This scene originally followed the one in Chapter 12 where Lady Bedlow suggests that Penelope must naturally feel more comfortable with Percy because he is so much nearer her own class. In my first draft Nev had a little brother, Charlie. In that version Sir Jasper had also had a son, Jamie. Charlie and Jamie were friends until Jamie (instead of Sir Jasper’s wife, who died of a fever or something) was killed by a spring-gun while the boys were out playing “Robin Hood.” Charlie was, understandably, rather traumatized by this experience.
Charlie didn’t serve much of a purpose beyond me really liking a couple of his scenes, so he was one of the first things to go in revisions. I kept the bit with Nev working in the fields, of course, and the last part of this excerpt led into a conversation between Penelope and Nev that now appears in Chapter 14, the scene where Nev reads to Penelope from the Morte d’Arthur.
The next day, driven by a hundred different dark swirling emotions, he rode to the home farm and worked in the fields alongside the men. After six hours of hard labor in the hot sun, he felt sore but sated, drained of anger and jealousy by exhaustion. He felt almost content—although his satisfaction was marred by the sight of what the men had eaten for dinner. A little oat bread and water was all most of them had had. Nev, eating bread and bacon and beer with the foreman, had felt positively decadent.
Still, they had seemed friendlier than before. He was beginning to know their names. The harvest, while not abundant, was respectable.
Nev bathed and changed into a fresh set of clothes, thinking that this was all ridiculous. He was a suspicious fool. Penelope loved accounting and she felt sorry for Percy, that was all. Perhaps he was being stubborn and unfair; perhaps there would be no harm in Nev spending time with Percy, here at Loweston. He pictured the three of them dining together and discussing business, the picture of country respectability. He would go see Percy directly and apologize, and everything would be fine.
He galloped down the stairs, wincing once or twice at twinges from muscles in his calves, and made for the steward’s office.
There was no one in the office, but the door to the adjoining sitting room was ajar, and light and voices spilled through. He did not know what made him slow down, and step to where he could see without being seen.
Percy was playing cards with Louisa and Charlie, while Penelope sat at the same table with an agricultural journal in front of her. Her eyes, though, were on Percy, who was showing off what he could do with cards. Percy never used those tricks where anyone could see, because they made him look like a sharp, or worse, a hired dealer at a gaming hell. But he loved to practice them; Nev remembered long evenings sitting by the fire with a glass in his hand, talking desultorily and watching the cards flow between Percy’s hands, fanning out and snapping shut and cascading in a waterfall to the table.
Now Nev’s family was sitting around Percy watching him with shining eyes. Nev had tried so hard to be a better man—a different man—for them, and they shunned his company as if he had the plague. Louisa always seemed discontented these days, and he had barely seen Charlie smile since Lord Bedlow died. Penelope had stopped even wanting to eat dinner with him. But they crowded around Percy admiringly enough for the sake of a few card tricks. Charlie actually laughed out loud as Percy reached forward and pulled the ace of spades from behind his ear, and Nev was seized with a blind rage that coalesced, for some reason, at Penelope.
“What in blazes is going on here?” he demanded, striding into the room.
They all looked up at him, frozen. Penelope saw his eyes on her face and flushed guiltily. It drove him into an even greater rage. “And what were you about, permitting it?” he asked her. “I thought I could at least trust you to have more sense!” He knew it was one of the worst things he could say to her. She went pale, and he felt a savage satisfaction.
“P-Percy was just teaching me to play piquet,” Charlie said.
“I see that,” Nev said icily.
“Charlie said—that he was having trouble with maths and French at school,” Penelope said, so softly he had to strain to hear her. “Mr. Garrett thought that learning to count and name the hands might help.”
Nev finally turned on Percy. “Of course. You immediately thought that perhaps the way to teach him maths was to teach him to gamble? I—I thought I wasn’t being fair to you, but evidently I was being generous, because it never occurred to me that you would sink to this. He’s only eight, for God’s sake!”
Louisa leapt to her feet, her face red. “Stop talking to him that way! Percy, tell him—”
“Yes, Percy, tell me,” Nev said dangerously.
“He’s going to school,” Percy said, two red splotches of color burning in his cheeks. “You were at school, if I remember aright. You remember what it was like. How long do you think it will be before someone teaches him? Better he learn from me than from some older boy who’s only after his pocket money—”
Nev felt suddenly sick. “I do remember what it was like. I remember you teaching younger boys to play piquet and taking their pocket money. So generous of you to warn my brother away from boys like you.”
“Percy wouldn’t do that!” Louisa said fiercely.
Percy did not say anything.
“Oh, I thought it was great sport, too,” Nev told his sister. “We were charmers, all of us. Why are you defending him? Do you want Charlie to grow up just like every other Ambrey male? Do you want him to be a dashed wastrel who doesn’t know any better than to end up with a bullet through his brain?”
Charlie, who had been sitting perfectly still, staring at Nev in that painful way as if he were afraid of him, jumped at this as if he’d been given an electric shock. He dashed past Nev and fled through the office and down the hall.
The rage drained out of Nev, leaving him feeling sick and guilty and ashamed. “Oh, hell.”
Penelope stood up. “We’d better find him,” she said briskly. He could not look at her, now. He knew if he did, she would be wearing that expression that meant she disapproved of you but was trying to be kind and pretend that she didn’t. Nev nodded, but he didn’t move. Penelope came round the table and took his arm. “Come on. Let’s try the nursery.”
He let her pull him from the room. As he left he heard Percy saying, “He was right. I should never have—”
“He wasn’t right,” Louisa snapped. “How old were you when all that happened?”
“Eleven,” Percy said. “Twelve, maybe. Old enough to know better.”
“Everyone is a fool at eleven,” Louisa said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Charlie wasn’t in the nursery. Penelope suggested—Nev’s brain felt frozen—that they split up and each take one side of the house. Nev, searching alone, was beginning to entertain visions of Charlie lost and cold on the Loweston grounds at night—of Charlie stumbling on poachers. He was on the verge of rousing all the servants for a full-scale search when he thought to check the cabinet in the sitting room Charlie had hidden in when Sir Jasper came to call. Charlie was sitting behind some old cloaks, rocking lightly back and forth.
“Charlie,” Nev said, kneeling down. “I’m sorry I yelled. I was angry, but I shouldn’t have yelled.”
Charlie did not look at Nev. “I don’t want to be shot in the head.”
Nev was cold all over, except for his burning cheeks. “I don’t know why I said that. It was a stupid thing to say. Of course you won’t be shot in the head.”
“Will—will you be shot in the head?” Charlie asked, so quietly Nev almost didn’t hear him.
“Of course not. I’m being very careful. Here, come out of the cabinet.”
Charlie shook his head silently.
“I’m afraid of the traps.”
“The traps?” Nev asked, completely at sea. “What traps?”
“The spring-guns. I thought they were only outside,” Charlie said very fast. “But if you can get shot playing cards—”
Nev felt as if someone had punched him in the chest. All this time, poor Charlie had thought—”Didn’t anyone tell you what happened to Papa?”
“He was shot in the head by a spring-gun, like Jamie,” Charlie explained patiently.
Nev took a deep breath and shook his head. “No. That is—he was shot in the head, but not by a spring-gun.” How was he supposed to deal with this? To buy himself time, he rang for a servant and asked them to find Penelope and tell her everything was fine. Then he sat down cross-legged on the floor. “Papa was in a duel. Do you know what a duel is?”
“Of course. It’s when someone insults your honor, and you say, ‘Name your friends,’ and then your friend and his friend talk about it and pick a time, and you go very early in the morning with dueling pistols and shoot at each other.”
It made Nev a little nervous that his brother knew so much about it. Nev had been on the verge of a duel several times when he was in university, though it had always come to nothing in the end; the thought of his brother doing the same thing was terrifying. “Exactly,” he said, trying to sound calm. “They are very foolish and dangerous. Well, Papa was playing cards with some men, and he insulted one of them. So the man insulted him back, and Papa asked the man to name his friends. And the man shot him. It wasn’t a spring-gun at all. There aren’t any spring-guns at Loweston.”
“But I hear them,” Charlie said uncertainly. “At night.”
Nev swore under his breath. How could he make Charlie feel safe when the world wasn’t safe? “Those are poachers. They are dangerous, but they only go hunting at night. If you don’t go into the woods alone after dark, they won’t hurt you.”
Charlie just stared at him.
“Here, will you come out of the cabinet and sit with me?”
Charlie climbed silently out of the cabinet and sat on the floor, his knees drawn up to his chin and his arms wrapped around his legs.
“The world is scary sometimes,” Nev said. “But if we are careful, we’ll be safe. I’m working to make Loweston safer. I won’t let anything hurt you.”
It felt like a lie, but Charlie nodded and brightened a little.
“Do you want to learn how to do that trick Percy was doing?” Nev said.
Nev reached over and pulled his seal ring from behind Charlie’s ear. “That one.”
“You know it too!”
“Percy and I learned it together. We learned it from one of the gypsies who used to live on the commons before they were enclosed. Here, it’s very simple…”
Charlie still didn’t want to walk back to the Dower House in the dark, so Nev sent a groom to tell Lady Bedlow that Louisa and Charlie would be spending the night at the Grange. Then he had to find Louisa and Percy. It was easier than he had expected; they had given up looking and thought that perhaps Charlie would return to the steward’s room, so when he returned to the office, there they were, talking in hushed, anxious tones. Louisa’s hair was a mess; she had thought Charlie might be hiding, too, and had evidently looked under half the end-tables and sofas in the house.
By the time his brother and sister were settled in adjoining rooms, Nev was exhausted. He didn’t feel up to facing Penelope. There was no light coming in from under the connecting door anyway; she had probably gone to sleep. He let his valet pull off his boots, then sent him away, took off his jacket and cravat, and fell into bed with the rest of his clothes still on.
He awoke late the next morning, still feeling guilty. He knocked on Penelope’s door, although he knew she was probably already downstairs with Percy.
“Come in,” she called.
She was sitting on the edge of her bed, reading a letter. She looked up at him when he opened the door. “Good morning. Did you sleep all right?”
He nodded. “Did you?”
She said she had, but Nev, looking closer, wasn’t sure. He sat down on the edge of the bed next to her.
Abruptly she rushed into speech. “I know I shouldn’t have let Mr. Garrett teach Charlie piquet. But he explained very carefully first that Charlie must never play on tick, and that he must decide in advance how much he can afford to lose and stick to it, and all sorts of other advice that sounded very good, and I thought there was no harm in it. I see now—” She was knotting her fingers together in her lap.
Nev reached over and took one of her hands, feeling worse than before. For a moment, he was at a loss for words. “Penelope,” he interrupted her. “I shouldn’t have got so angry. Percy was right; someone will teach him sooner or later. I—” He looked at her worried face and thought about how lonely he’d felt, all that week, and tried to tell her the truth. “I think I was angry because—I don’t know how to run an estate, or be the head of a family. And Percy seemed to be doing a better job of it than I, just then. And—and Charlie—” His throat closed.
“You’re afraid for Charlie,” she finished.
She pressed her lips together, obviously trying to think of a tactful way to say something.
“What?” he asked.
“You’re afraid he’ll turn out like you. And you’re afraid that you’ll turn out like your father.”
“Do you really think there’s much chance of that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I know I could never do what you and Percy do. I get restless, trying to read and make plans and manage money. I—”