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Robert and Susannah typically spent evenings in separate chairs on either side of the fireplace—Robert usually with a book, the Bible more often than not, tipped so that he could read by the firelight, Susannah in her own chair, the day’s knitting and darning in the basket beside her. The comfortable smells of a home permeated every corner, from the slightly musty hay of the thatch above to the smoke-tinged earth from the cob. There was usually small talk, the casual, comfortable nothings that a man and woman shared regarding the events of their days.
Tonight was an exception. There was no small talk, only the crackling of the fire. Susannah's chair was empty and any of their neighbors would have been scandalized had they seen her curled in Robert’s lap in such a brazen fashion. Others would have been shocked by the sight of tears flowing unnoticed down Robert’s cheeks, dampening Susannah’s golden hair where it lay nestled beneath his chin. Tonight was the anniversary of the day the French had butchered his brother Edmund.
A knock at the kitchen door roused both of them from their mourning. Guests were expected to use the front door as a matter of preference, something each of their neighbors knew. Robert doubted it was the French come to take him away to join his brother at the wheel. Those bastards wouldn’t have bothered with the niceties of knocking. The door would have been kicked in, and Robert would be lying helpless on the ground while the French trussed him like a newly-killed deer.
Robert rose quietly and shook his head at Susannah, both answering the question in her eye and telling her to stay put. He didn’t know and he needed her out of potential danger.
At the door, the visitor knocked again. It was a patient knock, neither hurried nor demanding. It was simply one soul wishing to request entrance from a host. Robert took a taper from the mantle, lit it from the fireplace and then made his way through the kitchen. He lifted the bar and allowed the door to swing open. The face in the light of the taper was the last one that Robert had expected.
“Nicholas Knapp.” It was something between a growl and a whisper. Emotions ran amok in his chest. He was certainly glad to see his brother-in-law and get news of his sister Elinor and Elizabeth, Edmund’s widow. However, pulling at the other end was the nagging suspicion that Nicholas had been the one to turn Edmund in to the French. It was the natural assumption. With Nicholas’ past and his flight from the town on the day of Edmund’s torture, the village had assumed that Nicholas was the one who reported to the French.
Anger began to override love and reason. Robert felt his face redden, and his fingers flinched as they began to curl into a fist.
“Nicholas.” Susannah’s polite voice cut through the tension, as she had intended it to. She was, most likely, just as conflicted as Robert as to Nicholas, yet her reaction to times like this awkward meeting was to rely on polite manners to defuse the tension. The more socially tense the situation, the more polite Susannah became. "How are Elinor and Elizabeth?"
Nicholas’ smile never wavered, and he gave a small bow to Susannah. “They are well. I’ll tell you all about them in exchange for a drink of water.” He eyed the table behind Robert meaningfully and Robert stepped aside, allowing Nicholas to enter the room and sit at the table.
Robert closed the door quietly but firmly. After replacing the bar, he moved to the opposite end of the table. Susannah brought three cups of the well water that Robert fetched each night before the family settled it. It served as drinking water through the night and fed the next morning’s awakening.
Nicholas nodded his thanks and took a deep drink before setting his mug on the table. He had the air of a man screwing up the courage to perform some herculean task. For one of the few times that Robert had known Nicholas, the ever-present smile was missing.
“I’ll tell you all about them,” he repeated, “just as soon as I complete one of the tasks that I came here to perform.”
Nicholas reached over and pulled the taper closer to his face, illuminating it as best as he could with the small flame. His eyes were pleading that Robert would listen and judge him fairly. Even through his anger, Robert felt the tug of honesty from Nicholas' gaze.
“Robert, I did not betray Edmund. Despite my many faults, I am not one to betray family. And never one as loyal to me when others were against me.”
Nicholas was referring to March, 1631, when he had been tried and convicted of quackery for selling an elixir that he claimed cured scurvy. Edmund and Mr. Pelham had paid the five-pound surety to the courts for Nicholas’ good behavior.
“He stood surety for me, Robert. Say what you will about me, I am not a betrayer. I may be a knave, but never a Judas.”
Robert simply nodded. Nicholas certainly took stretching the truth to new bounds, but there was a core of honesty and loyalty in him. There were boundaries that he would not cross.
“Why did you not tell me sooner, a letter perhaps?”
“Would you have believed me, Robert? Was it not you and Edmund that told me that the best way to know the truth from a man is to look into their eyes and see it in their very soul?”
Robert had to acknowledge that Nicholas had a point. With the light from the taper shining on the other's face, Robert searched his eyes, delving to find the truth in Nicholas' soul. He found something, though his anger refused to let him see it as anything but self-service on Nicholas' behalf.
“A letter would have been seen as self-serving without you being able to see the truth with your own eyes.”
To hear Nicholas put so blatant Robert's own thoughts into words was a stab at Robert's heart. Suddenly, Robert felt an emotional door shut on his anger. Whether Nicholas had intended it or not, he had pointed out Robert's own pettiness in letting anger override the truth of things. His suspicion of Nicholas faded with the anger. Whatever doubts that Robert may have had in regard to Nicholas’ actions in Edmunds’ torture dissipated. Brotherly affection for the husband of his sister flooded into the vacuum left behind.
“I believe you promised us news of how the family is.” Robert coughed as though to clear his throat.
“And so I did. After I saw those bastards take Edmund, I decided the best I could do for him was to make sure that Elizabeth and the children were safe. I couldn’t trust that the French would leave them be if they were usable leverage against Edmund.”
“Aye,” Robert said. “Edmund would have perjured his own soul to keep Elizabeth out of harm.”