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HENRY RATHBONE LEANED A LITTLE FARTHER forward in his armchair and regarded his visitor gravely. James Wentworth had an air of weariness in his face that made him look older than his sixty-odd years. There was something close to desperation in the way his hands fidgeted, clenching and unclenching on his knees.
“What can I do?” Henry asked gently.
“Perhaps nothing,” Wentworth answered. As he spoke, the logs in the fire settled deeper, sending up a shower of sparks. It was a bitter night, ten days before Christmas. Outside, the icy wind moaned in the eaves of this pleasant house on Primrose Hill. Beyond, the vast city of London prepared for holiday and feasting, carols, church bells, and parties. There was not long to wait now.
“You say ‘perhaps,’ ” Henry prompted him. “So possibly there is something to be done. Let us at least try.” He gave a brief smile. “This is the season of hope—some believe, of miracles.”
“Do you?” Wentworth asked. “Would you pursue a miracle for me?”
Henry looked at the weight of grief in his friend’s face. They had not met in more than a year, and it seemed that Wentworth had aged almost beyond recognition in that time.
“Of course I would,” Henry replied. “I could not promise to catch it. I cannot even swear to you that I believe in such things.”
“Always honest, and so literal,” Wentworth said with a ghost of amusement in his eyes.
“Comes from being a mathematician,” Henry answered. “I can’t help it. But I do believe there is more to be discovered or understood than the multitude of things that we now know all put together. We have barely tasted the realm of knowledge that lies waiting.”
Wentworth nodded. “I think that will suffice,” he accepted. “Do you remember my son, Lucien?”
“Of course.” Henry remembered him vividly: a handsome young man, unusually charming. Far more than that, he was filled with an energy of mind and spirit, an insatiable hunger for life that made other people think of new horizons, even resurrect old dreams.
Pain filled Wentworth’s eyes again and he looked down, as if to keep some privacy, so as not to be so acutely readable.
“About a year ago he began to frequent certain places in the West End where the entertainment was even more … wild, self-indulgent than usual. There he met a young woman with whom he became obsessed. He gambled, he drank to excess, he tasted of many vices he had not even considered previously. There was an edge of violence and cruelty in his pursuits that was more than the normal indulgence of the stupidity of a young man, or the carelessness of those with no thought for consequences.”
He stopped, but Henry had not interrupted him. The fire was burning low. He took two more logs from the basket and placed them on the embers, poking them to stir up the flames again.
“Now he has disappeared. I have tried to look for him myself,” Wentworth continued. “But he evades me, going deeper into that world and the darkness of those who inhabit it. I … I was angry in the beginning. It was such a waste of the talent and the promise he had. To begin with, when it was just overindulgence in drinking and gambling, I forgave him. I paid his debts and even saved him from prosecution. But then it grew far worse. He became violent. Had I gone on rescuing him, might I have given him to believe that there is no price to be paid for cruelty, or that self-destruction can be undone at a word, or a wish?” His hands gripped each other, white-knuckled. “Where does forgiveness eventually become a lie, no longer an issue of his healing but simply my refusal to face the truth?”
“I don’t know,” Henry said honestly. “Perhaps we seldom do know, until we have passed the point. What would you like me to do?”
“Look for Lucien. If I go after him myself, I only drive him deeper into that terrible world. I am afraid that he will go beyond the place from where he could ever return, perhaps even to his death.” He looked up, meeting Henry’s eyes. “I realize how much it is I ask of you, and that your chances of success may be slight. But he is my son. Nothing he does changes that. I deplore it, but I shall not cease loving him. Sometimes I wish I could; it would be so much easier.”
Henry shook his head. “Those of us who have loved don’t need an explanation, and those of us who haven’t would not understand it.” His smile was rueful, with a little self-mocking in it. “I study science and logic, the beauty of mathematics. But without those things that are beyond explanation, such as courage, hope, and above all, love, there can be no joy. I’m not even sure if there could be humor. And without laughter we lose proportion, perhaps in the end even humanity.”
He became serious again. “But if I am to look for Lucien, I need to know more about him than the charming young man I met, who was apparently very well able to hide the deeper part of himself from superficial acquaintances, perhaps even from those who knew him well.”
Wentworth sighed. “Of course you must. That is still not to say that I find it easy to tell you.” He sighed. “Like most young men, he explored his physical appetites, and to begin with I did not find his excesses worrying. I can remember being somewhat foolish myself, in my twenties. But Lucien is thirty-four, and he has not outgrown it. Rather, he has indulged more dangerous tastes: drugs of different sorts that release all inhibitions and to which it is all too easy to become addicted. He enjoys the usual pleasures of the flesh, but with young women of a more corrupt nature than most. There is always the danger of disease, but the woman he has chosen is capable of damage of a far deeper sort.”
For a few moments Wentworth stared into the flames, which were now licking up and beginning to devour the new logs. “She offers him the things he seems to crave most: a feeling of power, which is perhaps the ultimate drug, and of being admired, of being able to exercise control over others, of being regarded as innately superior.”
Henry did not argue. He began to see the enormity of what his friend was asking of him. Even if he found Lucien Wentworth, what was there he could say that might tempt him to come back to the father he had denied in every possible way?
“I’ll try,” he said quietly. “But I have little idea how to even begin, let alone how to accomplish such a task.”
“Thank you,” Wentworth replied, his voice hoarse. Perhaps he was finally facing the reality that to try at all was little more than a kindness, driven by pity rather than hope. He rose to his feet as if exhaustion all but overwhelmed him. “Thank you, Henry. Call if you have anything to tell me. I shall not disturb you to ask.” He put one hand in a pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “Here is a list of the last places that I know he frequented. It may be of use.”
Henry Rathbone awoke the following morning wishing that he had not promised Wentworth that he would help him. As he sat at the breakfast table, eating toast and marmalade without pleasure, he admitted to himself that it was a lack of courage that had made him agree to it. Even if Henry found him, Lucien Wentworth was not going to come home. He did not want to. His father might be spared a good deal of distress simply by not knowing for certain what had happened to him.
But Henry had given his word, and now he was bound to do his best, whatever that might turn out to be. How should he begin? He had had a good deal of fun in his own university days, which were now at least thirty-five years behind him. He had sat up all night talking, certainly drunk more beer than was good for him, knew some women of a sort his mother didn’t even imagine existed, and learned some very bawdy songs, most of which he still remembered.
But he had grown out of it before he was thirty. It was all a hazy memory now, which was not even worth exploring. What compelled Lucien was something entirely different. It was a hunger that fed upon itself and that, in the end, would devour everything.
He spread out the sheet of paper Wentworth had given him, the list of places he had found Lucien in the past. But by his own admission Lucien was no longer likely to be in such places. He had sunk deeper than mere drunken brawling and abuse, or even the simple womanizing many young men indulged in at the better-known brothels.
Many of his own friends had sons who had disappointed them, one way or another, but a good man did not ask questions about such things, and if he accidentally learned of them he affected not to have. He certainly did not repeat it to others.