The Scottish Prisoner

Page 13

Not at a brothel, where the dram and towel would doubtless be provided at extortionate charge, and unwanted female companionship urged upon him, as well. His encounter with Nessie had jolted him out of his bad temper and into an awareness of his surroundings, though; he was no more than a few streets away from the Beefsteak, his favorite club. He could get a room there—dry clothes, perhaps a bath. And certainly a drink.

He turned and set off up Coptic Street with determination, trickles of water running down his back.

AN HOUR LATER, bathed, dressed in dry—if slightly too large—clothing, and having ingested two large brandies, he found himself in a slightly more philosophical frame of mind.

The important thing was to find Siverly and bring him back. His own honor was at stake in that venture, both because of his promise to Charlie Carruthers and because of his duty as an officer of His Majesty’s army. He’d done unpleasant things before in pursuit of that duty. This would be one more, that’s all.

And it was somewhat reassuring to realize that Fraser would be as uncomfortable as himself. No doubt that discomfort would prevent anything awkward being said.

He thought the philosophical frame of mind was coming along fairly well but might be further assisted by food; agitated by his conversation with Hal, he’d missed his tea and was feeling the effects of brandy on an empty stomach. Glancing at himself in the looking glass to be sure he’d got all the manure flakes out of his still-damp hair, he twitched the ill-fitting gray coat into better adjustment and made his way downstairs.

It was early evening, and the Beefsteak was quiet. Supper was not being served quite yet; there was no one in the smoking room and only one member in the library, sprawled asleep in a chair with a newspaper over his face.

Someone was in the writing room, though, shoulders hunched in thought, quill twiddling in one hand in search of inspiration.

To Grey’s surprise, the hunched back proved to belong to Harry Quarry, senior colonel of the 46th. Quarry, straightening up with an unfocused look in his eye, suddenly caught sight of Grey in the corridor and, alarmed, hastily slapped a sheet of blotting paper over the paper on the desk before him.

“A new poem, Harry?” Grey asked pleasantly, stepping into the writing room.

“What?” Harry tried—and failed utterly—to look innocently bewildered. “Poetry? Me? Letter to a lady.”

“Oh, yes?”

Grey made as though to lift the blotting paper, and Quarry snatched both sheets away, pressing them to his chest.

“How dare you, sir?” he said, with what dignity he could muster. “A man’s private correspondence is sacred!”

“Nothing is sacred to a man who would rhyme ‘sanguineous’ and ‘cunnilingus,’ I assure you.”

He likely wouldn’t have said it had the brandy warming his blood not loosened his tongue, as well. Seeing Harry’s eyes bulge, though, he wanted to laugh, in spite of his regret.

Harry leapt to his feet and, going to the door, glanced wildly up and down the corridor, before turning to glare at Grey.

“I should like to see you do better. Who the devil told you?”

“How many people know?” Grey countered. “I guessed. You gave me that book for Diderot, after all.” He hadn’t guessed but didn’t want to reveal the source of his information, that being his mother.

“You read it?” The color was beginning to come back into Harry’s normally florid face.

“Well, no,” Grey admitted. “Monsieur Diderot read a number of selections from it aloud, though.” He grinned involuntarily at the recollection of M. Diderot—very intoxicated—declaiming poetry from Harry’s anonymously published Certain Verses Upon the Subject of Eros while urinating behind a screen in Lady Jonas’s salon.

Harry was examining him, narrow-eyed.

“Hmmph,” he said. “You wouldn’t know a dactyl from your left thumb. Benedicta told you.”

Grey’s eyebrows shot up. Not in offense at Harry’s impugning of his literary judgment—which was more or less true—but in surprise. For Harry to have referred to Grey’s mother by her Christian name—while revealing that she knew about the poetry—was a shocking revelation as to the intimacy of their acquaintance.

He had wondered how his mother had come to know that Harry wrote erotic poetry. He returned the narrow look, with interest.

Harry, belatedly realizing what he’d given away, looked as innocent as it was possible for a thirty-eight-year-old colonel of expansive habit, lecherous appetite, and considerable experience to look. Grey debated briefly whether to make something of that look, but, after all, his mother was safely married now to General Stanley, and neither she nor the general would thank him for causing scandal—and he really didn’t want to call Harry out, anyway.

He settled for saying repressively, “The lady is my mother, sir,” and Harry had the grace to look abashed.

Before more could be said, though, the front door opened and a cold draft swirled down the hall, lifting the papers on the desk and scattering them at Grey’s feet. He stooped swiftly to pick them up before Harry could reach them.

“Christ, Harry!” His eye flickered hastily over the careful script.

“Give that back!” Harry growled, making a snatch at the paper.

Holding Harry off with one hand, he read further, out loud: “With thighs bedew’d and foaming cunt—Jesus, Harry, foaming?”

“It’s a bloody rough draft!”

“Oh, it’s rough, all right!” He stepped nimbly backward into the hall, evading Harry’s grasp, and collided heavily with a gentleman who had just come in.

“Lord John! I do beg your pardon most humbly! Are you injured?”

Grey blinked stupidly for a moment at the enormous fair man looming solicitously over him, then straightened up from his ignominious collapse against the paneling.

“Von Namtzen!” He clasped the big Hanoverian’s hand, absurdly delighted to see him again. “What brings you to London? What brings you here? Come and have supper with me, can you?”

Captain von Namtzen’s sternly handsome face was wreathed in smiles, though Grey saw that it bore the marks of some recent difficulty, the lines between nose and mouth harsher than they had been, hollows beneath the broad cheekbones and the deep-set eyes. He squeezed Grey’s hand to express his pleasure at their reacquaintance, and Grey felt a few bones give, though nothing actually cracked.

“I should be so pleased,” von Namtzen said. “But I am engaged …” He turned, looking vaguely behind him and gesturing toward a well-dressed gentleman who had been standing out of range. “You know Mr. Frobisher? His lordship John Grey,” he explained to Frobisher, who bowed.

“Certainly,” the gentleman replied courteously. “It would give me great pleasure, Lord John, was you to join us. I have two brace of partridge ordered, a fresh-caught salmon, and a vast great trifle to follow—Captain von Namtzen and I will be quite unequal to the occasion, I am sure.”

Grey, with some experience of von Namtzen’s capacities, rather thought that the Hanoverian was likely to engulf the entire meal single-handedly and then require a quick snack before retiring, but before he could excuse himself, Harry snatched the kidnapped papers from his hand, thus requiring an introduction to Frobisher and von Namtzen, and in the social muddle that ensued, all four found themselves going in to supper together, with a salmagundi and a few bottles of good Burgundy hastily ordered to augment the meal.

CHRIST, IT WAS CATCHING. He’d led the conversation over the soup to the subject of poetry, meaning only to chaff Harry, but it had led to an enthusiastic declamation of a poem from Brockes’s Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott—in German—by Mr. Frobisher, and then a heated discussion between von Namtzen and Frobisher regarding the structure of a particular German verse form and whether this was or was not the parent of the English sonnet.

Harry, asked for his opinion, grinned at Grey over his soup spoon.

“Me?” he said blandly. “Oh, I’m certainly not qualified to give an opinion. ‘Mary had a little lamb’ is about as far as I go in that direction. Grey, now, he’s the lad for rhymes; best ask him.”

Grey had hurriedly disclaimed any such knowledge, but it had set the table to the game of finding rhymes, going in turn until one man should not be able to find a rhyming word, whereat the next would choose a new one.

They’d got from the simple things like moon/June/spoon/spittoon/poltroon onto the more delicate issue of whether “porringer” could be legitimately rhymed with “oranger,” the latter being arguably a real word. The worst of it was that the conversation—coupled with the sight of von Namtzen sitting opposite him, his broad face lightened a little by the wordplay, his soft fair hair curling gently round the back of his ears—had caused him to start rhyming things privately. Only rude words, to start with, but then a little couplet—he thought that was the right term for it—had begun to chant itself.

He was startled by it. Was this how Harry did it? Just have words show up and start something, all by themselves?

The words that had shown up in his own mind had fallen into an irritating bit of doggerel: You cannot master me / but shall I your master be?

This unsettled him, as there was nothing in his relationship—or feelings—regarding von Namtzen to which this could apply, and he realized quite well that it had to do with the presence of Jamie Fraser at Argus House.

Will you bloody go away? he thought fiercely. I’m not ready.

The room seemed very warm, and sweat gathered round his hairline. Luckily, the arrival of the salmagundi and the kerfuffle of serving it diverted the company’s attention from verse, and he lost himself thankfully in the glories of short-crust pastry and the luscious mingled juices of game, duck, and truffles.

“WHAT’S BROUGHT YOU to London, sir?” Harry asked von Namtzen over the salad. It was plainly meant merely to break the digestive silence caused by the salmagundi, but the Hanoverian’s face became shadowed, and he looked down into the plate of greens and vinegar.

“I am purchasing some properties for the captain,” Mr. Frobisher put in hurriedly, with a glance at von Namtzen. “Papers to sign, you know …” He waved a hand, indicating vast reams of legal requirement.

Grey looked curiously at von Namtzen—who was not only captain of his own regiment but the Graf von Erdberg, as well. He knew perfectly well that the graf had a man of business in England; all wealthy foreigners did, and he had in fact met von Namtzen’s property agent once.

Whether von Namtzen had noticed his curiosity or merely felt that more explanation was necessary, he raised his head and expelled an explosive breath.

“My wife died,” he said, and paused to swallow. “Last month. I—my sister is in London.” Another swallow. “I have brought the … my children … to her.”

“Oh, my dear sir,” said Harry, putting a hand on von Namtzen’s arm and speaking with the deepest sympathy. “I am so sorry.”

“Danke,” von Namtzen muttered, and then suddenly rose to his feet and blundered out of the room, with what might have been a word of excuse or a muffled sob.

“Oh, dear,” said Frobisher, dismayed. “Poor fellow. I’d no idea he felt it so deeply.”

Neither had Grey.

After an awkward pause, they resumed eating their salads, Grey gesturing to the steward to remove von Namtzen’s plate. Frobisher had no details regarding the captain’s sad loss, and the conversation switched to a desultory discussion of politics.

Grey, having less than no interest in the subject, was left to consider Stephan von Namtzen and supply automatic noises of interest or agreement as the rhythm of the talk demanded.

He did spare a thought for Louisa von Lowenstein, the extremely vivacious—not that he couldn’t think of better words, but the woman was dead—Saxon princess who had married von Namtzen three years before. God rest her soul, he thought, and meant it—but his real concern was for Stephan.

If asked, he would have sworn that the marriage had been one of mutual convenience. He would also have sworn that Stephan’s tastes lay in other directions. There had been passages between himself and von Namtzen that … well, true, there had been nothing explicit, no declarations—not that sort of declaration, at least—and yet he couldn’t have been altogether mistaken. The sense of feeling between them …

He recalled the evening in Germany when he had helped Stephan to remove his shirt outdoors, had examined—and kissed—the stump of his recently amputated left arm, and how the man’s skin had glowed in the magic of the dusky light. His face grew hot and he bent his head over his plate.

Still. Stephan might have been sincerely attached to Louisa, no matter what the true nature of their marriage had been. And there were men who enjoyed the physical attractions of both sexes. For that matter, Grey himself knew several women whose deaths would distress him greatly, though he had no relation with them beyond that of friendship.

Von Namtzen reappeared as the cheese plates were being taken away, his normal equanimity seeming quite restored, though his eyes were red-rimmed. The conversation over port and brandy changed smoothly to a discussion of horse racing, thence to the breeding of horses—von Namtzen had a remarkable stud at Waldesruh—and remained on purely neutral matters until they rose at last.

“Shall I see you home?” Grey said quietly to von Namtzen as they waited in the hall for the steward to bring their cloaks. His heart was thumping audibly in his ears.

Stephan’s eyes flicked toward Frobisher, but the man was in close conversation with Harry about something.

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