Maggie and Mrs. Perry. Upon entering the dining room, he made a bow to the vicar's grandchild as though she were a grown woman, recalling how much his sister, Georgette, had enjoyed being treated so during her girlhood.
“Mr. Frost,” Maggie replied. “I am giving you my finest curtsy.”
“I have no doubt of it.” He smiled, then turned toward the doorway as another set of footsteps entered the room.
“Ah, the blind traveler,” said an unfamiliar female voice. “Welcome to my husband's vicarage, Mr. Frost. Let me think—the usual sort of greeting won't make you feel welcome if you can't see it. Shall we shake hands?”
“If you like, yes.” Benedict extended a hand. “Though your words of welcome are fine enough for me.”
Knowing the vicar's wife to be dedicated to scholarship, he had expected an ethereal creature with the dreamy voice of the perpetually distracted. Instead, Charlotte's mother possessed a matter-of-fact tone and a remarkably firm grip.
“Be seated, everyone,” said Mrs. Perry. “Frost, stick out your left hand and you'll take hold of the chair. That's right. We can begin our meal now. No reason to wait for the vicar with all this food ready to eat.”
Benedict thought a man attending to a serving girl's last moments of life ought at least to come home to a hot dinner and the sympathy of his family. But rather than gainsay his hostess, he found the chair to which he'd been directed, and a slide and scrape of furniture ensued as the three generations of females took their places. Charlotte and Maggie, he gathered, were across from him, and their hostess sat at one end.
Service was the usual
à la francaise,
with all the foods laid out on the table. He caught the aroma of roasted beef, of some vegetable in a peppery, buttery sauce.
“Mr. Frost,” said Charlotte, “shall I describe the dishes around the compass?”
“Do you recall which way is north?” He could not resist teasing her.
“Oh, good heavens—that is too difficult for one who hasn't a lodestone in her head. What of describing the table like a clock face?” When he agreed, she said, “There's a joint of mutton at nine o'clock to you, and a fish at three.”
On she went, describing the vegetables, and Benedict did a creditable job serving his own dinner just as the others did. Once he missed the dish of peas and scrabbled for nothing, but someone pushed the dish toward him without a word.
It was a simple dinner, but well-cooked. And it was rather nice to be taken care of. On board a ship, one had nothing fresh to eat, little leisure, and even less space. Nothing to oneself save one's thoughts.
When Benedict had consumed about half the contents of his plate, the vicarage door opened. The usual fumblings ensued: greatcoat removed, hat stowed, boots scraped. Then came a heavy thump, as of a piece of furniture being moved. Quiet words, then the shutting of the door again.
A few seconds later, the light tread of the Reverend John Perry entered the dining room. “Oh—you have begun your meal without me.”
“Everything was hot, Vicar,” said his wife. “You wouldn't have wanted us to waste the good work of the cook, I'm sure.”
“Right, right. No, of course not. Frost, a servant brought your trunk over from the Pig and Blanket.”
That explained the thump. Benedict offered thanks, then added, “How is . . . Nance?” He realized he didn't know her last name.
“She's at peace now, poor girl.” The vicar settled himself in the empty seat at the head of the table. “There will have to be an inquest. The coroner is convening a jury. I shall be called as a witness.”
No one could have missed the strain in his voice.
Or in Maggie's. “Are you in trouble, Grandpapa? Will you have to leave us?”
“Not in trouble, my girl. My help is needed with answering questions.” The vicar collected a plateful of food along with his thoughts. “I can't think what the coroner will want to know, though. I'll describe the scene, I suppose. The prayers—will they want me to remember the prayers I said, Mrs. Perry? I do not recall . . . I was agitated, you know, and I might have stumbled over the words.”
“I cannot imagine your exact words relevant, Papa,” said Charlotte quietly. “They will want to know only that you were there at the time of her passing.”
“But her hands—Potter wanted me to fold her hands across her breast once she expired. Can it matter? I hesitated—but I should not have, to offer Potter comfort. I did so, of course. He was right.”
“Her family will have to be notified,” said Mrs. Perry.
“She has no family,” said the vicar. “She was orphaned three years ago, and that was when she began her work serving at the inn.”
“Her family is Strawfield,” said Charlotte. “She will be greatly missed by the habitués of the Pig and Blanket.”
“One of them likely did the . . . the act.” The vicar chose his words carefully. “The terrible act. Nance had little to say about that—she had weakened and fallen out of her wits. I couldn't make sense of what she said.”
What did she say?
Benedict wanted to ask, though he supposed it would be callous.
“I wish I had gone with you to translate, then,” said Mrs. Perry.
“It was not another language,” corrected the vicar. “No, she only said ‘cat eye' and ‘cloak' a few times, and she shivered. Cold, I suppose, as the life drained from her . . . .” He trailed off.
Charlotte broke in. “You must be hungry for your dinner, Papa. We'll talk of it later.”
“Must we?” The reverend sounded tense, reluctant.
“No, not if you don't wish to.” Charlotte paused; when she spoke again, the color of her voice was warmer. “Maggie, would you care for peas or potatoes?”
“I want to pet Captain.” This, Benedict had gathered, was a beloved old hound.
“After dinner, dearest.”
This was the last Benedict heard from the girl at table. Since he did not hear her chair drawn back, she must have stayed. Maybe even ate her food.
Maggie didn't mind having someone to look after her, it seemed. With the grandfather anxious and the grandmother more concerned with the ancient past than the present, Benedict wouldn't be surprised if Maggie spent more time with servants than with her relatives.
He had done the same himself. In boyhood, surrounded by books that seemed to mock him for his difficulty deciphering their wiggling, shifting letters, he'd often fled to the kitchen.
Yes, he had been sick for home his first time aboard ship, but not in the sense that he wanted to return to live amidst his parents' books. No, he missed being in a space where one felt at ease, surrounded by the clink of crockery and the splash of dishes being cleaned; of voices calm and orderly. Of errands, fetching and carrying, and the praise heaped on one for completing a task well that one did not have to do.
That old kitchen was a boyish vision of home, but it was the last one he'd had. He wondered if he'd ever have a vision of home again.
“Mr. Frost.” The vicar's wife interrupted these thoughts with her efficient accent. “You have written a book, your friend said in his letter.”
“Lord Hugo,” Perry corrected. “His friend is Lord Hugo Starling, though Mr. Frost calls him by his Christian name.” His tone was equal parts awe and reproach, and Benedict smiled.
“Indeed. Lord Hugo and I met in Edinburgh, the year after I was blinded. We were both studying medicine—he because he has quite the quickest mind ever, and wanted to be filling it with a new subject. I, because I knew I could no longer serve in the navy and wanted something to do with myself.”
“But surely,” said Mrs. Perry, “you could not practice as a physician. Not without your sight.”
“Correct, ma'am. I knew I would not be able to do so, but it was better than sitting in my quiet chamber in Windsor Castle.”
“A castle,” murmured the vicar. “You lived in a castle, and you are a friend of Lord Hugo Starling.”
Benedict cleared his throat. “Yes, well, that all sounds a lot grander than it really was. Castles are dank and their chambers are small, and as a Naval Knight of Windsor, I'm bound there in return for my pension.”
“Yet you seem not to be in Windsor Castle at present,” Charlotte pointed out.
“This is quite correct. I've been granted a leave of absence. More than once
.

Thank God.
Yes, he was grateful for the room and board and a few pounds on which to live—but it certainly came attached to strings aplenty.
“My time in Edinburgh was courtesy of such a leave of absence,” he explained. “But eventually I felt the urge to do something more than pick up knowledge for its own sake. Which was why I left off studying after a year and began hunting for something else to do.”
“And on what did you settle?” asked Charlotte.
“Traveling.”
“What good is that?” Mrs. Perry, this time.
“What good is the world, you ask? I cannot say until I have been to every corner of it.”
He could hear the smile in Charlotte's voice when she asked, “Which corners have you been to? And what did you find there?”
“Ah, interesting items are to be found tucked away in corners. Though the ones I've been to are not so rare. Truthfully, the book I've written—well, I shouldn't call it a book, as for now it's only a sheaf of handwritten papers—is notable only in that it was written by a blind man.”
“That cannot be,” Charlotte replied, “for it was written by a former sailor who also studied medicine. There are not many such people about.”
He liked hearing himself described so.
Tell me more,
he wanted to say.
What else have you noticed about me?
“How did you write the manuscript without the benefit of sight?” asked the vicar's wife.
“A noctograph.” Perry sounded pleased to contribute something. “A marvelous device that allows one to write in the dark.”
“Indeed?” Mrs. Perry's voice took on a lilt of interest. “I should like to learn how it works, Mr. Frost.”
“I will show it to you after dinner,” promised Benedict. Since his trunk now rested within the entry of the vicarage, he again had all his possessions about him, including the noctograph.
And his manuscript, which had, over the past fortnight, begun to seem far less precious in the face of the London publishing world's dismissal.
But maybe theirs were not the only opinions to which he should give weight. As Charlotte had said, how many physician-sailor-explorers could there be in the world? His was a unique tale.
He simply had to find someone who wanted him to tell it.
* * *
After dinner, Maggie retrieved the dog, Captain, from outside the dining room door and took her—for Benedict had been informed Captain was female—outside for a walk. As the click of canine claws sounded on the parquet of the entryway, Benedict mounted the by-now-familiar eighteen stairs, bumping his trunk up each one. Settling it at the foot of the bedstead whose knobs had been so frequently polished, he unlocked the trunk and felt through tidy stacks of clothing. Tucked within to cushion it was the noctograph.
He carried it back downstairs, directing his steps toward the sound of voices. They had moved into the parlor in which he had met the vicar earlier.
When he entered the room, he smiled by way of greeting. “Who would like the first look at the noctograph?”
“Mrs. Perry must see it first,” said the solemn voice of the vicar.
“She is sitting beside my father,” added Charlotte.
Without his cane or a few moments' leisure to feel his way about, Benedict was unsure of the arrangement of the room's furniture. He stepped in the direction of the vicar's voice, noctograph extended, praying like hell that no ottomans or tea tables arose to bark against his shins.
None did, and Mrs. Perry's capable hands took the device from Benedict. “Show me how it works, Mr. Frost.”
All business and no sentimentality. He much preferred that to the reverse. And in truth, he liked demonstrating the workings of the noctograph. It had allowed him, for the first time in his life, to master the written word.
Soft footsteps crossed the room behind him; Charlotte had approached, then, to peer over his shoulder. He showed the family trio what appeared at first to be a wooden lap-desk. Once opened, it revealed a straight-ruled metal frame behind which paper could be slipped. The paper itself was of a special sort, inked all over so that any pressure made a marking. Using a stylus and the guidance of the metal rules, one could mark out words in neat rows.
“I have been told that my writing is tidier now than it was before I lost my sight.” By way of example, Benedict clipped in a sheet of inked paper and scratched out a few words.
Dear Georgette
. “My sister,” he explained. “I must write to her and tell her of my safe arrival.”
“Does she worry about you?” asked Charlotte.
“She is much my junior, so I think the reverse is true far more often. If she sends a reply, perhaps one of you will be good enough to read it to me?”
“Of course,” Charlotte said as Mrs. Perry again took possession of the noctograph. “I should like to read some of your manuscript about your travels, too. There are so many corners of the world I have never seen.”
A careful dance about her story that she spent her life performing good works around the globe. He was curious how much of it was a fiction. “You're welcome to read it,” he said. “Maybe you could read some out to me. I'm not sure at this distance in time how I put down my experiences. I have the deuce of a time editing my work, as I'm sure you can imagine.”
BOOK: Fortune Favors the Wicked
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