“Are you asking me as de facto head of the family?” he’d asked, smiling a little, in spite of the circumstances. She’d come to find him in the garden, where Tom forced him out to sit every afternoon, on the theory that it disturbed the household to know that he was still lying in his bed, staring at the ceiling.
“Of course not,” Olivia had said. “I’m asking you because—well, because.”
He probably should have tried to stop her. It was a private christening, with just the family and a few close friends—but people would talk. Lucinda, Lady Joffrey, was the child’s godmother; Sir Richard stiffened visibly when he heard the vicar pronounce the child’s names and shot a sharp look at Grey.
Grey was proof against looks, though, and speech, as well. He walked in a protective blanket of soft gray fog that muffled everything and made him feel invisible.
Now and then, something unexpected would penetrate the fog, sharp and wounding as the bits of shrapnel left in his chest, which worked their way one by one to the surface. Last week, it had been Harry’s visit. Today, it was the light.
It had been cloudy outside, but now the sun burst through, and a flood of colored light from a stained-glass window fell over the christening party in soft lozenges of red and blue and green.
The space at his side had been no more than an empty expanse of floor slates. Suddenly, it was an abyss.
He looked away, heart pounding and palms sweating, and saw Olivia looking at him, wearing an expression of concern. He nodded at her, forcing a smile, and she relaxed a little, her attention returning to the infant in Lucinda’s arms.
He spoke the words of the baptismal vows automatically, not hearing them. The air shook around him with the echo of organ pipes and clashing swords, and sweat ran down his back.
Lucinda removed the child’s lacy cap, and Cromwell Percival John Malcolm Stubbs’s head protruded from the christening robes, round as a cantaloupe. Grey fought back an inappropriate urge to laugh, and in the same instant, felt the piercing pain of being unable to turn to Percy and see the same laughter in his eyes.
It wasn’t even the right name. He’d thought of telling Olivia that, but hadn’t. It might not be the only secret Percy still possessed, but it was the only one Grey could keep for him.
The date for the court-martial had been set: 13th October, at eleven in the morning. If they hanged Percy—on Grey’s testimony—ought he to insist they do it as “Perseverance”?
Lucinda kicked him in the ankle, and he realized that everyone was looking at him.
“Say, ‘I do believe,’” Lucinda said under her breath.
“I do believe,” he said obediently.
“I baptize thee, Cromwell Percival John Malcolm, in the name of the Father…”
The splash of water came to him, distant as rain.
I should have told her it was “Perseverance,” he thought, in sudden panic. What if it’s all that should be left of him?
But it was too late. He closed his eyes, and felt the soft fog come to wrap its comfort round him once again, the gray of it tinged with the light of saints and martyrs.
You don’t look well, John.” Lucinda Joffrey circled round him, looking thoughtfully over her fan at him.
“You surprise me, madam,” he said politely. “I made sure that I appeared the very picture of health.”
She didn’t reply to that feeble retort, but closed the fan with a snap and tapped him in the chest with it. He flinched as though she had stabbed him with a brooch-pin.
“Not. Well.” She tapped him with each word, and he backed up sharply, to get away from her. The christening party was being held in the garden at Argus House, though, and his escape was prevented by the fishpond behind him.
“Look at him, Horry,” she ordered. “What does he look like?”
“The Duchess of Kendal,” Horace Walpole replied promptly. “When I last saw her, two days before her unlamented demise.”
“Thank you, Mr. Walpole,” Grey said, giving him a look.
“Not but that your lordship has much better taste than my lady Kendal.” Walpole gave him back the look. “The color of your face, however, is not what I would choose myself, to complement the shade of your suit. It is not quite the complexion of one of my darlings”—he nodded toward a sherry decanter on a nearby table, in which he had brought several small goldfish from his house at Strawberry Hill, as a present for Minnie—“but approaching that hue.”
“You must see a doctor, John,” Lucinda said, lowering the fan and giving him the benefit of her lovely eyes, set in open distress at his condition.
“I don’t want a doctor.”
“There is a very good man of my acquaintance,” Walpole said, as though struck by inspiration. “A specialist in weaknesses of the chest. I should be more than delighted to provide an introduction.”
“How kind of you, Horry! I am sure anyone you recommend must be a marvel.” Lucinda opened her fan in gratitude.
Grey, who was not so far gone as to be unable to spot gross conspiracy and very bad acting, rolled up his eyes.
“Give me the name,” he said, in apparent resignation. “I shall write for an appointment.”
“Oh, no need,” Walpole said cheerfully. “Dr. Humperdinck expresses the keenest interest in making your acquaintance. I’ll send my coach for you, at three o’clock tomorrow.”
“And I,” Lucinda put in swiftly, fixing him with a gimlet eye, “will be here to ensure that you get into it.”
“Short of drowning myself in the fishpond, I see there is no escape,” Grey said, with a sigh. “All right.”
Lucinda looked flabbergasted, and then alarmed, at this sudden capitulation. In fact, he simply hadn’t the strength to make more than a token resistance—nor, he discovered, did he really care. What did it matter?
“Mr. Walpole,” he said, nodding toward the table, “I fear that my nephew Henry is about to drink your fish.”
In the excitement occasioned by the rescue and subsequent ceremonious installation of the fish in their new home, Grey was able to make an inconspicuous departure, and went to sit in the library.
He was still there, an unread play by Molière open on his knee, when a shadow fell over him, and he looked up to see the Honorable Horace Walpole again. Walpole was a slight man, and much too frail in appearance to loom over anyone; he simply stood by Grey’s chair.
“It is a terrible thing,” Walpole said quietly, all affectation gone.
“I spoke with my brother.” That would be the Earl of Orford, Grey supposed; Walpole was the youngest son of the late prime minister, and had three brothers, but only the eldest had any influence—though a great deal less than his father had had.
“He cannot help before the trial, but…if”—Walpole hesitated, ever so briefly, having obviously made a split-second decision to substitute “if” for “when”—“your…” A longer hesitation.
“My brother,” Grey said quietly.
“If he is condemned, the earl will make what recommendations he can toward clemency. And I do have…other friends at court, though my own influence is not great. I will do what I can. I promise you that, at least.”
Walpole was not at all handsome, having a receding chin and a high, rather flat brow, but he was possessed of intelligent dark eyes, usually alive with interest or mischief. Now they were quiet, and very kind.
Grey couldn’t speak. It was a risk for Walpole to be connected in any way with such an affair. He lived quietly, and his own affairs never came to public notice, nor ever would. For him to sacrifice his discretion so far as to involve himself in what would be a notorious case was a remarkable gesture, and Grey was not a personal friend, though Walpole’s father had of course been a close friend to the duke.
He doubted that Walpole knew or suspected anything regarding his own nature, let alone his relationship with Percy. Even if he did, he would never speak of it, no more than Grey would mention Thomas Gray, the poet who had been Walpole’s lover for years.
He put up his hand, and gripped Walpole’s for an instant in thanks. Walpole smiled, a sudden, charming smile.
“Do go and see Humperdinck,” he said. “He will do you good, I am sure of it.”
He had felt the name “Humperdinck” vaguely familiar, but had not at first recollected its associations, and was thus surprised to find himself face to face with the gentleman he had last seen in a state of prostration on the sofa at White’s, half frozen and wig askew, suffering the effects of some seizure.
Dr. Humperdinck was now pink and healthy, showing only traces of his misadventure: a slight hesitation of speech, a drooping left eyelid, and a dragging left foot that caused him to walk with a stick. He laid this object aside and sat down in his consulting room, bidding Grey do likewise.
“Lord John Grey,” he said, looking his new patient over with thoughtful, clear blue eyes. “I know you, do I not? But I cannot recall the occasion of our meeting. I hope you will pardon my lack of manners—I suffered an accident last winter, an apoplexy of sorts, and since have discovered that my memory is not what it once was.”
“I recall the occasion,” Grey said, smiling. “It was on the pavement outside White’s.”
The doctor blinked, astonished.
“Was it? You were present?”
“Yes, my brother and myself.”
The doctor seized his hand and wrung it.
“My dear sir! I am so happy to meet you again. Not only for the natural pleasure of the occasion, but because I do remember you! I had thought all memory of the evening of my accident quite gone—and here is a piece of it after all! Bless me, sir, you have given me hope that perhaps other memories may also return in time!”
“I’m sure I hope they will,” Grey said, smiling. The doctor’s patent joy at remembering eased his own melancholy for a moment—though there were many things he would himself prefer to forget.
“You do not recall where you were going that night?” Grey asked curiously, taking off his coat and unfastening his shirt at the doctor’s request. Humperdinck shook his head, fumbling in his pocket.
“No, I have not…” He straightened up, a small sharp instrument of some sort in his hand and a look of astonishment on his face.
“White’s,” he whispered, as though to himself. Then his gaze sharpened, returning to Grey with renewed excitement.
“White’s!” he cried, seizing Grey’s hand once again and disregarding the presence of the instrument in his own hand.
“Oh, I do beg your pardon, sir, have I cut you? No, no, all is well, no more than a slight nick, a bandage will fix it…. They told me I had been found outside White’s Chocolate House, of course, but hearing you speak the name, in your own voice—White’s!” he exclaimed again in glee. “I was going to White’s!”
“But—” Grey caught himself in time from saying, “But you are not a member there,” for if he had been, Holmes, the club’s steward, would have recognized the doctor at once. “Were you meeting someone there?” he asked, instead.
The doctor pursed his lips, thinking fiercely—but gave it up within a moment as a bad job.
“No,” he said regretfully, fishing a clean bandage from his drawer. “I suppose that I must have been, but I have no recollection of it. But if so, surely the gentleman I was going to meet would have recognized me? Ah, well, I must just let it be; perhaps more memories will return to me of their own accord. Patience is a great virtue, after all,” he said philosophically.
Half an hour later, he had finished his examination, conducted with the most cordial and attentive questions, and returned to his earlier statement of principle.
“Patience, Lord John,” he said firmly. “Patience is the best medicine, in almost all cases; I recommend it highly—though it is surprising how few people are able to take that particular medicine.”
He laughed jovially. “They think that healing must come from blade or bottle—and sometimes it does, sometimes it does. But for the most part, I am convinced that the body heals itself. And the mind,” he added thoughtfully, with a sideways glance at Grey that made him wonder uncomfortably just how much of his own mind the doctor had perceived in the course of their conversation.
“So you do not feel that the remaining fragments are dangerous?” he asked, buttoning his shirt.
The doctor made a moue of professional equivocation.
“One can never say for certain about such things, Lord John—but I think not. I hope not. I believe the occasional pain you suffer is only the result of an irritation of the nerves—quite harmless. It should pass away, in time.”
“In time,” Grey muttered to himself, on the way back to Argus House. That was well enough, so far as his body was concerned. Being assured that he was likely not about to die had worked wonders; he felt no pain at all in either chest or arm. But as for his mind…there, time was growing very short indeed.
Grey found himself improved in spirits after his visit to Humperdinck, but still at loose ends. Not yet healed enough to return to his duties, and lacking any useful occupation, he drifted. He would set out for the Beefsteak, and find himself wandering round the edge of Hyde Park or suddenly among the shouts of costermongers in Covent Garden. He would sit down to read, and come to himself an hour later to find the fire burnt down to embers and the book on his knee, still open at the first page.
It was not melancholy. That abyss was still visible to him, but he resolutely looked away from it, back turned to its beckoning verge. This was something different; a sense of suspended animation, as though he was waiting for something without which he could not continue his life—and yet with no idea what that something might be, and no notion how to find it.