Reclaiming the Jackal
Such brief meetings between strangers seldom lend themselves to memory; so it was here. A week afterwards, the two young gentlemen could scarcely recall the specifics of their conversation; a month, and they could hardly remember meeting at all; two months, and the incident was completely gone from memory. The two Englishmen continued as they had before, going about their business--Sydney Carton studying for the law, Percy Blakeney enduring his tutors and living the comfortable life of a young aristocrat--and they did not meet in Paris again. Even if they had, they would not have recognized one another. One wouldn't have known the other from John Smith.
In time, Percy Blakeney grew out of the awkward age of sixteen--one might say he caught up with his height. His skinny, gangly figure filled out and became formidable; his face lost the look of boyhood to reveal handsome, manly features; tiny hairs began to grow round his chin. He became an almost ideal specimen of young, handsome nobility--yet, at first glance, you would not notice his fine features at all; only his eyes. Through all the changes of adolescence, his eyes retained their curiously lazy look. Their heavy lids were like the one flaw in a great sculpture; they made him imperfect, and thus caused him to be wrongfully tossed out of the studio as worthless and second-rate, though otherwise enjoyable. And as there was an outward flaw in what should have been perfect physical beauty, there was also an inward flaw in what should have been the unadulterated joy of the young--his mother.
He could remember very little of what she was like before the sickness, for he had only been a year old when it came. Soft, white hands that she would hold out to him, piercing blue eyes veiled by heavy lids much like his own, an elegantly delicate figure--every now and then he would see such a glimpse of her in his mind, but only briefly, and always in part; never the full picture. In his father's study, there was a portrait on the wall painted of her just three months before she fell ill by M. Louis Boucher of Paris. She was twenty-one then. Sir Algernon Blakeney was known to periodically sit in his study for hours on end, gazing at the beautiful portrait of his Elizabeth, and make no sound other than a heavy, mournful sigh. Percy would sneak in to look at the portrait, too, when his father wasn't looking. It was the only way he could know his mother.
When he was young, they had kept the awful tragedy a secret from him; but as he grew, he asked more and more questions of his father and of the servants concerning his mother. "What was she like? Was she beautiful? What happened to her? Did she die? Why can't I remember her?" Such a thing cannot be hidden for long, once such questions come to light. Eventually, when Percy was thirteen, Sir Algernon gave in and told his son about his mother.
In those days, and perhaps even to this day, the English nobility were well schooled in the fine art of hiding one's emotions. Percy had learnt his lessons in this subject well. Though the news of his mother's plight drove a dagger of sorrow and grief deep in his young heart, he shed no tears. Nor did he give voice to the anger he felt against his father for keeping such a secret from him for so long. When Sir Algernon had finished relaying his sad news, Percy asked a single question in response:
"May I see her?"
Sir Algernon did not refuse his son. Now that he knew, there was no good--and no sense--in trying to keep him from seeing the mother he had been alienated from for twelve years. Without a word, he led the way up staircases and through passages Percy had never been allowed to see before, until finally father and son came to a closed door at the end of a dark, lonely hall. Sir Algernon turned then and spoke in a low voice to Percy.
"Don't go too near the bed," he warned. "She does not know what she's doing, and sometimes she lashes about wildly. Today has been a calm day for her, thank God, or I would never bring you up here. But you must be careful, Percy; she can be dangerous, even though she can't get up from the bed."
"She can't get up?" Percy asked in some confusion. "Is there something wrong with her legs, sir?"
"No! No, her legs are still well. But her mind is not. She's tied to the bed, Percy--for her safety as well as ours."
Percy couldn't help but shudder. He hadn't yet realized the mental state his mother was in. That they should have to tie her down! The anger, fear, and heartrending grief he felt was so great he might have run away in horror, had his father not recalled him back to the situation by opening the door.
The room held but three pieces of furniture--a small chair, a washstand, and a bed. A maid was sitting in the chair--at sight of Sir Algernon, she quickly stood up and curtsied to him; at sight of Percy, her eyes widened in great surprise.
"How is she now?" Sir Algernon asked.
"As well as can be expected, sir. She had a good sleep not three hours ago, and ate a little when she woke," the maid answered quietly. "I say, sir, are you sure you want to bring the little master up here?"
"Yes, Betty, I'm sure. He knows now, and he wants to see her--as he has every right to."
"It won't be too much of a shock for him, sir?"
"No, he's old enough now to bear it. Come in, Percy," he called, for Percy hadn't yet dared to cross the threshold. Cautiously, he stepped into the little room.
"Yes? What's this, now?" a high-pitched voice called out from the bed. The bed was so large, at first glance it seemed there was nothing in it. It took a long, hard look to discern from among the bed clothes a rumpled, soiled gown, a thin, pale face, and damp strands of thick blond hair that fell in tangles across the pillow. The blue eyes, though still covered by drooping lids, held instead of the intense gaze in the portrait the glazed, wild look of insanity, and a weary, foolish smile hovered round her lips. Her feet and hands were bound, firmly but not cruelly, to the bedposts by thick ropes.
"Elizabeth, dear, it's me. Do you remember me?" Sir Algernon asked gently of the wan figure.
"Ah, it's George! So, you've come again to visit me, George darling?" Elizabeth's eyes wandered about the room as she spoke, and she interrupted her speech randomly with a laugh; a wild, meaningless laugh. Sir Algernon did not even attempt to correct her.
"Yes, it's George. Don't I always come to visit you at this time of each day?"
"No, no. It's been almost a week since last you visited--and you promised to come every day. I am very cross with you." She laughed again, then seemed to notice Percy for the first time. "Ah--and who is this you've brought to see me?"
"This is Percy, dear. Do you remember Percy?"
"Percy who, George dearest? Really, you are becoming very remiss in introductions."
Sir Algernon sighed sadly. "Percy Blakeney, dear."
"Ah! Enchanted, monsieur." Elizabeth held out one shackled hand to Percy, who took it in his trembling hand and kissed in approved fashion. "Do you like my flowers, Mr. Blakeney?" she asked, gesturing to the empty water pitcher on the washstand. "Betty cut them for me just this morning, she's such a dear. Roses are my favorites. Blakeney--what a highly interesting name. I'm sure I've never heard it before, but it is charming--quite charming. Shall it rain, do you think? I do hope so; the sunshine is exceedingly bad for my consumption."
Percy couldn't stand to watch her like this anymore. He shot a single pleading glance at his father, who understood immediately.
"I'm sorry, Elizabeth dear," he said--"we must be going now. But I promise you, I will come back."
"Every day, dearest George?"
"Every day, I promise you."
"Ah, good! Mr. Blakeney, I do hope you come and see me again."
"I--I will, madame," Percy managed to stammer. He bit his lip, willing himself not to shed tears.
"Farewell, darling George!" she called as they left the room.
They walked back down through the house in silence. There did not seem to be much to say between the two. Finally, when they sat alone in the library, Percy ventured to speak.
"She's doing poorly, isn't she, sir?"
"Yes," Sir Algernon answered quietly. "She grows worse every day. She calls me George, thinking that I'm His Majesty the King, and she's seeing things that aren't there. She's forgetting things, too--I had hoped, perhaps, that seeing you and hearing your name would recall something back to her, but like all my hopes, it was in vain. She does not remember you any more than she does me."
At that, Percy could stand no more. He bowed to his father, murmuring a hurried farewell, and rushed from the room. Sir Algernon let him go, barely moving a muscle as he watched the boy flee; but when Percy had gone, he let a single tear slide down his worn cheek.
Percy ran through the house to the suite of rooms he had occupied since infancy. He paid no heed to servants who stepped forward to ask his bidding, but threw himself immediately down on his bed and wept, for the last time in his life. No matter how old or self-controlled a man may be, it is inhuman to ask him to bear the news that his mother does not remember him.
Percy kept his promise to his mother. He visited her every week, at least once, for an hour at dusk. If she was awake he would talk to her gently and soothe her decaying nerves; if she was asleep he would sit by the bed for the full hour, watching her thin face in its restless contortions. When he could manage it, he would bring a rose to put in a vase on the washstand for her. Sometimes she noticed the rose; other times, it was as if invisible to her. But from then on a rose always sat in a vase next to her bed.
Inevitably, she got worse and worse as the years passed. In wild efforts to provide his ailing wife with a better climate, Sir Algernon moved from place to place from the time Percy was seventeen on--to the southern coast of France, to Spain, to Italy, to the remote island of Corsica. Nothing would help. The constant moves became a weary ritual to Percy--watching as the servants would load everything in carriages or on ships, the dreary trip itself, and then watching everything being unloaded and moved into a new, strange house. Thus Sir Algernon moved his family from one estate to another, vainly trying to help his wife get better. Each time, though, the last thing to be moved out was the precious portrait of Elizabeth; and it was the first thing to be moved in. Sir Algernon would have moved it himself, had it not been too heavy for him; as it was, he personally supervised the moving of this most valuable of paintings.
Then, just as Percy attained his majority in 1781, Elizabeth died. It was devastating to Sir Algernon; without the constant visits to her bedside, little consolation though they had been, he slipped into a sullen half-existence for a few months, not eating, some days not even getting up from bed. Percy ran the household now, taking care of his father's business arrangements for him. The household was silent and gloomy, draped with black because of the mistress' demise and exuding an atmosphere of black because of the master's grief. Four months after Elizabeth Blakeney died, Sir Algernon followed his wife to the grave, wasted away beyond recognition. They were buried side by side in a graveyard just outside of Nice, where Percy would come once every year or so to leave flowers, paying tribute to his parents.
Percy was left alone at twenty-one, a free man, and he did the only thing he knew to do. He went back to England, the country of his birth, which he hadn't seen since he last visited as a child, to take up residence in the hereditary family estate at Richmond.