“Let me add, Mr. Robinson—I know the sale of Grantley can be no easy decision. Leaving your home … depriving the villagers of their beloved ancestral lord,” Ulwin continued, putting a hand on Nicholas’s chair and leaning in so only a few inches separated their faces. This was inexcusably close, Continental manners or no. And still he stared directly into Nicholas’s face, that strange gaze growing ever darker, more insistent, more penetrating….
Nicholas yawned pointedly. This time, his reward was abject disbelief on Ulwin’s face. Was the man such an inveterate charmer, his methods of flattery never failed?
“Leaving one’s home may be blessing or curse. As for the people of Maidenstone….” Nicholas drained his glass and set it aside. He knew he sounded tipsy, but didn’t care. “Why do believe they would mourn to see me depart? Have they confided their grief in you? Expressed what the putative loss of one Mr. Nicholas Robinson will mean to them?”
Ulwin looked uncomfortable. Either he didn’t like the question, which Nicholas’s rational side knew was ridiculously contentious, or he was frustrated by his own inability to inspire goodwill.
“The villagers have … spoken of you,” he said, running a hair through his hair. It curled slightly above the ears but was otherwise straight, combed back from a high forehead. “Of your heroism. And your suffering.”
“Indeed?” Nicholas’s pleasant inebriation disappeared. “Tell me. What did they say?”
Pressing his lips together, Ulwin transmitted a wordless message. I could answer, but you would not wish it.
“Speak,” Nicholas snapped. “If you want this interview to continue, pray, please go on.”
Ulwin didn’t seem to know how to proceed. He was truly mystified, that much was plain, either by Nicholas’s lack of pliability or by his own failure to charm what he’d no doubt been assured was an easy target.
“Haven’t I the right to hear what stories my own people carry to strangers?” Nicholas persisted. “The tale of woe Maidenstone attaches to one Nicholas Robinson?”
“Very well. I heard you went out with a riding party, a few years past,” Ulwin said. “Your brother-in-law, I believe he was called Peyton, took the point. His horse was a bad-tempered stallion, newly-purchased and much prized. Some evil humor overtook the beast. When it reared and bolted, a tree branch swept Peyton from the saddle. He was dragged, boot caught in the stirrup, as the stallion galloped away.”
It was true. Nicholas could still see it, clear as yesterday: John’s head bobbing obscenely as it struck first the turf, then the two-lane track, then the shrubbery. Nicholas had grown up with John Peyton, taking supper with John’s family countless times, spending many a boyish night in the Peyton house long before he began courting John’s younger sister Lydia. Bold, daring John always purchased the most spirited horses, viewing their resistance as a sign of worth. But the stallion called Storm-Born had been far from worthy. He’d fought the saddle, stamping, bucking and cutting his mouth to ribbons on the bit. And finally one day Storm-Born reared over nothing, unseating John by racing under a branch. John’s boot heel had twisted in the stirrup, making it impossible for him to free himself. Transforming a dangerous predicament into an almost certainly deadly one…
“And?” Nicholas waited for Ulwin to continue. If this handsome, pseudo-European sycophant dared try to lie or prevaricate, Nicholas would turn him out at once, the sale of Grantley be damned.
A less supremely confident guest might have backed away. Ulwin, hand still on the back of Nicholas’s chair, did not. So close, Nicholas saw the man’s black eyes were flecked with gold.
“I’m told you galloped alongside the stallion. Caught its bridle. When it reared again, you were pulled from your own mount. As you fell, you freed your brother-in-law’s foot from the stirrup, releasing him.” Ulwin’s smile faded at least. “Then the beast trampled you.”
“So it did. What more?”
Ulwin ran his hand through his hair again. “Mr. Robinson, have mercy. Would you have it precisely as I heard it, in the public house?”
Ulwin sighed. Releasing his grip on the chair at last, he stood up straight, crossing his arms over his chest. “They say it’s a miracle you survived. You were crippled, of course. And your other wounds were … well. Too severe to discuss.”
“Indeed? Do you mean to tell me, over pints of ale in a public house, the brutal truth was presented to you with such delicacy, Mr. Ulwin?” Nicholas smirked, enjoying the other man’s discomfort. “That according to village drunkards and inveterate gossips, my wounds were too shocking for polite company?”
He and Ulwin glared at each other. Ulwin looked deeply vexed. Nicholas, by contrast, was having the most fun he’d had in weeks.
Ulwin took a deep breath. When he spoke at last, his voice was flat, unsympathetic. “Your lower half was broken. To stop the worst injuries from festering, the village doctor castrated you. Then, when you did not die, he ran away with your wife.”
Nicholas found himself smiling. For years he’d existed in a torturous limbo where everyone knew his most intimate secrets, yet no one dared speak them to his face. He was meant to be grateful. Instead, it made him furious, frustrated, incapable of striking out as he so desperately wanted. And the irony that this feeling could best be described as “impotence” was not lost on him.
“Let me correct you on one point,” Nicholas said. “It was the stallion, Storm-Born, that castrated me. Dr. Graham merely cut away the ruined flesh. As for the other details, including Dr. Graham’s egress with my former wife: you’re quite right, sir. But I fear you seem ill at ease. Come now, Mr. Ulwin. In all your travels on the Continent, am I the first eunuch to make your acquaintance?”
“Far from it. In point of fact, I’ve known many eunuchs over the years,” Ulwin said, still looking uncomfortable. “But none so malicious or bad-tempered as you.”
The sound of Nicholas’s own laughter surprised him. “Have no cause for alarm. My new physician assures me I am no longer capable of true rage, any more than I am capable of true lust. But anger, bitterness and cruelty?” Nicholas shrugged. “Ask any woman, no bollocks required. Sir—sit. Be at home, I beg you. Take some port.”
“With gratitude.” Ulwin took in the nearest chair, a leather wingback. “May I confide something in you, Mr. Robinson?”
“Call me Nicholas.”
“Nicholas.” Ulwin flashed a sudden grin—wide, uninhibited, animalistic. “In all the years I’ve acted as my father’s agent, never has an interview gone so wrong.”
“Yes, well, doubtless you never dealt with so recalcitrant a subject. But remember, I am the only eunuch for at least a hundred miles.” Rising, Nicholas limped to the drinks cabinet where the decanted port waited, pouring them each a glass. “It’s my solemn duty to shock newcomers.”
Handing Ulwin his glass, Nicholas returned to his seat, stretching his aching legs toward the fire. Storm-Born’s hooves had broken his pelvis in two places, snapping one femur and cracking both kneecaps. By the time Nicholas regained enough consciousness to realize the full extent of his injuries—he’d lost not only his health, but his manhood—the ache in his bones had kept him grounded. It was impossible to imagine oneself in a waking nightmare when the pain was so very real.
“Usually I never drink wine.” Ulwin took a small sip of port. “Yet this evening I consider it very welcome. Regarding your … unfortunate history. Might I trouble you for one last detail?”
Nicholas nodded, looking forward to the question. Perhaps he was even beginning to enjoy Ulwin’s company. Distraction was priceless. In his early days as a cripple Nicholas had thrown tantrums. Wept, cursed God, even burnt a Bible in the greatroom hearth, shoveling coal atop the book when its oilskin cover wouldn’t catch alight. But now, four years hence, he’d learned to exist almost entirely within the confines of his skull. He could no longer hunt, fish, ride, or sample the joys of the flesh. He would father no child, nor grow old with the satisfaction of seeing his family name carried on. So any diversion from the hell of his own thoughts was a blessing indeed. “Mr. Ulwin….”
“Bancroft,” Ulwin interrupted. “Or Ban, as most call me.”
“Ban. We’ve progressed beyond the mere civilities. Ask me whatever you wish,” Nicholas said, and meant it.
“After all you suffered, I merely wondered. How fares your brother-in-law, Peyton?”
“Yes.” Nicholas looked into his wineglass. He didn’t feel sad. He didn’t feel anything, except guilt, white as lime and grinning like a deaths-head whenever he closed his eyes. Men feared pain and sadness more than anything in the world, but it was guilt that endured, outlasting all, impervious to decay.