In the end, she couldn’t write the letter herself. The simple salutation had paralyzed her. “Dear Mr Ferguson” was too cold, even for their legal relationship, and read too much like a letter to her husband. “Dear John”—no one had ever called him John, even if he perhaps used that name now. “Dear Jack” was impossibly familiar. In the end, she asked the family solicitors to write the letter, and if they found it odd that she did not wish to communicate more personally with her stepson, they kept it to themselves. She did not allow herself to wonder what Jack would think, and his reply did not enlighten her; it was a telegram, stating only the day of his arrival in England and signed “J. Ferguson.”
Her son was not yet home from school; his father’s death had been so sudden, and only a week from the end of term, that bringing him home early seemed impractical. He would come home the day before Jack’s arrival. Meantime she occupied herself about the house, wishing for Dolores with a fierceness she had not felt since the months after the girl’s death years ago. The slow string of days between her husband’s death and her son’s return were like purgatory.
Though it was only May, it was hot the day her son Michael came home. She went to meet him at the station. He had grown since she had last seen him several months ago, but he seemed to crumple in her arms—only a boyish fear of public embarrassment, she knew, kept him from sobbing then and there. Once home he listened, quiet and white-faced, to her short account of his father’s quick and painless death, and after an early tea shut himself in his room. She went to her husband’s study and sat in his chair, gazing silently about the room as she had done each day since his death. She quashed the thought that she would not have many more days to do this, before Jack took possession of the house; at last she took down her husband’s battered edition of Kipling, opened it at random, and began to read.
Michael came down for dinner, red-eyed and looking as though he had been asleep. They barely spoke, until at the end of the meal she put her fork down across her plate and said, “Your brother is arriving tomorrow.”
He stared, mouth open, as if waiting for her to say more, and when she didn’t, he demanded, “Where has he been? How did you find him?”
“The solicitors have always known where he was—I believe he was in America somewhere,” she said shortly, hoping that he would see her reticence and refrain from further questions. No such luck, when it came to her son.
“Well—what is he like?”
“I’ve not seen him for eleven years. You’ll have to see for yourself. You are excused, Michael.” He lingered as Joan cleared the plates, but she forestalled any further questions by retreating to her bedroom. Later that night, before she went to bed, she could hear his footsteps hesitating outside her room. She sat still, watching the shadows under the door shiver as he shifted uncertainly, until he moved away. She thought perhaps he barely believed in his brother’s existence; his father had scarcely spoken of him—she suspected out of deference to her feelings—and save for two old photographs of Jack as a child, there was nothing in the house to prove he had ever been alive. It must be a shock for Michael to remember that the house in which he had lived all his life now belonged to this phantom.
* * * * *
Jack did not arrive the next day until it was nearly dark, and she and Michael were just sitting down to dinner. They heard Joan open the door, a few murmurs in the hall, and then Jack appeared in the dining-room doorway, hat in hand. He was taller and broader—of course—and his hair had darkened a bit. He stood straighter than he ever could as a boy, though he leaned upon a handsomely carved cane. He looked shockingly like his father, and suddenly she could feel the tears she had not yet shed pressing behind her eyes. He did not so much as glance up at the Peruvian weapons lining the walls.
He came to her chair first and made a little bow, but did not offer to take her hand. “I hope your journey was pleasant,” she said, thinking of all the guests she had received in this house over the years: he was just one more. She could mouth the pleasantries still.
“Very, thank you. I had almost forgotten the countryside. And the house.” He kept his eyes on her as he spoke—those curious light eyes—but his head was canted, unconsciously she thought, toward his brother at the other end of the table. Michael was openly staring, nearly out of his seat.
“Have you eaten? We have only just sat down.”
“I ate at the station, thank you.” Eyes still fixed on her face. Jack, she realized, would not look at or acknowledge his brother until she did. His face was totally blank. She waved Michael closer, and Jack straightened. He turned at last; Michael halted about a foot away, and she found that she was holding her breath. The two watched each other—she could see Michael’s face, all eyes, over his brother’s shoulder—until Michael held out a hand. Jack took it and they stood silently until Michael said, hoarsely, “Welcome back.”
Jack’s shoulders seemed to sink almost imperceptibly, and after a long moment he said, tone only slightly forced, “You’re considerably taller than when I saw you last.” Michael’s face split into a relieved grin, and she had the fleeting thought that Jack could not have chosen a more perfect first remark. She wondered how long it had taken him to think of it.
* * * * *
When she came down the next morning there was no one about but Joan, laying the breakfast table, who murmured a good morning. She returned it, then drew close and said quietly, “Where is young Mr Ferguson?”
“He went out for a walk, ma’am. Early.”
“How much luggage did he bring?”
Joan was too well-trained to look surprised at any question. “Only a little bag, ma’am, what you might call a valise.”
She seated herself as Joan went out, and considered. Perhaps he was only staying for a short time. But that hardly seemed feasible, considering the legal duties and everything else he would have to look after, as new master of the house. He likely was thinking of buying new clothes—English clothes.
Jack returned shortly, slightly windblown but bearing no signs of the strain that such a walk would have caused when he was a boy. He greeted her, sitting down and laying his cane carefully to one side, and they made small talk about the village and its characters while Joan served breakfast. Halfway through the meal, he asked tentatively about Michael.
“He is at school most of the year,” she said, pouring coffee for them both. “He gets on very well there.”
Jack fiddled with a spoon—the first nervous movement she had seen since his arrival. She believed that his father, had they met in the street, would not have recognized his excitable child. “He seems—younger—than I thought. Thirteen?”
“He’s very like you.”
“You must be glad of that,” she said, and almost bit her tongue when he looked quickly up at her.
The question was plain on his face, though he kept silent, and she answered it. “He doesn’t know. He knows you went to sea as a boy, but your father told him it was because you wanted it.” Please don’t tell him, she added silently, though she couldn’t think why he would cast himself as the villain when Michael was already so clearly fascinated by him. She feared something, though all reason told her that Jack was plainly past what her husband had called, painfully, “all that.” To be furiously jealous, as a sickly and supplanted boy, of a healthy and adored small brother was perhaps understandable; to be jealous of the same small brother when he is a skinny schoolboy and you are an independent and prosperous adult, newly come into your inheritance, would be grotesque. Nevertheless she could not forget the taste of her baby son’s blood in her mouth.
When he stayed silent, she went on: “The solicitors are coming tomorrow to look over the estate with you. Your father left the bulk of it to you, with a stipend for me and for Michael’s school fees. The house of course is yours.” She stopped, unable to ask the vital question: should she and her son begin packing? She could imagine it so easily. Michael would go back to school, would not mind much; neither would she, terribly. She would get a little house and put up Peru on the walls like a shield against the English countryside. If it weren’t for her son, she thought, she would be on a ship already. But even as much as she longed for home, something in her burned at being so easily evicted from her home of sixteen years. And by Jack!
He said something noncommittal, and the meal went on without further conversation. Michael came down a bit later, seeming subdued by the quiet house, and Jack spoke with him a bit about school. She found herself listening intently to their exchanges, as if to a foreign language she did not quite speak.
It was a long, slow day. She spent as much of it as was polite in her room, needlework stretched undisturbed across her lap, while Jack went methodically through the house, surveying everything with the same impassive face that he had shown her at his arrival. Michael tagged at his heels, taking his brother’s silence as apparent permission to offer a running commentary on anything Jack seemed to linger over.
Dinner that night: Michael chattered, Jack watched Michael, she watched Jack. She could not reconcile the nervy, passionate boy who had never quite been able to mask his hatred for her with this attentive, unrevealing guest who now owned the very chair in which she sat, and she wondered again what his father would have made of him. She thought he would have been proud; as for herself, she was uncertain, and hated her uncertainty. It was too easy to imagine the boy Jack, cultivated all these years within the grown man, watching each bite his brother took with a malicious anticipation. But even apart from the little, lingering fear twining itself through her mind, his interest in Michael surprised her.
Proper family feeling, she thought, hearing the words in her husband’s voice as she always did. The words of the will marched inexorably through her head. And to my son John, Cheeseman’s and all its incomes and furnishings, save the stipend for my wife. He had not changed his will after Jack left, and she had not dared to ask, even in the blaze of fury and fear surrounding “all that.” The heat of the old emotions had died, after all these years, but they tasted all the more bitter now for it.
She knew forgiveness was a virtue. She should have demanded the will be changed.
* * * * *
The solicitors, Baring and Gould, came the next morning at ten. She had only met them a few times before her husband’s death, and had never enjoyed it: Baring was a little foppish man who seemed to chew his words before he spat them out; Gould a great cadaverous man who never looked her in the eye. Together they always managed to put her thoroughly on edge, and she suspected that her accent, her coloring, and even the heavy silver cross around her neck had a similar effect on them. They greeted Jack with an effusive, relieved welcome: glad, no doubt, to be saved from years of dealing solely with her.
The three men disappeared into her husband’s study almost immediately, and remained cloistered for nearly an hour before Michael clattered up the stairs to her room with a summons for her. She found them sitting around the desk, all three in the stuffed armchairs that occupied nearly every room in the house, and she took pleasure in watching the solicitors’ faces as she sat carefully in her husband’s great carved chair behind the desk. Jack’s was of course blank, but there were strained lines about the mouth and eyes, and he was paler than he had been before.
Baring read the will through aloud, with much throat-clearing and many ostentatious pauses; when he finished she felt an impulse to applaud. The gist of it was the same as it had always been: the house and everything belonging to it went to Jack, as did the majority of the money, including the rents from the tenant farmers and cotters; but Michael’s school and university fees were to be paid in full, and a small yearly income was left for her, as were her Peruvian things and the jewels her husband had given her. To anyone outside the family—to Baring and Gould—it was a perfectly fair will. She could feel the rage a first reading of it had produced in her welling up again, and she said nothing, prickling with the awareness of Jack’s eyes on her. There were several documents for her to sign, mostly on Michael’s behalf, and then the interview was over.
She and Jack accompanied the solicitors to the door without speaking, and when she turned towards the stairs he put a hand on her arm. To her disgust she flinched very slightly, and he withdrew it immediately. “I didn’t know,” he said, hardly above a whisper. “I thought my coming back would be a formality—believe me, I didn’t know he would chain me here and leave you houseless.”
She had been looking steadily at nothing, biting down on her anger, but now she glanced up at him. He met her eyes, and she knew that the same memory was in both their minds: the weight of the cane in her hands, the sound as it struck him again and again. He had made no noise, she remembered; the thought was oddly calming.
“I knew,” she said. “I knew for years. I never dared to ask him to change it. That was what he was. Proper family feeling,” she said, hearing again the echo of her husband’s voice as Jack’s eyes fell.
“I can’t live here,” he said, still with eyes averted. “You should stay—I’ll go back home. You needn’t see me again.”
“Jack,” she said gently. His name in her mouth brought his eyes up, startled. Her tone was the one she used to her own son. She had reached her decision during his confinement with Baring and Gould. “I cannot live in your house.”
* * * * *
He had left—fled—after that exchange, out for another long walk around the fields. Teatime had come and gone without him, Michael once again subdued and moody, escaping outside himself as soon as they had finished. She sat in the little parlor and watched the sun sink, listening to the clock, until she heard Jack’s uneven step at the door. He came in without a word, crossed the room, and stood by the fireplace for a moment before leaning his cane against the wall, picking up one of the little china dogs from the mantelpiece and turning it over in his hands. The dying rays of the sun striped the wall just above his head, leaving the rest of the room dim. “It would be easier for all of us if it were sold, I think,” he said quietly.
She sat totally still. She could not tell what he meant, and it chilled her.
He looked up, not at her but at one of the family portraits above her head. “I don’t want it. You don’t want it. Michael doesn’t care as long as you have a place to live. Father certainly doesn’t have a say in the matter any more.” He replaced the china dog on the mantel.
“Where could we go after you sold it?” she said hoarsely. “We have no other home. I only have a little money—barely enough for my own costs—”
“I wouldn’t sell it,” he said. The sunlight had moved down the wall. “You would.”
She couldn’t breathe.
“I don’t want anything to do with it. I have my own home and property, and I certainly don’t need to pauperize you less than a month after my father’s death. I won’t stay in England after the legal formalities are done. You have the guardianship and you shall have the house, and you can do what you like with both. I don’t intend to come back.”
He looked down again. The sunlight fell across his shoulders and head, setting his hair aflame and throwing his face into shadow. She couldn’t guess at his expression. He seemed to be waiting for her to speak, and when she didn’t, he stooped and retrieved his cane. When he stood, his face was once again blank, and he weighed the cane in his hand for a moment, gazing around the room, eyes lingering again on the portraits.
“There are a few things I would like,” he said finally. “From the house. Not much. Nothing I imagine you would miss.”
She made herself nod.
Jack went slowly to the door, and stopped. “I think…. I am glad I met him.” He was looking at a framed photo sitting on a little table, of Michael as a small boy, and his hand on the cane’s head had relaxed. “I had imagined him,” he said, “all these years. What he would be like.”
He stepped out, leaving the door ajar behind him.