“For God’s sake, Hal!” The mingled outrage and pleading in his voice appeared to move his brother.
“I’ll see what I can do.” Hal leaned over and patted him quite gently on his good shoulder.
“I’m glad you’re not dead. Wasn’t sure for a bit.”
Hal went out before he could reply. Tears welled in John’s eyes, and he dashed at them with the sleeve of his nightshirt, muttering irritably in a vain attempt to convince himself that he wasn’t moved.
Before he got very far with this, his attention was distracted by noise in the hallway: the sort of disturbance caused by small boys attempting to be quiet, with loud whisperings and shushings, punctuated by shoving and bumping into walls.
“Come in,” he called, and the door opened. A small head poked cautiously round the corner.
“Hallo, Ben. What’s a-do?”
Benjamin’s face, apprehensive, relaxed at once in delight.
“You all right, Uncle? Mama said if the sword—”
“I know, I’d be dead. But I’m not, now, am I?”
Ben squinted carefully at him, dubious, but decided to take this statement at face value and, turning round, rushed to the door, hissing something into the passage. He came dashing back, now followed by his younger brothers, Adam and Henry. All of them leapt on the bed, though Benjamin and Adam prevented Henry—who was only five and didn’t know better—from trying to sit in Grey’s lap.
“Can we see where the sword went in, Uncle?” Adam asked.
“I suppose so.” The wound had a dressing, but the doctor was coming later to change it, so no harm in pulling it off, he supposed. He unbuttoned his nightshirt one-handed and rather gingerly detached the bandage. His nephews’ awed admiration was more than adequate recompense for the discomfort involved.
After the initial chorus of “Ooh!” Ben leaned forward to look more closely. It was a fairly impressive wound, Grey admitted, glancing down; whichever surgeon had seen to him—he hadn’t been in any condition to notice—had lengthened the original slash so as to be able to pick out the fragments of his sternum that Twelvetrees’s saber had dislodged and the bits of his shirt that had been driven into the wound. The result was a six-inch gash across the already scarred left side of his upper chest, a nasty dark red crisscrossed with coarse black stitches.
“Does it hurt?” Ben asked seriously.
“Not so bad,” Grey said. “The itching on my leg’s worse.”
“Lemme see!” Henry began to scrabble at the bedclothes. The resultant squabble among the three brothers nearly pitched Grey onto the floor, but he managed to raise his voice enough to restore order, whereupon he pulled back the blanket and lifted his nightshirt to display the slash across the top of his thigh.
It was a shallow wound, though impressively long, and while it did still hurt a bit, he’d been honest in saying the itching was worse. Doctor Maguire had recommended a poultice of magnesium sulfate, soap, and sugar, to draw the poisons from the wounds. Doctor Latham, arriving an hour later, had removed the poultice, saying this was all great nonsense, and air would help to dry the stitches.
Grey had lain inert through both processes, having only enough strength to feel gratitude that Doctor Hunter had not come to give his opinion—he would probably have whipped out his saw and made off with the leg, thus settling the argument. Having renewed his acquaintance with the good doctor, he had somewhat more sympathy with Tobias Quinn and his horror of being anatomized after death.
“You’ve got a big willy, Uncle John,” Adam observed.
“About the usual for a grown man, I think. Though I believe it’s given fairly general satisfaction.”
The boys all sniggered, though Grey thought that only Benjamin had any idea why, and wondered with interest where Ben’s tutor had been taking him. Adam and Henry were too young yet to go anywhere, being still in the nursery with Nanny, but Ben had a young man named Whibley who was meant to be teaching him the rudiments of Latin. Minnie said Mr. Whibley spent much more time making sheep’s eyes at the assistant cook than he did in dividing Gaul into three parts, but he did take Ben to the theater now and then, in the name of culture.
“Mama says you killed the other man,” Adam remarked. “Where did you stick him?”
“In the belly.”
“Colonel Quarry said the other man was an uncon-she-ubble tick,” Benjamin said, working out the syllables carefully.
“Unconscionable. Yes, I suppose so. I hope so.”
“For why?” asked Adam.
“If you have to kill someone, it’s best to have a reason.”
All three boys nodded solemnly, like a nestful of owls, but then demanded more details of the duel, eager to hear how much blood there had been, how many times Uncle John had stuck the bad fellow, and what they had said to each other.
“Did he call you vile names and utter foul oaths?” asked Benjamin.
“Foul oafs,” Henry murmured happily to himself. “Foul oafs, foul oafs.”
“I don’t think we said anything, really. That’s what your second does—he goes and talks to the other fellow’s second, and they try to see if things can be arranged so that you don’t need to fight.”
This seemed a most peculiar notion to his audience, and the struggle to explain just why one wouldn’t always want to fight someone exhausted him, so that he greeted with relief the arrival of a footman bearing a tray—even though the tray bore nothing more than a bowl of gray slop that he assumed was gruel and another of bread and milk.
The boys ate the bread and milk, passing the bowl round the bed in a companionable way, dribbling on the covers and vying with one another to tell him the news of the household: Nasonby had fallen down the front stair and had to have his ankle strapped up; Cook had had a disagreement with the fishmonger, who sent plaice instead of salmon, and so the fishmonger wouldn’t bring any more fish, and so supper last night was pancakes and they all pretended it was Shrove Tuesday; Lucy the spaniel had had her pups in the bottom of the upstairs linen closet, and Mrs. Weston the housekeeper had had a fit—
“Did she fall down and foam at the mouth?” Grey asked, interested.
“Probably,” Benjamin said cheerfully. “We didn’t get to look. Cook gave her sherry, though.”
Henry and Adam were by now cuddling against his sides, their wriggly warmth and the sweet smell of their heads a comfort that, in his weakness, threatened to make him tearful again. To avoid this, Grey cleared his throat and asked Ben to recite something for him.
Ben frowned thoughtfully, looking so much like Hal considering a hand of cards that Grey’s emotion changed abruptly to amusement. He managed not to laugh—it hurt his chest very much to laugh—and relaxed, listening to an execrably performed rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” this interrupted by the entrance of Minnie, followed by Pilcock with a second tray from which appetizing smells wafted.
“Whatever are you doing to your poor uncle John?” she demanded. “Look what you’ve done to his bed! Off with the lot of you!”
The bedroom purged, she looked down her nose at John and shook her head. She had on a tiny lace cap, with her ripe-wheat hair put up, and looked charmingly domestic.
“Hal says the doctor be damned and Cook, too: you are to have steak and eggs, with a mixed grill. So steak you shall have, and if you die or burst or rot as a result, it will be your own fault.”
Grey had already plunged a fork into a succulent grilled tomato and was chewing blissfully.
“Oh, God,” he said. “Thank you. Thank Hal. Thank Cook. Thank everybody.” He swallowed and speared a mushroom.
Despite her earlier disavowal, Minnie looked pleased. She loved feeding people. She motioned the footman off and sat down on the edge of the bed to enjoy the spectacle.
“Hal said you wanted to scold me about something.” She didn’t look at all apprehensive at the prospect.
“I didn’t say that,” Grey protested, pausing with a chunk of bloody steak held in transit. “I just said I could do with a word.”
She folded her hands and looked at him, not quite batting her eyelashes.
“Well, actually, I meant to reproach you with sharing your insights regarding my motives with Mr. Fraser, but as it is …”
“As it is, I was right about them?”
He shrugged, mouth too full of steak to answer.
“Of course I was,” she answered for him. “And as Mr. Fraser is no fool, I doubt he needed telling. He did, however, ask me why I thought you’d challenged Edward Twelvetrees. So I told him.”
“Where … um … where is Mr. Fraser at the moment?” he asked, swallowing and reaching at once for a forkful of egg.
“I suppose he’s where he has been for the last three days, reading his way through Hal’s library. And speaking of reading …” She lifted a small stack of letters—which he hadn’t noticed, his whole attention being focused on food—off the tray and deposited them on his stomach.
They were tinted pink or blue and smelled of perfume. He looked at her, brows raised in inquiry.
“Billets-doux,” she said sweetly. “From your admirers.”
“What admirers?” he demanded, setting down his fork in order to remove the letters. “And how do you know what’s in them?”
“I read them,” she said without the faintest blush. “As for whom, I doubt you know many of the ladies, though you’ve likely danced with some of them. There are a great many women, though—particularly young and giddy ones—who positively swoon over men who fight duels. The ones who survive, that is,” she added pragmatically.
He opened a letter with his thumb and held it in one hand, going on eating with the other as he read it. His brows went up.
“I’ve never met this woman. Yet she professes herself besotted with me—well, she’s certainly besotted, I’ll say that much—consumed with admiration for my valor, my excessive courage, my … Oh, dear.” He felt a slow blush rising in his own cheeks and put the letter down. “Are they all like that?”
“Some much worse,” Minnie assured him, laughing. “Do you never think of marriage, John? It is the only way to preserve yourself from this sort of attention, you know.”
“No,” he said absently, scanning another of the missives as he wiped sauce from his plate with a chunk of bread. “I should be a most unsatisfactory husband. Holy Lord! I am enraptured by the vision of your valiance, the power of your puissant sword—Stop laughing, Minerva, you’ll rupture something. This didn’t happen when I fought Edwin Nicholls.”
“Actually, it did,” she said, picking up the discarded letters, some of which had fallen to the floor. “You weren’t here, having absconded to Canada in the most craven fashion, and all just to avoid marrying Caroline Woodford. Putting aside the question of a wife, do you not long for children, John? Do you not want a son?”
“Having just spent half an hour with yours, no,” he said, though in fact this was not true, and Minerva knew it; she merely laughed again and handed him the tidy pile of letters.
“Well, in fact, the public response to your duel with Nicholls was quite subdued compared with this. For one thing, it was hushed up as much as possible, and for another, it was only fought over the honor of a lady rather than the honor of the kingdom. Hal said I needn’t forward the letters to you in Canada, so I didn’t.”
“Thank you.” He made to hand the letters back to her. “Here, burn them.”
“If you insist.” She dimpled at him, but took the pile and stood up. “Oh, wait—you haven’t opened this one.”
“I thought you’d read them all.”
“Only the female ones. This looked more like business.” She picked a plain cover from the stack of hued and scented ones and handed it over. There was no return direction upon the cover, but there was a name, written in a neat, small hand. H. Bowles.
A most extraordinary feeling of revulsion came over him at sight of it, and he suddenly lost his appetite.
“No,” he said, and gave it back. “Burn that one, too.”
All Heads Turn as the Hunt Goes By
HUBERT BOWLES WAS A SPYMASTER. GREY HAD MET HIM some years previously, in connection with a private matter, and had hoped never to meet him again. He couldn’t imagine what the little beast wanted with him now and didn’t propose to find out.
Still, the boys’ visit and the meal had restored him to such an extent that when Tom appeared—as he did with the regularity of a cuckoo clock—to ensure that Grey had not managed to die since last inspected, he let Tom shave him and brush out and plait his hair. Then, greatly daring, he stood up, clinging to Tom’s arm.
“Easy, me lord, easy does it now …” The room wavered slightly, but he steadied himself and, after a moment, the dizziness passed. He limped slowly about, hanging on to Tom, until he was reasonably sure that he would neither fall down nor rip the stitching out of his leg—it pulled a bit, but so long as he was careful, it would likely do.
“All right. I’m going downstairs.”
“No, you’re no—er … yes, me lord,” Tom replied meekly, his initial response quelled by a glare from Grey. “I’ll just, ah, go down in front of you, shall I?”
“So that I can fall on you, if necessary? That’s truly noble, Tom, but I think not. You can follow me and pick up the pieces, if you like.”
He made his way slowly down the main stair, Tom behind him muttering something about all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, and then along the main hallway to the library, nodding cordially to Nasonby and inquiring after his bad ankle.