The day was when he would bound out of bed, eager to get to the House of Lords and tackle the enormous complexities of moving large groups of men to do exactly what he wished them to. These days he felt as if he staggered to the carriage.
His fainting episode last autumn didn’t help.
He tried not to think about it too much; what man wants to contemplate his own mortality? But imperceptibly it crept into his thoughts and dreams so that it poisoned his every moment. The morning it happened he hadn’t slept more than a few hours for two days. He was running on energy and will power, laying the groundwork for Pitt’s takeover of Parliament.
And now Pitt was almost there. He was a good, solid man. Fox would have to retreat to his country house, St. Anne’s Hill, and live with that courtesan he took with him everywhere. Pitt would usher in a new era without corruption, without scandal…
Except for the scandals attached to Jemma, of course.
He ended up sitting on the edge of his bed, head in his hands. The truth of it was that he wasn’t the Prime Minister and never would be. He was an attendant lord. A necessary one. An impassioned man at his best—except he hadn’t been at his best since last October.
The House of Lords had been in session. He was standing, talking of the madness of acceding to Fox’s demands. Before him rose serried ranks of white wigs, beneath them the little faces with their mouths moving as they chattered to their neighbors, listening to him, listening to them…as was the custom. And yet he soldiered on, making his points for the fourth or the fifth time, because he’d discovered that no one seemed to hear him the first, and sometimes even the fifth time.
And then it felt as if those little moving faces under the white wigs were disappearing, leaving rows and rows of wigs. He blinked and kept going, but the wigs were getting bigger and then there were no faces at all. And then, thankfully, it all went away.
He was grateful. He didn’t care to be lecturing to nothing more than empty rows of wigs.
Some six months had passed since that morning. The House went into recess and came out again. He showed no further signs of keeling over, though Pitt viewed him, he thought, with a certain veiled anxiety.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about all the empty wigs, and the tiny chattering mouths under them. The fact that his father died at thirty-four didn’t help. That gave him only one year, measured against his father’s life.
His valet bustled into the room. “There’s quite a commotion below, Your Grace,” he said. Elijah was quite aware that without Vickery’s reports he wouldn’t have the faintest idea what went in his own household, although before his wife returned from Paris, these reports were brief descriptions of Cook’s lumbago, or the second footman’s propensity for pocketing silver.
Vickery laughed. “No, the devil himself is already out of the house. His lordship hired the nursemaid sent by the Registry Office this morning, and she’s taken him to the park. I’ve my doubts of her tenure, as do we all. She’s a prim one. And Master Teddy is fairly focused on”—he lowered his voice—“bodily processes, if you don’t mind the comment, Your Grace.”
Elijah snorted. “So what’s the fuss about, if not Teddy? Are we having another ball?”
“Lady Roberta’s father sent a message saying he’ll arrive this afternoon. Him as they call the Mad Marquess. It’s luncheon with Mr. Pitt and the King today, isn’t it, Your Grace? And a meeting before that. And then in the afternoon…”
“Committee for abolishment of the liberties. Then the Serene Company of Cloth Workers at their hall in Mincing Lane.”
Vickery was a snob. “Why must you meet them?” he demanded. “Waste of your time, and they ought to make do with someone lower.”
“They are frightened that their workers will be committed to the poorhouse,” Elijah said wearily. “They are afraid that the cheese makers are weaving their own muslin and so will make inroads into their business. In short, they are afraid.”
“They should be afraid in private,” Vickery said with withering emphasis. He had the bath all ready. “If you please, Your Grace.”
“Why is Lady Roberta’s father coming?” Elijah asked, settling down as Vickery poured warm water over his head.
“I couldn’t say,” Vickery said, although this was nothing more than a diversion, since he always gave his opinion. “I do believe he’s thinking of staying for a time, Your Grace.”
Elijah closed his eyes as Vickery massaged his head with a liquid soap that smelled of orange flowers. It was his one indulgence: a woman’s soap, and a woman’s practice of bathing every day. There were times when he didn’t think he could go on, morning till night, without these two minutes of watery peace.
“Will you be home after the cloth makers?” Vickery enquired, once he began rinsing away the soap.
Elijah sat there, eyes closed, in the peculiarly vulnerable position of one who is being washed rather than washing. “No,” he said. “After the cloth makers there’s a group of diplomats from America regarding the peace treaty. I can’t miss that.”
Vickery muttered something acid about jumped-up colonials that Elijah didn’t quite catch, but he knew what the gist of it was—that he was working himself to death.
It was an odd thought.
Or working and death in the same moment.
By all accounts, his father’s heart stopped in mid-sentence. At least, Elijah thought, it must have been painless. His faint had been painless. One minute he was standing before a row of empty wigs; the next he woke up covered with cold water flung by a hysterical clerk. It would be so, presumably: in mid-sentence, without time for regrets or second thoughts…from light to darkness.
There was a small rebellious voice in his head that sounded louder these days. Elijah was very afraid that the voice was saying something about his father enjoying himself before he died.
“Has there been much conversation about the duchess’s propensity for chess?” Elijah asked, feeling unutterably weary.
Vickery launched into a discussion of scandal that bounced from the duchess’s various matches—“There’s been quite a lot of interest about that, Your Grace”—to the presence of Lord Gryffyn’s illegitimate child, to the disputed centerpiece.
“But she was respectably clothed and depicting Helen of Troy,” Elijah protested. “What could possibly have upset anyone about her, unless they found her songs disreputable?”
Unfortunately, Vickery disclosed, Helen of Troy had voluntarily disrobed in the latter part of the evening. “It was almost dawn and there weren’t many people left in the ballroom,” Vickery said. “By all accounts, she was most remarkably painted. With pearls glued to her bosoms, as I heard it. Fowle said it gave him palpitations, but the footmen were more celebratory, if you conceive my meaning.”
Elijah slumped back in his bath. “Is the duchess aware this happened? Was she there?”
“Oh no, Your Grace,” Vickery said. “She had already retired to her chambers. As I said, it was very late.”
There were so many scandals brewing, Elijah thought. What was the addition of a mad marquess? With a sigh, he stood up and reached for a towel.