Lord John and the Private Matter Page 2

It was absurd, he told himself. Any man might casually glance—but his own predilections rendered him more than delicate in such a situation; he could not bear the notion that anyone might suspect him of deliberate inspection. Not even Quarry—who, finding himself in a similarly accidental situation, would likely have seized Trevelyan by the offending member and loudly demanded to know the meaning of this.

“I … happened to retire for a moment, earlier”—he nodded toward the Chinese screen—“and came upon Trevelyan, unexpectedly. I … ah … caught sight—” Christ, he was blushing like a girl; Quarry was grinning at his discomfiture.

“… think it is pox,” he finished, his voice barely a murmur.

The grin vanished abruptly from Quarry’s face, and he glanced at the Chinese screen, from behind which Lord Dewhurst and a friend were presently emerging, deep in conversation. Catching Quarry’s gaze upon him, Dewhurst glanced down automatically, to be sure his flies were buttoned. Finding them secure, he glowered at Quarry and turned away toward his table.

“Pox.” Quarry pitched his own voice low, but still a good deal louder than Grey would have liked. “You mean the syphilis?”

“I do.”

“Sure you weren’t seeing things? I mean, glimpse from the corner of the eye, bit of shadow … easy to make a mistake, eh?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” Grey said tersely. At the same time, his mind grasped hopefully at the possibility. It had been only a glimpse. Perhaps he could be mistaken.… It was a very tempting thought.

Quarry glanced at the Chinese screen again. The windows were all open to the air, and the glorious June sunshine was streaming through them in floods. The air was like crystal; Grey could see individual grains of salt against the linen cloth, where he had upset the saltcellar in his agitation.

“Ah,” Quarry said. He fell silent for a moment, tracing a pattern with one forefinger in the spilled salt.

He didn’t ask whether Grey would recognize a chancrous sore. Any young serving officer must now and then have been obliged to accompany the surgeon inspecting troops, to take note of any man so diseased as to require discharge. The variety of shapes and sizes—to say nothing of conditions—displayed on such occasions was common fodder for hilarity in the officers’ mess on the evening following inspections.

“Well, where does he go whoring?” Quarry asked, looking up and rubbing salt from his finger.

“What?” Grey looked at him blankly.

Quarry raised one thick brow.

“Trevelyan. If he’s poxed, he caught it somewhere, didn’t he?”

“I daresay.”

“Well, then.” Quarry sat back in his chair, pleased.

“He needn’t have caught it in a brothel,” Grey pointed out. “Though I admit it’s the most likely place. What difference does it make?”

Quarry raised both brows.

“The first thing is make certain of it, eh, before you stink up the whole of London with a public accusation. I take it you don’t want to make overtures to the man yourself, in order to get a better look.”

Quarry grinned widely, and Grey felt the blood rise in his chest, washing hot up his neck. “No,” he said shortly. Then he collected himself and lounged back a little in his chair. “Not my sort,” he drawled, flicking imaginary snuff from his ruffle.

Quarry guffawed, his own face flushed with a mixture of claret and amusement. He hiccuped, chortled again, and slapped both hands down on the table.

“Well, whores ain’t so picky. And if a moggy will sell her body, she’ll sell anything else she has—including information about her customers.”

Grey stared blankly at the Colonel. Then the suggestion dropped into focus.

“You are suggesting that I employ a prostitute to verify my impressions?”

“You’re quick, Grey, damn quick.” Quarry nodded approval, snapping his fingers for more wine. “I was thinking more of finding a girl who’d seen his prick already, but your way’s a long sight easier. All you’ve got to do is invite Trevelyan along to your favorite convent, slip the lady abbess a word—and a few quid—and there you are!”

“But I—” Grey stopped himself short of admitting that far from patronizing a favored bawdery, he hadn’t been in such an establishment in several years. He had successfully suppressed the memory of the last such experience; he couldn’t say now even which street the building had been in.

“It’ll work a treat,” Quarry assured him, ignoring his discomposure. “Not likely to be too dear, either; two pound would probably do it, three at most.”

“But once I know whether my suspicion is confirmed—”

“Well, if he ain’t poxed, there’s no difficulty, and if he is …” Quarry squinted in thought. “Hmm. Well, how’s this? If you was to arrange for the whore to screech and carry on a bit, once she’d got a good look at him, then you rush out of your own girl’s chamber, so as to see what’s the matter, eh? House might be afire, after all.” He chortled briefly, envisioning the scene, then returned to the plan.

“Then, if you’ve caught him with his breeches down, so to speak, and the situation revealed beyond doubt, I shouldn’t think he’d have much choice save to find grounds for breaking the engagement himself. What d’ye say to that?”

“I suppose it might work,” Grey said slowly, trying to picture the scene Quarry painted. Given a whore of sufficient histrionic talent … and there would be no need for Grey actually to utilize the brothel’s services personally, after all.

The wine arrived, and both men fell momentarily silent as it was poured. As the steward departed, though, Quarry leaned across the table, eyes alight.

“Let me know when you mean to go; I’ll come along for the sport!”

Chapter 2

Widow’s Walk

“France,” Stubbs was saying in disgust, pushing his way through the crowd in Clare Market. “Bloody France again, can you believe it? I dined with DeVries, and he told me he’d had it direct from old Willie Howard. Guarding the shipyards in frigging Calais, likely!”

“Likely,” Grey repeated, sidling past a fishmonger’s barrow. “When, do you know?” He aped Stubbs’s annoyance at the thought of a possibly humdrum French posting, but in fact, this was welcome news.

He was no more immune to the lure of adventure than any other soldier, and would enjoy to see the exotic sights of India. However, he was also well aware that such a foreign posting would likely keep him away from England for two years or more—away from Helwater.

A posting in Calais or Rouen, though … he could return every few months without much difficulty, fulfilling the promise he had made to his Jacobite prisoner—a man who doubtless would be pleased never to see him again.

He shoved that thought resolutely aside. They had not parted on good terms—well, on any. But he had hopes in the power of time to heal the breach. At least Jamie Fraser was safe; decently fed and sheltered, and in a position where he had what freedom his parole allowed. Grey took comfort in the imagined vision—a long-legged man striding over the high fells of the Lake District, face turned up toward sun and scudding cloud, wind blowing through the richness of his auburn hair, plastering shirt and breeches tight against a lean, hard body.

“Hoy! This way!” A shout from Stubbs pulled him rudely from his thoughts, to find the Lieutenant behind him, gesturing impatiently down a side street. “Wherever is your mind today, Major?”

“Just thinking of the new posting.” Grey stepped over a drowsy, moth-eaten bitch, stretched out across his way and equally oblivious both to his passage and to the scrabble of puppies tugging at her dugs. “If it is France, at least the wine will be decent.”

O’Connell’s widow dwelt in rooms above an apothecary’s shop in Brewster’s Alley, where the buildings faced each other across a space so narrow that the summer sunshine failed to penetrate to ground level. Stubbs and Grey walked in clammy shadow, kicking away bits of rubbish deemed too decrepit to be of use to the denizens of the place.

Grey followed Stubbs through the shop’s narrow door, beneath a sign reading F. SCANLON, APOTHECARY, in faded script. He paused to stamp his foot in order to dislodge a strand of rotting vegetation that had slimed itself across his boot, but looked up at the sound of a voice from the shadows near the back of the shop.

“Good day to ye, gentlemen.” The voice was soft, with a strong Irish accent.

“Mr. Scanlon?”

Grey blinked in the gloom, and made out the proprietor, a dark, burly man hovering spiderlike over his counter, arms outspread as though ready to snatch up any bit of merchandise required upon the moment.

“Finbar Scanlon, the same.” The man inclined his head courteously. “What might I have the pleasure to be doin’ for ye, sirs, may I ask?”

“Mrs. O’Connell,” Stubbs said briefly, jerking a thumb upward as he headed for the back of the shop, not waiting on an invitation.

“Ah, herself is away just now,” the apothecary said, sidling quickly out from behind the counter in order to block the way. Behind him, a faded curtain of striped linen swayed in the breeze from the door, presumably concealing a staircase to the upper premises.

“Gone where?” Grey asked sharply. “Will she return?”

“Oh, aye. She’s gone round for to speak to the priest about the funeral. Ye’ll know of her loss, I suppose?” Scanlon’s eyes flicked from one officer to the other, gauging their purpose.

“Of course,” Stubbs said shortly, annoyed at Mrs. O’Connell’s absence. He had no wish to prolong their errand. “That’s why we’ve come. Will she be back soon?”

“Oh, I couldn’t be saying as to that, sir. Might take some time.” The man stepped out into the light from the door. Middle-aged, Grey saw, with silver threads in his neatly tied hair, but well-built, and with an attractive, clean-shaven face and dark eyes.

“Might I be of some help, sir? If ye’ve condolences for the widow, I should be happy to deliver them.” The man gave Stubbs a look of straightforward openness—but Grey saw the tinge of speculation in it.

“No,” he said, forestalling Stubbs’s reply. “We’ll wait in her rooms for her.” He turned toward the striped curtain, but the apothecary’s hand gripped his arm, halting him.

“Will ye not take a drink, gentlemen, to cheer your wait? ’Tis the least I can offer, in respect of the departed.” The Irishman gestured invitingly toward the cluttered shelves behind his counter, where several bottles of spirit stood among the pots and jars of the apothecary’s stock.

“Hmm.” Stubbs rubbed his knuckles across his mouth, eyes on the bottle. “It was rather a long walk.”

It had been, and Grey, too, accepted the offered drink, though with some reluctance, seeing Scanlon’s long fingers nimbly selecting an assortment of empty jars and tins to serve as drinking vessels.

“Tim O’Connell,” Scanlon said, lifting his own tin, whose label showed a drawing of a woman swooning on a chaise longue. “The finest soldier who ever raised a musket and shot a Frenchman dead. May he rest in peace!”

“Tim O’Connell,” Grey and Stubbs muttered in unison, lifting their jars in brief acknowledgment.

Grey turned slightly as he brought the jar to his lips, so that the light from the door illuminated the liquid within. There was a strong smell from whatever had previously filled the jar—anise? camphor?—overlaying the smell of alcohol, but there were no suspicious crumbs floating in it, at least.

“Where was Sergeant O’Connell killed, do you know?” Grey asked, lowering his makeshift cup after a small sip, and clearing his throat. The liquid seemed to be straight grain alcohol, clear and tasteless, but potent. His palate and nasal passages felt as though they had been seared.

Scanlon swallowed, coughed, and blinked, eyes watering—presumably from the liquor, rather than emotion—then shook his head.

“Somewhere near the river, is all I heard. The constable who came to bring the news said he was bashed about somethin’ shocking, though. Knocked on the head in some class of a tavern fight and then trampled in the scrum, perhaps. The constable did mention that there was a heelprint on his forehead, God have mercy on the poor man.”

“No one arrested?” Stubbs wheezed, face going red with the strain of not coughing.

“No, sir. As I understand the matter, the body was found lyin’ half in the water, on the steps by Puddle Dock. Like enough, the tavern owner it was who dragged him out and dumped him, not wantin’ the nuisance of a corpse on his premises.”

“Likely,” Grey echoed. “So no one knows precisely where or how the death occurred?”

The apothecary shook his head solemnly, picking up the bottle.

“No, sir. But then, none of us knows where or when we shall die, do we? The only surety of it is that we shall all one day depart this world, and heaven grant we may be welcome in the next. A drop more, gentlemen?”

Stubbs accepted, settling himself comfortably onto a proffered stool, one booted foot propped against the counter. Grey declined, and strolled casually round the shop, cup in hand, idly inspecting the stock while the other two lapsed into cordial conversation.

The shop appeared to do a roaring business in aids to virility, prophylactics against pregnancy, and remedies for the drip, the clap, and other hazards of sexual congress. Grey deduced the presence of a brothel in the near neighborhood, and was oppressed anew at the thought of the Honorable Joseph Trevelyan, whose existence he had momentarily succeeded in forgetting.

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