Richard's gaze was intent as he poured the water over the spoon, watching the green slowly give way to swirls of opalescent white.
"Do you know what I see, Edward?" he said.
It was no good trying to guess what Richard was getting at when he got like this, and anyway, it was almost certainly a rhetorical question. Edward just shook his head, blankly.
"I see all the days of my life ahead of me, without Anne. I can't imagine anything more unbearable." He lifted the glass, drank deeply. "Nothing would make me happier than being rid of the lot of them."
He drained the glass then, and tilted his head back as though he were contemplating the pattern on the ceiling. "I am by her death -- which word wrongs her -- of the first nothing the elixir grown."
Edward had no gift for consolation, and he wasn't sure there was any to be given, as much as he wanted to give it. He could no more reach his cousin in the depths of his grief than he could restore the dead to life. When he thought of how Richard used to be, before Anne died, he wasn't sure that reviving the dead wasn't what he was really trying to do. He remembered lively soirees in Mayfair and languid summer afternoons at Shene House, Richard's laughter and Anne's wit.
He remembered, too, the clenching feeling in his heart whenever he saw the way Richard looked at her.
And now Anne was dead, and it was as if it had broken something in him irreparably -- like everything alive about him had been buried with her.
"You're drunk, Richard," he said, finally. It was, after all, not his first glass this evening. Or his second.
"It's John Donne," Richard said, not looking at Edward.
"You're still drunk."
"This is my ancient..." He waved his hand vaguely in Edward's direction, still focused intently on the ceiling. "This my right hand, and this my left. Well, God's above all, and there be souls must be saved, and there be souls must not be saved." He leaned forward, looking at Edward now as if he'd never seen him before.
"God, I hate my life," he said. "I hate my life."
It had been over a year since the terrible summer in which first Richard, and then Henry Lancaster and his father, had lost their wives, and for the most part, it seemed as though the shadow that hung over the family was finally lifting. Edward's own father, widowed two years before, had remarried fairly quickly, to a woman even younger than Edward -- gossip had it that she was interested in both Edmund's money and his much more attractive son (a rumor that Edward had no interest in confirming even though it was completely true) -- and Uncle John was likely to do the same before too long. The disapproving murmurs had started well before Katherine Swinford and her family had even returned from New York, and a few people muttered darkly that the laudanum overdose that had carried off Constance had been no accident. Henry, whose wife, Mary, had died giving birth to their daughter Philippa, seemed to have no intention of remarriage, and looked perpetually grim and sad -- but then, he had always comported himself as though he were in mourning.
For Richard, though, there had been no slow, measured return to normalcy. When Edward was still at Eton, Richard's close companion Robbie Vere had died, under mysterious circumstances, after fleeing to France to avoid getting arrested for buggery. It had been a great scandal, and Richard had been so distraught that he'd had to leave Cambridge and was sent to the Continent to recover his health. It hadn't seemed to help, since when he returned he had seemed drawn and tired and not at all recovered, but Edward could not imagine that even before he left he had been worse off then than he was now: in all things he seemed to be chasing an oblivion just out of his reach. He could only remember seeing Richard smile once in recent memory; it had been reassuring until he'd noticed the silver syringe sitting in its open case on an end table.
Edward took out his cigarette case, offered one to Richard. "Here," he said. "Clears your head a bit."
"Don't want one," Richard said. "Everything I touch turns to ashes, anyway."
Edward lit his own cigarette and watched as the smoke from his discarded match curled idly toward the ceiling, suddenly wishing he were somewhere else. There was usually nothing to be done when Richard got like this, nothing but to sit and listen while Richard talked about how much he wished he was dead, and choke on the millions of things he wanted to tell Richard about how damned terrified he was for his sake.
"Edward?" Richard's voice was strangely distant and childlike. "The wallpaper's moving."
Edward leaned forward, laid his hand on Richard's wrist. "Are you all right?" he said. "Absinthe does dreadful things to a man, you know."
"Not all right," Richard murmured, "but it doesn't matter. You see that?" he said, gesturing at the walls. "It's crawling away. Everything does. I can't stop it. It all falls apart. Do you know, everyone I loved is dead? I can't bear to remember it. Or to forget. I'm just stopped, Edward, and everything else is moving away from me. Even my damned house is doing it."
"Come on," Edward said, snuffing out his cigarette. "It's time to stop when the wallpaper starts moving."
Richard looked lost. "I can't," he said. "I haven't forgotten yet."
Edward moved to sit beside him, and took his arm.
"Have you ever?" he said gently.
Richard did not answer, but he allowed Edward to help him stand up.
A few days later Richard told Edward he had business at Shene House. "I have to be rid of it," he said. "I can't bear the thought that I might find myself back there someday."
Edward nodded -- it might do him good to sell the place off, after all.
In the event Richard was frustratingly inscrutable about the entire affair: he'd insisted Edward come with him, but when they arrived at Shene House he also insisted on going in alone, sending Edward off with the carriage to wait for him in the unprepossessing nearby village of Drayton Parslow.
Which was, of course, completely typical of Richard. At least the place had a pub in it.
Richard has not been back to Shene House since -- he can barely, even now, articulate it even in his own thoughts -- since the day she died.
(In his head he has never left, has not been gone even an hour. When he closes his eyes he still sees her face, blank and empty; when he lies awake at night he remembers the last time he held her in his arms, how very still she was; not a day before he had fallen asleep listening to the beating of her heart, and now he could never do so again. No wormwood, no morphine, no nepenthe will take that image from his mind.)
He lights the lantern he has brought with him, and it is bright enough the house becomes recognizable as something other than an ominous black shadow in the gathering dusk.
She loved it here. He cannot bear to think about that now. It will change nothing -- he cannot burn away the last year, or even his memory of it -- but neither can he stand the thought that the place where she died should continue standing, to offend the earth with its presence. Whatever peace it might bring him to know that it has been annihilated, he will gladly take, however insignificant it will be.
He hesitates only a moment longer. Then, with all his strength, he hurls the lantern through the window. The crash of glass and the ensuing rain of shards is gratifying, in a metaphorical sort of way: therefore I think my breast hath all those pieces still, though they be not unite.
The fire spreads quickly, catching hold of the curtains, spreading out along the walls. It is breathtaking to watch. The speed of it is no surprise, for Richard knows too well how quickly something can be destroyed.
It is that thought that draws him to the threshold.
It would not take long. They say the smoke will kill a man before the flames can touch him. It would be over quickly, and without much pain.
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her...
Richard is light-hearted and light-headed as he approaches the door; he takes the handle, instantly jerks his hand back, stifling a cry. It is too late: the flames have reached the other side of the door, and to go in now would mean death by fire rather than smoke. He examines the blisters beginning to form on his hands and thinks of how it would feel to burn to death, and cannot escape a memory of reading from the Book of Martyrs as a child, with its pictures of bishops and laymen alike going to the flames with hands outstretched in agony and faces completely unmoved -- the appearance of peace amid the conflagration was ineffably terrifying. People burnt to death would die horribly, with blackened skin and blistered flesh: he has never forgotten the one man in the book who died at the stake with fat and water and blood pouring from his fingers' ends.
It is appalling, unconscionable, and he stumbles back towards the gates, a safe distance from the blackening timbers, now cast into sharp relief against the blazing fire, and sinks down onto the grass. He can almost hear Thomas's voice in his head -- you're a damned mollying idiot, Richard, can't even kill yourself properly. It all seems faintly ridiculous: Richard finds himself laughing, a sound horrible to his own ears, even as he breaks down into choked sobs.
Anyone passing by would surely think him a lunatic.
The very word is like a bell: news is certain to get back to his family, after all. It will confirm their worst suspicions about him. They would seize upon any excuse, after all, to send him back there, and the memory of leather straps and icy water and endless rows of green tiles is almost enough to make him cast himself into the flames after all, as widows in India were said to do upon their husbands' funeral pyres. But not quite enough. It doesn't matter, anyway: if he cannot endure a few minutes' torment, he will face the same drawn-out emptiness anywhere.
It is reassuring to know that there's no need to wonder when it will stop.
It was past dark and Edward, to distract himself, was half-heartedly endeavoring to flirt with the handsome waiter at the Three Horse Shoes when Richard returned -- pale, disheveled, smelling of sweat and smoke and kerosene. He sat down across from Edward and, without a word, took the wine bottle and Edward's glass, filling it carefully with shaking hands and then draining it quickly.
"We may wish to notify the fire brigade," he said, his voice unnaturally calm despite his haunted appearance. "There's been an accident at Shene House."
Edward was suddenly glad that Richard had taken his glass, since otherwise he would probably have dropped it on the floor. "You mean you -- oh, God, Richard. Hold on. Let me pay the reckoning, and then we'll handle it, all right?"
If Richard was even listening to him, he gave no sign of it. He started to pour another glass of wine, and this was the last thing that Edward's already-frayed nerves could handle -- before he'd even really thought about it, he pulled the glass out of Richard's hand. Richard was shocked enough by his sudden decisiveness that he offered no resistance, and the force of Edward's movement left a spreading purple stain on his shirt.
"What the hell -- " Richard started to say, and Edward, for what was almost certainly the first time in his entire life, cut him off.
"Christ, Richard, just stop, all right?" he said. "Stop it. I can't fucking stand this anymore."
"What?" It was like someone had thrown a switch that had brought Richard to frantic life. "You can't stand it? You don't know the first damned thing about it, Edward, so why don't you just fuck right off?"
"Don't tell me what I know," Edward said, his voice coming out now in a frantic, sharply-edged tangle of words. "All right? I can't stand seeing you kill yourself by degrees -- " he broke off there, because his throat felt too tight to continue and his face was hot and his eyes prickled.
Richard looked nearly as shaken as Edward felt, at that.
"I'll kill myself however I damn well please," he said.
"Come on." Edward hated the quiver in his voice: there was not time for his rapidly-growing sense of dread. "We can't go back to London and just leave it there." When he moved to take Richard's hands, Richard drew back -- but he made no more argument.
The thing about Richard when he got extremely angry was that the really scary part didn't usually last very long. Edward had only seen him as angry as he'd just been once before -- when Dick Arundel had elbowed his way into the chapel just as Anne's funeral was about to begin. It had been terrifying: before anyone could stop Richard he had thrown himself at Arundel with fists flying, and the service had been delayed for several hours so they could clean the blood off the floor. Arundel still had a crooked nose as a result of the thrashing Richard had given him, and indeed Edward himself had taken an elbow to the eye as he tried to hold Richard back, but then, too, he had quickly broken down once the damage was done. (Richard had apologized to him later, and Edward keenly remembered Richard's long fingers brushing gently across his bruised and swollen cheekbone.)
"No," Richard said, seemingly from a great distance. "I suppose we can't."
It was drawing near to midnight by the time they were able to set out for London. Shene House was irreparably damaged, of course. Richard had instructed that anything regarding any expenses incurred as a result of the fire be sent to him in London -- with remarkable composure, Edward thought, all things considered, but then, Richard had always been unsettlingly good at that. He had always thought it a peculiar honor, that he was one of the few people that Richard allowed to see him at his worst -- perhaps it was a strange way of showing love, Edward thought -- but his seemingly-easy slides from despair back into something resembling presentable were deeply perilous, like dark water filled with jagged rocks.
"I am not mad," Richard said, flatly, as they sat side by side in the brougham resolutely not looking at each other for too long.
Edward had already decided that contesting this statement would be a terrible idea when Richard continued: "...I would to heaven I were, for then 'tis like I should forget myself."
More Shakespeare, then. No help at all. Richard always did that when he didn't want to tell you something -- Edward supposed it might have been more illuminating if he gave a damn about Shakespeare, even if what Richard had just said was clear enough.
"I don't guess you want to tell me why you did it, then," he said, finally, though it felt like a ridiculous thing to say.
Richard looked him in the face for the first time since they'd left the Three Horse Shoes. In the faint light he seemed terrible, pale and hollow-eyed, and Edward shivered.
"I doubt you're really as stupid as you pretend to be," he said. "I told you. I had to be rid of it."
He leaned back against the seat then and closed his eyes. Edward watched him for what felt like an age, before giving up and lighting a cigarette, assuming he had fallen asleep. He was at a loss to explain how Richard might manage that, given the circumstances, but then, he didn't seem to get much of it these days.
"Please, don't do that," Richard said suddenly, the panic that sharpened his voice more startling than his sudden movement.
"What?" With one hand Edward waved his match in the air to extinguish it, jerking it awkwardly as the heat neared his fingers; with the other he tried to keep his recently-lit cigarette from igniting his greatcoat.
"I can't bear the smoke," Richard said. "Because -- God, Edward, it could have been over tonight. I couldn't do it. And I wanted to. I thought I did. I don't know."
"What happened?" Edward asked, forcing his voice through the knot tightening in his throat. "Richard, please, tell me."
Richard looked away from him then, turning towards the rolling blackness passing by the window. Once again the silence before he spoke seemed to stretch on infinitely.
"I nearly went in, you know."
"During the fire. If I'd thought of it soon enough -- it would only have taken a few minutes. Wouldn't even have hurt very much. Because of the smoke, you know."
Edward felt his heart drop into his stomach and his hands turn cold: he wanted to pull Richard into his arms and cling to him for dear life, to kiss his forehead and his eyelids and his lips until his pain had dissipated, to shake him senseless -- how could you even think about leaving me, you complete bastard?
"And I couldn't do it," Richard continued. "I couldn't do it. I went to open the door, and it was hot, and I burned my hand." He held out his right hand, and Edward could just barely make out the red welts that cut across his fingers. "It's so stupid, isn't it? Only a few minutes." He shook his head, burying his face in his hands. "I know death has ten thousand several doors for men to take their exits..."
"Richard -- "
"For a second, I didn't want to die, Edward," he said, his voice choked and distant. "I don't understand it."
Edward wrapped his arm around Richard's shoulders and could feel him trembling. He leaned close and pressed his lips to Richard's temple, and Richard laid his head on Edward's shoulder and reached up to cover Edward's hand with his own.
"There's nothing you can do to save me, Ned," he said. "But I'm glad you try."