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Damnation and Hellfire - Chapter Sixteen (continued)

His self-righteous anger melted away when faced by the startled look Fogg gave him. "Good God," he whispered, "that's right - you have no idea what was involved." As if the thought had shaken him, Fogg placed the paper he'd been holding in his coat pocket again and walked over to the decanter. He turned over two glasses and began to pour. "At first, I'd taken the Hellfire Club on face value - it was a den of vice, where libertines could enjoy their debauchery with a certain amount of discretion and among members of their own class."

A glass of claret was poured - Jules realized that he was watching Fogg's hands as if expecting them to shake, but he wasn't certain why. As the second glass was poured and he understood it was for him, he said quickly, "No, thank you - I haven't had breakfast yet. It's not even noon."

"It's just past," said Fogg, continuing to pour the wine, "and you'll be glad of it."

There was no graceful way to avoid accepting the glass Fogg handed him. With a grimace, Jules took it back to the chair by the fireplace and seated himself, but Fogg remained standing by the decanter, as if needing to be reassured that a potential refill was close at hand.

"It's a wonder I didn't suspect it sooner - it should have made sense," said Fogg absently, holding up his glass to the light, as if intrigued by the color. "When a member is accepted into the inner circle of the Hellfire Club, he must produce an adequate 'sin,' as you heard, but he's also told the club will provide him with his heart's desire - whatever is asked, the club is obliged to deliver. Nothing is too obscene, too bizarre, too abhorrent." He lowered the glass and took a sip, gazing into the distance. "I did warn Whitmore they'd never be able to fulfill my request. I understand now why he had the confidence enough to disbelieve me."

Before Jules could inquire further, Fogg sat down in the chair across from him and fixed him with a steady gaze. "Rebecca and Passepartout discovered a chamber in the basement - I believe she initially said something about it having been decorated in the style of Torquemada, and that she suspected it had been used recently. That was one of 'amenities' offered by the Hellfire Club - selected staff were abused, tortured and murdered at the whim of 'privileged' members."

Jules could recall quite clearly the look in Whitmore's eyes as the baron had tried to talk Fogg out of the duel and the threat lurking in the man's gaze that had so unnerved him. He brought his other hand to bear on the glass, afraid it might shake as he lifted it to his lips, not daring to do more than sip, but needing the strong drink to distract him. Only then did he whisper, "That's why you set up the duel."

He looked up to see Phileas raise his glass as if to confirm the statement, but his friend didn't drink. "Chatsworth was supposed to raid the place at midnight; I had to put on a show until then. There was no choice but to make you part of it - Rebecca had warned me, thank God. I think Whitmore saw you as something of a challenge, perhaps a way to impress me? In any case, I couldn't take the risk."

The claret burned all the way down Jules' throat and yet he took another sip; Fogg was cradling his glass in his hands, not drinking, just staring down into it. "You still took a risk . . . with the duel," he accused. "I could have killed you."

"But you didn't." Smiling, Fogg gestured with his glass toward the fireplace. "That was brilliant. I was wracking my brain trying to come up with some way to let you know what was happening without tipping off Whitmore and having us both hauled away in chains. I would never have thought to ask for the terms to be set in writing."

Jules shifted in his chair, uneasy at receiving Fogg's praise. "It was meant to be an insult."

"I know. It's the most fortuitous insult I've ever received." Fogg arose from the chair and walked to the fireplace, then leaned his hand with the glass on the mantle. "Passepartout and Rebecca should return shortly - they rescued the poor devils who'd been held captive and I gather they wanted to look after them this morning. You might ask them for more details, if they're needed." With his left hand, he took his watch from his waistcoat and checked it. "I should be going soon - my train leaves at two."

"You're going somewhere?"

"Yes." Fogg seemed to study Jules for a moment, then set his glass on the mantelpiece. He withdrew the paper he'd shown earlier from his pocket, but didn't unfold it. "Revenge on behalf of the old is driven by duty," he said quietly. "On behalf of the young, it's driven by guilt." He glanced over at Jules with a smile devoid of amusement. "He came to ask my advice. He wanted my help. And I told him - I told him - to discuss the matter with his father."

His initial thought was that the claret Fogg was drinking was not his first of the day - his friend wasn't making any sense. But then he considered the paper in Fogg's hand, and what Passepartout had said on the way to the club about Fogg's visitors in the past week. "Your godson," he concluded. "Denby, wasn't it?"

Fogg started, his bleak expression giving way to one of surprise, and then contained fury, but Jules set his glass aside and rose to his feet to confront his friend. "Passepartout had mentioned something about him having come here to see you," he explained, as Fogg looked away from him. "I didn't make the connection at the time. Neither did Rebecca. But now I think - it's your godson, isn't it?"

He was half-afraid that Fogg would turn and strike him - his friend had that look about him - and Jules stood his ground despite the instinct warning him to take a step back. As it turned out, there was no need; Fogg stalked toward the decanter, for he was blocked in by a chair and was left only that one avenue of retreat. Facing away from Jules, he shook his head. "It's damned nerve-wracking when you do that, Verne. You could at least give one some sort of warning . . . ."

"I'm sorry," said Jules, not entirely certain what he'd done. "But I'm right, aren't I?"

"Yes. Arthur. He was a good chap - very earnest. No sins to speak of, other than not being much of a rider. He was just out of university, you know, very eager to start . . . something. I assume one of his friends stood him to a membership to the club." Fogg took a deep breath, then half turned, gesturing toward Jules with the paper. "He said there'd been a girl and that it had gotten out of hand. I'd assumed it was a youthful indiscretion at the worst - God knows I had my own share of them. He was worried about a scandal. I told him to speak to his father. He left before we could talk further." Fogg looked to the wall and touched the paper to his lips, as if it could absorb his words. "I finally found him in his rooms at the Athenaeum - he'd hanged himself. He couldn't have done it more than an hour after we'd last spoken."

At first Jules couldn't find the words - his heart ached for his friend and yet there was nothing he could think to say except, "I'm sorry." The sentiment sounded shallow and ineffectual.

Fogg turned toward him, a wry smile on his lips. "Arthur left a note that said just those two words. But I don't think it was the thought of scandal that drove him to it; I think Arthur couldn't live with what he'd seen, what he'd done, or he'd thought he'd done. He wasn't the type."

"What did he do?" asked Jules, very softly.

The question was automatic - the moment the words left him, he wished he could recall them, especially after Fogg shot him a sharp look. But then Fogg turned his gaze down to the folded paper in his hands.

"The only clue I had was that he'd been to the Hellfire Club. Chatsworth told me about the blackmail scheme and this 'book'- Lord Denby doesn't have a considerable fortune, but he's a man of influence, particularly in the House of Lords. If I got back the book, I could save Arthur's family from scandal and find out why . . . ." Fogg dropped his hand to his side. "I can't bring myself to read it. I know - knew - Arthur. He could never have willingly hurt another human being. Whitmore saw the blackmail advantage in having him in the inner circle, so he created a sin for him. He might have been drunk or drugged or God knows what . . . the signature is far from steady, so that's something. What's written here would have been dictated by Whitmore to put his involvement in the worst possible light and any of the others who might have been there, they'd now say whatever they thought would save their skins, damn them. So there's no point to reading it, really. I'll never know precisely what happened . . . and if I could have helped him."

The last was said weakly, almost apologetically. Phileas Fogg was not the most approachable of men in any circumstance - this was the most heart-felt speech Jules had ever heard his friend utter . . . and it had been delivered to a wall. There were tears in his own eyes at the horror of it and the uncertainty - he didn't know if he'd be able to bring himself to read the damning evidence that paper presented, however untrustworthy it might be.

"My reservation is for the two o'clock train," said Fogg, turning toward Jules. "What do I tell his father?"

It was not a rhetorical question - Fogg was asking his advice. Jules gestured toward the paper. "You could give him that."

"I've considered it." Fogg walked towards him, but paused at the fireplace. He leaned his hand on the mantelpiece and dropped his forehead upon it, as if weary beyond measure. "I've spent the night considering it. I tried to imagine his situation, if it had been my son. My . . . brother. Or . . . ." Fogg raised his head and fixed Jules with an intense gaze. "No," he said, very softly. "I wouldn't want to know."

Jules seated himself and looked down at the carpet, as much to shake off Fogg's unnerving stare as that unspoken assessment. "Does Lord Denby know how his son died?"

"He doesn't even know that Arthur's dead." Fogg chuckled bitterly. "This must be my lot in life - to tell fathers that their sons are dead. I can't seem to escape it."

Jules tried to sort out the thoughts in his head as he stared at the carpet pattern, fighting to ignore the desperation in Fogg's voice - it was a distraction. "Perhaps . . . ."

"What?"

"Does it matter when Arthur died?"

"I don't suppose so," answered Fogg, obviously keeping his curiosity in check. "Chatsworth's managed to keep the matter quiet, for the family's sake. I assumed we'd take him home after this was all over, to be interred in the family crypt."

It was the final parameter, the thing that might make it work. If Fogg could think of him in terms of Arthur, perhaps he could think of himself in those same terms. In the pattern of the carpet Jules felt the tug of the wind, the sting of the cuts on his fingers from the glass fragments, the churn of his stomach as he began to pitch headlong over the roof . . . and imagined someone not having Rebecca there to save him with a well-thrown rope. "At the club last night, what if he'd been working for the Service? What if Arthur had been the one to face Whitmore and to find the book and you hadn't been there to save him? What if he and Whitmore had gone over the wall together? Sir Jonathan could--"

"Sir Jonathan could replace your name with Arthur's name in the reports. There'd be a letter of condolence from her Majesty. He would have died a hero, in the service of his country." He met Jules' gaze. "But that means the part you played in this would be officially forgotten."

"That's fine with me - I'd like to forget last night ever happened."

"Perhaps it would be better for all concerned if we did just that." Fogg met his glance for a moment, then looked away. "Chatsworth will be more than happy to accommodate us in this; I know he'd like to overlook my participation in this mission entirely - my name will certainly be absent from the records. Arthur will have died a hero - which won't ease his father's heart, but will keep the taint of scandal from the family name at the very least."

"It still leaves that." Jules pointed toward the folded paper in Fogg's hand.

"Yes. It does." After a moment's pause, Fogg tossed the paper past the fire screen and into the flames. The paper burned as quickly as had the ones Jules had thrown in earlier. "So should all memory of our mortal sins be consumed."

Jules clasped his hands together and stared down at his interlaced fingers, only faintly recognizing the crackle and pop of the last fragments of the page as it was reduced to ashes. There wasn't anything to say, nothing that could comfort his friend, particularly not with this onerous duty still awaiting him. Telling a father that a child had died was an experience Jules had never encountered . . . and hoped never to find in his future. Fogg had gone through it at least once - his brother, of course, and possibly others before he had left the Service. It was not the sort of act one learned to perform better by repetition.

A snap caught his attention - he looked up to see Fogg replacing his watch in his waistcoat. "I must be off," said Fogg, nodding once as if in farewell before heading for the door.

Jules rose to his feet immediately. "Would you like me to go with you? Or, at the very least, I could wait with you at the station?"

Fogg stopped almost in mid-stride, as if the words had struck him like a blow. "You sound like Passepartout. I can be trusted to board the correct train, I assure you." The words were light, pronounced with an air of flippancy. But then Fogg turned and regarded him thoughtfully, as if giving the idea serious consideration. "As much as I think Lord Denby would delight in making your acquaintance, perhaps this is not quite the right time."

"No. Of course not." Abashed, Jules seated himself again. Fogg was right - he hadn't thought that through. That wouldn't prevent him from waiting with his friend at the station, but perhaps Fogg didn't appreciate his presence either, right now. He'd no wish to prove a further surrogate for Arthur Denby's memory, beyond providing an honorable explanation of his death.

"I should be returning tomorrow evening. If you happen to be free . . . would you consider dining with me at the Reform Club?"

Jules looked up the instant the offer was made; the memory of Fogg's words to him the previous evening still stung and he was very much afraid he was being mocked. But there wasn't any hint of sarcasm in Fogg's expression. Indeed, there was something tentative in it, as if he'd made the request with the expectation that it would be refused.

"Surely that would be 'the limit'?" asked Jules, in a carefully even tone . . . but he couldn't fight back a teasing grin.

Fogg placed a hand on his hip and half-turned away for a moment as if in exasperation, before turning back again. "I don't suppose I'm going to be allowed to forget that anytime soon?"

He didn't answer at first, merely giving his friend a shrug. But then Jules sobered. "I'd be honored to accept your invitation."

"And I'd be glad for the company."

It was as if the offer had settled something outstanding between them. Still, Jules rose to his feet, knowing that he had one more question left to ask . . . and that he might have no real right to ask it.

Fogg was on his guard immediately as Jules rose, his hand falling from his hip, his shoulders straightening. "Verne?"

"You said the Hellfire Club offered you anything you wanted. You asked for the duel because . . . ." And he let that fall away, still not wanting to acknowledge the cold chill that ran down his spine when he considered the possibility that he might have been found in the ceremony chamber when Fogg hadn't been present. Fogg might never have known he was there. Anything might have happened.

Anything.

Jules cleared his throat and shook off his dark thoughts. "What would you have asked, what could you have asked that Whitmore and the club couldn't provide?"

He expected a flippant reply, if there was any answer at all. Fogg seemed to be considering just that, the beginning of a rakish smile on his lips. But the smile grew softer after a moment, as if he'd changed his mind, and he turned his back on Jules, walking to the door.

Accepting there was to be no answer, Jules returned to the chair by the fire. The words were spoken in so quiet a tone that he thought he'd imagined them.

"Peace of mind."

Jules began to rise from his chair, but by then the door was closing, Fogg on the other side of it. He fell back and stared at the door, uncertain whether to follow. Surely not? What Fogg had said, was it a jest, something to throw him off? And yet there had been something in the words . . . .

Only vaguely did he realize that he'd picked up the glass of claret. He sipped at the wine and found the glow numbing as it spread slowly through his limbs. Jules leaned forward, the glass held between his hands, and stared at the flames in the fireplace, contemplating the inherent contradiction in a man who longed for personal peace of mind, yet who voluntarily continued to brave damnation and hellfire for the sake of others.

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The End

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Not the darkest story I've ever written, to be sure, but I suppose it certainly earns a place on that list. My thanks to Lona, who took on the onerous and thankless job of trying to keep me honest (and to prevent the vowels from wobbling and forming other words, as mine are likely to do from time to time), even as she was writing her own fanfic (and doing a perfectly lovely job of it, too!). As I get older details slip by me more easily and Lona was kind enough to remind me of what I'd forgotten without making me feel like a dunderhead. She also forced me to produce a tighter and more finely-crafted story, called me out when I was too lazy or wimpish to put in what should be there, and would not let me wallow in verbal self-indulgence . . . well, not TOO much.

Gerty is most appreciated for making sure the sword fight was correct in the particulars and in general. One can only do so much research on one's own before one becomes damned fool enough to consider oneself an expert, particularly when a true expert is at hand to offer guidance. Thank you most kindly, Gerty.

My apologies to Vita and DV, who have been on hold with the other story (yes, yes, that's next) and have not been nagging me to produce more parts for them to beta. This is also the first time that someone's written poetry about a WIP of mine, which was something of note (and very much touched my heart).

This was a bit larger than I thought it would be. Whitmore doesn't have sufficient character to satisfy me, but I was exploring a few more viewpoints than I normally do (You mean I used more than TWO viewpoints on this story? The dickens, you say!) and the strain was telling. The joy of fan fiction is being able to take sufficient liberties with the format - so this could have been pared down to an adventure story to fit the series format, I suppose, but I'd wanted to do it right. Please forgive me if it lingered too long upon or passed over the bounds of taste.

Remind me NEVER to separate Rebecca from her tools ever again. I mean it. Lord, that drove me mad.

And for those who have asked:

* A majority of the members of the Hellfire Club and the staff of the club were unaware of the evils occurring beneath their feet. Testimony given by those poor souls abused by the club resulted in the conviction and hanging of the club's head steward and two other staff, while several other people in service were given prison sentences and fines depending on their offenses.

* Of the remaining eleven members of the Inner Circle, no formal charges were made public. Two of the men took their own lives, a third is presumed dead after his pleasure craft was found abandoned and adrift off the coast of Scotland. In the time since the actions of this story have taken place, six more members of the Inner Circle have 'passed beyond this mortal coil,' their demises due to everything from accident and illness, to circumstances so bizarre as to only be described as 'mysteriously violent.' The less respectable papers of London have pronounced them victims of a 'curse' associated with the former popular men's club.

* The 'Book of Sin' was found to contain the confessed misdeeds of no less than two hundred and seventeen notables, a number of whom were peers of the realm or titled aristocrats from areas beyond English borders. Each one was discretely contacted by her Majesty's Secret Service. Common thought is that the book was too incendiary to be allowed to exist and was destroyed quite soon after the events listed above. It is said within certain sectors of the Service that if one stands on a summer evening at a late hour in the street below the windows of the residence of Sir Jonathan Chatsworth, one is likely to overhear particularly indelicate passages read aloud with apparent relish.

* The un-named 'survivors' of the 'Hell-Club" (so named by the daily tabloids) generally disappeared from public view after the end of the infamous trials, as is the common case with such things. One of the former maids became quite well known in the London music hall circuit as a dancer, another was said to have booked passage to the United States, while at least one maid and one footman returned to Sandringham and were accepted into the service of Her Majesty's household. Nothing is known of the fate of the remaining maid and footman.

* William ended up in the Guards and looked very spiffy in his uniform.

* Rupert joined the police and walked a Soho beat.

* A certain Ellen Louise Morris was buried in a small churchyard near Saint Mary's hospital and never lacks for a sprig of yellow flowers on her grave, no matter what the season.

Thank you for reading.