An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 28

   

IT WAS SEVERAL HOURS before he left Argus House—declining Minnie’s invitation to stay for supper—and the weather had deterioriated substantially. There was autumn chill in the air; a gusty wind was getting up, and he could taste salt in the air—the traces of sea fog drifting toward shore. It would be a good night to stay indoors.

Minnie had apologized for not being able to offer her coach, as Dottie had gone off to her afternoon salon in it. He had assured her that walking suited him, assisting him to think. It did, but the whoosh of wind flapping the skirts of his coat and threatening to carry away his hat was a distraction, and he was beginning to regret the coach, when he suddenly saw the equipage itself, waiting in the drive of one of the big houses near the Alexandra Gate, the horses blanketed against the wind.

He turned in at the gate and, hearing a cry of “Uncle John!” looked toward the house and was in time to see his niece, Dottie, bearing down on him like a ship under full sail—literally. She wore a plum silk mantua and a rose-pink cloak and, with the wind behind her, billowed alarmingly. In fact, she scudded toward him with such velocity that he was obliged to catch her in his arms in order to halt her forward progress.

“Are you a virgin?” he demanded without preamble.

Her eyes widened, and without the least hesitation, she wrested one arm free and slapped his cheek.

“What?” she said.

“My apologies. That was a trifle abrupt, wasn’t it?” He glanced at her waiting coach—and the driver, looking rigidly ahead—and, calling to the driver to wait, took her by the arm and turned her in the direction of the park.

“Where are we going?”

“Just for a little walk. I have a few questions to ask you, and they aren’t the sort that I wish to have overheard—nor do you, I assure you.”

Her eyes widened still further, but she didn’t argue; merely clapped a hand to her saucy little hat and came with him, her skirts foaming in the wind.

Weather and passersby prevented his asking any of the questions he had in mind until after they had made their way well into the park and found themselves in a more or less deserted path that led through a small topiary garden, where evergreen bushes and trees had been clipped into fanciful shapes.

The wind had dropped momentarily, though the sky was darkening. Dottie pulled to a halt in the shelter of a topiary lion and said, “Uncle John. What is this taradiddle about?”

Dottie had her mother’s autumn-leaf coloring, with hair the color of ripened wheat and cheeks with the perpetual faint flush of rose hips. But where Minnie’s face was pretty and gently appealing, Dottie’s was underlain by Hal’s fine bones and embroidered with his dark lashes; her beauty had a dangerous edge to it.

The edge was uppermost in the look she turned on her uncle, and he thought that, in fact, if Willie was enamored of her, it was perhaps not surprising. If he was.

“I had a letter from William, intimating that he had—if not actually forced his attentions upon you—behaved in a manner unbecoming a gentleman. Is it true?”

Her mouth fell open in undissimulated horror.

“He told you what?”

Well, that relieved his mind of one burden. She was likely still a virgin, and he needn’t have William shipped off to China to avoid her brothers.

“It was, as I say, an intimation. He didn’t provide me with details. Come, let us walk before we freeze.” He took her by the arm and guided her up one of the paths that led to a small oratory. Here they took shelter in the vestibule, overlooked only by a stained-glass window of St. Barbara, carrying her severed br**sts on a platter. Grey affected to study this elevating image, allowing Dottie a moment to settle her wind-flustered garments—and decide what she was going to tell him.

“Well,” she began, turning to him with her chin raised, “it’s true that we—well, that I let him kiss me.”

“Oh? Where? I mean”—he added hastily, seeing the momentary shock in her eye—and that was interesting, for would a completely inexperienced young lady realize that it was possible to be kissed elsewhere than on lips or hand?—“in what geographical location?”

The flush in her cheeks deepened, for she realized as well as he what she had just given away, but she met his eye directly.

“In Lady Windermere’s garden. We’d both come to her musicale, and the supper wasn’t ready, so William invited me to walk outside with him for a bit, and—I did. It was such a beautiful evening,” she added ingenuously.

“Yes, he noted that, as well. I had not previously realized the intoxicant properties of good weather.”

She gave him a slight glare.

“Well, anyway, we’re in love! Did he say that, at least?”

“Yes, he did,” Grey replied. “He began with a statement to that effect, in fact, before going on to make his scandalous confessions regarding your virtue.”

Her eyes widened.

“He—what, exactly, did he say?” she demanded.

“Enough to persuade me—he hoped—to go at once to your father and put before him the desirability of William’s suit for your hand.”

“Oh.” She drew a deep breath at that, as though relieved, and looked away for a moment. “Well. Are you going to, then?” she asked, swiveling big blue eyes back in his direction. “Or have you already?” she added, with an air of hopefulness.

“No, I have said nothing to your father regarding William’s letter. For one thing, I thought I had best speak to you first, and see whether you were in such agreement with William’s sentiments as he appears to think.”

She blinked, then gave him one of her radiant smiles.

“That was very considerate of you, Uncle John. Many men wouldn’t bother with the woman’s opinion of the situation—but you’ve always been so thoughtful. Mother cannot say enough good things about your kindness.”

“Don’t over-egg the pudding, Dottie,” he said tolerantly. “So you say that you are willing to marry William?”

“Willing?” she cried. “Why, I desire it more than anything!”

He gave her a long, level look, and while she continued to meet his eye, the blood rose precipitously in her throat and cheeks.

“Oh, yes?” he said, allowing all the skepticism he felt to show in his voice. “Why?”

She blinked twice, very fast.

“Why?”

“Why?” he repeated patiently. “What is there in William’s character—or appearance, I suppose,” he added fairly, for young women had no great reputation as judges of character, “that so attracts you as to desire marriage to him? And hasty marriage at that.”

He could just about see one or both of them developing an attraction—but what was the hurry? Even if William feared Hal’s deciding to allow Viscount Maxwell’s suit, Dottie herself could not possibly be under the illusion that her doting father would force her to marry anyone she did not want to.

“Well, we are in love, of course!” she said, though with a rather uncertain note in her voice for such a theoretically fervent declaration. “As for his—his character … why, Uncle, you are his own father; surely you cannot be in ignorance of his … his … intelligence!” She came up with the word triumphantly. “His kindness, his good humor …” she was picking up speed now, “… his gentleness …”

Now it was Lord John’s turn to blink. William was undoubtedly intelligent, good-humored, and reasonably kind, but “gentle” was not the word that sprang immediately to mind with regard to him. On the other hand, the hole in the paneling of his mother’s dining room, through which William had inadvertently thrown a companion during a tea party, had still not been repaired, and this image was fresh in Grey’s mind. Probably Willie behaved more circumspectly in Dottie’s company, but still …

“He is the very model of a gentleman!” she declaimed with enthusiasm, having now got the bit well between her teeth. “And his appearance—well, of course he is admired by every woman I know! So tall, so imposing a figure …”

He noticed, with an air of clinical detachment, that while she touched on several of William’s notable characteristics, she did not at any point mention his eyes. Aside from his height—which could scarcely escape notice—his eyes were probably his most striking feature, being a deep and brilliant blue, and unusually shaped, with a catlike slant. They were, in fact, Jamie Fraser’s eyes, and they gave John a faint, passing clench of the heart whenever Willie looked at him with a certain expression.

Willie knew the effect his eyes had on young women excellently well—and had no hesitation in making the most of it. Had he been gazing longingly into Dottie’s own eyes, she would have been transfixed, whether she loved him or not. And that touching account of rapture in the garden … Following a musicale, or during a ball, and at Lady Belvedere’s or at Lady Windermere’s …

He had been so occupied by his own thoughts that he did not realize for a moment that she had stopped talking.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, with great courtesy. “And I thank you for the encomia regarding William’s character, which cannot fail to warm a father’s heart. Still—what is the urgency in arranging a marriage? William will be sent home in a year or two, surely.”

“He might be killed!” she said, and there was in her voice a sudden note of real fear, so real that his attention sharpened. She swallowed visibly, a hand going to her throat.

“I couldn’t bear it,” she said, her voice suddenly small. “If he were killed, and we’d never … never had a chance to …” She looked up at him, her eyes brilliant with emotion, and put her hand pleadingly on his arm.

“I have to,” she said. “Really, Uncle John. I must, and I cannot wait. I want to go to America and be married.”

His mouth fell open. Wanting to be married was one thing, but this … !

“You cannot possibly be serious,” he said. “You cannot think that your parents—your father, in particular—would ever countenance such a thing.”

“He would,” she countered. “If you put the matter to him properly. He values your opinion more than anyone’s,” she went on persuasively, squeezing a little. “And you, of all people, must understand the horror I feel at the thought that something might … happen to William before I see him again.”

Indeed, he thought, the only thing weighing in her favor was the feeling of desolation that the mention of William’s possible death caused in his own heart. Yes, he could be killed. Any man might be, in time of war, and most particularly a soldier. That was one of the risks you took—and he could not in conscience have prevented William taking it, even though the mere thought of William blown to pieces by cannon fire or shot through the head or dying in agony of the flux …

He swallowed, dry-mouthed, and with some effort shoved those pusillanimous images firmly back into the locked mental closet in which he normally kept them confined.

He took a long breath.

“Dorothea,” he said firmly. “I will discover what you’re up to.”

She looked at him for a long, thoughtful moment, as though estimating the chances. The corner of her mouth rose insensibly as her eyes narrowed, and he saw the response on her face, as clearly as if she’d said it aloud.

No. I don’t think so.

The expression was no more than a flicker, though, and her face resumed its air of indignation mingled with pleading.

“Uncle John! How dare you accuse me and William—your own son!—of, of … what are you accusing us of?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted.

“Well, then! Will you speak to Papa for us? For me? Please? Today?”

Dottie was a born flirt; as she spoke, she leaned toward him, so that he could smell the fragrance of violets in her hair, and twined her fingers charmingly in the lapels of his coat.

“I can’t,” he said, striving to extricate himself. “Not just now. I’ve already given him one bad shock today; another might finish him off.”

“Tomorrow, then,” she coaxed.

“Dottie.” He took her hands in his, and was rather touched to find them cold and trembling. She did mean it—or mean something, at least.

“Dottie,” he repeated, more gently. “Even if your father were disposed to send you to America to be married—and I cannot think that anything less exigent than your being with child would compel it—there is no possibility of sailing before April. There is therefore no need to harry Hal into an early grave by telling him any of this, at least not until he has recovered from his current indisposition.”

She wasn’t pleased, but was obliged to admit the force of his reasoning.

“Besides,” he added, letting go of her hands, “campaigning ceases in winter; you know that. The fighting will stop soon, and William will be relatively safe. You need have no fears for him.” Other than accident, flux, ague, blood poisoning, griping belly, tavern brawls, and ten or fifteen other life-threatening possibilities, he added privately to himself.

“But—” she began, but stopped, and sighed. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. But … you will speak to Papa soon, won’t you, Uncle John?”

He sighed in turn, but smiled at her nonetheless.

“I will, if that is what you truly desire.” A gust of wind hit the oratory and the stained-glass image of St. Barbara shivered in its leaded frame. A rush of sudden rain rattled across the roof slates, and he drew his cloak around him.

“Stay here,” he advised his niece. “I’ll fetch the coach round to the road.”

As he made his way against the wind, one hand on his hat to prevent it taking flight, he recalled with some unease his own words to her: I cannot think that anything less exigent than your being with child would compel it.

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