Midsummer moon, p.26
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       Midsummer Moon, p.26

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Merlin turned on her. “You don't understand, Duchess. No one here understands!"

  "I understand the difference between a person's own worth and the things that person is trying to accomplish. Achievements are things, Merlin—they're not the heart and soul that make you who you are."

  "How can you say that?” Merlin cried. She spread her arms wildly and began to pace again. “Duchess May, have you never dreamed? Have you never wished to see what even the smallest bird can see? To take the gift—to learn the secret that's been right before our eyes since the world began!” She crushed her hands into fists and lowered her voice to passionate softness, staring into the fire. “It is what I am. The machine in the east ballroom will fly. I know it will. I've spent all my life building it. It is my heart and my soul, Duchess. And no one ... no one is going to take it away from me."

  Chapter 17

  Ransom sanded the last of his letters a little more hurriedly than usual. A smile played around the corners of his mouth, though he tried to maintain a dignified gravity as long as Collett still lingered for the out-going correspondence.

  After a fortnight's absence, there was an impressive pile of work waiting. One week had been wasted while he'd been dosed into oblivion by his well-meaning but half-witted physician and relatives. The next week—after he'd shaken off the effects of the opiate—he'd gone directly to London, not taking any chances on further delay with the speaking box. The secret briefings had proceeded quite satisfactorily, and Ransom was in an exultant mood.

  As a self-disciplinary measure, directly after breakfast this morning he had come to his study to deal with the most pressing matters, only slightly disappointed that Merlin had slept late and missed the morning meal. He'd been looking forward to surprising her with his pre-dawn return.

  It was just as well, he thought. At least he knew she was getting her proper rest and not driving herself to exhaustion over that damned flying folly of hers.

  He smiled. Not that the aviation machine would be a problem between them any longer. The answer had come to him somewhere in those narcotic dreams, though it had taken Ransom several days of clear-headed thinking in London to realize it.

  He would let her finish her flying machine. He would encourage it. And when she was ready, he would hire someone else to fly it.

  It was so simple.

  At breakfast, the table had been empty except for Ransom. Not even Woodrow, who was usually up and about quite early enough to breakfast with his uncle. Ransom shook his head. His mouth twisted in rue. Travelers who arrived home a day early should not expect a rousing welcome. What matter if his throat hurt from a full day's arguing at Whitehall and his mouth still tasted of road dust and his eyes felt gritty and his back ached from driving until four a.m.? The horses in the stable probably felt better than he did.

  But the smile still tugged at the corner of his mouth, widening when a beady black nose and a pair of solemn eyes regarded him from inside the deep-sided stationery box as he lifted the lid. “Good morning,” he said. “How do you do?” He nodded at the hedgehog that huddled in the depths of the box. “Why, yes indeed, I had quite a successful trip, thank you! And I quite agree, the road south of Sevenoaks is atrocious. I've written a letter to the commissioners just this morning. Oh, you'd like to sign it, would you? Come out then—careful there, we don't want another unfortunate incident, do we? Now—paw in the inkwell. Quite. Just there. Excellent, excellent. That should command their attention immediately. And Collett undoubtedly has a handkerchief available if you'd like to clean off the ink."

  "Will you be retiring for a rest, Your Grace?” The secretary extended a square of plain white linen. “I fear you're exhausted from the journey."

  "No, whatever makes you think so?” Ransom grinned, flexing his arm. Some soreness still lingered. The plaguey dizziness had vanished, leaving only a slight tendency to tire more easily than he ought. But this morning that trace of fatigue meant nothing. He stood up and walked to the door, pausing with his hand on the knob. Collett tarried by the desk, examining his ink-stained handkerchief.

  "The housekeeper will have a replacement for you, I'm sure,” Ransom said. “And when you've copied and posted all this, why don't you take a week's holiday, my man? We both need the rest."

  Collett looked up. “Your Grace?"

  "Oh, I'm quite serious. A week should do nicely, but if you'll leave your direction with Mrs. Tidwell I'll have her notify you if I decide to extend it to a fortnight. With full compensation for you, of course."

  "Collett cleared his throat, not quite managing to sound as if being given a week-long paid holiday on a moment's notice was an everyday commonplace in Ransom's employ. “Certainly, Your Grace. I will make sure to do so."

  "Good day to you, then."

  Ransom strolled out into the corridor, feeling rather like a child who had just given himself the day off from school. He stuck his hand in his pocket and stroked the small velvety box there, tracing the embossed name of London's finest jeweler. He visualized for the thousandth time a face with a dreamy, sweet smile. He was being foolish, he knew—foolish and besotted and enormously pleased with himself for falling in love with a muddled miss and her preposterous ways.

  He paused at the foot of the staircase. It was after eleven. He'd left word with the head footman to send her to him when she came down to breakfast. He pursed his lips, feeling impatient, wondering if it would be too obviously fatuous to have a maid sent up to wake her.

  It was hard, being a grown man with suddenly juvenile impulses. He crushed the desire to yell up the stairs a loud demand for her to appear immediately, bedamned to her state of dress. Or undress.

  He grinned to himself. Really, the less dress the better. He drummed his fingers on the carved newelpost and sauntered into the hall, feeling about seventeen years old.

  His boots echoed on the marble floor, loud in the churchlike silence. He stopped in the center, looking around at the huge stands of candlelabra—taller by far than he was—and at the laughing statues of nymphs and satyrs lined along the wall. Where the bloody hell had everyone gone? Two footmen stood at attention beside the great front doors, but Ransom was damned if he was going to ask his servants where all his family and guests had got off to.

  It was as he stood there in the massive silence of the Great Hall that he heard the first faint shouts. He turned his head toward the doors.

  The footmen stood unmoving, eyes cast down. Ransom saw one of them tilt his head a little, sliding a glance toward the open window to his right. The shouting came again, louder. Ransom strode to the window.

  Outside, the immense courtyard was empty. But people were shouting, somewhere. He could hear them, long, joyous cheers that floated closer and closer. Suddenly, out on the lawns beyond the court, where the ground sloped gently down to a stream and then pitched up again to the sharp brow of a hill, figures appeared at the top of the rise.

  They were running toward the house, still too far away to recognize, mostly men, with a scattering of ladies in hiked-up skirts. A pony—Ransom identified Woodrow's little black mare—cantered gaily through the crowd, its rider turned back and waving a tricorne.

  Ransom squinted, caught between a frown and a smile at this strange procession. He was about to turn away toward the door when the crowd split into two groups and opened a wide path for a horse and rider that burst over the crown of the hill.

  It was Shelby, his blaze of hair and his powerful blood-bay stallion unmistakable, racing hellbent across the summit and down the steep hillside. And behind him...

  Behind him rose an apparition Ransom could never have imagined in his deepest, deluded fantasies.

  Like a monstrous white bird it appeared, dwarfing Shelby and the crowd below it, an immense pale shape that loomed for an instant on the horizon and then resolved into wings as the thing exploded into full view, launched from the hill's crest to mount the air.

  Ransom made a wordless sound of horror. He did not wait for the footmen, b
ut threw the window wide and vaulted the low sill, hitting the stone pavement at a run.

  The enormous object was climbing into the air at a wild pitch. It seemed to hover, like a monstrous demonic angel, casting a shadow that rippled over the crowd and sailed across the trees and lawn. A taut rope, a flimsy string at this distance, connected it for another moment with Shelby's racing mount, and then that fell loose, leaving the thing free to soar as the stallion shied and came to a lathered halt.

  Ransom halted on the top step, frozen, staring at the flying machine as it rose and tilted in a graceful sweep over the stream, angling to pass south of the house. He could see Merlin, suspended between the wings, her skirts pressed against her legs by the wind and her features barely discernable. He lifted his arms, shouting.

  The apparatus tilted again in the other direction, soaring back toward the house, well clear of the tall chimneys that lined the roof. She was close enough now that he could hear her voice. She was laughing. Laughing! Ransom shouted at her again and again. He could not see her face for the tears of panic in his eyes.

  He was still shouting when she was almost overhead; still shouting when it happened—the steady wind gusted sharply and the machine slewed sideways. He heard a loud pop, and the great spread of wing collapsed. He watched it turn over in the air like a broken bird catapulted in a strange, slow tumble. It dropped. A tangle of canvas and wood hit the court in front of him with a sound he knew would echo through his blackest nightmares every night for the rest of his life.

  He heard what he had been crying then, heard his own shouts turned into sobs: No no no come down come down—a litany that rasped in his throat as he ran in a dream toward the wreckage of wire and cloth that lay on the gravel court.

  He reached her first, before anyone else, lying as she was with her eyes closed and her face all bloody from the streaming cut above her temple. “No,” he was saying, “no, no...” He could not seem to stop himself. All through it, through stauching the bright blood with the cravat he ripped from around his throat; through lifting her hand and finding her pulse, weak and irregular; through checking her arms and legs and cradling her head on his knees. No no no...

  Someone was talking to him, hands on his shoulders, pulling him away. He resisted, throwing them off fiercely, recognizing Shelby's appalled face like an afterthought. Ransom turned away from his brother and bent over Merlin's limp form, still crooning his endless denial like a broken lullaby. No no no this has not happened this is not real come down come down come back to me.

  There was the doctor then, and something to carry her on—a crowd of shocked faces that parted before them. Ransom held her hand. He clung to it. It felt small in his, and cold. Ice-cold. He snarled like an animal at anyone who touched him or tried to coax him away.

  They took her to his bed and laid her there, a small, feeble shape under the towering canopy of state. He had a vague idea that he had issued the orders himself, that they'd wanted to take her upstairs where he could not go. At this moment, it would have made him retch to climb even as high as the first landing that overlooked the hall. He felt near to being sick anyway; he had to breathe in short, harsh gulps to keep himself standing on his own feet.

  He held on to Merlin's hand. He was afraid to let go, afraid that when he lifted it again there would be no fluttering pulse at all. His mother's face swam out of the crowd around the bed. She was speaking to him, frowning up into his eyes, but the words seemed soundless, as if there were a glass wall between him and everything real.

  "She's alive,” he said to his mother's image through the wall. “She's alive. I can feel her pulse."

  "...the doctor ... make room ... let go..."

  The disjointed pleading came to him in waves, like roaring oscillations with silence in between. “No,” he said. His own voice seemed so far away. “I won't let go."

  "Let Ransom ... hold her ... God's sake..."

  That was Shelby. The scene seemed to break up into kaleidoscope pieces, and re-formed with Ransom on the edge of the bed and the doctor on the other side, leaning over Merlin like a black-coated spider. There was a hand on Ransom's shoulder, a pressure and a presence at his back that was solid and real. He focused on that, knew somehow it was his brother though he could not see Shelby's face. It kept Ransom anchored, kept him from falling into shattered fragments when he lost the thread of Merlin's pulse for a long instant and then found it again.

  "Dislocated shoulder,” the doctor said.

  "Is that all? Then she'll be all right?” Their mother's voice was thin and trembling.

  The man said nothing. He leaned over and lifted Merlin's eyelids, one at a time. He laid the back of his hand against her cheek and then took a small pinch of her pale skin, watching it as he let go. He held sal volatile beneath her nose, so pungent that Ransom's lips curled from two feet away. He asked for water and sprinkled it over her face. He slapped her cheek lightly and spoke her name in a loud, questioning voice, asking her to wake up, to open her eyes and answer him. In the silence that followed, he pressed his fingers beneath her jaw and slipped a timepiece from his pocket. After a full minute, he looked up. He shook his head slowly. “Your Grace, I would advise you to send for her relatives as quickly as possible."

  A dark well seemed to open up in front of Ransom's eyes, a spinning blackness. He sat very still, bracing himself against his brother's hand.

  "Ransom?” Shelby prompted softly.

  "No,” he said. His voice sounded strange even to himself. “No, we won't do that."

  There was a little pause. He was aware that everyone in the room was looking at him. The blackness wheeled before his eyes, a spiraling void with the room and the audience around the edges, as if they peered at him down a long tunnel. He clutched Merlin's hand.

  "...severe concussion of the brain,” the doctor was saying. “Amazing if there is no skull fracture. With an injury this debilitating ... there is commonly a profound depression of the vital processes—the brain subsides into fatal torpor, the blood volume is reduced, the breathing is shallow, the body grows clammy. I could profess to have a cure; I could bleed her or mix an ammoniac solution to rub on her forehead, but I will not misrepresent our state of knowledge in cases of this sort. In truth—” He looked around the room. “I'm sorry. Very sorry. There is absolutely nothing useful I or any other medical gentleman can do."

  "She's alive,” Ransom repeated dully.

  "Yes, Your Grace. She is. But to fall from such a height ... I cannot hold out hope to you that she will ever wake again."

  His brother's fingers closed on his shoulder in a hard grip. Ransom looked toward Merlin, and found the blackness giving way to her face: blank, comatose, her forehead covered with his knotted, scarlet-soaked cravat and a raw scrape across one cheek that trickled blood in a dark web against the shocking white of her skin.

  Out of his deadened emotion, anger began to grow—a cold power, a force that expanded inside of him and gave him mastery of his own limbs again. He took a deep breath and stood up, shaking off Shelby's hand. “Where is Collett?"

  Someone opened the door. There was a small commotion, and a moment later the secretary stepped through. He glanced at the figure on the bed and then at Ransom, his lips white.

  "In the courtyard,” Ransom said. “The thing in the courtyard. I want everything cleared out of the ballroom and placed with it. Everything. Notes, models, tools, scraps ... everything."

  Mr. Collett drew a breath. “Yes, Your Grace."

  Ransom waited. When Collett did not move, he said, “Immediately, Mr. Collett."

  "Yes, Your Grace. And—and what shall I do when it is all placed there, Your Grace?"

  Ransom felt his rage do subtle work on his features, felt his mouth curl and his jaw grow tight. Something vicious rose in him, an inner roar of grief and fury that swelled and swelled until it made a rushing sound in his ears. He heard his own voice through it, like ice in the maelstrom.

  "Burn it,” he said. “Burn it, Mr. Colle
tt."

  Shelby came to him on the fourth day. Ransom was sitting near the shuttered windows in his room beneath the elaborate, aging curtains, staring at nothing.

  His brother paused, looking down at the still figure on the bed. He said nothing. After a long moment, he lifted his head and turned to Ransom.

  "Yes,” Ransom said in answer to the unspoken question on his brother's face. “She's dying."

  Shelby drew a breath and opened his mouth.

  Ransom interrupted. “It's not your fault."

  His gaze lingered on Merlin, on the sunken cheeks and eyes; the faint, faint rise and fall of her chest. At first there had still been hope. At first, there had been some small chance that she might recover, that the miraculous processes of nature might spontaneously overcome the concussion to her brain. It was not utterly impossible, the doctor said. He had heard of such. But it had been four days. Four days ... and she was dying now, not of the injury to her head, but from lack of the fluids and food her body needed.

  "It's my failing,” Ransom said. “My fault."

  Shelby came to the window. He leaned against the carved trim. “That is a pack of rubbish."

  Ransom closed his eyes. He felt dull, unable to face the blue intensity in his brother's eyes. “It doesn't matter."

  Shelby laughed harshly. “'It doesn't matter,'” he repeated. “Yes. I can see that you couldn't care less."

  "I don't blame you."

  "Look at me and say that."

  Ransom lifted his eyes. He tried to look at Shelby. He tried. But all he saw was the image of those great, white demon wings rising over the hill behind his brother's stallion. “Damn us both to hell,” he muttered, and looked out the window. “I should have known. I should have stopped her."

  "I did know, and I didn't even try to stop her. I helped in every way I could."

  Why? Ransom asked in silence. Why? Why? Why?

  In uncanny answer, Shelby said, “Because I wanted to cross you. Because I always want to battle you. Oh, God...” His voice began to shake. “Ransom..."

 
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