My Father's Gift by Leanne Fitzpatrick

Against a torrent of rainfall and the thunder of droplets smacking against the domed umbrellas, the priest struggled to be heard. As they stood there, heels sinking into the mud, dampness creeping into their bones, the mourners tried to hear the final blessing.
My Father's Gift
My Father's Gift by Leanne Fitzpatrick
Wind whipped around them, slashing the water up into their eyes and onto their clothes, adding to the chill that already clung to the graveyard. The priest shouted above the roar, the cheap paper of his bible pages already pasted together and the ink bleeding the words into one another. The workmen struggled to lower the coffin as the ground became oversaturated; every shoeprint sinking into its own private pool of muddied water. Annalise let her gaze wander- from the man still trying desperately to speak over the tempest, down to the coffin that held her father, and finally to the people around the grave. No one met her eye. All they could do was stare at the coffin as it finally sank into the watery depths, displacing the water that had already filled the hole. Her lips twitched as the women pressed damp tissue to their faces. How many wiped away real tears, she wondered. How many were crowing and eagerly awaiting the divvying up of his estate behind their sombre looks? She gazed back to the priest, his vestments billowing in the wind despite their sodden fibres. Mud and water had soaked up through the hem, leaving the white robes tainted. She was glad. There was no purity there now. Nothing deserved to be pure today. She watched as he finished whatever verse he had been quoting- no one knew what it had been, and the tempest had drowned out all but the odd word. Thunder cracked overhead as he made the sign of the cross, and she stepped forward, dropping the battered bunch of daisy’s she had been carrying. Petals fell off as soon as they hit the water, floating away from the bunch. Annalise stared at the distorted plaque that had her father’s name engraved on it. The water was now so deep she could barely make out the words. She wondered if her father was still dry inside the coffin, or whether the water had already beaten the air-tight seal it was supposed to have. She watched as more came forward, paying their last respects. Her mother stood, still crying. Annalise wondered why she herself couldn’t. People squeezed her shoulder, murmuring words that the wind snatched away as they made their way away from the graveside. No doubt she would see them all soon enough. There was a wake to attend- food and drink for the mourners. The numbers thinned, and in the distance she could just make out through the rain the shape of cars reversing and leaving. Lightning flashed, immediately followed by thunder. She smiled, turning her face up to the sky, glad that the weather was suitably dramatic for such an occasion. Her father would have approved. Something flashed off to her left. She, along with everyone else left at the grave, turned to look at the young man lowering the camera from his face. She felt a hand grip her shoulder and steer here away. She stared at the man for as long as she was able before she was forced to turn her head and follow her mother and the family lawyer away from the grave and towards the gravel path. She was aware that her feet were wet, although she was cold enough all over that it didn’t bother her, and when she finally slid into the waiting car, the heat soon dried her tights. She watched the splodges of dark mud harden and lighten before picking them off with her toes. No one paid her any attention as they drove through the empty streets. Carefully she reached under her scarf and pulled out a thin chain, holding the pendant in her hand for a moment. The metal was dull with age and warm against her frozen fingers. She popped it open. Two men stared out of the locket at her. The first photograph, of her father, was new and in colour, showing him in the prime of his health. The second was blurred with age, parts of it bleached almost white while other areas were marred by a bloom of sepia ink. The man in the photo was young and handsome. His collar was high on his neck and his jawline could have cut glass. There was still a hint of mischievous glee in his eyes however, and a faint smile hovered about his lips. Annalise stared at him for a while before clicking the locket closed and dropping it back down her scarf. It fell into its accustomed place over her chest and she returned her gaze to the rain battering against her window. * The atmosphere in the house had changed. People stood or sat conversing with ease, laughing and joking with one another. Reminiscing. It irritated her. Jovial stories grated across her nerves. She hated them all, from the businessmen in their tailored suits to the women that sat pale and perfect in the chairs, their dresses glamourous and glitzy despite the occasion. This was her father’s world, she knew. Falsehoods and masks… It repulsed her when they came up to her, their hot hands squeezing hers as they offered insincere condolences. She knew what thoughts they hid behind their snake-eyes. They were all wondering what would happen to the money- would it go to the estranged wife or the daughter? Would the value of their shares plummet, or rise? With the grave still not filled in they courted her, praised her poise and demeanour. She acknowledged their words with smiles as hollow as their own. She barely reacted when so subtly questioned about her father’s plans and her responsibilities. Oh how they just knew she was mature enough to take over the family reins, and of course she must not hesitate to call upon them as men worldly-wise in the ways of business should she ever require advice. She thanked them and repressed the revulsion at their greed and oily smiles. She counted the seconds until it was time for them to leave. She did not have the luxury of retiring as her mother had already done- feigning grief and a broken heart. No doubt she was already pawing over the antiques and pricing them up. She excused herself from an onslaught of offered help to fill a fine china plate with over-priced, nibbles before seating herself in her father’s armchair. Around her she heard the comments. ‘Poor little thing’, and ‘lost now- will need all the help she can get’. She was careful not to let her anger show. She was surrounded by vultures, and any sign of weakness would be the signal for them to attack… She longed for them to leave, more than that, she longed to push them all out, one by one into the downpour so that she could be alone with her thoughts and grief. A shadow fell across her plate and she looked up, her face already masked in the proper expression. “He was a truly unrepentant swine in his business dealings,” the newcomer murmured, bowing low and taking her free hand. Her breath caught as heat filled her. Her hand felt like ice in his. “And he was the greatest collector of enemies I ever had the pleasure of serving.” He was still holding her hand, still bowed over and yet he watched her, a smile playing over his full lips. She couldn’t help but stare at him- to see him in the flesh as it were. Her other hand moved to clutch the pendant on her chest. His eyes tracked the movement and his smile deepened. Annalise looked him over, taking in the old fashioned, but perfectly sewn suit. His shoes shone and there was not a crease about him. He was every inch a gentleman on the surface. She smiled, small though it was, it was genuine. There would be no pretence with this man. “He had a certain way about him, I cannot deny it.” “Would you want to? And yet, here you are placed firmly in his shoes.” He released her hand and straightened. Around them people watched- eying him up and whispering their questions to one another. “If it be his wish, I am sure I will continue where his footsteps leave off. We will know when the time comes.” “I am sure of it.” He smiled down at her. It was a dangerous smile, not quite indecent but almost certainly predatory. Annalise felt her heart quicken a little with excitement. “I have not seen you here before,” she murmured. “Do you have a name?” His smirk widened enough to flash a hint of white teeth. “I certainly will do. If it is your father’s wish, I’m sure you will know it in time. If I know anything about that man, I know he was determined I should make your acquaintance.” “And you have, in such a subtly dramatic fashion.” He inclined his head in a small nod, mischief dancing in his eyes. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Annalise,” he said. “I am sure I will be seeing much more of you.” He bowed again and stepped away. He left a vacuum of silence behind him. Annalise watched him go, supressing the shiver that made her spine tingle. She was aware of people watching here, gauging her reaction. For a blissful moment she didn’t care that they saw her smile or the light flush of her cheek. Her heart was beating a little too fast and her breathing was a little too shallow, but there had been a promise in his words and he had promised excitement. She lowered her gaze to her plate, chose one of the small quiches and bit into it, chewing slowly as she considered her future. * The days passed. People eventually stopped calling. Annalise rose every morning just as she had always done. She bathed and dressed, wandered through the rooms in her home, and realised that everything that had once been a comfort felt odd and out of place. She would catch herself expecting the click of the door when her father would be due home, and then she would feel out of sorts when it never happened. She missed small things- the sound of his humming when he cooked or the dreadful music he would play when he worked into the night. She found herself touching the items he’d used most. His fountain pen, the antique globe where he thought he successfully hid the best of his scotch from her. The gramophone stood on its stand, heavy with age and history and sometimes she wondered if she should play it, but could never quite bring herself to it. Her mother returned with suitcases and installed herself in the room she’d had when she was once mistress of the house. Still, it was gratifying to know that the staff deferred to her rather than her mother. More people came, looking and touching what wasn’t their concern. Annalise had rooms locked away. She cared nothing if they saw what was on public display, but none had the right to enter her father’s study. She became more reclusive, avoiding her mother rather than deal with the woman herself. Her mother held court in her public grieving, playing the doting wife to perfection, re-writing history as she went. Annalise wandered the upper halls, using the servants passages to avoid the newcomers. The house and household was unhappy. Annalise was unhappy. Her home was too small for all these people, but too big and empty without her father there. Still she could not shed a tear, and when she did find herself face to face with one of her mother’s wandering visitors, she was invariably treated as they believed she should be treated. She detested it, her words falling on deaf ears as they twisted her actions to fit their own narrative of her grieving process. By the second week she stopped leaving her room. Too many people came and went, and far too many wanted to help her grieve. She shunned them all, permitting only the household staff to enter. Even when her mother banged on the door demanding the keys to all the locked rooms Annalise ignored her. A miasma had overtaken her and the thought of facing her mother was exhausting. A month passed. Her mother ended her grieving widow routine and began to host parties. The manor was ideal for it really. Annalise knew the staff didn’t like it. She herself didn’t like it… but she couldn’t bring herself to care enough to do anything about it. Her appetite waned, and more often than not her meals were returned to the kitchen untouched. She missed her father. She missed the conversations they’d had. Literature, politics- nothing was out of bounds. He took the time to consider her views and enrich her mind. She missed the times they would play chess together, or when they would go to the theatre. Sometimes, when he wasn’t at work, he would even go with her to the public lectures on philosophy, humanities and science. Part of her ached to do those things again, yet she knew she was utterly powerless to change the facts. Her father was dead and rotting away, his estate held in purgatory, her mother working her way through as much of the allowance as she could. It wasn’t until stories of dismissal and tantrums found their way to her ears that Annalise stirred. She watched the girl setting the fire for a few moments. “Chloe?” she murmured at last. The girl turned and stood, bobbing a curtsey. “Yes miss.” “Where is Abigail- she usually comes in the mornings.” Hesitation, and a flush around the neckline. “She was let go miss. Lady Barrington was unsatisfied with her.” “Lady Barrington,” Annalise murmured, a bitter inflection to her tone. She turned her head to gaze out of the window. “Would you bring me fresh water, Chloe. It seems I have let too much time slip past without due attention.” “Yes miss.” The girl curtseyed and disappeared through the servants’ entrance. Annalise stood and moved to the window. She could see her mother walking through the grounds, a gentleman escorting her. “Is this the turning point?” A voice murmured. She spun round. “You!” she accused, staring at him. He smirked and stepped forward. “Me indeed,” he said, taking her hand and bowing low enough to kiss her knuckles. Again she was acutely aware that her hand was like ice in the heat of his grip. He raised liquid black eyes to hers and grinned, flashing his teeth again. Up close, without a hundred others around, he smelled of soap and spice. She noticed he wore the same perfectly tailored suit, only this time embellished with a more colourful waistcoat. His boots were again well polished. She could smell the conditioner that had been worked into the leather. She was pleased to see that he was clean shaven. “How improper of you,” she said, pulling her hand from him. He straightened. “You aren’t afraid of me?” “Do I have reason to be?” she asked. “No.” He looked her up and down, from her unkempt, unbrushed hair to her night gown and house coat. He was amused by her bare feet. “Is there a reason for you being here?” she asked him. “And I should ask how you managed to get in. My doors are locked.” “Doors have never been much trouble for me.” “I see. That is certainly interesting. It doesn’t answer my other question. Why are you in my room?” “To see you of course.” “A gentleman would have called ahead.” “I never said I was a gentleman.” Annalise smiled as she looked away. Her heart was beating as fast as it had the first time she met him. She could feel blood rushing around her body, warming her from within. She sat on the edge of her bed, and then looked back to meet his gaze. “And what is it you wish to see me about?” He remained standing, watching her. His gaze was unwavering. “Nothing in particular. I was wondering where the hellion your father spoke about was. All I have seen so far is a broken child allowing others to walk all over her.” She quirked an eyebrow. “You think you have the right to make such a judgement?” He grinned. “Do I anger you?” “You don’t mean enough to me to affect me so. I find you tiresome.” “Brave words, from a woman with a reputation to uphold.” She let out a short bark of laughter. “My reputation,” she snorted. “Now there’s a thing. Tell me, what need have I for a reputation? To whom am I now beholden? Who’s honour would be in question should I be found with a man in my bed chamber?” He was still smiling, even as he stepped back to lean against the mantelpiece and watch her, his arms loosely folded. “You truly care so little?” She opened her mouth to answer, but the servants’ door opening stayed her tongue. She watched Chloe return, a jug of steaming water in her arms. She seemed unaware of the man by the fireplace as she poured the water for Annalise. Annalise watched him. He was still grinning. Part of her wanted to step up to him and strike it from his face. Another part of her curled in excitement. Certainly there was nothing normal about this. He wasn’t hiding. She turned to Chloe and murmured her thanks. When she turned again he was gone. The door was still closed so he hadn’t left that way. It was a moment or two after Chloe had left that she felt the room was truly empty. Finally she loosened her gowns and let them drop to the floor before washing herself from head to toe, sitting naked at her dresser and brushing her hair until the knots were smoothed out and she could pin it up in its traditional curls. She dressed in black- modest and demure. It was a stark contrast to her pale skin, but it gave her a strength she had lacked the past weeks. Eventually, her face made up enough to not cause hysterics to any she might encounter, she left her room. * She found her mother entertaining her guest in the drawing room. He was an older gentleman, and was still handsome in his advancing years even though what had once been muscle was already beginning the transition to fat. His waistcoat strained a little when he sat, although Annalise noticed he was quick to stand when she entered the room. Her mother was less enthusiastic to greet her. Nevertheless, she made the introductions as was proper and Annalise was invited to sit with them and take tea. She sipped at it delicately as she listened to her mother try to keep the conversation going. It wasn’t long, however, before the gentleman caller made his excuses and left, leaving Annalise alone. She didn’t waste any time. “The girl Abigail,” she murmured, not waiting for her mother to chastise her. “You dismissed her.” “I did.” “Why?” “She was a wastrel and a dreamer. She did not fulfil her duties adequately.” Annalise nodded. “I see.” She put down her cup and finally looked her mother in the eye. “Abigail will return to work tomorrow. You will ensure this happens. You are not the mistress of this house and the staff are not yours to bully.” She stood, brushing imaginary dust from her skirts before staring once more at her mother. “You are not welcome here, but until such time as I can have you removed, I will suffer your invasion.” She left before her mother had a chance to react and made her way through the house. It felt disturbed- too many people had walked through its halls, poking and prodding at anything they could. They had tainted it. Her mouth turned down at the corners and her expression soured. She could feel it around her- a soupiness to the air filled with other people. “You have the bite of a kitten,” he said. Her heart squeezed a little at the sound of his voice and she hid the smile that threatened when she turned a corner and saw him lounging against the wall. “And yet your expression is ferocious.” She ignored him, walking past without looking at him. She heard him chuckle and the rustle of material as he followed her. “One would be forgiven for thinking you are a stalker,” she murmured. “One quite obsessed with me at the moment.” “Yet you do not scream for help, nor question that I am in your home.” “My father wanted us to meet. There is a ring of truth to it when you speak. In all but his partners, my father was an excellent judge of character. He taught me to see through the deceptions of people.” “So you trust me,” he chuckled. She allowed herself a small smile and glanced at him briefly. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that,” she said. “Let us just accept that I distrust you less than many others.” He laughed again. “I like you Annalise. Should the time come, I believe I will have a lot of fun working with you.” They had come to a stop outside her personal rooms. She turned to him, and he bowed before taking his leave. She watched his back as he walked back the way they had come. His footsteps disappeared as soon as he turned the corner. Annalise frowned, though she didn’t pursue him. He was a mystery to her, but she knew too that he was a secret. Her secret. The thought was comforting. Something she alone shared with her father. * Days passed once more. Abigail returned to work and Annalise was gratified to see her going about her business. There were fewer visitors to the house, and though both it and Annalise still felt unsettled, there was a feeling of unwinding to the place. Annalise was sitting out on the balcony, wrapped against the chill, but enjoying the simple pleasure of well-made morning tea as she watched the land slowly begin to awaken. Snow lay on the ground, pristine over the lawns and broken where the border soil had been turned, ready for the Spring planting. There was a tingle of anticipation to the world, as if it were looking forward to the warmth returning. In the distance, where the ground was dark under the shelter of trees, she could see the silhouettes of deer as they grazed. For a moment she allowed herself to feel excitement for the coming light, and for whatever adventures would come with it. She saw a boy come running through the grounds, making his way to the servant’s entrance and the air of excitement and potential evaporated. Was this the catalyst to her future? What would it be? To take up her father’s mantle? Did he wish that, or would his business go to his eldest son, as tradition dictated? Would she be given an allowance and be left to live as she wished, or would she be forced to marry to keep her lifestyle? She couldn’t help the small smile at the thought of working for her living. She was not a fool, and a Governess was a respectable position regardless of her mother’s opinions on middle class working women. She barely moved as footsteps approached and a shadow fell across her. “Mistress, a message from Sir Waltham for you.” She nodded her thanks and took the thick envelope from the silver tray, breaking the seal and unfolding it. She read in silence, her face a mask as she skimmed over the words. “Thank you, Grantham,” she murmured, folding the letter and rising slowly. “I will be in the study all morning. Please bring lunch when it is ready.” “Of course Mistress.” She spent all morning writing letters, inviting to her home everyone that had been named in Waltham’s letter. Each one was sealed with her father’s wax seal and added to the pile to be posted. Three days. That was all she had before her world would be irrevocably changed. When she was done her hands trembled. It was all becoming so real and she didn’t like it. * They arrived all throughout the morning. Business associates, friends and family. Her mother was once again in mourning widow mode, although Annalise noticed that the older members of the family were sceptical. They were well aware of her exploits whilst married, although they were polite and masked the majority of their disdain. Annalise stood and greeted her half-brothers and their mothers, guiding them to the dining room where a simple spread had been laid out for their comfort. After that she was pleased to note that her aunt, uncle and their children had arrived. Her greeting was much easier with them and despite the occasion, she couldn’t help but smile when they talked about their lives, running farming country and mucking in with the others. She was pleased to know that her childhood pony had birthed a healthy foal and that both were doing well. She introduced them to the buffet where they tucked in and spoke amongst themselves. She itched to get everything over and done with, to finally come to the end. Perhaps when this was over she would finally be able to cry, to grieve for her father and move on with her life. She looked up as Sir Waltham was escorted into the dining hall. She became aware of the sudden tension and anticipation in the air. She moved across the room, noting her mother doing the same and grimaced. Of course she would ingratiate herself with him. She was pleased to note his discomfort, and was amused at her mother’s expression when he didn’t fall for her charms. Instead he sought Annalise, politely excused himself and came towards. “Miss Barrington,” he murmured, bowing. “If I may take a moment of your time before we begin.” “Of course. We will go to the study. Please, follow me.” She was aware of every eye watching her, from the worried and caring eyes of her family, to the cold and calculating stares of her father’s previous wives. The sooner they were out of her home, the better. As soon as the door closed behind them, he apologised, placed his case upon the table and from it withdrew a thick envelope. “When your father first came to our firm and I took him on as a client he asked me to safeguard this envelope until his death. He bid that I never open it or question him about it, just that I should give it to you in the event of his death and before the reading of his will.” Annalise took the envelope. The paper was thick and heavy, yellowed with age and yet she could clearly see her name, written out in her father’s beautiful handwriting. “Do you know what it is?” she asked, more for something to say rather than for hope of an answer.” Waltham shook his head. “I never asked,” he said at last. “It was not my place.” Annalise stroked the envelope, staring down at it. It really was rather heavy. Still, she smiled, unlocked her father’s bureau and placed it inside, locking it away again. “Thank you,” she murmured before straightening her back and turning to the family lawyer. “I think in here would be appropriate for the reading,” she said at last. “If it suits you, please sit at my father’s desk. I will bring the others through when you’re ready.” He nodded and made himself comfortable, pulling a sheaf of papers from his bag. At his nod Annalise opened the study doors and invited everyone inside. When everyone was seated, she closed the doors and remained standing. Her heart was beginning to thud painfully. These were her father’s last wishes. She was desperate to hear them, and terrified at the same time. Once they were spoken the last of her father would be gone. Sir Waltham cleared his throat and thanked everyone for coming. Annalise stood by the doors and waited while he readied himself. “First to the wives of Mr. Barrington he leaves nothing more than what was agreed upon in the divorce settlements. He states that you have received more than your fair share already, and it is not his responsibility to provide for you in the afterlife any more than he would have in life.” Annalise watched the women in the room. Few of them looked pleased. Her mother in particular was struggling to hide her sour expression. “To each of his children, Mr Barrington leaves the sum of twenty thousand pounds in trust. Access to those funds will be managed until they turn thirty, in which case they will be allowed full access to do whatsoever they like. To his eldest son, Harold, he leaves the gift of freedom.” Annalise looked to her oldest sibling. He was a thin, blonde man with grey eyes and a graceful figure. “Your father was aware that you had no taste for business. He does not wish for you to be shackled to his empire when it would cause you nothing but grief.” She watched the older boy lick his lips and nod, looking down at the hardwood floor. She could almost see the relief radiating from him. “For his brother Carl, Mr Bannington bequeaths the town house in London along with a yearly stipend to cover the running and staff costs. For Margaret the country estate, along with a stipend for costs. It was his wish that both of these houses be filled with laughter and life. He hopes that you will be happy there. To each of his nieces and nephews he also leaves twenty thousand pounds in trust. He hopes that you will enjoy life and work hard. Your parents have instilled great ethics in you and it is his dearest wish that you all have the opportunity to continue growing into good people.” Annalise fought back tears at the expressions on her cousins’ faces. They were awed by the thought of so much money. It would set them up for life. “It was also requested that, to those whom he employed and whom showed the greatest initiative and loyalty that a two hundred pound bonus be paid directly to you. I have already made the arrangements and that money will be with you by the end of the working week.” There were gasps from the suited men that had been invited to the reading. Annalise noticed her mother starring daggers at those she thought of as beneath her. “Everything else, in business, money and property he leaves to his daughter Annalise. He believes that out of all of his children only she has the maturity and sense and ability to juggle the responsibilities. Aside from Harold, she is the only one of his children to have spent any time with him and as such no one else knows how he likes to run his companies or his business interests. He requests that she continue to employ my services until she reaches the age of majority when she will be able to decide whether my services are required or not. Everything that has not already been transferred to her name will be done so by close of business today.” Annalise licked her lips. She could feel every eye turning towards her. Already she felt like a piece of meat out on display. There was cold calculation to her mother’s level gaze. “That is everything,” Sir Waltham said, shuffling the papers and putting them back in his bag. Annalise took the opportunity to slip out into the hall once chatter broke out. She didn’t want to see the fighting or back-biting that was bound to occur when people didn’t get what they thought they deserved. She sighed, feeling the weight of responsibility settle on her shoulders. At least the house felt more comfortable now. It was her home, for as long as she wanted or needed. Nothing and nobody could take it away from her. That much she was certain of. The door opened beside her and she straightened as her father’s associates escaped what sounded like a very fraught argument. She caught a glimpse of her cousins, aunt and uncle trying to extricate themselves from the accusations of the wives. Harold too looked a little bewildered. The door clicked closed, the heavy wood blocking out the noise. Annalise turned to the men. They were dressed in their best, and she recognised two of them from the funeral. They had stood apart from the main group, their clothes immediately singling them out as working class. The others wore the better suits of clerks. They all had her father in common, and they were all humble as they thanked her for her hospitality. She thanked them for the services they had done her father and bid them to help themselves to refreshments before leaving. She turned as the door opened again. Harold stepped out. He was flushed. Annalise saw that Waltham was now the target of the collective ire and her cousins, aunt and uncle were also making their way out of the study. Harold held the door open for them and, in the silence of the door closing; they all looked at one another awkwardly. “I was unaware,” Harold said at last, “that such harpies existed outside of mythology.” It broke the tension, and Annalise relaxed. Her cousins sniggered as they all made their way to the dining room where a light tea had been laid out for them. Conversation came more easily. Annalise stood a little apart as her cousins spoke with the clerks, and her aunt and uncle talked quietly. She sipped her tea, watching them. It was the most comfortable she had felt in weeks. “Annalise?” She turned to her eldest brother and inclined her head towards him. “Harold,” she murmured, accepting his kiss to her cheek. “It has been a long time. How are you?” “Would you think the worst of me if I were to admit to being terribly relieved?” “Of course not. Why would you think so?” He gestured to the house. “Traditionally, this would all belong to me… As the eldest son, it would be my duty to take control of it all.” “You feel differently however?” “Completely the opposite,” he said. He gazed at her over the rim of his cup. “I fear I was never much of a one for politics or heading a household… My passion lies in academia. To run a business empire or a household?” He shivered. “Then you are not angry that it has been left to me?” “Not at all. I regret that I did not get to know father as well as he obviously knew me… after mother died…” “He spoke of her often. She was the only woman he ever truly loved. On his desk there is a photograph of you all. I believe you were only just beginning to walk at the time.” “I have no recollection… I suppose I was too young to remember.” Annalise smiled. “He was very proud of you. Even when you hadn’t spoken for many years he kept an eye on your progress. I’m sure they heard his crow of delight across the country when he heard you were going to university.” “I never knew,” Harold said quietly. “I remember, as a boy, that he was a sailor, and I vaguely remember that when he came back from an especially long trip he swung mother around the kitchen laughing. Not long after that we moved to a small terrace in London. I was sent to an all-boys boarding school. I was there when I heard that mother had died, along with my unborn sister. An illness took her.” “He spoke of it only once. I believe it was his greatest regret that he was not there for her when she needed him most.” “I blamed him- hated him. When he remarried, it was another betrayal. I refused to speak to him. Only now do I realise that during all that time, I was still living off him. He paid my tuition and board. I was a foolish boy, and I was an even more foolish adolescent.” “He did not think you foolish. He thought you to be quite brilliant. Father was a working man through and through. He started his life in the mines, moved to ships and made loyal trustworthy friends. His only fault was in the woman he chose to be his companion. I believe he sought your mother in every one of them.” “You do your own mother a disservice. She is a very beautiful woman.” “In all but thought and nature, yes.” Annalise smiled at his widening eyes. “I do not speak as such due to my own ugliness, though I am sure I have just as great a capacity for it. You must understand that I love my mother as much as custom decree’s, I do not, however, like her. She believes that I ruined her. I cannot speak to the truth or lie of it, but it is her belief. At the soonest opportunity she abandoned me to a litany of governess’ until father took me under his wing and indulged my mind.” “You are learned?” “In the ways of business and in practical matters. I do not have the breadth of your education, nor access to the libraries as you do. Still, I do not think I would consider myself a fool.” “The way you speak, it is as if we came from a different man.” “In some respects I think we did. I was the only child left with him. His other children were raised in their mothers’ homes. It hurt him, to have their minds poisoned against him, but he himself acknowledged that, after your mother passed, he was not a good husband. He didn’t blame any of them for leaving and he made them as comfortable as they could be.” “It occurs to me that I knew very little of the man my father was. I feel regret at my action all the more keenly. Annalise- I am aware that this is truly the first time we have had a conversation, but I find myself bereft now. I am only twenty, and I am, perhaps for the first time, realising how little I know of people and the world. Would it be an imposition if I were to call on you in the future? I would like to know more about the kind of man my father was, and to know more of you also.” Annalise smiled. “I would consider it the height of ill manners if you were to not. I too would like the opportunity to know you better. I know that you will be returning to university come the morning. If it would not be an imposition, I would like to write to you. Father told me a little of your studies. I find them fascinating and, if it is not improper, would like to know more.” He smiled and bowed, his eyes lighting up. “I would like nothing more. It would be refreshing to have an eager, and if you’ll excuse the word, naïve mind to converse with. I have found that there are often pre-conceived ideas that even evidence finds hard to diminish.” His enthusiasm filled her with delight. “I look forward to it,” she murmured. “There is only so much tapestry and light conversation that a mind can stomach. It will be a delight to have a real conversation. However, if you will excuse me for the moment, I do think Sir Waltham will have had enough by now. I should rescue him from the baying hounds.” She reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “It was a pleasure to finally meet you, Harold, despite the circumstances.” She stepped away, her small heels clicking on the hardwood floor as she made her way to the study. She opened the door quietly and peered inside. She saw Sir Waltham sitting at her father’s desk, his head in his hands. The room was empty of her siblings and their mothers. “Sir Waltham?” she asked. His head jerked up. His eyes were red and when he spoke, his voice sounded as if he had a cold. “Ah, Annalise… the others left. They were… unhappy with the day.” “I heard. I apologise for leaving you with them. It was very rude of me.” “Not at all, dear girl, not at all. They are not the first awkward relatives I have had to deal with. They will not be the last.” “Still- I can only apologise that you received such treatment in this house.” She had come to stand next to him. He took her hand and squeezed it gently. “My dear, how they treat me is an indication on them, and no comment at all on you. Do not trouble yourself about it.” “Would you care for refreshments? I can have them brought to you in a private room.” “Thank you. That would be most kind.” She escorted him to the parlour and rang for one of the maids. She sat with him, watching him carefully. That he had been crying she was in no doubt, but she could not bring herself to mention it. Waltham was an old man now, and his pride would be wounded. “With regards to my father’s wishes,” she began, folding her hands neatly in her lap. “It would be an honour to retain your services. Until such a time as you retire I do not foresee any occurrence where I would not want you by my side. Father had a great regard for you. He often remarked that you were the most honest crook he had ever had the pleasure of working with.” Waltham chuckled. “An honest crook. He was a good man, your father.” “And he knew good men when he saw them too. I can only hope that I am able to make him proud.” “I am sure you will. He knew as soon as you began schooling that you would be the one to helm his estate. You had, and have, a thirst for knowledge any man would be proud of.” Annalise blushed at the compliment. She looked up as Grantham entered, pulling in a cart behind him. They waited in silence as he brought over the tray and poured tea for Sir Waltham. Annalise declined, standing. “I will leave you in peace,” she said with a smile. “I am sure my other guests are waiting for me. Please take as much time as you like. Grantham will get you anything you need. A carriage will take you back into town, for the day is already becoming cold and rain looks to be on the way.” “Thank you, Annalise. Please do not trouble yourself.” “It is no trouble for a friend.” She smiled, leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. He patted her arm. Grantham held the door and bowed as she walked back out into the corridor. “Is there anything you require, miss?” he asked as she passed. “No, thank you Grantham. Please see to Sir Waltham’s needs. After that, relax a little.” “Yes miss. Thank you.” She walked in silence. Her stomach was churning now as she thought of the letter in the bureau. She wanted to run to it and tear it open, but she had guests to tend to first. She re-entered the dining room. Harold was standing looking out over the estate. Her cousins were talking amongst themselves, the younger ones playing quietly. Her aunt and uncle stood as she came in. She smiled at them, and it was all she could do not to cry when they folded her into a hug. The resolve she had built up was crumbling. She knew genuine, familial love when she felt it and her aunts arms around her were tight as she rubbed Annalise’s back, murmuring that everything would get better. She managed to hold the tears back as they said their goodbyes and promised to see one another more often. The children climbed into the carriage and settled down quickly. Despite invitations to stay, they all needed to return to their homes and ready themselves for the coming harvest. Harold was the last to leave. He stood with her as she waved her family off, and then he too bid her goodbye, presenting her with his address at university and a desire to hear from her soon. His cab trundled up the driveway. He leaned down to kiss her cheek, wished her a good day and hopped into the cab. The horse snorted and the driver doffed his cap before they set off again. Annalise stood alone on the doorstep and then turned on her heel, rushing to the study. She unlocked the bureau, pulled out the letter and sat at her father’s desk, running her finger over the creamy, aged paper. It had a fine tooth to it; heavy and expensive. It smelled of ink and dust. She stared at the thick wax seal for a long time, finding herself weak at the thought of breaking it. Finally she took a deep breath, took up the letter knife and broke the seal. The wax popped from the face of the envelope in a clean break. Carefully, Annalise unfolded the paper. Another envelope lay inside along with an ancient key. She stared at them both for a moment and then, her heart beating fast, turned to her fathers’ words. She took a ragged breath, wiped the tears from her cheek and read through them again. Half an hour later it was dark outside and her sobs were finally starting to slow. She let the emotions build up and pour out of her until her head was pounding, her sinuses were completely blocked and her eyes burned She wiped away tears, blew her nose and finally calmed down enough to breathe. It felt good to finally cry, to grieve and acknowledge that she missed her father more than she dared admit. She read his letter a third time, and whilst it still made her cry, they were silent tears. Accepting tears. She swallowed, folded the letter and held it above the candle flame until it caught alight. She watched it bun and then dropped the remains on the floor, letting the paper burn and then stomping out the fire before anything else could catch. When she was sure the fire was completely dowsed she picked up the key and the second envelope and, holding them to her chest, began making her way upstairs. * The third floor was eerily quiet. The day staff had left and the live-in staff were already peacefully asleep. She was glad of that. She didn’t like to think that they had heard her crying. Not now that she was head of the household. She came to the end of the hallway and paused at the last door. There would be no turning back from this, she knew. She stared at the lock on the door. It didn’t look old enough to take the key in her hand, but much to her surprise the key slid in easily and turned with a quiet click. She turned the handle and pulled the door open. Steps led up into darkness. She could hear a soft hum of music, something she vaguely recognised from her childhood. She took a deep breath and took a step forward. The stairs seemed endless, but she took another step. The door creaked shut behind her and closed with a similar click to the key. She turned to stare at it, but everything behind her was perfect blackness. Her heart thudded a little harder. She could taste dust in the air. The music still flowed, barely loud enough to hear but just enough to entice her. She turned back to face the top of the stairs. She reached for the bannister, her hand pale against the darkness and she gripped it tight, trusting her father’s words as she made her way further up. A glow seemed to fade into existence, or her eyes adjusted to the blackness. She could just make out the edge of each stair. She felt something akin to anticipation as she walked. She felt as though someone were watching her, marking her progress. It chilled her to think that she was alone- no one knew that she had come here. Perhaps she should have left a note for them. It was too late now, however. She recognised the song. Her father had often hummed it to her when he came to bid her good night. Part of her hoped that he was there in spirit at least to greet her, though she knew it was impossible for such a thing. The bannister evened out as she broached the last step and walked along the short walkway. She turned into the room proper and couldn’t help the small gasp that came from her throat. Warm, soft light fell in pools on a rich wooden floor. Elegant rugs were scattered about, books stacked up on most of them. In between there were tall, ornate candelabra covered in the drippings of old wax. Candles sat fat and melting, casting a warm glow over everything. In fact nearly every surface that wasn’t covered in papers or books was covered in candles that had, over time, melted together, leaving thick trails of wax stalactites reaching for the floor. The room smelled of polish, dust and warm wax. It was surprisingly stifling. She stood in the entryway, taking it all in until her gaze finally came to rest on the figure lounging in the wingback chair. There was a large book resting on his crossed legs, his hand indicating his place as he calmly gazed back at her. “You?” Annalise murmured at last. She had expected him to be involved somehow, and couldn’t understand why she was surprised to see him. “Annalise,” he smiled, marking his book and closing it before standing. “I have been expecting you. Not quite this soon, but nonetheless. He came to a stop in front of her and bowed. “May I offer you some tea?” “That would be welcome, yes,” she said, taking his offered arm and allowing him to escort her to the second chair. “Where is this place?” “It is the attic of the Yorkshire Manor. Your father purchased the property some years ago so that I may have a place to call my own.” “The entire manor, just for you?” “Indeed. He was a most generous man, though I keep myself to the attic. It is large enough for my needs.” “And by what manner was I transported here when a few moments ago I was in my house in London town?” He grinned. “Magic,” he murmured. He offered no other explanation and she did not ask for one. Instead she watched him as he poured tea. He was wearing a different waistcoat- this one was a deep burgundy. His shirt was a little rumpled and undone at the throat. His trousers were fine spun wool- casual but smart. His slippers were a little more flamboyant than she’d expected- more embroidery than one would ordinarily find, yet they suited him. They were certainly well worn. “Does my attire interest you?” he asked, presenting the tea to her. “I find the clothes one wears say much about the man.” “And what do my clothes say about me?” She sipped her tea. It was the perfect temperature. She indulged herself with a small smile. “You are a man of taste. You prefer fine clothes, though you also like them to be comfortable. The materials are hard wearing. You’re frugal, no doubt preferring to spend your money on things better than clothes. There is some eccentricity however. There is a mischief in you- an extravagance. Whether it is malignant or benign I cannot say yet.” “Yet?” “This is our first real conversation. I cannot tell everything about a person in the first instance.” He smiled and lowered his cup from his lip. Annalise watched it descend to its saucer. “Quite perceptive. I assume your father’s letter gave you all the information you require?” “Most of it.” “You have the contracts with you?” She nodded. “And your decision?” “Rests with the answers you give to me tonight.” “I see. You have questions?” “Indeed. Firstly, what was the nature of your relationship with my father?” “That of master and servant only.” “I doubt that.” He smiled, one finger circling the rim of his cup. “He did say you were perceptive. Very well. Your father was the last in a long line of masters I have had over the years. He had grand plans. I facilitated those plans.” “Where did you come from? Your accent is not native to this land.” “I have lived almost everywhere there are people. I travel where I must. I do not remember where I first called home. “How old are you?” “Older than time.” “And your appearance?” “Malleable. I take on the appearance that best suits my master.” He smiled, amused by her. “Why do you wish for a master?” “I cannot answer that.” “Nevertheless I require an answer.” “You will be disappointed. “What happens if I refuse the contract with you?” “I wander alone until there is someone new to take your place.” “Do you need a master?” “No.” Annalise sat back in her chair and regarded him. She licked her lips, enjoying herself despite the circumstances. “Are you the devil, sir?” “Neither devil nor god, angel or demon- though your spiritual leaders would brand me such, depending on which man I serve. I simply am. I was long before your ancestors crawled out of the primordial soup and created their own chains.” “What are you then?” “I don’t know.” “Are you evil?” “I have been called that. I have also been called ‘saviour’. Let us just say that human morality is a fascinating concept and one I indulge in from time to time- depending on the will of my master.” “If you are as old and powerful as you say, why serve a human master? It makes no sense to bind yourself to a lesser creature.” He grinned and sat back in his chair, regarding her over steepled fingers. “I have many reasons- boredom, curiosity… I have marvelled at the sheer creativity of the human mind for centuries. You are all so interesting when it comes to destruction and hate, or love and creation. I have served alchemists, scientists, businessmen and farmers. Rich and poor alike. Each one was different, even if their lives were but a blink in my time.” “To what end do you do this?” He didn’t answer. Instead he leaned forward and took her hand, sliding elegantly out of his chair to kneel at her feet. She held her breath, looking down at him. “My reasons are my own,” he murmured. “But know this- I will never lie to you nor toy with you. While I serve you, every skill I possess will be at your disposal. Your protection and wants are my only mission. I will serve you in every way that you wish, and I will never betray you.” “And the cost?” He grinned, and for a moment he looked wicked. “I too am searching for something. You will help me find it. If you cannot then your soul becomes mine.” “I do not believe in souls.” “That is irrelevant.” “This is the same deal you offered my father?” “It is.” “And he was happy with it?” “He never complained.” “Where is his soul now?” “It is comfortable. He is comfortable. As masters go, he was a good one. It is only fair that I reciprocate in kind. “What are you searching for?” “I cannot not tell you that.” “Are you close to finding it?” “Sometimes I believe I am. Other times I feel it slipping away from me.” “Then that brings us to the small matter of the contract “You have an issue with it?” “Eternity is a long time in comparison to a human lifespan,” she said. “What would you be doing with my soul?” “Nothing bad. Think of it like this- I am tenured as your servant in this world... and the role would simply be reversed in mine.” Annalise looked back at him. “Still, I think eternity is too much to ask given the insignificant nature of my own lifespan.” She pulled the contracts from her pocket. “I read the small print,” she said, loosening the ribbon around the roles. “There is no provision made for unsatisfactory performance.” “Because there has never been a complaint about my service.” “Still- I myself would not feel comfortable signing my soul away to someone who would have no reason to give good customer service.” The demon grinned. “As for eternity, I believe three times the length of your service to me would be sufficient.” “I hardly think so, given the quality of my service.” “Then you may add a clause where, should I unsuccessfully defend my actions you can add another twenty years.” He was grinning, the candlelight reflecting in his eyes making them appear almost demonic. Annalise shivered, though she noted it was not through fear. “I like you,” he said. “Very well, I will amend the contract to your liking.” Annalise looked down at the unravelled parchment as words bled into it. She smiled. “You gave in rather easily,” she said. “I have no doubts of my ability to please you,” he said, “and I have very exacting requirements of my servants. You will be mine for eternity either way.” Annalise looked down at the contract in her hands, watching as ink bled through the surface, adding the new stipulations to the small print. “Finally,” she murmured, “there is the matter of my father’s death.” “Yes?” he whispered, watching her. “From what he wrote in his letter, it seems you were not as big a secret as he thought.” “It seems not. I can promise you that I never uttered word of my nature, and neither did your father. He was an honourable man.” “His death was no accident, was it?” “No. I give you fair warning that whomsoever wanted him out of their way will likely come for you too. It seems that I am their goal.” “What is it you offer them?” “Anything they desire. I am a creature outside of nature. I hold the potential for vast wealth, unbelievable influence and power. A man with ambition would have a great all in me.” “I have no interest in those things. Do you know whom it was that killed my father?” “The one that completed the deed is already dead. I saw to that immediately. The one that ordered it, I do not know. Yet.” He looked up at her. She considered him. “Why?” she murmured again. “Why shackle yourself to humans when you have all this power to call your own. You could reign over us so easily, if what you say is true.” “Ever the sceptic,” he smiled. He hadn’t moved from his place at her feet. “It’s time to make a decision, Annalise.” “You will help me find my father’s murderer?” “I will.” “And you will be loyal?” “Beyond reproach.” Annalise smiled. “Then I would like another cup of tea, if you don’t mind.” He grinned and rose to his feet. He was delicate as he poured the tea. Steam rose from the cup as he placed it at her side, a sharp knife resting on the saucer. She couldn’t help the flick of a smile that crossed her features as she picked it up. “A drop is enough?” she asked. He nodded. “Would you like me to do it?” he asked, holding out his hand. She took it, studying the long fingers and fine lines. She placed the knife across his index finger pad and looked up at him. He watched her, a faint smile playing across his features. She cut him. It wasn’t deep, and only a little blood oozed up and beaded on the surface. She wiped it away and watched as the seam in his skin sealed, healed and faded away. “That was rude,” he murmured. “Though your reaction is remarkably calm,” “What would be the point in hysteria? You have made several claims about yourself. I have tested a theory of my own and it is accurate. There is no need to panic.” “So I am to be an experiment of yours?” “No. You will be my servant. My man. You will carry out my wishes with elegance and style. Eventually you will tell me your secrets or I will discover them for myself.” “So you agree to the contract?” “I do.” She jammed the tip of the knife into her finger pad and watched the blood well up. Once there was a sufficiently large enough bead she pressed it to the contract. She watched the blood soak into the paper, resting next to the faded spot that was no doubt her father’s mark. She felt a tingle in her hand that spread up through her body and came to rest at the base of her skull. It was almost comforting as it throbbed for a moment and then faded. “It is done, then,” he murmured. “I am your obedient servant ma’am. Would you like to give me a name?” “What did my father call you?” “William, after the bard.” “Suitable for a man of business… but I believe the things you do for me to be of a more devilish nature.” “You wish to name me after a demon?” “Mephistopheles does suit you better; however a man cannot walk freely with a name such as that. No. I will name you Marlowe.” He grinned. “It is a good name.” “Then let us begin the first of our quests.” He grinned and bowed low. “Your father was right.” He murmured. “Being bound to you is going to be fun.”


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