The hour was approaching midnight, but no one was making any move to retire to bed.
“You are going to find it mighty peaceful around here after we have all left, George,” Ralph Stockwood, Earl of Berwick, remarked.
“It will be quiet, certainly.” The Duke of Stanbrook looked about the circle of six guests gathered in the drawing room at Penderris Hall, his country home in Cornwall, and his eyes paused fondly on each of them in turn before moving on. “Yes, and peaceful too, Ralph. But I am going to miss you all damnably.”
“You will be c-counting your blessings, George,” said Flavian Arnott, Viscount Ponsonby, “as soon as you realize you will not have to listen to Vince scraping away on his v-violin for another whole year.”
“Or the cats howling in ecstasy along with the music it creates,” Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, added. “You might as well mention that too, Flave. There is no need to consider my sensibilities.”
“You play with a great deal more competence than you did last year, Vincent,” Imogen Hayes, Lady Barclay, assured him. “By next year I do not doubt you will have improved even further. You are a marvel and an inspiration to us all.”
“I may even dance to one of your tunes one of these days, provided it is not too sprightly, Vince.” Sir Benedict Harper looked ruefully at the two canes propped against the arm of his chair.
“You are not by any chance harboring a hope that we will all decide to stay a year or two longer instead of leaving tomorrow, George?” Hugo Emes, Lord Trentham, asked, sounding almost wistful. “I have never known three weeks to pass by so quickly. We arrived here, we blinked, and now it is time to go our separate ways again.”
“George is far too p-polite to say a bald no, Hugo,” Flavian told him. “But life calls us hence, alas.”
They were feeling somewhat maudlin, the seven of them, the members of the self-styled Survivors’ Club. Once, they had all spent several years here at Penderris, recuperating from wounds sustained during the Napoleonic Wars. Although each had had to fight a lone battle toward recovery, they had also aided and supported one another and grown as close as any brothers—and sister. When the time had come for them to leave, to make new lives for themselves or to retrieve the old, they had gone with mingled eagerness and trepidation. Life was for living, they had all agreed, yet the cocoon in which they had been wrapped for so long had kept them safe and even happy. They had decided that they would return to Cornwall for a few weeks each year to keep alive their friendship, to share their experiences of life beyond the familiar confines of Penderris, and to help with any difficulty that may have arisen for one or more of them.
This had been the third such gathering. But now it was over for another year, or would be on the morrow.
Hugo got to his feet and stretched, expanding his already impressive girth, none of which owed anything to fat. He was the tallest and broadest of them, and the most fierce-looking, with his close-cropped hair and frequent frown.
“The devil of it is that I do not want to put an end to any of this,” he said. “But if I am to make an early start in the morning, then I had better get to bed.”
It was the signal for them all to rise. Most had lengthy journeys to make and hoped for an early departure.
Sir Benedict was the slowest to get to his feet. He had to gather his canes to his sides, slip his arms through the straps he had contrived, and haul himself painstakingly upward. Any of the others would have been glad to offer a helping hand, of course, but they knew better than to do so. They were all fiercely independent despite their various disabilities. Vincent, for example, would leave the room and climb the stairs to his own chamber unassisted despite the fact that he was blind. On the other hand, they would all wait for their slower friend and match their steps to his as they climbed the stairs.
“P-pretty soon, Ben,” Flavian said, “you are going to be able to do that in under a minute.”
“Better than two, as it was last year,” Ralph said. “That really was a bit of a yawn, Ben.”
They would not resist the urge to jab at him and tease him—except, perhaps, Imogen.
“Even two is remarkable for someone who was once told he must have both legs amputated if his life was to be saved,” she said.
“You are depressed, Ben.” Hugo paused midstretch to make the observation.
Benedict shot him a glance. “Just tired. It is late, and we are at the wrong end of our three-week stay. I always hate goodbyes.”
“No,” Imogen said, “it is more than that, Ben. Hugo is not the only one to have noticed. We all have, but it has never come up during our nightly sessions.”
They had sat up late most nights during the past three weeks, as they did each year, sharing some of their deeper concerns and insecurities—and triumphs. They kept few secrets from one another. There were always some, of course. One’s soul could never be laid quite bare to another person, no matter how close a friend. Ben had held his own soul close this year. He had been depressed. He still was. He felt chagrined, though, that he had not hidden his mood better.
“Perhaps we are intruding where no help or sympathy is wanted,” the duke said. “Are we, Benedict? Or shall we sit back down and discuss it?”
“After I have just made the herculean effort to get up? And when everyone is about to totter off to bed in order to look fresh and beautiful in the morning?” Ben laughed, but no one else shared his amusement.