‘Well, perhaps I do,’ she said, and gave him a little frown, before glancing at the tank and the long grey form inside it. She gave a little shiver – but Grey recognised it, from long acquaintance with the lady, as a shiver of anticipation, rather than revulsion.

Mr Hunter recognised it, too. He grinned more broadly, and bowed again, extending his arm to Miss Woodford.

‘Allow me to secure you a place, ma’am.’

Grey and Nicholls both moved purposefully to prevent him, collided, and were left scowling at each other as Mr Hunter escorted Caroline to the tank and introduced her to the eel’s owner, a dark-looking little creature named Horace Suddfield.

Grey nudged Nicholls aside and plunged into the crowd, elbowing his way ruthlessly to the front. Hunter spotted him and beamed.

‘Have you any metal remaining in your chest, Major?’

‘Have I— what?’

‘Metal,’ Hunter repeated. ‘Arthur Longstreet described to me the operation in which he removed thirty-seven pieces of metal from your chest – most impressive. If any bits remain, though, I must advise you against trying the eel. Metal conducts electricity, you see, and the chance of burns—’

Nicholls had made his way through the throng as well, and gave an unpleasant laugh, hearing this.

‘A good excuse, Major,’ he said, a noticeable jeer in his voice. He was very drunk indeed, Grey thought. Still—

‘No, I haven’t,’ he said abruptly.

‘Excellent,’ Suddfield said, politely. ‘A soldier, I understand you are, sir? A bold gentleman, I perceive – who better to take first place?’

And before Grey could protest, he found himself next to the tank, Caroline Woodford’s hand clutching his, her other held by Nicholls, who was glaring malevolently.

‘Are we all arranged, ladies and gentlemen?’ Suddfield cried. ‘How many, Dobbs?’

‘Forty-five!’ came a call from his assistant from the next room, through which the line of participants snaked, joined hand to hand and twitching with excitement, the rest of the party standing well back, agog.

‘All touching, all touching?’ Suddfield cried. ‘Take a firm grip of your friends, please, a very firm grip!’ He turned to Grey, his small face alight. ‘Go ahead, sir! Grip it tightly, please – just there, just there before the tail!’

Disregarding his better judgement and the consequences to his lace cuff, Grey set his jaw and plunged his hand into the water.

In the split second when he grasped the slimy thing, he expected something like the snap one got from touching a Leiden jar and making it spark. Then he was flung violently backward, every muscle in his body contorted, and he found himself on the floor, thrashing like a landed fish, gasping in a vain attempt to recall how to breathe.

The surgeon, Mr Hunter, squatted next to him, observing him with bright-eyed interest.

‘How do you feel?’ he inquired. ‘Dizzy, at all?’

Grey shook his head, mouth opening and closing like a goldfish’s, and with some effort, thumped his chest. Thus invited, Mr Hunter leaned down at once, unbuttoned Grey’s waistcoat and pressed an ear to his shirtfront. Whatever he heard – or didn’t – seemed to alarm him, for he jerked up, clenched both fists together and brought them down on Grey’s chest with a thud that reverberated to his backbone.

This blow had the salutary effect of forcing breath out of his lungs; they filled again by reflex, and suddenly, he remembered how to breathe. His heart also seemed to have been recalled to a sense of its duty, and began beating again. He sat up, fending off another blow from Mr Hunter, and sat blinking at the carnage round him.

The floor was filled with bodies. Some still writhing, some lying still, limbs outflung in abandonment, some already recovered and being helped to their feet by friends. Excited exclamations filled the air, and Suddfield stood by his eel, beaming with pride and accepting congratulations. The eel itself seemed annoyed; it was swimming round in circles, angrily switching its heavy body.

Edwin Nicholls was on hands and knees, Grey saw, rising slowly to his feet. He reached down to grasp Caroline Woodford’s arms and help her to rise. This she did, but so awkwardly that she lost her balance and fell face-first into Mr Nicholls. He in turn lost his own balance and sat down hard, the Honourable Caroline atop him. Whether from shock, excitement, drink, or simple boorishness, he seized the moment – and Caroline – and planted a hearty kiss upon her astonished lips.

Matters thereafter were somewhat confused. He had a vague impression that he had broken Nicholls’s nose – and there was a set of burst and swollen knuckles on his right hand to give weight to the supposition. There was a lot of noise, though, and he had the disconcerting feeling of not being altogether firmly confined within his own body. Parts of him seemed to be constantly drifting off, escaping the outlines of his flesh.

What was still inside was distinctly jangled. His hearing – still somewhat impaired from the cannon explosion a few months before – had given up entirely under the strain of electric shock. That is, he could still hear, but what he heard made no sense. Random words reached him through a fog of buzzing and ringing, but he could not connect them sensibly to the moving mouths around him. He wasn’t at all sure that his own voice was saying what he meant it to, for that matter.

He was surrounded by voices, faces – a sea of feverish sound and movement. People touched him, pulled him, pushed him. He flung out an arm, trying as much to discover where it was, as to strike anyone, but felt the impact of flesh. More noise. Here and there a face he recognised: Lucinda, shocked and furious; Caroline, distraught, her red hair dishevelled and coming down, all its powder lost.

The net result of everything was that he was not positive whether he had called Nicholls out, or the reverse. Surely Nicholls must have challenged him? He had a vivid recollection of Nicholls, gore-soaked handkerchief held to his nose and a homicidal light in his narrowed eyes. But then he’d found himself outside, in his shirt-sleeves, standing in the little park that fronted the Joffreys’ house, with a pistol in his hand. He wouldn’t have chosen to fight with a strange pistol, would he?

Maybe Nicholls had insulted him, and he had called Nicholls out without quite realising it?

It had rained earlier, was chilly now; wind was whipping his shirt round his body. His sense of smell was remarkably acute; it seemed to be the only thing working properly. He smelt smoke from the chimneys, the damp green of the plants, and his own sweat, oddly metallic. And something faintly foul – something redolent of mud and slime. By reflex, he rubbed the hand that had touched the eel against his breeches.

Someone was saying something to him. With difficulty, he fixed his attention on Dr Hunter, standing by his side, still with that look of penetrating interest. Well, of course. They’d need a surgeon, he thought dimly. Have to have a surgeon at a duel.

‘Yes,’ he said, seeing Hunter’s eyebrows raised in inquiry of some sort. Then, seized by a belated fear that he had just promised his body to the surgeon were he killed, grasped Hunter’s coat with his free hand.

‘You . . . don’t . . . touch me,’ he said. ‘No . . . knives. Ghoul,’ he added for good measure, finally locating the word. Hunter nodded, seeming unoffended.

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‘Well, perhaps I do,’ she said, and gave him a little frown, before glancing at the tank and the long grey form inside it. She gave a little shiver – but Grey recognised it, from long acquaintance with the lady, as a shiver of anticipation, rather than revulsion.

Mr Hunter recognised it, too. He grinned more broadly, and bowed again, extending his arm to Miss Woodford.

‘Allow me to secure you a place, ma’am.’

Grey and Nicholls both moved purposefully to prevent him, collided, and were left scowling at each other as Mr Hunter escorted Caroline to the tank and introduced her to the eel’s owner, a dark-looking little creature named Horace Suddfield.

Grey nudged Nicholls aside and plunged into the crowd, elbowing his way ruthlessly to the front. Hunter spotted him and beamed.

‘Have you any metal remaining in your chest, Major?’

‘Have I— what?’

‘Metal,’ Hunter repeated. ‘Arthur Longstreet described to me the operation in which he removed thirty-seven pieces of metal from your chest – most impressive. If any bits remain, though, I must advise you against trying the eel. Metal conducts electricity, you see, and the chance of burns—’

Nicholls had made his way through the throng as well, and gave an unpleasant laugh, hearing this.

‘A good excuse, Major,’ he said, a noticeable jeer in his voice. He was very drunk indeed, Grey thought. Still—

‘No, I haven’t,’ he said abruptly.

‘Excellent,’ Suddfield said, politely. ‘A soldier, I understand you are, sir? A bold gentleman, I perceive – who better to take first place?’

And before Grey could protest, he found himself next to the tank, Caroline Woodford’s hand clutching his, her other held by Nicholls, who was glaring malevolently.

‘Are we all arranged, ladies and gentlemen?’ Suddfield cried. ‘How many, Dobbs?’

‘Forty-five!’ came a call from his assistant from the next room, through which the line of participants snaked, joined hand to hand and twitching with excitement, the rest of the party standing well back, agog.

‘All touching, all touching?’ Suddfield cried. ‘Take a firm grip of your friends, please, a very firm grip!’ He turned to Grey, his small face alight. ‘Go ahead, sir! Grip it tightly, please – just there, just there before the tail!’

Disregarding his better judgement and the consequences to his lace cuff, Grey set his jaw and plunged his hand into the water.

In the split second when he grasped the slimy thing, he expected something like the snap one got from touching a Leiden jar and making it spark. Then he was flung violently backward, every muscle in his body contorted, and he found himself on the floor, thrashing like a landed fish, gasping in a vain attempt to recall how to breathe.

The surgeon, Mr Hunter, squatted next to him, observing him with bright-eyed interest.

‘How do you feel?’ he inquired. ‘Dizzy, at all?’

Grey shook his head, mouth opening and closing like a goldfish’s, and with some effort, thumped his chest. Thus invited, Mr Hunter leaned down at once, unbuttoned Grey’s waistcoat and pressed an ear to his shirtfront. Whatever he heard – or didn’t – seemed to alarm him, for he jerked up, clenched both fists together and brought them down on Grey’s chest with a thud that reverberated to his backbone.

This blow had the salutary effect of forcing breath out of his lungs; they filled again by reflex, and suddenly, he remembered how to breathe. His heart also seemed to have been recalled to a sense of its duty, and began beating again. He sat up, fending off another blow from Mr Hunter, and sat blinking at the carnage round him.

The floor was filled with bodies. Some still writhing, some lying still, limbs outflung in abandonment, some already recovered and being helped to their feet by friends. Excited exclamations filled the air, and Suddfield stood by his eel, beaming with pride and accepting congratulations. The eel itself seemed annoyed; it was swimming round in circles, angrily switching its heavy body.

Edwin Nicholls was on hands and knees, Grey saw, rising slowly to his feet. He reached down to grasp Caroline Woodford’s arms and help her to rise. This she did, but so awkwardly that she lost her balance and fell face-first into Mr Nicholls. He in turn lost his own balance and sat down hard, the Honourable Caroline atop him. Whether from shock, excitement, drink, or simple boorishness, he seized the moment – and Caroline – and planted a hearty kiss upon her astonished lips.

Matters thereafter were somewhat confused. He had a vague impression that he had broken Nicholls’s nose – and there was a set of burst and swollen knuckles on his right hand to give weight to the supposition. There was a lot of noise, though, and he had the disconcerting feeling of not being altogether firmly confined within his own body. Parts of him seemed to be constantly drifting off, escaping the outlines of his flesh.

What was still inside was distinctly jangled. His hearing – still somewhat impaired from the cannon explosion a few months before – had given up entirely under the strain of electric shock. That is, he could still hear, but what he heard made no sense. Random words reached him through a fog of buzzing and ringing, but he could not connect them sensibly to the moving mouths around him. He wasn’t at all sure that his own voice was saying what he meant it to, for that matter.

He was surrounded by voices, faces – a sea of feverish sound and movement. People touched him, pulled him, pushed him. He flung out an arm, trying as much to discover where it was, as to strike anyone, but felt the impact of flesh. More noise. Here and there a face he recognised: Lucinda, shocked and furious; Caroline, distraught, her red hair dishevelled and coming down, all its powder lost.

The net result of everything was that he was not positive whether he had called Nicholls out, or the reverse. Surely Nicholls must have challenged him? He had a vivid recollection of Nicholls, gore-soaked handkerchief held to his nose and a homicidal light in his narrowed eyes. But then he’d found himself outside, in his shirt-sleeves, standing in the little park that fronted the Joffreys’ house, with a pistol in his hand. He wouldn’t have chosen to fight with a strange pistol, would he?

Maybe Nicholls had insulted him, and he had called Nicholls out without quite realising it?

It had rained earlier, was chilly now; wind was whipping his shirt round his body. His sense of smell was remarkably acute; it seemed to be the only thing working properly. He smelt smoke from the chimneys, the damp green of the plants, and his own sweat, oddly metallic. And something faintly foul – something redolent of mud and slime. By reflex, he rubbed the hand that had touched the eel against his breeches.

Someone was saying something to him. With difficulty, he fixed his attention on Dr Hunter, standing by his side, still with that look of penetrating interest. Well, of course. They’d need a surgeon, he thought dimly. Have to have a surgeon at a duel.

‘Yes,’ he said, seeing Hunter’s eyebrows raised in inquiry of some sort. Then, seized by a belated fear that he had just promised his body to the surgeon were he killed, grasped Hunter’s coat with his free hand.

‘You . . . don’t . . . touch me,’ he said. ‘No . . . knives. Ghoul,’ he added for good measure, finally locating the word. Hunter nodded, seeming unoffended.

The sky was overcast, the only light that shed by the distant torches at the house’s entrance. Nicholls was a whitish blur, coming closer.

Suddenly someone grabbed Grey, turned him forcibly about, and he found himself back to back with Nicholls, the bigger man’s heat startling, so near.

Shit, he thought suddenly. Is he any kind of a shot?

Someone spoke and he began to walk – he thought he was walking – until an outthrust arm stopped him, and he turned in answer to someone pointing urgently behind him.

Oh, hell, he thought wearily, seeing Nicholls’s arm come down. I don’t care.

He blinked at the muzzle-flash – the report was lost in the shocked gasp from the crowd – and stood for a moment, wondering whether he’d been hit. Nothing seemed amiss, though, and someone nearby was urging him to fire.

Frigging poet, he thought. I’ll delope and have done. I want to go home. He raised his arm, aiming straight up into the air, but his arm lost contact with his brain for an instant, and his wrist sagged. He jerked, correcting it, and his hand tensed on the trigger. He had barely time to jerk the barrel aside, firing wildly.

To his surprise, Nicholls staggered a bit, then sat down on the grass. He sat propped on one hand, the other clutched dramatically to his shoulder, head thrown back.

It was raining quite hard by now. Grey blinked water off his lashes, and shook his head. The air tasted sharp, like cut metal, and for an instant, he had the impression that it smelled . . . purple.

‘That can’t be right,’ he said aloud, and found that his ability to speak seemed to have come back. He turned to speak to Hunter, but the surgeon had, of course, darted across to Nicholls, was peering down the neck of the poet’s shirt. There was blood on it, Grey saw, but Nicholls was refusing to lie down, gesturing vigorously with his free hand. Blood was running down his face from his nose; perhaps that was it.

‘Come away, sir,’ said a quiet voice at his side. ‘It’ll be bad for Lady Joffrey, else.’

‘What?’ He looked, surprised, to find Richard Tarleton, who had been his ensign in Germany, now in the uniform of a Lancers lieutenant. ‘Oh. Yes, it will.’ Duelling was illegal in London; for the police to arrest Lucinda’s guests before her house would be a scandal – not something that would please her husband, Sir Richard, at all.

The crowd had already melted away, as though the rain had rendered them soluble. The torches by the door had been extinguished. Nicholls was being helped off by Hunter and someone else, lurching away through the increasing rain. Grey shivered. God knew where his coat or cloak was.

‘Let’s go, then,’ he said.

Grey opened his eyes.

‘Did you say something, Tom?’

Tom Byrd, his valet, had produced a cough like a chimney sweep’s, at a distance of approximately one foot from Grey’s ear. Seeing that he had obtained his employer’s attention, he presented the chamber pot at port arms.

‘His Grace is downstairs, me lord. With her ladyship.’

Grey blinked at the window behind Tom, where the open drapes showed a dim square of rainy light.

‘Her ladyship? What, the duchess?’ What could have happened? It couldn’t be past nine o’clock. His sister-in-law never paid calls before afternoon, and he had never known her to go anywhere with his brother during the day.

‘No, me lord. The little ’un.’

‘The little— oh. My god-daughter?’ He sat up, feeling well but strange, and took the utensil from Tom.

‘Yes, me lord. His Grace said as he wants to speak to you about “the events of last night”.’ Tom had crossed to the window and was looking censoriously at the remnants of Grey’s shirt and breeches, these stained with grass, mud, blood and powder stains, and flung carelessly over the back of the chair. He turned a reproachful eye on Grey, who closed his own, trying to recall exactly what the events of last night had been.

He felt somewhat odd. Not drunk, he hadn’t been drunk; he had no headache, no uneasiness of digestion . . .

‘Last night,’ he repeated, uncertain. Last night had been confused, but he did remember it. The eel party. Lucinda Joffrey, Caroline . . . why on earth ought Hal to be concerned with . . . what, the duel? Why should his brother care about such a silly affair – and even if he did, why appear at Grey’s door at the crack of dawn with his six-month-old daughter?

It was more the time of day than the child’s presence that was unusual; his brother often did take his daughter out, with the feeble excuse that the child needed air. His wife accused him of wanting to show the baby off – she was beautiful – but Grey thought the cause somewhat more straightforward. His ferocious, autocratic, dictatorial brother, colonel of his own regiment, terror of both his own troops and his enemies – had fallen in love with his daughter. The regiment would leave for its new posting within a month’s time. Hal simply couldn’t bear to have her out of his sight.

Thus, he found the Duke of Pardloe seated in the morning room, Lady Dorothea Jacqueline Benedicta Grey cradled in his arm, gnawing on a rusk her father held for her. Her wet silk bonnet, her tiny rabbit-fur bunting, and two letters, one open, one still sealed, lay upon the table at the Duke’s elbow.

Hal glanced up at him.

‘I’ve ordered your breakfast. Say hallo to Uncle John, Dottie.’ He turned the baby gently round. She didn’t remove her attention from the rusk, but made a small chirping noise.

‘Hallo, sweetheart.’ John leaned over and kissed the top of her head, covered with a soft blonde down and slightly damp. ‘Having a nice outing with Daddy in the pouring rain?’

‘We brought you something.’ Hal picked up the opened letter, and raising an eyebrow at his brother, handed it to him.

Grey raised an eyebrow back and began to read.

‘What?!’ He looked up from the sheet, mouth open.

‘Yes, that’s what I said,’ Hal agreed cordially, ‘when it was delivered to my door, just before dawn.’ He reached for the sealed letter, carefully balancing the baby. ‘Here, this one’s yours. It came just after dawn.’

Grey dropped the first letter as though it was on fire, and seized the second, ripping it open.

Oh, John, it read without preamble, forgive me, I couldn’t stop him, I really couldn’t, I’m SO sorry. I told him, but he wouldn’t listen. I’d run away, but I don’t know where to go. Please, please do something!

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