“She has conceived the idea, you see, that all novels are vulgar trash, and desires me to read to her only material of a spiritually uplifting sort—commentaries upon the Bible, the works of—haha!—Burke and the like.”
A number of his listeners laughed with him, though Edmund Burke was popular.
“So,” the warm voice went on, audibly amused, “I have taken to reading her the most ribald stories I can obtain. The value of the lesson is thereby doubled, as she not only hears the stories, but then reports every detail again in horror to her friends!”
A gust of laughter resulted from that, obliging Grey to signal his desire to the servant at the refreshment table, who nodded understanding and gave him a silver cup of punch and a small plate of savories. Balancing these with the book of poetry, he made his way back across the room, only to find Lucinda Joffrey already supplied with refreshment by a new escort, whom he recognized as an influential Member of Parliament.
Lucinda flicked a glance at him over the MP’s shoulder, and made a slight gesture with her fan, which he interpreted as a signal that she was engaged in confidential transaction. He nodded understanding and retreated to a convenient window ledge, where he sat in the shelter of the damask draperies and consumed the savories himself with enjoyment, meanwhile observing the ebb and flow of society.
He had not been in the London tide for some time, and found it pleasant to sit and hear the grossest trivialities mingled with the loftiest of philosophical ideas, and to watch the social commerce being conducted under his nose—matches made and unmade, business connexions forged and uncoupled, favors given, acknowledged, and traded. And politics, of course—always politics—talked to death amidst expressions of outrage or approbation, depending upon the company.
And yet he knew there was real power here, could feel the pulse of it throbbing beneath the chatter and clothes. For most of those present, such salons were what they seemed: a source of entertainment at worst, at best a chance to be seen, perhaps to be taken up and made the vogue of the moment. But in the quiet corners, things were said that had the potential to alter lives—perhaps to affect the course of history.
Was it in such places that his own parents’ fates had been sealed? It was at an evening musicale that his mother, a young widow, had been introduced to his father, he knew. Why had he been there? Gerard Grey had no ear for music. Had he come for the sake of politics and met love unaware? Or had his mother been part of it, even then?
He’d heard the story of his parents’ meeting often as a child; it had been at her brother’s house. His mother had three brothers, and a great quantity of ill-defined cousins, half cousins, and persons who were no blood relation but held the status of brothers, having been fostered by the family in that peculiar custom of the Scottish aristocracy.
One uncle was dead now, another living in exile in France. The third had retreated to his Border fortress, far from the public eye. Some cousins had survived the scandal, others had not. Politics was a risky game, and the stakes were high—sometimes mortal.
He felt the shiver of a goose crossing his grave, and shook it off, quaffing the punch in one swallow. He hadn’t thought of these things in years, deliberately. But it was his family history; Percy should be told, as much for his own safety as anything else, if he was to move in society—and plainly he wished to. If there was a public connexion between himself and Grey…Some people had long memories.
He scanned the faces of the crowd, but luckily saw no one against whom Percy need be warned just yet.
Rising from his hiding place, he nearly collided with Diderot, heading purposefully for the pissoirs behind the screen at the end of the room.
“Your pardon, Monsieur.” They had clutched each other’s arms to keep their feet, smiled and spoke together, then laughed.
The philosopher’s face gleamed with sweat, and he mopped carelessly at his forehead with a sleeve. Grey pulled his handkerchief from his pocket to offer it, and felt something fall at his feet.
“Ah.” He stooped to pick it up. “Permettez-moi, Monsieur. Un petit cadeau—pour Madame votre épouse.”
Diderot’s brows rose a little as he accepted both handkerchief and book; he dabbed absently at his cheeks as he flipped open the book with his thumb, read the title page, and broke into a most infectious grin, no less charming for a missing tooth.
“Your servant, sir,” he said. “My wife will be most obliged to you, Monsieur!” With a wave of the hand, he strode off, the open book still in his hand, and a moment later, wild peals of laughter came from behind the ornamental screen.
Heads were beginning to turn in Grey’s direction, and he realized that Percy Wainwright had come up beside him, looking curious.
“Whatever did you give him?”
“Ah…” It dawned upon Grey that in his haste to accomplish his errand, he had neglected to inform M. Diderot that he was not himself the author of the verses, which were at the moment causing a murmur of baffled amusement to sweep through the room, people sniggering faintly from sympathy, though quite ignorant of the cause.
He could not in countenance join M. Diderot to explain, not with all eyes fixed upon that end of the room—Diderot was now loudly declaiming one of the verses, evidently for the edification of another gentleman whose head Grey briefly glimpsed above the edge of the screen. Ripples of outright laughter were running through the room, and Grey caught sight of Lucinda Joffrey, open fan pressed over her mouth, eyes wide in what might be hilarity or horror. He didn’t wish to find out which.
“Let’s go.” He seized Percy by the arm, and with the barest of bows to Lady Jonas, they made a hurried escape.
Outside, it had begun to snow in earnest. They stopped, breathless, to struggle into their greatcoats and cloaks in the shelter of the trees at the edge of Hyde Park.
“I had no idea, Lord John.” Percy Wainwright was red-cheeked with cold and laughter. “I knew you for a man of wit, but not of letters. The subject matter, though…”
“You cannot possibly think I wrote that! And for God’s sake, call me John,” he added.
Percy looked at him, snow spangling his dark hair—for he had lost most of his powder in the heat and crush of the salon—and gave him a smile of surpassing sweetness.
“John, then,” he said softly.
It was well on to evening. Candlelight glowed from the windows of the houses across the street, and the air was full of mystery and excitement, white flakes pelting down in utter silence, so quickly hiding the cobbled streets and leafless trees and the commonplace filth of London. Despite the cold, he felt warmth pulsing through him; did it show? Grey wondered.
“It is early,” he said, looking down as he brushed a few flakes of snow from his hat. “What would you say to a supper at the Beefsteak, perhaps a hand or two of cards? Or if you are so inclined, there is a new play…”
Glancing shyly up, he saw Percy’s face fall.
“I should like it of all things. But the general has engaged us to dine with Colonel Benham; I cannot beg off, as it is on my account.”
“No, of course,” Grey said hurriedly, unreasonably disappointed. “Another time—”
“Tomorrow?” Percy’s eyes met his, direct. “Perhaps…in my rooms? I live very plainly, I fear. Still, it is…” Grey saw Percy’s throat move as he swallowed. “It is…quiet. Our conversation would be undisturbed.”
The generalized warmth Grey had been feeling coalesced quite suddenly, low in his abdomen.
“That would be—oh, damn!”
“You have suddenly recalled another engagement?” Percy cocked a brow, with a crooked smile. “I am not surprised; I should imagine you are in great demand, socially.”
“Hardly that,” Grey assured him. “No, it’s only that I must leave in the morning for the Lake District. The funeral of a—of a friend.” Even as he said it, he was thinking how he might delay his departure—surely a day would make no difference? He might make up the time on the road.
He wanted very urgently to stay; imagined that he could feel the heat of Percy’s body, even across the space of snowy air between them. And yet…better, surely, if they had time. This was not some stranger—or rather, he was, but a stranger who was about to become part of Grey’s family, and whom he hoped might be a friend; not some attractive, anonymous body whom he would never see again. He wished very much to do the thing—but even more, to do it properly.
“I must go,” he repeated, reluctantly. “I regret it exceedingly. But I will, of course, be back in good time for the wedding.”
Percy looked searchingly at him for a moment, then gave him the faintest smile and lifted his hand. His bare fingers touched Grey’s cheek, cold and fleeting.
“Godspeed, then,” he said. “John.”
Could be worse, he reflected. Percy Wainwright’s unavailability meant that his own evening was free. Which in turn meant that he could go and beard Hal now, rather than in the morning, and thus not delay his departure for Helwater. If the snow kept pelting down like this, he might not make it out of London in any case.
He turned into the park, head bent against the blowing snow. Lady Jonas’s house lay near the parade ground, just past the Grosvenor Gate, while the Greys’ family manor, Argus House, was nearly diagonal from it, on the edge of the park near the barracks. It was nearly a mile across open ground, without the shelter of buildings to break the wind, but faster than going round by the road. And his blood was sufficiently warm with wine and excitement as to save him freezing to death.
The memory of the pleasure of Percy Wainwright’s company—and speculations based on the furtherance of their acquaintance—were nearly enough to distract him from the prospect of the impending conversation with Hal—but not quite.
Reliving the old scandals leading to his father’s death for Percy had been painful, but in the way that lancing an abscess is painful; he felt surprisingly the better for it. Only with the lancing did he realize how deeply and how long the thing had festered in him.
The feeling of relief now emboldened him. He was no longer a twelve-year-old boy, after all, to be protected or lied to for his own good. Whatever secret was sticking in Hal’s craw now, he could bloody well cough it up.
The scent of smoke cut through the air, acrid and heartening with its promise of heat. Surprised, he looked for the source, and made out a faint glow in the gathering dark. There were few people in the park—most of the poor who scraped a living begging or stealing near the park had gone to shelter in alleyways and night cellars, crowding into filthy boozing kens or garrets if they had a penny to spare, huddling in church porches or under walls if they had not. But who in his right mind would camp in the open during a snowstorm?
He altered his path enough to investigate, and found the glow came from a clay firepot burning in the lee of a crude lean-to, propped against a tree. The lean-to was deserted—was, in fact, too small to shelter anything larger than a dog. He had no more than an instant to think this odd, when instinct made him turn and look behind.