Through the car window, Lord Ambrose Sly watched the sky brewing a darkness that was as old as the land around him. A banshee whispered through the tyres, hissing on the wet road. He knew that once they rounded the big bend at the top of the hill, and before they ran down into the village, he’d see the house. That great big mansion, that mausoleum that had birthed and buried his ancestors for generation upon generation. And one day, it would bury him. He’d be reduced to nothing more than a portrait in the Long Gallery.
The lights of The Peacock Inn flickered in the fog drifting across the road like whisps trying to call him away. They swirled, first hidden behind clumps of trees, a low hill, and then dancing ahead once more. His old, tired reflection swam in the car window as he watched. The face stared unblinkingly back at him. Not even the echo of his own face had a kind glance for him.
He shifted in the back seat of the car. Home? What did he have to return home for? His family’s greatest interest was his death. For some of them, if not all of them, it was long overdue. He had no illusions that any of them liked him. They were, if truth be told, exactly what he had made them.
One night, that’s all he asked for. One when there were no demands, no scratchings, no unkindnesses. But then, a grim smile twisted his lips, where would be the fun in that? Still, one night when no one was plotting might make a nice change.
Chandler could pull into The Peacock Inn and help him climb from the car. There, after one of the inn’s plain, but delicious dinners, he would climb the paisley-carpeted, narrow stairs to the rooms above. To sleep, undisturbed, in one of those dark-beamed, low ceilinged, womb-like places for as long as he desired. Until tomorrow’s sun was high in the sky. Until hunger drove him out, and not that officious, disgustingly cheerful nurse.
There were too many of those in his life now. Was it the same one? He didn’t know, never paid them any attention. He never asked their names. They got his money; that was enough. Besides, wasn’t taking care of family meant to be done by family? All that was wrong with him was age. Bound to have a dicky heart when you’re old.
Chandler would do as he was told. Good man, Chandler. But Lord Sly knew his son, Henry, would make life difficult for the chauffeur when they finally did return. Of course, Chandler might phone the house anyway and let Crabbe know where they were. Probably would. naturally, Crabbe would then tell the family. That was a butler’s job.
Even more irritating, a call like that might bring Henry, if not Amelia and Callie, down to the Inn to coax him home. He couldn’t be bothered. It had been a long day.
He rested his head back on the comfortable seat of the Phantom. The mist left blurred trails on the glass smudging the lights of the Inn winked as they swept past. He closed his pale blue eyes and let the night seep into his bones.
The car jerked. Flung heavily against the door, the old man awoke with a start. The tyres screamed.
Chandler swore as he wrestled the big machine. The car swerved again, skidding on the wet, narrow road. The brakes locked and slid. With a rib-cracking thud a body bounced on the car’s bonnet. A face smacked the windscreen hard. A spider web of cracks in the glass splintered away from it. Startlingly blue eyes, wide with horrified shock stared straight at Lord Sly. The car slammed to a halt. The face vanished. The body hit the road with a dull thump.
In the sudden silence the hot metal of the engine ticked nervously. Warm tendrils of vapour rose from the bonnet into the cold night air. The moment seemed blank, confused. Lord Sly blinked. What had just happened? That face! Had he been awake. Or was it part of some half-remembered dream.
Chandler turned quickly. “Are you all right, my Lord?”
Lord Ambrose nodded. He realised he was holding his breath and let it go in a shaky sigh. Chandler, tugging his jacket closer and his cap further down against the biting wind, went to investigate.
Ambrose hauled himself upright, leaning forward to watch. The body had rolled beyond the car and lay on its side, twisted at the waist, its face open to the sky above. The mist touched it with gentle fingers. The man was wearing an army overcoat, torn and filthy. The kind of coat a tramp would wear.
“Is he alive?” a voice called from out of the fog. A clink and a squeak, a clink and a squeak announced the arrival of a man with a bicycle.
“Not sure,” called Chandler. “He came out of nowhere.”
“Ah, bad night for it,” said the cyclist, lowering his machine down on the side of the road and coming over to look at the body. The man had obviously lived on the road a long time. He stank.
The big car’s lights illuminated the planes of his face. It had the grime of days unwashed, the shadow of meals missed, and bright new blood upon it. Even then, the face was a distinctive one. Not easily forgotten.
Chandler frowned and glanced briefly back at the car. He pressed his fingers against the man’s throat, feeling for a pulse. It was there, but very faint. He heard the car door open and footsteps behind him. He stood quickly and stepped between the old man and the body.
“My Lord, it’s cold out here.”
“Never mind that, Chandler. How is he? Is he alive?” Leaning on the chauffer’s arm, he looked into the man’s face. His hand convulsed. He gasped and staggered. Chandler swiftly put his arm around him and held him steady.
“Please, my Lord, let me help you back to the car.”
“Chandler! It’s…” Lord Ambrose reached out a wavering hand to touch the unconscious man’s face. It was too far down. His fingers, his body quivered with the effort and shock. “Put him in the car. Quickly. We must get him home and fetch the doctor to him.”
Chandler helped Lord Ambrose back into the Rolls and went back to the tramp.
“Shouldn’t really be moving him,” said the cyclist.
“I know. But he insists. Mind giving me a hand? We can use that coat as a sort of stretcher. I think.”
Between the two of them, and trying to be as careful as they could, they maneuvered the injured man onto the back seat. Lord Sly took the man’s bleeding head onto his lap, ignoring Chandler’s protests, and covered him with the rug.
Chandler having thanked the stranger for his help, climbed back into the driver’s seat and put the car into gear.
With a fine, almost translucent hand, Lord Ambrose Sly carefully brushed the dirty hair back from the unconscious man’s face. “You’ve come home,” he whispered.
The chauffeur’s eyes snapped up in the rear-view mirror. If Lord Ambrose had been watching, he would have seen an eloquent look on Chandler’s face, one that said that taking this tramp home was a bad idea. A very bad idea.
Copyright Elaine Dodge 2014