Order of Four: Part One
I can't remember how old I was when I first realized that something strange was going on. As a child of five or six, I am quite certain that I thought nothing of it; by the time I was fourteen, I know for a fact that the idea had already occurred to me. So I suppose it must have been somewhere between those ages that I began to – not to understand, but at least to suspect that something was very much out of the ordinary.
Sometimes, when we were walking down the street, my mother would suddenly pull me into a nearby shop with no warning at all, and we would both hold our breath as we stood behind the window displays. For my part, I had no idea what we were hiding from, but I could always feel my mother's fear and it was infectious. Then, sometimes, there were letters. Mysterious envelopes without a return address, the arrival of which always sent my mother into a state of fear and anxiety, though she would never tell me why. Every year or so we changed addresses, and my mother would burn all of her old papers and leave whatever work she had been able to find. Occasionally we even changed our surname. Presumably in this same interest of secrecy, I was discouraged from playing with other children, and I was never sent to school. Not that we would have been able to afford it, in any case. Even at the best of times we had very little money. We lived in Neovia in those days, and the one nearby school was selective and not at all cheap. My mother was an artist, but perhaps she was not a very good one, or perhaps she was simply very unlucky. (I know nothing about painting, and all of hers are long gone, so I don't suppose I will ever know.) Whatever the reason was, she rarely sold any of her art, and she made her money at waitressing or sewing or teaching drawing or any job she could find. I imagine (though I can't be sure) that this was partly because she never had any references from a previous job.
My mother did her best with my education, but she often worked long hours and, since I was prohibited from playing with the children of whatever street we lived on, or in fact from venturing outside by myself at all, I was inevitably left to entertain myself alone. And so I read books. I read everything I could get my hands on, although I should admit here that, since my interest lay primarily in fiction and there was nobody to compel me, there are to this day a great many strange gaps in my knowledge. My geography and history are doubtful at best, and mathematics and science nearly nonexistent. Occasionally my mother would lament this lack of formal education; still, she comforted herself by saying that so long as I devoured books the way I did, I would never be ignorant.
It was a great object with her that I should be "a little gentleman." I think she guarded this ambition so jealously because, given our poverty, our gentility was really all we had left. My mother might do patchwork or serve food at a dingy disreputable tavern, but it was clear that she had come from something better. When I knew her, she was a slight, faded-looking brown Ixi. Her features were not unattractive, at least as far as I could judge at my age, but there was nothing left in them to captivate. Her charm had probably been in her freshness and youth, and that was all gone during my lifetime, for although she was quite young she had a great many worries and I am afraid her life was not a happy one. She must have been very pretty at one time, indeed I once saw a portrait of her many years later in which she looked very pretty indeed. I knew also – both instinctively, and because of the stories she would sometimes tell – that she had once been wealthy. She would never tell me, however, what had caused her circumstances to alter so drastically, though naturally I asked many times.
The first event in my life of any real importance occurred a little after my fourteenth birthday. It began with a knock on the door – unusual, because neither of us had any close friends, and we never had anything delivered. My interest was piqued, but I could only assume that it was a passing tradesman or the landlord wanting to complain about the rent. Just as I opened the door my mother came rushing in. By the reproving look in her tired blue eyes, I could tell that I had done wrong to answer the knock. She quickly moved in front of me; but I chose to ignore her gesture instructing me to go into another room. Instead I remained, curious to see our visitor.
He was, to my astonishment, dignified and imposing and clearly very rich. I had seen people like him occasionally, riding in their carriages or walking quickly from one shop to another on the main street. But I had certainly never dared to talk to one, and none had ever deigned to say a word to me – let alone come to my door! Taken aback, I simply stared in a way that was probably very rude. He was a very handsome Usuki Usul, suave and refined from his polished black boots, to his long blue coat, all the way up to the tip of the elegant feather in his hat. I watched in fascination as that feather bobbed gracefully with his every movement.
Our caller reserved a moment to look down his nose at me, with no very favorable expression. I was not very prepossessing at that time: just a slightly shabby spotted Lupe not yet out of the lanky, awkward stage, and he did not seem impressed with my old brown jacket or patched trousers. My mother was not exactly arresting either, in her simple green dress (one of three she owned), and with her curly brown hair tied up into a messy coil. She was also nearly as taken aback as I was. I realize now that while I was simply overcome by so much gentility and the presence of a stranger, she was very likely embarrassed to be seen in her present situation. But at the age of fourteen that didn't occur to me; I naturally assumed that her feelings were the same as my own.
"Mrs. Blakesley," he began coldly, stepping into the cramped parlor and looking around with unmistakable disdain. "I don't think we have ever been introduced, but I am sure you will recognize my name. I am Lance Carlisle."
Utterly mystified, I looked at Mr. Carlisle and then back at my mother. To begin with, out of all the surnames we had ever used, Blakesley was unfamiliar. Could it really be my mother that he wanted? I thought not, and yet my mother's expression seemed to tell a different story. The shock of recognition was obvious, and I understood that – however inexplicable it was – the name of Lance Carlisle was indeed familiar to her. I wondered who he could possibly be, and what she could possibly know about him.
"Yes, Mr. Carlisle, I am – very honored and very pleased to meet you," she said, her voice strained. "But I cannot help wondering... how you managed to find us."
Apparently he felt no need to answer her question, and I glared at him, losing most of my awe in annoyance at his condescending treatment of my mother. Her circumstances might be reduced at the moment, but she was a lady and he had no right to speak to her like that.
I even considered a verbal challenge. However, Mr. Carlisle turned his ice blue gaze on me and I instantly lost that urge. "This must be Master Felix, I suppose," he pronounced with languid distaste.
My mother's attitude shifted from wary to guarded, almost hostile. She only nodded.
Once again he surveyed the little room, with its worn furniture so lovingly arranged, and he turned back to my mother with a sort of smirk. "What a cozy, charming little place. Perhaps there is somewhere we could talk in private?"
"Of course," she replied, almost automatically. Then she seemed to rouse herself. "Yes, of course, if you'll just come this way. Felix, why don't you go into your room?"
I understood both that I was not invited into their private conversation, and that my mother wanted me as far away as possible (my room was in the opposite corner of the little apartment from the private study where she was surely taking him, though even this was not far). Being contrary by nature and uncommonly curious, I resolved to follow them at a safe distance and eavesdrop. When I had heard their footsteps go through the hall and disappear into the study, I went after them. To my disappointment, I found that they had closed the door. It was of sturdy oak construction, and even when I pressed my ear right up against it I could only hear snatches of sentences here and there.
I heard the low murmur of my mother's voice for a few moments, then Carlisle's cold tones breaking through. "You don't seem to... same deal that we offered you fourteen years ago... generous..."
My mother spoke again, but her words were less carrying and all I heard was "understand" and "safe." Lance Carlisle seemed to be pressing a point rather irritably now. By catching the words "the boy," I concluded with a strange sense of foreboding and excitement that they must somehow be talking about me. I also heard the fragmented sentence, "If we... locate... you know others can too."
The conversation continued on for some minutes more, but I could hear very little and I seemed only to hear the same words over and over again. Finally there was the sound of angry movement inside the room, and I heard Carlisle's voice quite clearly. "I see you are as stubborn as ever. I come here, in person no less, and this is how you show your gratefulness! Very well. I wash my hands of it. Henceforth you can expect no help whatsoever from my family."
Realizing that his words were suddenly clear because he was moving toward the door, I made haste to scurry away to my room. From there I heard him leave, closing the door loudly behind him, and peeking through the curtains I saw his handsome carriage drive off.
My mother came to my door, looking frightened and harassed, biting her lip. "Felix, I have something important to tell you. You may not like it very much, and I don't like it either, but it must be."
"What is it, Mother?" I asked in puzzlement. Whatever had transpired today was completely beyond my understanding, and I felt that nothing could surprise me more than it already had.
"Well you see..." She walked aimlessly toward the window, facing it as though she didn't want to meet my eyes. "We are going to move to Neopia Central."
We had moved many times, often without much warning or any given reason. But always, always we had stayed within the confines of Neovia. I could barely even imagine the other lands of Neopia, which had only ever existed to me through the pages of my oft-read books. At first I thought that it was part of some agreement she had made with the visitor, but then I remembered that he had stormed off angrily, clearly without having reached any agreement at all. It seemed to me that there could be only one other explanation. "Are we running from Mr. Carlisle?"
"No, my dear," she said distractedly. "Not at all. He is a very unpleasant man, but... oh dear! Felix, I'm afraid I may have very much mishandled... but no, I promised him. I hardly know what to do," she broke off, her voice as wretched as the expression of her face. "In any case, I know that we must go to Neopia Central. And we will have to go quite soon, as soon as possible. I have a little money saved – it should cover most of the journey, and there are things we can sell. You will have to pack everything you want to bring; it can't be very much. I think we will be able to leave in a few days, if we hurry."
I looked at her in dismay, and still more at the thought of having to choose what to pack. It sounded as though we would have to leave quite a lot of things behind.
My prediction turned out to be entirely correct. I had never owned much, but I had to leave nearly everything, including – most painful of all – almost every one of my books. Our furniture was sold. Of the little decorations and trinkets my mother so valued, favorites had to be selected, the rest given away for as much money as we could get.
It was a success, however, in that within four days we had begun the long journey to Neopia Central.
To be continued...