Silent Melody – Mary Balogh

IT was hard to leave. But it was impossible to stay. He was leaving from choice because he was young and energetic and adventurous and had long wanted to carve a life of his own. He was going to new possibilities, new dreams. But he was leaving behind places and people. And though, being young, he was sure he would see them all again someday, he knew too that many years might pass before he did so. It was not easy to leave. Lord Ashley Kendrick was the son of a duke. A younger son, and therefore a man who needed employment. But neither the army nor the church, the accepted professions for younger sons, had appealed to him, and so he had done nothing more useful with his twenty-three years than sow some wild oats and manage the estate of Bowden Abbey for his brother, Luke, Duke of Harndon, during the past few months. Business had always attracted him, but his father had forbidden him to involve himself with something he considered beneath the dignity of an aristocrat—even of a younger son. Luke felt differently. And so Ashley, with his brother’s reluctant blessing, was on his way to India, to take up his new post with the East India Company. He was eager to go. Finally he was to be his own man, doing what he wanted to do, proving to himself that he could forge his own destiny.

He could hardly wait to begin his new life, to be there in India, to be free of his dependence on his brother. But it was hard to say good-bye. He did it the day before he left and begged everyone to let him go alone the following morning, to drive away from Bowden Abbey as if on a morning errand. He said good-bye to Luke; to Anna, Luke’s wife; to Joy, their infant daughter; to Emmy . Ah, but he did not really say good-bye to Emmy. He sought her out and told her he was leaving the following day, it was true. But then he set his hands on her shoulders, smiled cheerfully at her, told her to be a good girl, and strode away before she could make any reply. Not that Emmy could have replied verbally even if she had wanted to. She was a deaf-mute. She could read lips, but she had no way of communicating her thoughts except with those huge gray eyes of hers—and with certain facial expressions and gestures to which he had become sensitive during the year he had known her, plus others they had agreed upon as a sort of private, secret, if not entirely adequate language.

She could not read or write. She was Anna’s sister and had come to Bowden soon after Anna’s marriage to Luke. Emmy was a child. Though fifteen years old, her handicap and her wild sense of freedom—she rarely dressed or behaved like a gently born young lady—made Ashley think of her as a child. A precious child for whom he felt a deep affection and in whom he had been in the habit of confiding all his frustrations and dreams. A child who adored him. It was not conceit that had him thinking so. She spent every spare moment in his company, gazing at him or out through the window of the room in which he worked, listening to him with her wonderful, expressive eyes, following him about the estate. She was never a nuisance. His fondness for her was something he could not put satisfactorily into words.

He was afraid of Emmy’s eyes the day before his departure. He did not have the courage to say good-bye. So he merely said his piece and hurried away from her—just as if she were no more to him than a child for whom he felt only an indulgent affection. He regretted his cowardice the following day. But he hated good-byes. He got up early. He had been unable to sleep, his mind tossing with the excitement of what was ahead of him, his body eager to be on the way, his emotions torn between an impatience to be gone and a heaviness at leaving all that was familiar and dear behind him. He got up early to take a last fond look at Bowden Abbey, his home since childhood. But not his, of course. It was true that he was heir to it all, that Luke and Anna’s firstborn had been a daughter.

But they would have sons, he was sure. He hoped they would. Being heir was not important to him, much as he loved Bowden. He wanted his own life. He wanted to build his own fortune and choose his own home and follow his own dreams. But he loved Bowden fiercely now that he was leaving it and did not know when he would see it again. If ever. He strode away behind the house, watching the early-morning dew soak his top boots, feeling the chill wind whip at his cloak and his three-cornered hat. He did not look back until he stood on top of a rise of land, from which he had a panoramic view down over the abbey and past it to the lawns and trees of the park stretching far in all directions. Home.

And England. He was going to miss both. He descended the western side of the hill and strode toward the trees a short distance away and through them to the falls, the part of the river that spilled sharply downward over steep rocks before resuming its wide loop about the front of the house. He had spent many hours of the past year at the falls, seeking solitude and peace. Seeking purpose. Seeking himself, perhaps. A little over a year ago, he had been in London. But Luke had returned from a long residence in Paris, rescued him from deep debts and a wild and aimless life of pleasure and debauchery, and ordered him to return to Bowden until he had decided what he wished to do with his life. He climbed to the flat rock that jutted over the falls and stood looking down at the water as it rushed and bubbled over the rocks below. Emmy had spent many hours here with him.

He smiled. He had once told her that she was a very good listener. It was true, even though she could not hear a word he said to her. She listened with her eyes and she comforted with her smiles and with her warm little hand in his. Dear, sweet Emmy. He was going to miss her perhaps more than any of them. There was a strange ache about his heart at the thought of her, his little fawn, like a piece of wild, unspoiled nature. She rarely wore hoops beneath her dresses and almost never wore caps. Indeed, she did not often even dress her hair, but let it fall, blond and loose and wavy to her waist. Whenever she could get away with doing so, she went barefoot.

He did not know how he would have survived the year without Emmy to talk to, without her sympathy and her happiness to soothe his wounded feelings. He had felt despised and rejected by Luke, his beloved brother, and his own sense of guilt had not helped reconcile him to what he had considered at the time to be unwarranted tyranny. He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was time to return to the house. He would have breakfast while the carriage was brought around and his trunks were loaded, and then he would be on his way. He strode back through the trees in the direction of the house. He hoped everyone would honor the promise not to come down to see him on his way. He wished that he could just click his fingers and find himself on board ship, out of sight of English shores. He wished there did not have to be the moment of leaving. • • • Ashley had told her yesterday that he was leaving today.

It had not been unexpected. For weeks past he had been excited over the prospect of joining the East India Company and going to India. There had been a new light of purpose in his eye and a new spring in his step, and she knew that she had lost him. That he no longer needed her. Not that he ever avoided her or turned her away. Not that he stopped talking to her or smiling at her or allowing her to walk about the estate with him or to sit in his office while he worked. Not that he stopped holding her hand as they walked or stopped calling her his little fawn. Not that any of the affection had gone out of his manner. But he was going away. He was going to a new life, one that he craved.

One that he needed. She was glad for him. She was genuinely glad. Yes, she was. Oh, yes, she was. Lady Emily Marlowe curled up on the window seat in her room and gazed out on a gray and gloomy morning. She tried to draw peace from the sight of the trees and lawns. She tried to let them soothe her aching heart. Her breaking heart. She did not want to see him today.

She would not be able to bear seeing him actually leave. It would hurt just too much. And yet instead of peace, the only feeling that would come to her was panic. Had he left yet? She could not see the driveway or the carriage house from her room. Perhaps even now the carriage was before the doors. Perhaps even now he was stepping inside after hugging Anna and Luke—would they have taken Joy down too for him to kiss? He would be looking about him for her. He would be disappointed that she was not there. Would he believe she did not care? Perhaps he was driving away —now. At this very minute. It could well be that he would be gone forever.

It was possible she would never see him again. Ever. She leapt up suddenly and dashed into her dressing room. She shoved her feet into a pair of shoes and grabbed the first cloak that came to hand—her red one. She flung it about her shoulders and rushed from the room and down the stairs. Was she in time? She felt that she would die if she was not. Ashley. Oh, Ashley. There was only one footman in the hall. And a mound of boxes and trunks by the doors, which stood open.

There was no carriage outside. Emily sagged with relief. She was not too late. Ashley must be at breakfast. She took a few steps in the direction of the breakfast parlor, and the footman hurried ahead of her to open the doors. But she stopped again. No. She could not after all see him face-to-face. She would shame herself. She would cry.

She would make him uncomfortable and unhappy. And she would see the pity in Anna’s and Luke’s eyes. She ran outside and down the steps onto the upper terrace and on to the formal gardens. She ran fleet-footed through three tiers of the gardens and then down the long sloping lawn to the two-arched stone bridge over the river. She ran across the bridge and among the old trees that lined and shaded the driveway for its full winding length to the stone gateposts and the village beyond. But she did not run all the way to the village. She stopped halfway down the drive, gasping for breath. She stood with her back against the broad trunk of an old oak and waited. She would see his carriage as it passed. She would say her own private good-bye.

She would not see him, she realized. Only his carriage. He would not see her. He would not know that she had come to say good-bye. But it was just as well. Fond as he was of her, to him she was just a type of younger sister to be indulged. She could remember her first meeting with him, the day she arrived at Bowden Abbey to live with Anna, feeling strange and bewildered. She had instantly liked Luke, though she had learned later that her sister Agnes was terrified of his elegant appearance and formal manners. But he had been kind to her and he had spoken with her as if she were a real person who had ears that could hear. And incredibly she had understood most of what he said—he moved his lips decisively as he spoke and he kept his face full toward her.

So many people forgot to do that. But she had felt uncomfortable during tea in the drawing room until Ashley had arrived late and demanded an introduction. And then he had bowed to her and smiled and spoken. “As I live,” he had said, “a beauty in the making. Your servant, madam.” She had seen every word. Tall, handsome, charming Ashley. He had gone to sit beside his sister, Doris, and had proceeded to converse with her after winking at Emily. He had taken her heart with him. It was as simple as that.

She had adored him from that moment as she had adored no one else in her life, even Anna. Ashley had a loving heart. He loved Luke, even though they had been close to estrangement for almost a year. He loved his mother and his sister, who were now in London, and he loved Anna and Joy. He loved her too. But no more intensely than he loved the others. She was Emmy, his little fawn. She was just a child to him. He did not know that she was a woman. He would forget her in a month.

No, she did not believe that. There was nothing shallow in Ashley’s love. He would remember her fondly—as he would remember the rest of his family. She would hold him in her heart—deep in her heart—for the rest of her life. He was all of life to her. He was everything. Life would be empty without Ashley. Meaningless. She loved him with all the passion and all the intense fidelity of her fifteen-year-old heart. She did not love him as a child loves, but as a woman loves the companion of her soul.

Perhaps more intensely than most women loved. There was so little else except the sight of the world around her with which to fill her mind and her heart. She had somehow made a life of her own dreams before meeting Ashley. It had not always been easy. There had been frustrations, even tantrums when she was younger—when perhaps she had remembered enough of sound to be terrified by its absence. She had no conscious memories of sound since it had been shut off quite totally after the dangerous fever she had barely survived before her fourth birthday. Just some fleeting hints, yearnings. She did not know quite what they were. They always just eluded her grasp. Ashley had become her dream.

He had given her days meaning and her nights fond imaginings. She did not know what would be left to her when the dream was taken away—today, this morning. She was beginning to think that she must have missed him after all. Perhaps he had gone ahead and his luggage was to follow later. She was almost numb with the cold. The wind whipped and bit at her. But finally she heard the carriage approach. Not that she could hear it in the accepted sense of the word—she often wondered what sound must have been like. But she felt the vibrations of an approaching carriage. She pressed herself back against the tree while grief hit her low in the stomach like a leaden weight.

He was leaving forever and all she would see was Luke’s carriage, which was taking him to London. Panic grabbed her like a vise as the carriage came into sight, and despite herself she leaned slightly forward, desperate for one last glimpse of him. She saw nothing except the carriage rolling on past. She moaned incoherently. But then it slowed and came to a full stop. And the door nearest her was flung open from the inside. • • • There had been a feeling of mingled sadness and relief as the carriage lurched into motion, drew away from the house, and turned at the end of the cobbled terrace to take the sloping path beside the formal gardens and past the long lawn to the bridge. He was on his way. Soon now he would be beyond the park, beyond the village, and leaving Bowden land behind him. He could look ahead with pleasure and excitement.

Ashley set his head back against the comfortable upholstery of his brother’s carriage and closed his eyes with a sigh of relief. It had been easier than he had expected. But he did not keep his eyes closed. When he heard the rumble of the bridge beneath the carriage wheels, he opened them again for one backward glance at the house. He looked at the trees of the driveway and beyond. He could see a small group of deer grazing peacefully off to his left. And a slight flutter of red. It caught his eye when the carriage was already on a level with it and for a moment he could not identify it. But then he knew. Emmy’s cloak! He leaned forward without thought and rapped sharply on the front panel for the coachman to stop.

Almost before the carriage had come to a complete standstill, he flung open the door and jumped down onto the driveway. He looked back. Ah. He had not been mistaken. And only now when it was too late did he realize that it might have been better if he had kept on going. He was not going to escape painful good-byes entirely after all. She was standing against a tree trunk, holding it with both hands behind her as if she feared falling. Her face was all eyes and ashen paleness despite the slight color the wind had whipped into her cheeks. He walked toward her slowly and came to a stop only when he was a few inches in front of her. He felt guilty.

He was off on an adventure, off to begin his adult life. All of the world, all of life were ahead of him. But Emmy, his close companion for almost a year, was to be left behind to— to what? What would life hold for a child who would grow into a woman who could not always understand others or communicate with them? “Little fawn,” he said softly. He clasped his arms together and shivered. You must be cold, he told her in one of their private signs—as if physical comfort was of any significance at this moment. She made no reply. Her eyes gazed back into his—and filled with tears. Ah, Emmy. He leaned forward until his body pinned her against the tree. He wished—Lord, but he wished he had not noticed the flapping of her red cloak.

What could he say to her in either words or gestures? He knew she was desperately unhappy, and her unhappiness clouded the exhilaration he had been feeling. He tilted back his head and closed his eyes. He clenched his hands tightly at his sides. He should have done this properly yesterday instead of just telling her cheerfully to be a good girl. When he raised his head and opened his eyes, he found that she was looking at him. Her face was only inches from his own. There were no words. And no gestures, except one, which was no part of their private language. There was only one way to say good-bye. Her lips were cool, soft, and motionless beneath his.

She had been chilled by her wait for his carriage. He warmed them with his own, softly and gently. He warmed them until they pushed back against his, and he realized in sudden shock that what they were sharing was undoubtedly a kiss. A kiss, not of a brother and sister, but of a man and woman. Her body against his, he noticed now that he had been alerted, was slim, coltlike, soft with budding womanhood. He felt a flush of heat, a rush of tightness to his groin. He lifted his head, feeling disoriented. She was Emmy. She was a child who needed comforting. She needed some sign of affection from him, something to wrap about herself until she had grown accustomed to his absence.

She certainly did not need . He framed her face with gentle hands, keeping one still while the other smoothed back her windblown hair. “I will be back, little fawn,” he said softly but distinctly, as he always spoke to her, noting that the tears had gone so that she was able to read his lips. “I will be back to teach you to read and write and to teach you a more complete language you can use—not just with me but with everyone. One day, Emmy. But by that time you will have found other friends to love, other friends who will love you and learn to find meaning in your silence. You must not mind my going too deeply, you know. I am a careless sort of fellow. There will be others far more worthy of your affection.” He smiled gently at her.

She gazed at him in such a way that he was given the impression that her whole soul gazed out at him. Her right hand, clenched loosely into a fist, lifted and pulsed lightly over her heart. I feel deeply. I am serious. My heart is full. It was a gesture he used sometimes when talking, a sign that he was speaking the deep emotions of the heart. It was a gesture she had picked up from him and added to their all-too-inadequate language. He wondered if the gesture was involuntary at this particular moment. “Ah,” he said. “I know, Emmy.

I know. I’ll be back. I’ll not forget you. I’ll carry you here.” He stepped back from her at last and touched a hand to his own heart. And then he turned and strode back to the carriage. He vaulted inside, shut the door firmly behind him, and sat back as the vehicle lurched into motion. He blew out his breath from puffed cheeks. Emmy. His dear little fawn.

Sweet child. He tried to convince himself that that was how he had seen her, how he had treated her right to the end. He had put his body against hers and his lips to hers in an almost instinctive gesture of comfort. Brother to sister, uncle to niece, man to child. But he was uncomfortably aware that his chosen method of giving comfort had been unwise and inappropriate to the occasion. He had discovered a body and a mouth that would very soon belong to a woman. He did not want Emmy to be a woman—foolish thought. He wanted her always to be that wild and happy child who had brought him peace when his life had been in turmoil. He wanted to remember her as a child. He was ashamed of himself for reacting to her for one startled moment as a male.

He loved her. But not as a man loves a woman. The feelings he had for her were quite unique in his experience. He loved no one else as he loved Emmy. He wished—ah, he wished he had not sullied his feelings for her by reacting to her physical closeness as a man reacts to a woman. He would not remember her so. He would remember her standing on the rock above the falls, her skirts loose about her legs and short enough to reveal bare ankles and feet, her blond hair in a wild tangled mane down her back, her lips smiling, her lovely eyes telling him that, incredible as it might seem, she had found peace and harmony in her silent world. The village was already behind him, he noticed. He was well on his way. His future had already begun.

His thoughts turned ahead to India and his new life. What would it be like? How well would he meet the challenge? He could feel the exhilaration of youth and the thirst for adventure humming in his veins. • • • Emily stood where she was for many long minutes after she had felt the vibrations of the carriage moving off again. Her head was back against the tree trunk. Her eyes were closed. And then she pushed herself away from the tree and began to run recklessly, heedlessly, through the woods, over the bridge, in among the trees again, faster and faster, as if all the fiends of hell were at her heels. She stopped only when she came to the falls and had bounded up the rocks beside them so that she could cast herself facedown on the flat rock that jutted out over the water. She buried her face on her arms and wept until her chest was sore from the weeping and there were neither tears nor energy left. Behind her closed eyes she could see him as he had appeared when he vaulted out of the carriage, before she had been blinded by tears, tall and slender and handsome, his long dark hair tied back with a black silk ribbon and unpowdered as usual. He had been elegant in cloak, frock coat, waistcoat, and breeches.

But elegant in his own almost careless manner—quite unlike Luke, with his Parisian splendor. She lay on the cold rock beside the falls, spent and passive, for hours until at last she felt a hand on her shoulder. She had neither seen nor sensed anyone coming, but she was not surprised. She turned her head to see Luke sitting beside her, his eyes intent and sympathetic on her. She set her face back against her arms while his hand patted her shoulder. There was nothing left to live for. Ashley had gone. Perhaps forever. Taking her heart, her very life with him. And yet there was Anna, her eldest sister, who had been more of a mother to her than anyone else in her life.

And there were her brother, Victor, the Earl of Royce—and Charlotte, her sister, though both lived far away with their spouses. And Agnes, Lady Severidge, the sister next in age to herself, who would be living close by at Wycherly Park after she returned from her wedding trip. There was Joy, her niece, on whom she doted. And there was Luke.

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