All humor vanished from Wainwright’s face. He lowered his voice, though they were quite alone.

“Has he blackmailed you? You are in danger of exposure if you do not perform his errand?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” Grey said hurriedly. “He did not know—that is—no.” Nothing would induce him to utter the name of Hubert Bowles, even if it were possible to explain how he had come to know the man, which it wasn’t.

“It was nothing to do with…that,” he said. “Another matter, which I am not at liberty to explain. But the end of it is that I did agree to perform the captain’s request. I did like him,” he added, half-apologizing. “And yet I cannot leave London at present; I have duties to the regiment, and for me to ask leave would cause a great deal of attention and comment. I must find someone suitably discreet to accompany Mrs. Tomlinson to Ireland—and do so quickly, before her husband discovers the plan or has a chance to injure her further.”

Wainwright rubbed a thoughtful finger below his lip, and glanced at Grey.

“Would you trust me to do it? I am commissioned, but my service does not become effective with the regiment for ten days yet; I presume you could give me leave?” He smiled, eyes dancing. “And I can assure you of my discretion.”

Grey’s heart lightened at once, though he protested.

“I cannot ask such a thing of you. The danger—”

“Oh, I don’t see how you can expect me to resist such an opportunity.” Percy’s smile grew wider. “After all, if there is one thing I never expected to do in life, it’s to abscond with a man’s wife!”

His laughter was infectious, and Grey couldn’t help smiling, though it reopened the cut in his lip. Before he could take up his handkerchief to blot it, Percy had whipped out his own, and pressed it to Grey’s mouth. He had stopped laughing, but still smiled, his fingers warm even through the linen cloth.

“I shall undertake your errand with pleasure, John,” he said. “Though I would appreciate it very much if you can contrive not to be beaten to a pudding again before I come back.”

Grey would have replied, but at this point, there was a discreet knock at the door, which opened to reveal Tom Byrd, a banyan and towel over his arm, who nodded to Wainwright before turning a minatory eye on Grey.

“You’d best undress, me lord. Your bath is getting cold.”

Chapter 16

In Which an Engagement Is Broken

Despite his injuries, Grey slept like the dead, and rose late. He was enjoying a leisurely and solitary breakfast in banyan and slippers when Tom Byrd appeared in the dining-room doorway, his face registering an excited alarm that made Grey drop a slice of buttered toast and rise to his feet.

“What?” he said sharply.

“It’s the general, me lord.”

“Which general? Sir George, do you mean?”

“Yes, me lord.” With a hasty glance behind him, Tom stepped in and shut the door.

“What on earth—”

“Brunton doesn’t know what to do, me lord,” Tom interrupted, in a hoarse whisper. “He daren’t let the general in, but he daren’t turn him away, neither. He asked him to wait a moment, and sent me to run fetch you, fast.”

“Why the devil would Brunton not let him in?” Grey was already heading for the door, brushing crumbs from his sleeves.

“Because the countess told him not to, I reckon,” Tom said helpfully.

Grey stopped in his tracks, unable to believe his ears.

“What? Why should she do such a thing?”

Tom bit his lip.

“She, um, broke the engagement, me lord. And Sir George, he says he wants to know why.”

What can she mean by this, Lord John?” Sir George, rescued from the stoop, was a study in agitation, wig awry and his waistcoat misbuttoned. “She gives no reason, no reason whatever!”

“She wrote to break off your understanding?”

“Yes, yes, she sent a note this morning….” Sir George fumbled at his pockets, searching, and eventually produced a crumpled bit of paper, which indeed said nothing beyond a simple statement that the countess regretted that she found their marriage impossible.

“I am not a handsome man,” Sir George said, peering rather pathetically into the looking glass above the sideboard, and making a vain attempt to straighten his wig. “I know I am nothing to look at. I have money, but of course she does not need that. I had quite expected that she would refuse my proposal, but having accepted me…I swear to you, Lord John, I have done nothing—nothing—that might be considered reprehensible. And if I have somehow offended her, of course I should apologize directly, but how can I do that, if I have no notion of my offense, and she will not see me?”

Grey found himself in sympathy with Sir George, and baffled by his mother’s behavior.

“If you will allow me, sir?” He gently turned the general toward him, unbuttoned his waistcoat, and rebuttoned it neatly. “They, um, do say that women are changeable. Given to fits of irrational behavior.”

“Well, yes, they do,” the general agreed, appearing a little calmer. “And I have known a good many women who are, to be sure. Had one of them sent me such a note, I should merely have waited for a day or two, in order to allow her to regain her composure, then come round to call with an armful of flowers, and all would be well.” He smiled bleakly.

“But your mother is not like that. Not like that at all,” he repeated, shaking his head in helpless confusion. “She is the most logical woman I have ever met. To a point that some would consider unwomanly, in fact. Not myself,” he added hastily, lest Grey suppose this to be an insult. “Not at all!”

br />

All humor vanished from Wainwright’s face. He lowered his voice, though they were quite alone.

“Has he blackmailed you? You are in danger of exposure if you do not perform his errand?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” Grey said hurriedly. “He did not know—that is—no.” Nothing would induce him to utter the name of Hubert Bowles, even if it were possible to explain how he had come to know the man, which it wasn’t.

“It was nothing to do with…that,” he said. “Another matter, which I am not at liberty to explain. But the end of it is that I did agree to perform the captain’s request. I did like him,” he added, half-apologizing. “And yet I cannot leave London at present; I have duties to the regiment, and for me to ask leave would cause a great deal of attention and comment. I must find someone suitably discreet to accompany Mrs. Tomlinson to Ireland—and do so quickly, before her husband discovers the plan or has a chance to injure her further.”

Wainwright rubbed a thoughtful finger below his lip, and glanced at Grey.

“Would you trust me to do it? I am commissioned, but my service does not become effective with the regiment for ten days yet; I presume you could give me leave?” He smiled, eyes dancing. “And I can assure you of my discretion.”

Grey’s heart lightened at once, though he protested.

“I cannot ask such a thing of you. The danger—”

“Oh, I don’t see how you can expect me to resist such an opportunity.” Percy’s smile grew wider. “After all, if there is one thing I never expected to do in life, it’s to abscond with a man’s wife!”

His laughter was infectious, and Grey couldn’t help smiling, though it reopened the cut in his lip. Before he could take up his handkerchief to blot it, Percy had whipped out his own, and pressed it to Grey’s mouth. He had stopped laughing, but still smiled, his fingers warm even through the linen cloth.

“I shall undertake your errand with pleasure, John,” he said. “Though I would appreciate it very much if you can contrive not to be beaten to a pudding again before I come back.”

Grey would have replied, but at this point, there was a discreet knock at the door, which opened to reveal Tom Byrd, a banyan and towel over his arm, who nodded to Wainwright before turning a minatory eye on Grey.

“You’d best undress, me lord. Your bath is getting cold.”

Chapter 16

In Which an Engagement Is Broken

Despite his injuries, Grey slept like the dead, and rose late. He was enjoying a leisurely and solitary breakfast in banyan and slippers when Tom Byrd appeared in the dining-room doorway, his face registering an excited alarm that made Grey drop a slice of buttered toast and rise to his feet.

“What?” he said sharply.

“It’s the general, me lord.”

“Which general? Sir George, do you mean?”

“Yes, me lord.” With a hasty glance behind him, Tom stepped in and shut the door.

“What on earth—”

“Brunton doesn’t know what to do, me lord,” Tom interrupted, in a hoarse whisper. “He daren’t let the general in, but he daren’t turn him away, neither. He asked him to wait a moment, and sent me to run fetch you, fast.”

“Why the devil would Brunton not let him in?” Grey was already heading for the door, brushing crumbs from his sleeves.

“Because the countess told him not to, I reckon,” Tom said helpfully.

Grey stopped in his tracks, unable to believe his ears.

“What? Why should she do such a thing?”

Tom bit his lip.

“She, um, broke the engagement, me lord. And Sir George, he says he wants to know why.”

What can she mean by this, Lord John?” Sir George, rescued from the stoop, was a study in agitation, wig awry and his waistcoat misbuttoned. “She gives no reason, no reason whatever!”

“She wrote to break off your understanding?”

“Yes, yes, she sent a note this morning….” Sir George fumbled at his pockets, searching, and eventually produced a crumpled bit of paper, which indeed said nothing beyond a simple statement that the countess regretted that she found their marriage impossible.

“I am not a handsome man,” Sir George said, peering rather pathetically into the looking glass above the sideboard, and making a vain attempt to straighten his wig. “I know I am nothing to look at. I have money, but of course she does not need that. I had quite expected that she would refuse my proposal, but having accepted me…I swear to you, Lord John, I have done nothing—nothing—that might be considered reprehensible. And if I have somehow offended her, of course I should apologize directly, but how can I do that, if I have no notion of my offense, and she will not see me?”

Grey found himself in sympathy with Sir George, and baffled by his mother’s behavior.

“If you will allow me, sir?” He gently turned the general toward him, unbuttoned his waistcoat, and rebuttoned it neatly. “They, um, do say that women are changeable. Given to fits of irrational behavior.”

“Well, yes, they do,” the general agreed, appearing a little calmer. “And I have known a good many women who are, to be sure. Had one of them sent me such a note, I should merely have waited for a day or two, in order to allow her to regain her composure, then come round to call with an armful of flowers, and all would be well.” He smiled bleakly.

“But your mother is not like that. Not like that at all,” he repeated, shaking his head in helpless confusion. “She is the most logical woman I have ever met. To a point that some would consider unwomanly, in fact. Not myself,” he added hastily, lest Grey suppose this to be an insult. “Not at all!”

This was true—his mother was both logical and plainspoken about it—and gave Grey fresh grounds for bemusement.

“Has something…happened, quite recently?” he asked. “For that is the only circumstance I can conceive of which might explain her taking such an action.”

Sir George thought fiercely, his upper lip caught behind his lower teeth, but was obliged to shake his head.

“There is nothing,” he said helplessly. “I have been involved in no scandal. No affaire, no duello. I have not appeared the worse for drink in public—why, I have not even published a controversial letter in a newspaper!”

“Well, then there is nothing for it but to demand an explanation,” Grey said. “You have a right to that, I think.”

“Well, I thought so, too,” Sir George said, exhibiting a sudden diffidence. “That is why I came. But I am afraid…the butler said she had given orders…I do not wish to make myself offensive….”

“What do you have to lose?” Grey asked bluntly. He turned to Tom, who had been making himself inconspicuous by the door, intending to tell him to have the countess’s lady’s-maid come down. He was forestalled, though, by the opening of the door.

“Why, Sir George!” Olivia’s face lighted at sight of the general. “How lovely to see you! Does Aunt Bennie know you’re here?”

She almost certainly did, Grey reflected. Whatever her present mental aberration, he was sure that his mother was still sufficiently logical as to have deduced the likely effect of her note, and would almost certainly have noticed Sir George’s carriage drawing up in the street outside; it was elderly but solid, and of a sufficient size as to accommodate several passengers, and a small orchestra to entertain them en route.

That being so, she had probably also decided what to do when he did appear. And since she had given orders not to admit Sir George, the chances of Grey inducing her to come down from her boudoir and speak to the general without the use of a battering ram and manacles were probably slim.

Whilst he was drawing these unfortunate conclusions, Olivia had been eliciting the purpose of Sir George’s visit from him, with consequent exclamations of dismay.

“But what can have made her do such an unaccountable thing?” Olivia turned to Grey, her agitation surpassing Sir George’s. “We have sent the invitations! The wedding is next week! All of the clothes, the favors, the decorations! The arrangements for the wedding breakfast—everything is ready!”

“Everything except the bride, apparently,” Grey observed. “She has not had a sudden attack of nerves, I suppose?”

Olivia frowned, running her hands absently over her protruding belly in a manner that made the general turn tactfully away, affecting to reexamine the sit of his wig in the looking glass.

“She was a bit odd at supper last night,” she said slowly. “Very quiet. I supposed she was tired—we’d spent all day finishing the fitting of her gown. I didn’t think anything of it. But…” She shook her head, mouth firming up.

“She can’t do this to me!” she exclaimed, and turning, headed for the stairs in the determined manner of a climber about to attempt the Hindoo Kush. Sir George, openmouthed, looked at Grey, who shrugged. Of them all, Olivia was likely the only one who could gain entrance to his mother’s boudoir. And as he had said to Sir George, there was nothing to lose.

The general, relieved of Olivia’s blatantly fecund presence, had left the looking glass and was pottering round the room, heedlessly picking things up and putting them down at random.

“You do not suppose this is meant as some sort of test of my devotion?” he asked, rather hopefully. “Like Leander swimming the Hellespont, that sort of thing?”

“I think if she had meant you to bring her a roc’s egg or anything of the kind, she would have said so,” Grey said, as kindly as possible.

Olivia had left the door ajar; he could hear raised voices upstairs, but could not make out what was being said. The general had halted in his erratic progress round the room, and was now staring at a potted plant in a morbid sort of way. He put out a hand to the mantelpiece, touching one of Benedicta’s favorite ornaments, a commedia dell’arte figurine in the shape of a young woman in a striped apron. Grey was moved to see that the general’s hand was shaking slightly.

“You are quite positive that nothing has happened?” he asked, more by way of distracting the general’s mind than in actual hopes of discovering an answer. “If there was an event, it must have been quite recent, for she was fitting her wedding gown yesterday, and she would not have done that, if…”

The general turned to him, grateful for the distraction, but still unable to conceive of an answer.

“No,” he repeated, shaking his head in bafflement. “So far as I am aware, the only thing of note that has happened to anyone I know in the last twenty-four hours was your own adventure at Tyburn.” His eyes focused suddenly on Grey. “Are you quite recovered, by the way? I beg your pardon, I should have inquired at once, but…”

“Quite,” Grey assured him, embarrassed. He could see himself in the glass over the general’s shoulder, and while the night’s sleep had improved his appearance considerably, he still sported a number of visible marks, to say nothing of a rough stubble of beard. “How did you…”

“Captain MacLachlan mentioned it, when I saw him at my club last night. He…ah…was most impressed by your courage.” There was a delicate tone of question in this last remark, inviting Grey to explain his behavior if he would, but not requiring it.

“The captain and his friend were of the greatest assistance to me,” Grey said, and coughed.

The general was now regarding him closely, curiosity momentarily overcoming his worry.

“It was a most unfortunate affair,” he said. “I knew Captain Bates quite well; he was my chief aide-de-camp, some years ago. Did you—that is, I presume that you were acquainted with him, also? Perhaps a club acquaintance?” This was put with the greatest delicacy, the general plainly not wishing to appear to link Grey in friendship with a convicted sodomite.

“I met him briefly, once,” Grey said, wondering whether the general was aware of the political machinations behind Bates’s trial and conviction. “A…most interesting gentleman.”

“Wasn’t he,” the general said dryly. “He was at one point a fine soldier. A great pity that he should end in such a manner. A very sordid affair, I am afraid. I am glad, though,” he added, “that you were not badly injured. A Tyburn mob is a dangerous thing; I have seen men killed there—and with less provocation than you offered them.”

“Tyburn?” a shocked voice said behind Grey. He whirled, to find Olivia staring at him, mouth open in astonishment. “You were at Tyburn yesterday?” Her voice rose. “It was you who seized the legs of that dreadful beast, and was set upon by the crowd?”

“What?” Tom, who had tactfully retired to the hallway, appeared behind Olivia, eyes popping. “That was you, me lord?”

“How did you hear of it?” Grey demanded, attempting to hide his discomfiture by dividing an accusatory glare between his cousin and his valet.

“My maid told me,” Olivia replied promptly. “There’s a broadsheet circulating, with a cartoon of you—though they didn’t have your name, thank God—being drowned in the mud of perversion. What on earth possessed you, to do such a—”

“So that’s what happened to your uniform!” Tom exclaimed, much affronted.

“And why were you at Tyburn in the first place?” Olivia demanded.

“I have not got to account to you, madam,” Grey was beginning, with considerable severity, when yet another form joined the crowd in the doorway.

“What the devil have you been doing, John?” his mother said crisply.


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
Source: www.StudyNovels.com