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Fog-filtered sunlight crept into the room muting the color of the royal blue bedspread pulled back from the George III gilt-wood bed. It was a large room hung with Raphael tapestries, paintings by Vuillard and Renoir, and with French windows that gave on the misty Kent countryside. If the morning had been clear, one could have seen broad views of the Kentish weald as far as Canterbury, dappled with cherry and apple blossoms. A proud William and Mary cabinet stood against one wall and a massive Chippendale library table squatted in front of the windows. It was beautiful, enormous, sterile, and cold, and would have dominated any room except this one.
Brenda Higgins stood quietly, looking out at the weald. She despised southeast England in the spring. In fact, she loathed the whole damp, foggy country regardless of the season. Every day thunderheads built up all around, tall silver ranges of clouds turning purple gray and sullen leaden blues threatening rain but never making good that threat, though thunder rumbled and lightning flickered on the horizon like dueling armies. June was a time for Cannes, Greece, Monte Carlo, or Capri, yet, because of "Kaiser Willie," travel was restricted and civilized people were forced to give up their Mediterranean spring. June of 1916 was especially depressing. With the war two years old and no end in sight, she looked forward gloomily like a prisoner of old Newgate to more confinement in the rambling old house.
Her dislike for Fenwyck seemed to have its roots in the house. She hated Fenwyck. She knew its history. Lord, she couldn't avoid history. The English wallowed in it. Maybe they liked to look back centuriesbecause the bloody history being made at Ypres, the Somme, Gallipoli, and Loos in a war to end all wars was written in casualty lists yards long.
Pridefully, Geoffry had bored her to death with tales of the old estate. Originally a castle built on a small knoll by Donald Northfield, the first Earl of Fenwyck, Castle Fenwyck's glowering battlements had dominated the surrounding countryside and its toiling serfs for centuries. Foolishly in 1645, the then Lord of Fenwyck, William Northfield, a distant cousin to Charles I, made the mistake of picking the wrong side during the civil war. William and his son did valiant battle when Oliver Cromwell led his men at arms against Fenwyck. The old earl was killed and his son, Edward, the fourth earl, wounded. Counting heavy losses, a piqued Cromwell took a thousand captives, confiscated hundreds of farm animals, uprooted two orchards, and killed every deer in the forest. Finally, to assure himself of no resurgence, the "Protector of the Commonwealth" pulled the battlements down and filled the moat, reducing Fenwyck to a manor. Then the backbreaking fine of ten thousand sovereigns was levied against Edward. Unable to raise even a hundred guineas, the wounded and impoverished aristocrat boarded up what remained of the castle's keep and vanished.
For nearly a century only wretched peasants squatted in Fenwyck, blackening the stone walls with their fires and discarding small mountains of garbage and trash. Then in 1760, a commoner, Cedric Higgins, Geoffry's great-great-grandfather, bought Fenwyck and began restoring it. Starting with the keep -- the only substantial part of the original structure still remaining -- the modern Fenwyck began to grow, and to Brenda, it grew like a cancer. As the decades passed and Cedric's descendants continued with the project, rooms were piled upon rooms haphazardly with halls that wandered aimlessly, and a corrugated roof line like a ploughed field grew on top of the stacked rooms. There was an absolute maze of rooms, all drafty and poorly lighted.
On the first floor there was a drawing room, dining room, library, morning room, breakfast room, smoking room, billiard room, chapel, gun room, and business room. However, only bedrooms were on the second floor, approached by a grand cedar staircase for family and guests and by back stairs for servants. Male servants' quarters were upstairs, females' downstairs with separate stairways to preclude chance meetings and the temptations of the devil. The main hall was enormous with giant, hand-hewn beams so beloved by the English and drafty enough to give an Eskimo pneumonia. It was enough to make Brenda ache for the warm comforts of her Fifth Avenue home.
Adding to her discomfort were reports of a great battle off Denmark -- a place called Jutland. For days Danish papers had been filled with accounts of burning ships on the horizon and the washing ashore of scores of corpses. There had been no word from Geoffry and his silence could mean only that Lion was at sea. She felt a sudden chill.
She turned to a full-length pier mirror, but the chill persisted, seemed to concentrate in her spine, sending tiny frozen fingers tracing lines up her back all the way to her neck. She shook worry from her head, stared at the mirror. She liked what she saw. Draped in a green silk chiffon robe de style with a net-filled wide neckline and pulled in at the waist by a yellow sash -- a small waistline not yet betraying a two-month pregnancy -- the sculpted dress showed off her full figure subtly yet with immense style. The gown had been made for her by Lanvin. In fact, most of her dresses were made by Parisian couturiers: Lanvin, Calbot Soeurs, and Borie counted most of her business while English dressmakers, whom she considered butchers with scissors, received none. She pushed at her auburn tresses that flowed alluringly even in the dim light, framing a lovely face as white as a St. Moritz ski slope. Her neck was long, tapered, and aristocratic, breasts firm, pointed and without a hint of sag. She was glad, now, that that cow of a wet nurse, Bridie O'Conner, had suckled both Rodney and Nathan. The thought of a child clamping his jaws on her breasts turned her stomach. Her breasts were the province of her husband and when he was at sea, her lover. A sudden dizziness brought a hand to her forehead.
"Will you take breakfast here, ma maitresse?" came from a petite young woman with large dark eyes and alabaster skin who entered the room after a perfunctory knock.
Feeling a hollow nausea deep in her stomach that she was convinced came from her pregnancy, she answered sharply,
"No, Nicole. Not yet. I'll take it in the dining room later."
"It is late, Madame Higgins."
"That's for me to decide," Brenda snapped.
"Oui, Madame Higgins," the maid said demurely, turning with a swish of taffeta and closing the door.
Servants. Servants had run her life. Their announcements always seemed like commands. And Fenwyck's staff was particularly galling. They seemed to look down their noses at the American. Actually acted superior when out of earshot of the rest of the family.
"Time to rise, ma maitresse," Nicole would say early in the morning. This announcement never changed and came at precisely the same hour. Before the war the call came when Geoffry was away on business and now, when her husband was on duty in Lion. "Madame is served," always announced dinner. Actually, Brenda felt the maid was saying, "Can't keep the lord waiting, you lazy colonial."
And the barely suppressed surliness was there in Pascal the chef, his assistant, the butler, Dorset, three housekeepers, Caldwell and one other chauffeur, a grounds man named Sanders, and a pair of apprentices who lived in a cottage on the edge of the estate. Fenwyck's staff differed from her father's servants only in degree. It seemed servants had always ruled her life; they had told her when to rise, when to eat, when to study, and how to dress as far back as she could remember. But her father's servants were part of her childhood memories, for the most part. As she matured into young womanhood, there were subtle changes in attitude; except for Gracie, the old Negress who raised her and babied her until she died. All of Fenwyck's servants had some of old Gracie in them without the softening of humanity. Indeed, they often moved like wraithlike machines that were so silent and faceless they became unnoticed -- even invisible.
The mist parted and a rare shaft of sunlight inflamed the sky with virulent reds, bleeding on the clouds like a mortally wounded warrior and pouring through the French windows in warm torrents. Piqued by the maid, Brenda lingered in front of the mirror, watching the robe de style twist around her hips, outlining her sculpted buttocks stylishly. Then she heard the motor car. Turning to the window, she saw a black sedan with a naval ministry logo on its side winding up the drive. A cold hand clutched her stomach and she put her hand to her mouth, gasping for breath as the long sedan stopped at the main entrance. A rating opened the door and a naval officer clutching a briefcase stepped out. Then the reverberating sound of the great iron knocker striking oak echoed through the house. Frozen like a statue, she was still staring at the motor car when Nicole's voice, ringing with a timbre of anxiety she had never heard before, came from the hall. "Ma maitresse! Ma maitresse! A visitor for you..."
When Brenda entered the drawing room she found three people waiting for her. Seated in an overstuffed leather chair was her sixty-seven-year-old father-in-law, Walter Higgins. Rheumy-eyed and with florid cheeks crosshatched with a latticework of alcohol-distended veins, the old man's flaccid muscles and paunchy waistline attested to years of inactivity, rich food, and too much liquor. Short of stature, he was crowned with a full shock of unkempt white hair that hung over his ears and down his forehead like a valance, matching the color of his mustache, which drooped over the corners of his mouth. One eyelid sagged and the other was narrow, giving a crafty yet sorrowful look to blue pinpoints that burned in a dim watery way as if he had just turned his face to a fierce rainstorm. His face revealed no emotion. He avoided Brenda's eyes.
Seated on a scroll-ended, richly upholstered black and gold Regency sofa was Brenda's mother-in-law, Rebecca Higgins. Small and frail, she wore the weight of every one of her sixty-four years on her bent, bony shoulders. Her small features were still delicate, hinting at beauty long vanished despite the sags and lines of advancing years. Her wide hazel eyes were rimmed with tears and she dabbed with a linen handkerchief nervously as if she could wipe away the officer and his news. She, too, avoided Brenda's eyes.
Standing in front of a chair in front of a huge Louis XV pedestal clock, the naval officer faced Brenda over a rosewood center table. Tall and middle-aged, he had wispy sandy hair, solemn eyes, and the large beaked nose so often found in British aristocracy. "I am Commander Roderick Harborough," he said, placing his briefcase on the rosewood table.
After Walter introduced himself and the women, Harborough seated himself while Brenda found her place next to Rebecca. The women clutched hands. Commander Harborough cleared his throat as he reached into his briefcase. "I dislike bearing this news," he said, removing a dossier.
"We know why you're here," Walter said hoarsely. "It's Geoffry. He's dead."
"Yes. I'm sorry. I bear news regarding Lieutenant Geoffry Higgins."
Stunned, Brenda caught her breath then turned her head to her mother-in-law's shoulder, biting her knuckles. Rebecca trembled, appearing paralyzed to the point of speechlessness. For a long moment only the slow ticktock of the great pedestal clock could be heard as silence poured into the room like a viscous fluid, coating everyone and everything.
Finally, Walter spoke and his question was shocking. "Did he die well?"
The commander fielded the question as if he had expected it. "Yes. Splendidly, sir. A possible D.S.O. or even the Victoria Cross. Saved the ship, he did, by throwing the emergency fire switch."
The feeling of loss, the aching emptiness came as no surprise to Brenda. True, she had never truly loved Geoffry and had married him only as a financial expedient. Nevertheless, he had fathered her sons and made her pregnant again and she knew he had loved her and respected her and she had grown genuinely fond of him. Now he was lost. Irretrievably lost. Suddenly, the cold fingers were back and she was dizzy again. She spoke through a clenched fist. "His body," she managed. "A funeral..."
"I'm afraid, Mrs. Higgins," the commander said softly, finding sudden new interest in the Savonnerie rug under his feet, "there was a powder fire. He threw the switch. The entire crew -- ah, I understand the heat..."
Rebecca came to life, face tight with shock, eyes balls of glass. "No! No..." Brenda tightened an arm around the skeletal shoulders.
"Please, Becky," John snapped. "He died well."
Fanned by her dislike for Walter, Brenda felt a new emotion; a surging, burning visceral wave of rage rise from the grief and horror and engulf her, flushing her neck and face scarlet with its heat. Her breeding, years of training went by the boards. "Died well? Died well?" she cried. "Why is that so damned important? Must you British die elegantly, too? He's dead, isn't he? Just as dead as a dead coward. Even a colonial knows that." She felt Rebecca's grip loosen as the old lady turned away, shuddering.
"Important doesn't describe his conduct at the last," the old man retorted hotly, voice deep in his chest, eyes boring through the American. "No, indeed -- it was everything! Everything! Can't you understand?"
"No! No! No! You bloody British with your unruffled aplomb. Is it undignified to mourn your own son -- my husband?"
"Go to your room!"
"Enough!" Rebecca cried in a hard, anguished voice Brenda had never heard before. Walter looked up, eyebrows arched by surprise. Harborough shifted his weight uneasily. "My son's dead -- incinerated -- and you two can only fight at his wake," Rebecca hissed unevenly, glaring at her husband.
Brenda bit her lip while a scowling Walter shot back, "He's gone, brought honor..."
"Damn the honor. My son's dead!"
"Many sons, Mrs. Higgins..." Harborough began gently.
"That makes it no easier, Commander," Rebecca interrupted.
"I'm not looking for that," the old woman shot back. She moved her eyes to her husband, who had slumped back resignedly. Fascinated by a side of her mother-in-law she had never seen before, Brenda pushed her grief and anger aside, hunching forward as Rebecca pressed on, showing surprising composure. "What -- what did you do with the bodies?"
"They were buried at sea."
"Thrown overboard like garbage."
"Oh, no -- no, Mrs. Higgins. It's not like that -- not like that at all." There was shock in the officer's voice.
"How do you know?"
"I was there. I'm Lion's signals officer."
Again silence smothered the room broken only by the sounds of the swinging pendulum. Rebecca continued with a new softness. "Tell me about it. I've got to know about the place where my son..." She gagged and dropped her eyes.
The commander stared over Rebecca's head and seemed to lose himself in a Raphael landscape that hung gloriously in the middle of the paneled wall behind her. "Beautiful," he said to himself as if commenting on the painting. Then he was in another place, another time. "The North Sea can be beautiful. It was when Captain Chatfield said the words over them." He raised his eyes. "The clouds can do strange things at sea. It was like a cathedral that day with arches and towers. But the sun stayed with us. It was high noon..."
Crossing herself, the old woman began to chant, "They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters..."
"Yes, yes. Those are the words."
"We commend into thy hands of mercy, most merciful father..." She choked as if garroted. Then she spat bitterly as if she had bitten sour fruit, "Merciful! Hah!"
"Please, Mrs. Higgins..."
"How many? How many?"
Harborough's eyes hardened into slits, bringing to life incipient wrinkles hiding at the corners. "Seventy-six, eighty-seven miles southeast of Rosyth." He drummed the table. "But they're together -- belong together."
A look of pain darkened his face like a sudden squall. "It is customary to sew the deceased in canvas bags, weigh the bags with artillery shells..."
"I understand," Rebecca said, sinking back, suddenly drained.
"Have you had your say?" Walter asked, eyes flashing.
His wife stared back. "Yes. No amount of words can bring him back; not yours, not mine, not God's." And then to the officer with concern, "I'm sorry, Commander. I'm a dreadful hostess." She began to rise. "Tea? A cocktail?"
"Cognac, please, Mrs. Higgins."
The old woman moved slowly to an ornately carved breakfront. "Walter? Brenda?"
"Cognac," Walter answered.
New waves of icy weakness and nausea rocked Brenda and she reeled back, hand to her forehead. "I think I'll go to my room," she mumbled. "Lie down -- yes, lie down."
"You all right?" her mother-in-law asked, voice heavy with concern. "I'll send for Nicole."
"Yes, Rebecca. Send for Nicole.'
Rebecca pulled a cord hanging next to the breakfront. "The doctor?"
"No. It's just my condition." Brenda palmed her stomach. Then she heard a rustle of taffeta behind her.
Copyright © 1989 by Peter Albano