Authors: Morgan Kelly
He disentangled himself and tore back the curtains.
There was no one there. Only the weak sunlight of another dreary October day greeted him as he stood, naked, his chest heaving. She had disappeared. And God only knew if he would see her again. He inhaled, and smelled only the faintest exhalation of her scent.
Alaric dropped his hands, standing disconsolately for a moment, staring at the spot where she would have been, had she been made of flesh and blood. She swore she was as real as he was, but that was no comparison. Alaric hadn’t been real for years.
He turned around, reaching for his dressing gown. He drew it slowly over his feverish skin, and belted it at his waist. “Alright, Jeffries,” he said. “Bring the tray.”
As though he was an automaton freshly wound and springing to life, Jeffries reanimated and came briskly to Alaric’s side, laying the tray down on the small table beside the fire. He drew the battered wingback chair Alaric insisted was his favorite nearer to the modest repast, and set about stoking the fire back to a blazing roar.
Alaric flung himself into the comforting bulges of his chair, and began to pick dispiritedly at his meal, which was light and continental when he wanted something greasy and comforting, a repellently
breakfast. He would have to venture down to the dining room for that, where the sideboard would be laden with kippers, crisp bacon, and crumpets. And the table would be laden with Ellen.
He decided to stay where he was. He was never up to facing Ellen’s bracing morning cheerfulness much before noon.
Jeffries poured him a cup of wickedly strong tea laced liberally with sugar and lemon, the way Alaric liked it. He drank it greedily. “Ever see a ghost, Jeffries?” he said conversationally, after the singular elixir had begun to perform its restorative magic.
Jeffries did not so much as pause in his meticulous ministrations. “I cannot say that I have had the displeasure, sir,” he said dryly. “Unless one counts raising sir up from the dead after one of his nightly trysts with the brandy decanter, which, of course, I do. So, yes.”
Alaric stared at him, open-mouthed, before chuckling appreciatively. “I had no idea you possessed such a thing as a sense of humor, Jeffries,” he commented, with a snort. “You might have informed me earlier. Make no such lapse in future, and perhaps we might have a lot more fun around here.”
“Yes, sir,” Jeffries replied with customary blandness, though Alaric thought he detected a minute twitch at the corner of the middle-aged man’s thin mouth that signalled he was in a high good humor indeed.
At least someone was.
Alaric was feeling distinctly wrung out after his bizarre rendezvous. Though it was odd how easily one accepted the fantastic when it was happening. The aftermath was the difficult part, when he was alone again, with only a lingering scent of clove-kissed jasmine to convince him that he wasn’t irrevocably mad. Almost, but not quite.
After Jeffries left him, Alaric sat with a second cup of tea cooling in his hand, and thought. He thought until he no longer knew how. About Laura, the girl he had conjured, as surely as she had conjured him. She was a self-confessed Spiritualist, but what was his excuse? Crippling lust and loneliness? Was that enough to bring a woman from some unimaginable future into his arms? For she had talked about her own time as though it was someplace far off, where women were different, as she so clearly was different, from the women he knew. It wasn’t just that he wanted a woman half-naked in his bed and so had imagined her that way. She had a whole separate culture and custom from the one he knew. Even the way she spoke was different: there was a cadence to her voice that had nothing to do with class or geography. She was a different breed from him altogether. If he searched the world in which he lived, high and low, he would never find a woman like her.
If she hadn’t been born yet, as she had claimed the night before to his utter disbelief, then that meant that in her time he must already be dead. He was the ghost. And Laura? What was she? Alaric didn’t know. A soul. A future human being. The polar opposite of whatever he was.
All he knew was that he wanted to know her. A few fleeting moments in which they were both barely present wouldn’t be enough, any more than marrying Ellen would be enough. He wanted a woman who fascinated him. He shuddered to think of how his life would be when Ellen had him in hand, like another one of her elegant and fashionable possessions. A husband was always
for a lady of the
, even if he was dead inside.
But he needn’t be dead inside. Something was waking in him, a coiled dragon of desire and longing that must now be fed if he was to remain unconsumed. If he didn’t find a way to feed it, the beast would turn inward and feast on his rekindled heart.
Alaric rose, and rang again for Jeffries. He would dress before noon today, for a change.
n the days that followed, Alaric began to spend more time with his father. It soothed him, somehow, and he thought the old fellow liked seeing him, though he didn’t always know who his son was. Alaric didn’t mind. He didn’t always know, either. He hadn’t spent much time with his father since his illness began. Guilt ate at him because he knew he could never summon back the years of neglect. He wasn’t a very good son, but he could try to make up for it, in part, before the final moment came.
Alaric the Second liked to be pushed about in his invalid chair, a great, rickety monstrosity with a trick wheel that had seen better days the century before. Only Alaric seemed to have the knack of shoving it around the grounds without upsetting it every few minutes. The nursemaids bundled his father up in several dozen layers of clothing, including a bizarre knitted hat, covered him from toe to chin in woollen blankets, and peered anxiously from the front windows the entire time the pair spent ambling about. They made quite a matched set: Alaric the younger with his game leg, and Alaric the elder with his withered limbs. But it was nice. Alaric thought the air did his father good, despite the cautions of staff, who seemed to believe every disease known to mankind was airborne and intent on infiltrating the stalwart mullioned windows of Stonecross Hall.
They followed the sea path along the very edge of the grounds, and Alaric pushed the chair as close to the cliff as he dared, leaving several meters of space. When he was a child, he used to stand as close as he could without falling—his toes bare inches from the precipice—while Ellen and his sister Lizzie screamed at him to come back. He loved to frighten them. He loved to frighten himself. Perhaps that was part of why he went to war, to live in that state of mania that made the blood burn in his veins. He had always been foolhardy, full of masculine pride and daring. And he had paid dearly for it. He stayed well away from the edge now. His balance was not at all what it used to be. He couldn’t be to throw himself backward if he slipped.
“Ellen never liked coming out here, even as children,” he remarked to his father, whose rheumy eyes were gazing intently out at the hazy expanse of the water. “She likes water only in controlled doses, at Brighton, or Bath.”
“Ellen was a pragmatic child,” his father wheezed. The fresh air seemed to rouse him to a reassuring state of alertness. He was having a good day, perhaps one of the few he had left. “She hasn’t changed. She knows what she wants, and always has.”
“Wanting it doesn’t mean she will get it.”
The old man shot him a look. “Is there any reason why she shouldn’t?”
Alaric sighed. “None that would make any sense.”
“Marry her, my son—and soon. I want to see you settled before I die. Ellen will be a good wife to you, and really, that is all one may ask of any woman.”
“Is that all you wanted from Mother?”
“Your mother and I had a model marriage, God rest her. It gives me a great sense of peace to think that I will soon be joining her.”
Alaric crouched down on his haunches, stretching the stiffness out of his bad leg. He didn’t like towering over his father, who had once been such a tall and striking figure, taller than Alaric by several inches. He had never quite managed to catch up. “Did you love her, Father? Were you in love with her?”
“We didn’t make such distinctions in my day, lad. We were fond of each other. We shared a mutual respect and admiration. Our marriage was considered the most successful of our generation. You should be so lucky as to make a similar arrangement.”
“I know I should feel that way,” he muttered. “But I can’t seem to feel the things I should. Not for Ellen. Not for anything, really.”
“I don’t think you try hard enough, Alaric.”
“No. Perhaps I don’t. And I can’t seem to want to do even that.”
“Marriage is a civil agreement between two parties with mutual goals,” his father said with a sigh, trying another tack. “Ellen wishes to marry to secure her position in Society, and to be the mother of children who will care for her in her age. You wish to secure an heir for Stonecross, and to be taken care of the way only a wife can care for a man. There is no more reason to delay such an arrangement than there is reason to delay breathing. It’s as natural as that.”
Alaric nodded. “I know. I know it is, Father. But I can’t help wanting something … more.”
“What more do you think there is, my son?”
“Passion. Mutual fascination. Desire. I want to choose a wife because she is the only person with whom I can be myself. Is that so wrong?”
“No one with breeding is ever oneself in front of a lady, Alaric. One is oneself before other gentlemen only. Why do you think we go off to our clubs, and out en masse to shoot at things, while the ladies remain at home in the comfort of their sitting rooms with other ladies?”
Alaric sighed. “Father, as I never do either of those things, I haven’t the faintest idea, other than that it is because it is the sort of thing we have always done. We men are creatures of such intolerable habit.”
“Perhaps it is time you marry Ellen and take her off to London, where you may resume gentlemanly pursuits instead of brooding about like Heathcliff, or I don’t know whom.”
Alaric laughed, and his father’s eyes seemed to smile back at him the way they had when he was a boy, and they had shared a joke the ladies didn’t understand. “Father, I had no idea you even knew who Heathcliff was.”
“Ellen reads to me in the mornings, while you are laying about in bed, sleeping off your whiskey. She is very kind to me, though I don’t follow half of what she says.”
Alaric looked for a long time into his father’s face, which was seamed all over with many lines and furrows, each of which he could trace back to one of his own exploits, if pressed.
“You really wish me to marry her,” he said, with a sigh. A single tendril of dread licked at him, spreading from the pit of his stomach. He didn’t know why he felt so. It was really quite childish of him. It wasn’t as though he was asking if his father thought he might do well with a trip to the gallows, or a rendezvous with the blade of a guillotine. It was only marriage, after all. As natural as taking the next breath, as his father said—not as terrifying as walking in a straight line off of a cliff.
“You will be the better for it, lad,” his father promised. “Marriage settles one. Until a man marries, he is little more than a boy. A wife makes a man of one.”
Alaric nodded. “Yes. I expect she does, in one way or another.”
“Good. Let me know when I may congratulate you and kiss my new daughter.”
“I shall, Father. I need time to … prepare.” He got up, his legs turned to lead beneath him. He took hold of his father’s chair and turned it about. “We must get you back inside. I don’t like the look of those clouds.”
A low, long rumble of thunder sounded as they made their way along the walk back to the house, where the nurses were waiting. A bright burst of light illuminated and then erased the world. He thought he saw Laura for one brief instant, but when the sky returned to its former dimness, he saw only Ellen at the window, raising her hand in greeting, a froth of white lace spilling from her upturned sleeve.
espite his conversation with his father, he didn’t propose to Ellen. He couldn’t bring himself to do it. It was as if he became paralyzed every time he even considered it.
Instead, Alaric kept looking for Laura. Behind every curtain, in every stray shaft of light. He walked the grounds, hoping to catch sight of her doing the same. Sometimes, it worked. He saw her crouched among the weeds, tracing a Gothic detail on one of the stone walls with her fingertip. Or he passed her in the corridors, wandering along, examining the paintings and engravings that covered some of Stonecross’s walls. Sometimes, when they could, they said a few words, reached out to touch hands.
Once, he hadn’t seen her in time, and he walked right through her. She parted around him like a curtain. He felt a sort of silken, sliding warmth, and there was a roaring in his ears like he could hear her heartbeat, the rushing of blood through her organs. When he spun round, she wasn’t there. But he felt her. His flesh tingled as though he was being prodded all over with tiny needles.
One night, a few days after he had seen her in the mirror, Alaric saw her dancing. As he was drowsing in his chair long after he should have gone to bed, he heard an odd, discordant tune. He opened his eyes to find Laura singing to herself, and swaying in time to the tempo. She hummed a few bars and then sang a bit of it in a breathy undertone as she sashayed about, coming into focus. She danced to her music, the strangest dance he had ever seen, full of movement and a frenetic rhythm he didn’t think he could ever mimic.
He sat mesmerized, watching her, the coils of her short hair flying about, her shoulders and hips moving in sensuous counter-rhythm. She smoked a cigarette clamped into a long holder, and the plumes of smoke she exhaled swirled about her, as though gathering her in. As they closed over her like a slowly drawn curtain, she disappeared without seeing that he was there, that she had come to him without realizing it. Her eyes had been closed the whole time, and for some reason, he didn’t call out. He had simply wanted to watch her, to see her as she was in her private moments when she didn’t put on any sort of mask of civility. Like him, she was a wild thing. He could see it in the way she moved. He had never seen anyone move like that. He wanted to catch hold of her just so he could let her go again, and be the one who gave her back her freedom.