No wonder Fred insisted I come. This party is…torture. Though John was loath to use that word to describe something so…trivial, even if this dinner didn’t feel trivial. This evening of strained silences, and biting conversation—underscored by the terrible storm outside, batting at the windows, whistling through cracks as if determined to demolish Aconite house.
Potentially a welcome relief…
But yes, John hadn’t understood Fred’s begging. He’d visited here often since they’d been friends, and Fred knew he was between cases. Since they’d met five years ago, having taken lodgings in the same building in the city—John starting his private enquiry business, Fred…enjoying life’s delights seemingly without a care—their friendship had deepened, and Fred became…the family John had lost long ago.
Over the years, they’d shared much, Fred eventually revealing the sorrowful loss of his mother, and his father’s…unyielding temper; which had led many to speculate Mr Willcombe had had a hand in his wife’s death. John had only ever seen Mr Willcombe as maudlin, or opinionated—and though he knew the relationship between father and son was…strained, he’d never seen Mr Willcombe as Fred described.
Loathed. A mean drunk.
The others of this party couldn’t be deemed much different. In fact, if not for Fred—and yes, delightful Miss Powell—he’d have left.
He’d met them all before, save for the elderly Hansons, newly arrived to the area—harsh-featured, the lines and pull of their skin suggesting bitterness. It was the usual assortment—neighbouring landowners, tradesmen, the magistrate, and Dr Merrow—but John had never seen them so…grim. As if the cloud which perpetually hung over Aconite House—typically beaten back with good cheer—had infected them.
Even the servants.
John risked a glance at Miss Powell, currently refreshing the sideboard.
There was tension in her he desperately wanted to relax—
‘Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of Mother’s death,’ Fred whispered, leaning over. He smelled like all the liquors he’d been imbibing since before John’s arrival—though the bonhomie Fred had earlier displayed dwindled with every passing hour they spent catching up. ‘This is meant to be some sick celebration.’
‘I’m sorry, Fred,’ John said gently. Fred nodded, their eyes meeting, long-held grief illuminating the bloodshot brown eyes, before he shuttered it away. ‘You should’ve said.’
‘Probably. Sorry, old chap.’ Fred shrugged wryly, bitterness sharpening his handsome features, as his eyes danced around the table. ‘This year Father wanted…a show. Though if it were truly to celebrate her, he might’ve invited more who knew her; only Merrow and the widow Keller did. And inviting the latter is an insult considering how Father carried on with her after Mama died.’
John started at the unfamiliar venom of Fred’s tone, and made to reply, but a loud bang shook the table—and everyone in the room.
They all turned to find Mr Willcombe’s thick fist on the table, crystal still rattling.
‘Stop whispering like a weasel, boy,’ Mr Willcombe growled, as Fred straightened defiantly. ‘You’ve got something to say, say it!’
The room held its breath, knuckles whitening, as the air thickened.
‘I’ve much to say. Though nothing… Well, perhaps it can be said in such company as you’ve seen fit to invite.’
‘You have airs, for a waste of time, money, even air. I should disinherit you!’ Willcombe spat, and Fred laughed.
‘Go on then, Father! T’will be the final nail in your coffin, and I’ll no longer be forced to endure your insults to Mother’s memory!’
‘How dare you—’
Fred leapt up, heaving and wild, ready to crawl down the table, and pummel his father.
John stood, setting his hand on Fred’s arm.
‘I’ll escort Fred to his rooms,’ he said conciliatorily, whilst everyone just watched; enjoying the show. ‘He’s not himself,’ he added, steel in his voice, as he turned to Fred, warning him not to argue.
Fred accepted his defeat, and nodded, his anger fading to make way for wrenching heartbreak.
‘Thank you for dinner, Mr Willcombe,’ John said, letting his disgust of the silent assembly show.
Fred allowed John’s steady escort from the room, but at the foot of the hall stairs shrugged him off.
‘I’m sorry, John. I shouldn’t have… It doesn’t matter. Leave in the morning. While you still can.’
‘I’m fine, John. Go enjoy yourself if you can,’ Fred chuckled mirthlessly, cold in his eyes that made John’s spine tingle. ‘Find that maid you like, do something nice. Lord knows this house needs some joy. At the very least pleasure.’
And with that, he stomped up the stairs, the growing distance feeling like an impassable chasm.
Let him sleep it off. Speak to him in the morning.
A solid plan. The only John could make, standing there, trying to shake off the terrible gloom, and strange sense of…foreboding.
Unwilling to go back to the party, in too sombre a mood to seek out Miss Powell, and make good on his promise to ask her…more, John went to bed. The crashing rain, booming thunder, and wicked wind kept him restless for hours, until finally, he found sleep.
All will be well in the morning.
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