With a mysterious smile, Merri takes Tobias’ arm and leads him toward the stairs. On the walls are paintings and sketches, most of landscapes, flowers, and a few portraits though none are labelled. “I’ve had to take my time redecorating here. As I’m sure you know, it’s costly and my funds have gone to other pursuits much as yours have. Still, it’s been a pleasure to bring this old townhouse back to some semblance of its former glory. I do enjoy beauty so.”
His eyes move over the portraits as she lead him on, a faint smile crossing his face as he saw the landscapes. “The care you are taking certainly shows, I am firmly impressed. There is no doubt in my mind that you will have this house back to it’s full glory soon, you have an eye for such things.”
The stairwell lets out onto the hallway on the second floor; there are no fresh flowers as there would have been, had this place been in the world above. But there are rather artful arrangements of mushrooms and some sculptures in obsidian and glim that are pleasing to the eye. She leads him to one of the doors down the hall which lets them into a very intimate sitting room — Merri’s private space, clearly, for here is her writing desk with correspondence still strewn about it, a comfortably upholstered chair and settee with matching divan, a low table with a large book upon it (he recognizes the copy of On The Maladies of Goats of course), all decorated in subtly feminine colors and trimmed here and there in lace and ribbons. Propped up against one wall is a rather large, covered frame.
With another of those enigmatic smiles she pulls him to a spot in the center of the room with a clear view of the thing, then whisks away the canvas cover. Beneath, a portrait of her in full, living color.
On The Maladies of Goats…that pesky book had almost driven him insane at one stage, but his attention was swiftly drawn away from it as the beautiful portrait was revealed. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened as he looked upon the portrait, seemingly lost for words. After a moment or two a slight cough came forth from him before he spoke. “My dear Merri…it is astounding. The painter has captured your beauty perfectly…” His voice seemingly giving way at the end as he fell silent once more.
She moves to stand beside him, gazing at it thoughtfully. “It was painted just before my marriage. I can scarcely believe that I was ever that… fresh, and hopeful… but I’m gratified to know you think it a good likeness, still.” Merri pauses noticeably, then adds, “I have a few daguerreotype versions of it, much smaller of course. Would you like one?”
Finally tearing his gaze away from the portrait he looked once more to Merri with a glimmer in his eyes. “I would adore one. If anything my dear you look even better now. It seems you make a fantastic model for painting, perhaps I could entice you to model for me some time? That is of course if you are willing to withstand the scandal that it would no doubt create?”
With a rather wicked sounding laugh, she moves to her writing table and picks up an envelope. “I seem to drip scandal even on the best of days, darling man. Having a portrait painted in your hand would only give society something new to gossip about. I would adore sitting for you if only because it means we’ll be spending more time together.”
Her slender fingers remove a piece of card stock upon which is the sepia-toned likeness of the portrait, glancing at it only once before offering it to him. “Though I’m afraid I might frighten you off by telling you so, I confess.”
The likeness is taken with a smile and delicately stored in his suit jacket before looking to Merri with a curious look on his face. “I would take pleasure in painting you, but what makes you think you would frighten me off? I treasure your company my dear, I am unsure if you could frighten me off at all. One does not simply give up on one of the things that gets them through the day.”
Her answering smile softens, becomes slightly uncertain. “Because I have terrible luck with male companionship,” she replies self-deprecatingly, gesturing him toward the divan. “I no sooner think of forming an attachment than everything begins to go horribly wrong. Would you care to sit for a bit? I don’t often entertain up here, and we have so much to catch up on, it seems.”
A slight frown crosses his face as she speaks. “Terrible luck? It saddens me to hear that my dear, I hope I can be the man that changes your luck.” Reaching out to her he laid a hand gently on her shoulder for a moment before taking a seat on the divan. “I will most certainly keep you company though, you are able to brighten up my days and I shall do my utmost to return the favour. That and I have just realised that I know very little about your past.”
“And that is mutual, for I know little about yours. It seems something that is simply `not done’, here in the Neath — inquiring about one another’s pasts, I mean.”
“I think many of us are not proud of our pasts, either that or they wish to forget the pain. I myself now call the Neath home.” He doesn’t seem excited by this fact.
Merri settles in beside him, which is perhaps not very proper as there is at least one other chair available. It is a craving for human closeness, for some kind of intimacy that can stave off the darkness. What she knows of him is honorable, steadfast, magnanimous — she can trust him not to turn her own vulnerability against her, or betray her in any way. She rings for tea and waits until it is brought, speaking only of inconsequential things until the servant arrives with it, and leaves.
“Well,” she finally says, moving into the heart of something beyond surface banality. “You know I was once married. I am now divorced, my husband filed the suit on grounds of abandonment. It took some time, but the suit was finally granted. I received the final paperwork here several months ago.” There is more, of course. There is always more, but it seems enough to offer, for now. “Have you ever been married, Tobias?”
Silently he takes a cup of tea and sips at it as she tells him of her past, his expression maintaining compassionate and showing no surprise at the revelations. “I myself have never been married and it is not likely I ever will be now that I am down here. My past is colourful, think of me as a Jack of All Trades, I’ve had my fingers in many pies since my youth. I have always had a thing for inventions, crafting new items is a passion of mine that is little seen down here. I have not been down here for long, merely two or three months, but I am doing my best to acclimatise to things.”
“Inventions? Truly?” For the first time since he arrived downstairs, he sees her face light up as it has in the past. “I too have a fondness for them, for seeing a problem, envisioning the solution, building the answer for testing and…” She stops, and chuckles ruefully. “It’s not a very `feminine’ kind of pastime, I suppose, nor are they qualities much prized here in the Neath. How glad I am, though, that we share that interest!
He returns her smile, glad that he is perhaps taking her mind off of things. “Perhaps it is not thought of as feminine but in the Neath such boundaries serve little purpose, if you with to tinker then there is little to stop you.”
“Tell me,” she goes on, rather more careful now. For some, this is a touchy subject. “Are you able to return to the surface if you wish it? Or are you down here permanently now?”
Surprisingly a broad smile crossed his face, the subject perhaps not as touchy as one would think? “I am able to return should the urge take me, I may fight but I have an uncanny skill for avoiding severe injuries and I hope that it last for the foreseeable future.” His expression becomes far more melancholy as something strikes him, his gaze becoming rather distant as he talks. “I can think of many who cannot though, I even know some who have died down here, we Black Ribbon fighters dance with true death in every fight.”
The color drains from her face, along with any sense her usual merriment. She knows what the Black Ribbon is, it’s written all over her face. She’s encountered Feducci too — and is unlikely to forget it. Suddenly urgent, she places her hand on his forearm, concern pushing her right past any remaining bounds of personal propriety.
“Tobias… not the Black Ribbon, surely. Not that. I could not bear to lose you, not when we’ve so newly rediscovered our friendship.”
Even with boundaries being broken his gaze was still far off, his mind working overtime as he thought of the past. “You need not fear for me, I cannot lose…I will not lose.” His gaze turns to Merri and a grim look is on his face. “There are things in life that I must do, were I not to then I would not be the man you see before you. Trust in my skills and please do not ask me to be who I cannot…”
Tobias falls silent as he looks to her, a look of pained melancholy on his face, his eyes imploring her for understanding as he places a hand upon her own.
His words strike a very deep chord within her, underscored by the very human touch of his hand upon hers. She stares at their hands for a moment; when she lifts her eyes to his, they are clear once more.
“Forgive me, dear friend. Of course you are right. I do not seem very well able to regulate my responses, these past two days. I did warn you I would be wretched company.”
He gave a pained smile in return as she addressed him. “There is nothing about you that is wretched my dear and your concern is both noted and appreciated, but there are things a man must do.”
The hint of a flickering smile, there at the corners of her mouth. “I promise I will trust in your skills. I know they are formidable. I promise I will… trust in you. And not ask from you what you cannot give.
“Will you do the same for me?”
“Of course, trust is the greatest gift that can be given and I give you mine happily.” A relieved smile encroaches upon his face, his eyes becoming less distant.
“Very well.” Her bright smile is back and if it’s a little brittle at the edges, they can both agree to ignore it for the moment. “Let’s make a pact to avoid death here, Tobias. In such a way we can return to the surface together and I can show you the laboratory at Fawkeswood Manor. You’ll adore it. I’ve ordered it closed and locked while I’m away, but with only two days’ notice it will be ready for use. I have no ties to the surface left now, but it would be very agreeable to share that part of myself… with you.”
The boldness of the words causes the stumble, but she does not shirk from them. The smile softens again. “I truly have missed you so, dear friend. Truly.”
“I have missed you as well, you truly do brighten my day. This talk of the Laboratory interests me greatly, I would love to see it. I shall do all I can to avoid death my dear, it follows us but if I wield a large enough stick I am sure I can keep it at bay. Please, tell me more about yourself? Getting to know you… it is a pleasurable experience and I would hear more about you if you are willing.”
“It is a very dull tale, I’m afraid,” Merri warns him, pouring them both more tea. “But I shall tell you something and perhaps it won’t lull you to sleep completely.
“I was born Isabella Fawkes, to the branch of the family known as the Northumbrian Fawkeses,” she begins. “The second child of two. My older brother and parents died in an airship crash — so cliché, I know, but there it is — when I was four. My father and brother were both named Merryweather, as was my grandfather and all the male progenitors of the line for generations. It was something of a tradition, you see, to have a Merryweather Fawkes resident at Fawkeswood Manor, the folk had come to rely on it much as they’d rely on the sun coming up every morning. Well, my grandfather was unlikely to get any further male heirs at his age, so he and my grandmother declared me the heir to the family title and fortunes, and had my name changed to `Merriwether Isabella Fawkes’ in the official birth records and I have gone by that name ever since.”
He frowns as she speaks of her loss, a sad frown appearing on his face. “I am sorry to hear of your loss. Though this does leave me intrigued as to why you are down here if you lived in a manor on the surface? Though I can understand if you do not wish to talk about such things, though for the record any information about you no matter how small is of interest to me. I have a great deal of time for you and I tend to find many people to be fools, but you… you are splendid company and have great intellect.”
“Thank you, Tobias. Intellectual capacity is usually overlooked in women, and most especially in those society deems `pretty’. My heritage includes a great university tradition in addition to whatever looks I inherited — from my mother mostly, I’m told.
“I’m here… I came to Fallen London…” It is difficult to speak of it, even now. Some things are necessary, however, even if they are difficult. “Well, you should know, as I’m sure the stories about my breakdown yesterday will be all over the city by now. I came here specifically seeking the Marvellous. I’d heard tales of a card game with the highest stakes imaginable, but where one could win one’s Heart’s Desire. I have no love of gambling for its own sake, but I do understand percentages, statistics, and odds very well. I also read people fairly well — the combination makes me a formidable hand at the card table, it turns out.
“So I arranged to be brought here. I found myself in New Newgate Prison, the same as everyone else. No friends, no acquaintances, no resources. Just like everyone else,” she says, smiling grimly. “I’ve worked as hard as anyone, I think, to find clues, to seek out the players, to gather my stake — you helped me with that, as you’ll recall — it was only when I came to that 38:11 moment yesterday, that everything came flying apart around me.”
When she sees he’s puzzled by the numerical reference, she explains. “It’s a Biblical reference. Job chapter 38, verse 11: `Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.’ I felt as if God himself had punched me in the chest.”
Tobias says nothing as she speaks, instead listening intently with a grim look on his face. The Biblical reference was perhaps not entirely unknown to him, he had spent a large quantity of time at church recently in attempts to avoid scandal, but that grim look on his face could certainly appear to be puzzlement. “It seems that seekers of the Marvellous are common around these parts, you are not the only one I know. I have done what I can to gain coins for a few close acquaintances, but it seems the finding of the players is the real difficulty.”
Raising a hand silently he brushed a fallen lock of hair from his face as he studied her. “I am sure you will find the game in the end, you have a tenacity to you that is missing in many of the other players. You truly desire the Marvellous and I do believe you will give it your all.”
Her grey eyes are muted, expression subdued as she returns his gaze. “How is it you see so deeply into the heart of me, Tobias? I will find it, I must — though I now must pray with all my heart that you are not one of the other players! — but shall I tell you why? Or will you turn your eyes into my soul to divine it, thus sparing me from that necessity?”
His gaze once more moved to her, his piercing deep blue eyes looking deep within her as if trying to see her soul. “I too search for the game, but know this, I would never play you under any circumstances. To see any harm come to you would be a dagger piercing my heart, I can only hope that this is also the reason you would not wish to play me. I ask for no confirmation of this, merely that if it is not true you allow me to live on in blissful ignorance.”
That lock of hair had fallen forward again; with a tender gesture Merri smooths it back from his too-somber face. “I would not play if you were at the table. I could not. My heart’s desire is dearer to me than my own soul, dear, gallant Tobias — but not dearer to me than yours. I could not bear it… should you come to ill over such a gamble. I simply could not.”
As her hand falls from his hair it’s taken gently in his own. “Then let us hope that such a situation does not occur, hope we are worrying over that which will not occur, hope that both our souls may remain intact so that we may enjoy our time together to it’s fullest. It is my fervent hope that I may have the pleasure of your company often if you will allow it. I am sure there is much we could do and much I could do to ensure a sunny disposition for yourself.”
“That, you have already done; I have no fear that you could continue it if you wished.” Her hand squeezes his softly, tentatively. After a moment, she says, “You know, I have made friends in this city who came here together for a purpose. They spend much time in each other’s company, they protect each other, defend each other… I have often felt envious of the closeness they share and how it must ameliorate the inherent loneliness of this place…” She smiles a gentle smile, feels her heart rising to her eyes and for once, does not care to stop it. “It would be… inexpressibly precious to me… if perhaps you and I could learn to share that with each other. Does that sound… agreeable to you?”
Tobias falls silent for a few moments, his face taking on a very seriously look as he obviously weighs up the offer. Finally looking to her, his expression remains deadly serious as he removes his hand from hers to give her his reply. “I suppose that would be agreeable.”
Dark eyebrows lifted abruptly, alarm and chagrin taking about ten years off her apparent age.
Within seconds his face cracks and a broad playful grin crosses it, seemingly he could not keep up the callous act for long. Swiftly reaching out he takes her hand once more and gazes into her eyes. “Of course it sounds agreeable! Nothing would make me happier than to share such closeness with you.”
“My Lord, Tobias, but you’ve turned into a dreadful tease!” Merri laughs, wondering at what could have changed in him, to cause even a brief pass at a jest. In the past she had always found ways to make him laugh, to brighten the somber melancholy that clung to him. And now here he sits, having taken her in with a jest, sharing laughter with her… “You wear such light-heartedness very well, dear man. I look forward to seeing you in it more often!”
“Well if I am to bring scandal to your name, by being here alone with you, I felt that I should at the very least bring a smile to your face. I shall do what I can in the future to remain as jovial as possible for you, I am sure your company will make it easy.” With a smile he removes his pocket watch and glances at it for a moment. “I do believe I should return you to your guests, if I keep you here all evening whatever will they think?”
“Well, the `tea room’ is there for anyone to use, with or without my presence,” she replies, but arising to honor his wishes. “But certainly, I have enough trouble with wagging tongues at present. I likely should not court too much more scandal, lest I be required to vacation in the Tomb Colonies for awhile.” She wrinkles her nose at this. “When shall I see you again?”
“It may be there for all but I am sure many come for your company, I know that I do.” He gives her a pleasant smile and releases her hand. “Tomorrow evening I wrestle a tiger supplied by Mrs Plenty, part of my payment will be carnival tickets, would you care to help me use them? I do believe your company at the carnival would be most pleasant.”
“I should enjoy that very much,” Merri admits, taking his arm to escort him downstairs. “I should also like to watch the match. Wrestling a tiger! Whatever prompted you to attempt such a thing?”
“Practice before my next Ribbon fight. But I and Mrs Plenty believe a Black Ribbon fighter wrestling a tiger will be quite a draw, it is not often that someone is so skilled…or foolish. I myself have been preparing for the past while, it should be an entertaining evening. I would certainly love to have you in my corner though, it would be good to see a friendly face encouraging me to do my best.” A slight smile crosses his face at the thought of it.
“Oh how exciting.” She squeezes his arm, and they find themselves in her entry foyer once again. The tea room is empty by this time, a fact that seems to relieve her more than distress her. The stresses of the previous day’s events are still too close for comfort. “So shall I plan to attend the carnival with you after your bout? I have every confidence that you’ll defeat the beast, but if you should sustain injury it would lessen your enjoyment of the evening — and mine, most assuredly.”
He nodded ever so slightly in response as he thought about the situation. “Perhaps it would be best to go the evening after? I do not believe I shall be badly injured…but I have never fought a tiger before so perhaps it is best to err on the side of caution. I do hope that is fine with you? I shall do my utmost to make it up to you, perhaps try to win a prize for you.” His smile widened as they reached the door. “I used to be quite the dab hand with dice in my youth, so I do believe I may be able to win something for you.”
Merri laughs, delighted with the prospect, and with him. “Then I shall be in your corner for the bout, and be the recipient of any gifts you should happen to wish to bestow upon me,” she promises, eyes sparkling with something like their old mirth.
“I shall do what I can for you, my dear Merri; last I was there I saw many stalls with prizes to win. However the most important thing to me is the pleasure of seeing you cheering me on against the tiger. That is I assume you want me to win and not the tiger…”
“Now you’re being quite silly,” she tells him, the scolding tone not especially sincere. “I’ll be there, with pity in my heart for the poor tiger that must face you!”
“Fear not. I shall not slay the tiger, merely teach him to respect his betters.” A light chuckle coming forth from him, his hand reaching out for hers. “Until we meet again my dear Merri.” Leaning forward with great grace he places a delicate kiss upon her hand.
The touch of his lips upon her hand has a gently electrifying effect upon her; when he arises, she’s smiling at him enigmatically again. “Until then, dearest Tobias. Until then.”