Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Page 64)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade(64)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

The eyes, though, were unchanged: clear, a little angry, half amused. Not at all surprised.

“How are you, Lord John?” he asked.

“Well, I thank you.” Grey inclined his head. “And I do thank you,” he added politely. “I gather that you are in large part responsible for my survival.” Whether you meant to be or not, he thought.

Longstreet nodded, and eased himself down into an armchair, from the depths of which he surveyed Grey sardonically.

“You were…somewhat more fortunate than I.” He touched his laboring chest briefly. “Bullet through…both lungs.”

“I regret to hear it,” Grey said, meaning it. Longstreet gestured toward the other chair, and he pulled it forward and sat down.

“Have you consulted Dr. Humperdinck regarding your condition?” he asked. It was as good an opening as any.

Longstreet raised one iron-gray brow.

“Humperdinck? Me? Why?”

“He is an expert in conditions of the chest, is he not?”

Longstreet stared at him for a moment, then began to wheeze in an alarming manner.

“Is…that what…they…told you?” he managed at last, and Grey realized that he was laughing. “Who-whoever sent you to him?”

“Yes,” Grey said, becoming mildly irritated. “He is not?”

Longstreet suffered a brief coughing fit, and clapped a handkerchief to his mouth, shaking his head.

“No,” he wheezed at last, and breathed heavily for a moment before continuing. “He is a specialist in mental disorders, par-particularly those of a melancho-cholic disposition.” Longstreet looked him over, openly amused. “Was he of…help?”

“Oddly enough, yes.” Grey kept any hint of an edge from his voice, suppressing a burst of annoyance at Lucinda Joffrey. “He sent me to you.”

“He did?” The sharp gray eyes went suddenly wary. “Why? He does not know me.”

“No?” Grey thought it politic not to describe Dr. Humperdinck’s disordered memory—just yet. “Then why did you summon him to meet you at White’s, on the evening when I first met you there?”

His own mind had been momentarily disordered by the revelation of Humperdinck’s specialty, but was now working again. In fact, his sense of reason had suddenly reasserted itself, after what seemed months of absence, and the sheer relief of being able to think logically again was like water in the desert.

Longstreet had pressed the handkerchief to his mouth again, and was coughing, but it was apparent to Grey that this was no more than a gambit to gain time in which to think—and he did not propose to allow such advantage.

“You did not—I am sure—seek his professional opinion with regard to yourself,” he said. “So it was for someone else. Someone who would not or could not go to Humperdinck on his own account.” He watched Longstreet’s face carefully, but saw no flash of wariness or satisfaction at the word “his.” Good, so it was not a woman; he had thought it might be a wife or mistress, which would likely be no concern of his.

Longstreet had taken away the handkerchief from his face, and was watching Grey through narrowed eyes, plainly trying to think how much Dr. Humperdinck might have told him.

“A doctor’s patients are entitled to confidentiality,” he said slowly. “I am sure that Dr. Humperdinck would not reveal—”

“Dr. Humperdinck still experiences some effects of the apoplexy he suffered that night,” Grey put in quickly. “Most of his memories have returned, but he is not entirely himself. Alas.”

He smiled faintly, hoping that he left the impression that Humperdinck’s judgment and sense of professional ethics had suffered impairment. He regretted impugning the doctor’s reputation, even by implication—but reason was a ruthless master, and reason told him there was something here.

Longstreet pursed his lips, frowning thoughtfully, but no longer at Grey. He was looking at something inside his own head, and appeared to be questioning it. Absently, he reached to the table, where an aged meerschaum pipe lay beside a humidor.

“The worst of it is that I cannot smoke anymore,” he remarked, running a thumb lovingly over the bowl, elegantly carved in the shape of a mermaid. Her pert br**sts glowed golden, stroked for years. “A pipe is good for thinking.”

“I must try it sometime,” Grey said dryly. “The person for whom you desired Dr. Humperdinck’s consultation—”

“Is dead.” The words came down like an ax, severing conversation. Neither man spoke for nearly a minute; Grey heard the faint half-hour chime of his watch in its pocket, but was content to wait.

Something had been loosed; he felt it, like the sense of a mouse creeping round the corners of a room, but had no notion what it might be. Longstreet’s eyes were fixed on his pipe, his mouth pressed tight. He was making up his mind, Grey saw, and to speak too soon or to say the wrong thing might startle the mouse back into its hole. He waited, the sound of Longstreet’s wheezing breath just audible above the sound of the fire.

“My cousin,” the doctor said at last. He raised his head and met Grey’s eyes. “George.” He spoke the name with a sense of affection, and regret.

“My condolences,” Grey said quietly. “I had not heard that Lord Creemore had died.”

“Last week.” Longstreet rested the pipe upon his knee. “Le Roi est mort; vive Le Roi.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Longstreet smiled, irony uppermost.

“I am my cousin’s heir. I am Lord Creemore now—for what good it may do me. Wha—wha—” He cleared his throat and drew a rattling breath, then coughed explosively, and shook his head.

“What do you think is more important, Lord John?” he said, more clearly. “The life of a man, or the honor of his name when he is dead?”

Grey considered that. The question took him by surprise, but it had been meant seriously.

“For myself,” he said at last, “I should say firstly, that it depends upon the man. And secondly, that a man whose life lacks honor surely has no claim upon it after death.”

“Ah. But I did not say the man’s honor, necessarily. I said, ‘the honor of his name.’ That, I expect, strikes you more cogently?”

“His family’s honor, you mean.” Yes, that blow struck home—as it was meant to. He kept his temper, though. “I would value that, yes. But honor is not only what the world perceives it to be, sir—but what it is. And I repeat that a man cannot be separated from his honor.”

“No,” Longstreet said thoughtfully. “I suppose that is true.” And yet… his face said, as plainly as words. Some disagreement struggled within him, and Grey suddenly thought that he might know its nature.

“But of course,” he said, “you are a physician. From your point of view, perhaps, to preserve life must be the greatest good, regardless of other considerations?”

Longstreet—Grey could not yet think of him as Lord Creemore—shot him a startled glance, but whether because Grey’s shot had struck in the gold, or because it had missed the target entire, he couldn’t tell.

The appearance of the housekeeper with tea gave them both a moment to regroup. The little house was damp, and there was a chill in the air despite the fire; Grey’s left arm ached where it had been broken, and he was glad of the hot china in his hands and the smell of good Assam. Beyond the physical comfort of tea, the small rituals employed in drinking it eased the atmosphere between them by degrees.

“You were your cousin’s physician, then?” Grey asked, as casually as he might have asked the doctor to pass the sugar bowl.

Longstreet had recovered his composure, and the heat of the tea lent a slight warmth to his gaunt cheeks. He nodded.

“Yes. And he did not die of the syphilis, nor of any other disgraceful disease, lest you be thinking that the point of my original question.”

Dementia and insanity were quite as disgraceful as—if not more so than—a venereal disease, but Grey did not—yet—mention that. Most medical men of his acquaintance had no delicacy of feeling whatever, and Longstreet was an army surgeon—or had been—and was thus presumably hardened to the realities of even the most disgusting physical phenomena.

“What did he die of?” Grey asked bluntly.

“Dropsy,” Longstreet replied, with no hesitation whatever. Either it was the truth or he had had his answer prepared ahead of time. Grey thought it was likely the truth.

“Your cousin died childless, if you are his heir,” he observed. “Is there much family, besides yourself?”

Longstreet shook his head, his eyes hooded against the steam from his cup.

“Only myself now,” he said quietly. “The title dies with me.”

Grey didn’t argue that Longstreet might still marry and have sons; he was no physician, but had seen his share of death. His own brush with it had perhaps made him morbidly sensitive to its presence; he could hear the sigh of Longstreet’s damaged lungs, and see the blue shadow on his lips.

“So,” Grey said slowly, “if it is the honor of your family name that concerns you…”

The doctor’s lips twisted in a wry expression, not quite a smile.

“You think that if the name ceases, there is no need to guard its honor?”

“Will you guard it at the price of your own?” The words came unbidden, surprising Grey nearly as much as Longstreet.

The doctor’s mouth opened, working soundlessly. Then he picked up his tea and drank, hastily, as though to drown the words rising in his throat. His hands were shaking when he set the cup down; Grey heard the faint rattle of the china in its saucer.

“No,” Longstreet said hoarsely, and stopped to clear his throat. “No,” he said more firmly. “No, I won’t. I cannot say what chance inspired Humperdinck to tell you, or how much he told you…” He shot Grey a sharp glance, but Grey wisely preserved silence.

Very likely, Humperdinck had known nothing, as he had no chance of speaking with Longstreet before the apoplexy struck him down. Only that there was something to know. But Longstreet might have told him something when making the original appointment; best if he thought Grey knew whatever there was to know.

“My cousin was a Jacobite,” Longstreet said abruptly.

Grey raised one brow, though his heart began to beat faster. “Many people have been, and are. Unless you mean—”

“You know what I mean.” The wheezing note was still in Longstreet’s voice, but the voice itself had grown stronger, and the doctor’s gaze was steady. He had made up his mind.

The story, in its essence, was much as had been given out at the time of the Duke of Pardloe’s death—save, of course, that the nobleman who was the centerpiece of the English plot to assassinate the king was not the Duke of Pardloe but the Earl of Creemore.

“And you learned of this…when?”

“At the time.” Longstreet looked down, fingers restless on the mermaid’s scaly tail. “I…was invited to join them. I declined.”