"Well, he had brought this being to life. It was up to him now to teach the child how to live. Fortunately, he knew something about survival. But he could not coddle the child when it cried. That he could not do, for he had no knowledge of how. As if the babe knew this, its wailing petered out. Man and boy studied each other.
"I'll do what I can," True muttered gruffly. "I make no promises."
It was all new to him. To them both.
The babe raised a fist toward his face and shook it.
"Just like your mother," he sighed.
It was some time before he realized his son was trying to reach his nose, not blacken his eye. They would be at similar cross purposes for many years to come." — From the Memoirs of True Deverell.
"Children are an extraordinary inconvenience, always wanting attention. At least Ransom was a quiet baby. Although, I suppose I would not have heard him crying from my suite at the other end of the house, in any case. Thankfully." — Lady Charlotte Rothsey Deverell.
"Brat will end his days swinging from a gibbet. And good riddance." — Evelyn Bond, Nanny.
"The upstart put me face down in the privy and ruined a very good cravat. Now that I am minded of it, I shouldn't be a bit surprised if the blackguard stole my pater's gold watch. It seems they'll let anyone into Oxford these days." — The Honorable Cedric "Drippy" Pennington-Whittmore.
"Infidele! Sans coeur! L'homme impossible!"— Belle Saint Claire (Mademoiselle), Stage Artiste of Popular Renown.
"He is worse even than his father; a despicable scoundrel, a sybarite without conscience."— Anon. of Mayfair.
"One (1) Brovver For Sale: Free to good howme. Or any howme."— Raven Deverell, (seven and three quarters), in a note left on park railings.
"Who?" — Miss Mary Ashford, proprietress of Beloved Books, Trinity Place, London.
Brimstone and Treacle
Hell was considerably colder than he'd expected. Somebody must have let the fire go out.
In that dream-like moment, while his soul escaped for a wander and left his body falling through the air uninhabited, young Ransom Deverell felt quite certain the end was upon him.
Some would say, "Not before time considering the way he lived his life." But there was no one there to say it just then. The last human sound he heard that night was the excited shriek of a woman's laughter, just before it was abruptly silenced.
And her name was Sally. Sally White.
Yes, he finally remembered the name of his recently acquired traveling companion. Like shot, clumsily discharged from an old blunderbuss, his mind fired off little sparks of thought and memory as he watched her body and his, tossed through the air.
Sally White, barmaid at The Fisherman's Rest, was also the former mistress of his older half-brother. She hadn't seemed to notice that Ransom couldn't recall her name all evening. Now, only when it was too late, he remembered.
The sudden silence felt ominous, for although he knew little about her he did know that Sally was not a quiet woman. With terrible certainty, therefore, Ransom could arrive at only one conclusion. She, like him, was dead when she hit the cold, hard ground. And although her hands were the last to hold the reins, folk would assume he had killed her with his well-known recklessness. There would be no one left alive to tell what had really happened.
But after a while— he had no idea how long— he felt his drifting spirit slip reluctantly back inside the familiar body. It moved very slowly, making great objection, like a little boy who, while longing to stay outside playing cricket in the last glimmer of summer daylight, was forced indoors by Nanny for a supper of tasteless, gelatinous dumplings and lukewarm, greasy mutton broth.
"This will chase those wicked, restless demons out of you, brat. And the bowl will be clean, young sir, before you leave that table. However long it takes and however many curses you mutter at me under your breath."
Nanny Bond. How unfortunate that in his last moments he should think of that mean-tempered old harridan. There had been a lot of nannies, but he remembered Evelyn Bond as the worst because of her obsession with forced feedings, followed by the liberal dosing of brimstone and treacle. And her favorite torment for the sick child— senna and prunes.
Perhaps Evelyn Bond was now an Imp of Satan come to fetch him. Would it be his punishment to spend eternity abandoned to her company again?
There was still no sign of Hell's fire. In fact, he was colder than ever.
Although his brain gave them no command, he knew his fingers clawed mechanically at rough grass. Brisk night air fluttered against his wide-open eyes, yet they saw nothing. His mind continued firing sparks of memory from the flared muzzle of that imaginary flintlock blunderbuss.
If only he had not encountered Sally White in need of rescue that afternoon and offered her a ride in his smart, new curricle. But when he saw her flashing money about, boasting loudly of a win on the horses, attracting the attention of unsavory characters, he knew somebody had to help her get home. Meanwhile, Ransom was meant to be travelling to his father's wedding, and it just so happened that any delay, any distraction from that journey, was a welcome relief. So he bought her dinner before they set off, and a great deal of wine was consumed.
Alternately laughing and screaming, Sally had begged for the reins and he, in a moment of drunken foolishness, had let her take them. He recalled a flash of her wheaten curls bouncing under a cheap straw bonnet, and her plump, wine-stained lips opened as if they were mid-summer petals on a blousy rose, almost past its peak. She wore cheap scent, so pungent that it became sickening.
There was an instant when the rare commodity of doubt had shimmered and fluttered out of the blackness, like an anxious moth tapping against a window, drawn to the light of a candle.
Perhaps he ought to get the reins back from her, he'd thought in that sliver of clarity. This was, after all, a brand new curricle and had cost him a pretty penny.
Too late. She would not relinquish control and when he no longer heard hooves on stone, Ransom realized she must have steered the horses off the road. Far from town then, they hurtled forward into the thickest, wildest darkness of the moor.
Suddenly the wheels had encountered a rough dip and then a boulder. As he lunged for the reins again, there was an almighty crack and he flew out of his seat. It felt as if his spine had just been rammed up through the back of his skull.
So there he was, his fingertips digging into cold earth, blood in his mouth, and a horse pushing at his foot as if to jolly him along, reminding him of their destination.
"Good of you to get here at all, I suppose." The horse took on his father's voice. "Might have known you'd be late for your own funeral!"
Would anybody mourn for him? No. He was an "unwanted, unlovable boy". Where had he heard that? He didn't know. The sparks would not fire for that one; instead there was a dull thud. Powder must be damp or the flintlock jammed.
Was it odd that he felt no sense of terror, merely anger and frustration? Probably not. Deverells were known for their audacity, a fighting bravado that never backed down or gave in. Amongst other, less admirable, things for which they were known.
The crumpled, dour face of an Oxford professor loomed out of the dark to lecture, "I am sad to say, Master Deverell, that despite your apparently vast, provocative, inventive and colorful command of the English language, you have no understanding of the word 'fear'. Like any other moneyed, twenty-one-year-old, determined malefactor, you have no limits. The world is yours to plunder. Women are plentiful, pleasures so abundant that they surpass your own ability to consume them all— certainly exceed your patience to fully appreciate each one— and youth, in your eyes, will last forever."
At the time this speech was uttered, it had floated into Ransom's ears only to be escorted out again with the mental foot-to-the-breeches alacrity he preserved for any such cautions and sermons. But on this darkest of all nights, three years later, he quite suddenly remembered every syllable.
The ease with which he had sailed through his studies, without seeming to put much effort into them, had been a great irritation to those university tutors. They'd viewed his success with skepticism, as if it were a conjurer's trick. After all, his father was nothing more than a self-educated foundling, who made his fortune from gambling, and who might be— so the rumor went— American, of all things. Although the staid, hallowed halls of Oxford University were occasionally forced to accept other young men of the "noveau riche" class, there were none quite so new, nor so filthy rich as a Deverell.
"I merely advise caution," that grim professor had continued gravely. "Luck and youth are not infinite, nor do they come without cost. Eventually you will find yourself presented with a bill. One your father cannot pay for you."
On the moor that night Ransom suspected the account had just come due.
Something evil hovered nearby. Was it spiteful, cruel Nanny Bond with her brimstone and treacle? He would fight her. He was bigger and stronger now, and if she tried to put that bloody spoon near his or his little sister's lips again, he would fight the bitch with everything he had. Suddenly his spirit was fully re-awoken, inhabiting his veins, muscles, and sinews with renewed vigor, his tongue ready to spit and curse.
And so he didn't die that night after all. The thought of Nanny Bond waiting for him on the other side made Ransom even more determined to live. Which, as it turned out, was another form of punishment.
Just as he knew they would, many folk believed Sally White's death to be his fault. Even when it was later discovered that she had survived the accident and wandered away from the curricle, only to stumble upon another man who took advantage of her wounded state, stole that money from her purse, beat her and left her face down in a stream, people still held Ransom accountable for her even being there on the moor that night. His name was forever linked to the tragedy of Miss White's demise— to such an extent that many doubted the official verdict in the case and "knew" he should have gone to the gallows. For something. Anything.
He had probably used and abused poor Sally, they said. Although, in life she had few friends, and many critics who called her a slattern— and worse— in death she became the girl they all pitied, a lost, ill-used creature. An angel for the downtrodden. Those who once joined in the scornful chorus of sanctimonious jeers and would never have lifted a finger to help her while she lived, now cried the loudest about how so much more should have been done for her. The angry mob looked around for reasons why their "Own Dear Sally" had suffered such a tragic end, and Ransom Deverell, an outsider, was the perfect target for their self-righteous anger. It didn't matter that he'd been one of the very few who ever tried to help her.
One only had to look at him, they said. Just like his notorious father, he was a cocksure, irreverent fellow of indeterminate pedigree or class. On the surface he appeared indifferent, cold, while on the inside there were, according to rumor, unplumbed depths of sin and depravity.
No, they didn't like him, never trusted him, never thought he'd amount to anything. He'd even shot at his own father once, so who knew what he could be capable of next? Ransom Deverell, they were sure, had got away with murder. He was wicked, irredeemable.
He heard it so often that he too believed it.