“Will you guard it at the price of your own?” The words came unbidden, surprising Grey nearly as much as Longstreet.
The doctor’s mouth opened, working soundlessly. Then he picked up his tea and drank, hastily, as though to drown the words rising in his throat. His hands were shaking when he set the cup down; Grey heard the faint rattle of the china in its saucer.
“No,” Longstreet said hoarsely, and stopped to clear his throat. “No,” he said more firmly. “No, I won’t. I cannot say what chance inspired Humperdinck to tell you, or how much he told you…” He shot Grey a sharp glance, but Grey wisely preserved silence.
Very likely, Humperdinck had known nothing, as he had no chance of speaking with Longstreet before the apoplexy struck him down. Only that there was something to know. But Longstreet might have told him something when making the original appointment; best if he thought Grey knew whatever there was to know.
“My cousin was a Jacobite,” Longstreet said abruptly.
Grey raised one brow, though his heart began to beat faster. “Many people have been, and are. Unless you mean—”
“You know what I mean.” The wheezing note was still in Longstreet’s voice, but the voice itself had grown stronger, and the doctor’s gaze was steady. He had made up his mind.
The story, in its essence, was much as had been given out at the time of the Duke of Pardloe’s death—save, of course, that the nobleman who was the centerpiece of the English plot to assassinate the king was not the Duke of Pardloe but the Earl of Creemore.
“And you learned of this…when?”
“At the time.” Longstreet looked down, fingers restless on the mermaid’s scaly tail. “I…was invited to join them. I declined.”
“Not very safe,” Grey observed skeptically. “For them or you.”
“Only my cousin knew. It was he who invited me; tried to persuade me of the—the rightness of their cause. He did believe that,” he added softly, still looking down as though his argument were addressed to the little mermaid. “That James Stuart was rightfully king.”
“So his motives were quite without self-interest, were they?”
Longstreet looked up at that, eyes fierce.
“Are any man’s?”
Grey shrugged, conceding the point. Longstreet in turn conceded another.
“Whatever George’s motives, those of his fellow conspirators were most assuredly mixed. I didn’t know them all—George wouldn’t tell me their names until I became one of them. Reasonably enough.” He paused to cough a little.
“You didn’t know them all—but you knew some?”
Longstreet nodded slowly, clearing his throat.
“The Marquis of Banbury. Catholic—his whole family was ferociously Catholic. When—when your father was killed, he fled to France. Died there a few years ago. Another man—I never knew his name; George only called him A.”
A for Arbuthnot? Grey wondered, with a dropping of the stomach.
“You knew this—but you said nothing?”
Longstreet leaned back a little in his chair, surveying Grey, and after a moment, shook his head.
“I asked you—did you value life more, or honor? I asked myself that. Many times. And at the time…I chose my cousin’s life above my honor. Your father was already dead; I could not alter that. I should have denounced Creemore, I know. But I could not bring myself to do it.”
“After all,” Grey said, curling his fingers under the edge of his seat in order not to strike Longstreet, “what harm could it do, to let my father’s honor be destroyed and his family live in the belief that he had killed himself?”
He hadn’t tried to keep his feelings out of his voice, and Longstreet recoiled a little, and turned his eyes away.
“I chose my cousin’s life,” he said again, so softly that the words were barely audible. Then his head rose and his gaze turned sharply on Grey.
“What do you mean—the belief that he had killed himself? He did kill himself. Did-didn’t he?” For the first time, a note of uncertainty had entered the doctor’s voice.
“No, he bloody didn’t,” Grey said. “He was murdered, and I intend to find out by whom.”
Longstreet’s brow narrowed in concentration, and he stared deeply into Grey’s eyes, as though making a diagnosis of some kind. He blinked once or twice, then stood abruptly, and without a word, left the room, leaning on his stick.
Grey sat, nonplussed, wondering whether to follow. But the man had not seemed ill, or particularly offended. He waited, wandering slowly round the room, examining the doctor’s collection of curiosities.
Within a few moments, he heard the sound of the doctor’s stick, and turned from the mantelpiece to see Longstreet enter the room, a familiar book in his hand. Bound in rough leather, its cover darkened and shiny in spots from much handling.
The doctor held it out to Grey, breathing heavily, and Grey snatched it from his hand, his heart in his throat.
“I thought…you might…want that.” Longstreet nodded at the book.
“I…yes.” Grey glanced at him, though he could scarcely take his eyes from the book. “Where did you get this?”
Longstreet had sat down, his face tinged with blue, and was breathing so heavily that he could manage no more than a helpless gesture.
Grey stood up and rummaged in his coat for his flask, from which he poured a substantial amount of brandy into the dregs of Longstreet’s tea. He held the cup to Longstreet’s thin blue lips, seeing in memory the doctor’s hands performing a similar office for the stricken Humperdinck, that snowy night at White’s Club.
It took some time before Longstreet was able to reply, but finally he managed, “It was among my cousin’s things. I brought it away with me after he died.”
“But you knew he had it?” The journal page had been left in Hal’s office before Lord Creemore’s death—but from the sound of things, it seemed unlikely that the gout-crippled and dropsical Lord Creemore had crept unobserved into the regimental offices. Whereas Longstreet, in his uniform, would have passed easily without notice.
“He…showed it to me. When I pressed him. That is how I knew where to find it.”
“You’ve read it?” The rough leather of the cover seemed to burn against Grey’s fingers, and the impulse to open the book, see his father’s writing spring to life, was nearly overwhelming.
The man’s breath was coming more easily now.
“I’ve read it.”
“Did he—my father—did he write anything regarding a Jacobite conspiracy?”
Longstreet nodded, taking another sip from his cup.
“Yes. He knew a bit, suspected a great deal more—but he was circumspect enough to refer to the principals in code. He called my cousin Banquo.” One side of the doctor’s mouth turned up. “There were three others referred to by name—Macbeth, Fleance, and Siward. I think Siward was a man named Arbuthnot—Victor Arbuthnot. I don’t know the others.”
Grey felt the blood pulse in his fingertips, where they touched the journal.
“I said that I was obliged to choose between the truth and my cousin’s life—and I chose George, for good or ill. That choice, however, did not absolve me of further responsibility in the matter. I have no interest in politics—one charlatan on the throne is as good as another, and if the Pope meddles, so does Friedrich of Prussia.”
His hand curled protectively around the little mermaid, and he glanced at Grey, his voice growing softer.
“But I did feel a responsibility to prevent further harm being done, if I could. If any one of those men had become convinced that your mother knew what your father knew, they might easily have killed her, rather than risk the possibility that she might expose them.”
His mother must have feared precisely that eventuality—as well as the certainty that Hal would take matters into his own hands, if he discovered the truth. And so she had taken what precautions she could: disguising his father’s murder as suicide, sending her younger son to safety in Aberdeen, and leaving the country herself. And then had remained quiet for the next seventeen years—watching.
“Does she know?” Longstreet asked curiously. “Who killed your father?”
“No. Had she known which man it was, she would have killed him, I assure you,” Grey said.
Longstreet looked startled at that.
“They do say women are amazing vindictive,” the doctor said reflectively.
“If you think she would keep silence, sir, you know nothing of women in general, or my mother in particular. But since she did not in fact know who the murderer was, she did keep silent. But then, that is why…” The words died in his throat, revelation dawning.
“That’s why you sent a page of this”—he lifted the journal—“to my brother, and another to my mother? Because of her impending marriage to General Stanley?”
Longstreet shook his head, the breath in his lungs sighing like wind in river willows.
“No—because my cousin was dying. It was clear to me that he was near death; almost beyond the reach…of law or man. The others…if they…”
Grey was losing patience.
“And why did you set the O’Higginses on me?”
“Two soldiers who attempted to waylay me in Hyde Park.” It occurred to him that Longstreet certainly knew the name of Percy’s patron, Mr. A. The temptation to ask was enormous—but if he knew, the temptation to find the man would be greater still. And then what?
Longstreet had been struggling with his breath, as Grey struggled with his baser instincts.
“That—I did not intend that you should be h-harmed.”
“I wasn’t,” Grey said shortly. “Not on that occasion. But then I was attacked in an alley near Seven Dials; was that you, too?”
Longstreet nodded, a hand pressed to his chest.
“A warning. They—both times, they were meant only to knock you senseless, and to leave a th-third page of the journal in your pocket. I had not expected you to f-fight back.”
“Sorry about that.” Grey rubbed his left arm. He had left off the sling, and it was beginning to throb. “What the devil was the point of this—this charade?”
Longstreet leaned back in his chair, sighing deeply.
“Justice,” he said softly. “Call it a sop to my conscience. I chose my cousin, as I said. But it became clear to me some months ago that he was dying. Once he was beyond the reach of the law…I could tell the truth. But I dared not do it openly—not then.” A brief smile flitted across his face. “I had something to lose, then.”
He had read the journal carefully, and selected three pages, all of them mentioning the name of Victor Arbuthnot.
“That was the only thing those pages had in common.” To leave a page in Melton’s office would arouse alarm; another sent to the countess would increase it; to leave the third with Grey, following a physical attack, would, he thought, insure that the pages were carefully studied—Arbuthnot’s name would spring out of the comparison, and the Greys would go looking for him. And so far past the event, Arbuthnot would likely admit to the truth himself. If he did not…Longstreet would still have the option of revealing the truth in some other way.
“That actually worked,” Grey admitted, though his displeasure over the stratagem had not abated in the slightest. “But Arbuthnot didn’t know my father had been murdered, either.”
What matters more? Longstreet had asked him. The life of a man, or the honor of his name when he is dead? Both, Grey thought. Longstreet had chosen; Grey had no choice.
“Who in bloody hell killed my father?” he demanded in frustration.
Longstreet closed his eyes.
“I don’t know.” The doctor had been growing visibly more exhausted as he spoke, needing to pause for breath at shorter intervals, coughing in short, harsh bursts that made Grey’s own chest ache in sympathy. He flapped a limp hand toward the journal.
“You know…what I know.”
Grey sat for a moment, trying not to burst with the force of the questions that boiled in his brain. But Longstreet did not have the answers to most of them, and the one thing he did know—the name of Mr. A—Grey could not bring himself to ask.
He rose, clutching the journal, and one final question came to mind that Longstreet might be able to answer.
“My brother challenged Nathaniel Twelvetrees to a duel,” he said abruptly. “Do you know why?”
Longstreet opened his eyes and looked up, faintly surprised.
“Don’t you? Ah, I see not. I suppose Melton wouldn’t refer to the matter. Twelvetrees had…seduced his wife.”
Grey felt as though Longstreet had suddenly punched him violently in the chest.
“His wife.” It came to him, with a sense of mingled horror and relief, that Longstreet did not mean Minnie, but Esmé, his brother’s first wife—who had been French and beautiful. She died in childbirth—and the child with her. Had the child been Hal’s? he wondered, appalled. He remembered Hal’s tearing grief at her death, but had not understood the half of his brother’s feelings. His own heart burned at the thought.
“Thank you,” he said, for lack of anything else to say to Longstreet, and turned to go. One final thought occurred to him.
“One last thing,” he said, turning back, curious. “Would you have killed me? Had my brother not been there when you removed the shrapnel from my chest?”