An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 26

   

“Very well, I thank you,” Grey said politely. “I have recently returned from America, and have brought you several letters from mutual acquaintances there.”

“Oh, have you?” Germain brightened a bit. “Kind of you, Grey. Decent voyage, was it?”

“Tolerable.” In fact, it had been miserable; they had run a gauntlet of storms across the Atlantic, pitching and yawing without cease for days on end, to the point that Grey had wished fervently for the ship to sink, just to put an end to it all. But he did not want to waste time on trivial chat.

“I had a rather remarkable encounter, just before leaving the colony of North Carolina,” he said, judging that Germain was now sufficiently alert as to listen. “Allow me to tell you about it.”

Germain was both vain and petty, and had brought the art of political vagueness to a fine point—but could apply himself to a matter when he wished, which was largely when he perceived some benefit to himself in a situation. The mention of the Northwest Territory focused his attention admirably.

“You did not speak to this Beauchamp further?” A third glass of brandy sat by Germain’s elbow, half drunk.

“No. He had delivered his message; there was nothing to be gained by further conversation, as plainly he has no power to act upon his own. And had he intended to divulge the identity of his principals, he would have done so.”

Germain picked up his glass, but did not drink, instead turning it in his hands as an aid to thought. It was plain, not faceted, and smeared with fingerprints and the smudges of Germain’s mouth.

“Is the man familiar to you? Why did he seek you out, in particular?” No, not stupid, Grey thought.

“I had encountered him many years ago,” he replied equably. “In the course of my work with Colonel Bowles.”

Nothing on earth would compel Grey to reveal Percy’s true identity to Germain; Percy had been—well, still was—stepbrother to himself and Hal, and only good fortune and Grey’s own determination had prevented an almighty scandal at the time of Percy’s presumed death. Some scandals dimmed with time—that one wouldn’t.

Germain’s plucked eyebrow flickered at mention of Bowles, who had headed England’s Black Chamber for many years.

“A spy?” Mild distaste showed in his voice; spies were vulgar necessities; not something a gentleman would touch with his bare hands.

“At one time, perhaps. Apparently he has risen in the world.” He picked up his own glass, took a healthy mouthful—it was very good brandy, after all—then set it down and stood up to take his leave. He knew better than to prod Germain. Leave the matter in the secretary’s lap, and trust to his own self-interest to pursue it.

Grey left Germain sitting back in his chair, staring contemplatively into his empty glass, and took his cloak from the soft-lipped clerk, whose hand brushed his in passing.

NOT, HE REFLECTED, pulling the cloak around him and tugging down his hat against the rising wind, that he proposed to leave the matter to Germain’s capricious sense of responsibility. Germain was secretary of state for America, true—but this was not a matter that concerned only America. There were two other secretaries of state in Lord North’s cabinet—one for the Northern Department, that being all of Europe, and another for the Southern Department, this constituting the rest of the world. He would have preferred not to deal with Lord Germain at all. However, both protocol and politics prevented him from going straight to Lord North, which had been his first impulse. He’d give Germain a day’s head start, then call upon the Southern secretary, Thomas Thynne, Viscount Weymouth, with the invidious Mr. Beauchamp’s proposal. The Southern secretary was charged with dealing with the Catholic countries of Europe, thus matters with a French connection were his concern as well.

If both men chose to take up the matter, it would certainly come to Lord North’s attention—and North, or one of his ministers, would come to Grey.

A storm was rolling up the Thames; he could see billows of black cloud, fuming as though to unleash their fury directly upon the Houses of Parliament.

“A bit of thunder and lightning would do them good,” he murmured balefully, and hailed a cab, as the first thick drops began to fall.

The rain was pelting down in sheets by the time he arrived at the Beefsteak, and he was nearly drenched in the three paces from curb to doorway.

Mr. Bodley, the elderly steward, received him as though he had come in the day before, rather than some eighteen months.

“Turtle soup with sherry tonight, my lord,” he informed Grey, gesturing to a minion to take Grey’s damp hat and cloak. “Very warming to the stomach. Followed by a nice lamb cutlet with new potatoes?”

“The very thing, Mr. Bodley,” Grey replied, smiling. He took his place in the dining room, soothed by its good fire and cool white napery. As he leaned back to allow Mr. Bodley to tuck the napkin under his chin, though, he noted a new addition to the room’s decoration.

“Who is that?” he asked, startled. The painting, prominently displayed upon the wall opposite, showed a stately Indian, festooned in ostrich plumes and embroidered draperies. It looked distinctly odd, set as it was among the staid portraits of several distinguished—and mostly deceased—members.

“Oh, that is Mr. Brant, of course,” Mr. Bodley said, with an air of mild reproof. “Mr. Joseph Brant. Mr. Pitt brought him to dine last year, when he was in London.”

“Brant?”

Mr. Bodley’s brows rose. Like most Londoners, he assumed that everyone who had been in America must of necessity know every other person there.

“He is a Mohawk chief, I believe,” he said, pronouncing the word “Mohawk” carefully. “He has been to visit the King, you know!”

“Indeed,” Grey murmured. He wondered whether the King or the Indian had been more impressed.

Mr. Bodley withdrew, presumably to fetch the soup, but returned within moments to lay a letter upon the cloth before Grey.

“This was sent for you in care of the secretary, sir.”

“Oh? Thank you, Mr. Bodley.” Grey took it up, recognizing his son’s hand immediately, and suffering a mild drop of the stomach in consequence. What had Willie not wanted to send in care either of his grandmother or of Hal?

Something he didn’t want to risk either of them reading. His mind supplied the logical answer at once, and he took up his fish knife to open the letter with due trepidation.

Was it Richardson? Hal disliked the man, and hadn’t approved at all of William’s working for him, though he had nothing concrete to adduce against him. Perhaps he should have been more cautious about setting William on that particular path, knowing what he did about the black world of intelligencing. Still, it had been imperative to get Willie away from North Carolina, before he came face-to-face with either Jamie Fraser or Percy so-called Beauchamp.

And you did have to let a son go, to make his own way in the world, no matter what it cost you; Hal had told him that, more than once. Three times, to be exact, he thought with a smile—every time one of Hal’s boys had taken up his commission.

He unfolded the letter with caution, as though it might explode. It was penned with a care that he found instantly sinister; Willie was normally legible, but not above the odd blot.

To Lord John Grey

The Society for Appreciation of the English Beefsteak

From Lieutenant William Lord Ellesmere

7 September, 1776

Long Island

The Royal Colony of New York

Dear Father,

I have a Matter of some delicacy to confide.

Well, there was a sentence to chill the blood of any parent, Grey thought. Had Willie got a young woman with child, gambled and lost substantial property, contracted a venereal complaint, challenged someone or been challenged to a duel? Or—had he encountered something sinister in the course of his intelligencing, on his way to General Howe? He reached for the wine, and took a prophylactic swallow before returning, thus braced, to the letter. Nothing could have prepared him for the next sentence, though.

I am in love with Lady Dorothea.

Grey choked, spluttering wine over his hand, but waved off the steward hastening toward him with a towel, instead wiping his hand on his breeches as he hastily scanned the rest of the page.

We have both been conscious of a growing Attraction for some time, but I hesitated to make any Declaration, knowing that I was soon to depart for America. However, we discovered ourselves unexpectedly alone in the Garden at Lady Belvedere’s Ball, the Week before I left, and the beauty of the Setting, the romantic sense of the Evening, and the intoxicating nearness of the Lady overpowered my Judgment.

“Oh, Jesus,” Lord John said aloud. “Tell me you didn’t deflower her under a bush, for God’s sake!”

He caught the interested gaze of a nearby diner, and with a brief cough, returned to the letter.

I blush with Shame to admit that my Feelings overcame me, to an Extent that I hesitate to commit to Paper. I apologized, of course, not that there could be any sufficient Apology for such dishonourable Conduct. Lady Dorothea was both generous in her Forgiveness and vehement in her Insistence that I must not—as I was at first inclined—to go at once to her Father.

“Very sensible of you, Dottie,” Grey murmured, envisioning all too well the response of his brother to any such revelation. He could only hope that Willie was blushing over some indiscretion a good deal short of …

I intended to ask you to speak to Uncle Hal for me next Year, when I should return Home and be able to formally request Lady Dorothea’s Hand in Marriage. However, I have just learned that she has received another Offer, from Viscount Maxwell, and that Uncle Hal is seriously considering this.

I would not besmirch the lady’s Honour in any Way, but under the Circumstances, clearly she cannot marry Maxwell.

You mean Maxwell would discover that she’s not a virgin, Grey thought grimly, and come barreling round the morning after the wedding night to tell Hal so. He rubbed a hand hard over his face and went on.

Words cannot convey my Remorse at my actions, Father, and I cannot bring myself to ask a Forgiveness I do not deserve, for so grievously disappointing you. Not for my Sake, but for hers, I beg that you will speak to the Duke. I hope that he can be persuaded to entertain my Suit and allow us to be affianced, without the Necessity of making such explicit Discoveries to him as might distress the Lady.

Your most humble Prodigal, William

He sank back in the chair and closed his eyes. The first shock was beginning to dissipate, and his mind come to grips with the problem.

It should be possible. There would be no bar to a marriage between William and Dottie. While titularly cousins, there were no blood ties between them; William was his son in all ways that mattered, but not by blood. And while Maxwell was young, wealthy, and very suitable, William was an earl in his own right, as well as heir to Dunsany’s baronetcy, and far from poor.

No, that part was all right. And Minnie liked William very much. Hal and the boys … well, provided they never got wind of William’s behavior, they should be agreeable. On the other hand, should any of them discover it, William would be lucky to escape with being horsewhipped and having every bone in his body broken. So would Grey.

Hal would be very much surprised, of course—the cousins had seen a good deal of each other during Willie’s time in London, but William had never spoken of Dottie in a way that would have indicated …

He picked up the letter and read it over again. And again. Set it down and gazed at it for several minutes with narrowed eyes, thinking.

“I’m damned if I believe it,” he said aloud, at last. “What the devil are you up to, Willie?”

He crumpled the letter, and taking a candlestick from a nearby table with a nod of apology, set fire to the missive. The steward, observing this, instantly produced a small china dish, into which Grey dropped the flaming paper, and together they watched the writing blacken into ash.

“Your soup, my lord,” said Mr. Bodley, and waving the smoke of conflagration gently away with a napkin, placed a steaming plate before him.

WILLIAM BEING OUT of reach, the obvious course of action must be to go and confront his partner in crime—whatever sort of crime it was. The more he considered, the more convinced he became that whatever complicity lay between William, Ninth Earl of Ellesmere, and Lady Dorothea Jacqueline Benedicta Grey, it was not the complicity either of love or guilty passion.

How was he to speak to Dottie, though, without exciting the notice of either of her parents? He could not hang about in the street until both Hal and Minnie went somewhere, hopefully leaving Dottie alone. Even if he managed to catch her somehow alone at home and interview her privately, the servants would certainly mention that he had done so, and Hal—who had a sense of protective alertness regarding his daughter akin to that of a large mastiff regarding its favorite bone—would be round promptly to find out why.

He declined the doorman’s offer to secure him a carriage, and walked back to his mother’s house, pondering ways and means. He could invite Dottie to dine with him … but it would be very unusual for such an invitation not to include Minnie. Likewise, were he to invite her to a play or opera; he often escorted the women, as Hal could not sit still long enough to hear an entire opera, and considered most plays to be tedious twaddle.

His way lay through Covent Garden, and he skipped nimbly out of the way of a swash of water, flung from a bucket to wash the slimy cabbage leaves and rotten apples from the cobbles by a fruiterer’s stall. In summer, wilted blooms littered the pavement; before dawn, the fresh flowers would come in by cart from the countryside, and fill the square with scent and freshness. In autumn, the place held a ripely decadent smell of squashed fruit, decaying meat, and broken vegetables that was the signature to the changing of the guard in Covent Garden.

During the day, vendors shouted their wares, haggled, fought pitched battles with one another, fought off thieves and pickpockets, and shambled off at nightfall to spend half their profits in the taverns in Tavistock and Brydges streets. With the shades of evening drawing nigh, the whores claimed the Garden for their own.

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