Had Hal spoken to her already, then? If he had come to Jermyn Street, he had done so very surreptitiously, either late the night before or very early in the morning. No. Not late, or Grey, stewing by his window, would have seen him. And not early; his mother had been in her wrapper at breakfast, blinking and yawning as was her morning habit, clearly fresh from her bed.
Another thought struck him; perhaps his mother had also received a page from his father’s missing journal? Perhaps in the morning post? He slowed a little, boots beginning to crunch in the inch of snow that now covered the ground. Had she opened another letter, after the one from Lady Dunsany? He could not remember; his attention had been focused on Olivia.
The thought of another page filled him with simultaneous alarm and excitement. It would account for his mother’s sudden agitation, and her violent reaction to the mention of his Jacobite prisoner. And if such a thing had arrived this morning, Hal likely didn’t know about it yet.
A surge of blood burnt his frozen cheeks. He brushed away the flakes that clung melting to his lashes, and strode through the deepening snow with renewed determination.
He was the more startled and discomfited to be greeted at the door by Hal’s butler with the news that his brother had gone to Bath.
“He really has,” his sister-in-law assured him, appearing behind the butler. She dimpled at his upraised eyebrow, and flung out a hand to indicate the hall behind her. “Search the house, if you like.”
“What the devil has he gone to Bath for?” Grey demanded irritably. “In this weather?”
“He didn’t tell me,” Minnie said equably. “Do come in, John. You look like a snowman, and you must be wet to the skin.”
“No, I thank you. I must—”
“You must come in and take supper,” she said firmly. “Your nephews miss their uncle John. And your stomach is grumbling; I can hear it from here.”
It was, and he surrendered his wet outer garments to the butler with more gratitude than he cared to show.
Supper was delayed for a bit, though, in favor of a visit to the nursery. Six-year-old Benjamin and five-year-old Adam were so raucously pleased to see their uncle that three-year-old Henry was roused from sleep and shrieked to join the fun. Half an hour of playing knights and dragon—Grey was allowed to be the dragon, which let him roar and breathe fire, but compelled him to die ignominiously on the hearthrug, stabbed through the heart with a ruler—left him in much better temper, but monstrously hungry.
“You are an angel, Minerva,” he said, closing his eyes in order better to appreciate the savory steam rising from the slice of fish pie set in front of him.
“You won’t think so if you call me Minerva again,” she told him, taking her own slice. “I’ve a nice Rhenish to go with that—or will you rather like a French wine?”
Grey’s mouth was full of fish pie, but he did his best to indicate with his eyebrows that he would be pleased to drink whatever she chose. She laughed, and sent the butler to bring both.
Obviously accustomed to men’s needs, she didn’t trouble him with conversation until he had finished the fish pie, a plate of cold ham with pickled onions and gherkins, some excellent cheese, and a large helping of treacle pudding, followed by coffee.
“Minnie, you have saved my life,” he said, after his first sip of the fragrant hot black stuff. “I am your most devoted servant.”
“Are you? Oh, good. Now,” she said, sitting back with an expression of pleased command, “you may tell me everything.”
“Everything,” she said firmly. “I haven’t been out of the house in a month, your mother and Olivia are too taken up with wedding preparations to visit, and your wretched brother tells me nothing whatever.”
“He doesn’t?” Grey was surprised at that. Minnie was Hal’s second wife—acquired after a decade of widowerhood—and he had always thought the marriage a close one.
“Your brother does, of course, speak to me on occasion,” she admitted, with a small gleam of amusement. “But he subscribes to the peculiar notion that expectant women must be exposed to nothing in the least stimulating. I haven’t heard any decent gossip in weeks, and he hides the newspapers—fearing, no doubt, that I will read some lurid confessional from Tyburn Hill, and the child be born with a noose round its neck.”
Grey laughed—though with the belated memory of the broadsheet in his coat pocket, felt that his brother might be well advised in the matter of newspapers, at least. He obligingly recounted his experiences at Lady Jonas’s salon, though, including the incident of the Sub-Genius’s book of verse, which made Minnie laugh so hard that she choked on her coffee and was obliged to be pounded on the back by the butler.
“Never fear,” she said, wiping her eyes on her napkin. “I shall worm the author’s identity out of Lucinda Joffrey, when next I see her, and let you know. So, you went with the new brother, did you? What is he like?”
“Oh…very pleasant. Well bred, well spoken. What does Hal think of him?” he asked curiously.
Minnie pursed her lips in thought. She was a pretty woman, rather than a beautiful one, but pregnancy agreed with her, lending a shine to mousy hair and a glow to her apple-dumpling cheeks.
“Hmm. He rather approves, though Melton being Melton, he is inclined to watch sharply, lest new brother pocket the teaspoons and put them up the spout to finance his habit of opium-eating and his three mistresses.”
“I see that Hal has waited much too long to forbid you newspapers,” Grey said, very pleased indeed to hear that Hal approved of Percy, in spite of the small awkwardness between them at first meeting. “But you must have had some visitors yourself of late; who has come to call?”
“My grandmother, two aunts, six cousins, a rather nice little woman collecting money for the relief of widows of brickmakers—she actually did pinch one of the teaspoons, but Nortman caught her and shook it out of her, quite fun, such an amazing quantity of things she had stuffed into her bodice.” She dimpled at the butler, who inclined his head respectfully. “Oh, and Captain Bates’s lady came this afternoon. She came to see Hal, of course, but he wasn’t in, and I was bored, so invited her to stay to tea.”
“Captain Bates’s lady?” Grey repeated in surprise. “I had not heard that he was married.”
“He isn’t; she’s his mistress,” she said frankly, then laughed at his expression. “Don’t tell me you are shocked, John?”
He was, but not entirely for the reasons she supposed.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“She told me—more or less.”
Minnie rolled her eyes at him in exaggerated patience.
“Meaning that she was so agitated that she could not contain the purpose of her desire to speak with Melton, and so told me of her concern for the captain—I hear he has been arrested, did you know?”
“I had heard something of the matter.” Grey put aside his cup, waving away Nortman, hovering with the coffeepot. “But—”
“And I knew she must be his mistress and not his wife, because I’d met her before—with her husband.” She took a demure sip of her freshly filled cup, eyes dancing at him.
“Who is…?” he prompted.
“A Mr. Tomlinson. Very wealthy. Member of Parliament for some nasty little borough whose name I forget, in Kent. I met him just the once, at a subscription ball. He’s fat, and hasn’t two words to rub together; little wonder his wife’s taken a lover.”
“Little wonder,” Grey murmured, thinking furiously. Tomlinson, Tomlinson… The name rang no bells for him at all. Could he possibly have anything to do with the conspiracy Hal had told him of?
“What was her concern?” he asked. “And why did she come to Hal?”
“Well, the captain was arrested on Thursday,” Minnie said reasonably. “She naturally wants him released. And evidently Hal is a good friend of the captain’s—not that he’d ever mentioned it to me, of course.”
Not that he mentioned it to me, either, Grey thought cynically. And what is our supposedly shirt-lifting captain doing with a mistress? Hal had certainly not mentioned that aspect of the matter to Minnie, though, and a few more questions failed to elicit anything further in the way of information. Mrs. Tomlinson had been distraught, but hadn’t known anything beyond the fact that Captain Bates had been arrested.
“She doesn’t even know where he is, poor thing.” Minnie’s wide, fair brow crinkled in pity. “Do you think you could find out, John? I could send her a note, at least. Anonymously,” she added. “I suppose Melton wouldn’t like me to sign it.”
“A very reasonable supposition. I’ll see what I can find out tomorrow—oh. I forgot; I am leaving in the morning for the Lake District. But I will see what I can discover before I leave.”
“The Lake District?” Minnie stared at him, then at the closed drapes, where the window glass rattled faintly in the wind behind its layers of lace and blue velvet. “In this weather? What is it, a form of family dementia? Next thing you know, your mother will announce her departure for Tierra del Fuego in the midst of a hurricane.”
Grey smiled at her, realizing that it would be injudicious to mention Geneva Dunsany’s death to an expectant mother.
“A prisoner of mine, from Ardsmuir, is paroled there. I must interview him, concerning a few administrative matters”—“administrative” was a word sure to extinguish interest in even the most curious; sure enough, Minnie’s eyes showed a faint glaze—“and I must go now, to be sure of returning in time for the wedding, since the regiment will be departing for France soon thereafter.”
“Mr. Fraser? Melton told me about him. Yes, you will have to hurry.” She sighed, unconsciously pressing a hand over her abdomen. Hal had said the child was expected in the autumn; there was a good chance that it would be born before his return.
Grey did his best to distract Minnie from this distressing prospect with the story of his encounter with the O’Higginses in Hyde Park, and succeeded in getting her to laugh again.
When he left at last, she stood a-tiptoe at the door to kiss his cheek, then looked up at him with unaccustomed graveness.
“You will be careful, John? My daughter will need her godfather, you know.”
“Daughter?” He glanced involuntarily at her still-flat midsection.
“She has to be. I really can’t bear another man to worry about—going off to the ends of the earth to be cut to pieces or die of flux and plague, wretched creatures that you are.” She was still smiling, but he heard the tremor in her voice, and touched her shoulder gently.
“Godfather?” he said.
“Don’t mention it to Melton; I haven’t told him yet.”
“Your secrets are safe with me,” he assured her, and her smile grew more natural.
“Good. But you will be careful, John?”
“I will,” he said, and stepped into the swirling whiteness, wondering as he did so whether it was James Fraser or himself who carried the air of doom that impelled both his mother and Minnie to urge him to carefulness.
He had it in mind to ask his mother just that, amongst other questions, but discovered upon his return to Jermyn Street that Minnie had perhaps been more astute than he thought in her discernment of a family mania for travel; the countess had indeed departed. Not for Tierra del Fuego, true; merely for a play in Drury Lane—the one which he had hoped to see with Percy Wainwright, ironically enough—after which she proposed to spend the night at General Stanley’s house in town, because of the snow.
The effect upon his own intentions was the same, though, and he was obliged to content himself with writing a brief note to Hal, informing him of his own proposed absence, the date of his return, and a firm statement that he expected to be apprised of any further discoveries apropos the document of interest—meaning the journal page.
He considered mentioning the possibility that the countess had received a similar page, but dismissed it. Hal had said he would speak with their mother about the page; if she had received another, she would presumably tell him. And Grey had every intention of speaking with the countess himself upon his return from Helwater.
He was putting down his quill when he recollected the matter of the O’Higginses, and with a sigh, took it up again, this time to write a brief note to Captain Wilmot, under whose authority the O’Higginses theoretically fell—though in fact, he was privately inclined to consider them more a force of nature than properly disciplined parts of a military engine.
“It’s stopped snowing, me lord!” Tom Byrd’s voice came faintly to him, and he glanced aside, to see his valet’s lower half protruding from the open window. A cold draft wound its way about his ankles like a ghostly cat, but the wind had died. Evidently the storm had passed.
He came to stand behind Tom, who pulled his head in, red-cheeked from the cold. Everything outside was still, pure and peaceful in a blanket of white. He scooped a bit of fresh snow from the windowsill with his finger and ate it, enjoying the granular feel of it on his tongue as it melted, and the faint taste of soot and metal that it seemed to carry. There was no more than an inch or two upon the sill, and the sky was now clear, a cold deep violet, full of stars.
“Sun in the morning, I’ll be bound,” Tom said with satisfaction. “The roads will be clear in no time!”
“The roads will be mud in no time, you mean,” Grey said, but smiled nonetheless. Despite the grim nature of their errand, he shared Tom’s lightening of the heart at thought of a journey. It had been a long winter indoors.