Friday, December 8, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven: My Third and Final Mistake

Father’s arm that afternoon felt so very strong.

I recall it now, as I clearly as I recall his distinguished features; strong chin, finely-trimmed beard as white as the clouds in which the HMS Firedrake flew, white hair close-cropped to his skull in the manner of all who defended her majesty, his dress uniform perfectly fitted to his well-turned physique.

He and I walked arm in arm together through the elegant topiary of the Gardens Fairfax, as if strolling at leisure amidst the perfections of a lower circle of the heavenly realm. Our conversations were spare, as they always were, mostly confined to observations about our surroundings, reflections upon the events of the previous several days, and particularly his curiosity about the proceedings of the Ladies Aid Society the day before.

As I so thoroughly elucidated in the last chapter, the affairs of the Society are not a trifling affair, as they are so vital to the greater intent of the Crown that even Ministers hold them in the same esteem as they might a direct command from Her Royal Highness Herself.

Father had a particular interest in the flow of patients through the Royal Charitable Hospital nearest to the recent hostilities between the Caddiganite Militia and the anarcholibertarian irregulars (as if anarcholibertarians could be anything other than irregular). The matter was, of course, of great concern to the Ladies Aid Society, and had been discussed at length, as while that Hospital had such a capacity as not to be overtaxed by the influx of gravely wounded (most of whom were innocent noncombatants), there had from the Caddiganites been some overt threats towards Hospital staff and the small security contingent provided by the Ministry of Defense. They were, as is the manner of such ideological brutalists, most offended that Her Royal Touch should be provided with equanimity to both parties in the conflict.

As we walked by a pair of long reflecting pools, their fountains stilled by the onset of the winter months, I shared with him what I knew; and upon the completion of my peroration, he thanked me for divulging what I could.

“It isn’t a secret, Father. One could always simply read the minutes of the meeting.”

Father laughed, a short, sharp report. “One could. But perhaps, in truth, I am too like my youngest daughter to endure such tedium. I would much prefer to hear it in your measured voice.”

He slowed his pace, and then together we stopped. “Rebecca,” he said, his voice taken with a serious tone. “As your Father, I do fret about your return to Port Baltimore. Last night, yet another attempt was made on a messenger who was overflying the territory in which the Caddiganites have concentrated their forces. There have been other losses, ones of which I cannot speak, and it is our fear that Caddigan has within his leather-gloved grasp some purloined discoveries that might soon make him more than simply a nuisance. It is a source of much consternation to all in the Ministry, for his despotic intentions grow more and more baleful as his benighted movement grows.”

“Surely, Father, there can be no concern about a real threat to us. So many brutes and would-be tyrants rise among the common folk, only to be devoured themselves by yet another usurper with similar pretensions. It is the nature of all such men to destroy themselves, and it seems prudent to simply ignore him until he has accomplished that task.”

Father nodded gravely. “You speak the unvarnished truth, my dear daughter, but for now, it is not Her Majesty for whom I fear, but rather your own person, as the most recent indignity occurred along the very path you most recently took as you journeyed to this gala.”

I arched an eyebrow, for I found this most shocking.

“Really? How brazen! What an insult! Yet, Father, surely even the boldest of Caddiganite ruffians would not be so mad as to strike against a member of the Peerage. A single messenger on their appointed route might possibly be struck from the sky with impunity, but I travel with three most able servants, and the Town Carriage is itself hardly devoid of defences. And surely they must know that at but a moment, a cry for aid could be made, aid that would prove most terrible to any fool enough to incur our wrath.”

Father’s face tightened. “Again, what you say is eminently reasonable, Rebecca, and your logic is true. I fear, however, that we deal with a breed of man that has, through their own practised rapacity, become inured to the voice of reason; and only uses what intelligence they have been given to rationalise their spiteful actions and devilish schemings. That is why I ask that you consider travelling with me southward to Williamsburg, a journey during which you would both avoid possible assault and fall under the clear protection of my command. From there, you could then journey with me to the estate, which would guarantee your safety and ease my fatherly concerns.”

“Do you ask that I do so, or ask that I consider it? These are two very different questions, Father.”

“Simply that you consider it. I know, Rebecca, that I am likely being overanxious for your care, as I have so often been since…since…” 

 He paused, and his noble features were suddenly overcome with a terrible change, as there rose upon his visage a most heartwrenching and woeful affect, one that came so often unbidden from the great wellspring of sorrow and loss he felt for Mother. It had broken his mind for a season, as despite all of his diligence, manly virtue, and ferocity of purpose, Father’s tender love for Mother, Suzanna, and myself remained his single and Achillean vulnerability.

Father’s yearning to protect Suzanna and I had, on overfrequent occasion, become its own form of obsession, and while he had recovered enough of his wits to no longer require the aid of doctors, it was still a compulsion that rode him most cruelly. Many times had I been obliged to gently but firmly guide him back to the solid rock of sanity, and to step back onto the sure path of reason insofar as my security and safety were concerned.

O, cruel habit! For in hearing his desire to cast a fatherly arm about me, and to protect me from the possibility of harm, all that my ear perceived was the whispers of his old mania and my own predilection to keep my own counsel in matters of my actions and movements. Instead of giving full and proper consideration to his request, and understanding the unspoken intelligences that informed his concern, I presumed too rashly and interrupted his plea; in doing so, I contributed much to my own misery and to Father’s wreck and ruin. It is of such pain to me that I can barely speak it now, dear reader, but having begun this tale for you, I must needs tell it with as much veracity as I am capable.

“Father,” I said, stepping brusquely into his silence. “It is my intention to return to Port Baltimore prior to the cessation of festivities tomorrow, for with Stewart now departed for Williamsburg, and my summons to the Ladies Aid Society fulfilled, I find that I am at loose ends here at the house of Fairfax. I desire simply to return to my practices, and to the familiar comforts of the conservatory and its disciplines. Do not fear or fret unduly, as has been your habit, for I am certain that Lady Providence in her care will guarantee that you and I might spend more carefree time at the Estate Montgomery following the completion of your business. I shall impress upon Suzanna the necessity of joining us, and with Stewart there, we four shall have much opportunity to deepen the bond as our families prepare to solemnify our union.”

I spoke with such confidence, confidence that I now realise was of no more import than the prattling of a madwoman. For Lady Providence, having been presumed upon, had already determined our terrible fate.

“Very well,” he said, and he said nothing more on the affair.

My Father, always one to dote upon those for whom he bore the greatest love, yielded so very simply to his daughter and heir, and so, the matter decided, we walked on together, speaking of trivialities and the weather. When we finally returned to the patio gardens, we parted with words of affection, and as was his custom, he placed upon my forehead a single paternal kiss.

It would be the last time I ever saw him.