Part One. Conversations: The Wild Sea
“It’s really blowing, yeah?” The woman’s pale voice strove to be heard above a gale -whipped crash of waves. “Isn’t it perfect?”
“I like it.” Arthur responded. It was all he could do to speak. They were thieves of words, these giant flumes of white-spray that crashed repeatedly upon the rocks below, so confounding that down the years they had drawn him to this spot at the foot of the lighthouse time and again. The years were honest, though: they had stolen none of this magic.
“Me too!” The woman tucked her pretty chin into her cape. “It’s real!”
Her eyes widened and her hand flew to her mouth in embarrassed surprise: “My goodness! Whatever made me say such a thing?!”
“What did you say, Mama?” Asked the little boy, taking her hand anxiously. “Did you use a bad word?”
“Why no, Samuel, not bad, exactly: just very odd.” She replied, as if coming to herself, as though returning from a far place: her words seemed full of sadness, of a longing so profound that, despite his curiosity concerning his own part in this innovative little conversation, Arthur felt his heart quite moved. She hastened to recover herself: “And I fear brazen, sir. I beg your forgiveness.” She dropped her gaze demurely.
”A novel turn of phrase, but forgiveness is quite unnecessary,” Arthur assured her. “May I have the honour of introducing myself, ma’am? I am Arthur Herritt , of Mountchester.
“Oh,Mr Herritt , you must think me very rude. This is Samuel, my son. And I am Francine Delisle. Please forgive my informality – but who would introduce us in this wild place?”
‘Should we need to be introduced’, he thought. “Who indeed?” He cried , raising his voice once more above the sea’s renewed onslaught, “I had thought to be alone here. I commend you for your wild choice!”
Wild it truly was.
Few ventured to Beacon Head in winter, when ocean rollers, compressed into the shallow conduit of the Channel, thundered purposefully against granite cliffs, their spray carried in on the wind like volleys of icy grapeshot. Arthur, who loved the fury of the seas, gladly suffered whatever dangers the road offered to escape his busy life, but he had been surprised when he saw these two lonely figures standing in a space he often occupied by himself, by the rail of the lighthouse plinth, the red banded light tower at their backs, staring betimes down at the white cauldron of foam, or out towards the ocean. The place they had chosen was the stormiest – a pulpit over the waters he adored, and his first thoughts were resentful of company but then, when he had drawn closer to the pair, seen the way the woman drew her cape about her, clung to her bonnet while her skirts flew unregarded above her delicate little ankles, it was as if a slumbering place in his soul had reawakened. He must know her – he did know her. Surely?
Her presence might mean his prize of solitude was forfeit, yet he could not regret such a chance encounter. Anyway, as fortune would have it the skies were becoming ever more leaden. Rain would soon add to the storm’s torment.
“Do you like the sea, Samuel?” Arthur asked the child, raising his gruffest voice above another assault of surf.
The boy considered this, sagely. “I do, sir. I would like to be a sailor, I think.”
The woman, Francine , laughed. “That is a severe vocation! Samuel is full of such notions, Mr Herritt . Why, only last week he was ready to sign up for the military. Have a care, my darling boy. Mr Herritt has the bearing of an officer about him. He might recruit you!”
Smiling, Arthur found he could not avoid the woman’s eyes. They were, he thought, the deepest, deepest blue. A familiar blue.
Francine ’s cheeks flared. “Sir, you stare at me!”
He demurred immediately. “My turn to apologise, ma’am. I must admit I may not look you in the eyes, lest I lose myself. You remind me so remarkably of someone I have known.”
“Well, that is kind, I think. And flattering too, I must believe? Tell me, do you come far?”
“From Mountchester, ma’am. Although not in a day. I am passing a night at the Rifleman’s Arms in Bleansted. And dare I venture to ask?”
“The same, Mr Herritt. We are visiting in Bleanstead ourselves. A very good friend has been kind enough to tolerate us for the sennight – a relief from the City, as cholera is so active there. I confess I am surprised. If you go about in City Society, I cannot think how we have never met”
“Nor I. My club is Frobisher’s, in the town. I attend there whenever I can. Does your husband..?”
He stumbled into silence, seeing Francine ’s instant discomfiture. “I apologise once again. I am insensitive. There is some circumstance? Forgive me.” Conducting a normal conversation in these conditions was difficult, the more so because Arthur’s mind was demanding answers to some difficult questions. He glanced heavenwards. “It will rain soon. Have you somewhere to shelter?”
The woman smiled; a radiant, electric smile. “Truly we are both so wet already it would be hard to distinguish rain.”
“Nevertheless I would not see you drowned. May I offer my chaise? It waits at the crossway.”
Francine ’s cape and bonnet veiled her frown. “I do not know you, Mr. Herritt . We are strangers!”
“Yet we have been introduced, if only one to the other,” Arthur protested. “I can assure you of your safety, and if I should prove to be a scoundrel I am sure Master Samuel would defend you most ably!”
“I would, sir, never fear!” Cried the boy, adopting his sternest falsetto; “I give you notice, whoever affronts my mother shall have me to deal with!”
As if anxious Francine should make the right decision, the clouds delivered their first flurry of raindrops, stirred to needles by the gale. She relented gracefully. “Then I thank you, Mr Herritt . Your kindness is most warmly welcomed!”
With some reluctance, the pair turned away from their high perch on the cliffs, and their audience with the sea’s relentless fury. A path which, though free of mud by its rocky nature, was nonetheless slick from spray and the advancing rain, led their descent for some four hundred yards while young Samuel gambolled fearlessly ahead of them. When at last the way levelled out it had a further distance through a beechwood copse before reaching a crossing of two tracks, the wider being the way to the village of Bleanstead. While they walked with their backs to the wind, Francine ’s skirts billowing before her, his one hand firmly on his hat, Arthur probed gently. “I have to concede that we have never encountered one another going about in Mountchester, yet I feel strongly that we have met before. Do we have associations elsewhere, perhaps? Are you much travelled, Mrs Delisle? Do you visit London, for example?”
“Indeed no. In fact, I have very little in my history that could pass for experience of the wider world. Scarcely any history at all. I am truly most uninteresting.”
Francine, as she climbed into the sanctuary of the chaise, accepting the firm support of Arthur’s hand, answered it with a clasp of her own and although her fingers were cold, he was reminded again of a familiar flame. In the jolting enclosure of the post-chaise cabin young Samuel, securely ensconced upon a footstool, gazed up at him so intently as to rob him of conversation. Francine , too, seemed preoccupied, watching the passing scenery so fixedly he felt almost as though she was avoiding further conversation. Perhaps, he considered, she was feeling the chill of her mass of wet clothing: in truth she did look a little like a moth newly emerged from its pupae, but then, as he imagined, once dried and spread, what beauty might those wings reveal?
At Francine ’s request, the post-chaise drew up outside a long, low-eaved cottage, the lime-washed walls of which were a spider-web of virginia creeper tendrils that spoke of splendour in the Spring. As Arthur’s passengers thanked him and prepared to depart, he decided upon boldness.
“The Rifleman’s Arms belies its title by providing a very good table, Mrs Delisle. Would you do me the honour of dining with me there; perhaps on the ‘morrow? I have a feeling there is more to be said.”
Francine returned him a puzzled smile. “Indeed? Now whose is an unusual turn of phrase?” She addressed her son, “What shall we do about this, my darling? Will you wait at home with your Aunt Maud while I dine with Mr Herritt ?”
The boy Samuel made a great show of considering his answer: “I shall be intolerably bored, Mama, but if you wish it, I agree.”
“Thank you, Sam. Then I will readily, Mr Herritt . Thank you.”
“Shall I send my carriage for you at seven?”
Arthur would long agonize over the propriety of this invitation: the woman clearly moved freely in City society and must, therefore, be respectable; this implied the presence of a husband somewhere. But then she hinted at no compromise of her sacred vows, nor had her little boy spoken of his father at any time during their encounter. Was she widowed then, as so many were by the conclusion of the Coalition Wars, or by the ravages of epidemic? In the end he justified his precipitate behaviour to himself with the defence that he had merely suggested a friendly engagement in a public place. There was nothing improper in new acquaintances cementing their friendship over dinner!
The Francine Delisle who sat against him at dinner the following evening certainly conveyed no hint of guilt at her flouting of convention. She had modestly dressed herself in a warm frock of lilac twill that followed the wide-necked style so popular this year, exposing no more than a glimpse of pale shoulder to Arthur’s rasher instincts. Her smiles conveyed the frankness of friendship. She was intent upon acting with perfect propriety.
“I had thought you were going to return to Mountchester today, Mr Herritt . Did the weather deter you?”
“I admit the weather played its part, Mrs Delisle.” Arthur chuckled apologetically, “There were other factors. I decided to indulge myself.”
Francine , who liked a man with the ability to laugh at himself, saw through his subterfuge immediately. She knew one of his ‘factors’ would have to be herself. Her eyes surveyed him in mock seriousness, “Should we be friends? If we are to cultivate this familiarity, you might call me Francine . Mrs Delisle is such a chore.”
“Willingly. Therefore I must reciprocate. I am, henceforward, Arthur.”
“You returned to the lighthouse today, then?” she asked. “So much rain! I couldn’t countenance it.”
“No, nor I. Although I spent a part of the morning walking, notwithstanding the inclement weather. I had cause.”
“Indeed, Arthur? Is your mind troubled?”
He nodded, “Perhaps, a little. I find I am locked in a struggle with an absent memory – but no matter; I shall take the Mail Coach to return to the city tomorrow, for I must conclude some business there, then retire to my home until the disease has run its course. I am in no need of a fight which I cannot win.”
By degrees the pair fell into familiar conversation and the evening passed amicably enough, though without any suggestion of deeper intimacy. Francine proved an easy friend whose wit would sparkle once and again, and Arthur a taciturn but willing listener. Before they parted, quite close to midnight, they exchanged cards.
“We have summer to look forward to,” He said. “Perhaps, when the weather is more friendly, we may run across each other again.” And then, after the pause he needed for courage, he added: “In happier times, might I call upon you?”
Francine’s brow took on a serious caste; “I believe it would be better not to promise,” she answered.
They would not meet again before Arthur’s departure for the City. Nevertheless, as the coach and four bumped heavily past that low, lime-washed cottage in the early morning Arthur could not resist a stolen glance at its windows, wondering who was the companion he had heard spoken of as ‘Aunt Maud’ who lived within, and whether Francine was yet in the process of rising? And he reflected that, apart from his insistent conviction that he had met her somewhere before, he had learned little more of Mrs Delisle from the time they spent together. In all of their evening she had told him nothing about herself. In matters of the heart, as in most matters, Arthur Beaufort prided himself on his clear-sighted realism. However gently, the intriguing Francine had rejected his offer of a deeper friendship, and so he must treat her as yet another of his many casual acquaintances who he might chance upon some day, in some other situation, and put all thoughts of her aside.
Arthur might have been more intrigued, being a man of an inquisitive nature, if he had witnessed Francine’s return to Maud Reybath’s cottage in that late evening; if he had known that Maud Reybath, although she had a year or two on Francine, was not young Samuel Delisle’s aunt in anything but name. He might have found the conversation between the two women interesting.
Francine discovered Maud snoring gently by a fire in her snug parlour, a book opened and inverted on her lap. She wakened immediately to watch as her returning guest briskly removed her gloves, hopeful for certain expected signs.
Maud had a voice that was surprisingly deep for her petite form. “Well, my dear?” She asked, letting her words bear weight.
“I can’t be sure.”
“No definite negative, then,” Maud rejoined sharply; “Francine, we have to know soon. The matter is one of urgency, my dear. I fear you fail to appreciate…”
“I do, Maud, I truly do. I understand. It could be him. It could be, but in some ways could not. And so I may not answer you – not yet.”
The mail coach had taken all of a day and snow was falling steadily when it reached its Mountchester destination. Arthur, thoroughly chilled, finally emerged onto the white-carpeted yard at The Royal Oak and collected his valise from the coachman. He was still adjusting his eyes to the darkness when he descried a tall, gaunt figure in black greatcoat and top hat dismountinging from a burgundy-liveried Brougham that waited at the gates – a carriage he recognised as his own.
The figure belonged to a man well advanced in years, whose progress on the snow was perilously unsteady. Arthur hastened to support him. “Edkins? You shouldn’t have come for me personally, my dear man! This weather is…” His words faded into silence. The craggy features that opposed his own were creased with tears. “Edkins, whatever ails you, dear chap? What is the matter?”
“The master, sir. I’m afraid he is very ill. I resolved to find you and bring you home, sir. At once, sir, I beg you. At once!”
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