A Marriage Made in Scandal – Elisa Braden

“Winter is also beautiful. One is wise to keep one’s distance, however, lest you catch your death.” —The Dowager Marchioness of Wallingham to Lady Berne in a prescient conversation about the Countess of Holstoke. January 7, 1797 Primvale Castle, Dorsetshire Hoarfrost, shaggy as an old man’s beard, coated the castle’s long drive. A gust made the horses attached to his father’s coach lower their heads. The wind made Phineas close his eyes, too, but only for a moment. The tips of his fingers had gone numb. His father reached the castle’s bottom step and trudged along frozen gravel. It crunched beneath his boots. He did not stop to pat Phineas’s head, as he’d always done. He was as white as the frost. Inside, Phineas shook. Papa was going to Bath, they’d told him. He was going to take the waters. Phineas had not understood. Surely the baths at Primvale would do for Papa. Surely he did not have to go away. Then, his tutor, Mr. Cox, had shown him a map and explained how the waters of a town called Bath were quite beneficial to those who had taken ill. Papa was very ill. He scarcely recognized Phineas any longer. One of the horses shook its head, and its mane scattered frost in a cloud. Phineas held himself still, his hands clasped at his back the way he’d seen Papa do. Another gust. Now, his toes were numb, too.

One of the footmen braced Papa’s elbow, helping him the last few feet to the coach. The footman opened the door, and Papa turned. For a moment, his eyes found Phineas. Papa’s eyes were light, like Phineas’s eyes. His hair was black, like Phineas’s hair. And, while Papa was tall and Phineas was small, his nurse, Miss Banfield, said he would grow just as big one day. Papa looked at him now and blinked. Frowned. His eyes did not see Phineas. They did not know Phineas. They seemed confused. The footman helped Papa climb the coach’s step. Then, Papa disappeared and the door closed. The footman blew into his gloved hands before climbing up to sit with the coachman. Frozen gravel crunched as the coach pulled away. Phineas could not feel his hands any longer. “Come, my little lord,” said Miss Banfield from behind him. “Let us find a pleasant spot where we might have a biscuit and practice our mathematics. Mr. Cox will arrive soon.” Phineas turned away from watching the coach disappear. He was careful to keep his gaze lowered until he glimpsed the castle steps. A flash of blue silk entered his vision. Blue, like the sky. He tried not to look.

Quickly, he blinked and focused upon the steps. But she stepped into his sight. Broke his concentration. He raised his gaze. She was like glittering frost. White-gold hair piled high. White-pure face far more beauteous than Miss Banfield’s or any of the paintings he had seen. Her eyes matched her gown, which billowed out from her waist and forced itself into his vision. Phineas froze. Dropped his gaze to her shoes. They were gold. “Inform the master gardener I shall require his plans within the hour,” she said to the butler. “One minute longer, and he may find a new position.” Her voice held Phineas pinned in place as another gust battered him from behind. It was best if she did not notice him. Her skirt fluttered and halted. One gold shoe rested on the first step. “Miss Banfield,” the cold voice snapped. “Aye, my lady?” “Keep the child out of my sight.” “Of—of course. As you wish, my lady.” Miss Banfield’s voice trembled the way Phineas’s stomach trembled whenever his mother was near. Gold shoes climbed the steps. Blue silk disappeared. Phineas tried not to turn his head, but he couldn’t help it.

The rim of the fountain was closer than he’d thought, and it brushed his arm as he sidled away from where his mother had been. Another gust. Frost rained down upon him from the top of the fountain. He shouldn’t look up, but he did. He blinked, his chest starting to pound. The snake was killing the bird-lion. Its teeth were in the bird’s throat. “There, now, my little lord. Let us go round to the east entrance. ’Tis too cold to stay out here any longer.” Miss Banfield moved away from the fountain toward the side of the castle. Phineas could not stop looking at the bird-lion. He could not move. Only shake. “They are nothing but stone, little one,” he heard in his ear. A shawl draped around his shoulders. He could no longer feel his legs. “Come, now. You must try to stay hidden from her ladyship, do you understand?” Miss Banfield tied the shawl around him and nudged him forward. He stumbled at first because his feet and legs were numb, but she pressed his back, and soon they were inside the castle then the nursery, where a fire warmed the chamber. Mr. Cox arrived just as Phineas finished his tea. His fingers prickled after the cold. Now, he only felt numb on the inside. “Holstoke finally took my advice and went to Bath?” Mr.

Cox asked in a half-whisper. Phineas’s tutor and Miss Banfield often whispered to one another when they thought he couldn’t hear. They also kissed when they thought he couldn’t see. Phineas found the kissing strange, so he paid it no mind. “His lordship’s been so very ill,” said Miss Banfield. “I pray the waters help. Most times, he cannot even recognize his own son.” “If he dies, you must find a new position, Frances. Promise me.” “I cannot leave the boy with her. I will not.” “You must think of yourself. Until we marry—” “He is a little ghost, George. He rarely speaks. Often, I find he’s been in a room with me for an hour or more, and I haven’t noticed, he sits so still. Everything worsens when Lord Holstoke is away. His father is all he has.” “He has you, and that is no small thing.” “And you,” she said. Phineas thought perhaps they were kissing now. He rose from the desk chair and moved to the window. The wind was stronger. It blew frost through the air in glittering swirls. Phineas liked the shapes. He traced the line of frost upon glass panes.

Ice spread outward like leafy branches. He liked how frost and trees were similar. He liked how shells and flowers were also alike. Natural things had patterns, and he found them beautiful. Not beautiful like his mother. But, rather, beautiful all the way through. “When Holstoke returns, unless he is very much improved, I shall recommend the boy be sent to Harrow,” murmured Mr. Cox. “He is too young.” “His intellect is not. I have instructed boys ten years older with less capability. He defeated me at chess not three days ago.” Miss Banfield sighed. “I wish … I wish we could take him away with us.” “You know we cannot. The school will do him good. Being around other boys. Order and tradition. He will like the routine of it, I expect.” They whispered to one another for a while longer, but Phineas did not want to listen. So, he slipped out of the nursery while they were kissing and went to the library. It was his favorite room, the place where his father had taught him to play chess. The place where Papa wrote his letters while Phineas read about how seeds became wheat and eggs became hens. Now, in the dark room where he remembered Papa best, he closed the door and leaned against it. They wanted to send him away.

He knew what he’d done wrong. Inside the numb place, it bloomed like hoarfrost. Except it was not white but black. His breathing was too fast, so he covered his mouth. Closed his eyes. He tried to picture the patterns. Focused upon them until the black frost stopped spreading. He went to the shelf and selected a book. He carried it to Papa’s desk and withdrew paper from the drawer. Then, he took up a pen and began his work. The squares helped him think, helped his chest feel lighter. A long while later, when the windows had turned gray, he blinked. Replaced the pen. Sprinkled sand upon his notes and blew it away. Then, he gathered his stack of pages into a pile and opened the library door. “Say it again, Mary.” He halted. Froze. His stomach hurt. A small whimper. “I—I should have taken more care with the bucket, my lady.” “Again.” The maid repeated the words. His mother demanded she say she’d been wrong over and over. Phineas counted twenty times before Lady Holstoke let her go.

Mary was sobbing by then. His mother looked on with a queer smile. Blackness bloomed wider inside Phineas. He shuddered and tried to make it stop, but the patterns didn’t work this time. She must not see him. Miss Banfield would be punished as Mary had been. Worse, even. She might be sent away. He closed the door carefully and listened. He could scarcely hear past his pounding chest. Was Lady Holstoke gone? He reached for the knob. Twisted. It slipped inside his hand. Finally, he inched the door open the barest crack. The corridor was empty, he thought. Quiet. He slipped out the door, clutching his papers to his burning chest. That was when he spied it. Silk the color of the sky. Her back was to him as she examined something in her hands. A sketchbook, he thought. Mustn’t be seen. Mustn’t be seen. The words chanted in his head. Without breath, he began to walk backward.

Chest pounded harder. Watching the blue silk. Shaking and shaking. Blue silk shifted. He spun. One of his pages flew from his hand. Mustn’t be seen. Mustn’t be seen. He ran. Rounded a corner. Saw the great doors open as a footman carried an empty bucket inside. He ran again, out into the cold. Down the steps. The bird-lion stared down at him, covered in ice and forever dying. He ran farther. Faster. His papers were damp now, but it didn’t matter. Mustn’t be seen. The waves grew louder as the sea grew near. The wind grew stronger and the ground slickened beneath his feet. He slipped and gripped dirt. Frost-coated grasses lashed his cheeks. Yet he ran. Found the edge. The trail down the cliff was steep.

If he could, he would make it into stairs. But he could not. Not until he was bigger, like Papa. The trail wound down the great, gold-and-white cliffs of sandstone and chalk like a long scar. The wind battered him. Numb feet slid on the wet, but he focused upon the next step. Braced a numb hand on a wall of rock. At last, he reached the bottom, where pebbles lay in deep, soft sand. They crunched and squished beneath his shoes as he circled along the edge of the beach until he found his place—the great boulder beside the great arch. He looked back at the trail. Saw only the high cliffs and no blue silk. Breathed and felt his papers fall apart in his hand. He dropped the sheets like leaves. Then, he sat right where he stood, sinking into pebbles and sand. The waves rolled and rumbled, clawed their way ashore. The wind blew away his papers, turned everything to ice—especially Phineas. He leaned against the boulder. Hugged his knees and rocked. Shaking. Shaking. Shaking. The black frost grew. He focused upon a seashell, the infinite pattern. The black frost grew. He remembered his papa as he’d been before the illness.

The black frost grew. He laid his cheek upon his knees. This was why they must send Phineas away. No boy should hate his mother. No boy should wish her dead. Miss Banfield thought him afraid of the bird-lion or the snake. But in Phineas’s nightmares, he was the bird-lion. He hated the snake with every beat of his black heart. And, rather than the snake sinking its teeth into his throat, he tore the snake into pieces and scattered them at sea. He squeezed his eyes closed. The black frost was everywhere, freezing until it burned. In time, everything went numb. Then warm. That was when he decided the black frost might never go away. He could not destroy it. He’d tried. But he could freeze it. Behind his eyes, he pictured squares. Boxes to keep things orderly and understandable. He imagined the frost gathered into the boxes. He imagined the boxes filled with water and sealed up tight. He froze them in his mind until the black frost lived inside the ice, motionless and trapped. Then, when the frost was contained, he pictured the squares coated in white like the fountain. Shaggy and crusted like an old man’s beard. Nothing grew while it was frozen.

Not even this. He was warm now. Sleepy. He could not feel anything—not his hands or his feet or his cheeks or his belly. Some might think it unpleasant, but Phineas was floating as the sea sighed his name. “… little one. We’ll get you warm soon …” He blinked. Someone carried him. He smelled wool and chalk and the sea. “… must take him away from here, George.” “… to Harrow. I shall send a message to his lordship at once. We cannot wait for his return. With you gone, I don’t know what she’ll do …” Phineas was floating. Up the trail. Into gray mist and frozen grass. Beneath whitebearded oak branches. Onto gravel. Past the bird-lion who was dying. Always dying. But not dead. Frozen, perhaps. Wounded. The snake thought it had won. Phineas rested his cheek against the wool of Mr.

Cox’s coat and smiled. The snake thought wrong.


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