The entire house was in a state of deep quiet, except for the occasional footstep of a servant. But even those noises were few. Isabella made her way along the upper corridor, moving towards her room. She had visited the chapel one last time before seeking her bed. The stillness of the house was a comfort, for there was no one about whom she had to face...particularly not Owen. After the incident out on the practice field, she had not seen him all day, not even at supper. From what she could gather, Sir Guy had ordered his son to remain behind while the other men journeyed to court, and Owen was not at all pleased with the decision. He had hidden himself away in some part of the house, and no one seemed to mind his absence.
Who can blame them? she thought, as she neared her door. Detestable boy. They have enough concerns without having to endure his callousness. She sighed at the thought of him, wondering how he had come to be so malicious. His father was aloof, but from what she knew of him, Sir Guy was tolerable of others, even when he did not like them. He had, at first, been displeased with the idea of her being here, but he had softened soon after. Why could his son not be as gracious?
She shook her head at her musings, wondering why she should concern herself with him. He was an ill-tempered youth, and he had much growing to do, as far as his manners and temperament. Perhaps one day, with time, he would grow into a decent young man. But that, it seemed, was a long way off.
After she had stepped into her room, pushing the door to close it, she heard an odd noise coming from somewhere nearby. Judging from the sound, it seemed like someone was shuffling along. There came a thud, as if someone had fallen...and then came a soft curse. She knew it wasn’t right to pry. It would be better to ignore the noise, whatever it was. But curiosity got the better of her. Peeking through the opening of her door, she looked out in the hall, her eyes searching for the source of the disturbance.
She took a slight step back as she realized who it was. Owen, walking along in a clumsy fashion, passed her door. She kept her door open only by a tiny space, not wanting him to see her. It seemed he was aware of very little, her least of all. He stopped within her line of sight...still, and yet not still. He seemed to be wavering on his feet. He attempted to take a step...and he lost his balance, falling against a chair.
The foolish boy, she thought, horrified at the realization that he seemed to be drunk. She knew what a drunkard looked like, and this was a sure sign of it. For a few moments she observed him, wondering what he might do. His movements were deliberately slow, as if he was making an attempt to control his actions. At first he gripped the chair, trying to steady himself. And then, sensing that his balance was beyond his control, he sat down in the chair. He hung his head...and a moment later, he was as still as death.
Good heavens, Isabella said to herself. Has he fallen into a stupor?
She took a step away from the door, thinking that it would serve him right to be found that way, passed out from an overindulgence of drink.
But what if his mother found him in such a state?
Lady Cassia had been such a devoted friend. With all that she was enduring...pregnancy, the departure of her beloved husband...it would be cruel and heartbreaking to find her son in so embarrassing a situation.
Isabella sighed heavily. Heaven help me, she said, crossing herself. Slowly, she opened her door. Looking carefully about for anyone who might be passing, she softly crept over to where Owen sat. He was emitting a light snore...and with a hesitant hand, she reached out to shake him. He mumbled, but didn’t lift his head. She shook him again, and this time, he seemed to come to his senses. At least, he looked up at her. His eyes closed, and then opened again, as though he wasn’t sure who he was looking at. His speech was mumbled.
“What are you doing in here?”
She turned her head away from the smell of his breath. It reeked of alcohol.
“You have a reputation,” he muttered. “You should not be in my room.”
She shushed him, concerned by the volume of his voice. She whispered in reply, “You are not in your room, you fool. I would advise you to find it before you mortify yourself further.”
He looked to his left, and then to his right. He returned his eyes to her. “Which room is it?”
With a frustrated shake of her head she replied, “I do not know.”
“Well I do,” he said, pushing himself up on wobbly legs. He mumbled, mixing his words. “I know the room to my own way. I will get there myself, without help from you. Good night, madam.”
He took a few steps forward...and nearly fell on his face. Without thinking, she rushed forward to keep him from collapsing. He leaned on her, while she clasped his arm to steady him. He mumbled again, more softly this time.
“I am not so very drunk. The fellows in the barracks...they are the ones who partake. I never do. Except tonight. They talked me into having a sip, and I had one. And then another one.”
Realizing he would never make it on his own, she put his arm around her shoulder. Walking slowly with him, she guided him towards the family quarters, praying every step of the way that no one would come out and discover them. By some miracle, she managed to get enough out of him so she would know which door was his. Opening it carefully, she helped him in, and was thankful to get him to his bed before his weight sapped her strength completely. He fell to his back on the mattress, and she tried to step away...but he would not let go of her arm. His grip was tight, and she tried to pry his fingers away.
He suddenly grasped her other arm, and before she could stop him, he pulled her down and placed a hard kiss on her mouth. She cried out in surprise, trying to free herself. When at last she broke away, anger and disgust raged through her...and without a second thought, she reached out, slapping him hard across the face. Her rebuke caused his eyes to widen in shock...and his verbal reaction caught her completely off guard.
“Ow!” he cried, as if he had no notion of his offense. “What was that for? I will have a mark on me now.”
She moved away from him, wishing to be gone before something truly scandalous happened. At the door, she heard him mumble softly...
“I think I will sleep right here. Good night.”
She shook her head, pressing her hand to her lips as she made her escape. Good Lord, she thought. Is there nothing so sad as a drunkard? And worst of all, a young drunkard.
She said a short prayer for his soul, and hoped to heaven that no one would discover what a fool he had made of himself.
Under the hands of Violette, who worked her mistress’s hair into braided coils, Evelyn sat as still as she could. But it was a difficult effort. Though it was hardly past sunrise, there was a great clamoring just outside her door.
The men were about to depart. Belongings were being carried...instructions were being given. And among all of the commotion, a household was still in need of keeping. Everyone was preparing for morning Mass, and then breakfast. But who would have an appetite on such a day?
She could feel the weight of sadness upon her. It forced down the corners of her mouth, and she knew that no amount of effort would return the smile to her lips. When Violette had come to wake her, the burden of sorrow had kept Evelyn pressed to her bed. Thoughts of Simon saddened her...and rallied her at the same time.
What manner of wife would she be if she thought only of herself? What selfish sort of creature would lie about, wallowing in their own misery, and not have the fortitude to bid him a proper farewell?
Violette must have sensed her lady’s trouble. The young girl was quiet and shy, saying very little except in response to questions. But she paused now in her work, speaking in a meek tone of voice.
“Peut-être son voyage ne sera pas long, ma Dame. Il est le fond de vous. Peut-être il fera hâte de retourner.“
Perhaps his journey will not be long, my lady. He is fond of you. Perhaps he will make haste to return.
Evelyn gave sudden thought to Simon’s words of a few days past, when they had sat in the orchard together. He had told her that this journey was a simple gathering of nobles to discuss politics...really nothing more.
A surge of hope ran through her. She reached up to touch Violette’s hand, thanking her.
“Je vous remercie, Violette. Qui aide à penser ainsi.”
The maidservant smiled kindly, hurrying to finish her work so that Evelyn could be on her way.
Despite the renewal of hope, given by Violette’s words of encouragement, Evelyn felt swallowed up by the melancholy hanging over the house. As she knelt beside Simon during Mass, hardly a word was spoken...by him, or anyone else, except for the priest. Her mother sat in a chair, with Guy kneeling beside her. She had not seen them since the afternoon before, and their expressions were a shared mask of unhappiness. The feeling was shared by Thea and Lucien, who knelt beside Simon and Evelyn. The only one in the room who seemed beyond the sadness was Owen, although he seemed to be enduring some misery of his own. Though he was groomed and tidy as usual, he looked quite wretched when viewed more closely. His eyes were bloodshot, as though he had not slept. He seemed to be in terrible pain, at times furiously rubbing his temples. She thought to ask him what was wrong. But her concerns were with Simon. Her brother would endure without her interference.
After a tense and quiet breakfast, the dreaded moment came. The Duke led the way, walking out to the front courtyard. The reality of everything began to fall on Evelyn. The Duke’s carriage, surrounded by his servants as well as his hounds, stood in wait. Guy, Lucien, and Simon’s horses were prepared. All that remained was the goodbye. The servants stood in observance as Basil made his farewells to Guy and Cassia, and to Evelyn, Thea, and Owen. He then climbed into his carriage, while the other men took their moments for last words.
Each couple stood a distance apart from the other, each saying goodbye in their own way. A groom held Simon’s horse, standing just behind the Duke’s carriage. Simon stood beside his mount. He held Evelyn’s hand, caressing it gently. In the light of day, in front of others, they were not permitted more. The tension was strong between them. He longed to embrace her...to take her in his arms and relish the taste of her lips. She wanted the same. It was so evident in the way she looked at him. There was a deep longing in her blue eyes...a spark that stirred his own feelings of longing.
And yet, she was oddly stoic in her behavior. He had expected a wave of tears to be shed. Last night, she had pleaded for him to stay...and it had taken little convincing to make him do so. But this morning, beneath the sadness in her expression, there was a sense of calm. He wondered at the change.
“I see a difference in you, my lady. There is a light in your eyes. Tell me, Evelyn. What causes it?”
She looked down at his fingers as they held her right hand. With her left, she brushed her fingertips gently over his. “I am filled with hope,” she replied. “Hope of your return.” Taking his hand, she held it against her heart. “I will pray for it with every breath I take.”
His leaned closer to her. His words were spoken with a soft tenderness. “I will always return to you.”
More words formed on his tongue...words of affection, of caring. Of love.
He knew it now. He had fallen, madly and deeply. She had made him love her without trying. How had she so easily conquered him? He could not understand it...nor could he express in words what he felt so profoundly. He feared to attempt it, afraid he would be reduced to a stammering fool, and standing this way before her, he was too near to making that error. He could feel his resolve weakening...and slowly, he pulled his hand from hers. It was best to go now, before his discipline crumbled. As he climbed up in the saddle, he watched her as she stroked his horse’s neck. She spoke gently to the animal.
“Carry him safely on his journey. I will see you well-rewarded for it. I promise.”
She lifted her eyes to Simon one last time...and they were shining with unshed tears. She stepped back, her eyes still holding his. It was impossible to remain this way, knowing what he had to do, but struggling with a relentless desire to do what he wanted to do. He was grateful when his father’s carriage moved, for it gave him the motivation he needed to begin his difficult task. Giving his horse the heel, he rode away without looking back. To look back was to see her in pain, and it was an image already branded on his heart. It would be with him from this very moment on, until he was on his way back to her, and he needed no reminder of it. It was enough...more than enough...to feel it.