‘Sir,’ said Eagle to Sir Walter, when he’d finally consented to see him, ‘will you not tell me what ails you? I know I’ve no right to be told, but there are few to match my credentials for being your confessor. As your agent and steward these two years past, we have already shared so much, as well you know.’
The Baronet clasped his hand in a gesture of genuine warmth – a rare thing for a man of such determined dissimulation in everything he did. ‘‘Tis true you’ve been a loyal servant, and I thank you for it,’ he said, but the pain on his face remained as he added, ‘No doubt you have served me unwillingly at times, seeing little of that good in me that would make you wish to follow my example …’ – he stayed Eagle with his hand – ‘ …Don’t say anything, for I know it to be true. And you were right to think badly of me,’ he said, wagging his finger, ‘and I bear you no ill for thinking that way.’
‘Sir, I …’
‘Hear me out,’ he interrupted, without malice. ‘The preamble is almost read – aye, preamble, for I’m about to tell you what you wish to hear. But mark me well, you won’t like it.’
‘Try me,’ Eagle said.
‘Very well, I shall tell you, and you will know once for all what depths of depravity my life has plumbed.’
The dark incidents of which he spoke had transpired in the 1740s, when Sir Walter was in his teens and brother Benjamin not yet ten. One version of the story – the false one – Eagle had already. In this second, which was the true account, the setting was no longer the boys’ dormitory in an eminent public school, but the isolated playroom in the east wing of Horseford Hall. And instead of many players, there were just two, though the solitary prop on this sinister stage was the same – an open fire. Of two genteel brothers the elder was the bane of the younger’s life. And what a bane it was that made his victim toast bread with his bare hands, his only alternative the sword that was pricking his back. Day after day the cruelty continued, the elder boy impervious to his brother’s screams.
‘I delighted in giving him pain – of punishing him as cruelly as possible,’ said Sir Walter, looking Eagle in the eye to gauge the effect. He seemed to be searching for something, hoping for a kindred spirit. Then he said, with the same intense stare, ‘I did it less for the pleasure of hurting him, than for the tearful delight I felt afterwards at the rush of compassion. He never knew that I felt contrition, but I did, oh so very much.’
Eagle knew the feeling well. He too had been cruel in his youth, taken pleasure in the afterglow of hurting someone. But he had never been caught …
There’d been no one to hear Benjamin’s cries in the room at the end of the house. Hiding the visual signs, however, was not so easy. So the young Walter bullied Benjamin into keeping silent, to keeping his hands hidden at all times. Inevitably the truth was discovered, whereupon it was the boys’ father, Sir James Stanhope himself, who, desperate to keep what had happened a secret, did some bullying of his own on behalf of his heir. Any servant who spoke of the incident would never work again, or even find relief in the parish workhouse. He would see to it personally that their families starved.
‘And none did speak of it – till last week,’ said Sir Walter, with a sigh. ‘Of all the people to tell …’
‘Murgatroyd!’ Eagle broke in, grasping it all in a flash.
‘The very man,’ said Sir Walter, his tone resigned and fatalistic. How he came by the information was unimportant, though for the record it was the elderly cook Murgatroyd had employed. The woman had worked as a scullery-maid at Horseford Hall when Sir Walter and his brother were children. She knew it all – every last sordid detail. And now Murgatroyd knew it too, and had made it the basis of his blackmail. ‘In the hands of a man like that, such a weapon is devastating,’ said Sir Walter, pausing to sip the sherry Eagle had poured him. ‘Murgatroyd is a skilful operator, he knows where to apply his weapon for maximum pain. He knows my affairs too well, knows who I love and who loves me.’
‘Augusta,’ Eagle said, knowingly. ‘He has threatened to tell her all?’
‘All,’ said the Baronet, steering his tongue across his moistened lips. ‘I don’t care a blob of Nigger’s sperm what anyone else thinks of me, only her. John, I couldn’t bear it if she knew the truth. She dotes on her uncle, more, I sometimes think, than she dotes on me. Were she to discover that I, her father, was responsible for …’ Composing himself, he went on to say that the prospect of the truth coming out was too unthinkable to contemplate, which was why he’d agreed to the wily attorney’s terms.
‘But look what it’s done to you!’ Eagle said. ‘You’re but a shadow of your former self. He’s cut you down like a tree, drained you of all your sap. And do you honestly think that you’ll be free of him now? – that he’ll leave you alone. Of course he won’t. He’ll suck and suck till there is nothing left.’
The Baronet shrugged and suppressed a groan. ‘And what, pray, am I to do instead? – tell me that.’
There was only one thing he could do, said Eagle: tell Augusta the truth. He must bleed the ulcer he was harbouring, spill all the bad blood which, though it pained him much in the short-term, would be a price worth paying in the long. If she loved him she would forgive him, not immediately but eventually. ‘Believe me, sir,’ he beseeched him, ‘it’s the only way. Better to suffer hurt now, with hope for the future, than carry on as you are.’ He said that Augusta would understand that he’d been a mere boy at the time, that boys did wicked things but they didn’t stay wicked …
‘I did,’ he broke in glumly.
‘Listen to me, sir,’ said Eagle. ‘I’m not so very different from you when all is said and done.’ He detailed examples of his own cruelty, also that dark period of his life when he’d come close to murdering his late partner, Mr Balme, for personal gain. ‘But there has always been good in me too,’ he said, taking the Baronet’s hand and clasping it tight. ‘One only has to look for it, and it will be there. I know what I’m talking about,’ he added, reassuringly. ‘I have darkness in me and I have light. I am Heaven and Hell, just like you – just like all men if truth be told, and it’s truths we are talking of now.’
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