Competence versus Inferiority

“I have a brother?”

“You’ve had a brother,” Lord Fairfax said.  “He’s older than you.”

“Why didn’t Mother tell me about him?  Why haven’t I met him before?”

The older man pinched the bridge of his nose and was silent for a long time.

Charles Fairfax shuffled his feet and picked at the heavy fabric of his school uniform’s coat while he waited.

Until he’d seen his father waiting nervously at the front entrance to the estate, Charles’ day had been typical to the point of banality.  The lessons in school weren’t necessarily difficult, when he could be bothered to pay attention to them, but they provided just enough of a challenge that he had been forced to work at it.  It seemed to come easier to his school friends – if the atmosphere of near-constant backstabbing and treachery could truly foster anything like friendship – and that absolutely galled Charles.  He wasn’t stupid, but it made him feel stupid to watch as the other boys answered questions immediately that took him a few more seconds to grasp.

The end result of a day filled with dozens of little irritants had ultimately pushed Charles into a particularly foul mood.  He didn’t live in eleventh-century England.  Why should he care about who won the Battle of Hastings, or why?  He had no aspirations towards becoming any sort of mathematician; in fact, he doubted he would ever have to work at all, considering his father’s noble station and the privilege that bestowed upon Charles himself.  So what possible reason could there be for him to sit through yet another hour of intricate geometrical problems or to learn all about how Euclid proved his own version of math as valid as any other?

If he could have extracted himself without upsetting his father, Charles would have been happy to break something or yell at some undeserving soul.  He could not do that, however, and so he forced himself to wait a little longer for his father to find the right words.

All told, it didn’t take more than a minute before Lord Fairfax cleared his throat and spoke again.  “Your mother didn’t know about him,” he said slowly, as if he feared Charles wouldn’t be able to read between the lines.

The specific details of childbirth still eluded Charles, but he knew enough about the general shape of things to figure out what his father meant.  “He has a different mother.”

Bright red blossomed in his father’s cheeks and he looked away from Charles.  “Yes.  That is…”  He sighed.  “Yes, he had a different mother.”

Charles thought about his next question.  “Why are you telling me now?”

“Your brother,” Lord Fairfax said, “was…hmm.  What would be the best way to explain this?”

Your brother.  Charles turned that phrase around in his mind, examined it from different directions.  A brother.  A brother. He’d grown up surrounded by various servants and, at the same time, absolutely alone on the estate.  His school friends occasionally came over to visit, at about the same frequency as he went to visit with them, but there was always an impassable distance between them.

He tuned back into what his father was saying, although he’d missed the first few words.  “ – bit of trouble.  You understand that we have an obligation to help others, yes?”

Charles nodded.  “As noblemen and individuals with real power to affect change, it is our responsibility to do what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves.”

He repeated the words he’d learned at the age of six, recited them like a chant.  After only five years, the words themselves had lost any meaning to him.  They were simply a series of syllables, repeated at a specific pattern and with a certain cadence.  He could’ve defined the concept of noblesse oblige while asleep.

“Precisely that,” Lord Fairfax said.  “And, as I have a…shall we say, a special obligation to your brother, I thought it would best to bring him here.”

“For a visit?”

“No, son.”  Lord Fairfax reached out a hand and touched the slick black sheen of Charles’ hair with two fingers.  He didn’t apply enough pressure for the grease to come off of his fingertips or to disrupt the perfectly arranged coif.  The contact was light enough that Charles could feel it, but not heavy enough that he would mistake it for anything resembling true affection.

“Then what?”

“Your brother is coming here to live with us,” Lord Fairfax said.

Charles blinked.  He opened his mouth to say something and, after allowing a second for his jaw to hang slackly open, closed it again.  He blinked a second time.  “To live with us?” He repeated, finally.

“Indeed.”  Lord Fairfax moved away from his son, across the cavernous space that served as their sitting room, until he stood near a window with its heavy curtains drawn back.  “You were listening to what I said about his mother, yes?”

“Of course,” Charles lied.

Either Lord Fairfax didn’t believe him or he didn’t care.  “She was always ill,” he said to his son, without turning away from the window.  “And it was only a matter of time before she caught something fatal.  It would be unconscionable to turn him away.”

Charles started to reply but realized, a second before he could put breath to the words on his tongue, that Lord Fairfax was speaking to himself.

“I should have done more for her,” Lord Fairfax continued in that same soft undertone.  “I knew she wasn’t doing well, but I thought…I just thought that…”

Charles cleared his throat.  “Sir?”

Lord Fairfax shook his head and refocused his attention on his son.  “Ah.  Yes.  Well, your brother needs our help.  And, as we have the capacity to provide that assistance…”

A sound came from the parlor, closer to the estate’s entrance.  Lord Fairfax let his sentence dwindle and die, turning to look in that direction.  Charles mirrored his father’s actions without really thinking about it.

Their butler, Coleman, came up the stairs holding the hand of a dirty, disheveled boy.  The boy’s eyes darted up, down, left, and right at fervent speeds, taking in everything he saw while making an effort to appear completely uninterested.  Tear tracks, pale and drying like streaks of white paint, ran from his eyes and down his cheeks.  As Coleman and the boy came closer, Charles saw that the boy’s eyes were bloodshot and puffy.

Coleman stopped, just outside of the reading room.  The boy glanced up at Charles, then Lord Fairfax, and then turned his gaze to the floor beneath his feet.

“Ah, yes,” Lord Fairfax said.  “Coleman, come in.  Charles, I’d like to introduce you to someone.”

Etiquette, drilled into Charles from as far back as he could remember, propelled him forward where curiosity might have given him a moment of pause.  He took several long steps across the reading room until he was less than foot away from the boy and held out a hand.

The boy didn’t move.  Charles, bewildered by the lack of response, continued to hold his hand out until the muscles in his upper arm began to hurt.  He lowered his hand and cleared his throat.

“What’s your name?” Charles asked, hoping that a different tactic might yield better results.

The boy cleared his throat and shuffled his feet.  Twin streaks of darkest brown mud were left on the carpet.  He mumbled something.

“What was that?”

“Speak up, boy,” Lord Fairfax said to the boy.  “This is your brother.  Coleman should have told you about him, already.  You did talk to the boy, didn’t you, Coleman?”

“Of course sir,” Coleman replied, bowing his head.

“M’name’s Billy,” the boy repeated, this time at an audible volume.

“William?” Charles repeated.

The boy shook his head with a bit more force than necessary.  “Billy,” he said.  “S’what my mum called me.”  He sniffled and rubbed one filthy hand under his nose.

“Alright, then,” Charles said, faking an ease that he didn’t feel in the slightest.  “Billy, then.  It’s, uh…good to meet you.”

Billy said nothing in reply.  After a few seconds, Charles took a half step back and pivoted to face Lord Fairfax again.

“As I’ve said, Billy’s mother has…passed on,” Lord Fairfax said.

“I’m very sorry to hear that, sir,” Charles said.

It occurred to him, for the first time, that he didn’t feel the slightest bit of surprise at learning about his father’s illegitimate son.  His own mother had died years before and he should have been offended on her behalf.  He searched himself and didn’t find any trace of that emotion.

“You, of course, understand the trauma that sort of loss can cause,” Lord Fairfax said.

Charles hadn’t particularly cared for his mother.  She’d been a shrew of a woman, constantly obsessed with decorum and proper behavior; worse, she had been a hypocrite of the highest order.  While she had insisted on enrolling Charles into the most prestigious academy that their considerable wealth could afford, the woman preferred to spend her nights crawling deep within whatever bottle of alcohol she could lay hands on.  She had been the one who, on more than one occasion, had actually struck Charles when he spoke out of turn or failed to adhere to the strict rules of protocol.

He missed her, as he felt all boys would miss their mother, but he hadn’t loved her.  And, he suspected that she hadn’t loved him, either.

“Yes, sir,” Charles said out loud.

“Well.”  Lord Fairfax cleared his throat.  “Since the two of you will be living together, I thought it best that you meet and get to know each other.”

Charles turned back to Billy.  Except for the nervous shuffling feet and the furtive, almost frightened glances, he hadn’t moved.  “Did you hear that?  We’re going to be living together.”

“I heard,” Billy said.  Charles had to strain his ears to make out the words.

“And we’re going to be…”  The word stuck in his throat.  Charles swallowed, picked another word, and tried again.  “…we’re going to be friends.”

Still, nothing.

“I’d like that very much,” Charles said.  He felt his practiced poise beginning to slip.  None of his classmates would ever act this way.  Even if they didn’t mean a thing they said, the boys at his private school were fastidious about maintaining an attitude of civility.

No reply.  Charles heard his father approach from behind him.  “Give him a moment to adjust,” Lord Fairfax said.  “This must be quite a shock to the poor boy.”

The news of his father’s extramarital relationship and the child it had spawned was also quite a shock to Charles, but his father clearly hadn’t taken that into consideration.  He stayed quiet, though.

Lord Fairfax placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “William,” he began, then stopped.  “Billy.  I know that you have suffered a terrible loss.  I knew your mother well and we were…very close.  If I’d been a different person or if she had…well, it doesn’t matter.”

“She talked about you,” Billy muttered.

“Did she?  What did she say about me?”

“Told me all about my father.  Said he was a good man, but that he couldn’t live with us because it’d look bad.”

Lord Fairfax cleared his throat several times.  Charles glanced away from Billy and up at his father.  He was surprised to see that there were drops of moisture pooling at the corners of the man’s eyes.

“Did she…did she say anything else?” Lord Fairfax asked.

Billy raised his head and locked eyes with Lord Fairfax.  “Said she loved you.  Said you must not have loved her.”

Silence followed that sentence.  Charles made a conscious effort to look anywhere in the room except at his father.  Even then, he could still hear the choked sounds in his father’s throat.  They sounded like sobs.  It was more emotion than Charles had ever seen from his father, up to and including the eulogy he’d delivered at his wife, and Charles’ mother’s, funeral.

It was a great deal more emotion than Lord Fairfax had ever shown to his own son…although Billy was also one of his father’s children.

“I…I loved your mother very much,” Lord Fairfax finally managed to say.  “What happened to her was…was a tragedy.”

“You didn’t want to be with her, though,” Billy said.  His accent – something culled, no doubt, from a lifetime in the poorest parts of the city – rounded the edges off of his letters and gave the entire sentence a truculent tone.  “Why was that?”

“I had…obligations.”  Lord Fairfax looked away from the dirty boy and wiped at his eyes.  When he faced Billy again, his eyes were red but they were at least dry.  “There were things I needed to do and promises that needed to be kept.  Your mother understood that.”

“That’s why you brought me here, then?” Billy asked.  “Because you’ve got…whatever it was you called ‘em?”

Charles, who remembered exactly what words his father had used to describe the situation, kept those thoughts to himself.

There was a shift in demeanor, a subtle change in the atmosphere of the room.  Charles had been in his father’s presence often enough to identify the cause.  He could almost feel Lord Fairfax building up a wall of protocol and etiquette to separate himself from emotion, so that he could say what needed to be said without allowing his own emotions to get in the way.

“You are an obligation, yes,” Lord Fairfax said.  His words were crisp now, although there was still a thickness to his voice.  “You are my son and I have not served you in that capacity.  I intend to remedy that.  That’s why I’ve invited you to live here, with me and with your brother.”

Billy thought silently for a few seconds, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.  “What’s your name?”

It took Charles a moment to realize that Billy was speaking to him now, instead of to his father.  “Charles Fairfax,” he said and stepped forward.  He didn’t raise his hand again.  His pride still stung from that first rejection.

“Like him?”  Billy lifted his chin to indicate Lord Fairfax.  “You both got the same name?  Shouldn’t you be Charles the second or something, then?”

“Our middle names are different.  My…”  Charles trailed off, changed tracks, and started over.  “We don’t share the same middle name.  Who were you named after?”

“My uncle,” Billy said.  “He helped us out, when he could get the work.”

“Where’s your uncle now?”

“Dead.”  There wasn’t any emotion attached to the answer.  Billy said it plainly and simply.  The starkness of the words sent a wave of chills down Charles’ spine.

“Oh.  Well.”  Nothing else came to mind, so Charles lapsed back into silence.

That stretched out over fifteen seconds, with the two boys and their father all standing awkwardly in the reading room.  Coleman was there, as well, but the butler had cultivated the ability to remove his presence from any room.  Most times, Charles took that skill for granted.  Now, he found himself wishing that he could do the same thing.

“Never had a brother,” Billy said.

Charles looked up.

Billy raised a hand in slow, jerky movements and held it out in front of him.  Charles extended his own hand automatically and shook.

Brother.  The word still sounded weird in Charles’ head but, perhaps, it felt a little less strange than it had before.  Either way, it felt right in a way that nothing so far had.

He could feel his father looking down at the top of his head – their heads – and he cleared his throat.  “Brothers,” he repeated.  He tasted the word on his tongue and decided that he liked the way it felt.

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