A funeral was the culmination of a contest – sickness, accident, age, it mattered not – in which Death was the victor. The deceased was the vanquished and Death’s prize was a black draped catafalque.
In this case, the coffin of James Roberson, twenty-five.
Grant Roberson, the 10th Earl of Straithern, stood beside a marble encased pillar, unwilling to join his mother in the family pew. He would be trapped there while the rest of the congregation stared at the back of his head, no doubt hoping for a reaction. They would be doomed to disappointment. He had no intention of expressing his grief for his brother in public.
The chapel was a sea of black: hats, veils, mourning suits, and dresses. The hundreds of candles could do nothing to illuminate the shadows since even the day was leaning toward darkness. The fog outside seemed to permeate the very brick, pool at the feet of the congregation, and hover below the casket as if impatient for the moment of his interment.
“My condolences, your lordship.”
Grant turned his head slightly, glanced at the man who’d been the Roberson family physician for two decades, and nodded.
Dr. Fenton’s appearance was such that people tended to overlook him. He was short and bewhiskered, with a bulbous nose and a rounded chin. His brown eyes were often filled with kindness, but their expression was hidden behind thick spectacles. When he was distressed or anxious, or most insistent upon a point, he removed them and polished them with his handkerchief or his cuff, or whatever piece of clothing presented itself.
Now, he was diligently rubbing at the frames with the hem of his waistcoat.
“I did all that I could to save him, your lordship.”
It hadn’t been enough. But now was not the time to condemn the man’s methods or the fact that he’d also been unable to save his youngest brother six months earlier. The physician would be the first to explain that medicine was an imperfect science.
Perhaps Grant should have enlisted the aid of the nearest wise woman instead.
“We need to examine you at your earliest convenience, your lordship,” Dr. Fenton said in a low voice.
Grant took advantage of the choir’s interruption. A dozen angelic boyish voices spiraled toward the vaulted ceiling, marking the beginning of the service.
Dr. Fenton, however, was not daunted. “The sooner, your lordship, the better.”
Grant folded his arms and stared down at the stone floor. “I hardly think this is the proper time to discuss my health, Dr. Fenton.”
“I can think of no better place, your lordship.”
Was the man joking? A swift glance assured Grant that he was not. There was nothing remotely amused about Dr. Fenton’s sober expression. Instead, the man’s gaze met his directly, forcing Grant to think about something he didn’t particularly care to consider at the moment.
In a month, a week, a few days, he might well be the one resting on the catafalque before the altar. Who would mourn him? His over burdened mother? By rights, no woman should have had to endure the death of a husband and two of her sons. Would his death be the final blow? Or would she simply endure as she was now, stiff and silent, unbending in her grief?
“Tomorrow,” Grant said. “That’s time enough. Surely I’ll survive until tomorrow. You can examine me then.”
The physician nodded, and had the tact to move away, leaving Grant to his contemplation of mortality.
A blood disease. In the midst of attending James, Dr. Fenton had hinted as much. A hereditary anomaly. Grant was, like his two brothers before him, doomed.
James had died five days ago, just as Andrew had six months earlier. Their symptoms had been eerily similar: lethargy, followed by an unearthly paleness as if his body was being readied for the state of being an angel. During the last week, he’d unable to keep anything on his stomach. When he’d died, he’d looked like a skeleton.
He could not be dead. James was annoying and boisterous, forever ridiculing those things Grant held so dear. His laughter and wit were sometimes too cutting, his appreciation of women and drink too encompassing. There was too great a silence in the world now and there was a yawning hole in Grant’s life.
He could almost imagine his brother’s comments at this moment, as if James stood beside him watching his own funeral.
“Older brother, must you look so dour? I know we Scots are supposed to be a somber race, but you can crack a smile for me at least. If for no other reason than in memory. Surely there are some good times you can recall.”
Grant felt tears pepper his eyes and stared resolutely ahead, refusing to give in to a public demonstration of grief. Whatever he felt was private, not to be shared. The 10th Earl of Straithern must, at all times, remember his position in life.
Not one whisper must carry about his behavior. Not one rumor be repeated, or one story told.
Chilled air wafted along the floor, crept up his trouser legs. If he didn’t know better, he’d think that James’s spirit was trying to get his attention.
“Come, Grant, how difficult is it to get a smile out of you? I swear, you’ve got the fiercest look on your face.”
He couldn’t smile. He’d somehow lost the ability in the past few weeks, ever since he’d sat at James’s bedside and watched him slip away.
He’d been his brothers’ protector ever since he’d returned to Rosemoor on holiday from school at sixteen. The second night home he’d been awakened with the news that the 9th Earl of Straithern had taken his own life. A few days later, he’d stood at the gravesite with his brothers, still children, and counseled them in a low voice.
“It looks dark now,” he’d said. “But we’re together. We’ll overcome this and soon there will be brighter days ahead.”
How many times was he to bid a member of his family farewell?
His fingernails dug into the palms of his hands. Let him concentrate on physical discomfort rather than grief. Let him think of the future, of the design for the electric magnet he was perfecting, anything. Perhaps, then, he could endure the pain of this moment.
James’s spirit was finally mercifully silent.