Master of the Moor – Emmanuelle de Maupassant

LORD MALLON DE Wolfe, Viscount Wulverton, drew out his hipflask and called to the driver to get a blasted move on. He’d been fortunate in finding a cab waiting at the Marseille dock, and had promised double fare if they reached the train station before ten o’clock. Mallon had a first-class sleeping compartment booked and intended to make good use of it. It had been a damnable day, a damnable week, and a damnable journey. With no berths available on the only passenger liner departing Constantinople, he’d been obliged to join a cargo ship. Not that he’d cared about the lack of comforts—nor the stench of sweat and latrines—but the confounded vessel had barely been seaworthy. They’d crossed the Sea of Marmara, past the Greek islands and the toe of Italy, before the water sloshing onto the lower deck required all hands—his included—to take shifts at the bilge pump. They might have diverted to Corsica for repairs, but he’d insisted they press on. Between them, their crew had been capable of keeping the boat afloat, and he’d been eager to press on. A few more days delay on top of twenty-three years might have seemed irrelevant, but Mallon was a man of sudden moods, and his mind was set upon reaching the country he’d left so long ago. In some respects, he’d welcomed the physical effort, rather enjoying rolling up his shirt-sleeves. He had a great deal more brawn than most men of his age, thanks to his soldiering days and his fondness for pugilism. Nothing eased the temper like a few heated rounds in the ring. Before long, he’d dispensed with his shirt altogether and applied himself like the rest, taking turns perspiring in that furnace-of-an-engine room to keep the dratted boat from sinking them to Neptune’s embrace. The journey had reminded him of his army days, when he’d been hunkered around the mess table, sharing whoever’s cigarettes were dry, and eating sausages hot from the pan, paired with the standard ration of dry biscuit and a tot of rum.

Not that he indulged in nostalgia. After all those years serving with Her Majesty’s Kabul-Kandahar Field Force, he had nothing to show for it but a shoulder that ached every day! They’d gotten most of the shrapnel out, but something remained—a souvenir as unwanted as the memories that went with it. Much good it had done him to be mentioned in dispatches for ‘outstanding courage under fire’. The accolade didn’t bring back those who’d fallen beside him. He’d watched men’s bones shatter and watched them bleed and die. As for bravery, he’d done nothing more than keep himself alive—and others as best he could. Mallon swigged down the last of his flask, wincing as the harsh aniseed of the arrack hit the back of his throat. It was one thing they hadn’t been short of on the boat—among two hundred cases of the stuff, no one had missed a few bottles. He rested his head against the coolness of the window, watching the passing street lamps as the coach clattered up the rise of the Boulevard Voltaire. So much time had passed since he’d walked away from his legacy, and the past ten had been a shabby excuse for a life.

It had been hard at times, in Constantinople, but the city offered anonymity. There, he was no one and nothing, and it was easy to find oblivion in the opium rooms, seeking escape from his regret and anger. Now, all that was going to change. He was going to change. His father’s death had seen to that. News of his passing, like that of his brother Edward over two years before, had come too late for Mallon to attend any funerals. He might have returned sooner, to pay his respects at Edward’s grave, but his pride had stopped him from making the journey. The wounds of his estrangement from his father remained raw but, despite the moor’s tormenting associations, it was his home. He’d commitments to fulfil and wrongs to put right. How could he live with himself if he refused to face those challenges? He was a de Wolfe, after all.

Like his ancestors, he’d experienced the hell of the battlefield. He’d stared down death to serve his queen and his country. With his father gone, the only demons left to face were those lurking within himself. Mallon wished to make himself anew, like moorland gorse awakening after winter’s long frost. Perhaps he was fooling himself, but the pull of the place to which he truly belonged was too strong to ignore. As for mourning his father, Mallon’s grief was tinged strongly with resentment. The late viscount had never been the same after losing his wife—had retreated into his anguish too deeply to see that his sons needed their father’s love. They had needed it more than ever after their mother’s death. Edward had been a mere babe in arms, too young to be aware of much, but Mallon had known from the outset that something was wrong. His mother had been perfectly well just the day before.

Afterward, all trace of her vanished. Within a few days, every piece of the viscountess’s clothing had been removed from the house. It was as if she’d never been. When Mallon had attempted to speak to his father of her, it had elicited the sternest of reprimands. And then, Mallon had heard the servants’ whispers. She’d had a lover and ran away. At first, Mallon’s heart had surged with hope. If she’d gone away, then she might come back. It had been a mistake to leave him behind. Except that she couldn’t return.

She’d meant to start a new life, far from Wulverton Hall, but had reached no further than the deadly mire, just below Fox Tor. The man who’d waited for her had raised the alarm, but they’d never found her body. Mallon hadn’t been allowed to attend the burial, but he’d watched from one of the upper windows of the hall. The coffin was taken on a simple cart to the chapel, with only the priest in attendance. A coffin that was empty. His father had, at least, permitted a headstone, tucked in the far corner of the graveyard. Mallon’s mother hadn’t loved him enough to stay. His father had barely known how to love at all. Mallon couldn’t remember the viscount showing any physical affection for him, nor for Edward. He’d rarely tolerated having them in the same room.

That pain lingered, whatever distraction he attempted. As soon as he’d been able, he’d sought to escape, making his life far from the moor and those anguished memories. He’d sought a new home with the army, following in the footsteps of his all-revered ancestors. And he’d succeeded in finding some measure of peace—at least for a while. “Nous sommes ici, Monsieur!” The driver pulled the horses to a standstill and jumped down. There was no baggage to bother with, Mallon having brought only a travelling portmanteau he could carry easily himself. It was just as well, since the train departed in twenty minutes and the ticket still needed collecting. Stuffing the promised francs into the Frenchman’s hand, Mallon made for the grand archway of La Gare de Marseille Saint Charles. IT WAS TAKİNG all Mallon’s self-control not to punch the conductor full on the nose. “Regarde mon billet!” It was the fifth time he’d demanded that the man look at his ticket.

Twice in French and three times in English, embellished with increasingly violent oaths. “Je ne peux pas vous aider, Monsieur. ” The conductor shrugged his shoulders. “Vous devrez partir.” It was bloody hopeless! He was going to end up sleeping in the corridor at this rate and all because some damned idiot in the ticket office had managed to double-book his compartment, giving it to some other passenger entirely. The bulb inside flickered, emitting a low buzz, offering barely enough light for him to see the occupant. Her abundance of skirts indicated a woman, but her veil prevented him from discerning more. His final volley of expletives having caused the conductor to scurry away, Mallon placed his head in his hands. He was too tired for this. His only hope was to find space in the buffet car.

If he gave the last of his ready cash to the serveurs, they might overlook him lying down on the seats there. He took a final, yearning look at the compartment. Plenty of room and the bedding neatly stacked. Propriety would never permit them to share, but he wondered if the woman might consider lending him one of her pillows. He was reluctant to ask. Though he’d managed to wash before disembarking the ship, Mallon hadn’t shaved in several days and his hair was long overdue a cut. The sight of him, not to mention his aggressive behavior, would hardly have created a good impression. Mumbling his apologies, he turned to leave. “Arrêter, Monsieur.” She beckoned him to enter.

Mallon didn’t need to be asked twice. Taking the banquette opposite, he leaned back against the velvet cushioning. With all the rushing about and his ridiculous labours on the ship, his shoulder was irking him. He eyed the pillows again, wondering if he might beg one after all. “Vous voyagez seul, Madame?” To his relief, she responded in his own tongue. “Yes, but with my maid. She has a compartment further down.” Mallon perked up a little. “I don’t suppose…” He hated begging favors but had no wish for another sleepless night, snatching what rest he could elsewhere on the busy train. “Might she share with you, and I’ll take her cabin? I can write a draft on my bank to compensate for your trouble—double the original cost, of course.

” She seemed amused. The lace veil made it difficult for him to be sure, but his eyes were growing accustomed to the dim lighting. He could see her features somewhat: large eyes, a delicate chin, and lips curving upward. “Why would I do such a thing?” The train jerked, pulling away from the platform, slowly gathering speed. With her hands in her lap, she sat very still, looking him over, from his boots upward. “Take off your coat, Monsieur. Be comfortable.” Rising, she first drew down the blind upon the outer window and then upon the smaller pane of glass within the door leading to the corridor. She clicked its lock closed. Sitting beside him, he caught her scent—an arousing blend of orchids and orange blossom with a smoky, woody undertone.

His heart lurched before beating faster. As she placed her hand upon his thigh, the bulb flickered again and fizzed out.

.

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