Without further ado, may I present for your enjoyment, Part One in The Master of Delgrade Heath.
Chapter One: The Master of Delgrade HeathApple trees, arms naked and skeletal and shaking in the wind, hedged the yard on the southern side. It would not do for anyone heading up the road to be able to see into the yard. Why, Lisette could not decide. It was not as if there was anything to hide. Beyond those apple trees there was only a stony expanse of tepid ground, cobbled now with frozen lumps of mud and clay. A half-dozen stubborn weeds clung to the cobbles and quivered under the harsh embrace of the cold wind.Bare and cold and severe, all of it. Lisette sighed and her breath made a dismal fog on the window pane. The patch shrank, whiter and whiter, then disappeared altogether as if it were afraid of being reprimanded for smirching the otherwise spotless panes. Lisette pressed her fingers to her temples and turned from the bleak aspect. Christmas as Delgrade Heath would be dull indeed. She wandered to the piano and ran her fingers over the yellowed ivory of the keys, not daring to strike a single note, lest. Mr. Delgrade or his housekeeper hear.Delgrade Heath had not always presented such a tiresome picture. Lisette recalled, in some vague corner of her crowded memory, a week during the summer of her fifth year when she and Mama had come to this countryside. There had been fruit on the apple-trees then, and grass in the yard. The barn housed a milk-cow and a new litter of kittens. And it was not only in the outdoors that they change had been visible. The spirit of the house had been lighter and airier but now—Lisette plunked a jarring chord on the piano out of defiance and turned to see how the household would take it.From the adjoining parlor came a fluttering, flouncing sound like pigeons’ wings, and a stout grey-silken figure bustled through the door.“Lisette Allenham? Is that you making noise?”Lisette frowned, a dark glint shimmering in her eyes. “If you mean to ask if I was playing the piano, then yes ma’am. I am guilty. Lock me in the stocks if you will.”Gardenia O’Talley stroked her grey silk and shook her head till her stone-colored curls bounced. “I don’t understand why you can’t see Mr. Delgrade needs perfect peace and quiet. You who claimed to be so adept at nursing ought to be able to comprehend something that simple.”Lisette stood, hands folded with placid resign, but heart thundering. “My charges,” she murmured, “usually want to be made well.” Without giving Mrs. O’Talley a chance to reply, Lisette stormed out of the room. Her boots made indignant retorts on the spotless black and white tiles, daring the echoes to awaken and share her frustration. “I don’t see how one is to accomplish anything if the patient doesn’t wish to live.”She cast a glance at the grandfather clock standing sentinel in the corner near the curving stairwell. Three twenty-eight, and two minutes till Mr. Delgrade would be expecting her presence in his boudoir. She rummaged through the apothecary cabinet in the dark, beeswax-scented alcove, and brought forth a bottle of lavender oil. If he didn’t have a headache she knew she would by the end of an hour of reading in a room lit by a single greasy candle.In accepting the position of nurse at Delgrade Heath, Lisette admitted she had not expected her services to be so little desired. She had had difficult patients before but none who flouted her authority with such constant and pointed displays of perversity. The Delgrade Heath of her childhood had sounded like the ideal place for a young lady, worn out with hospital work, to recover. Of course there was Mr. Delgrade to attend to—but how much trouble could a wealthy old gentleman be?Indeed, how much trouble could he be? Lisette almost laughed at the question now. Trouble! It began the moment she had arrived at the Heath. Mrs. O’Talley took her heavy woolen cloak and eyed her travelling dress.“I’m afraid you’ll have to change into something a bit more formal before you see Mr. Delgrade.”She had felt her blood rising. “I was not aware Mr. Delgrade was well enough to care about such matters.”Mrs. O’Talley, all stone and propriety from the tips of her square, block-like boots to the stolid contours of her figure, had granted her a cold smile. “Mr. Delgrade is always well enough to care about such matters. You cannot stand in his presence for a minute bespattered as you are with mud and grime and who knows what.”Lisette Allenham was not accustomed to being spoken to in such a way. “I will not change my dress just to please Mr. Delgrade. However, I am weary and untidy and I will change my attire only because I wish to.”“No need to be haughty, Miss Allenham. We don’t flaunt airs and graces here, I’ll have you know.”Ah, but they did. Mrs. O’Talley’s every movement, glance, word bespoke an air of Propriety. But Mr. Delgrade was worst of all—The sentinal’s chimes sounding the half-hour jolted Lisette back to the present. She tucked the bottle of lavender oil into her pocket, then checked her reflection in the hall mirror. Crisp white blouse neatly tucked into her crimson skirt, white apron tied around her slender waist, hair tucked beneath her nurse’s cap and hardly a curl escaping. Mr. Delgrade would have to be pleased for she couldn’t, and wouldn’t do any better.Lisette took the stairs one at a time, trying to extend the precious moments before she would have to be locked away in that horrid sickroom with Mr. Delgrade, reading from one the endless Encyclopedia Britannica. She passed through the long, dark corridor, brushing past one of the relics of Mr. Delgrade’s life before his illness. Lisette had never seen a house more filled with artifacts and oddities. At first they had beguiled the weary hours of watching away, but gharish masks and gawking idols make for gauche companions when the shadows come out, and now she turned with a shudder from the ghostly touch of a South Sea Islander’s beaded headdress.Mr. Delgrade’s door was before her now. Lisette put a slender hand to the knob and bit her lip, drawing deep breaths of the cool dark air before interring herself in the sepulcher-like aura of the sickroom. She stepped over the threshold and surrendered herself to the perpetual gloom. The old question surfaced in her mind: “How much trouble can a wealthy old gentleman be?” That was the other thing that had put her relationship with Delgrade Heath on a new footing. For Mr. Delgrade was not an old gentleman at all.Lisette approached the wing-chair near the fire and cleared her throat quietly. A wan, pale hand beckoned her forward. Lisette took a seat on a low bench near the hearth and turned her eyes to her master. All the benefits of wealth and rank had wasted in the person of Cyril Delgrade. He possessed all the graces of beauty, talent, and wit in a perverted state, and Lisette despised him for it.It was his eyes that she had noticed first. Eyes that, in another man and another life could have been warm and jovial, flickered with an unhealthy, fitful light. They were ever changing, ever vigilant eyes that seemed to notice everyone and everything closely. Mr. Delgrade’s chin, if tempered by an active life would have shown him to be a confident, reliable young man, but was instead set in a constant, defiant square. The figure, if encouraged ever so slightly, showed promise of being strong and supple, but under the influence of pampered illness had relaxed until Mr. Delgrade was nothing but the a sculpture of what might have been, a portrait of dissipated youth and vitality.“Late again Miss Allenham? And how do you expect an invalid to live if his nurse will not administer his physic on time?” Mr. Delgrade’s mouth curved in a half-smile. It was the one part of his wasted face that had not been changed by ill-humor.Lisette stood and fingered through the host of glass bottles crowding the side-table. “It is not the nurse’s fault that the clock in the hall is three minutes tardy. One might suppose the patient would speak to his housekeeper rather than berate his nurse.”“Has the old O’Talley vexed you again, shrew?”Lisette ignored the question put forth and turned to Cyril Delgrade. “I had heard you were a gentleman. I was also told this was a fine house. I see you are a liar as well.”“Aha! This fire is warmer than that you stand by. Come throw sparks at me and see if you can light any flame of indignation in this piece of kindling before you.” Mr. Delgrade laughed, delighted at causing anyone to feel a sliver of the sourness plaguing his every moment. He motioned to Lisette to bring the bottle she held in her hand. “So you do not count Delgrade Heath a fine house? Tell me why if you will, Miss Allenham.”It was less a request and more a command, but Lisette poured the medicine into a spoon with a steady hand and held it forth. “Perhaps in form, the Heath may be considered fine. But everything in it is twisted and cold with no more heart to it than the stones it was hewn from. Yes, there is elegance, but no beauty. There is provision, but no comfort. It is less a home than some hovels I have entered.”Mr. Delgrade lounged back in his chair, his midnight-blue smoking jacket a painful contrast against the pallor of his skin. “Ah but she is sharp on you, Old Beauty,” he said, casting his eyes about the room as if caressing a beloved pet. “Still, what care I if she thinks it is less than the slums she came from? Miss Allenham was not bred to fine tastes. We must forgive her for that.” The Parthean shaft leaving his bow, Mr. Delgrade took the spoon from Lisette and swallowed the contents, then tossed it on the tray at his side. It clattered against the other accoutrements of silver with a sound like tiny bells.Lisette clenched her fists, a sudden desire to strike this man almost overcoming her composure. When she was again mistress of her emotions, Lisette spoke in a low voice. “As I was not employed here to discuss architecture, and as you seem to have done with the topic, may I begin our reading?”An impatient gesture was the only reply, so Lisette moved to the ornate cherry-wood shelves on the left side of the fireplace. Her fingers caressed the embossed titles of the books. Ivanhoe, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Bleak House… if only Mr. Delgrade’s tastes followed her own, these long afternoons in the sickroom would pass on swifter wings. Like a mule following the same track it had long practiced, Lisette’s slender fingers passed these lighter pieces of literature and found the resting place of the dusty encyclopedias. In the three weeks she had been at the Heath, they had made their way to “D”. “Devonshire” would be today’s topic if she was not much mistaken.“Shall I light the candle for you, Miss Allenham?” The drawling tones drifted from the darkness of the patient’s corner.“As you please, sir. It makes little different, the candles are so poor. Mayn’t we even use one of the white tapers?”“And deny me the pleasure of seeing you squint and stumble like a sort of quaint mole? Never!”Lisette smoothed her skirt as she sat down. Her position at Delgrade Heath was so peculiar; she was still unsure what she thought of it. It was fraught with trouble and vexations, yet the salary this sick man paid was worth far more than she could get from any other nursing position. Perhaps he was ignorant that the common wage now was nearly half the price his thin fingers moved the pen to write on her weekly check. Nevertheless, Lisette knew she earned every penny of it. She ought to be paid an inheritance every time she held her tongue in the face of Gardenia O’Talley’s all-encompassing “propriety.” She shook off the idle musings and turned the pages of the encyclopedia. A musty, ticklish smell like damp leaves rose from the insides of the book as if the words were rotting from their long days of solitude. As Lisette turned her gaze upon her patient, her mind flew to the creatures they had read about under “Caves” in volume “C” of the Encyclopedia. Blind, white creatures, sickly and lethargic from growing in the darkness.“Excuse me Mr. Delgrade, but I must give you my professional opinion.”“On what topic? My house? Ah, but I didn’t know they were letting women into the bricklayer-departments these days. What is the world coming to?” The mouth curved again into a teasing smile, but the eyes were languid as ever.“I was only thinking what an improvement it would be for you to sit in the sunlight for an hour or two each morning. Stay in this tomb and you’re like to turn into one of those newts or frogs I was reading to you about last week.”Mr. Delgrade picked at the gold-stitching on his cuff-sleeve and shook his head. “The blind leading the blind, eh?”“I am perfectly serious, Mr. Delgrade.”“And seriousness does not become your face, Miss Allenham. You are not so pretty you can spoil what looks you have by frowning. Get along with the reading and we’ll have done with it.”This was her moment. Lisette summoned her most winning smile and leaned toward the ill gentleman across from her. “Then you are wearied with the encyclopedia too? Let us pretend I am your nurse on the literary field as well—I prescribe a daily dose of Shakespeare to vary the monotony.”“Can’t abide the man with his everlasting tragedies and poisons and daggers.”“But he wrote comedies as well, you know.”“He wrote nothing that could remotely amuse me, Miss Allenham.”“Because you refuse to be amused, Mr. Delgrade.”“Que Sera, Sera, Senorita.”Lisette pressed her lips together, than cast her eyes on the page. “Devonshire. County of England. Principle trade—oh really, Mr. Delgrade, must we?”“I don’t care.”“You are the most provoking patient it has ever been my duty to care for.”“And you will now say you hate me, I suppose?” The dark eyes glimmered, daring her to try.“Frankly, I despise you, for you shut out anyone and anything that could ever possibly cure your despondency.”Mr. Delgrade laughed bitterly and put a glass of wine to his lips. He then swirled the contents of the glass, his eyes focused on the depths of the draught as if seeking something therein. “Despondency—is that what the doctors have labeled it? Funny, they told me I suffered from chronic--”“I was not only trained in medicines, Mr. Delgrade,” Lisette said. She took a breath to quell the fountain of memories welling up in her mind, then continued. “And I have not lived one-and-twenty years to mistake what is emotional for what is physical. A heart complaint is much harder to cure, but it is only impossible when the sufferer refuses the treatments.”“And now you will preach to me, Miss Allenham? For shame. I thought a nurse was supposed to make her patient feel better, not weary him with her everlasting piety.”“As you wish sir. On to Devonshire, then?”He stopped her with a motion of his sickly hand. “That is almost worse than the preaching. I am in a talkative mood today, and you shall serve me best by hearing me out.”“Yes sir.” Lisette smoothed back her hair involuntarily, making sure she was as neat as Mr. Delgrade could wish. He was in a strange mood and seemed fussier than he’d been since the first day they’d met. “I am ready to listen, sir.”Cyril Delgrade shook a heavy lock of black hair from his eyes and crossed his arms. In the silence following, Lisette could plainly hear the rattling of his lungs whenever he drew breath. Mr. Delgrade may have had an emotional complaint, but his health was by no means robust. Indeed, Lisette’s trained eyes looked with secret misgivings at the hectic color mounting in his cheeks and the brightness of his gaze.“I have not always been the wreck and ruin you see before you now, Miss Allenham.”She nodded, wondering if a reply was required to the confession her employer made.“There was a time, not too distant when I was as full of health and good intentions as you. Ah yes, do start and give a shudder, for look at the goblin I’ve turned into, and see that you don’t follow suit.” He tapped one long finger against his chest repeatedly, each tap a death-blow to the vigor so long behind him.Lisette folded her hands in her lap, waiting in the awful silence for the continuation of the story. What a queer man Mr. Delgrade was—sometimes, even now, she thought a part of him wanted to live, to regain, somehow those lost years. But the next moment the present Mr. Delgrade would return in full form, careless and defiant, weary and sullen.“They all thought I’d turn out as fine a man as my father was—I believe you knew him, Miss Allenham?” An almost friendly light shone from his dark eyes, and Lisette smiled encouragement at him.“I knew him for one week of my life as a five year old girl. He was a very fine man indeed.”“And I am not much like him, am I?” Her patient’s brow was crumpled as if in mental pain over some great loss.“Not very, sir.”“No, not very much at all. I believe I was born to be a failure, Miss Allenham. I killed my mother, you know.”Lisette could not suppress the horrified gasp that broke forth at his words. He waved a hand at her, impatient and disgusted. “Not in that way, you goose. She died when I was twelve from the same disease she nursed me to health from, and I believe my father looked at me askance thereafter.”“But it was not your fault.”A rueful smile twitched at the corner of his mouth, and for the first time in their whole acquaintance, Lisette thought she detected a hint of some nobler sentiment than self-pity in his hollow eyes. “No, perhaps not. But we often become what others think of us. I grew up feeling like a murderer. I crept through this house with an anvil of guilt on either shoulder, and the housemates shunned me. I was sent off to school again, and soon after received word that my father had died. Delgrade Heath was shut up and I remained abroad.”Lisette twined her fingers through each other, compassion for her patient coursing through her heart with painful precision. It would be best not to speak at all, lest she break the spell seeming to hang over Cyril Delgrade. He was a different man, at present. Softer and nobler, somehow. What had ruined such a promising man?“You are probably wondering how I turned into the monster I am at present?”Lisette shifted in her seat and cleared her throat. “I do not require any satisfaction on that point, unless you are entirely willing to give it. Remember, sir. I did not request your confessions. I am only a listener.”The words broke the spell and the color faded from Mr. Delgrade’s cheek. The light left his eyes and his brows brooded again over the caverns of his eyes. “You are right. It is not important, and furthermore, it is not what Mrs. O’Talley would call ‘propriety’ to speak of those days gone by. Tell me, witch, what you have done to me to make me tell you such things?”“Really sir, I would have been happier to read the Enclyclopedia.”“Devonshire is more entertaining than the Death of the Dashing Delgrade, eh? But don’t answer that. I have only left to thank you for enduring my ramblings. And do set that picture straight. It’s been torturing me this half-hour.”Lisette rose and tidied the room without speaking. Compassion fought within her heart for the place disgust held. It was as if a corner of the curtain of gloom surrounding Delgrade Heath had been lifted and she could see the tiniest bit of what had enacted this great change at the estate. It was a frightening, somber change, and she wondered if her heart could bear the strain of Knowing.