Mr. Adam Harding had no notion of what to expect when he arrived at Lawley Hall.
Passing through the woods and groves in the early morning light, it struck him how very little had changed since he had last been at his ancestral seat. He had ridden these paths more times in his life than he could possibly number, and on that morning, it seemed he had never been away from the place at all.
The leaves on the trees were just beginning to shift from green to golden; the same way that they had done every year. It had been so since the days when he had run through the grounds as a boy or walked at his father’s side. The Duke of Mornington had pointed out the different trees and told Adam their names and taught him to recognize the different birds by the individual melodies of their songs.
As far as the trees were concerned, no change had taken place at Lawley Hall. Yet the weight that rested on Adam’s heart that morning made him feel as though those long walks had taken place in an entirely different lifetime.
The familiar chimneys and spires began to peer over the brow of the hill, and Adam urged the horse onward.
Then rising out of the mist, he saw his home. Or rather, he saw the place he left a year ago and promised he would never return.
As if I could ever really have stayed away. It felt bittersweet. As if anything could have kept me away.
In the time he had been abroad, he had at first defined his feelings toward his father as anger. It was only in recent months, when news of his father’s failing health had begun to reach him that Adam had acknowledged to himself what he had really felt on that fateful day when everything had been broken — seemingly beyond all prospect of repair— was a profound sense of hurt.
Those feelings came rushing up now, and he channeled them into urging his mount forward.
* * *
He was greeted at the door by the butler who scarcely knew what to do at the sight of him.
“Ah…good morning, my lord…sir…” the butler was clearly perplexed at how to address the young man who had once been destined as his future master.
The butler looked flustered, a sight which Adam had never seen in all his life. He presumed his father must have given some thunderous order a year or more ago, decreeing that his son never be permitted to cross the threshold of Lawley Hall again.
“Critchley,” Adam said, greeting the butler with a courteous nod. “Good to see you.”
He allowed the tinge of authority to enter his voice. The butler hastily stepped aside to allow Adam entry to the entrance hall, and there the two stood. Critchley clearly was unsure of what to say to Adam or to which room he ought to show him and seemed quite frozen in his state of panic.
Adam resisted walking past the man and imperiously demanding to see his father. He was trying to rein in his temper — one of the things about himself that he had endeavored so hard to change in the past year.
His dilemma was solved for him when a familiar voice rang out, “My dearest boy!”
There was only one person in this house who was accustomed to addressing him thus. Before he could turn around, Adam felt two elderly but strong arms fling around his neck. In the embrace of Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper of Lawley Hall and the closest figure he had ever had to that of a mother, he felt at once that he was home at last.
So, it had been Mrs. Reynolds who had written to him, and who had penned the entreating words that had cut through his previous anger and summoned him home.
He had taken care to ensure that she — and she alone — had a postal address to whatever far-flung place he traveled, but he had not expected that she would have to use that information for such a grave purpose. Mrs. Reynolds was a discreet woman, and Adam suspected that writing to him and entreating him to return to Lawley Hall had been the first act of insubordination in her immensely respectable life.
The second act was at this very moment when she was weeping unashamedly and embracing him.
She collected herself quickly, and Adam was moved to see tears continue to well up in her eyes even as she tried to hide them.
“I’m afraid the Duke is very bad, Mr. Adam, very bad indeed.” She addressed him in the same way she always had when he was a small boy. “I fear that you might not recognize him.”
The effect of her words hung in the air of the grand entryway of Lawley Hall. I did not recognize my father in the man who banished me from this house, though I fear not for the same reason that the poor lady is suggesting.
He said instead, “Will you take me to him, Mrs. Reynolds?” I feel that I had better know the worst for myself.”
Adam needed no guidance to the grand bedchamber where his father had always slept, but it was a comfort to him to make the walk there with Mrs. Reynolds at his side.
All around them, portraits of his ancestors peered down at him, wearing the same accusing expression that Adam had seen on his father’s face the last time that he had walked these halls.
I am guiltless, he reminded himself, as he so often had in the long and lonely days of his exile. I have not sinned, neither against my father nor against God. I have only my own conscience to answer to, and that is quite clean.
When he had received the letter from Mrs. Reynolds, he resolved that the time had come to return to his father and clear his name of the heavy assertion that hung his heart and tainted his reputation.
For months, he had wandered restlessly across the continent, wondering whether this banishment would last forever and force him to build a new life for himself in foreign lands.
But now, he hoped the time for redemption had come at last. And if redemption would not come to him, then he would seek it out for himself.
The door to the master bedchamber was open a crack; Adam could hear a dreadful wheezing sound, quite unlike anything he had heard before. So unfamiliar was the noise, that it did not even occur to Adam until he pushed open the door, it could possibly be emerging from his father.
The Duke of Mornington lay on the four-poster bed, wrapped in his various coverings and draperies. He was fully half the size of the enormous and imposing man that had always been Adam’s father, and his face seemed quite shrunken with illness and sorrow.
At the sight of his wretched father, Adam was at the bedside in a few swift strides and dropped to his knees to grasp his father’s hand.
“Dearest father.” His voice was warm and overwrought with the overwhelming feeling of homecoming. “I have come home to you, and I beg your pardon for having left you for so long.”
The words flew straight from his heart, and he did not speak them with any particular intention or agenda. Nonetheless, it seized and twisted at his heart to see his father flinch away from him and use what remnants of strength he had to turn his face away from his son.
“Father,” Adam said again. He was struck by the hollow sound of his own voice in that silent room. “Father, will you not at least look me in the eye?”
The old man did no such thing but kept his gaze fixed resolutely on the canopy of the bed as he spoke in a quavering voice that Adam scarcely recognized. “I have nothing to say to you, sir, nor do I recognize you as any relation of mine.”
He still believes it was me. This realization flooded Adam’s chest in a great wave of distress, and he reflexively released the hand that he had held in both of his.
How could my own father, my only family in all the world, honestly believe me to be guilty of such a terrible crime?
Adam rose to his feet. Suddenly, the room seemed stiflingly hot, and he wished to be outside, to be anywhere but in this place where his own father would not so much as look at him.
“I will not stay to cause you further distress, Father.” He struggled to keep his voice steady when his heart was still shaking with the pain of rejection. “I want you to know that I am here and that I will not leave your side so long as you need me.”
Perhaps he should have felt angered by his father’s rejection and advocated more weightily for his own innocence. But the sight of the old man looking so wasted and frail made anger impossible. Adam feared if he used any strong words then his father might physically break.
The old man continued to stare blankly at the velvet canopy above. Adam bent down to kiss the familiar hand — so wasted now — and left the room, pausing only to say over his shoulder, “I will come back soon, Father. I will not forsake you, no matter what you think of me.”
He meant the words sincerely. As he left the room, his mind was racing with only one question: How was he to prove his innocence to his father?