A LOUD clatter and frightened shout from beyond my door jolted me out of a fitful doze and left my heart hammering in my chest. Nestled in my warm cocoon of blankets on the floor, frozen with my heart still in my throat, I blindly searched the darkness until my mind at last supplied a name for that voice. It was only Tom, the footman my uncle had hired last year to replace John…. At least I was fairly certain the previous footman had been John, although that could have been Henry. I couldn’t quite remember, because neither John nor Henry had lasted long. Tom had made it almost an entire year thus far. He must’ve been made of sterner stuff than the others… or my uncle had offered him a higher wage.
Fully awake, I frowned into the darkness around me and pulled my blankets higher atop my shoulders.
What is Tom doing in the upstairs hall at this time of night?
I strained to hear more but was rewarded with only the creaks and pops of the house and the rattle of shutters from an errant breeze outside my window. Perhaps I had imagined it, after all.
Still curious but no longer alarmed, I slipped from the comfortable nest of blankets I’d made in front of the hearth and crept to my door. I had nothing better to do. My fire had died too low to read by, but perhaps I might have a bit of a diversion yet.
Placing my ear to the heavy wood, I caught the sound of hushed whispers some distance away, but I couldn’t quite make out the words. Relieved I wouldn’t be subjected to another round of the pitiful moans and tortured wailings that often plagued me at night, I strained against the door until I felt sure my cheek would bear the impression of its carved surface. The voices were familiar and comforting, even if the words were unclear.
Then the whispers stopped abruptly, and the silence was broken by the quiet rattling of doors being opened and shut and the scuffle of hurried footsteps up and down the hall. I felt the vibrations through my cheek and hands as each door was opened and closed, and I huffed in frustration at not knowing what was going on. The light from a lamp grew through the gap beneath my door, only to fade away again shortly after. Then the sounds and vibrations ceased entirely, and all was still and dark again.
I waited, but when nothing else happened, I sighed and straightened. With only a token glare for the ever-present lock on my door, I shivered and shuffled back to my little nest. The novel I’d been reading before I fell asleep tumbled free as I tugged the blankets about me again, and I tucked it close to my chest and settled in for another long night. I was awake now, with no fire to read by and nothing but my thoughts to keep me company. That usually boded ill for my state of mind.
As the supposed master of the house, I could’ve kicked up a fuss and demanded to know what had occurred outside my door. I could’ve pulled the bell rope and forced Pendel, my butler, to return and explain his and Tom’s presence abovestairs at this hour. But, as always, I hated to be a bother. If the disturbance had been of any real import, I trusted Pendel would have come to me on his own. A little mild irritation over my curiosity going unsatisfied wasn’t worth all that. And besides, the chill January air had crept beneath my nightshirt and dressing gown after only that brief excursion outside the warmth of my nest—despite my nightcap, mittens, and wool stockings—and I was loathe to leave it again.
Running my fingers over the cloth binding of my novel, I turned from the dull orange glow of the dying coals in the stove and peered forlornly through the darkness toward the heavily curtained alcove hiding my window seat. Regardless of the cold, I might have been tempted to move my nest there if even a scrap of moonlight were to be had, but I knew I would find only a deeper darkness beyond the thick green velvet brocade. For months, everything outside the rippled glass of my windows had been draped in a fog so dense and unending, I feared—in my darker moments—that the world beyond might have disappeared entirely, save the odd laborer or tradesman who would suddenly appear on the grounds beneath my rooms as if conjured out of the mist.
The newspapers had commented almost daily on the pernicious fog that had shrouded all of London, so I knew it wasn’t just our little corner of Kensington that suffered. But as the bleak months dragged on, the dense fog and cold were taking their toll on my spirits, and I ached for even a glimpse of sunlight or moonlight to cut through the unending gray beyond my prison.
Hissing in disgust, I turned away from the thick darkness behind me and returned my gaze to the coals in my hearth. I couldn’t allow myself to think like that. This was not a prison but a haven to keep me safe and to keep others safe from me. I belonged here. I was well taken care of. This was my home.
I took a deep breath of frigid air and blew it out forcefully, counting to three on the inhale and another three on the exhale, as I’d been taught. I flexed my frozen fingers in my mittens to get the blood flowing, drew my shoulders back, and lifted my chin. I was a Middleton, heir to a long and illustrious line, and I could not allow myself to be beaten by melancholia or any other manifestation of my illness.
The voices in the hall had been real. I’d recognized the footman, and I would know Pendel’s gruff whisper anywhere. I could still tell the difference between reality and those other sounds and voices that plagued me. Someday soon the sun would return, and I would shake off this new and unwelcome addition to my troubles, just as I did the rest. Someday I would be well and no longer need these rooms. I had to persist in that belief.
I held my rigid posture for only a few moments before I shivered and wrapped my arms more tightly around myself as a wave of hopelessness threatened to crash over me again. I was so weary of fighting. The melancholia, the visions, the voices, all of it was that much harder to overcome when the world seemed determined to keep me in the dark and dreary gray forever.
Agitated and unable to distract myself with my novel, I tossed the volume on the nearby chair, collected the blankets around me like a cloak, and moved to my pianoforte. I could play by feel in the darkness, after countless nights of practice, and music often soothed me when the forced confinement and solitude of my existence became too much to bear. If I played quietly, I would not disturb anyone’s slumber. The servants’ hall was too far away for them to hear me unless I truly made an effort.
I had just reached the bench and was fussing with my blankets so I could settle comfortably, when another sound reached my ears, this time from the stairwell leading up to my rooftop conservatory. My uncle had commissioned the conservatory for me so I might have the fresh air and sunshine Dr. Payne recommended without having to leave my house. I barely had to leave my rooms, in truth. No expense had been spared for my convenience. The finest of materials and skilled craftsmen had been hired to construct it, but the staircase just on the other side of the wall my pianoforte rested against still creaked whenever someone trod upon it.
Tom used a second door from the hall to access those stairs daily, stocking the coal stove up there so the more delicate of my plants wouldn’t suffer too badly in the bitter cold. But he’d already seen to that duty before the rest of the house turned in for the night, and I hadn’t heard a key rattle in the lock on the hall door. I couldn’t imagine Pendel allowing him to have the key on his own, at any rate. Perhaps Pendel was the one using the stairs after whatever the disturbance in the hall had been.
I froze, straining for more, and heard two more quiet creaks as someone ascended the stairs. My heart racing despite the myriad explanations for the sound, I crept on slippered feet to the door that separated my rooms from the stairwell, drew the heavy insulating velvet drapes aside, and pressed my ear to the wood. A slight draft brushed my cheek from the gap between the door and its frame, as if the outer door at the top of the stairs had been opened, but no lamplight penetrated those spaces. I couldn’t imagine any of the servants taking the stairs in the dark, particularly not Pendel, now that he was getting on in years.
Holding my breath, I carefully turned the knob and poked my head through the opening. I saw nothing as I squinted into the deeper darkness, and no more stairs creaked or latches rattled no matter how hard I listened. The air was still and cold, and I shivered in my dressing gown. But I’d already stirred myself, and, my curiosity piqued for the second time that night, I crept up the stairs and eased the outer door open.
An inky gray-black, barely lighter than the darkness behind me, stared back at me as I searched in vain for the source of the sounds. The glass walls and roof of the conservatory were of little help due to the thick fog outside. I gripped the doorframe and strained but saw and heard nothing. I was on the verge of dismissing the whole thing as another trick of my mind when the faint tinkle of something metal falling to the stone tiles and a muffled curse stopped me.
“Hello? Is someone there?” I asked breathlessly.
My words were met with silence, but a spot of darkness, deeper than the rest, detached itself from the far end of the conservatory and moved toward me. Instinctively I retreated.
“Hello? Who is it? Who are you?” I croaked.
The shadow said nothing, only continued to follow me as I retreated down the stairs and through the door to my rooms. I stopped in front of my hearth, still cloaked in my ridiculous mound of blankets, and waited with my heart beating frantically. Then my heart stopped altogether when I heard the rustle of the thick curtains being pushed aside and saw the faint outline of the shadow as it stepped into my rooms.
I had to swallow against a sudden dryness in my throat before I whispered, “Say something. Please.”
The shadow finally halted its silent advance. This close, in the faint light of the coals, the dark shape resolved itself into a man, looming over me. I was about to repeat my somewhat shaky demand, when the shadow finally spoke.
“Don’ cry out. I mean ye no ’arm.”
His accent was strange to me. I couldn’t place it, but that was hardly surprising, given the limited number of people I’d been allowed to interact with in my life. His speech lacked the elocution of a gentleman, but he spoke in a pleasant baritone I found quite soothing to my nerves nevertheless. My anxiety melted by slow degrees as I let his voice wash over me, and I forced myself to think the situation through instead of giving in to my fear.
I had never heard that voice before. He was a stranger. A stranger could not possibly have just appeared in my conservatory in the middle of the night. Campden House resided in a respectable neighborhood surrounded by a large park that rarely ever received visitors beyond tradesmen. My rooms were on the third floor. No one but Pendel, Tom, Sarah the maid, the doctor, and on the rare occasion, my uncle ever came to the third floor or into the house at all. And Pendel kept the place locked up tight at all times. Surely if that little disturbance in the hall a few moments ago had been about an intruder, Pendel would have notified me.
These were all things I knew to be true. Because of my illness, I could trust in those facts better than I could trust my own senses. Therefore, I could only conclude that this shadow was not real. It was simply another creation of my illness, another vision sent to plague me in the dark of night when I was unable to sufficiently distract myself or too weak to fight.
“Have ye nothin’ to say?” the shadow asked, and I smiled for the first time in weeks.
It seemed this hallucination might be different from the others—the ones that hovered silently and menacingly over me until I was fit to scream or pull my hair out. This one almost sounded put out that I hadn’t spoken again. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a vision I could talk to.
I worried my lip as I pondered the shape in front of me. Dr. Payne would doubtless see the appearance of another hallucination as very concerning—and perhaps I should as well—but I had to admit I was relieved more than anything. This one seemed like it might just be amusing. I was so very tired of being alone and fighting my illness day after day. One night of surrender would not be so bad, particularly if I remained fully cognizant of the fact that he was not real.
What harm could it do to talk to it just this once?
I turned my back on it and made my way to my bed. The fire no longer gave enough warmth to offset suffering the hardness of the floor, and if my hallucination were going to bless me with some conversation, I could at least make myself comfortable.
After settling my blankets over the bed, I crawled beneath them, relaxed against the stack of pillows, and waited. The apparition had been silent and still through all of this. If it had a face, I could not see it, but it shifted slightly, giving it an air of puzzlement before it spoke.
“Ye’re not gonna bring the ’ouse down on me ’ead?”
I chuckled. “Why would I do a thing like that?”
“’Twould seem the natural thing to do… under the circumstances.”
I frowned at it in suspicion. “Is that what you want, for me to bring the whole house down on us? To shout them awake from their beds?”
“O’course not. I’m just surprised, is all.”
Its rather peeved grumble made me smile again. “The days of me making a spectacle of myself over my visions are long gone,” I said loftily, “at least as long as I can help it. You’ve no need to worry about that.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes. My visions, my fancies, my hallucinations. You are not the first, nor will you be the last, I fear. But I’ve learned to live with you. And if you’re actually willing to talk, then I am more than willing to listen and while away the hours until I fall asleep again. I could use the distraction, since I’ve no light to continue reading my novel and the winter nights are so damnably long.”
Silence fell as the shadow seemed to ponder my words.
“Are ye sayin’ ye think I’m not real, then?” it asked, hesitating as if it were choosing its words carefully.
I laughed. “Of course you aren’t. You arrive in my rooms in the middle of the night, a dark specter in the heart of winter, without so much as a cloak or a hat to shield you from the cold—without even a jacket, as far as I can see in this blasted darkness. My rooms are on the top floor of the house, and Pendel checks the locks on all the doors and windows every night as part of his routine. Has done for ages. What else could you be?”
This time the vision chuckled too. “I s’pose that makes as much sense as any. So what are ye gonna do, then, if not call down the guards?”
“I’m going to sit here comfortably and listen to whatever it is you’ve come to tell me, obviously.”
The silence that fell after my proclamation was soon broken by the sound of footsteps in the hall. A quick glance in that direction revealed the flickering light of a lamp beneath my door. The added light revealed more of the shape of the man before me but still no detail and no face.
“My lord?” Pendel called quietly from the hall. “My lord?”
“Yes, Pendel,” I answered, turning my attention to the door again.
“Forgive the disturbance, but I happened to be on the stairs, and I thought I heard you speaking. Are you well? Is anything amiss?”
I glanced toward the apparition, but the shadow had vanished.
Sighing in disappointment but not surprise, I answered, “All is well here. Is there something wrong?”
“No, my lord. So very sorry to disturb you at this hour.”
“But I thought I heard you in the hall earlier.”
“Yes, my lord. The footman, Tom, thought he saw someone, but we’ve searched the rooms and found no sign of any disturbance and all the doors and windows remain locked. I will check them again, to be sure, but I expect he saw only his shadow or a trick of the light.”
“Perhaps he saw the headless spirit of the first Viscount Campden,” I teased as I scanned my rooms for my visitor.
“Perhaps, my lord.”
I could almost see Pendel’s frown of disapproval from his tone, and I hung my head. I had to find humor in such things as visions and specters or I might have collapsed under the weight of my illness long ago, but poor Pendel had enough of a burden caring for me without me making light of such things. I cleared my throat and asked, “Did Tom say why he was up here in the first place?”
My question was met with a brief silence in which I could almost see the stern twist of Pendel’s lips. “No, my lord. But that is a question I will have answered soon. I promise you.”
Pendel had been with my family since my father was a lad. Loyal to his core, no matter how unhinged I might be, Pendel would not stand for anyone treating me as some sort of carnival attraction to be gawked at or whispered about. Campden House would need a new footman in short order if Tom couldn’t provide a more convincing story for his presence where he should not have been.
“I’ll leave you to it, then. Good night, Pendel.”
“Good night, my lord.”
His footsteps receded, along with the light, and I was left to my solitude again, wishing I could have had some excuse to keep him there longer.
“Is he another of your visions?”
The softly spoken words from close beside my bed nearly made me jump out of my skin, despite the veiled humor in them. I’d thought my visitor had dissolved into the ether, as they so often did when the real world intruded, but perhaps this one was more real than the others. Tom had heard something. But if all the doors and windows were still locked, a stranger couldn’t have entered the house.
Wrapping my arms around myself, I frowned at the shadow. “No. No. Pendel is real. He’s been with my family for years.”
“Perhaps he is, and perhaps he isn’t,” the voice teased.
“He is,” I insisted.
“But if you can see and hear me, as you can see and hear him, how is he real when I am not?”
Before I realized what I was doing, I reached beneath my cap and pulled a few hairs from my scalp. I could feel them in my palm, along with the slight sting, and I gritted my teeth. A real intruder would hardly hang about simply to tease and torment me. He had to be another vision conjured by my own mind to make me miserable. I rubbed my temple seeking to ease the growing ache behind my eyes as anxiety and frustration formed a vise around my chest. When I caught myself reaching for my hair again, I fisted my hands and forced them beneath the covers, keeping them firmly in my lap so I wouldn’t do my scalp any more damage.
“I know the difference between what is real and what isn’t. I know it,” I asserted, mostly for my benefit. “If you’ve only come to upset me, I want you to leave. Leave now, please.”
I clamped my lips shut against their trembling and breathed deeply as Dr. Payne had taught me. The icy air hurt my nose and throat, but it was good for the body.
“Fresh air, quiet, and exercise are the keys to continued good health,” Dr. Payne always intoned.
I closed my eyes to blot out what little I could see of the shadow in the darkness and continued my breathing exercises, hoping it would go away.
“Wait. Forgive me. I didn’t mean to upset you so. I’m very sorry. Please, don’t cry.” The words came at me in a rush, almost desperate in their pleading as I heard him move closer to me.
“I’m not crying,” I insisted between labored breaths. “I’m breathing.”
“Oh. Well. Good, then.”
The hints of confusion and amusement in his voice didn’t startle me as much as the change in his accent. Earlier, despite my not being able to place it, his accent had been undeniably working class. Now, his English was crisp and proper as any gentleman’s. The change was enough to startle me out of my attack of nerves, and I stopped my exercises and frowned at him.
Did I alter his speech to ease my distress or so I would put a higher value on his words?
I’d never considered myself so much the snob before. I was hardly one to cast stones on what was right and proper in this world—wretched creature that I was. But I learned things about myself from my visions, after the trauma of their presence receded and I had hours and hours alone to reflect.
“Can you forgive me?” the shadow asked into the silence. “Truly, I did not mean to upset you.”
With effort, I unclenched my palms and allowed the rest of my body to relax against the pillows again. A flicker of movement and flash of murky white light in a far corner to my right tried to distract me, but I ignored it in favor of the more solid and unfamiliar vision at the foot of my bed. “Yes, I can forgive you. Only please don’t ask me such things again. It’s upsetting enough to have you here, without my own hallucinations questioning my sanity.”
The shadow chuckled, but the flicker and flash to my right caught my eye again, and I couldn’t help but turn toward it. The hazy apparition I’d seen so many times before struggled to take shape in the corner by my window seat. It glowed with an eerie light, though that light didn’t touch anything around it. It writhed in place, almost taking a form reminiscent of a woman in a diaphanous gown, but it never quite solidified. Like the darker shadows that plagued me, this vision never spoke, only hovered for a while before fading away again. It wasn’t as bad as some of the others, but her appearance often preceded worse.
“What’s wrong?” the shadow asked, and I chuckled helplessly at the lunacy of it all.
Perhaps there was some harm in not rejecting this new vision, after all. Perhaps it only opened the door to more.
“Someone else is competing for my attention, I’m afraid,” I said, forcing a laugh. “I’d be flattered at my popularity, if I weren’t merely flattering myself.”
I heard the faint rustling of cloth as the shadow turned this way and that. “You see them now?”
“Yes.” I sighed tiredly. “My visions always get worse the more unsettled or distressed I become. I’d take another dose of my medicine, but I don’t wish to disturb Pendel again, and I really do hate the stuff. Besides, if I took it, I’d probably fall asleep and you’d disappear again, and then where would we be?”
His tone said clearly he did not, in fact, see, but he was no longer baiting me like before, and the nervous ache in my head and chest lessened.
“Is the other vision still there? Where is it?” he asked.
I glanced toward my window seat, but the apparition had disappeared along with the worst of my anxiety. “No. She’s gone.”
“She, it, I don’t know.” I sighed my irritation. “It reminds me sometimes of a woman in a flowing gown, but mostly it’s just a floating kind of mist.”
“Do you see her often?”
“Not so very often of late. I see her more when I’m feeling unwell, either in body or spirit.”
“And you are feeling unwell now?”
I rolled my eyes, though I knew he could not see it in the dark. “Perhaps,” I hedged, wishing he’d change the subject.
“Is there anything I might do? Would a lamp help? I could light one for you if you tell me where it is.”
“No. I’m not allowed a lamp or a candle.”
“For fear I may set the house ablaze and burn everyone in their beds, of course,” I bit out irritably.
“And would you?”
“Of course not, at least not intentionally.”
“And yet someone thinks you might?”
“No—I mean yes.” I growled in frustration. “I don’t know. I suppose they must, at least a little.”
“How about a gas lamp? Surely such a grand house as this should have had them installed by now.”
I lifted my chin. “Of course. After the fire several years ago, my uncle had them installed, but none in here, I’m afraid. I think they fear I might have another bad spell and blow the house up for good and all.” I forced a chuckle.
“But I can see the faint glow from the hearth,” the shadow argued. “You’re allowed that obviously.”
This subject had been done to death already, long before tonight. If the damned vision was going to quibble with me all night about things that hadn’t changed in over ten years, then he could bloody well be on his way.
“The stove is filled and locked before the servants go to bed and then refilled in the morning when they wake,” I explained through clenched teeth. “But really, this conversation is becoming tiresome. The least you could do is talk of something interesting, if you are going to plague me in the middle of the night.” I sounded haughty and peevish, but I didn’t care. This wasn’t the kind of distraction I wanted.
The shadow let out a bark of laughter. “Of course, my lord. Forgive me, my lord. I should hate to think you aren’t being sufficiently entertained.”
“I thank you, good sir. It is a terrible tragedy to be without proper diversions,” I threw back at him, choosing to ignore the acid in his tone, and I was gratified to hear him chuckle again.
He had a nice laugh, a laugh that warmed me and made me smile. Perhaps I could allow myself to be teased a little, after all, if it meant I could hear him laugh again.
No one else ever dared tease me. Pendel loved me in his own way, but he would be scandalized if I were to suggest a greater intimacy than we already shared as master and servant. The underservants rarely spoke a single word to me, let alone in jest. And my uncle and I talked on his monthly visits, but he was always so careful with me—as if I were made of spun glass—hesitant to speak of anything beyond estate business and the exchange of the usual pleasantries for fear of upsetting me. I’d read so many books and plays where the characters traded witty barbs and dueled with words, the results quite hilarious, but I’d never had the chance myself.
I liked this vision, despite his annoying propensity to discomfit me. For once, I found myself wishing I knew how to make him stay, rather than begging him to leave me in peace. If only my traitorous mind had given a face along with that laugh.
My mattress shifted under me as the shadow settled on the end of my bed, startling me a little. He was not the first of my visions to have substance, though I shivered at the memories of the others. During the worst of my spells, early in my illness, my visions had terrified me. Phantom hands had held me down, their weight smothering me until I fainted dead away in my fear. I hadn’t had such an episode in many years, and I hoped to never experience that again.
I caught my hand reaching for my hair, but forced it down and bit my lip instead. Such thoughts could twist my visions into something ugly and fearful if I dwelled too long in the past.
“If I am to amuse you, I will require amusement in kind,” the shadow said, his voice thankfully teasing and light as he broke in on my dark thoughts.
“What kind of amusement?” I croaked gratefully.
“Satisfaction of my curiosity, I think—an answer for an answer. I will answer your questions, if you will do the same for mine.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Impertinent ones, I’m sure.”
“How impertinent?” I asked, tensing again.
The shadow shifted on the bed and chuckled. “Oh no. I’ve answered one for you. It’s my turn now. What is your name?”
Whether I agreed that I owed him an answer or not, at least the question was an easy one, and one I wasn’t at all ashamed of. Without even thinking about it, I sat up straighter, lifted my chin, and drew my shoulders back. “I am Arthur Phillip James Baptist Middleton, Viscount Campden.”
“My word, that’s certainly a mouthful. I think I’ll call you Arthur, then.”
I felt a brief jab of pique at such familiarity, before I was reminded that I was speaking to a creature of my own creation and to demand it use my title seemed the height of absurdity.
“And what is your name, pray?” I asked wryly.
“Hmmm. I feel I should not reveal too many of my secrets, lest you lose interest too quickly. You may call me Fox.”
I frowned at him. “That hardly seems an answer. I feel I’m being cheated somehow.”
“I said I would give you an answer for an answer. I didn’t say it would be a good one.” He laughed, and I couldn’t help but join him. His laugh did strange things to my stomach.
“I like you,” I blurted out before clamping a hand over my mouth and blushing in mortification.
How ridiculous. I was in my own rooms, with only an apparition for company. I should not have been embarrassed. But years of always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and shaming myself and my uncle in the few social situations I’d been allowed as a youth—before we’d given up and had to lock me away completely—had taken their toll.
Fox’s laughter died, and he was quiet for a time before he said, with mild surprise in his voice, “I like you as well, Arthur.”
“Well… good,” I replied stupidly, shifting uncomfortably but unable to stifle a smile. If anything, my blush deepened under the warmth in his voice, and I thanked the darkness that he could not see. I cleared my throat. “I suppose with that out of the way, we could continue our question and answer, then?”
“We could,” Fox agreed hesitantly. “But I fear my time here grows short. It won’t be long before the sun rises, and though the fog still seems thick enough to cut, I’d rather not risk discovery. I’ll need to leave before dawn to avoid being seen.”
I lurched forward, clutching blindly for his sleeve. My grasping hand encountered smooth, padded silk, and I twisted a desperate fist in it, grateful his substance didn’t dissolve beneath my grasp.
“Don’t go, please. I’m the only one who can see you. There’s no need.”
Realizing again that my reaction was wholly inappropriate to the circumstance, I released his sleeve as if it had burned me and shrank back again. “Forgive me. I—it’s just… we’ve only begun talking.”
How pathetic was I that I was willing to get on my knees and beg a figment of my own imagination not to leave me alone?
Fox sighed as I began my breathing exercises again and clenched my fists in my lap.
“I can spare a few minutes,” he replied, “but not much more. I’m sorry.”
Other shadows skittered and writhed around the edges of my vision, but I kept my gaze focused on the dark outline at the end of my bed. “At least tell me a little about yourself,” I pleaded quietly trying to regain my calm.
Fox chuckled. “If I am indeed merely a product of your fancy, shouldn’t you be the one to tell me who I am?”
“It doesn’t work like that. My mind has a way of surprising me. You might be a character from a novel or a play I’ve read. You might be one of the infamous ghosts that local gossip claims haunts this house. You might be someone barely remembered from my childhood, before…. Well, you might be a combination of people or things really. I never know.”
Fox was silent for a few moments before he leaned back against the post at the foot of my bed. The wood creaked quietly under his weight, and the heavy bed-curtains rustled in the darkness. “All right. If I can be anyone, then, I will entertain you with my tale… which may or may not be the truth.”
His teasing tone had returned, and I smiled as I felt my desperation ease. If I could keep him talking, perhaps he would forget this nonsense about leaving.
“I am a thief,” he began. “But no lowly brute on the smash-and-grab am I, for I am also a gentleman… well, mostly. I slipped into your beautiful and grand house this night, fully intending to slip out again with as much treasure as I could carry, but instead of the upper halls being dark and empty—as they had been every night for the past week—I nearly tripped over a great lumbering oaf in your hall and had to dash into what I thought might be a bedroom before I was seen. I tried to wait him out, but the oaf and another man blocked the stairs, so I had to think of some other way to get out of the house. I believed God had smiled on me when I discovered the bedchamber I’d hidden in was in actuality a stairwell. The stairs led up instead of down, but I still counted myself lucky. Except the fog that was supposed to obscure my departure made it near impossible for me to see my own hand in front of my face, let alone the locks I needed to pick to carry out my escape. I was fumbling with my tools when a quiet voice called to me. I thought I was done for, but the owner of that voice simply backed down the stairs, climbed into bed, and ordered me to tell him a tale, as if thieves in his house were an everyday occurrence. Apparently my luck held true, after all.” Fox’s arm moved in the darkness in what I thought might have been a dramatic flourish, and then he chuckled. “So what do you think about that, Lord Campden? Entertaining enough for you?”
Smiling, I clapped my hands vigorously. “Yes, very much so. I suppose I should be flattered you chose to sit and chat with me during all that excitement. I truly had no idea.”
“You should be flattered. I wouldn’t do such a thing for just anyone. In fact, you’re lucky I didn’t simply bash you on the head and make a run for it.”
“Oh yes, I’m very lucky,” I teased back a little breathlessly.
The slightest edge to his voice sent a thrill through me, but whether of fear or excitement, I refused to name it. An apparition Fox might be, but he was solid enough to my fractured mind, and I had made him several inches taller than myself, perhaps to add to that delicious hint of danger I must somehow be craving.
I was not a large man, but I was no milksop either. Though I never left the confines of my rooms and rooftop conservatory, I kept myself fit with the forms the doctor had taught me. Compared to the laborers and deliverymen I’d seen from my windows, I thought I measured up well enough. Fox had to be larger than myself to give him any of the deliciously menacing qualities I’d read about in my novels. A gentleman thief indeed—what on earth could I be thinking? Perhaps Dr. Payne had been right to caution against the influences of such stories. Still, boredom and loneliness could lead to their own kind of madness in time. I was very grateful Pendel chose to not look too closely at the packets of books Wallace Fuller, the bookseller, sent me every two weeks.
Fox cleared his throat, drawing my wandering thoughts back to him. “So now I have answered you. I believe it is your turn to tell me a story.”
“What kind of story?”
“Tell me about yourself, of course. Quid pro quo. Tell me how is it that the Viscount Campden came to be locked in a room in his own home with no light to see by and a dying fire he’s not even allowed to stoke with his own coal?”
I shifted uneasily at the edge in his voice, my discomfort returning. “I already told you that.”
“Not really,” he pushed. “You said you are ill, but not how. Have you always been ill? How long have you been confined to these rooms? Where is the rest of your family? You spoke of an uncle making decisions for you, but why is he not here in this enormous house with you? I watched the house for days and only saw a few servants moving about. That’s why I picked it. I assumed the family was away.”
“I don’t wish to speak of it. Not now, please,” I replied quietly, twisting my hands in my lap.
After a pause, Fox sighed and stood. “Perhaps that should be all for tonight, then. I should go.”
I ruthlessly smothered my first inclination to grab for him again. My pride wouldn’t allow another lapse in dignity, even if I feared he’d never return. “If you must,” I murmured. And even though I knew it to be pointless, I couldn’t help but add, “But you will come back, won’t you?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “It seems I upset you more than I entertained you. I can’t think why you’d want me to call on you again.”
“But I do… please.” I didn’t bother concealing the need in my voice this time.
“Well, if all you’ve said is true, and I am a thing of your creation, then that is entirely up to you now, isn’t it?” he asked teasingly, his voice receding as he moved away from me.
I stuck my tongue out at him. He couldn’t see that brief lapse in decorum, but it made me feel better nonetheless. “Possibly,” I replied with as much hauteur as I could manage. “But it is only polite to ask.” When he made no reply, I grew nervous again. “Will you?” I pleaded.
I heard the distinct click of a door latch, and a slight draft of colder air rustled my bed-curtains. “I will try. Good night, Arthur.”
I had to swallow a slight lump in my throat before I could reply. “Good night, Fox.”
After a brief moment of silence, I assumed he’d gone, evaporated into the ether like the others, but then his voice drifted to me again, quiet and hollow, as if from a long way off. “Arthur, if I do come again, I should like to be able to see your face when we talk. No matter your illness or the story behind it, the lord and master of the manor should not be kept in the dark in his own house, particularly if he does not wish to be.”