Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade

Page 8

“I suppose, though, that many Englishmen do not make distinctions between one Scot and another?” Percy said, with some delicacy.

Grey gave a small grimace of acknowledgment.

“It did not help that one of my mother’s uncles and his sons did openly support the Stuart cause. For the sake of profit,” he added, with slight distaste, “not religion.”

“Is that better or worse?” Percy asked, a half smile taking any sting from the words.

“Not much to choose,” Grey admitted. “And before the thing was finished, a good many more of my mother’s family were embroiled. If not actually known Jacobites, certainly tainted by the association.”

“I see.” Wainwright’s brows were high with interest. “You mentioned your father’s involvement with the South Sea Bubble. Do we assume that this had something to do with your profit-minded great-uncle?”

Grey glanced at him, surprised at the quickness of his mind.

“Yes,” he said. “Great-Uncle Nicodemus. Nicodemus Patricius Marcus Armstrong.”

Percy made a small, muffled noise.

“There is a reason why I was christened ‘John,’ and that my brothers have such relatively common names as Paul, Edgar, and Harold,” Grey said wryly. “The names on my mother’s side of the family…” He shook his head, and resumed his account.

“My father invested a substantial sum with a certain company—the South Sea—upon the urgings of Uncle Nick, after Sheriffmuir. Mind you, this was some years before the collapse; at the time, it seemed no more than a somewhat risky venture. And it appealed, I think, to my father’s sense of adventure, which was acute.” He couldn’t help a brief smile at thought of some of those adventures.

“It was a substantial sum, but by no means a significant part of my father’s property. He was therefore content to leave it, depending upon Uncle Nick to watch the business, whilst he devoted himself to other, more interesting ventures. But then the Jacobite threat—” He paused, glancing at Percy.

“How old are you, if you will pardon my asking?”

Percy blinked at that, but smiled.

“Twenty-six. Why?”

“Ah. You may be old enough, then, to recall the atmosphere of suspicion and hysteria regarding Jacobites during the ’45?”

Percy shook his head.

“No,” he said ruefully. “My father was a clergyman, who viewed the world and its affairs as nothing more than a threat to the souls of the godly. We heard little news, and would have taken no heed of political rumors in any case—the only king of any importance being the Lord, so far as my father was concerned. But that’s of no consequence,” he added hastily. “Go on, please.”

“I was going to say that that hysteria, great as it was, was no more than an echo of what happened earlier. Are you content to walk, by the way? We could easily take a carriage.” The weather had grown sharply colder, and a bone-cutting breeze swept through the alleyways. Percy was lightly dressed for the temperature, but he shook his head.

“No, I prefer to walk. It’s much easier to talk—if you wish to do that,” he added, a little shyly.

Grey wasn’t at all sure that he wished to do that—his offer of a carriage had been based as much on a sudden desire to abandon the conversation for the moment as on a desire to save Mr. Wainwright from a chilled liver. But he’d meant it; Wainwright had a right to know, and might better hear the details from him than from someone who held the late duke in less esteem.

“Well. You will know, I suppose, that raising, equipping, and maintaining a regiment is an expensive business. My father had money, as I said, but in order to expand the regiment when the Jacobite threat recurred in 1719, he sold his South Sea shares—quite against the advice of Great-Uncle Nicodemus, I might add.”

Within the previous five years, the price of South Sea shares had risen, from ten pounds to a hundred, then dizzyingly, from a hundred to a thousand within a year, driven up by rumor, greed—and not a little calculated chicanery on the part of the company’s directors. The duke sold his shares at this pinnacle.

“And a week—one week—later, the slide began.” It had taken most of a year for the full devastation of the great crash to become evident. Several great families had been ruined; many lesser folk all but obliterated. And the public outcry toward those seen to be responsible…

“I can imagine.” Percy glanced at him. He wore no hat, and the tips of his ears were red with cold. “But your father was not responsible, was he?”

Grey shook his head.

“He was seen to profit immensely, while others went bankrupt,” he said simply. “Nothing else was needed to convict him in the popular mind.” And the House of Commons, that voice of the popular mind, had been vociferous in their denunciations.

“But he was a duke.” Grey watched the words purl out, his breath like smoke. “He could not be tried, save by his peers. And the House of Lords declined to proceed.” Not from any sense of justice—many noble families had suffered in the crash and were quite as irrationally bloodthirsty as the commoners. But the Duke of Pardloe chose his friends carefully, and the ravenings of the mob moved on to easier prey.

“Such things leave a mark, though. Enemies were made, enmities lingered. And it was the more unfortunate that my father should have been a good friend of Francis Atterbury’s. The Bishop of Rochester,” he added, seeing Percy’s puzzled look. “Convicted of being the focus of a Jacobite plot to exploit public feeling about the South Sea Bubble by staging a Stuart invasion and dethroning the king, in ’22. Banished, though, not executed.”

Their path had led them to Hyde Park, for the most direct way to Lady Jonas’s house lay straight across it. They were now well within the park, and Grey gestured to the wide spaces all around them, empty and desolate.

“When word got out of the plot in ’22, His Majesty in panic ordered ten thousand troops to London, to safeguard the city. They were quartered here—in the park. My father told me of it; he said the smoke of their fires was thicker than the morning fog, and the stench was indescribable. Convenient, though; the family house stands on the edge of the park—just beyond those trees.” He gestured toward it, with a brief smile at the memory, then went on.

“My father merely played chess with the bishop; he had no Jacobite leanings whatever. But again—”

“The popular mind.” Percy nodded. “And your mother’s family. So he was perceived as a Jacobite sympathizer? The notion being that he had somehow engineered the crash in order to facilitate the invasion—though it never happened?”

Grey nodded, a sense of hollowness growing beneath his breastbone. He had never told the story to anyone before, and was both surprised and disturbed that the words came so easily to him. He was coming now to the most difficult part of the history, though, and so hesitated.

“There was another Jacobite scare, a decade later—this one no more, really, than talk. Lord Cornbury it was, who was the instigator. No one would have noticed, really, save he was the Earl of Clarendon’s heir. And it came to nothing in the end; Cornbury was not even imprisoned—merely left off meddling in politics.” He smiled again, though without humor.

Percy’s lower teeth were fixed in his upper lip. He shook his head slowly.

“Don’t tell me. Cornbury was also an intimate of your father’s?”

“Ah—no. My mother.” He gave Percy a wry glance. “Or rather, Cornbury had been a close friend to her first husband. Thus Cornbury is my eldest half brother’s godfather. Not a close connexion, by any means—but it was a connexion, and it didn’t help when the rumors about another Stuart Rising began in 1740.”

He took a breath and released it slowly, watching the steam of it.

“There were…other Jacobite influences. My mother’s family, as you say. And then—one of my father’s nearest friends was exposed as a Jacobite plotter, and arrested. The man was taken to the Tower and questioned closely—I do not know whether that is a euphemism for torture; it was not said—but under the pressure of such questioning, he revealed a number of names. Persons, it was claimed, who were involved in a direct plot to assassinate the king and his family.”

Speaking these words now, from the far side of Culloden, the idea seemed preposterous. He thought it had perhaps seemed equally ludicrous to his parents—at first.

“He—this Jacobite plotter—incriminated your father?”

Grey nodded, somewhat comforted to see that Percy looked both aghast and incredulous at this.

“Yes. There was no direct evidence—or at least none was ever produced. But the matter did not come to trial. A warrant was issued for my father’s arrest. He…died—the night before it was to be executed.”

“Oh, dear God,” Percy said, very quietly. He did not touch Grey again, but drew closer, walking slowly, so that their shoulders nearly brushed.

“Of course,” Percy said after a moment, “your father’s death was taken as an admission of guilt?” He put the question delicately, but remembered bitterness filled Grey’s throat with the taste of bile.

“It was. A Bill of Attainder was brought against my father’s title, but did not pass.” He smiled wryly.

“My father had many enemies, but just as many friends. And a much better instinct in choosing godfathers for his sons than my mother’s first husband. Hal’s godfather was Robert Walpole.”

“What, the prime minister?” Percy looked gratifyingly agog.

“Well, he wasn’t at the time of Hal’s birth, of course. And when the scandal broke, twenty-some years later, Walpole was very near his own death—but still an immensely powerful man.

“And,” Grey added judiciously, “whatever his personal feelings in the matter, it wouldn’t have done Walpole’s own reputation any good to have his godson’s father publicly denounced as a traitor. Not at such a delicate point in his own affairs.

“So,” he concluded, “the Bill of Attainder was quashed. My father had not, after all, been proved a traitor. There was sufficient public—and private—outcry, though, that Hal declared he would not bear a tainted title, and has ever since refused to use it. He did wish to renounce it completely, but could not by law.”

He gave a short laugh.

“So. A very long story, I am afraid—but we do arrive at the end, never fear.”

Within two or three years of the duke’s death, Charles Edward Stuart had begun to make a nuisance of himself, and Jacobite hysteria had once more swept the country, rising to a peak upon the Bonnie Prince’s arrival in the Highlands.

“Whereupon Hal promptly raised the standard of our father’s old regiment, spent a fortune in reconstituting it, and marched off to the Highlands in the service of the king. The king was in no position to refuse such service, any more than his father had been when my father did the same thing thirty years before.”

He said nothing of the immensity of Hal’s effort. At the time, he had been barely fifteen and ignorant, not only of the true dimensions of the scandal, but of his brother’s response to it. Only now, looking back, could he appreciate the tremendous energy and almost maniacal single-mindedness that had enabled Hal to do what he’d done.

Melton, grimly intent upon restoring the family’s lost honor, had met the Highlanders—and defeat—with Cope at Prestonpans. Went on to hold his own in the less decisive battle at Falkirk—and then at Culloden…

Grey’s voice dried in his throat, and he paused, mouth working to find a little saliva.

“A famous victory!” Percy said, his voice respectful. “I read of that, at least, in the newspapers.”

“I hope you never see one like it,” Grey said shortly. He curled his left hand into a fist, feeling Hector’s sapphire ring press against the leather of his glove. Hector had died at Culloden. But he did not mean to speak of Hector.

Percy glanced at him, surprised by his tone, but did not reply. Grey breathed deeply, the air cold and heavy in his chest. They had been walking slowly, but had come through the park and were now within sight of Lady Jonas’s house; he could see guests coming in ones and twos, being welcomed at the door by the butler.

With unspoken consent, they stopped, a little way down the street. Wainwright turned to face him, his eyes still warm, but serious.

“Your mother does not style herself Duchess?” he asked, and Grey shook his head.

“My brother became head of the family at my father’s death; she would do nothing that might seem to undermine his authority. She uses the title Dowager Countess of Melton.”

“I see.” Wainwright studied Grey with open curiosity. “And yet you have continued to call yourself…”

“Lord John. Yes, I have.”

The corner of Wainwright’s mouth tucked back.

“I see that your brother is not alone in being stubborn.”

“It runs in the family,” Grey replied. “Shall we go in?”

Chapter 5

Genius and Sub-Genius

Grey noted at once that Percy was not entirely comfortable.

His color was high, and while he handed his cloak to the butler with aplomb, he looked quickly round the drawing room to which they were taken, as though searching for acquaintance, then glanced back at Grey uncertainly. His face brightened, though, as he spotted their hostess, and he hastened forward, Grey in his wake.

He bowed to Lady Jonas, and introduced Grey to her; she greeted them kindly, but with that air of distraction that attends a hostess in search of more-distinguished guests. They kissed her hand in turn and retired to the drinks table.

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