That spring, there were long evenings when I sat at my writing table, my thoughts shredded small and gray as ashes at the end of a day, with the sensation that something had been drawn out of my chest, leaving me hollow. Whereas once I scribbled madly, as my characters spoke and moved for themselves, now the thought that my publisher expected another novel in a month filled me with a rising tide of dread. One night, I didn’t even pluck the pen from its stand. I merely watched out my window, as shadows dropped over the gated park across the way and the gas lamps sparked to life among the elms.
The doorbell rang, and distant as it was, the thin, tinny sound sent a shock of heat down my arms. My gaze leapt to the clock on my mantel: half past ten.
There was no earthly reason I should have thought of Lewis. He’d been away in Africa for over a year, and on the rare occasion when I saw his wife Charlotte at a dinner or salon, as one does in London, she’d made no mention of his imminent return. But against all logic, into my mind came the moment when I was ten, Lewis a year older, and he’d fallen out of a tree. I’d been looking for colored stones in the creek when from behind me came a thump and his faint cry, and I’d whirled to find him on the ground, perhaps twenty yards distant. I don’t remember running, but I remember kneeling over him. He lay so still, I was afraid he was dead. “Lewis!” I cried out and clutched his shoulders. His eyes opened, large and brown and stunned. And I’d nearly shaken him for scaring me so. He had nothing more than a sprained ankle that mended in a week, but the shock of the event had lingered with me, and I do believe I observed him attentively for some weeks afterward, having been made suddenly aware of how fond I was of my bumbling, bookish friend.
The doorbell sounded again. Thankfully I was still dressed. I took up the lamp and hurried along the upper hall and down the stairs. My maid Mary arrived at the foyer the same time I did, her own lamp shaky in her hand. “Goodness, mum,” she said, her eyes wide with alarm.
“I know. It startled me as well.” I peered through the peephole and saw Lewis and gasped in surprise at the coincidence of his appearance.
She let out a small cry. “Who is it?”
“It’s all right. It’s just Mr. Ainsley.” I handed her my lamp, spun the key in the lock and opened the door. The night air held a cold edge, and I beckoned. “Goodness, Lewis! Come in!”
Wordlessly, he stepped over the threshold and removed his hat. Dear God, he was painfully thin. In the light from our lamps, his cheekbones jutted against skin that had been browned by the African sun. His brown eyes were somber. “Gwendolyn,” he said and then his eyes shifted. “Mary, I’m sorry I frightened you. I know it’s late.”
“Not at all.” I shut the door, shivering in the cold, and put out my hands to clasp one of his. “When did you arrive home?”
“I’ve come from the train.”
Yes, his clothes bore that metallic smell one acquired from boat and railway travel. I glanced at Mary, whose green eyes were wide and watchful. “Tea, please, Mary,” I murmured. She nodded and headed toward the kitchen.
“I won’t stay long,” he said.
“No matter.” I waited for him to undo the buttons and remove his coat. He moved stiffly, as if his knuckles and shoulders ached. We entered the parlor and I set the lamp on the table and poked at the red-edged coals, tonging some from the hod. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lewis shiver violently, and I added a few more. He had sunk his long limbs into a chair, resting his elbows on his knees. He wove and rewove together his ink-stained fingers in a restless, nervous way very unlike him.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “You don’t look ….”
He gazed up. “I expect I don’t after seven bouts of jungle fever.”
I stared. Seven! No wonder he looked unwell. “Mr. Stanley mentioned his own case in his dispatch, but he didn’t mention anyone else.”
“No, I’m sure he wouldn’t,” he replied dully. “I believe his dispatches were intended to entertain.”
“Did anyone else suffer it?”
“Everyone,” he said in a tone of bleak acceptance. “Hooks, Devereaux and Wilson died of it. None of the natives were affected. Tewkesbury and I were the only white men to come out alive.” He paused. “Aside from the great explorer himself, of course.”
The bitter note in his voice surprised me. From childhood, Lewis had been owlishly bookish and shyly but earnestly curious. He’d taken a brilliant first at Christ Church and now, as a member of the learned Metaphysical Society, he advised Sir Edward Thornton of the Privy Council and wrote essays for a highly regarded London periodical. He was ever hopeful that a widespread understanding of political economy would resolve the problems of the world and he had faith that human nature at bottom craved justice. I’d never known him to be jaded or bitter or cavalier.
We sat in silence until Mary brought the tea things, setting the tray on the table. I smiled my thanks, and with her eyes speaking volumes, she nodded and vanished.
I fixed his tea with two sugars and handed it to him, then drew my chair closer and took time over my own, so the warm fire and the tranquil silence might work upon his nerves. He stirred and sipped, the very acts of normalcy seeming to settle him a bit, and I held my tongue. Lewis didn’t do well with being rushed. I made a show of relaxing back into my chair and enjoying the fire, but I observed him all the while. Perhaps it was a trick of the shadows, but his expression reflected an uncertainty that made him look younger than his twenty-seven years.
He’d been ten the first summer he’d come to stay with us at Blenham House. He was the son of one of Father’s friends, and selfishly I’d bristled at having to entertain a stranger for six weeks, much preferring to be able to read and wander and ride horses whenever and wherever I chose. I watched the carriage roll up the gravel drive from the window-seat in the room that had once been the nursery, but was now our playroom, with my sister Celia’s paints and easels, some of our books, a harpsicord, and an old wooden stage we used for puppet shows. My father sent the maid to fetch me, and I’d come with ill-grace, sulky about being dragged away from my book and down to the parlor for the mandatory introduction. Lewis was a thin, dark-haired child, a few inches taller than I, with brown eyes that looked owlish behind his glasses. His shoulders rounded forward, and he had a way of tipping his head slightly. Later he revealed that his right ear was more acute than his left.
Father asked me what I’d been doing that I wasn’t downstairs to welcome our guest, in a tone that made both Lewis and me flush. I replied that I’d been reading and didn’t hear the carriage—which made Father scowl in disapproval at both my transparent lie and my rudeness. But after he’d dismissed us and we were climbing the stair to the playroom, Lewis shyly admitted sometimes he didn’t hear noises around him when he was reading, and—he added, as we reached the upstairs landing—sometimes he pretended he didn’t hear them, just so he didn’t have to stop. That bit of candor made us friends and allies at once. Indeed, there was never any coyness or pretense between us, which is perhaps why our friendship never developed into anything warmer. Though most people wouldn’t admit it, deceit has its place in romantic love, as we often conceal the worst of ourselves until after we are properly besotted. Lewis and I, on the other hand, were frank from the first. We’d been children together, and allies, during a time when the world seemed to me less defined by loss and trouble. Aside from Celia, there wasn’t anyone else for whom I’d make that claim.
Lewis set the cup into its saucer and balanced it in his left palm, gazing at me with an expression that suggested he felt at once resolved to speak and at the same time laboring to restrain himself. “Gwendolyn, I may—if I—that is, I may soon need a confidante—and—and someone to help me with something important. If I tell you something—something difficult to hear—something horrifying, that might upset you greatly—could you bear it, in silence—for my sake?”
The incoherence and obliqueness were so unlike Lewis, I didn’t answer at first.
“Could you?” His voice broke. “Could you swear?”
I swallowed down my surprise, together with a small measure of reluctance. I was one of his oldest friends, certainly, but Lewis knew people who would make better advisors on serious matters. I nodded. “Of course.”
“And refrain from telling anyone—even Celia.”
“Yes.” My sister was in Italy with her husband, recovering, but that wasn’t something I needed to explain now. “What’s troubling you so?”
He shook his head. “I don’t—that is, I can’t say as yet. But I may … need to rely on you.”
“For anything. You know that.”
There was a moment of silence. Then as if the thought surprised him: “Yes. I suppose I do. It’s why I’ve come here, after all.” He gave an audible sigh. “Thank you.”
My concern and curiosity were blazing like the flames rising from the coals, and I had a dozen questions I might have asked. I sifted them for one I thought might enable him to speak of what was troubling him: “Was Africa so very terrible?”
“Beyond words,” he replied softly. His dark eyes met mine—and then, as if to protect me from his recollections, they jerked to the fire. And then, almost inaudibly, “I’d no idea.” He looked down at the porcelain he held and gave a small, short laugh. “Look at this,” he said, as if it were something ridiculous.
“The cup? Or—or the tea?”
He looked up and smiled bleakly. “One comes back from such a place to find something like this, lovely and fragile—and yet it remains unbroken by everyday use. It’s marvelous, really—and one can’t help but feel as if … as if one will never find one’s footing here again.”
At the strange reply, all other questions died on my lips.
After a moment, he set the marvelous teacup and saucer on the table and asked, with something of his old manner, “Have you seen Charlotte?”
“A few weeks ago. The Marshalls had a small dinner party.”
“Does she look well?”
“Good.” He took a deep breath in and let it out as he stood. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” I rose and followed him to the front door, helped him into his coat, and handed him his hat. I tried to smile, and the one he managed one in return caused me impulsively to put my arms around his neck as if we were still children. A moment’s hesitation, and he returned my embrace, awkwardly, as if he were out of practice. Which, I suppose, he was.
“Thank you,” he muttered huskily, and then he opened the door, said that he would see me soon, and was gone. Through the window, I watched him walk to the end of the street and turn for home, which wasn’t far. I wondered what Charlotte would say when he arrived. I hoped she was at home to give him the welcome he deserved.
Mary appeared at my shoulder. “Is he all right, mum?”
Her single pointed question bore the weight of the dozen she didn’t ask—and that were pelting me. Why would Lewis come here before going home to Charlotte? How had Lewis—who’d suffered pleurisy as a child—survived seven bouts of fever? And what had happened in Africa to trouble him so? Mr. Stanley’s dispatches had been so cheerful, full of wonder, and triumphant. Naturally, he had practical reasons for telling a story that would earn him plaudits for that particular brand of pluck that we like to think of as eminently British. But why could Lewis not even allude to what horrified him? Why did he look so uncertain? Had the jungle fever affected his ability to remember?
I looked at Mary and replied to her expression. “That was very odd,” I agreed. “I’m glad he’s home safely. He probably just needs rest.”
Mary locked the door, and I had headed upstairs for bed. As I set the lamp on my desk, my eye was caught by the pages I’d been writing. The scene that had been taking shape in my head seemed clever and blithe but lacking in substance. My mind full of misgivings, sleep eluded me until well after the church bells rang their round, echoing dozen.