Angelina Mercy Sinclair sat sewing quietly in her drawing room as the evening sun sung its last swan song of the day. Perched on the window-sill to attract maximum light and bundled up against the cold wind, she concentrated intently on making her stitches as neat as possible and ignored the riot of colors drenching the snow-sprinkled vegetable garden beyond her window. Eventually the fading light made squinting necessary on her part.
I will get up and light a candle in a moment, she promised herself, but the stitches are coming along unusually well and I really don't want to break this promising streak. Soon - in a moment… And as usually happens in such cases, the 'moment' extended into a large number of moments while the shadows lengthened and wrapped their sable fingers lovingly around the young girl. Just as she was about to resign herself to losing the battle with time, a welcome glow filled the room and Mrs. Belmont entered punctually with the tea tray. The lamp in her hand cast its golden light around and chased away shadows from the corners of both the room and the owner's mind.
Angelina flashed a beautiful smile in Mrs. Belmont's direction and closed the window before settling down in a chair near the lamp, but her large green eyes immediately slid back to the linen and her hands did not still at their self-appointed task. Just one more table-mat to hem, and then only the skirt she had torn yesterday on the brambles would remain in the mending pile. In today's mending pile, she clarified silently to herself with her usual wry humor as she absently rubbed the ears of a caramel-colored spaniel sitting at her feet, reducing it to throes of ecstasy. The stack of mending seemed to mysteriously regroup itself every evening, making sure that she never had to worry about spending an empty hour with nothing to do about the house.
"And what may you be doing here in the dark Miss Sinclair, straining your pretty eyes like that?" Her faithful housekeeper asked tartly while setting down her burden on the little table in the centre.
"You know what I do here every single evening Susie, then why do you still ask?" Angelina grinned at the older woman's acerbic tone as she crumbled a tea-cake with one hand and fed it to the devoted Brandy without pausing in her inspection of the remaining work. A portly lady of seventy-odd years, Susanna Belmont was well past her prime of life and should have retired to live with her children a long time ago - but her conscience did not allow her to abandon her employers' only child when her parents departed this world for the next so suddenly. She had always been Miss Sinclair's closest confidant from the moment the child had learnt to babble with coherence, and now she was her only companion in this draughty tomb of a house. Their entire household consisted of Miss Sinclair, Mrs. Belmont, Brandy the spaniel and fifteen-year' old Tommy, who worked as the boy of all work and served as the paltry masculine protection no household of women could do without in these evil days.
"Oh, I know what you do all right," Mrs. Belmont said with a sniff. "But whether I approve of it or not is another thing! You have been working at hemming and stitching for the past three hours. My child," she said, a pleading note entering her voice, "Take a break occasionally. Move around to stretch you limbs, play some light music to entertain yourself. If nothing else takes your fancy, then at least look out of the window! You used to love the snow. Where is the youngster who prattled relentlessly about the littlest thing happening in her surroundings? I have forgotten when you last smiled on seeing the first snow of the season. When was the last time you admired the beauty of the sun setting over yonder cliffs? Now all you seem to care about is the maximum amount of illumination you can utilize from the twilight. Enjoy your life a little before it's too late…your youth and beauty are being wasted in thankless drudgery!"
"But Susie," Angelina interposed gently, "What will I gain by gazing at a sunset or any such thing now? I have seen it all countless times, after all; what more can I expect to find? And especially after the last four years, winter for me only means choked drains, freezing water and chopping more firewood than ever." Her attention returned to her sewing, and she grasped at the thick shawl slipping down her arm. It had been a long time since she could sense any wonder inside her soul at a glory of nature.
Working around the clock every day would eventually do that to the most poetic of souls.
Her hands might be busy laying out the tea tray, but the housekeeper sighed privately as her thoughts ran along much-frequented paths about the young woman beside her. She had been an intimate witness of the money-grabbing nature of the Stevens clan that had foisted itself on Brooklyn Grange, with the untimely death of its rightful owners, as guardians of the eight year-old girl by virtue of being her only relatives. They had sucked every farthing out of the house's beleaguered coffers over the nine years they lived here, until Miss Sinclair could grow up enough to stand up to them, and ask them to leave her home. Mrs. Belmont privately thought that Angelina's cousins only left without a fuss because they believed there was nothing more to be acquired from the shell the Grange had become under their kind upkeep.
By the time the rampaging Stevens' had left, the estate was virtually bare of any source of sustenance. At that crucial moment, a kind neighbor and long-time friend of her parents, Mr. Wilkes, had loaned Miss Sinclair two cows, a bull and a handful of chickens to help her find her feet again. Young Angelina had looked after the creatures with a determination born of desperation, and her efforts were paid off the day the Grange's first generation of downy chicks breathed in the Dartmoor air, and yet again when Mollie - the first calf under her care - was born. Mr. Wilkes's gardener had also sent over his youngest son Tom with an armful of vegetable seedlings; and while they were planted in the former flower gardens, Tommy got planted in the family consisting of Miss Sinclair and her companion Mrs. Belmont. Miss Sinclair had succeeded in returning Brooklyn Grange to an approximation of its original glory within just three years - but this security came with a heavy price indeed.
Mrs. Belmont stole a look at her mistress still peering intently at the piece of cloth in her hand, blind to the modest repast being served for her a scant foot away.
The girl will drive herself into an early grave if she went on like this for much longer, she wailed to herself. Mrs. Belmont's eyes glazed over as she remembered their early days of struggle. The daughter of Thomas Sinclair, esquire, would never stoop down to the level of earning her keep by taking on a profession of any kind. Barring that, the only way Angelina could manage the housekeeping bills was by saving every penny and working like she were possessed by the Devil himself. Torn linen had been sewn over and over several times to keep it from giving up the ghost just yet. Candles were a luxury and only used when the women needed to do intricate work after dark. Beauty had to make way for utility, and strict economy was maintained at every step. There had been times - blessedly few in number - when the animals were fed at the expanse of the human inhabitants of the house.
From the very beginning, Angelina had done every little work by herself. The adolescent girl refused to let her old housekeeper do much more than cooking, and instead steeled herself to do the most menial of tasks so long as they would remove the necessity of hiring yet another hand to pay and a mouth to feed. She woke before the cock could crow, and slept long after the distant church bell had tolled midnight. With Tommy as her assistant, she learnt how to maintain a kitchen garden in the inhospitable soil, milk the cows with her own soft hands and even chop wood when occasion called for it. Their hard work paid off and a couple of years ago, Angelina returned the original cows and bull back to Mr. Wilkes' estate. Unfortunately, the kind old man departed for the next world a few months later and their nearest neighbor and only supporter in the area was lost; but he had indeed managed to turn the tides of fortune for the Sinclair household. This year Miss Sinclair bought five more cows to foray into the dairy business on a serious scale, and they all had high hopes of sprucing up their worn-out pockets by the next year.
Times were looking up at long last for the house; but Miss Sinclair's life was withering away in front of her concerned servant's eyes. The seclusion of their house, situated as it was in the craggy moors of Dartmoor eighteen miles from any village, did not help their situation in the least. With the loss of Mr. Wilkes, his house was shut up until then next heir deigned to come to this remote place. The only other house in the vicinity had also stood empty for decades, its owners having settled abroad somewhere and not possessing the money to maintain even a skeletal household at their ancestral home.
Mrs. Belmont brought her mind back to the present as she settled down with her own cup of tea, and pursed her lips at her cynical mistress. "It is precisely this cold attitude that I am complaining about, Miss Mercy," she said, lapsing into the more informal form of address she was wont to use in moments of emotion. "I know that life has dealt you a cruel hand, and we had had a hard time of it for the past few years; but now times are looking up, and you can afford to slow down your pace a little. Take a breath once in a while, child. I knew this would happen if you forewent all social contacts -such isolation is not normal for a girl of twenty one. At least visit some of your parents' old friends in London! I know that a few still write to you, asking you to visit them. I'm sure they can help you find a nice husband who…"
"Stop right there, Susie," Angelina lifted a hand in warning. "I do not need a husband to 'look after me' anytime soon, and I don't want to hear the sympathetic platitudes of any snobbish dowager that would merely look down on me and my poverty under all that pretence of commiseration. I am not the victim of a cruel fate, and I will not let anyone treat me as such. So what if my parents died in a carriage accident when I was a child? At least I had a good house and a respectable name to call my own, and my cousins, avaricious though they might be, allowed me to live on my own property instead of being shipped off to some orphanage.
"As for a husband, I am pleased with my solitary independence and have no interest in relinquishing it for a stranger who will take over everything I have worked my fingers off for."
She halted after this tirade and discreetly sucked in a lungful of air, impatiently pushing back an errant lock that had escaped from her prim bun and was dancing before her eyes in time with her indignant gestures. Brandy sensed his mistress' agitation and discreetly licked the hand closest to him, giving comfort in the only way he knew how. Sadly enough, it appeared to have little or no effect on his disturbed owner.
"Miss Sinclair, your husband might just ease your load instead of increasing it. One insensitive family should not be vested with the power to destroy your faith in humanity."
"The Stevens' have not exactly destroyed my faith in humanity…"
"Yes they have, my child," said Mrs. Belmont inexorably, "and the sooner you accept it the easier it will be for you to move on."
"Moving on from what has been my life until now? Easier said than done," Angelina laughed, though there was a definite wobble to her voice by this time. "Can we drop the subject, please? I am more interested in knowing about your opinion on Mollie's health. She seemed even worse towards evening. What can be done to relieve her pain?"
Mrs. Belmont sighed, but gave in and started to talk of the little dappled cow and her recent bout of colic. Too often had their discussions ended with Miss Mercy prevaricating like this, and yet she could never push the topic once the younger woman developed that vulnerable tremble in her accents. She had to leave the issue for now and believe that the Lord above had some finer fate lined up for her beloved employer-cum-charge than a lonely old age.
He had to.
Angelina turned around once again in an attempt to find a comfortable position on her bed. Sleep was often a capricious comrade of hers, and tonight it seemed to have abandoned her entirely. Maybe her restlessness was due to the threatening weather outside; she had always felt unsettled when a storm was in the offing.
She tossed once again, her long hair escaping from its thick braid and tangling due to the motion. Her mind kept on returning to what Susie had said earlier.
"One insensitive family should not be vested with the power to destroy your faith in humanity."
She looked at Brandy stretched at the foot of her bed. The dog was wide awake, and already wagging his tail on seeing that his mistress was ready for conversation. Angelina got up and gathered Brandy in her arms, before settling back comfortably against the pillows and utilizing the warmth of her bed to the maximum.
"Is it true that I have lost faith in humanity, Brandy?" she whispered into his ears as she combed her fingers through his silken hair. "I certainly hope not. Rationally, I know that not everyone is as money-grabbing as the Stevens' - that good people exist in the world. Why, dear old Susie is a shining example of that fact. She dedicated her declining years to caring for a young orphan left adrift on the world; a thankless job if ever there was one, don't you agree?"
Brandy uttered small yelps of pleasure at her attention, while Angelina continued in her analysis.
"Similarly, there might be people out there somewhere in the world, perhaps quite near at hand, who would understand where I stand and neither try to show me pity my hardships, nor attempt to take advantage of me."
She looked in his melting chocolate-colored eyes. "Dare I give myself - and others - a chance?"
Her only answer was an enthusiastic lick planted on her nose.
She huffed and laid her furry friend down, covered herself with the shawl lying on a chair and went to stand at the window. Silver moonlight cascaded over the moors, making the crags and rocks appear like gigantic sentinels who guarded her house from malefactors of all kinds. In her childhood Angelina had been very frightened of their brooding shadows, until her Mama had told her lovingly that these rocks were ancient spirits that guarded good children from harm and bad dreams. She had believed her mother explicitly, and slept easier for the knowledge of her protectors. With the death of her parents, this innocent belief had shattered like glass; nothing could really protect her from the projectiles a vicious fate might feel like throwing at her.
It wasn't easy to break down the barricades of cold rationality she had constructed for her protection. It wasn't easy to give up the fears of what felt like a lifetime.
She turned back to enter her bed, and grimaced involuntarily when her eyes fell on her reflection in the big mirror on the wall. Tired dark green eyes stared back at her from their beds of dark bruise-like shadows. Her wavy brown hair was her best feature since it was naturally highlighted with golden streaks and, in its full glory, resembled a rippling brook on a summer's day. But it was usually a bother to its owner since it refused to stay up in the serviceable hairdos she preferred; and she would have chopped it off long ago if it were not for some niggling feminine vanity in the recesses of her tired heart, which really liked the wavy locks as they framed her face during her nightly brushing routine. She grimaced as she considered her wayward hair - even now, it had escaped from its confines and was falling all around her shoulders. Her heart-shaped face was nice enough, she supposed, but over-exposure to the sun had made her skin unfashionably tanned for a young lady. She looked like a faded version of her mother, who had been radiant with joy and life in all her daughter's memories.
Another reason why Angelina refused to meet any of her parents' old friends - she could not bear the comparisons they would immediately draw between her handsome parents and her own poor appearance.
No one would want to marry her for herself. Anyone who agreed to throw in his lot with her would have to be blind, mad, of charitable impulses or else, she thought with a smile approximating a grimace, desperate to possess a house in Dartmoor. And she would neither become an object of pity for any person, nor would she be made to feel like a burden on anyone.
Therefore, Angelina Mercy Sinclair would lead a secluded life. It was predestined, so why should she fight destiny?
Morning had just fluttered its lashes at the world by the time Angelina had heard the horrible news.
"The wind blew away yer fence on the south side last night, Miss Sinclair!" Tommy was shouting excitedly into Angelina's dismayed ears. "And that's not all. I could just drag Ennis and Glenn back by their hind legs before they had wandered far, but that foolish Edwina is out there somewhere on the moors, p'raps approaching the crags even now. And how I can chase after her before repairin' the fencing I don't know, seein' as every other cow might take the chance to roam around the countryside..."
"Calm down, Tommy," Angelina interrupted him gently, though she herself was feeling far from calm. The moor was extremely dangerous for the uninitiated and Edwina was only a calf. She knew nothing about its hazards; an immediate rescue mission was required. Angelina continued cheerfully, "The way is perfectly clear. You concentrate on reinforcing that fence as masterfully as you always do…I will set off in search of Edwina myself. If I leave now, I ought to be able to catch the little traveler before she has wandered too far off." She was already gulping down the cup of tea Mrs. Elmont had thrust in her hands a minute back, and whistled for Brandy between finishing her hasty breakfast and pulling on a pair of woolen mittens. Mrs. Belmont put her hand over Angelina's and, with a shake of her head, transposed the mittens with a thicker set.
"Not the woolen, Miss Sinclair, you must wear your leather gloves. And take care," Mrs. Belmont cautioned her while helping her into the only great-coat Angelina owned that fitted her, "Tommy was saying just yesterday that there's a possibility of a freak snowstorm coming our way soon. Promise me you won't stand around to catch your death of cold."
"But when did I ever stand around, my dear Susie?" Angelina teasingly laughed at the older woman's frown and put on an angelic expression. "I believe it had been your foremost complaint yesterday that I never take the time to 'stand around' and have some leisure!" But she soon sobered up on seeing that Mrs. Belmont was really concerned.
"Don't worry," she said, her voice dropping to a soothing decibel. "If it pleases you, I promise to come back the moment I sense a storm approaching. Besides, with Brandy at my side, you need have no worry on my behalf at all; you know how he is trained to call for help in case of an emergency.
"But if there is a chance of our getting snowed under, it would be a good idea to take an inventory of our supplies and check if we have every necessity in case we get cut off from civilization. Do we have enough firewood? Food, of course, is already stocked for winter - but what about medical supplies? And do we have the …"
"Miss Sinclair, we get snowed under almost every year. Of course we have everything ready for such an eventuality," Mrs. Belmont sniffed, before allowing a twinkle to enter her eyes. "And before you ask, the animals are secured as well - all excepting Edwina of course. Everything is as it should be.
"Now off you go before the storm clouds are upon us. And if possible, pull that rover back home by her rogue ears."
By the time the rising sun had kissed the snow-covered crags with its dazzling lips and made them blush into various shades of pink, Angelina was halfway on the rocky path to Heatherside Tor with Brandy trotting dutifully at her feet. She kept a steady lookout for the white-colored calf, and wished for the nth time that the snow had not provided such a perfect camouflage for her. Angelina kept up an overall soft cry of "Edwina? Come to me little one, come here," but did not call out too loudly for fear of spooking the creature and making her bolt at any point.
O Edwina, where are you hiding? There was any number of hiding spots where the calf could be concealed this very moment. A glance at the sky made her increase her speed; ominous clouds were already marring the clarity of the morning sky in the west and approaching rapidly to where she was.
"Do you see those clumps of dirty cotton over there, buddy? If they decide to dump their icy load on my head before I can reach home," she told Brandy as she knotted her scarf tightly around her head, "I would be in hot water. Not literally of course. Ha ha. The English language can sometimes be so ironic!"
Angelina pursed her lips in thought, and suddenly a memory stuck her. There was a large patch of open grassland around the base of Heatherside Tor, and the light dusting of snow they had received lately would not have destroyed it yet. Maybe Edwina was having a good breakfast out there by herself? She hurried on to check.
"There you are, you disobedient little thing!"
Edwina was calmly grazing at the green foliage and on hearing this cry, perked up her ears. She certainly made for a comically rustic figure; a fat little dappled calf standing in the middle of a green valley between two rocky passes, meditating on little-known philosophies while grabbing a snack or two - without caring a shake for the poor people running around frantically for her.
Angelina reached the truant and true to Mrs. Belmont's reminder, took the soft ear nearest to her and pulled gently on it. Edwina let out a surprised moo at the action and dropped the mouthful of grass she had been diligently transforming into cud.
"So this is why you ran off, to see whether the grass is really greener on the other side?"
Angelina rebuked her sternly, though she couldn't keep off a laugh at the image they would have presented to any person seeing them now. She took hold of Edwina's bell collar and attached a length of thin rope to it. "I hope you are satisfied with your little early morning outing my lady, for it is time to return to your friends and family again."
And with the now-pliant calf trotting peacefully behind her, Angelina made her way back home again. They had managed to outrun the clouds. She snuck a glance at the sky. It was a good start to the day indeed, despite the earlier panic.
She slid about on some frost before getting a footing again. Thank heaven for her Wellingtons; they had been her savior in this weather on more occasions than she could remember. Poor Brandy was already whining at the chilled breeze which tossed his plumy tail around on his back; but it didn't matter much - they were almost back at the house and would soon be taking shelter in its nice, toasty interior. Brandy went ahead and Angelina could hear his long mournful wails drifting on the wind as she maintained a steadier pace with Edwina, who must certainly be ruing her little jaunt by now. "Don't wander too far away, Brandy! Stick by my side!"
But the creature had already bolted and was almost howling by now, his grief-laden yowls echoed off the watching rock faces.
What a sissy, she thought in amusement. That dog cannot take cold at all, and yet he must insist on accompanying me whenever I go out. A loyal sissy, that's my darling Brandy.
She finally turned a corner, and saw Brandy sniffing frenetically at a dark bundle ahead. Whatever was it? Oh dear, was it a dead animal? Angelina hurried her pace until she reached them, at which point her steps faltered and she tentatively approached, peering at the dark bundle. She knew on impulse that she wouldn't like what she was going to see - and was proved right when a scream tore itself out of her throat. The leash dropped heedless from her hands.
A man laid face-down on the frozen grass, his body frighteningly inert. His dark hair was soaked through, though his clothes remained reassuringly free of snow - indicating that he had probably collapsed there after the last snow-storm rather than before. Angelina's eyes automatically swept across the landscape, trying to gauge how the stranger - for stranger he certainly was - had landed here. Was he making for the Grange when he collapsed?
She dropped down at his side and gently turned his face, so that his head was in her lap. It was a young face…certainly not older than twenty-five. Angelina was unable to study his features too much since the terrible gash on his forehead attracted all her attention. Blood had caked the side of his face and turned his snowy cravat crimson, though bleeding had been relatively less due to the low temperature of the atmosphere. His skin was icy to the touch, and his lips were already turning blue. The only thought drumming in Angelina's head now was - His eyes are closed. Is it too late?
Brandy, who had stopped whining now that his mistress was here to take care of everything, pushed his nose into the man's neck with some vague notion of assisting in his awakening.
Nothing worked. Angelina grabbed the man's wrist and checked for a pulse. Novice that she was, she couldn't make anything out. In desperation, she laid her ear on his chest and stilled her movements in an attempt to listen for a heartbeat. To her relief, the man's heart was still throbbing away at its station; weakly and irregularly, but certainly beating.
She took off her gloves and pressed some snow in her palms to make it melt, before dribbling the cold liquid on his face. "Sir, are you awake? Please Sir, you must regain consciousness. You are hurt, and must find some shelter to avoid catching a chill. Sir, do you hear me? Can you hear me?" She was almost frantic by the end.
"What do I do now, Brandy?" A sob broke from her lips. Angelina had never been in this kind of situation in her life. She wasn't experienced in dealing with injuries…that had always been her mother and Susie's forte. Susie - oh, that was right! She must get this man back to the Grange as soon as possible. Thereafter, Susie can take proper care of him.
But could she leave him alone in this wilderness, where anything could get at him before she came back? On the other hand, she didn't really have a lot of option, did she?
Angelina took off her great-coat and laid it gently on the man, turned around and told Brandy sternly, "Look after this man, Brandy. I will go to the house and get Tommy to help me, but you must guard him and see that nothing comes near him." Her eyes softened as she whispered, "I am depending upon you, buddy."
The faithful little dog licked her face enthusiastically and settled himself at the stranger's side with an audible plop, clearly intending to carry out the task entrusted to him by his mistress to the best of his capabilities.
She pulled on her gloves again and stood up to leave, but she could not stop herself from glancing once again at his face. With his eyes closed and a peaceful expression, he could pass for merely sleeping until you saw the horrid cut on his temple. "He does not seem to have fallen down from somewhere. What could have inflicted such a wound?" she wondered as her eyes drank in his features. The one glance turned into a long perusal as she really saw him, as a person rather than as someone requiring her help, for the first time.
The first things which she noticed were his extraordinarily thick black eyelashes. Lying on his pale cheeks like miniature fans, they looked fragile and out of place on an indubitably masculine face. The cheekbones were high and framed a straight nose, while the lips were long and superbly shaped despite being drained of color at the moment. He had a beautiful jaw-line, clean-shaven with classic planes and ending on a defined chin. His curling hair, which proved to be a rich raven-black in color, fell across a square forehead in glorious dishevelment and was so dense that it covered his ears and formed whorls around his forehead and at his jacket collar. His neck, now exposed due to the absence of his cravat, was muscular and tanned like his face under its unhealthy pallor. His body was far larger than hers, and he must dwarf her by half a foot at least...
She suddenly recollected herself and blushed in shame. She really must be on her way; she was taking advantage of the poor man by ogling him shamelessly while he was oblivious to his surroundings. But really, she had seen so few men in her life, that to come across such a specimen of male beauty in the wilderness was as rare as getting Brandy to stop entering the kitchen on baking day. Add to that his insensible state, which allowed for a leisurely perusal with no danger of being caught…which woman could avert her eyes for long?
Talking of eyes, she wondered about the color of his. It was a pleasant enough topic to speculate on while she set out homewards. What would they be like? Would they be blue as the summer sky, or brown like the chestnuts she loved to roast for Christmas? Black like the night, changeable hazel like the waters of a brook, or - she leaned back in to brush some snow that had dropped on his forehead from the tree - perhaps green like the new leaves during spring?
Angelina could only surmise that it must be as exquisite as the rest of him…it was unthinkable that he would have boring eyes.
Her speculation was answered abruptly when the lashes fluttered thrice and rose up to reveal the eyes behind them. They were amber in color and glazed over, like those of a feline in pain. Unusual, magnificent and entirely at one with the beauty of this paragon.
"Wh - wh - where am I?" he stuttered, disoriented with his unfamiliar surroundings. Angelina had jumped back as soon as his eyes started fluttering, so she was now seated at a respectable distance from him as behooved a demure maiden. His utterance was her signal and she moved into his line of vision, her face framed by a halo of escaped mahogany tendrils as usual.
He froze on perceiving her, before audibly drawing in a shaky breath and rasping out, "I must be dead. Since I see an angel. My own angel; I like that." He peered more closely at her through hazy eyes, before declaring with a slight slur, "I like your hair too …blonde is ov - over-rated. My angel's different. I like this place already." He smiled goofily up at Angelina, who was momentarily blinded before gathering her wits together. She held the hand outstretched to her in mute request. Why did it feel different to clasp it when he was awake?
"No Sir, you are not dead," she told him seriously. "But you are badly hurt all the same. I am going now for assistance, so please …"
"Now I can rest happy - I get to be in heaven after all." He mumbled before his eyes rolled back in his head and he lost consciousness once more.
Despite her limited medical knowledge, she knew perfectly well that people with head injuries should be kept alert as far as possible. "Oh no, you must stay awake!" All her entreaties had no effect on the supine man by her side. She hesitated for a moment, before leaning in more and patting his cheek insistently in a vain attempt to rouse him.
Something cold touched Angelina's own cheek as she leaned back to catch her breath for a moment. Suspiciously, she squinted up at the landscape around them that had changed in the few minutes she had been preoccupied with the stranger at her side.
Fat snowflakes were floating dreamily to the earth from a black sky. The clouds were scurrying along as if being whipped by the wind and, even as she watched, lightning split the sky into two for a split second. Superbly inexorable, the storm was upon them at last.
Angelina's voice rose with desperation as she shook his shoulder with renewed frenzy. "Sir? Sir! Please, wake up! You need to stay conscious!"
The arresting eyes remained closed. There was no answer at all.
What was a girl to do? Angelina wondered desperately as she whipped her head between the unconscious man and the Grange, which was barely visible around the corner. Could she try to carry him, perhaps? A snowflake landed on her eyelash and decided her…the sooner she got help the better.
"Alright Brandy, I will return as soon as possible. You stay here!" With this last instruction, she picked up Edwina's leash and veritably flew towards her home.
Tommy was just returning into the house when he spotted the young Miss running towards him, pulling on an indignant Edwina's collar spiritedly all the way. He shook his head at the sight and grinned; it wasn't often that he got to see Miss Mercy in a playful mood like this.
"So you found her alright Miss Mercy," he started, but was interrupted unceremoniously.
"Come with me Tommy," Angelina panted, her breath condensing into tiny white clouds before her. Now that he observed her more closely Tommy could make out that it was urgency, not playfulness that had initiated Miss Mercy's dash across country. She tugged Edwina towards the barn where the other cows were already locked up in anticipation of the coming storm, and kept on yelling instructions over her shoulder to Tommy as he trailed behind her worriedly.
"There is an injured man on the hillside, beside the big willow tree. He has fainted from his injury, and we need to get him here as soon as possible so that Susie can take care of him. Brandy is keeping watch on the gentleman, but you need to come with me to carry him back. Get a coat from Papa's room for him - mine was too small for his size. Bring a muffler too while you are at it, and fly over here. I will just…" she huffed while dragging the huge barn door open, "put Edwina in safely and then go with you."
Tommy nodded once even though Miss Mercy could not see the action, and ran inside the house to the Master's rooms. Well, this is something new alright, he mused to himself, before breaking out into a grin. It certainly livens up the day.
Brandy had sat down on the freezing ground for long enough, in his opinion. He looked at the sleeping man beside him. Was he not bothered by the cold at all? He went up to the quiescent form and tentatively licked the human's hand. In his experience, this had always woken people up before - but now, this stubborn man did not even open his eyelids!
The little dog let out a disgusted puff of breath, before tucking his nose in between his front paws and whimpering lightly. He loved his mistress from the bottom of his little doggy heart, but asking a self-respecting dog to wait in this ice rain while some unknown man slept his fill seemed to be a bit harsh of Angelina. Truly.
His grumbling thoughts skidded to a halt when his sharp eyes glimpsed two familiar figures hurrying towards him over the distance. Brandy jumped up immediately and wagged his tail joyfully. There were Angelina and Tommy; finally! Now he could get out of this miserable soggy place and inside the warm, comfy kitchen, where his rug would be warming by the fire and Susie would have filled his plate with bones as a reward for his diligent guard work. Woof, life was good now!
Angelina sprinted over to the two desolate figures as soon as she saw them, followed behind closely by a Tommy laden with woolen things. She ignored the exultant dog's greeting, to Brandy's great indignation, and dropped down at the man's side to check for the beating of his heart. Thankfully, that stalwart organ was still beating away resolutely; signifying that at least till now, the stranger continued to live. Whispering a short prayer of thanks, Angelina moved over and let Tommy take over.
Tommy was quite used to dealing with injuries due to his rural upbringing, and he expertly assessed the extent of the stranger's wounds before wrapping the muffler smelling of mothballs around his neck and helping him into the coat. Finally, Tommy hauled him over one shoulder and rose. His knees buckled momentarily - after all, he was still a mere fifteen-year old lad while this was a full-grown man - but his rigorous lifestyle stood him in good stead. He regained his balance in an instant and started the trip back home, Angelina anxiously assisting him wherever she could. With a frisky Brandy leading the way, they certainly made for a strange sight in the wild country-side.
"Do you need my help, Tom?" Angelina finally inquired, after seeing the poor teenager visibly clenching his teeth one time too many at a particularly difficult negotiation.
Don't you…worry, Miss," he panted hoarsely after righting himself. "I'm fine. The house is just a-around the corner, anyway." He gave her a weak smile.
That smile decided Angelina. Without uttering another word, she quietly slipped under the stranger's other arm and snaked her hand around his shoulder, taking some of the strain off Tommy's back.
"Whatever are you doin', Miss Mercy?" he asked incredulously, looking at his employer's improper nearness to a young man's body. Such things were just not done! "I can't let you ruin yer reputation like this!"
"Oh stuff it for the moment Tommy," Angelina sighed anxiously. "He needs to get inside as soon as possible and by itself, your pace is too slow. With me helping you, we can get home much sooner. And what price a hollow reputation when a man's life is at stake?
"And now, stop talking. I'm losing … my breath," she grinned at him before tightening her hold on the man between them. They continued on in companionable silence till the welcoming gates of Brooklyn Grange opened under their touch.
Mrs. Belmont was all astonishment for the whole of a minute, her mouth hanging open - in a manner she would indubitably refute for the rest of her dignified days - with shock on finding an unconscious young man being carried into her kitchen with a severe gash on his head. But she soon recovered her presence of mind and had the group take the man to the living room and lay him down on the large old-fashioned couch, after pushing it as near as possible to the fire.
Then she went into her 'brigadier' mode.
"Bring a bowl of warm water here Miss Mercy, and some clean rags from the supply closet," she barked without turning around. "Then you put the kettle to boil on the fire, and be sure to drop the tea leaves and four spoonfuls of sugar in it… I want a strong brew. Mix in a tablespoonful of the emergency whisky, and bring my box of herbs here so that I can show you what else to add.
"Tommy, run upstairs and get the extra blankets and pillows from the spare room. Get some more coals from the cellar afterwards and put it on the fire, then place three bricks on the flames to heat up. And hurry up while you are about it."
All this while she was massaging the poor man's pulse points and taking off his soggy clothes, to Angelina's blushing embarrassment. To hide her mortification, Angelina turned her face away and ran around to do the tasks allotted to her, concentrating especially hard on the preparation of the medicinal tea until Tommy had returned with the warm clothes and she was assured of the stranger being properly covered up again. Her hands might have trembled, but she worked on steadily. Within a quarter of an hour, the stranger's wound had been cleaned and bandaged, hot bricks placed at strategic points of his body and a strengthening tea firmly coaxed down his throat. His color was already returning, though he had yet to regain his consciousness.
Mrs. Belmont finally took in the drooping girl at her side. "You must go to your room and have a bit of rest for now, Miss Mercy," she said gently, handing her a cup of tea of her own. Angelina opened her mouth to protest, but the older lady shut her up with a stern glance. She explained further, "You had also been running around in the cold without your coat for some time, and I don't want you falling sick on me at this point. You did a fine job in rescuing this gent, and I'm sure that He who sees everything will reward you for your diligence someday. But for now, you must get out of these cold clothes and warm yourself up.
"He will be there when you wake up, I promise you," she added, a wry smile twisting her lips. There was no way this lad was going away anytime soon.
"Alright Susie dear," Angelina yawned surreptitiously behind her fingers, the exhaustion taking over her body now that the adrenaline had drained away from her veins. "I'll just check on the animals before I go upstairs, and maybe do some mending - we will need more linen than ever now after all…"
"Oh no, you don't," Mrs. Belmont gave a growl that would have made Brandy proud. "You will drink this tea, get on that bed and sleep until it grows dark outside. And then you will come to the kitchen and drink the broth that will be waiting for you over there. Only after that are you allowed to even think of working. So there," she ended rather childishly.
Angelina knew when she was beaten, and meekly made her way to her bedroom. She rubbed her hands to get the circulation going, removed her chilled clothing and finished her tea. By this time she could barely keep her eyes open, the bed singing siren songs and the duvet enticing her with its coziness. As she got into bed, she looked at her fastened windows whose shutters were rattling menacingly in the howling wind. The storm had certainly hit hard outside.
She felt a shiver go through her that had nothing to do with the cold. There were many trails leading to Heatherside Tor from her house, and she had returned by the willow tree route merely on a whim. If Edwina had not escaped from her field, if she herself had not followed the calf, and if she had not taken that particular path while returning…
Then what would have happened to the beautiful young man?
Angelina woke up after a couple of hours, feeling very well-rested indeed. The aches and chills were gone, but had left a gnawing hunger in their wake. It was not very surprising actually, considering that she had last eaten solid food in the early hours of the morning and it was now late afternoon. She jumped up from the bed and repaired her toilette perfunctorily before making her way downstairs.
However, she was too curious to know about the state of the man to go directly to the kitchen, and instead tiptoed to the living room to see him with her own eyes. Would he have regained consciousness yet? Or was his health worse than before?
Her questions were left unanswered - there was no one in the living room at all. If it had not been for the puddles of water all over the room, Angelina would have thought that it had all been a fantastic dream concocted by her feverish mind; as it were, she followed the water trail to the only bedroom on the ground floor of the Grange. Peeking inside, she discovered that their guest was laid upon a hastily made bed and Mrs. Belmont was sitting in a chair at his side, a book open on her lap as she kept vigil. Tommy must have left to take some rest, or else to do some of the hundred and one works he always had around the house.
Angelina had not visited this room for a long time, and she looked about her now with interest. It had been designated for the cook when Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair used to live here with a large troop of servants, and the little room had stood empty since the month they passed away and the Stevens family moved into the Grange. It was small in size and the scanty furniture was swathed under heavy covers, but there was a large bow window near the bed that she knew overlooked the same magnificent sight she had from her own window - albeit from a lower height - and would be lovely to look out of during mornings and evenings. The wall was papered in a teal domino pattern that, while undoubtedly dusty and faded, still managed to exude a cheery aura and would not depress a convalescing person. If he pulled through tonight, that is.
Angelina could not repress a shudder at the last thought. No, she must have faith in Susie and the man's guardian angel. After all, he had managed to survive this far, and his skin had already taken on a healthy color. The only matter for concern was that he had not opened his eyes at all since that moment under the tree, when he had mistaken her for an angel.
Angelina suppressed an unladylike snort at the memory, and closed the door gently behind her as she came further into the room. Mrs. Belmont turned around at the sound, and smiled broadly on seeing Angelina looking so normal again.
"Good to see you up and about, Miss Sinclair! But what are you doing in here? I have left a bowl of hot broth for you in the kitchen. Come, I will toast some slices of bread for you as well, seeing as this gent here is decided upon getting his ten hours' beauty sleep." She winked at her mistress, who could not keep away the answering grin from her face. If Susie was joking around, then there must be no need for worry anymore.
Oh no, Susie, don't leave your post by your patient's side. I can toast my own bread, you know; I've been able to do so since I was nine years old."
"Your cheekiness is intact, at any rate," Mrs. Belmont mock-glared. "You march off to that kitchen now and drink up that chicken bisque; it would be spoiling if you stand around gabbing like this much longer, and it'd be a right shame to waste nourishing food, don't you agree?"
Giggling to herself out of sheer high spirits, Angelina rushed out to the kitchen and picked up the toasting fork. Ten minutes later, a steaming little basin was sitting regally on the table with golden toast and a crock of butter for attendants. Wasting Susie's soup would have indeed been a pity! Gulping down the hot aromatic liquid, she devoted a moment to savoring the warmth and contentment gushing through her body before devouring the food ravenously. After washing up the dishes, she returned to the sick room again, this time finding Mrs. Belmont removing the dust covers protecting the furniture in order to make it more welcoming. Angelina went to assist her and started releasing a bulky armchair swathed in old drapes to protect its hideous pink glory from time-related decrepitude.
She sneezed a little at the dusty cloud that immediately erupted around her. Goodness, this place certainly needed a good turn-out! How come she had overlooked it during the spring cleaning? But then, there had always been so much to do in the spring season, with the new calves and chicks to look after and the vegetables to harvest…
Her mouth curved cynically - somehow, cleaning closed rooms had never been a great priority.
She continued to pull off all the dust sheets as gently as possible, cleaned all the furnishings with Susie's help and afterwards, took up a stiff broom to cautiously sweep all the grime out of the room. Susie had covered the insensible man's mouth and nose with a strip of wet muslin to prevent him from inhaling the dust particles, but they still had to take care to stir the dust-filled air as less as possible. Susie had decided earlier that it would not be wise to move him around too much without knowing the extent of his injuries for certain, so the two women had to conduct their tidying activities around the man keeping his comforts in mind all the time.
To put it simply, it was back-breaking work.
Her arduous tasks finally done, Angelina brought her ever-present mending pile over to the room, moved the over-stuffed pink armchair near the bed and sank into it gratefully.
"Now I will keep watch while you step outside for a while, dear Susie. You have missed your mid-day nap today and I'm sure your legs want a bit of rest."
Mrs. Belmont shook her head. "You seem to have forgotten a simple fact, Miss Sinclair. You are a young gentlewoman. I can't leave you alone in a young gent's bedchambers as you're so blithely suggesting. Can you imagine how scandalous that would be?"
Angelina exhaled noisily. "I wonder why both you and Tommy are always so worried about the proprieties. Scandalous? Who is here in the middle of a snowstorm to create a scandal? It is a simple fact that I want you to have a respite before your next bout of cooking, cleaning and nursing starts." Her lips quirked mischievously. "Do you think that I will molest the poor man when we are alone? If it is him you do not trust, I promise you that I will let you know the moment he awakens, so that he would have no time to have any evil designs on me. Are there any more objections?"
She finally managed to force a reluctant Mrs. Belmont to go with a solemn promise to call for her if the need arose, and settled down for an hour or so of tranquil solitude.
Her hands kept on working at the torn fabric in her lap while her eyes furtively stole of their own accord to the man sleeping oh so near her. He looked young and vulnerable with a bandage swaddling his brows, bundled up in blankets and wearing her father's favourite bed-clothes, that he had bought two years before his untimely death and used to be extremely proud about. She had been so surprised to see those dear possessions again and on this unknown man's frame that a flicker of anger had momentarily flared in her heart, but Angelina had soon realized that this was the only way of keeping the man warm and covered since Tommy was much too small in size to supply a change. Besides, her rational half told her that Papa himself would have thoroughly approved of his things being used in such a noble cause. Hadn't she told Tommy to get Papa's muffler and coat for this gentleman when the need arose? Then why should other articles of clothing matter in the least?
Her restless eyes fell on the fire roaring in the grate and the empty cup of herbal tea sitting on the bedside table. Her brain immediately started assessing the extra expenditure looking after a sick man would incur. He would need nutritious food, medicines, and God only knew what else. He would require careful nursing which would cut into the entire household's precious time, and her animals and vegetables might suffer. My threadbare purse would again have to take the load…
She shook off such cheap thoughts resolutely. Would she have been happier if she had never come across this man, and he would have died in the cold? Certainly not. Besides, it wasn't that bad a situation - she was not a pauper yet! Surely they would manage to overcome these problems somehow. Besides, the man looked like he was comfortably off. Perhaps his relatives would take him away as soon as the snow abated, freeing Angelina from his responsibility. Though, she admitted reluctantly to herself, life would become very dull once this breath of novelty melted away with the wind.
Her thoughts drifted to the fire - more specifically, the fireplace. It suddenly seemed like a symbol of her life. Who knows how many years that hearth had stood cold, waiting for someone to kindle a fire in it and bring it to life? And now its turn had come with the dramatic advent of this man who had seemingly dropped from the sky into their lonely patch of land. But as soon as the man improved and left to pursue his own life, it will go back to its bleak condition with only cold ashes to remind it of what had been.
A movement caught the corner of her eye, pulling her back from her depressing thoughts like magic. She stared at the man's hands resting demurely on the coverlet. Had something really stirred, or was it simply her imagination? Her answer came in a minute. A finger was indeed twitching sporadically.
It had been no illusion - the next couple of digits also started moving.
A small contraction of the muscles made the arm jerk slightly, before settling into place again.
The lips parted, drawing a harsh gust of air.
And the black lashes quivered open, displaying those unforgettable tawny eyes.
Angelina swallowed in excitement. Her 'guest' was awake at last.
Angelina was about to run for Mrs. Belmont immediately, but decided to wait around a while and see if the man required any immediate help. Therefore she sat on cautiously as he quietly looked about the room. He seemed to be debating on what to say; or maybe he simply did not know what to say. After all, she reasoned, he has just woken up in a strange room, when his last memory must be of wandering on the Tor or something; a little bafflement is certainly called for. His eyes took in the entire room before settling on her sitting angled away slightly from the bed. His eyes widened and his mouth opened to say something.
What came out was a croak.
Angelina was a thread away from bursting into laughter - the look of startled apprehension on his face on hearing the foreign sound escaping his mouth was really hilarious. It was only her strong sense of empathy which prohibited her from making fun of the poor fellow, and she immediately got up to retrieve the pitcher of water and a clean glass from the bed-side table. She held out the filled glass tentatively to the patient and watched while he struggled to raise himself in bed as a prelude to drinking the water. The blow must have been hard indeed, to have incapacitated a strong man thus.
She shook her head on witnessing his frustrated struggle and, after a short second's pause, firmly grasped his arm and assisted him into a more comfortable pose, putting a few pillows behind his back for additional support. Her posture was confident, but her cheeks were flaming red all the same; whatever she told Tommy and Susie, the unseemliness of the situation was striking her sensibilities forcefully; and it certainly felt more improper than ever now that he was awake and apparently in control of his senses. Feeling his bands of muscles flexing under my palms is certainly different from assisting an inanimate dead weight, was the wayward thought uppermost in her mind at this point.
But she could never back out of giving help where it was required, so she thought no more of it and just worked on.
Once the man was settled comfortably and had started swallowing the water, Angelina gathered herself and said quietly, "I am glad to see you alert at last, Sir. I will just go and call for my housekeeper; she would like to know that her patient has awakened." She had hoped that using 'Sir' would prompt him to give her his name or proper designation; but when no correction was forthcoming, she shrugged mentally, made a small curtsey and crossed the room towards the exit with alacrity. His intent looks were seriously starting to unnerve her.
He had been staring constantly at her face quizzically all the time he sipped on slowly, as if her features contained the answer to some puzzle.
She turned around at the door, a new idea striking her mind. Maybe he was looking at her because he needed some further assistance from her, and was unsure about asking. In that case, she should give him an opening. "Sir, I hope you are feeling comfortable? Does your head hurt too much?"
The man seemed to shake off his temporary daze. His eyes crinkled up, and an impish smile bloomed on his face. It suits him all too well, Angelina thought ruefully.
"If I wanted to give a pretty answer, I would say that I am feeling fine, thank you, and no headache has the potential to hurt me in the presence of so much beauty. But if I were to tell the truth, I am extremely uncomfortable and my head pounds like mad. My body is acting ridiculously weak and I don't have the least idea how I arrived here, wherever 'here' might be. I feel afraid as I don't know where I am." He shrugged as if it was of no importance. "You can keep whichever description takes your fancy; I am not very particular."
"Oh," Angelina felt unable to reply adequately. This man did not speak or think in a predictable manner…but he certainly was entertaining. "Um, I believe I will file away the truthful answer for the present situation as we need to know about your medical progress, but I will hold you to the first version whenever I am in need of flattery. You have nothing to fear from your location; you are currently at Brooklyn Grange, which is my house. I found you on the hillside in an insensible position, so I brought you back here to improve under my housekeeper, Mrs. Belmont's magic touch." Her teasing tone changed and she continued in a softened voice, "I'm sorry to hear about your pain, however. It is expected, but unwelcome news all the same. I will ask Mrs. Belmont to bring back something for your aches when she comes to see you."
She broke into a smile of her own. "I know for a fact that she has bone marrow soup cooking on the kitchen fire even now; that will bring back the strength in your limbs in no time."
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. "Ah, so that is the origin of this lovely smell. I was wondering why I started feeling hungry all of a sudden." He sighed dramatically and rested a hand on his stomach. "The hunger pangs are currently so strong that they have almost taken away my bodily pains for now."
Angelina had badly wanted to ask him about his identity and the source of his mysterious injury almost since the moment he woke up, but she realized that it would be in bad taste indeed if she interrogated him without giving the poor man some sustenance first. Therefore, she gracefully laid down arms and accepted defeat for the nonce. There will be time enough for questions after he had eaten a bit.
"I can take a hint, Sir - I will arrange for your dinner as soon as I can." She twinkled at him and went out of the door.
She went up to Mrs. Belmont's room, where the good lady was dozing in a chair. It saddened her to break into the housekeeper's rest, but she knew that Susie would be the first one to scold her if she did not call the latter the moment the man woke. "Susie, get up! I have arrived bearing good tidings," Angelina whispered softly into her ears. "Your patient is finally wide awake, and is eager to make the acquaintance of your care…or more specifically, your soup."
Mrs. Belmont sat up with a start, looking around agitatedly for a moment before she got her bearings. Then Angelina's words registered in her brain, and she heaved herself gracefully out of the faded brocade seat.
"Well, thank the Lord for that; I was starting to get the teensiest bit worried about his long spell of inaction," she muttered to herself as she splashed some water on her face in order to rouse herself completely. She turned back to look at Miss Sinclair, as the younger woman stared absently at a water-color she had drawn when she had been seven years old and gifted to 'Sue' on her birthday. "Did you talk with him after he awoke? What did he say? Is he lucid? Does he remember what had happened? Is his head hurting too much? Is he hungry?"
"Whoa there Susie, slow down a while there," Angelina laughed. "Let me take those questions in order. Yes, I talked with him a little after he woke up, he was lucid enough and though he seemed a little bewildered by everything, he behaved with admirable calm. I have not asked him about what had happened till now…if you remember, someone had ordered me to call her the moment he regained consciousness, as it would be very improper if I stayed in the same room as a young man without a chaperone. Finally, he did admit that his head hurts a lot and he is extremely hungry. You are sorely required downstairs, Susie dear."
By now Mrs. Belmont had finished running around the room like a plump whirlwind and already had a hand on the door knob. She paused on the threshold just long enough to say, "Well don't just stand there child, come along. Time is a-wasting." And then she was gone.
Shaking her head fondly at her energetic friend, Angelina followed her downstairs.
Mrs. Belmont made an entrance into the sick room, sailing in ceremoniously with a steaming bowl of broth in her hands while Angelina held the door open for her like she would for a monarch. She made straight for the dark-haired man propped up in bed, who had now switched his full attention to the round little woman and her appetizing burden. She introduced herself in her characteristic abrupt manner.
"Good to see you are up. I am Mrs. Belmont, and I intend to see you finishing up this soup quickly and without any fuss."
Angelina remembered that Susie had used almost the same line on her fifteen years ago when she had come into a sulky Angie's bedroom for the first time. As a child, she had twisted her ankle and was feeling mighty sorry for herself - when in breezed a matronly vision carrying a tray emitting a most delicious smell, wearing a stern expression that her twinkling eyes had belied. The soup had gone down in record time, sweeping the scowl on Angie's features along with it.
She was eager to see the reaction of this unpredictable young man to Susie's unconventional tactics.
He clutched his heart dramatically. "Do you really think that I would need any motive to finish anything which smells that good? I see that I must improve my image immediately." He stretched his elegant hands towards her and grabbing the bowl, started devouring the broth directly with all the fervor of a starving man.
"And I see that your little adventure has whetted your appetite," she beamed at him. Her sharp eyes could also see that despite the man's desire to project a cheerful aura, his physical weakness had not passed and his arms were trembling even now from the exertion of holding the heavy glass bowl. She took the vessel from his hands gently and called behind to Angelina, "Do put a couple more pillows under his head for support, Miss Mercy. Ah, that's better. Now Sir, lean forward to make it easier for me to feed you."
The man bristled. "Madam, I would have you know that I do not take kindly to being treated like a helpless baby. I can manage my food by myself, at least."
A governess-y glint entered Mrs. Belmont's eyes, and Angelina could almost see the hackles rising on her neck as she prepared to do battle. She chuckled to herself…the poor man did not know how formidable an adversary he was taking on! But Susie was strangely calm for her usual standards. Maybe she was more polite in front of strangers.
"I will not be feeding you every meal, you can rest assured; but I will do so this time, and no objections will I stand from you. You haven't recovered your full strength yet, and must not go about acting as if you are a great active man of the world."
Her eyes softened. "You were on the verge of death a few hours ago, in case you didn't know; and must not expect your body to bounce back as if nothing had happened. I am dying to ask you about all that, but for now you will keep quiet and eat." The glint returned in their gray depths.
"Do I make myself clear?"
The young man gulped, and meekly bowed his head in assent, before opening his mouth like an obedient boy. He could do little else, actually.
After the broth was consumed to both the nurse and patient's satisfaction, medicine applied to his wound, his bandage retied and a hot brick placed at his feet, the two ladies decided that they had waited long enough to get some answers from their mysterious guest. They looked at each other covertly, trying to decide who should take the plunge and ask him about himself. Finally, Angelina ended the unspoken conference with a tiny nod; it was her house, so she should be the one making the inquiries. She inhaled once deeply, wondering which would be the most gracious approach to the topic. Her self-imposed exile from polite society had left her a little rusty in the usual civilities.
All this over-thinking will get you nowhere, she chided herself. Let's couch it in straightforward terms. He seems to be fond of candid talking, anyway.
"Sir, now that you are feeling a bit better, could you tell us about your family and where you reside? It would make it easier for us to track down your relatives and tell them about your accident. I am sure that you would prefer to be with your own people at this juncture rather than with strangers, though," she hurried to reassure him on seeing a peculiar look cross his face, "you are very welcome to stay here till they come to claim you. But I just thought that they must be worrying about you and…well, that was that," she ended lamely, feeling rather flustered about her lack of social graces. What a way to make someone feel unwanted.
The man, on his part, seemed to be intently studying his fingers to the exclusion of everything else around him. He twiddled them a bit and sighed to himself. At last he dragged them across his face in a defeated gesture. When he looked up to meet Angelina's tentative gaze, his anguished visage made her gasp.
"What can I say, Miss - Miss Mercy? I'd been trying to hold this moment off for as long as possible, acting normal and happy for my own benefit as well as yours; but it looks like the time of truth is here at last. I …I …" he squared his shoulders and looked resolutely at the reflection of the flames shimmering on the window shutters, unable to meet their eyes. "Well, so be it. The truth is, I don't know the answer to that question myself. I do not know who I am, where I am from, whether I have any family to speak of or not. I do not know what gave me this," he pointed to his bandaged head. "My mind is a complete blank about any occurrence preceding my waking up in this room. I have tried and tried to remember something about my past all the while I'd been talking and joking with you both, but the fact stands.
"I have lost my memory."
Angelina gaped at him in horror, as she and Susie exchanged panicked glances. This was awful. No memory at all? Oh, poor, poor gentleman, to have something so traumatic happening to him! And here they were all thinking that the worst was over, now that he had regained the use of his faculties. What will they do now?
They must start inquires from somewhere; but how? Even their location was so secluded from the world! There were no gossipy village women here who would know about this man, no men who would have worked for him or drank with him at some pub. How will they ever find out his identity? Angelina was not even sure which direction they should start their investigations in - there were no villages until seven miles either way.
Last but certainly not least of their problems was, who would investigate in this snow, which seemed bent upon imprisoning them all up here?
He was still looking into the distance, still speaking softly, and panic laced through his voice now. "I do not know anything about myself beyond what my instincts inform me. My clothes tell me that I'm from a big town - then what was I doing here? I know that I love books, I can feel it in my bones… but which book is my favorite? I can't make it out. Where was I educated? Do I work somewhere, or am I a man of means? What is my favorite food? Do I have a dog waiting for me at home? Do I have a wife waiting for me at home?"
He hugged a pillow to his chest as he finally looked at Angelina and Mrs. Belmont again with eyes resembling fiery pools of distress. His voice broke. He sounded like a scared child as he uttered one of the most poignant things Angelina had heard in her life.
"Where is my home?"
The awkward silence that descended upon the little group in the sick room was mercifully dispelled soon by the entry of one very boisterous spaniel, his plumy tail wagging furiously and tongue lolling out in genial welcome. He made straight for Angelina and after giving her a couple of boisterous licks and receiving a few pats in return, condescended to survey the stranger sitting upright in bed.
His animation dimmed down slightly and he stalked towards the man. Chocolate eyes bored into amber ones in mute query for almost a minute, before he decided that the presence of this man in his life was worth investigating into further. The man smiled in encouragement, though he didn't make any move towards the dog other than to put forth a hand for inspection. Brandy approached and sniffed the proffered hand. Then, with a move that surprised nearly everyone present, he jumped up onto the bed and curled up at the man's side. Clearly, he approved of the new arrival.
Angelina and Mrs. Belmont shared a private smile. Their darling dog had come in contact with few humans during the span of his life, but whenever he met anyone new he always liked to give the impression of being a tough judge of character. However, he could never hold out for too long and so long as the person was amenable, Brandy could be found to be on best of terms with him or her within minutes. He had certainly proved true to his character in this instance as well.
The man was fondling Brandy's ears with a loving smile on his face. Clearly, he loved dogs. The turmoil in his eyes was now replaced by calm and peace.
"You are a handsome fellow, aren't you?" he murmured quietly as Brandy craned his neck in pleasure. "What is your name? I hope these women have not spoiled a wonderful masculine spaniel like you with some effeminate moniker like Silky, Goldie, or," he shuddered dramatically, clearly having regained his high spirits, "Choo choo?"
Angelina giggled; she could not help herself. This man had the power to make her feel happy just to be in his presence, even when he was gently teasing her and her world. "It is not something as horrendous as the names you're suggesting, sir, but I do not know if his name will meet your high standards of expectations. After all," her voice took on an ironical inflection, "we are poor womenfolk with romantic notions in our brains most of the times. His name is Brandy."
"Ah, Brandy." He tried on the name for size, rolling it around his tongue and staring at the spaniel with a speculative look, and finally nodded his head in a pontifical manner. "Yes, it will pass the test. It matches his coat, sounds comforting and most importantly, denotes a man's best friend. Certainly my lady, you chose well." He tipped his head in her direction. "Since you are so good with names, what would you suggest for me? I must have something to go by until I find out my real identity."
The strain in his voice was palpably evident to both his listeners, but they decided to not call him out on it as he seemed determined to put on a brave face. Instead, Angelina got into the spirit of the question and started to try out different names, glad to have a reason for forgetting their dilemma for a minute at least.
"Do you really want me to give you a name, good sir? In that case, I would like some guidelines about your preferences. After all, you will be the one stuck with it until…until later. So do you want a regular name like John, James, Martin, Peter, Richard and so on? Or do you want something unusual like Algernon, Rudolph, Tiberius, Eugene - or perchance something to do with your appearance?" She blushed suddenly, what was she thinking? She could not very well mention his appearance at the moment! He was opening his mouth already to reply. To cover up her words, she rushed into speech again desperately, saying the first thing that came into her head. "Maybe you would want a romantic name like the heroes of novels have. What say you to Vivian, Ethan, Gabriel, Damien, Orlando, Sebastian, Alexander…?"
"Stop, stop, stop!" He was laughing so hard that even this monosyllabic word was hard for him to wheeze out. He gasped for breath a couple of times before focusing his eyes on Angelina. "Miss Mercy, are you generally so funny, or is there something particularly hilarious in my presence that makes you blossom out so nicely?"
A throat was cleared. Both of them whipped their heads around to Mrs. Belmont, who was looking on at their interaction with a wary eye. Matching blushes bloomed on their faces. Oh dear, Angelina thought abashedly, we had forgotten that there was someone else in the room! And I was just about flirting with him. What is happening to me?
Mrs. Belmont spoke into the silence that ensued. "Oh, she is always as lively as this, I assure you sir. But we were talking about your name. What would you prefer?"
"Oh, erm, I think that I would like something easier to on my personality than Tiberius, though Heathcliff seems particularly appropriate considering where I was found," - his eyes still twinkled with left-over mirth - "but I was wondering about that appearance thing, since that is the only thing that might be true to me. What name would depict my look in your opinion, Miss Mercy? And what do you think Mrs. Belmont?" he added as an afterthought.
Susie was ready this time, and jumped in to Angelina's rescue by speaking first. "Well sir, if one had to name you on your appearance, then I think you had best be called Robin."
He choked again, and he was not the only one this time. Angelina's eyes were bugging out. She did not just say that!
"R-Robin? And what part of me suggests a cocky bird, Madam?"
Susie did not miss a beat. "Why, your clothes sir. When Miss Mercy found you, you were dressed in blue superfine coat and a crimson cravat. Does that remind you of something?"
He laughed; a joyous, open laugh that came straight from the heart. "You are a wonder Mrs. Belmont. And since I have no knowledge of my beginning, let me take as my surname the moniker of the first man to be created, who only answered to God as Father. It is decided then. Good morning madam," he executed a flawless bow to Angelina even though he was still sitting in bed, "My name is Robin Adams. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
Angelina curtsied in return, though she could feel her throat clogging up at his valiant attempt at lightheartedness. "Miss Sinclair at your service, sir. The pleasure is all mine."
Angelina could not neglect her duties around the house for much longer and thus, with a mixture of regret and relief, she slipped out of the sick room within a few minutes while leaving Brandy behind to entertain the patient. Her mind was in constant turmoil regarding the turn of events since the morning and perhaps steady house work would give her some time to herself, to sort out her thoughts. She went into the kitchen and readied some hot water from the kettle always hanging over the fire before seizing the empty soup-pan, intending to clean all the dishes left over from their previous meal.
Her mind worked on in tandem with her hands, and unbeknown to herself she started humming as was her wont when alone. She had not had much opportunity to be alone since Mr. Adams woke up, and this realization bothered her a little. She had always been of a solitary nature and Susie and Tommy seldom intruded upon her solitude as they had their own works to attend to. But now, what was going to happen? This man has set everything upside down. One thing was for sure, she would not be expected to entertain him a great deal…it did not do for a young maiden in Queen Victoria's era to stay in a young man's bedroom to amuse him, even when the man was incapacitated. But what about a later time, when he was able to move about without any hindrance? Already he was showing signs of recovering nicely from his injuries; and while that was a reason for rejoicing, it certainly might become awkward to keep out of his way when he was steady on his two legs.
Angelina eyed the dish-rag confusedly as her hands stilled in their movements. She did not want to allow this stranger to intrude upon her life. Lord knows she did not trust outsiders with control over her and her possessions, and certainly not with her peace of mind. And this was a particularly persistent and, God help her, striking specimen of masculinity. He left her feeling things she would rather not feel. Not just attraction of the physical kind, but he also evoked pity in her for another human being, not to mention an awareness of being a woman rather than simply Miss Mercy of Brooklyn Grange. What did that even mean, anyway?
She shook her head and resumed wiping down the kitchen table-top, hoping to forget everything happening around her. Think of the storm outside. It was still going strong. Oh Lord, please let it end soon - the cows would be starving within a few days if their hay finished and they couldn't go outside to forage. Sooner or later the firewood would also need to be replenished; they had provided amply in anticipation, but they had of course not factored in the heating of an additional room. Though poor man, it was not his fault at all. And how were they going to go about making inquiries about his identity? Maybe she should invest in an advertisement to be placed in the leading London newspapers. He certainly seemed like a Londoner; but then, what if he were not…?
Goodness, had it only been a few hours since Mr. Adams had entered her life? She really needed to distance herself a little from him and his circumstances. Angelina picked up a mop to wipe up the water on the living room floor, and started singing folk ballads in earnest to stop herself from thinking any further.
Robin heard the sweet strains of an unknown song floating in from the adjacent room. Brandy pricked up his ears at the sound and barked happily - apparently, he was used to providing the choral accompaniment for his mistress while she sang. He closed his eyes and let the soothing melody flow over him, lulling his fears and pain for the moment. Oh, the pain was there alright; whatever hit him on the head had been good at the task. He flexed his fingers, gazing at them earnestly. There was no ring there…neither a wedding ring, nor one depicting an engagement, nor a signet ring that might have helped him to know something about his antecedents. His clothes had apparently been on the flamboyant side, if the sobriquet of Robin was applied to him - but then, why was he not wearing any rings on his fingers as was the current fashion?
He sat forward suddenly, shoving his hands in his hair. How was it that he remembered what was in fashion, but he couldn't remember anything about himself? He thought back to the question Mrs. Belmont had put to him as soon as Miss Sinclair had exited from the room.
"What do you remember about the name 'Heathcliff', Mr. Adams? Why did you especially mention that name?"
He had turned towards her with a bewildered expression. "Isn't it - isn't it the name of some, some bookish hero or something? It just cropped up in my mind as something appropriate to my situation. Wasn't Heathcliff also some person who had no backgrounds and had turned up out of the blue to a family?"
"That is just what I am asking, Mr. Adams," she asked with a piercing stare at him. "Heathcliff is the hero of a book just recently published by a Mr. Bell.* I only know about it because my daughter is maid to a lady who loves to read, and had written to me a week ago about this new book that her mistress had acquired and was very excited about. How is it that you remember about a random volume, but cannot recall anything else that is certainly more important and must be closer to your consciousness? Unless of course," she added with a disarming smile, "you are Mr. Bell and had written that book yourself."
"I -I - I don't know how to answer you, Mrs. Belmont," Robin had stammered, trying to recollect what had gone through his mind at that moment. His voice had become animated as the realization came upon him, and the words tumbled out. "It just came to me in a flash. I had a second's clear impression of an older woman sitting before me and speaking on and on about a character named Heathcliff and his love for some girl. I got the notion of being exasperated with her enthusiasm. That is all I can remember, I am afraid." he concluded, the light dying out from his eyes.
Mrs. Belmont had continued to appraise him shrewdly for a full minute, before finally speaking. She appeared to be choosing her words very carefully. "I hope that you are telling the truth, Mr. Adams, and not playing around with our minds by lying about your condition. Because you see, we are poor people and can just about make ends meet by ourselves. Miss Sinclair's parents died ages ago, and her financial situation is none too good. She does not deserve to be preyed upon. I and Tommy are dedicated to her and will make sure that no one takes advantage of her. But if you're telling the truth, then do not question her hospitality…she will be more than willing to help out a fellow creature in trouble. Just - like you had yourself mentioned, we do not know if you have a wife at home or not, and neither do we know what responsibilities and liabilities you bear. Do not play around with the young girl. This is not a plea, it is a warning.
"And if you are honest about that fleeting remembrance, then it bodes well for the future. Maybe your memory is only temporarily lost, and you can regain it within a few days if this instance is something to go by. I'll pray for your health tonight. Sleep a bit sir; I have to take care of the dinner now." So saying, she had exited the room leaving a disturbed man behind.
Robin rubbed his eyes. He felt very guilty about infesting his presence on Miss Sinclair now. Were situations really that dire for her? He looked about the room. It was of pleasant proportions, with few items of furniture but not lacking in any form. The shutters were drawn on the window so he could not see the lands outside. He had no idea about the dimensions of the house itself, seeing as he had not been outside this one room yet; but something told him that it must be of a solid size. How difficult must it be to keep up such a responsibility with only two people as household staff? No wonder Miss Sinclair's beautiful eyes had such shadows under them. As if things were not bad enough, he had to come by.
The sweet voice floated into his hearing again, and he unconsciously relaxed back into the pillows while trailing his hands along Brandy's back. One thing was for sure, he would be helping about the house as soon as he was able to get about without falling over in an undignified heap. He must repay their kindness in some way or the other. And Mrs. Belmont was right - he must take all precautions against getting emotionally involved with the charming mistress of the house, considering his inability to honor any promises to her without any knowledge of himself whatsoever. But oh, he could not remember when some girl had enchanted him thus, with her selfless actions, sweet sense of humor, haunting eyes and angelic voice. He could not recall a time when a woman's lightest touch had sent tremors of something coursing through his body.
And there you have it - he could not remember.
This amnesia thing was maddening.
Brooklyn Grange had received another visitor that day, though the inhabitants of the house had been unaware of his presence. He had managed to break into the house through the kitchen entrance when everyone had been busy in the patient's room, and after scouting out the top floor of the house he had settled upon the attic as a suitable place to hide in. He had crept back downstairs soon afterwards, and had stayed hidden in the broom closet near the sick room until he heard that his quarry had awakened. How he regretted missing the opportunity to do his work then and there, when the girl had gone to get the woman! But what was done was done, and at least the good news was that the stupid fool had lost his memory, and could not make out what had happened to him. Hopefully that meant that he would not have to kill everyone in the house as collateral damage as well. He was a pacifist at heart, after all.
He currently shivered in the attic, to where he had escaped as soon as he detected the girl putting on an apron and getting ready to clean the house. It was night already, and dinner time must be over by now. He kept an ear open for the inhabitants to turn in for the night. Once they had all gone to sleep, he could step down and finish his work once and for all.
What was the name they had given that fool? Ah yes, Robin Adams. Well, Mr. Adams was never going to regain his memory, if he had his way. He had never failed at his job yet, and he was not going to start with a tame assignment like 'Mr. Adams'.
The clock struck twelve somewhere in the depths of the house. He counted the chimes patiently, and a grin stole across his features on hearing it. The time was here at last.
Gathering up his handy cudgel, the assassin tiptoed down the stairs and made for the sick room door. He would not miss again. His target would not get to see the sunrise tomorrow, nor ever.
*Emily Bronte, the author of Wuthering Heights and creator of the immortal character of Heathcliff, first published her novel under the name of Ellis Bell.
© 2012 Copyright held by the author.