heatherroneous

Two Souls

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London, 1863

 

The rain pelted the windows in an endless, monotonous rhythm, just as it had done for nearly a week now.  It was a cold, sullen November storm, accompanied by howling winds and frozen nights.  And though the grand old house dominating the Rothwell estate had been there for more than a hundred years, even its proud and stark stone facade looked like it was shivering in the chilly, relentless rain.  

 

Peter Rothwell stood at the window in his late father’s office, watching the water slanting down the panes.  The day was grey and dreary, the memory of sun and warmth all but drowned in the downpour.  He barely registered the heat of the fire roaring in the grate just a few feet away.  â€œPost a letter to the Duchess and let her know that we are unable to fulfill her request,†he said over his shoulder to a middle-aged man who sat nearby with a notebook.  â€œThen go and see the harbourmaster about the most recent shipment.  It should arrive this evening.  Take Hale with you.â€

 

“Yes.  Very good, sir,†the man replied, closing his notebook.  He stood, and when Mr. Rothwell didn’t turn around, he gave a little half-nod and saw himself out.

 

The door clicked shut, and Peter let the sound of the rain envelop the room.  Outside, he could see tall, old oak trees swaying and trembling in the wind.  Will it never end?  He released the breath he’d been holding and turned on his heel, walking swiftly toward the western wing of the great house.  His footsteps rang out on the shining lacquered floor as he strode toward a large room situated at the end of the long hall.

 

Inside, it was dark, the drapes drawn against the hazy grey light peeking in through the windows.  A single gas lamp stood in the corner, its light turned down to barely a flicker.  Anything more was too much for Simon Rothwell’s eyes.  Anything more would have him writhing in pain, despite the repeated administration of oral laudanum by his nurse.  

 

It shouldn’t have been like that.  Simon was only thirty-seven - a full ten years older than his brother Peter, but not an old man by any means.  Yet his body was failing him already.  A degenerative disease, the doctors had said.  Hopeless.  Simon’s life was ending rapidly.  

 

“He’s having a good day, sir,†the nurse said, smiling sweetly as she saw Peter enter the room.  She stood, giving a respectful nod as he stepped inside and shed his jacket.  â€œHe’s been asking for you.  He was even sitting up at breakfast.â€

 

Peter showed her a polite smile.  â€œGood.  Thank you.  Will you leave us for a while, please?â€

 

“Of course, sir.† Again the nurse nodded and took her leave, slipping out the door behind her employer.  When her footsteps had faded, Peter slowly crossed the room and took up her chair beside the bed.

 

Simon was pale and gaunt against the royal-blue bedclothes.  His breath rattled in his throat like an old man’s, and sweat shone at his temples.  But his eyes were open and he was looking at his brother - the nurse was right; this was a good day.  There was no laudanum clouding his gaze.

 

“The Chinese investor... should be arriving tomorrow,†Simon said, gesturing vaguely at a thick pile of correspondence on the bedside table.  â€œI trust you’ll… meet him… on Thursday?â€

 

Peter inclined his head.  â€œI intend to,†he replied, scanning his elder brother’s face.  It was strange to see his eyes so clear, their stormy grey such a perfect reflection of his own.  It had been months since he’d been without the laudanum long enough for this sort of clarity.  Peter knew enough about the dying to know this was not a good sign.  Death is often preceded by an uptick…  Their mother had rallied in the month before her end, as well.  â€œYou needn’t worry about the business affairs.  I have everything in order.â€

 

Simon sighed wearily.  â€œThe distraction… was welcome.† The elder Rothwell frowned up at his brother then, his left hand lifting weakly to touch the twelve-hour growth of stubble along Peter’s strong jawline.  â€œYou don’t look well, yourself.â€

 

Stiffening, Peter took his brother’s hand and placed it gently atop the bedclothes.  â€œI’m fine,†said Peter, firmly.  He straightened his narrow shoulders ever so slightly, drawing himself up to avoid his brother’s scrutiny.  He ran a hand back through his short black hair, smoothing it back, exposing his high, pale forehead.  â€œI’m tired,†he added.  â€œI suppose I'm still unused to keeping such hours.â€

 

A knock interrupted them, and the door popped halfway open to reveal the head butler.  â€œForgive the intrusion, sir.â€

 

“It’s fine, Garrison.† Peter waved him in.

 

Garrison stepped through with a half-bow.  â€œI’m to tell you that this evening’s shipment has come early.â€

 

“Very well.  I’ve already sent Strickland and Hale to receive it.â€

 

“Also, Doctor Lyman will be arriving shortly as well.  The train was delayed.â€

 

With a frown, Peter glanced at the clock on the wall.  It was after two already.  He hadn’t realised.  â€œFine.  I assume you've prepared his quarters?"  He waited for the butler's nod and then continued, "I’ll receive him in my office.  Take him there, when he arrives.† He stood, straightening his expensive suit and pulling his jacket on once more.  â€œI shall be in the library in the meantime.â€

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"Francis Lyman," the man murmured quietly to himself, gazing out of the rain-streaked windows. A blanket of grey clouds weighed heavily on the sky, but he didn't seem to notice them at all. Rather, his eyes were unfocused and he spoke slowly and deliberately, as though committing the name to memory. "Fran-cis Ly-man. Doctor Lyman. Doctor Francis Lyman. Doctor Francis?"

The name was unfamiliar, as was the reflection staring back at him through the glass. His dark brown hair was cropped short, and the thin-rimmed spectacles resting on the bridge of his nose framed green-blue eyes, the color of the ocean surf. The figure sat upright, looking professional in a plain, dark suit with a new traveling bag on its lap. If only it would be enough to hide him. They must be looking for him, but maybe this would buy him enough time to find a real way out.

"Sir Rothwell." He softly continued with his odd mantra as the scenery passed by unnoticed in a monochromatic blur. Stained fingers rolled a cigarette, tightly binding the tobacco into the paper before lighting an end and settling it in his mouth. The warm smoke filled his lungs, soothing his nerves and fighting the autumn chill. "Simon. Peter."

He knew little of his new employers but their names. Yet, he wondered what sort of men in positions such as theirs would hire a relatively unknown doctor to tend to the ailing head of the family. Doctor Lyman was young, almost fresh out of the medical college and with only a few simple cases under his belt. There was nothing to recommend him to such a house, so he could not help wondering... They couldn't know, could they? But of course not; otherwise, they would have most definitely refused to even consider hiring him.

As the train slowed to pull into the station, Francis shifted to his feet, eager to be off. He'd felt trapped, stuck on the train with nowhere to run away to if he'd had to, no intricate labyrinth of alleys in which he could lose a pursuer. The instinct to hide had been burned into his very soul from practice, knowing how to get lost in the crowd, to pass unseen. But that had been a lifetime ago; there was no reason for a young doctor to know how to live like a guttersnipe. So he calmly called a porter to carry his luggage as he disembarked into a dismal afternoon.

It didn't take long to find the carriage that his new employer had so graciously sent to meet him, and Francis was soon clattering toward the Rothwell estate. The horses kept up a good pace, trotting easily down accustomed paths with only the lightest guidance from the coachman. The austere building that rose out of the gloom looked every inch as he'd imagined it would, an immense, imposing grey. There would undoubtedly be many servants inside, maybe some guard dogs. They'd need a team to case the place, maybe even get someone on the inside--

Frowning, the young doctor shook his head vigorously, chasing the thoughts away. By the time the carriage pulled to a stop, he was composed once more, straightening his suit as he obediently followed the butler to a small study. Everything in the manse exuded subdued opulence: the expensive woods, the intricate craftsmanship, the rich cloths. Even the young master was a vision, dressed simply in an outfit that could feed a man for a month.

"Sir Peter Rothwell, I presume?" Francis inquired, his voice soft and unassuming as he inclined his head respectfully. "I am Doctor Francis Lyman. I believe that you have requested my services?"

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