Haunted by the dead and his own misdeeds, Edmund is on the ropes again. And now his old love has returned to him …
Frances Kindley stood on the step. She was much changed – her hair was tangled about her shoulders, her dress stained to the knee with filth from the street. The collar and one cuff of her dress were torn and she had a reddish blue mark on her cheek which I took to be the beginnings of a bruise.
‘Edmund,’ she whispered through cracked lips. ‘Please.’
At those words every hurt that had passed between us melted away. I was powerless to do anything but take her hand and lead her inside.
There was no one to call upon to fetch water and bandages, but still I would not have summoned the Red Men to help me, for as Frances leaned on my arm for support, as I gently led her to the drawing room, lowered her more gently still into the waiting armchair, she was mine to care for and mine alone. As I tended her, as I went about setting and lighting fires and warming water, fetching iodine liquid and cloths to bind and cleanse her wounds, it seemed right it should be me who cared for her, as if those small acts of kindness would go some way to erase the pains I had caused her and she me.
For a while we spoke little and only then in whispers as I asked her to move a little right or left or forward so I could dress her seemingly endless wounds. She, biddable as a tired and chastened child after a day’s rambling through fields, did everything I asked with small, grateful smiles and sighs.
Once, many years before, I would have torn myself in two with desire to touch her so tenderly, so intimately. I believed I had loved her back then, through our long engagement. But that morning, after all the recent nightmares I had endured, it was through helping to mend that poor, broken woman, as she gave herself over with complete trust into my hands that I felt true love for her. Yes, I believe we loved each other at that moment, caught as in a bulb of glass, a secret world of our own.
When finally her wounds were stinging clean and she had changed from her torn and filthy gown into one of my poor passed mother’s, I put a pan of brandy on the trivet to warm and set to work combing the tangles from her hair.
On arrival her manner had been one of extreme agitation, but the heat of the fire and my ministrations worked to loosen the hold of her own nervous distraction and as I eased lengths of straw and grass from her hair she sighed, leaning back in the chair.
As her manner calmed, so I absorbed the miasma of her anxiety from the air. Every wound of hers was like a blunt nail, questing into my heart. Red rings circled each wrist as if she had been recently bound; her fingernails were torn, each tip abraded as if they had scratched against a wall, her feet and toes similarly scuffed; along with the bruise on her cheek – now turning the colour of ripe damsons – she wore another on her chin, another on her brow, countless more on her arms, the most worrying a pattern of bruises on her upper arm. I did not need to press my own hand against this last to know someone had gripped her roughly. Someone strong. Someone who cared little for the fact she was a slight young woman of only twenty three summers.
It was as I combed and dressed her hair I discovered the most disturbing feature of her injuries – a bald and raw patch of scalp, black with dried blood, the hair clean torn away, never to regrow. The sight made me shiver, made the foul shadows of the earth angels and that monstrous hook rise up again. With a touch as soft as my clumsy, shaking hands could manage, I combed her hair over that gored scalp, laid down the comb and poured us a glass of warm brandy each.
A log cracked and spat in the flames, shaking ash to the floor. The clock ticked on, chimed the quarter then the half hour. Frances sat with eyes closed and I believed she had fallen into a doze when she suddenly spoke.
‘You were cruel to me, Edmund.’
The truth of her words struck like a flaming arrow to my heart. I could not deny it.
‘You drank and you gambled and you wasted what promise you had on low women and degeneracy.’
Her eyes were open now, sparkling in the firelight.
‘But your cruellest trick was to promise me a loving future and steal it from me.’
‘Frances, I -‘
‘After all your behaviour it was you who broke our engagement. What a fool I was not to break my promise first. At that time I believed I would never recover from the shame, from the hurt – from losing a love so long cherished. And yet.’ Here she broke off, hand juddering at her mouth as if she wished to stop the sound of her own pain escaping. ‘And yet, I would wish those days of our engagement back again. For they seem like a blessing compared to all I have endured over these last days.’
I could stay silent on the subject no longer. Rising from my chair, I fell to my knees before her, my hands clasping hers. ‘What has befallen you?’ The sight of her burrowed into my mind, my chest, the possibilities of that torn and misused soul too much to bear. ‘You owe me nothing. But please, allow me to be your friend now. Tell me, who has done this to you.’
Her face, which had softened with tears and my kind words grew suddenly alarmed, her eyes widening in shock, her lips trembling. She reached out an unsteady hand, clasping at my neck.
‘Where did you get this?’ she whispered.
At first, I was confused at what she could mean, then I felt the tug of a chain. It was the locket. I had hung it round my neck just moments before her knocking roused me. What could I tell her? That God had put the jewel in my path to remind me of my sins? Would she mock me? Would she recoil in horror as I described my terrible crimes? I was struck dumb as the dead, unable to speak or even move.
Then her hand travelled to her own neck, to the fine gold chain there. How did I not see it? Perhaps I was too distracted by her suffering and my own. Perhaps, by some mystical art, it was hidden from my view. Whatever the explanation, I saw it now and clearly.
For hanging from that fine gold chain was a locket no larger than the smallest prayer book, with a carved gold frame of leaves and woodland creatures, its body of a dense, dark metal I did not recognise …
We gazed, bewildered, amazed, terrified, into each others eyes. She slipped her chill hand into mine, squeezing my fingertips.
‘Tell me,’ she said.