Sweet strains of music floated out from the violin’s strings and filled the room with rising, dancing notes. His eyes were closed; his body rocked slightly as he drew the melody from the lacquered wooden box. He was a young man, tall but with a full frame, and his face showed no trace of the storm that raged within him. There was only the music, overpowering and strong. The song grew in fullness and beauty, working its way up to a glorious crescendo before settling into the slow, graceful conclusion.
He released a long breath and wiped the sweat from his brow with the cuff of his shirt. Shaking his head, he placed the violin and bow down on a cushioned chair beside him and slumped back in defeat.
On the other side of the room, a woman sat on a low couch with her head tilted to the side, watching him with wide, compassionate eyes. “Well, I thought it sounded charming, Victor.”
He glanced up in surprise and grinned at her. “My apologies, Mother. I didn’t know you were here.”
Her graceful lips parted in a broad smile. She was still an attractive woman at forty-five, and the silver wisps amidst her black tresses gave her the added appearance of a woman who could age with grace. “It was really quite beautiful. Did you write it?”
“Yes, I wrote it. All in my head, I’m afraid—perhaps I should write it out on paper.”
“And for whom is this piece written? You certainly put your heart into it.”
“I…I don’t know that I had anyone particular in mind when I composed it.”
She raised a skeptical eyebrow, tapping a finger against her cheek. She tried to hide the telltale dimple of her smile, but it was impossible. “You know, son…Anna Nelson’s birthday is coming up tomorrow. Were you planning to attend the ball?”
Victor stood and stared out the window for a long moment, his hands clasped behind his back. If he met his mother’s gaze, he knew she would be able to peer straight into his heart. “I don’t know. I guess I hadn’t thought about it.”
She huffed and stood up, walking across the carpeted floor until she was beside him. “Come now, Victor. I know you don’t like the social pressures of these gatherings, but it would be good for the community to see you there. You’ll be off to open your practice in
London soon enough, and I
know some of the people around town have been asking about you.”
“Including Lady Nelson. She says Anna speaks of you often. Apparently she hasn’t forgotten your years of friendship as quickly as you have.”
“Please, Mother. I haven’t forgotten.” His voice became suddenly wistful as he gazed out over the gardens. “But it’s…different now.”
“Is it? I heard a familiar refrain worked into the harmonies of that song. Do you remember how it went? It was your song—don’t you remember? The two of you used to sing it together all the time.”
Victor gritted his teeth. “I remember it well.” He turned and smiled at her sorrowfully. “And you’re right, of course. The song is for her. But I doubt she’ll ever hear it.”
“You should at least go to the ball. You were friends all through your childhood—you owe her that much.”
“Yes.” He breathed deeply and nodded. “I know.”
“Well,” his mother said. “You certainly have your father’s stubbornness, Victor McNeill. It’s what I get for marrying a Scot.”
“Thank you for your concern, Mum. It’s just that I’m a little…a little preoccupied right now. The life of a physician will not be an easy one for me, I think.”
“But it is a worthy one, son. And I am proud of you.”
Victor nodded and leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek. “I don’t think I’ll be home for dinner tonight.”
“Oh? And where are you going, young man?”
“I’m going to meet Ruben down at the old abbey.”
“And then to the pub, probably?”
He gave her a playful wink. “Who can say where the road may lead us, Mother? It’s an immense world out there.”
He made his exit quickly, pleased to see that she let him go without an argument. She didn’t approve of his drinking habits, but it was something she had gotten used to. Mister McNeill himself often took a flask of scotch or brandy around with him. The pub could be a raucous place, but there were few better spots at which to enjoy the company of the men of the town.
He rushed out the front door and clambered up into the little carriage that stood just inside the gate of their palatial home. “Julius!” he shouted.
The elderly black servant appeared out of the gatehouse and smiled pleasantly. Julius had been with the McNeill family for at least twenty years—since before Victor had been born. He was a short man, and his black hair, which clung to his head in tight curls like a skullcap, was now tinged with gray throughout. He was strong in body, but had become slower with age. Even so, he still loved to work the gardens and insisted on driving the carriage for any and all occasions.
“Master Victor,” Julius smiled and bowed low.
“Can you take me to the old abbey?”
“Of course, sir,” he replied, stepping nimbly up onto the thin platform that formed the front of the one-horse coach.
As they rolled down the well-worn path toward the main road, Victor smiled brightly. His eyes took in the scenery around him—the gently rolling terrain of
Kent, from which the grand spire of
the cathedral rose like an arrow pointing toward the heavens.
A fiery young Irishman, the son of immigrants who hailed from the
, Ruben was a stout
youth who was often too quick to speak and even quicker to act. The adventures
they had shared in Shannon
were many, and the two young men had endeared themselves in the hearts of most
of the residents. There were some, however, like Mister Williams the butcher,
who were less than fond of them, having been on the receiving end of too many
of their ill-conceived plans. The clerics in the cathedral also kept a watchful
eye over the two of them, ever since their unannounced theatrical re-enactment
of the murder of Thomas à Becket—the sainted hero of the Canterbury cathedral—during an Evensong
Ruben’s family of twelve—he was the third of ten children—was fairly poor, and most winters were trying times for them. They were too proud to accept charity from the church or from the McNeills, and they refused to take out loans to cover their expenses. Even so, they always managed to come through the difficult times with a song and a smile. And that was what Victor really admired in them—it didn’t matter so much whether they were rich or poor, Irish or Scottish or English, but that they had the resolve of character to face life’s furies with joyous abandon.
The little carriage rumbled down the incline of the street, passing the old chapel of St. Martin and turning a corner to come to an overgrown field. It opened onto a splendid view of the cathedral rising from in the middle of the city, but what had always fascinated Victor was not that great edifice of stone, but the ancient rocks that stood directly before him now, scattered throughout the field. They were the ruins of the Abbey of St. Augustine, some of the oldest remnants of the first wave of English Christianity. He and Ruben had spent many hours tracing out the lines of the ancient walls, deciding which room was used for what purpose, and using it as an imaginary castle for their fantastical adventures. More often than not, it had ceased to be the home of monks and abbots and had become instead the Camelot of King Arthur and his bold knights. They always felt at home there. There was something old and sacred about that place, as if the remembrance of those pious monks of years gone by still lingered in the grassy sod—it was still an accepting place, and many times that old abbey had seemed to welcome their laughter and good-natured antics.
“Thank you, Julius,” he called out, banging his hand against the side of the carriage a couple times as he leapt out.
“My pleasure, Master Victor,” Julius responded with a smile. Victor never tired of seeing him smile—that flash of joyous white against the darkness of his skin was beautiful, and his eyes had a special twinkle to them.
“Julius, my good man!” a voice called out from the field. Within few moments, the ruddy face of Ruben appeared. He bounded over the stones and ran up the grassy slope to the side of the carriage.
“Good afternoon, Master Ruben.”
“How are your carrots coming?”
“Oh, they’ll be splendid this year,” he winked. “Just put some of the seeds in the ground this morning, actually. I can tell already—this is a good year for growing. You can smell it in the earth.”
Ruben smiled brightly. “You’ll have to lay aside a few for me come harvest.”
“You have my word, Master O’Connell,” he bowed from where he sat on the carriage. Cocking his head toward Victor, he raised an eyebrow. “Should I make a swing by the pub this evening?”
“You’re a good man, Julius. We’ll be waiting for you.”
“Very good, sir. Have a pleasant afternoon.” With a quick flick of the leather reins, the horse jumped to a trot, and the carriage rolled on past them and disappeared around a corner in the street.
Victor turned and glanced at his friend. They were of the same height, but Ruben’s build was more like a river barge than a man. His shoulders were broad and strong, matching in physical power the intensity of his character. Ruben always asserted it was a hereditary trait, a necessity for his Irish forebears who spent long days stacking bricks of peat from the bog. He returned Victor’s gaze, his green eyes flashing mischievously.
“Well, old friend, what say you?”
Victor smiled. “Do we still have those bows and arrows we made a couple years ago? I thought we hid them here in the abbey somewhere.”
“I think we buried them behind the altar of the chapel.”
“Maybe we could see if they’re still in good repair, and go hunt some pigeons in the wood.”
“Aye,” Ruben grinned broadly. They raced off down the grassy slope, and as they neared the ruins of the abbey, Ruben leapt over and tackled his friend. It was a time-honored ritual of their friendship—they wrestled about in the grass for several moments, grunting and snarling like beasts as they flung each other over down the incline. Eventually, however, Ruben’s strength won out, and Victor was forced to surrender with a laugh. There had never been a fight that Ruben didn’t win.
They rose, brushed off their clothes, and continued on. No section of the abbey had more than a few stones standing on one another—it was all open to the elements, and they quickly found the chapel and leapt over the little wall. Digging up the sod behind the altar with their hands, they found there what they sought—the crudely-fashioned bows and arrows of yew that they had left there before Victor’s departure for
London. The strings had
rotted away, but Victor was able to quickly replace them with a ball of string
which he claimed he had brought along for just that purpose. As they strung
their bows, they sat on opposite sides of the chapel, facing each other with
their backs against the stones of the low wall.
“So, Victor,” said the young Irishman, “you’ve been home from school for over a month now. What have you been up to? I haven’t seen quite as much of you lately.”
“I’ve been busy, Rube. Trying to get organized to go back to
be working as an assistant to Dr. Taylor in his practice for a year or so, then
I hope to open up my own somewhere in the city.”
“Are there any pretty girls in
“A few, perhaps.”
“Perhaps? Listen, you can be a fool when it comes to women, but even you notice them.”
“Let’s just say that I haven’t found any there that I would entertain thoughts of marrying.”
“Would you entertain other thoughts about them, then?”
“Of course not!”
Ruben shrugged with a smile. “Just asking. Someone has to keep you accountable.”
“And you think you’re a good man for the job? You’ve broken more rules in this town than any man in the history of
You probably would have been hanged if you had lived a few hundred years ago.”
“Aye, I suppose,” he chuckled. “It’s getting harder to find time when I’m not working in the fields or the shop, though. All my wondrous creativity is going to waste. I even thought about running off and joining His Majesty’s Navy for awhile, but my family still needs me here.”
Victor nodded. He held up his newly-strung bow and gave it an experimental tug. “You could come to
London with me, you know. There’s
plenty of work to be found, and you could send some money back home to your parents.”
“Why would I want to go there? You just said there weren’t many pretty girls. I think I’ll take my chances around here. I still have a shot at wooing that lovely young lady—what’s her name?—oh yes, Anna Nelson.”
Victor shot him a dry look. “You would have a better shot at her if you became a seaman, I think.”
Ruben threw back his head and laughed. “You, my friend, are helpless! The only reason I have a shot at wooing her is because you move far too slowly.”
“Perhaps. But I want you to come with me to her ball tomorrow, so you can have your shot then.”
“Ah, so we’re to attend together! Wonderful! Which one of us plays the lady? I hope it’s you, because I look frightful in a dress.”
“If you try to go in a dress, these arrows will quickly turn from pigeons to find a larger, more Irish target.”
Ruben laughed and sprang up from where he sat. Tucking the arrows beneath his belt, he ran over and hoisted his friend to his feet. Together, they raced off through the open cloister of the old abbey, making for the wood on the eastern fringe of the city. They prowled through the undergrowth for an hour, taking shots at any bird that flew into their field of view, but with little success. Despite their many years of trying to play Robin Hood, their aim still often went awry. They tired of the sport after awhile, and surrendered their bows to several younger lads who had been following them about.
They wandered back into the city and found Patrick, the aging fiddler who earned his keep by filling the streets with music. He was standing in the shadow of the great stone gate, a remnant from medieval days. Some passersby scowled darkly at him, but most were fairly generous, and he always greeted them with a smile and a “God bless you”. Victor and Ruben took up positions on either side of him and formed his choir section, which delighted him to no end. They sang their hearts out for nearly another hour, laughing and clapping along to the old folk songs. With the pressures of becoming a doctor looming over him, Victor relished the experience—for one last time, he could be a child. His world was changing so quickly, but for those few moments, he was able to seize those years that had slipped by and hold them to his heart once more.
And despite his mother’s disapproval, they did end up at the pub, where they were greeted cheerily by a score of the town’s men. The talk that night revolved around the same subject that had dominated conversation for months, even years—a squat, power-hungry Corsican warlord named Napoleon Bonaparte. Ruben quaffed his ale, and Victor his rum, while they shook their fists and shouted along with the other men in mutual rage over the pretentious Frenchman who had overrun Europe. They sang together their songs of war—songs mocking the French for their bloody revolution of a decade past, other songs mocking Napoleon and la Grande Armée, and still other songs lauding the feats of Admiral Nelson’s boys at
Trafalgar. Thomas Ramner’s pub resounded with the shouts of English
patriots that night, their tongues more than a little loosened by the fiery
It was several hours later, while Ruben and Victor were smoking their pipes in silence, watching the smoke drift lazily up to the ceiling, when the door of the pub flew open and a young boy rushed in. His face was flushed, and he strained for breath as he peered around the hazy interior of the pub. It took a moment for Victor to recognize him, even when he rushed directly up to their table.
“George Stanton,” he said after a moment, regarding the brown-haired boy closely. He was trying hard to catch his breath, but he gestured toward the door with his eyes wide.
“What is it, boy?” Ruben pressed him. “Come on, get it out.”
“Mister McNeill, sir,” he gasped, “your Negro, outside. Some men are beating him with sticks!”
Victor smashed his pipe down against the table and leapt up, propelling himself toward the door. Ruben followed close behind, his face a grim picture of focused determination. Their blood was running swiftly now, aided in no small measure by their drinks, and they burst into the street with a roar. They could hear it as soon as they were outdoors—the sound of the dull wood slamming against flesh, the cries and shouts of the fight. With a roar that made his throat burn, Victor launched himself into the mass of bodies. There were four of them there, mostly young men, perhaps a few years older than he was. Julius was still on his feet, trying to defend himself with his arms while they rained down blows on him left and right.
“Bloody Negro!” one of them shouted, only to find a moment later that he was face-first on the cobbled street, a crimson stream pouring from his nose.
Ruben and Victor tore into the four men with a furious passion, swinging their arms as forcefully as they could. Victor caught one of the men in the gut, and he doubled over immediately. But as Victor turned, a wooden plank seemed to fly out of nowhere and struck him directly across the face. Blinded and confused for a moment, he collapsed to the street on top of the battered form of his servant. Before he could rise again, a booted foot began smashing his ribs and the plank came down hard against his back again.
With a cry of fury, he mustered his strength again and launched himself like a sprinter into his attacker. Tearing the board out of his hands, they wrestled for a few moments, exchanging blows and curses back and forth. After a few moments, the other man threw him off, kicked him one last time, and scrambled off into the darkness. Victor looked back to see Ruben standing triumphantly over the unconscious forms of the other three men. His lip was still curled back in rage, as if daring any of the assailants to regain consciousness while he was there.
A fair group of people had gathered in the street around them—the entire pub had emptied to watch the brawl, and had been joined by a sizeable crowd of wide-eyed passersby. Victor cursed under his breath and crawled back to where Julius lay. The old man’s eyes were closed and blood covered his face from a cut on his forehead. But his broad, powerful chest was still heaving for breath, the air rushing into his lungs in ragged gasps.
“Julius!” he said, his voice hoarse. “Julius, can you hear me?”
Quickly examining the wound on the servant’s forehead, he sucked in a sharp breath between his teeth. It was a deep cut, showing the smooth white bone of his skull. And like any head wound, it was bleeding profusely, trickling down to form a crimson puddle in the street.
Someone knelt down beside him, and he glanced up to see a young woman with long brown hair, an expression of concern on her face.
“Is there anything I can do?” she asked, meeting his gaze.
“Do you have a clean kerchief?”
She nodded and handed over a square piece of white linen, which Victor immediately pressed down over Julius’s wound.
Ruben bent down, his fists still clenched at his sides. “Will he be alright?”
“I hope so.”
The young woman pointed to his leg. “I think he’s broken something there, too.”
Victor looked down and nodded. Julius’ left leg was bent backwards in an unnatural position. “It looks like he’ll have to wait awhile before he can get back to tending his carrots,” he muttered. “Come on, Ruben. Help me bring him to the carriage. And be careful of his leg.”
The two young men gently lifted the unconscious servant and carefully laid him on the seat of the carriage. Ruben leapt up to the driver’s platform and snatched the reins, while Victor turned around to find the young woman still standing there.
“What’s your name, Miss?” he asked, breathless from the fight. Blood was pouring from his smashed nose, and one of his eyes had already swollen shut, but he paid the wounds no heed.
“Patience,” she replied. “Patience
“Alright, Patience, do you know where Dr. Simons lives?”
“Can you go get him, tell him what happened, and make sure he comes out to the McNeill house as quick as he can?”
“Of course,” she nodded. Turning, she raised her skirt a few inches and began running down the benighted street.
Victor leapt up beside Ruben, and they were instantly in motion. They rode slowly, making certain that the bumps and holes in the road wouldn’t jounce Julius out of the seat. Though it felt like an eternity, it was no more than a few minutes before they stopped and bore him inside the large house.
Victor called out for his parents as soon as the door was open, but he didn’t wait for them to appear. Taking Julius into a side room, they laid him down on a low couch. Victor knelt beside him and saw that the linen kerchief was already sodden with blood.
“Ruben, go to the kitchen and start some water boiling over the fire. And grab my medicine kit from my chamber. I may have to try and close this cut before the doctor gets here.”
The Irishman rushed out of the room and clomped off down the hallway. Victor began to wipe the sweat from his face with his shirt sleeve, and it was only when it came back with a scarlet stain that he realized that he was also bleeding. It took him a minute to clean up his face and stop the flow from his nose, but he kept an ever-watchful eye on Julius. Kneeling at the side of the old servant, Victor placed a hand on the man’s chest, still moving faintly with the rhythm of his breath.
“Stay with me, Julius.”
A few moments later, Victor’s parents burst into the room, worried expressions on their faces. Aidan McNeill was nearing fifty, but in many ways he still appeared to be a much younger man—only the silver in his beard betrayed his age. That evening, though, he appeared far older, with lines of worry creasing his face as he paced back and forth, his eye constantly on the unmoving form of his loyal servant. His wife Clara stood near the back of the room, biting her lower lip in tense anxiety. The dimness of the light from the two oil lamps in the room only heightened the sense of desperation. Victor wished it was daytime, so that at least the sight of the warm sunlight streaming through the windows would bring some hope.
Ruben returned within a few minutes with a bowl of steaming water and Victor’s black leather bag. But Victor had only had time to examine the wound briefly before a knock came at the main door of the house. Ruben rushed out to answer it, and Dr. Simons appeared, followed close behind by Patience. They were a little surprised to see that she had chosen to come along with the doctor, but by that point they were grateful for any support, even from a stranger.
Dr. Simons was a short, fat man who had a tendency to waddle rather than walk. But he was a brilliant surgeon and a good friend of the McNeills, having saved Clara from a bout of pneumonia years before. Later, he had taken Victor into his practice as an apprentice of sorts, and he proved an able teacher as well as a kind companion. He knelt down at Julius’s side and quickly inspected the forehead wound and the fractured leg. He worked quickly and quietly, cleaning the wound and then binding it again to staunch the blood flow.
As he worked, Patience came up beside Victor. “How does it look?” she breathed.
“I’m not sure. It’s a bad wound.”
She nodded and focused her attention on Dr. Simons again. Victor watched her with curiosity. He didn’t remember seeing her in
before, so he had no idea where she had come from. But he had been in London for two years, so
there was a fair chance that she had arrived during that time. She was an
attractive young woman, perhaps seventeen or eighteen years old, as far as he
could reckon. But what caught his attention more than her appearance was her
concern, her action on behalf of strangers. He smiled slightly. It was a good
feeling to know that even in a world at war, there were still those with the
courage to stand up and help the fallen. It was that dream that had led him
into medicine, and to see it so clearly in this young woman was a comforting
Patience had not escaped Ruben’s eye, either. Within a few minutes, while the McNeills watched Dr. Simons quietly go about his work, he had drawn up to her side, and they spoke quietly to one another for awhile.
After nearly an hour, Dr. Simons turned around and drew in a deep breath. “I’m doing everything I can, Mister McNeill,” he addressed Aidan. “But we should put this into the hands of a far more skilled Healer. You know as well as I that prayer works wonders.”
Aidan nodded grimly and drew Clara to his side. “Come, friends,” he spoke, his voice slightly hoarse. “Come, join with me in prayer for Julius.”
Dr. Simons nodded his approval and returned to his work, while the other five joined hands in a circle. Aidan McNeill, the proud son of a Scottish Presbyterian elder, had been raised in pious faith, and he felt unashamed to show it. He dropped to his knees, and the others followed in like fashion.
“Let us seek the Lord’s face together,” he said softly, then bowed his head. The other four closed their eyes obediently as his voice began to fill the room with their plea for healing. He prayed for several minutes, asking humbly for the Lord’s blessing upon Julius, and he ended with a whispered “Amen”.
“Amen,” the other four repeated. They released one another’s hands and stood again, still watching as Dr. Simons began to construct a splint around Julius’s leg.
Victor loved and respected his father’s piety, and his own faith had been reinforced and strengthened by that humble man’s example. But even so, he was always a bit uncomfortable in such situations. What does one do after kneeling in the presence of the Most High? What should he say to his friends after such a heady moment? So they merely stood there, silent, and watched. Clara’s hands were clasped and pressed against her mouth, her eyes still closed, and Victor knew she was still in prayer.
Just then, another knock came at the main door, and Ruben strode out to the hallway to answer it. After a few moments he returned, this time followed by a tall, elderly man in a butler’s suit. Victor recognized him instantly—this was head servant of the house of Lord and Lady Nelson.
He bowed in the doorway and fixed his gaze on Victor. If he was at all taken aback by the young man’s ragged appearance—his blood-encrusted nose and swollen eye—he made no indication of it.
“Master McNeill,” he intoned.
“Oliver. What brings you here tonight?”
“I was sent by Miss Anna,” he said, his voice even. “She wished to remind you that she hopes you will accept her invitation to come to the ball tomorrow evening, as she has heard no reply.”
Victor exchanged glances with his mother. He walked over and whispered in her ear.
“Should I go, what with Julius’ condition? Maybe I should be here to watch over him.”
“Don’t worry about it, son,” she replied softly. “If he needs further care, I know Dr. Simons will stay with him as long as possible. I’m looking forward to seeing Lady Nelson again as well, so you had better make an appearance if I do.”
Victor nodded, drew a deep breath, and faced the butler again.
“Well…yes, yes, I’m planning on coming, as are my parents. Please give Anna my apologies for not responding to her first invitation.”
“Very good, sir,” Oliver said, and began to bow.
“One more thing, though. I’d like to also bring along my dear friends here.” He motioned to Ruben and Patience, who exchanged a bewildered glance.
Turning, Victor looked at them quickly. “Would you like to come? It’ll be a fine party, I’m sure.”
Ruben immediately nodded. Patience seemed a little less certain, and she hesitated for a moment. But in the end she nodded, breaking out into a bright smile. “Yes, of course—as long as that’s alright with Miss Nelson, of course.”
Oliver allowed a slight smile to raise the corners of his mouth. “Quite alright, I’m sure. Miss Anna had already anticipated Master O’Connell’s presence should you have decided to come. Her hospitality is open to all. May I have your name, Miss?”
And please give my thanks to Miss Nelson for her gracious allowance of my
“Of course, Miss Carmichael.” He turned crisply on his heel and walked out the door, apparently oblivious to the friendly slap on the back that Ruben gave him.
Victor watched him go and released a heavy sigh. He really did want to see Anna again, but part of him was dreading the meeting. The two years of separation had changed them both, and he feared that their close friendship was now to be merely a fond memory of years gone by.
While Victor’s thoughts were whirling about such things, Dr. Simons rose to his feet and turned around. His face was drawn, but impassive as he faced the family.
“I’ve done what I can do,” he said softly. “The wound is closed and his leg is set. He also has some broken ribs, so you must be very careful about moving him. There may be some internal bleeding in his head, but it’s impossible to tell at the moment. It’s in the good Lord’s hands now. My hope is that he may wake up by tomorrow morning, and if that happens, there’s a good chance that he’ll make a recovery. But I doubt he’ll be doing much more physical labor for the rest of his years.”
Aidan nodded and thanked him. The doctor smiled wearily and announced that he would return in the morning to check in once more. Patience left with him after telling Victor where she lived, so that they would be able to pick her up before the ball.
“In fact,” she said pleasantly, “unless you’re detained here, why don’t the two of you join my family for supper tomorrow? We can proceed to Miss Nelson’s party afterwards.”
“That sounds lovely,” Victor said with a bow. “Thank you.”
They departed, leaving the house in silence.