She paused by the chair, an amorphous shape in the dark.
“Shall I light the candle?”
“No. Your Grace,” he added, with a certain sardonic emphasis.
The sky was overcast, but there was a waxing moon tonight, and he’d drawn back the curtains when he went to bed, not liking the feeling of enclosure. There was a soft, bright glow through the window behind him. He wouldn’t have a distinct view of her face—but she wouldn’t see his at all.
She sat down, her garments whispering, and sighed briefly but said nothing immediately. It was an old trick, and one he knew well. He didn’t speak, either, though his mind was churning with questions. The most important one being, did the duke know?
“Yes, he does,” she said. He nearly bit his tongue.
“Oh, aye?” he managed. “And may I ask just what your husband knows?”
“About me, of course.” The faint note of amusement was back. “He knew what my … mode of life … was when he married me.”
“A man of blood and iron, then.”
She laughed outright at that, though softly.
“And does he know that ye kent me back then?”
“He does. He does not know what I came to talk with you about.”
He wondered whether the duke knew that she had come to talk to him in his bedroom, but merely made a polite sound of invitation, and the duchess’s robe rustled softly as she settled herself.
“Do you know a man named Edward Twelvetrees?”
“I saw him briefly today,” he said. “At the Beefsteak club. Who is he, and why do I care?”
“Edward Twelvetrees,” she said, with a note of grimness in her voice, “is an estimable soldier, an honorable gentleman—and the younger brother of Nathaniel Twelvetrees, whom my husband killed in a duel many years ago.”
“A duel over …?”
“Not important,” she said tersely. “The point is that the entire Twelvetrees family harbors feelings of the deepest hatred for my husband—well, for all the Greys, but particularly Pardloe—and would do anything possible to damage him.
“The second point,” she went on, cutting off his next question, “is that Edward Twelvetrees is an intimate of Gerald Siverly. Very intimate. And the third is that for the last year, Edward Twelvetrees has been moving fairly large sums of money—far more than would normally pass through his hands; he’s a younger brother, and has no more than his pay and his winnings at cards.”
He leaned forward a little, intent now.
“Moving them where? And where do they come from?”
“They’re going to Ireland. I don’t know where they’re coming from.”
He turned that over in his mind for a moment.
“Why are ye telling me this?”
She hesitated, and he could feel her calculation but didn’t know the exact nature of it. Not how much to trust him, he didn’t think—only a fool would trust him with dangerous information, and he was sure the duchess was no fool. How much to tell him, though …
“I love my husband, Mr. Fraser,” she said at last, softly. “I don’t want him—or John, for that matter—to find himself in a position where the Twelvetrees family might do him harm.
“I want you, if at all possible, to see that that doesn’t happen. If your inquiries in Ireland should lead you into contact with Edward Twelvetrees, I implore you, Mr. Fraser: try to keep him away from John, and try to see that whatever he’s doing with Major Siverly doesn’t intrude into the matter you’re dealing with.”
He’d followed her train of thought reasonably well, he thought, and ventured a question to check.
“Ye mean, whatever the money’s about—even if it’s going to, or through, Major Siverly—it’s not to do wi’ the matters covered by the court-martial your husband wants. And, therefore, ye want me to try to keep Lord John from following up any such trail, should he stumble over it?”
She gave a little sigh.
“Thank you, Mr. Fraser. I assure you, any entanglement with Edward Twelvetrees cannot help but lead to disaster.”
“For your husband, his brother—or your father?” he asked softly, and heard the sharp intake of her breath. After the briefest instant, though, the low gurgle of her laughter came again.
“Father always said you were the best of the Jacobite agents,” she said approvingly. “Are you still … in touch?”
“I am not,” he said definitely. “But it had to be your father who told ye about the money. If either Pardloe or Grey knew that, they would have mentioned it when we were making plans with Colonel Quarry.”
There was a small puff of amusement, and the duchess rose, a white blur against the darkness. She brushed down her robe and turned to go, but paused at the door.
“If you keep my secrets, Mr. Fraser, I will keep yours.”
HE RESUMED HIS BED cautiously; it smelt of her scent—and her body—and while not at all unpleasant, both were unsettling to him. So was her last remark—though upon due contemplation, he thought it had been mere persiflage. He had no secrets that needed keeping anymore—save the one, and there was little chance that she even knew of William’s existence, still less that she knew the truth of his paternity.
He could hear a church bell in the distance, striking the hour—a single, mellow bong. One o’clock, and the solitude of the deep night began to settle around him.
He thought briefly about what the duchess had told him about the money Twelvetrees was moving into Ireland, but there was nothing he could do with the information, and he was worn out with the strain of being constantly on his guard in this nest of English. His thoughts stretched and frayed, tangled and dissolved, and before the clock struck the half hour, he was asleep.
JOHN GREY HEARD THE BELL of St. Mary Abbot strike one and put down his book, rubbing his eyes. There were several more in an untidy pile beside him, along with the muddy dregs of the coffee that had been keeping him awake during his researches. Even coffee had its limits, though.
He had been reading through several versions of the Wild Hunt tale, as collected and recounted by various authorities. While undeniably fascinating, none of these matched with either the language or the events given in Carruthers’s version, nor did they shed any particular light upon it.
If he hadn’t known Charlie, hadn’t seen the passion and precision with which he had prepared his complaint against Siverly, he would have been tempted to discard the document, concluding that it had been mixed in with the others by mistake. But he did know Charlie.
The only possibility he had been able to deduce was that Charlie himself did not know the import of the Wild Hunt poem but did know that it had to do with Siverly—and that it was important in some way. And there, for the moment, the matter rested. There was, in all justice, plenty of incriminating material with which to be going on.
With thoughts of wild faerie hordes, dark woods, and the wail of hunting horns echoing in the reaches of the night, he took his candle and went up to bed, pausing to blow out the lighted sconces that had been left burning for him in the foyer. One of the little boys had wakened earlier with stomachache or nightmare, but the nursery was quiet now. There was no light in the second-floor corridor, but he paused, hearing a sound. Soft footfalls toward the far end of the hallway, and a door opened, spilling candlelight. He caught a glimpse of Minnie, pale in flowing white muslin, stepping through the door into Hal’s arms, and heard the whisper of Hal’s voice.
Not wishing them to see him, he hurried quickly up the stairs to the next floor, to hide his candle, and stood there in the dark for a moment, to give them time to retire.
One of the boys must have been taken sick again. He couldn’t think what else Minnie would be doing up at such an hour.
He listened carefully; the night nursery was one more floor up, but he heard no outcries, no movement in the peaceful dark. Nor was there any noise from the floor below. Evidently, the whole household was now wrapped in slumber—save him.
He rather liked the feeling of solitude, like this, he alone wakeful, lord of the sleeping world.
Not quite the lord of the sleeping world. A brief, sharp cry sliced through the dark, and he started as though it had been a drawing pin run into his leg.
The cry was not repeated but hadn’t come from the nursery above. It had definitely come from down the corridor to his left, where the guest rooms lay. And, to his knowledge, no one slept at that end of the corridor save Jamie Fraser. Walking very quietly, he made his way toward Fraser’s door.
He could hear heavy breathing, as of a man wakened from nightmare. Ought he go in? No, you ought not, he thought promptly. If he’s awake, he’s free of the dream already.
He was turning to creep back toward the stairs, when he heard Fraser’s voice.
“Could I but lay my head in your lap, lass,” Fraser’s voice came softly through the door. “Feel your hand on me, and sleep wi’ the scent of you about me.”
Grey’s mouth was dry, his limbs frozen. He should not be hearing this, was suffused with shame to hear it, but dared not move for fear of making a sound.
There came a rustling, as of a large body turning violently in the bed, and then a muffled sound—a gasp, a sob?—and silence. He stood still, listening to his own heart, to the ticking of the longcase clock in the hall below, to the distant sounds of the house, settling for night. A minute, by counted seconds. Two. Three, and he lifted a foot, stepping quietly back. One more step, and then heard a final murmur, a whisper so strangled that only the acuteness of his attention brought him the words.
“Christ, Sassenach. I need ye.”
He would in that moment have sold his soul to be able to offer comfort. But there was no comfort he could give, and he made his way silently down the stairs, missing the last step in the dark and coming down hard.
BY THE NEXT AFTERNOON, THE INSIDE OF JAMIE’S HEAD WAS buzzing like a hive of bees, one thought vanishing up the arse of the next before he could get hold of it. He badly needed peace to sort through it all, but the house was nearly as busy as his mind. There were servants everywhere. It was as bad as Versailles, he thought. Chambermaids, wee smudgit maids called tweenies who seemed to spend all their time trudging up and down the back stairs with buckets and brushes, footmen, bootboys, butlers … He’d nearly run down John Grey’s young valet in the hallway a minute ago, turning a corner and finding Byrd under his feet, the lad so buried under a heap of dirty linen he was carrying that he could barely see over it.
Jamie couldn’t even sit quietly in his room. If someone wasn’t coming in to air the sheets, someone else was coming in to build the fire or take away the rug to be beaten or bring fresh candles or ask whether his stockings needed darning. They did, but still.
What he needed, he thought suddenly, was a fridstool. As though the thought had released him in some way, he got up and set off with determination to find one, narrowly avoiding embranglement with two footmen who were carrying an enormous settee up the front stair, it being too wide for the back.
Not the park. Aside from the possibility of lurking Quinns, the place teemed with people. And while none of them would likely trouble him, the essence of a fridstool was solitude. He turned toward the hall that led toward the back of the house and the garden.
It was an elderly Anglican nun who’d told him what a fridstool was, just last year. Sister Eudoxia was a distant connection of Lady Dunsany’s, who’d come to Helwater to recuperate from what Cook said was the dropsical dispersion.
Glimpsing Sister Eudoxia sitting in a wicker elbow chair on the lawn, wrinkled eyelids closed against the sun like a lizard’s, he’d wondered what Claire would have said of the lady’s condition. She wouldn’t have called it a dropsical dispersion, he supposed, and smiled involuntarily at the thought, recalling his wife’s outspokenness on the matter of such complaints as iliac passions, confined bowels, or what one practitioner called “the universal relaxation of the solids.”
The sister did have the dropsy, though. He’d learned that when he came upon her one evening, quite unexpectedly, leaning on the paddock fence, wheezing, her lips blue.
“Shall I fetch ye someone, Sister?” he said, alarmed at her appearance. “A maid—shall I send for Lady Dunsany?”
She didn’t answer at once but turned toward him, struggling for breath, and lost her grip on the fence. He seized her as she began to fall and, from sheer necessity, picked her up in his arms. He apologized profusely, much alarmed—what if she were about to die?—looking wildly round for help, but then realized that she was not in fact expiring. She was laughing. Barely able to catch breath but laughing, bony shoulders shaking slightly under the dark cloak she wore.
“No … young … man,” she managed at last, and coughed a bit. “I’ll be all … right. Take me—” She ran out of air but pointed a trembling finger toward the little folly that roosted among the trees beyond the stable.
He was disconcerted but did what she wanted. She relaxed quite naturally against him, and he was moved at sight of the neat parting in her gray hair, just visible at the edge of her veil. She was frail but heavier than he’d thought, and as he lowered her carefully onto the little bench in the folly, he saw that her lower legs and feet were grossly swollen, the flesh puffing over the straps of the sandals she wore. She smiled up at him.
“Do you know, I believe that is the first time I’ve found myself in a young man’s arms? Quite a pleasant experience; perhaps if I’d had it earlier, I should not have been a nun.”