A Trail of Fire (Page 12)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(12)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

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!

It wasn’t signed, but didn’t need to be. He’d recognised the Honourable Caroline Woodford’s writing, scribbled and frantic as it was. The paper was blotched and puckered – with tearstains?

He shook his head violently, as though to clear it, then picked up the first letter again. It was just as he’d read it the first time – a formal demand from Alfred, Lord Enderby to his Grace the Duke of Pardloe, for satisfaction regarding the injury to the honour of his sister, the Honourable Caroline Woodford, by the agency of his Grace’s brother, Lord John Grey.

Grey glanced from one document to the other, several times, then looked at his brother.

‘What the devil?’

‘I gather you had an eventful evening,’ Hal said, grunting slightly as he bent to retrieve the rusk Dottie had dropped on the carpet. ‘No, darling, you don’t want that anymore.’

Dottie disagreed violently with this assertion, and was distracted only by Uncle John picking her up and blowing in her ear.

‘Eventful,’ he repeated. ‘Yes, it was, rather. But I didn’t do anything to Caroline Woodford save hold her hand whilst being shocked by an electric eel, I swear it. Gleeglgleeglgleeglpppppssssshhhhh,’ he added to Dottie, who shrieked and giggled in response. He glanced up to find Hal staring at him.

‘Lucinda Joffrey’s party,’ he amplified. ‘Surely you and Minnie were invited?’

Hal grunted. ‘Oh. Yes, we were, but I had a prior engagement. Minnie didn’t mention the eel. What’s this I hear about you fighting a duel over the girl, though?’

‘What? It wasn’t—’ He stopped, trying to think. ‘Well, perhaps it was, come to think. Nicholls – you know, that swine who wrote the ode to Minnie’s feet? – he kissed Miss Woodford, and she didn’t want him to, so I punched him. Who told you about the duel?’

‘Richard Tarleton. He came into White’s card-room late last night, and said he’d just seen you home.’

‘Well, then, you likely know as much about it as I do. Oh, you want Daddy back now, do you?’ He handed Dottie back to his brother and brushed at a damp patch of saliva on the shoulder of his coat.

‘I suppose that’s what Enderby’s getting at.’ Hal nodded at the earl’s letter. ‘That you made the poor girl publicly conspicuous and compromised her virtue by fighting a scandalous duel over her. I suppose he’s got a point.’

Dottie was now gumming her father’s knuckle, making little growling noises. Hal dug in his pocket and came out with a silver teething ring, which he offered her in lieu of his finger, meanwhile giving Grey a sidelong look.

‘You don’t want to marry Caroline Woodford, do you? That’s what Enderby’s demand amounts to.’

‘God, no.’ Caroline was a good friend – bright, pretty, and given to mad escapades, but marriage? Him?

Hal nodded.

‘Lovely girl, but you’d end in Newgate or Bedlam within a month.’

‘Or dead,’ Grey said, gingerly picking at the bandage Tom had insisted on wrapping round his knuckles. ‘How’s Nicholls this morning, do you know?’

‘Ah.’ Hal rocked back a little, drawing a deep breath. ‘Well . . . dead, actually. I had rather a nasty letter from his father, accusing you of murder. That one came over breakfast; didn’t think to bring it. Did you mean to kill him?’

Grey sat down quite suddenly, all the blood having left his head.

‘No,’ he whispered. His lips felt stiff and his hands had gone numb. ‘Oh, Jesus. No.’

Hal swiftly pulled his snuff-box from his pocket, one-handed, dumped out the vial of smelling-salts he kept in it and handed it to his brother. Grey was grateful; he hadn’t been going to faint, but the assault of ammoniac fumes gave him excuse for watering eyes and congested breathing.

‘Jesus,’ he repeated, and sneezed explosively several times in a row. ‘I didn’t aim to kill— I swear it, Hal. I deloped. Or tried to,’ he added honestly.

Lord Enderby’s letter suddenly made more sense, as did Hal’s presence. What had been a silly affair that should have disappeared with the morning dew had become – or would, directly the gossip had time to spread – not merely a scandal, but quite possibly something worse. It was not unthinkable that he might be arrested for murder. Quite without warning, the figured carpet yawned at his feet, an abyss into which his life might vanish.

Hal nodded, and gave him his own handkerchief.

‘I know,’ he said quietly. ‘Things . . . happen sometimes. That you don’t intend – that you’d give your life to have back.’

Grey wiped his face, glancing at his brother under cover of the gesture. Hal looked suddenly older than his years, his face drawn by more than worry over Grey.

‘Nathaniel Twelvetrees, you mean?’ Normally, he wouldn’t have mentioned that matter, but both men’s guards were down.

Hal gave him a sharp look, then looked away.

‘No, not Twelvetrees. I hadn’t any choice about that. And I did mean to kill him. I meant . . . what led to that duel.’ He grimaced. ‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure.’ He looked at the note on the table and shook his head. His hand passed gently over Dottie’s head. ‘I won’t have you repeat my mistakes, John,’ he said quietly.

Grey nodded, wordless. Hal’s first wife had been seduced by Nathaniel Twelvetrees. Hal’s mistakes notwithstanding, Grey had never intended marriage with anyone, and didn’t now.

Hal frowned, tapping the folded letter on the table in thought. He darted a glance at John, and sighed, then set the letter down, reached into his coat, and withdrew two further documents, one clearly official, from its seal.

‘Your new commission,’ he said, handing it over. ‘For Crefeld,’ he said, raising an eyebrow at his brother’s look of blank incomprehension. ‘You were brevetted lieutenant-colonel. You didn’t remember?’

‘I— well . . . not exactly.’ He had a vague feeling that someone – probably Hal – had told him about it, soon after Crefeld, but he’d been badly wounded then, and in no frame of mind to think about the army, let alone to care about battlefield promotion. Later—

‘Wasn’t there some confusion over it?’ Grey took the commission and opened it, frowning. ‘I thought they’d changed their minds.’

‘Oh, you do remember, then,’ Hal said, eyebrow still cocked. ‘General Wiedman gave it you after the battle. The confirmation was held up, though, because of the enquiry into the cannon explosion, and then the . . . ah . . . kerfuffle over Adams.’

‘Oh.’ Grey was still shaken by the news of Nicholls’s death, but mention of Adams started his brain functioning again. ‘Adams. Oh. You mean Twelvetrees held up the commission?’ Colonel Reginald Twelvetrees, of the Royal Artillery – brother to Nathaniel, and cousin to Bernard Adams, the traitor awaiting trial in the Tower, as a result of Grey’s efforts the preceding autumn.

‘Yes. Bastard,’ Hal added dispassionately. ‘I’ll have him for breakfast, one of these days.’

‘Not on my account, I hope,’ Grey said dryly.

‘Oh, no,’ Hal assured him, jiggling his daughter gently to prevent her fussing. ‘It will be a purely personal pleasure.’

Grey smiled at that, despite his disquiet, and put down the commission. ‘Right,’ he said, with a glance at the fourth document, which still lay folded on the table. It was an official-looking letter, and had been opened; the seal was broken. ‘A proposal of marriage, a denunciation for murder, and a new commission – what the devil’s that one? A bill from my tailor?’

‘Ah, that. I didn’t mean to show it to you,’ Hal said, leaning carefully to hand it over without dropping Dottie. ‘But under the circumstances . . .’

He waited, noncommittal, as Grey opened the letter and read it. It was a request – or an order, depending how you looked at it – for the attendance of Major Lord John Grey at the court-martial of one Captain Charles Carruthers, to serve as witness of character for the same. In . . .

‘In Canada?’ John’s exclamation startled Dottie, who crumpled up her face and threatened to cry.

‘Hush, sweetheart.’ Hal jiggled faster, hastily patting her back. ‘It’s all right; only Uncle John being an ass.’

Grey ignored this, waving the letter at his brother.

‘What the devil is Charlie Carruthers being court-martialled for? And why on earth am I being summoned as a character witness?’

‘Failure to suppress a mutiny,’ Hal said. ‘As to why you – he asked for you, apparently. An officer under charges is allowed to call his own witnesses, for whatever purpose. Didn’t you know that?’

Grey supposed that he had, in an academic sort of way. But he had never attended a court-martial himself; it wasn’t a common proceeding, and he had no real idea of the shape of the proceedings. He glanced sideways at Hal.

‘You say you didn’t mean to show it to me?’

Hal shrugged, and blew softly over the top of his daughter’s head, making the short blonde hairs furrow and rise like wheat in the wind.

‘No point. I meant to write back and say that as your commanding officer, I required you here; why should you be dragged off to the wilds of Canada? But given your talent for awkward situations . . . what did it feel like?’ he inquired curiously.

‘What did— oh, the eel.’ Grey was accustomed to his brother’s lightning shifts of conversation, and made the adjustment easily. ‘Well, it was rather a shock.’

He laughed – if tremulously – at Hal’s glower, and Dottie squirmed round in her father’s arms, reaching out her own plump little arms appealingly to her uncle.

‘Flirt,’ he told her, taking her from Hal. ‘No, really, it was remarkable. You know how it feels when you break a bone? That sort of jolt before you feel the pain, that goes right through you, and you go blind for a moment and feel like someone’s driven a nail through your belly? It was like that, only much stronger, and it went on for longer. Stopped my breath,’ he admitted. ‘Quite literally. And my heart, too, I think. Dr Hunter – you know, the anatomist? – was there, and pounded on my chest to get it started again.’