Finished with the packing, Tom had now picked up Grey’s discarded greatcoat, coat, and waistcoat, and was turning out the pockets in his usual methodical fashion, putting loose coins into Grey’s pocketbook, tossing crumpled handkerchiefs into a pile of dirty linen, setting aside loose buttons to be sewn on, and looking askance at various of the other items contained therein.

“It’s a pritchel,” Grey said helpfully, seeing Tom’s brows go up over a small pointed metal implement. “Or part of one. Thing for punching nail holes in a horseshoe.”

“’Course it is,” Tom said, laying the object aside with a glance at Grey. “Does whoever you lifted it from want it back, you reckon?”

“I shouldn’t think so; it’s broken.” A pritchel was normally about a foot long; the bit on his desk was only two or three inches, broken from the pointed end.

Grey frowned, trying to think where on earth he had acquired the fragment. It was true; he had a habit of stuffing things unconsciously into his pockets, as well as a habit of picking up small objects and turning them over in his fingers while talking to people. The result being that he not infrequently came home with the proceeds of inadvertent petty theft in his pockets, and was obliged to return the items via Tom.

Tom examined a small pebblelike object critically, sniffed it, and determining it to be a lump of sugar from the Balboa, thriftily ate it before picking another object out of a handful of squashed papers.

“Well, now, this ’un’s Lord Melton’s,” he said, holding up a Masonic ring. “Seen it on him. You been with him today?”

“No, yesterday.” Memory thus jogged, he came to look over Tom’s shoulder. “You’re right, it is Melton’s. I’ll send it round to his house by one of the footmen. Oh—and I’ll keep that. You can burn the rest.” He caught sight of the folded broadsheet he had taken from the coffeehouse, and retrieved it from the pile of paper scraps.

A faint smell of coffee wafted from the page as he unfolded it, and he experienced a vivid recollection of Percy Wainwright’s face, flushed from the heat of the coffee he was drinking. Dismissing the faint sense of warmth this brought him, he turned his attention to the article concerning Ffoulkes.

The gist of it was much what Hal had told him. Prominent barrister Melchior Ffoulkes, discovered dead in his study by his wife, thought to have perished by his own hand…assorted remarks by persons who had known deceased, general shock and consternation…coroner’s inquest to be held…but only vague allusions to what might have caused the man’s suicide, and no hint whatever of treason or sodomitical conspiracies, and no mention of Captain Michael Bates, let alone the other fellow Hal had mentioned—Otway? So far, Grey thought cynically, crumpling the newspaper into a ball and tossing it into the fire.

The thought, though, recalled to him what Minnie had said about the visit of Captain Bates’s mistress. It wasn’t impossible, he supposed; there were men who enjoyed the favors of both men and women—but it wasn’t common, and such persons as he knew of that bent generally displayed a sexual indiscriminacy that seemed at odds with the notion of such a settled relationship as the word “mistress” implied.

Well…what of it, if Bates were in fact not inclined to men? As he had said to Hal, sodomitical conspiracies were the common resort of any newspaper in need of news. People did love to read about depravity, and if the usual daily reports of arrests, trials, and pillorying for that vice began to pall…

“Will you need aught else, me lord?” Tom’s voice broke his train of thought, and he looked up to see his valet hovering, arms filled with dirty linen and heavy-eyed, obviously longing for his bed.

“Oh. No, Tom, I thank you. Oh! Perhaps one thing…” He picked up the volume of his father’s journal from his desk. “Will you put this on its shelf in the library as you go?”

“Certainly, me lord. Good night, me lord.” Tom dexterously shifted his load in order to free a hand for the book and went out. Grey closed the door behind him and stretched, suddenly overcome by a desire for his own bed. He bent to extinguish the candle, then stopped short.

Damn, he’d forgotten that he’d promised Minnie to try to discover Captain Bates’s whereabouts. Stifling a groan, he uncapped his inkwell and sat down again. Harry Quarry, he thought, would be best placed to discover Bates’s circumstances; Harry knew everyone, and liked Minnie. And Harry was a sufficiently intimate friend that he could write bluntly of the matter, without niceties or circumspections.

Send me word of your discoveries as well, if you will, he wrote, and added the direction for Helwater.

As he pressed the half-moon signet he wore on his right hand into the sealing wax, he noticed that Hal’s Masonic ring and the broken pritchel still lay on his desk. He picked up the ring and rolled it idly between his palms, trying to think if there were any further missives that might come between himself and bed.

A momentary urge to write to Percy Wainwright flickered in his brain—only a line, to express regret for his absence, a renewed desire to meet upon his return—but the church bells were tolling the hour of midnight, and his mind had grown so fatigued that he doubted his ability to put down even such a brief sentiment coherently.

His hands relaxed, and the Masonic ring rolled into his left palm, clinking against his own ring. Hector’s sapphire.

Hal shared Grey’s nervous habit of fiddling with things as he talked, but was most given to taking his rings on and off—this wasn’t the first time he’d lost one. Grey, in contrast, never removed his rings, save to wash.

He turned his closed hand, so the sapphire glinted in the candlelight, a soft, true blue. The color of Hector’s eyes.

Do you mind? he thought suddenly. About Percy? It was impulse; he expected no reply, and received none.

Now and then he wished ardently that he had faith in a merciful God and an afterlife in which the dead might live on—Jamie Fraser had such faith; burned with it, in a way that excited both Grey’s curiosity and his envy. But Grey was a rationalist. He accepted the existence of God, but had no conviction of the nature of such a being, and no sense that his creator took a personal interest in him. Just as well, considering.

He flicked Hal’s ring idly onto his own middle finger—where it slid down, hanging loosely round his knuckle.

He frowned at it for a moment, feeling something obscurely wrong, but not realizing what. Then his hand curled tight in reflex.

His brother’s hands were the same size as his own; they routinely took each other’s gloves in mistake. Hal wore his ring on his own middle finger. Ergo, it wasn’t Hal’s ring.

He took it off and turned it over, squinting in the candlelight, but there was no inscription within, no mark of ownership. He was not a Freemason himself, but had many friends who were; this was a common style of ring.

“Well, where the devil did I pick you up, then?” he said to it, aloud.

Chapter 6

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Finished with the packing, Tom had now picked up Grey’s discarded greatcoat, coat, and waistcoat, and was turning out the pockets in his usual methodical fashion, putting loose coins into Grey’s pocketbook, tossing crumpled handkerchiefs into a pile of dirty linen, setting aside loose buttons to be sewn on, and looking askance at various of the other items contained therein.

“It’s a pritchel,” Grey said helpfully, seeing Tom’s brows go up over a small pointed metal implement. “Or part of one. Thing for punching nail holes in a horseshoe.”

“’Course it is,” Tom said, laying the object aside with a glance at Grey. “Does whoever you lifted it from want it back, you reckon?”

“I shouldn’t think so; it’s broken.” A pritchel was normally about a foot long; the bit on his desk was only two or three inches, broken from the pointed end.

Grey frowned, trying to think where on earth he had acquired the fragment. It was true; he had a habit of stuffing things unconsciously into his pockets, as well as a habit of picking up small objects and turning them over in his fingers while talking to people. The result being that he not infrequently came home with the proceeds of inadvertent petty theft in his pockets, and was obliged to return the items via Tom.

Tom examined a small pebblelike object critically, sniffed it, and determining it to be a lump of sugar from the Balboa, thriftily ate it before picking another object out of a handful of squashed papers.

“Well, now, this ’un’s Lord Melton’s,” he said, holding up a Masonic ring. “Seen it on him. You been with him today?”

“No, yesterday.” Memory thus jogged, he came to look over Tom’s shoulder. “You’re right, it is Melton’s. I’ll send it round to his house by one of the footmen. Oh—and I’ll keep that. You can burn the rest.” He caught sight of the folded broadsheet he had taken from the coffeehouse, and retrieved it from the pile of paper scraps.

A faint smell of coffee wafted from the page as he unfolded it, and he experienced a vivid recollection of Percy Wainwright’s face, flushed from the heat of the coffee he was drinking. Dismissing the faint sense of warmth this brought him, he turned his attention to the article concerning Ffoulkes.

The gist of it was much what Hal had told him. Prominent barrister Melchior Ffoulkes, discovered dead in his study by his wife, thought to have perished by his own hand…assorted remarks by persons who had known deceased, general shock and consternation…coroner’s inquest to be held…but only vague allusions to what might have caused the man’s suicide, and no hint whatever of treason or sodomitical conspiracies, and no mention of Captain Michael Bates, let alone the other fellow Hal had mentioned—Otway? So far, Grey thought cynically, crumpling the newspaper into a ball and tossing it into the fire.

The thought, though, recalled to him what Minnie had said about the visit of Captain Bates’s mistress. It wasn’t impossible, he supposed; there were men who enjoyed the favors of both men and women—but it wasn’t common, and such persons as he knew of that bent generally displayed a sexual indiscriminacy that seemed at odds with the notion of such a settled relationship as the word “mistress” implied.

Well…what of it, if Bates were in fact not inclined to men? As he had said to Hal, sodomitical conspiracies were the common resort of any newspaper in need of news. People did love to read about depravity, and if the usual daily reports of arrests, trials, and pillorying for that vice began to pall…

“Will you need aught else, me lord?” Tom’s voice broke his train of thought, and he looked up to see his valet hovering, arms filled with dirty linen and heavy-eyed, obviously longing for his bed.

“Oh. No, Tom, I thank you. Oh! Perhaps one thing…” He picked up the volume of his father’s journal from his desk. “Will you put this on its shelf in the library as you go?”

“Certainly, me lord. Good night, me lord.” Tom dexterously shifted his load in order to free a hand for the book and went out. Grey closed the door behind him and stretched, suddenly overcome by a desire for his own bed. He bent to extinguish the candle, then stopped short.

Damn, he’d forgotten that he’d promised Minnie to try to discover Captain Bates’s whereabouts. Stifling a groan, he uncapped his inkwell and sat down again. Harry Quarry, he thought, would be best placed to discover Bates’s circumstances; Harry knew everyone, and liked Minnie. And Harry was a sufficiently intimate friend that he could write bluntly of the matter, without niceties or circumspections.

Send me word of your discoveries as well, if you will, he wrote, and added the direction for Helwater.

As he pressed the half-moon signet he wore on his right hand into the sealing wax, he noticed that Hal’s Masonic ring and the broken pritchel still lay on his desk. He picked up the ring and rolled it idly between his palms, trying to think if there were any further missives that might come between himself and bed.

A momentary urge to write to Percy Wainwright flickered in his brain—only a line, to express regret for his absence, a renewed desire to meet upon his return—but the church bells were tolling the hour of midnight, and his mind had grown so fatigued that he doubted his ability to put down even such a brief sentiment coherently.

His hands relaxed, and the Masonic ring rolled into his left palm, clinking against his own ring. Hector’s sapphire.

Hal shared Grey’s nervous habit of fiddling with things as he talked, but was most given to taking his rings on and off—this wasn’t the first time he’d lost one. Grey, in contrast, never removed his rings, save to wash.

He turned his closed hand, so the sapphire glinted in the candlelight, a soft, true blue. The color of Hector’s eyes.

Do you mind? he thought suddenly. About Percy? It was impulse; he expected no reply, and received none.

Now and then he wished ardently that he had faith in a merciful God and an afterlife in which the dead might live on—Jamie Fraser had such faith; burned with it, in a way that excited both Grey’s curiosity and his envy. But Grey was a rationalist. He accepted the existence of God, but had no conviction of the nature of such a being, and no sense that his creator took a personal interest in him. Just as well, considering.

He flicked Hal’s ring idly onto his own middle finger—where it slid down, hanging loosely round his knuckle.

He frowned at it for a moment, feeling something obscurely wrong, but not realizing what. Then his hand curled tight in reflex.

His brother’s hands were the same size as his own; they routinely took each other’s gloves in mistake. Hal wore his ring on his own middle finger. Ergo, it wasn’t Hal’s ring.

He took it off and turned it over, squinting in the candlelight, but there was no inscription within, no mark of ownership. He was not a Freemason himself, but had many friends who were; this was a common style of ring.

“Well, where the devil did I pick you up, then?” he said to it, aloud.

Chapter 6

Breakage

Every time, he thought it would be different. Removed, caught up in the boredom and intermittent terror of a soldier’s life, apart from simple daily things, the normal intercourse of humanity—it was understandable that in these circumstances, he would think of Jamie Fraser as something remarkable; use the image of the man as a talisman, a touchstone for his own emotions.

But surely the effect should lessen, should disappear entirely, when he actually saw the man? Fraser was a Scot, a Jacobite, a paroled prisoner, a groom—no one that he would normally take notice of, let alone regard especially.

And yet, every time, it was the same, the bloody same. How? Why?

He would ride up the winding drive at Helwater, and his pulse would already be beating in his ears. He would greet Dunsany and his family, talking cordially of this and that, accepting refreshment, admiring the women’s gowns, Lady Dunsany’s latest painting. All in an increasing agony of impatience, wanting—needing—to go out to the stables, to look, to see.

And then to spot him at a distance—exercising a horse, working at the pasture fences—or to come upon him unexpectedly face to face, emerging from the tack room or coming down the ladder from the loft where he slept. Each time, Grey’s heart leapt in his chest.

The lines of neck and spine, the solid curve of buttock and columned thigh, the sun-darkened flesh of his throat, sun-bleached hair of his arms—even the small imperfections, the scars that marred one hand, the pockmark at the corner of his mouth—and the slanted eyes, dark with hostility and wariness. It was perhaps no surprise that he should feel physical arousal; the man was beautiful, and dangerous in his beauty.

And yet his excitement quieted at once when he was actually in Fraser’s presence. A calm descended upon him, a strange content.

Once he had looked into those eyes, been acknowledged by them—then he could return to the house, go about his business, make conversation with other people. It was as though he was anxious, lest the world have changed in his absence, then reassured that it had not; Jamie Fraser still stood at its center.

Would it be that way again? It shouldn’t be. After all, there was Percy Wainwright now, to divert his attention, engage his interest. And yet…he nodded to Tom, and turned his horse’s head into the winding road that led upward to Helwater, feeling an aching in his chest, as though the cold air pressed upon it.

It shouldn’t be, he repeated silently to himself.

And yet…

Lord Dunsany had been diminished by his daughter’s death. The death of his son during the Rising had aged him suddenly, runnels appearing in the flesh of his face like dry valleys carved by unshed tears. Yet the old nobleman had stood like a rock then, strength for his wife and daughters.

Now…Dunsany stood to greet Grey, who was so much alarmed by his appearance that he dropped his hat on the floor of the library and hurried to embrace his friend, moved as much by fear that Dunsany would crumple and fall as by shared grief.

The old man’s wig brushed his cheek, rough and unpowdered; surely Dunsany had been taller, before. The earl’s arms were still firm; they clutched Grey with desperate strength, and he felt a deep subterranean quiver run through the desiccated body pressed to his.

“John,” Dunsany whispered, shocking him, for the viscount had never used his Christian name before. “God forgive me, John. It is all my fault.”

“Nonsense, nonsense,” he murmured. He had no notion what Dunsany might mean, but gently patted the old man’s back, breathing in the dusty scent of his coat, the slight sourness of unwashed skin. He glanced up discreetly; the butler who had opened the door to him stood a few feet away, Grey’s hat crushed in his hands and distress at his employer’s condition plain on his face.

“A little brandy, perhaps?”

The butler vanished with alacrity, in spite of Dunsany’s feeble protest that it was barely noon.

“Noon of a bloody cold, wet, filthy day,” Grey said firmly, escorting Dunsany back to the chair from which he had risen. He cleared his throat, for the tears he had not shed for Geneva had risen at sight of her father’s pitiable state. He blinked several times, and bent to pick up the poker.

“Do you call this a fire?”

“I do, yes.” Dunsany was making a gallant effort to recover himself, and managed a wavering smile. “What do you call it?”

“Completely inadequate.” It was a small fire, almost niggardly, though there was a quantity of dry wood, and a basket of peat, as well. Moved by impulse, he stirred the fire recklessly, then tossed two of the peats onto the wakened blaze. The smell of it rose at once in the room, musky, dark, and ancient. It was the smell of Scotland, and a shiver that had nothing to do with the chill of the day ran through Grey’s body.

“That’s better.” He pulled another chair up to the hearth and sat down, rubbing his hands with affected briskness, meanwhile wondering what on earth to say.

Dunsany saved him the trouble.

“It is so good of you to come, John.” He made another attempt at a smile, this one better. Almost despite himself, he stretched out frail hands to the fire. “Was it a very dreadful journey? This incessant rain…”

“Not at all,” Grey said, though in fact the roads had been liquid mud—where they still existed—and what would normally have been a four-day journey had taken nearly a week. He was in stocking feet at the moment, having left his encrusted jackboots in the hall with his drenched and filthy cloak, but Dunsany appeared not to notice. “Your wife—she is…?”

The faint traces of life that had warmed Dunsany’s cheeks vanished at once, like a snuffed candle.

“Ah. Yes. She is…a rock,” Dunsany said softly, eyes on the fire, which had begun to smolder with the low blue flame characteristic of peat. “A rock,” he repeated, more firmly. “Her fortitude has sustained us all.”

Oh, has it? Grey thought. Something was wrong here. Lady Dunsany had never failed to greet him within moments of his arrival, but she was nowhere in sight. Neither had he ever known her to be far from her husband’s side—yet as they spoke, he became aware that the desolate feel of the room was not due entirely to the meager fire. It was clean and orderly, but its usual warm appeal—due largely to the bits of clutter and careless ornament that Lady Dunsany strewed in her wake—had quite gone.

“I look forward to paying my respects to Lady Dunsany,” Grey said, cautious.

“Oh, she will be so pleased to—oh!” Realization struck the elderly nobleman, and he began to struggle out of his chair. “I am so stupid today, Lord John, do forgive me. I have quite forgot to send Hanks to tell her you are here!”


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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