“And you are a fanciful idiot,” he said out loud, and turned away from the window. “Be writing poetry, next thing.”
He made himself lie down, and lay staring up at the plastered ceiling. Remembering the stargazing had quieted him, though he thought he would not sleep. Too many thoughts swirled through his brain, endless and confusing as the snowflakes. Missing journals, reappearing pages, ancient wagers—was that wager at the root of the animus between his brother and Colonel Twelvetrees? And the so-called sodomite conspiracy—had that anything to do with his family’s affairs? He might as well try to fit the falling snowflakes together in a way that made sense.
It was only as his eyes closed that he realized that while snowflakes cannot fit, they do accumulate. One upon another, until the sheer mass of them forms a crust that a man might walk upon—or fall through.
He would wait and see how deep the drifts lay, come morning.
In the morning, though, a letter came.
“Geneva Dunsany is dead.” Benedicta, Dowager Countess of Melton, set down the black-bordered letter very gently by her plate, her face pale. The footman froze in the act of presenting more toast.
For an instant, the words had no meaning. The hot tea in Grey’s cup warmed his fingers through the china, fragrant steam in his nostrils mingling with the scents of fried kippers, hot bread, and marmalade. Then he heard what his mother had said, and set down his cup.
“God rest her soul,” he said. His lips felt numb, in spite of the tea. “How?”
The countess closed her eyes for an instant, looking suddenly her age.
“In childbirth,” she said, drawing a long breath, and opening her eyes. “The child has survived, so far. A son, Lady Dunsany says.” The color was beginning to seep back into the countess’s face, and she picked up the letter again.
“Here is something remarkable, though terribly sad,” she said. “She says that the child’s father—that would be Ellesmere, old Ludovic, you know—died on the same day as his wife.”
“Oh, dear!” His cousin Olivia looked at her aunt, tears beginning to well up in her eyes. Olivia was a tenderhearted girl to begin with, and her inclination to be affected by sentiment had grown more pronounced with her own advancing pregnancy. Though Grey supposed that the news that Geneva Dunsany had perished in giving birth was bound to have a morbid effect on a young woman in similar condition.
Grey coughed, wishing to distract his cousin—and to keep his own feelings at bay for the moment.
“I do not suppose the earl died of a broken heart,” he said. “The shock, perhaps?”
“How do you know it was not a broken heart?” Olivia asked reproachfully, dabbing at her eyes with her napkin. “Were anything to happen to my darling Malcolm, I am sure I should not survive the news!” Her eyes overflowed at thought of her new husband, presently serving in the wilds of America.
The countess gave her son a jaundiced look; Olivia had come back to live with her aunt after Malcolm Stubbs’s departure for Albany, and Grey supposed that his cousin’s vivid imagination and outspoken emotions were perhaps beginning to wear upon his mother, who was kind but not particularly patient.
“I believe Ellesmere was a good fifty years his wife’s senior,” Grey said, in an attempt to make amends. “And while I am sure he was fond of her, I think his death much more likely to have been due to an apoplexy or seizure at the shock than to an excess of sorrow.”
“Oh.” Olivia sniffed and wiped her nose with the napkin. “Oh, but the poor little mite, left an orphan on the very day of his birth! Is that not terrible?”
“Terrible,” the countess agreed absently, continuing to read. “It was not an apoplexy, though, nor yet a surfeit of emotion. Lady Dunsany says that the earl perished through some tragic accident.”
Olivia looked blank.
“An accident?” she repeated, and wiped absently at her nose before replacing the napkin in her lap. “What happened?”
“Lady Dunsany does not say,” the countess reported, frowning at the letter. “How peculiar. They are very much distressed, of course.”
“Had Ellesmere any family,” Grey inquired, “or will the Dunsanys take the child?”
“They have taken him. Her chief concern, beyond the immediacies of the situation, is Isobel. She was so close to her sister, and her grief…” The countess laid down the letter, shaking her head, then pursed her lips and focused a thoughtful look on Grey.
“She asks whether you might see fit to visit them soon, John. Isobel is so fond of you; Lady Dunsany thinks perhaps you might be able to distract her somewhat from the burden of her grief. The funeral—or perhaps funerals; do you suppose they will be buried together?—are set for Thursday next. I suppose that you would go to Helwater fairly soon in any case, to assure yourself of the welfare of your pet criminal before the regiment departs, but—”
“Your pet criminal?” Olivia, who had resumed buttering her toast, paused openmouthed, knife in midair. “What—?”
“Really, Mother,” Grey said mildly, hoping that the sudden lurch of his heart did not show. “Mr. Fraser is—”
“A Jacobite, a convicted traitor, and a murderer,” his mother interrupted crisply. “Really, John, I cannot see why you should have gone to such lengths to keep such a man in England, when by rights, he should have been transported. Indeed, I am surprised he was not hanged outright!”
“I had reasons,” Grey replied, keeping voice and eyes both level. “And I am afraid you must trust my judgment in the matter, Mother.”
A sudden flush burned in his mother’s cheeks, though she held his gaze, lips pressed tight. Then something moved in her eyes, some thought.
“Of course,” she said, her voice suddenly as colorless as her cheeks. “To be sure.” Her eyes were still fixed on Grey, but she was no longer looking at him, rather at something far beyond him. She drew a long breath, then pushed back from the table in sudden decision.
“You will excuse me, my dears. I have a good many things to do this morning.”
“But you’ve barely touched a thing, Aunt Bennie!” Olivia protested. “Won’t you have a kipper, a bit of porridge perhaps…” But the countess had already gone, in a whisk of skirts.
Olivia turned a suspicious gaze on Grey.
“What was that about?”
“I have no idea,” Grey replied honestly.
“Something about this wretched Mr. Fraser of yours disturbed her,” Olivia said, frowning at the doorway through which the countess had vanished. “Who is he?”
Christ, how was he to answer such a question? He chose the only possible avenue, that of strict factuality.
“He is, as my mother remarked, a Jacobite officer, a Scot. He was amongst the prisoners at Ardsmuir; I came to know him there.”
“But he is at Helwater? How comes he to be there?” Olivia asked, baffled.
“Ardsmuir was closed, the prisoners removed,” he replied, paying careful attention to his kipper. He lifted the bones and set them neatly aside, shrugging one shoulder. “Fraser was paroled, but not allowed to return to Scotland. He labors as a groom at Helwater.”
“Hmm!” Olivia seemed satisfied with that. “Well, and serve him right, no doubt, horrid creature. But why does Aunt Bennie call him your pet?”
“Only her little jest,” Grey replied casually, forking up a bite of kipper. “As I am a longtime friend to the Dunsany family, I visit Helwater regularly—and as the erstwhile governor of Ardsmuir, it behooves me to see that Mr. Fraser is well behaved and in good health.”
Olivia nodded, chewing. She swallowed her toast, then, with a covert glance at the footman, leaned toward Grey, lowering her voice.
“Is he really a murderer?” she whispered.
That took Grey off guard, and he was obliged to simulate a minor coughing fit.
“I do not believe so,” he said at last, clearing his throat. “I imagine my mother spoke rhetorically. She has the lowest opinion of Jacobites in general, you see.”
Olivia nodded wisely, eyes round. She had been no more than five or six at the time of the Rising, but must have heard some echoes of the public hysteria as the forces of Charles Stuart made what had seemed for a time their inexorable advance on London. Even the king had prepared to flee, and the streets were flooded with broadsheets painting the Highlanders as vicious savages who skewered children, pillaged and raped without mercy, and put whole villages to the torch.
As for his mother’s personal animus toward the Jacobites…he did not know whether Olivia had ever been told anything; probably not. It had all happened long before she was born, and neither his mother nor Hal ever spoke of it, he knew from experience. Well, it was no business of Grey’s to inform Olivia of the gory details of the family scandal. His mother and brother were both determined to let the past bury its dead, and surely…
He stopped eating, an extraordinary apprehension making the hair prickle on his nape.
No. Surely not. But it had been the mention of Fraser and the word “Jacobite” that had made the countess blench and pale. Yet she had known about Fraser—Grey had gone several times to Helwater since Fraser had been paroled there. He had never made much of the matter himself, though, never mentioned Fraser’s presence as the principal reason for his visits. No, some thought had occurred to his mother, something that had not struck her before. Could it be that she had suddenly thought his reasons for keeping James Fraser in England had to do with…
Something small and cold slid wormlike through his entrails.
Olivia had lost interest in the Scottish prisoner, and was happily outlining her plans for the suit he would wear for the wedding.
“Yellow velvet, I think,” she said, squinting consideringly at him over the tea cozy. “It will be lovely against Aunt Bennie’s blue, it will set off your own coloring, and I think it will be good for the general’s stepson. Your mother says he is dark—have you met him?”
“I have, and yes, he is dark,” Grey said, his innards performing an immediate volte-face and growing noticeably warm. “You intend that we should be dressed alike? In yellow? Olivia, we shall look like nothing so much as a pair of singing canaries.” He’d spoken in all seriousness, but the observation sent her off into giggles, and made her snort tea through her nose. Which absurd sight made Grey himself laugh.
“Well,” Olivia said, recovering first, “if you do mean to go up to the Lake District, I suppose you’d best go quickly, in order to be back in good time for the wedding. Whether it is yellow or not, you will have a new suit, and the fittings…”
Grey was no longer attending, though. Christ, he would have to go at once, if he meant to go at all. The funeral and Isobel Dunsany’s need quite aside, the wedding was in late February; were he to delay, he would have no chance to go and return before the regiment set sail for France in March.
For the first time, his anticipation at the prospect of visiting Helwater was tinged with slight dismay. Percy Wainwright…but after all, there was no hurry in that quarter, was there? Particularly not if Wainwright should indeed join the regiment. And he was meant to meet the man this afternoon; he would be able to explain. Perhaps even to…
A movement in the doorway drew his eye, and he glanced up to see his mother standing there, hand braced against the jamb.
“Go if you must,” she said abruptly. “But for God’s sake, John, be careful.”
Then she turned and was gone again. Thoroughly unsettled, he picked up his cup, found the tea had gone cold, and drank it just the same.
It was chisping, that ambiguous sort of precipitation, half snow, not quite drizzle. Misshapen flakes fell slow and scattered, spiraled through gray air and brushed his face, tiny cold touches so fleeting as not even to leave a sense of wetness in their wake. Dry tears, he thought. Appropriate to his sense of distant mourning.
He paused at the edge of Haymarket, waiting his chance to dodge through the traffic of cabs, carriages, horses, and handcarts. It was a long walk; he might have ridden, called for a chair, or taken his mother’s carriage, but he had felt restless, wanting air and movement and the proximity of people with whom he need not talk. Needing time to prepare, before he met Percy Wainwright again.
He was shocked, of course. He had known Geneva since her birth. A lovely girl, with great charm of manner and a light in her eyes. Somewhat spoilt, though attractively so, and reckless to a degree. Superb on a horse. He would not have been surprised in the slightest to hear that she had broken her neck in some hunting accident, or died in leaping a horse across some dangerous chasm. The sheer ordinariness of death in childbirth…that seemed somehow wrong, obscurely unworthy of her.
He still remembered the occasion when she had gone riding with him, challenged him to a race, and when he declined, had calmly unpinned her hat, leaned over, and smacked his horse on the rump with it, then kicked her own mount and galloped off, leaving him to subdue a panicked sixteen-hand gelding, then to pursue her at breakneck pace over the rocky fells above Helwater. He was a good horseman—but he’d never caught her.
As though still challenged by the memory, he plunged into the street and dashed across the cobbles, ducking under the startled nose of a hurtling cab horse, and arrived at the other side, heart pounding and the cabbie’s curses ringing in his ears.
He turned down St. Martin’s Lane, feeling the blood thrum in his ears and fingers, with that half-shameful sense of pleasure in being alive that was sometimes the response to news of death, or the sight of it.