“What, and leave Olivia by herself?”
Olivia sat up straight, enthused.
“Oh, no! I could go to Minnie—she’s often asked me. We should have such fun together—oh, do, Aunt Bennie, do go!”
The countess eyed her niece for a moment, assessing her sincerity, then sighed and turned to Sir George.
“I daresay I will be in much more danger from pestilence, seasickness, and vipers than from anything London can offer. But all right. Yes, I’ll go.”
It was not yet noon, but the bell was rung and sherry sent for, and a general toast drunk to the renewed engagement. It was only as Grey finally went upstairs to get dressed that he recalled his mother’s words regarding probability.
It hadn’t occurred to him to connect his encounter with the O’Higginses in Hyde Park with the later attack by Jed and his companion in Seven Dials. The O’Higginses had, of course, indignantly denied being anywhere in the vicinity, and had produced at least sixteen witnesses to testify that they were virtuously engaged in a drinking bout in a shed behind the barracks at the time of the incident. And even if he was morally sure of their identity, there was nothing to say that they had lain in wait for him; in fact, their recognition of him had been what made them flee. But still…
One attack might be coincidence, the countess had said. Two is another matter.
Grey told Hal the next day about the breaking and reestablishment of the countess’s engagement, with its consequent revelations.
“I heard about the business at Tyburn,” his brother remarked, eyeing him. “Do you want to tell me what that was about? Because I don’t for an instant think you just happened to be there.”
Grey was tempted to tell him about the conversation he had had with Captain Bates in Newgate, but there was no way to explain his acquiescence without mention of Hubert Bowles, which in turn might lead to questions neither of them would wish to have either asked or answered.
“No,” he said simply. “Not now.”
Hal accepted this without further comment; he could be ruthless in pursuit of any matter he believed to be his business—but by the same token, was willing to let other people mind their own.
“Mother gave no hint of the identity of any of these men?” The automaton’s cabinet was still in the corner, but Hal had the jar of mottoes and fortunes on his desk, and was dipping into it at random, drawing out a folded slip, reading it, and tossing it back.
“No. Do you think they exist?” That was a thought that had come to Grey in the night, that the countess might have invented these nebulous figures. Though in that case, he was at a loss to explain why she had broken the engagement.
“Oh, yes. I could put a name to two of them, I think.” Hal unfolded a new slip. “He who throws dirt is losing ground,” he read. “Do you suppose the O’Higginses wrote these themselves?”
“Oh? Who?” Grey kept his voice casual, though his pulse leapt. “As for the O’Higginses, I doubt they can write.”
“Good point.” Hal dropped the slip back into the jar, and shook it. “Captain Rigby—Gilbert Rigby—and Lord Creemore. I happened to be in England when Mother came back from France, and called upon her almost every day. She had a good many visitors—but I tended to meet those two most frequently, and to find them alone with her.”
Grey reached into the jar, to hide the small flare of resentment he felt at this reference to a time in which he had been excluded from his family’s affairs.
“He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at,” he read, and smiled reluctantly. “I recall Captain Rigby, from before Father died, very vaguely—he brought his dog, as I recall—but I don’t believe I know Lord Creemore.”
“Perhaps not by his title. His name is George Longstreet,” Hal said dryly. He plucked another fortune, read it, and, shaking his head, tossed it back.
“Why are you telling me about them now?” Grey asked, curious. “The last time I inquired about the circumstances following Father’s death, you declined to insult my intelligence by answering my questions.”
“Do not mistake temptation for opportunity.” Hal read a new one, dropped it, and leaned back in his chair, surveying his brother.
“I didn’t want to tell you, because I knew if I did, you’d be off poking sticks into hornets’ nests, and there was no point in stirring up things that have lain quiet for years. But now…” Hal looked him over slowly, taking in the remnant bruises, and shook his head. “If there’s anything to Mother’s theory that you were attacked as a warning to her to keep silence, there’s a possibility of it happening again. If that’s the case, you need to know as much as possible, for your own safety.”
“I’m touched at your concern,” Grey said dryly—but was, nonetheless. “Since the regiment sails in a few weeks’ time, I doubt I’ll be able to molest many hornets.”
“Well, yes, there’s that,” Hal agreed cordially. “I don’t propose to give you time to sleep, let alone roam about London overturning stones in search of long-hidden Jacobites.”
“You do, however, propose to tell me what you know about Mother’s erstwhile suitors.” Grey fished out another motto, and unfolded it.
Hal chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment, thinking, then heaved a sigh.
“Right. I’m guessing about Rigby, but I know for a fact that Longstreet—as he was then—proposed to Mother, because I caught him in the act of doing so.”
“Indeed,” Grey said, fascinated. “You put a stop to it?”
Hal shot him a narrow look, then coughed.
“Indirectly,” he said, and hurried on. “Rigby was one of Walpole’s crowd at the time; Walpole came himself to call on Mother—kind of him; it would have been much worse without his making a show of his interest—and he sent his secretary and his aides frequently to the house, as his health kept him from going out. That’s how Rigby came to know Mother, I think.”
“Never mind Longstreet,” Hal said shortly. “I’ll deal with him myself.”
“That remark about hornets’ nests…”
“Exactly. Keep away from him.”
That was evidently all he was going to hear about Longstreet, at least for the moment. Grey allowed the subject to drop, returning to the larger issue.
“Does it seem at all plausible to you?” Grey asked. “This theory of Mother’s?”
Hal hesitated, then nodded.
“It does,” he said, “but only if Mother actually does know something that could be injurious to someone.”
“Or if that someone thinks she does. But what can she know,” Grey added, “that would be so dangerous as to justify this kind of hocus-pocus?”
Hal shook his head.
“I don’t see how she can have evidence of anything concrete; if she had, surely she would have produced it at the time of the…the scandal. All she might know would be the identity of someone who was not only a Jacobite at the time, but a man who had substantial position—and likely still does.”
That made sense. Anti-Jacobite feeling had died down of latter years, with the defeat of Charles Stuart’s army, but an accusation of Jacobitism was still an effective tarbrush, wielded by politicians or the press.
“Longstreet would have been vulnerable to a threat of exposure then, and would be now,” Grey said. “What about Captain Rigby?”
Hal actually smiled at that.
“I suppose so,” he said. “He’s presently Director of the Foundling Hospital.” He unfolded another motto, laughed, and read it aloud: “A conclusion is simply the place where one grows tired of thinking.”
Grey smiled at that, and stood up.
“Then I suppose we’ve reached a conclusion for now. Will you tell me what you discover regarding Longstreet?”
A flicker of something passed through his brother’s eyes, but was gone too quickly for Grey to interpret it.
“I’ll tell you anything you need to know,” Hal said. “In the meantime, haven’t you business to do?”
“I have,” Grey said, and left. Hidden in his hand, he carried the last slip of paper he had taken from the automaton’s jar. The one you love is closer than you think, it said.
Six days until the wedding. Four days—perhaps five—until Percy Wainwright returned from Ireland.
Hal had not been joking about allowing him no time to sleep. Grey could feel the regiment beginning to rise from winter quarters and prepare for war, like a bear shaking off the sleep of hibernation, feeling the first rumblings of appetite. And men, like bears, must be fed.
Unlike bears, they must also be clothed, housed, armed, trained, disciplined, and moved from place to place. And then, of course, there was the military hierarchy, a many-headed beast with voracious appetites of its own.
Grey’s days were a blur of activity, rushing from Whitehall offices to shipping offices, holding daily councils of war with the other officers, receiving and reviewing daily reports from the captains, writing daily summary reports for the colonels, reading orders, writing orders, hastily donning dress uniform and dashing out to leap on a horse in time to take his place at the head of a column to march through the London streets in a guildhall procession to the cheers of a crowd, then throwing the reins to a groom and brushing the horsehair from his uniform in a carriage on his way to a ball at Richard Joffrey’s house, where he must dance with the ladies and confer in corners with the gentlemen, the ministers who ran the machine of war, and the merchants who greased its gears.
The one redeeming aspect of such affairs was that food was served, often his only opportunity to eat since breakfast.
It was at one such gathering that Hal came up beside him and said quietly, “Lord Creemore is ill.”
Such was Grey’s state of starvation and mental preoccupation that he didn’t recall at once who Lord Creemore was, and said merely, “Oh? Pity,” without taking his attention from the sardines on toast he had accepted from a passing footman.
Hal gave him a narrow look, and repeated with some emphasis, “Lord Creemore is ill. Very ill, I’m told. He hasn’t been out of his house in two months.”
“Ah!” said Grey, realization dawning. “George Longstreet.” He ate the sardines in two bites and washed them down with a gulp of champagne. “Probably not in any condition to hire thugs and plant documents, you think?”
“I think not. Here comes that tedious ass Adams; you talk to him—if I do, I’ll throttle him.” With a perfunctory nod, Hal strode past the Ordnance minister and shouldered his way into the crowd. Sighing, Grey drained his champagne glass, put it on a passing tray, and took a fresh one.
“Mr. Adams,” he said. “Your servant, sir.”
“Wasn’t that Lord Melton?” Bernard Adams, who was short of sight, squinted dubiously toward the end of the room where Hal had made his escape. “I wanted to speak with him, regarding the extravagance of his request for…”
Grey drained another glass, listening to the tall clock in the corner chiming midnight, and thought how pleasant it would be to turn into a pumpkin and sit inert at Adams’s feet, impervious to the man’s blather.
Instead, he fixed his eyes on the mole to the right of Adams’s mouth, nodding and grimacing periodically as he worked his way methodically through three more glasses of champagne and a plate of bacon savories.
Dropping into bed three hours later, in a haze of fatigue and alcohol, he managed to remain awake for a few seconds, in which he wondered whether he would recognize Percy Wainwright upon his return from Ireland, let alone remember what to do with him.
In Which a Marriage Takes Place,
among Other Things
On the 27th of February, the marriage of General Sir of George Stanley and Benedicta, Dowager Countess Melton, was celebrated at the church of St. Margaret’s, the parish church of Westminster Abbey.
It was not a large wedding, but one done in the best of taste, as Horace Walpole, one of the guests, remarked approvingly. Olivia had had the church decorated simply with evergreen boughs, done up in ribbons of gold tissue, and the scent of pine and cedar lent a welcome freshness to the at mosphere of ancient wax and bodies kept too long enclosed. Composed in equal parts of military dignitaries, politicals, and social ornaments, the congregation shone nearly as brightly as the four hundred candles, a-glimmer with gold lace and diamonds.
“With my goods I thee endow, with my body I thee worship…”
Grey, in the front pew with Percy Wainwright, was close enough to see the expression on the general’s face, which surprised him with its soft intensity. He was the more surprised—and not a little taken aback—to catch an answering flash of response from the countess’s eyes.
He experienced that peculiar crawling of the flesh that attends any child’s sudden realization that a parent must not only have engaged at some comfortably primeval date in the theoretical carnal act that resulted in his own existence—but was capable of doing it again in the all-too-physical present.
He glanced quickly at Percy, to see whether this frisson of horror was shared, but saw only an expression of subdued wistfulness on Percy’s mobile face. Of course it would not be the same, he reminded himself; the general was in fact not Percy’s father. There would be no bar to his imagining—he choked that line of thought off at the root, staring hard at Percy in order to avoid looking at the wedding couple.
The light from one of the stained-glass windows caught a few tiny dark bristles, missed in shaving, just beneath Percy’s lower lip. It shone through the amber irises of his eyes and touched his flesh with rose and gold.