The Custom of the Army (Page 2)

The Custom of the Army (Lord John Grey #2.75)(2)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

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 did remain 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 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 recognized: Lucinda, shocked and furious; Caroline, distraught, her red hair disheveled 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 shirtsleeves, 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 realizing 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 smelled 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 Mr. 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, seized 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 shed by the distant torches at the house’s entrance. Nicholls was a whitish blur, coming closer.

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 sank down onto the grass. He sat propped on one hand, the other clutched dramatically to his shoulder, head thrown back.

It had begun to rain, quite hard. 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.” Dueling was illegal in London; for the police to arrest Lucinda’s guests in the park 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 goddaughter?” 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 and 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 blond 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 were 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 recognized the Honorable 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 honor of his sister, the Honorable 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. Gleeglgleeglgleegl-pppppssssshhhhh,” 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?”