Blanche Sheringham sank down upon the bed in the chamber she had retreated to, shaking with fear. She realised now that she was in a more perilous situation than she would have been had she remained alone on the moor. Henry Devereaux, the man who had seemed so kind and courteous, was not her host but her captor. Oh, he had not said so, but his implication had been clear when he had commented that they had “all the time in the world to get to know each other.” She shivered, thinking of the number of times his fingers had already stroked her skin. He was marking her as his territory and she felt powerless to stop him.
But he was her brother! The knowledge was still something her mind had not fully processed. Henry’s father had loved her mother. Now she knew that, she could see she had inherited his green eyes, although she had her mother’s complexion and striking red hair.
An uneasy thought fluttered at the back of her mind. Henry had claimed to be a ‘free thinker’ – someone who did not believe in conventional marriage. Did that mean he would also ignore the church’s teaching on sin? She did not like the way he had told her that his father’s confession changed nothing. It seemed to suggest that he was harbouring designs on her virtue.
This thought made her arise quickly from the bed and cross to the door to see if she had remembered to lock it. She had. Good. But she could not hide in this room forever. She would have to think of a way to escape. Could she somehow get a letter to Will, telling him where she was and asking him to come and rescue her? Surely if he appeared at the door, Henry could not refuse to let him enter?
She searched the room, hunting for writing paper, but it seemed that Mrs Deveraux had not spent much time in correspondence. She would have to ask Henry without alerting his suspicions. In the meantime, she would spend as much time as she could with Hugh – it would be a chance to get to know her father, but it would also keep her at a safe distance from Henry.
In his room, Hugh dozed fitfully in front of the fire. He felt worn out: drained by the exertion of confessing his secret to a stranger. Even now, he didn’t know why he’d unburdened himself to someone he had only just met. The child was pretty of course, and that red hair had reminded him of Francesca – perhaps that was what it was: the sight of her hair had unlocked memories... Henry had known snippets of the affair before now: the fourteen year old had not been as blind as his father thought to the tension between his parents; and a few years ago, he had been rummaging in the drawer in the bureau and found a bundle of letters and a lock of Francesca’s hair. To Hugh’s knowledge, his son had never read the letters although he had asked him outright if they had been sent by a former mistress. It was at this point that he had surprised his father by claiming that traditional marriage no longer held any validity and that intelligent men should be free to love where they chose. Loving Francesca hadn’t been a choice though: Hugh had been lost from the moment he first looked into her violet eyes – when she was but his patient and he her doctor.
After a while, a tapping on the door heralded Henry’s return. “What did you think of our houseguest, Father?” the young man asked once he had added coals to the fire and tucked the blanket more securely around Hugh’s legs.
“She’s a pretty thing,” Hugh said reflectively. “How old is she? Eighteen? Nineteen?”
“Seventeen.” Henry regarded his father coolly. “It would not be unusual for someone her age to marry a man in his early thirties like me.”
“Except, I had the distinct impression that she was running away to marry someone else.” Hugh watched his son’s face. It remained impassive. “Besides, even if she did agree to become your wife, you wouldn’t be able to marry her for some years yet,” Hugh remarked. “Not until she’s come of age.”
“I could marry her now if I had her father’s permission.” Henry kept his tone light, waiting for a response.
“Has she told you her family name, then, and where she’s from?” The child had seemed secretive, but perhaps it had been easier for her to talk to someone her own age.
Henry smiled then: a cold, thin smile that did not reach his eyes.
“Her name is Blanche Sheringham,” he told his stunned father, “and she lived at Appleton Manor.”
Hugh stared at Henry, his mouth agape with disbelief. “Francesca’s daughter,” he said in a whisper. “I thought the baby must have died – when I went back to the manor a few days after the death, there was no sign of her.”
Henry shrugged. “She didn’t tell me her life story, but I know her name is Sheringham and when we left your room earlier, she confirmed that she was the child you fathered all those years ago.”
“My daughter,” Hugh murmured, his eyes misting with tears. “I knew she reminded me of Francesca, but I never thought...” He took a moment to compose himself. “Knowing she is alive and under my roof after all these years... It is too much happiness. Now I feel that God has truly forgiven my crime.”
“So, as I said earlier,” Henry repeated, “I could marry her now if I had her father’s permission.”
“No!” Hugh’s voice cracked like a whip. “She is your sister! What you are asking is...”
“A crime?” Henry finished. “Like your dalliance with her mother? You were prepared to flout convention and abandon Mother and me to be with the woman you loved; am I really doing anything more terrible if I choose to do something similar?”
Hugh put his head in his hands – almost, Henry thought, as if the sight of him was more than his father could bear.
“What you are contemplating,” Hugh said finally, his voice wavering, “is a crime against God and nature. And if you should have children...”
“It may be a crime against the god you believe in,” Henry snapped, “but it’s not a crime against nature. Brothers and sisters throughout the ages have married each other to keep the family line pure. Take the pharaohs in ancient Egypt, or the Borgias in Italy. It is only this prudish society we inhabit today that finds something distasteful in what is after all the most natural thing in the world.”
“No.” Hugh shook his head. “You are talking like a madman, Henry. I cannot allow it. I will not allow it.”
Henry’s eye cast about the room. Seeing an opportunity, he seized a pillow from the bed and held it over his father’s face. Hugh struggled wildly but without the strength to dislodge him. After a few minutes, his body went still and Henry removed the pillow. His father’s eyes stared back at him vacantly and Henry knew that he was dead.
Some time later, Blanche tapped on Hugh’s door. Perhaps he would have some writing paper and a pen. She was loath to ask Henry; afraid he might refuse. Receiving no reply, she wondered if the old man were asleep. Pushing the door ajar, she peered in. Her father was dozing in his chair by the fire. She stifled her disappointment and retreated; she would ask him later instead.
She realised now how hungry she felt: she had not eaten since the previous day – no wonder she had felt faint earlier on. Henry had said that their housekeeper was away, but perhaps she would be able to find something in the pantry. She had been quite a pet of the cook and kitchen maids at the manor and they had allowed her to help herself to odds and ends when she had been out riding and missed luncheon.
Creeping down the stairs, she found herself hoping that Henry would be absent. She did not like her new brother. How ironic that she had been trying to escape the clutches of one tyrant only to find herself held prisoner by another!
Several doors led off the modest hallway. One of them opened onto the sitting room where she had found herself earlier and another must hide the kitchen – but which one? She made a guess and turned the knob on the one she judged to be most likely. Opening the door, she realised her mistake straight away: this was obviously Henry’s study and he was sitting at the bureau, writing busily.
She tried to withdraw before he noticed her presence, but he looked up immediately, the thin smile playing once more upon his lips. “Sister!” The way he caressed the word made her shiver. “I trust you are now feeling a little better?”
She stammered a response, adding that she was a little hungry but that he need not bother himself since she was perfectly able to find the kitchen and avail herself of whatever might be there.
“Nonsense!” He stood now, and his long limbs seemed spindly and spiderlike in the glow of the fire. “As you know, Mrs Jenkins is away but she left some cold, boiled fowl and there is pickled cabbage and a savoury tart of some sorts. I was about to eat myself – we will sit down and dine together.”
Before she could protest, he had ushered her into the kitchen and pulled out a wooden chair for her to sit upon.
“I am afraid we must make it a picnic,” he said, placing various dishes upon the scrubbed, wooden table in front of here. “No doubt you are not used to such a bohemian lifestyle, but as I have told you before, I am not one to follow convention.”
Looking about him, he wondered out loud where to find wine glasses. “Excuse me while I fetch some from the dining room,” he muttered.
Upon his return, she noticed that he was also carrying a bottle of wine. He removed the cork and poured a little of the ruby red liquid into each of the glasses. “Your good health,” he said politely; then, “And let us also celebrate our discovery of each other.”
Despite her hunger, Blanche ate very little. There was something disconcerting about the way Henry tore apart a chicken leg with his teeth and licked the grease off his fingers. When he tried to refill her wine glass, she refused, wanting to keep a clear head.
At last, the makeshift meal was over. “We should take something to your father,” she said, correcting herself almost immediately by adding, “our father.”
“He will not want much,” Henry remarked. “He has trouble digesting food these days. But we will take him a little chicken and a glass of wine. He will be pleased to see you again.”
She followed him up the stairs and along the landing to his father’s room. Could she possibly enlist Hugh’s aid? she wondered. She felt sure that the old man would not want to think that she were being kept here against her will.
“Father?” Henry knocked on the door. There was no answer. “He is probably asleep,” he said to Blanche as he opened the door.
“Yes,” she said remembering. “I looked in earlier and he was sleeping then.”
The old man was still in the same position: head sunk onto his chest; not moving.
“Father?” Henry repeated. He crossed the room and gently touched the seated figure on the shoulder. When there was no response, he turned to Blanche, a strange expression on his face. “It seems our father has passed away in his sleep. You are now my only living relative.”
The room began to spin as Blanche let Henry’s words sink in. “Should you not send for a doctor?” she asked faintly. “Or at least an undertaker?” If he left the house, then perhaps it would afford her some means of escape.
Henry shook his head. “There is time enough for that. You, my dear, are a more pressing matter.”
Those long fingers caressed her shoulder and it was all she could do not to let herself crumple. Within the space of a week, she had lost two fathers; and there was now no one to protect her from the man in front of her who, she suspected, was somewhat mentally unstable.
“Let us go back downstairs,” Henry said. “You have had a shock and need to sit down. Perhaps some more wine would revive you.”
As if in a daze, she allowed herself to be led away from the room containing the dead body. Then, as they descended the stairs, she thought of Will. She had to get word to him. He would come for her if only he knew where she was. She would ask Henry for paper and pen and would write a letter asking for Will’s help.
“Perhaps I should send word to the friend who helped me escape,” she said. “He was to have met me today with supplies for my journey and he will be anxious that I am not in our arranged meeting place.”
“You no longer have need of supplies,” Henry interrupted. “You have everything you could ask for here in this house. My mother’s clothes are a little large for you, but they will suffice.”
It seemed he had thought of everything. Still, she persisted.
“If I do not get word to Will, he will think I have been kidnapped. He might send a constable to look for me.”
She saw him considering the possibility as they reached the hallway.
“Very well,” he replied. “You may write a letter, but I will dictate it for you.”
Her heart sank at the thought. How could she alert Will to the truth of her situation if she wrote only what Henry told her to?
“You will have to take the letter to our agreed meeting spot,” she said as he ushered her into his study and pulled out the chair by the bureau. “I feel sure that he will stay there until he receives word from me.”
“Very well.” His compliance told her that he already thought he had won. “Now, do you have everything you need?”
She looked at the objects scattered across the leather work surface, seeing a bundle of writing paper, several pens with metal nibs, a small bottle of ink and a pearl handled letter opener. She paid particular attention to the latter, thinking it might help her effect an escape at some point in the future.
“Shall I not begin with this address?” she asked, picking up a pen and dipping it in the ink bottle. “After all, Will should know where to send anything I might ask for.”
“I thought you understood that the purpose of this letter is to break all ties with your former life,” her brother replied. Placing a hand beneath her chin, he tilted Blanche’s face upwards so her eyes met his. “Now that we have found each other, we have no need of anyone else.” The look he gave her made a chill run down her spine.
“Let us begin,” he continued a moment later. “What did you say this person’s name was? William?”
She had always called him Will, but Henry didn’t know that. Would the use of his given name be enough to alert him to the danger she was in?
“Dear William,” Henry dictated. “Do not worry about me. I am perfectly safe.” He paused. “You should really let him know that you have a new family now, lest he entertain any foolish ideas about you needing to be rescued. Let me see... I have it now: I have recently discovered that the man I believed to be my father was no relation. Instead, I am the natural daughter of a doctor who loved my mother. Her husband had no knowledge of this. Sadly, my true father has recently passed away, but I have an older brother who has promised to take care of me – he is the man who has brought you this letter.”
Blanche scribbled fiercely, hoping that Will would not take the letter at face value. She had taught him to read when they were both much younger, passing on to him everything she had learned with her governess; but being able to read the words was one thing and being aware of a deeper meaning was another.
“How old is the brother you have left behind?” Henry asked.
“Richard? He is five years older. Why?”
Henry ignored her question, beginning to dictate again. “Since he is fourteen years my senior and Richard is but five years older than I, my new brother, Henry, would seem a more prudent choice as my guardian. Let Richard know that he need no longer take responsibility for me since Henry has embraced that role.”
As she finished writing that last bit, Blanche looked up. “What about Will?” she asked. “You must have realised by now that we were eloping together.” She held her breath, wanting him to believe the lie.
“As your brother, I forbid you to marry anyone I deem unworthy,” Henry said coldly. “The fact that he was prepared to run away with you in secret does not endear him to me.”
“Then should I return the ring he gave me?”
“Naturally.” Henry held out his hand. “Give it to me now. I will place it in his hand with the letter.”
Blanche slowly removed one of her mother’s rings. It was a message for Will; but would he realise what she was trying to say?
She would have to wait and see.
(To be continued...)