Archie and Edrington
by Karen L.
Ch. 41--Lady Edrington's Birthday Party
It has been a funny thing about my life, but just about the time I think I have it nailed, something happens that pushes me off my heading in a completely different direction. And one never senses the impending cataclysm; no dark clouds loom on the horizon, no monstrous wave rears in front of the bow, and the day your whole life changes begins as any other with breakfast, a wash-up, and in this case, a frantic search for my Leftenants uniform jacket. I discovered it, finally, in my younger sisters bedroom. There was a great deal of shrieking and shouting from behind the door and when I knocked and asked if anyone had seen my jacket there was a sort of pregnant silence and then an eruption of wet giggles and a very unyoungladylike snort. For me, to grasp the knob and give it a decisive turn to the right was the work of a moment. And there were my three eldest sisters; Margaret with her hair wrapped in a black-ribboned pigtail, brandishing an old toy sword that I remembered playing with as a boy and wearing my jacket, which not only swallowed her but also looked quite absurd over her cotton shift. The twins, Mary and Lizzie, were sitting on the bed giggling hysterically.
"What is all this?" I laughed, "So much Naval fervor in here." Margaret reddened.
"Were royal princesses and we are bound for England to marry the Dukes!" squealed Mary and Lizzie. "Maggie is Leftenant Hornblower and she is fighting the Frogs who want to capture us and take us to France and force us all to marry old Boney instead.."
Lizzie stuck out her tongue. "Eww! He is so short!"
"And what is wrong with that? What have I started here?" I asked rhetorically. "A few tales over dinner about Lt. Hornblower and now we see the effect. When he comes to visit, I dont want to see ANY of this sort of thing. It will just embarrass him," I scolded. "Hes very proper!" The twins squealed with excitement.
"Horatio, I mean, Lt. Hornblower is coming here?!!!" Margaret took off my jacket and immediately sat down at the dressing table and, tugging the black grosgrain from her hair, begin to brush her straight blonde mane with great vigor.
"Not today, goslings. In a week. The Earl has invited him to come up for the Christmas ball. Hes sending his own coach and everything...isnt that good of him? Hornblower will stay here a few nights at least." I scowled at Margaret, who was pinching her cheeks and biting her lips at her reflection in the mirror. She was going to be a beauty in time, no doubt about it, but at present she was pestilential to a degree. "And hes not used to having a bunch of silly girls simpering all over him. Im sure it will vex him sorely. TRY to act like youve seen an officer before, please? For my sake? The Kennedy name and reputation is at risk! What would Admiral Lord Hood think of my fitness for command if he heard I couldnt even successfully order my little sisters to behave like ladies instead of like squealing piglets at the trough? Word gets around, Lizzie. My career hangs in the balance!"
How had Edrington managed it, anyhow? I would never have expected to see Horatio this far north of Southhampton. He was forever short of a penny and travel of such distance would simply have been beyond his means. And I would have thought hed be too proud to accept what amounted to charity from Edrington, but somehow the Earl had convinced him to accept his hospitality. My feelings were decidedly mixed, if such a thing was possible. I was greatly looking forward to seeing my friend again, but I suspected that his reasons for coming had everything to do with his expectation that this might be our last meeting for many years. A little bubble of resentment that Edrington was still trying to manage my life for me rose up inside my chest, then burst ashamedly when I reflected that an offer to bring a man who was my friend, not his, to Northumberland at hideous expense just so we could say a proper good-bye was more likely evidence of that offhand sort of generosity I had come to appreciate in the newly Lt. Coloneled-Earl.
What Edrington and Horatio did not know was that I had been the recipient of a private visit from our own elusive Jones and Psmythe, who had told me what sort of future awaited me if I chose to accept my reassignment. A gratifying increase in pay, but I was going to have to essentially disappear into a new identity for some time to come. My family could be kept aware of my continued vitality through dispatches from the Admiralty, but in all other respects it would be as though I had again been cut adrift in the jollyboat. I only hoped that when I resurfaced that my friends would still be alive. A protracted war with France looked ever more likely. Napoleon had gone from strength to strength and only Nelsons great victory in Egypt had thus far probably prevented Bonaparte from setting his sights on an English invasion. There still apparently being no force on earth that could withstand the might of the British Navy and its one-armed, one-eyed Admiral. And here I was, in contrast, worrying about the state of my wardrobe.
"I need that jacket, and you better notve gotten any stains on it," I grumbled. "Lady Katherine asked especially that I wear my best uniform to Lady Edringtons birthday dinner tonight." I snatched it back and began to inspect it critically.
"Ooohhhhhh," trilled Margaret insinuatingly, "Lady Katherine must think you very handsome in it." She pantomimed fanning herself and simpering. "Will we get to be bridesmaids? I shall perish if she makes me wear yellow. Blue or pink, I think, dont you agree? She WILL ask me, of course," she finished smugly.
"Now STOP! First off, I hear someone else who has a lot more money than I do AND a title is courting Lady Katherine. She wouldnt seriously consider the likes of me. And in troth, I think its her mother that who wants to see me wear the uniform. The last time I was over there, Lady Edrington practically petted me like a dog. It was quite embarrassing. SHES the one who has a penchant for the Navy, if you ask me! You should just listen to these books she reads--all about the adventures and romances of Navy officers who keep getting bonked on the head, then kissed by a variety of females in gauzy muslins and fetching sorts of bonnets."
"Oh, I know those books, theyre really to sigh for! All the girls have some of them. That author really knows a lot about the Navy. Thrilling battles! And TRUE love ahhh..true emotions!" She adopted a confiding tone, her hand partially over her mouth. "Mammah would DIE if she knew but I borrow them from Anne Rochester and we read them in secret. Why dont you ever have anything that exciting to tell us about? Why dont you have a beautiful fiancée? You are SUCH a boring older brother. I am SURE you are the most tedious, unromantic Leftenant in the entire fleet," she sighed in mock exasperation. "Oh how I WISH a Naval officer would come here and get bonked on the head so we could all nurse him back to health and then kiss him!" There was another eruption of giggles from the nightgown-clad twins. Poor Horatio. He was definitely for it. Id have to warn him. My sisters were not above climbing up on the roof and pelting a chap with bricks so he would have to accept their tender ministrations.
Its difficult when you are man to look at other men and decide what sort of effect they might have on the fair sex. But of Horatios effect, I had no illusions. Even I could see that his looks and height were such that any female, and particularly my giddy sisters, would be all admiration-medals, uniform, or no. Oh good Lord! Poor Horatio. He was definitely going to be hounded here at Strathoak house. A solitary man, with no family he ever spoke of...what would he make of the large and noisy Kennedy clan?
It was time to see what sort of figure I could cut. My jacket proved to be unblemished and when paired with snowy white breeches, and new necktie and my best silverbuckled shoes the effect was sufficient to work its martial magic on even my addlepated sisters. It is astonishing how much more respect one gets when one wears the brass and braid. I decided that my officers sword wouldnt even go amiss and since it had finally turned quite cold, my red satin-lined dress cape. Might as well rig up full sail. There, I was ready. Except...
"Oh dear! I have completely forgotten a present!" I fretted to my mother. "What could we possibly have around here that is suitable for a Dowager Countess?"
She put her finger to her chin and scrunched up her face thoughtfully under her lacy cap. "Well, perhaps there is something...Here, come into your fathers study, Archie. You say the lady is rather nearsighted?"
"Rather more than not."
"Look at this," She pulled out a drawer and removed a beautifully ornate magnifying glass. It had a border of little shells and colored stones.
"Its lovely, Mother, but she might be offended at the implication."
"Not when you give her these things, too." She pulled from the shelf a book of beautiful illustrations of Naval vessels in combat on the high seas, and followed this gem with splendidly-drawn map of Europe. "You can tell her the glass is so she can enjoy the fine detail, as anyone would need to employ since the engraving is so delicately rendered. Since she enjoys novels of the Navy so much, shell probably love looking at these pictures and on the map, I suggest you get your friend the Earl to put a stickpin in every place hes been on his travels. Truly, it gives comfort to a mother to be able to look at a map and see where her son is and has been. Trust me, Archie my darling boy, shell treasure it. It would have done ME good to be able to look at a point on a map and say "Thats where my Archie is". If the Earl is as diligent a letter-writer as you say, then she shall always be able to find him".
I suppose a mother knows best what another mother might like. A suitable box for these presents was located and I was ready to embark. Vaughn had promised to give me a ride to and from the party. Right on schedule, the sound of his carriage pulling around in front signaled it was time to leave. I kissed my mother and told her I would see her on the morrow. For this night, at least, shed need not look at a map and wonder.
"Hail the Conquering Hero," said Cecil Vaughn with just the faintest note of sarcasm as I climbed into the carriage. "The cape, it blows so romantically back in the wind, exposing the red satin lining in a way calculated to impress and catch the susceptible eye, and yet somehow unconscious of vanity.
"Stow it, Cecil," I said pleasantly. "You know this costume was requested and required by your hostess, and mine. Besides, youve nothing to say on the subject since the last time I took your sartorial advice I found myself in petticoats. Not to mention being painted up like a dockyard doxy."
"Touché, my friend. Not that I, personally, would have any past observations OR experience on which to base the veracity of the latter claim." And he gave his coachman the signal to proceed at a smart pace to the Hall.
"Speaking of conquests, my brother who is the foremost gossip in the county and that includes the ladies, both elderly and not, reports that you are courting Lady Katherine with a vengeance over the past few weeks. True? Tell an old school friend, Cecil. You know I can keep a secret."
"True," he said. "And false."
I glowered at him for the latter, but said, "Well, this is rather sudden."
"Not exactly. I actually courted Lady Katherine without notable success years ago, before her illness. And then, when I conveyed her back to the Hall that awful night of the mill fire, she was in an, ah, interesting condition." Cecil assumed a most un-Cecil like faraway expression, then focused his bottle-green eyes on my face in a more typically owlish manner. "I do believe Ive never completely given up hope, but you see, shes given absolutely no one encouragement since the tragedy. I made a very grave error years ago, Archie. I let her see I felt pity for her." His fist tightened on the ivory handle of his cane. "These Edringtons. They are all exactly alike, damme them. They are the proudest people you will ever meet. If I lost my ability to walk Id want everyone giving ME sympathy. Crowding round the fainting couch bringing cakes, ale, and cheering me up with bawdy stories. But an Edrington! Well, you are just supposed to ignore it. Pretend you dont see it. Pride!"
"Pride must be the greatest enemy of love." It was one of those thoughts that just seemed to pop into my head and then escape from my lips before I was even aware of it.
"The greatest," agreed Cecil. "But I am determined in my course and will not be turned back so easily this time. No, she must be made to see that even though she thinks she is happy as a woman can be, that she is in fact miserable without me for a husband. Or at least will be made so until she surrenders." He winked at me. "You will see to it that if the subject comes up you put in the good word!"
"Oh, absolutely. The least I can do for an old school friend."
"But Archie, take care when you put in the good word that you are specific. Mention my name, in toto, first, last, and title if you would. One wouldnt want a mistaken impression. I am not entirely sanguine that she is immune to YOUR charms."
I thought about what I had heard about Edringtons supposed proposal to Honoria Neville. The benefits of having a brother who played whist frequently.
"Oh, dont worry, Cecil. Ill make sure that IF the subject of marriage comes up that your name is mentioned both before and after the word. I am a GREAT admirer of the beauteous Katherine, but I am in no settled state of affairs to contemplate marriage."
When we arrived at the Hall, I lost no time in herding Edrington into his library to show him the map and enlist his help in mounting it on cork and marking all the places he had been during his military career. The number of places he had been during his years of service was actually quite impressive, although it was a pensive sort of pin we stuck in the little town of Muzillac. We returned to the dining room to find that all was in readiness. Lady Edrington greeted me with every enthusiasm and even tugged playfully at my queue.
"Oh Mr. Kennedy!" she chuckled. "You cut QUITE the dashing figure. How very thoughtful of you to come to my birthday dinner as "The Bonny Lieutenant"! My favorite character." She was every inch the old Countess ablaze with jewels. I greeted the rest of the party warmly. Here was Lady Katherine, simply but beautifully dressed in maroon silk with an old-fashioned choker of garnets and diamonds that looked Tudor in style. Lady Madeline stood at the hearth in conversation with Wellesley, wearing emerald green and a simple gold chain with a cross. Both Wellesley and Edrington wore their full dress uniforms. Four men, three women. A lack of symmetry that was quite ill-suited for a gathering of this nature, I mused. But, lo, there were eight settings at the table. Surely not Lady Honoria, I thought. I added my gifts to the ones already on the sideboard and Lady Edrington bade us be seated. My place was at the end of the table, across from the empty setting.
"I am all anticipation this evening," said the Dowager. "My son tells me that we have a mysterious guest for dinner."
And just like that, the door opened and there, to my absolute astonishment, stood my boyhood sweetheart, Sue Northcote.
"Sue!" I croaked.
"Archie?" she gasped in astonishment. We stared, mouths agape, me rising slowly from my chair, her standing in the doorway, Ashok at her back as if ready to catch her should she faint.
"Mother," said Edrington smoothly, "Id like you to meet the author of The Captain and The Confectioner, Miss Susan Northcote, of York."
Lady Edrington brayed with laughter and clapped her hands delightedly. "Oh, come in dear! This is by far the BEST present I have ever had! I am such an admirer " but Sue and I still were frozen in our positions.
"You win," said Lady Katherine, removing her pearl earrings and rolling them across the table at Lady Madeline. "Mr. Kennedys complexion is a better match for the color of my brothers red coat than Miss Northcotes. I confess myself sadly disappointed in the blushing talents of my sex."
"Gambling? At the table? Scandalous behavior!" chuckled Wellesley good-naturedly, rising from his seat in the presence of another lady, as was I (albeit on shaking limbs). "Well, Ill take it under advice never to bet against Lady Madeline."
"I am sure I wouldnt," said the Earl. "Lady Madeline has the devils own luck. Now, Miss Northcote," he said as he approached her and gracefully extended a scarlet elbow for her to take, "I believe we have you seated opposite Lieutenant Kennedy. Our chef is of a combustible temperament so we should not keep him waiting."
Entranced, I watched him escort her to the table. Far from being the picture my brother had painted for me of the piteous orphan with close-cropped hair, this Sue was positively blooming. Her gown was of deep blue material and tolerably low cut. Chestnut curls peeked out from underneath a very fashionable turban, attractively framing her round dimpled cheeks; and her long-lashed brown eyes, so familiar to me, were darting rapidly from face to face and finally settling back on my own with an expression of, what? I could not tell, for so intermingled with what looked like delight was a look of vague discomfort that might have been embarrassment.
But my speculation was cut disastrously short for the last thing I can remember hearing was the surprised Dowager gasping, "'God Knows' the Vicar shouted, Edrington! What is the matter with Mr. Kennedy? Hes pitched himself into the soup!"
I knew a pressed man on the old Justinian who had been born in the American colonies and he told me about this strange animal he used to hunt as a boy. It was called "apossum" or some such unlikely thing and not to put too fine a point on it, the key to this animals strategy is to play dead until its tormentors lose interest and go off in search of livelier prey.
So I think it can be understood that when the next thing I became aware of was that I was stretched on some sort of leather upholstery in a room which contained not only Madeline, but also Sue, that I decided to adopt this little animals strategy until I either found myself either alone or a large hole in the earth gaped serendipitously open and swallowed me up, hopefully disgorging me out of a volcano somewhere in the vicinity of Polynesia where I could begin a new life as a blue-eyed island god whose fits were considered evidence of a divine and prophetic nature instead of a bloody embarrassment. I mean, it is all very well and romantic to get biffed on the head by marauding enemy and then to require nursing back to health by a lovely girl who sighs over dramatically over your prone person while favoring you with soft and tender glances over the steaming bowl of soup, but having a fit at the table and knocking oneself out on the tureen doesnt exactly qualify for the heros sickbed scene.
" .he used to do this all the time," Sue was whispering as I drifted back into consciousness. "It was the main reason that my father objected to him."
"But thats unfair," Madeline was speaking now in low murmur. "He cant help it. And look, hes done very well despite. Why, he was marvelously brave AND resourceful when I was abducted on our journey north. But then he had a fit in his sleep in the carriage that night. I didnt know what it was and it scared me half to death. But Edrington had been warned by one of Mr. Kennedys friends on the Indefatigable that this could happen from time to time and what to do about it. And I dont think he ever knew he had it. He sleeps like the dead for absolute hours."
Oh wonderful, just bloody wonderful. Id had a fit in front of Lady Madeline? No wonder her flirtations with me had ceased so abruptly.
"I still cant believe Lord Edrington was able to find me and determine that I had probably known Archie, I mean, Mr. Kennedy! It is so strange to see him. I didn't believe it could be true until I saw him tonight, looking just the same only older. I thought he was dead! The last I heard of him, he had been lost at sea during a night battle. Captain Pellew wrote to his parents and then his father told my father. I was undone."
"How awful for his family, and for you. But see, it's all ended rather well. I thought it just a coincidence that the characters in your books so closely resembled Mr. Kennedy, but Alexanders curiosity was aroused. Do you know what Mr. Kennedy said about you? He said that he had a sweetheart who was an Admirals daughter, but her father was opposed to the match. When I read your first book The Bonny Lieutenant aloud he found it very coincidental that the book had an Admirals daughter; a blond, blue-eyed young Lieutenant; and an Admiral father who was opposed to the courtship. Of course," she added, "My Lord Edrington is too high-minded to read romances, so he wouldnt know that heroes have blue eyes and there is ALWAYS a parent who is opposed to the romance."
"Lady Madeline, I object my publishers have said my stories shimmer with originality."
"Oh no, Miss Northcote. No literary criticism is implied! You do give the readers what they most desire in a story and how can one ask more from an authoress than that? It heightens the romantic inclinations of the young lovers to know they must meet in secret. How boring to be continually taking tea in the drawing room with ones suitor and ones satisfied and indulgent parent. Can you imagine Romeo and Juliet if their parents had shoved them towards each other at the ball and said, 'Heres someone you ought to fall in love with and marry. In fact, if you dont, well be terribly put out about it.' Why, theyd have determined to hate each other!"
"Very well, Lady Madeline. No offense taken." I felt delicate fingers caress my damp hair, and then trail lightly over my cheek. It tickled a bit, and it was all I could do not to twitch. Then I heard a light sucking sound and Sue saying "well, it was a tasty sort of consommé anyhow. Too hard on the cook, really, that his artistry went all over the tabletop." She paused. "At least the rest of the dinner was excellent, and your Lady Edrington is quite an old marvel. Im definitely going to have to use her in a story sometime. Did the Earl really sit through your reading my books to Lady Edrington?" she giggled.
"Him? Yes, he did. But not without making a great deal of jest. Hes not got a romantic nature."
"Are you sure, Lady Madeline? You should see the way he looks at you when you are looking at Lt. Col. Wellesley. He seems to be taking a keen interest."
"His interest is in seeing me married off as quickly as possible so he can go back to the 43rd Foot without any cares remaining here at home. He made it very clear to me from our first meeting that he does not admire my looks, although I flatter myself that he has learned to enjoy my company if for no other reason than it keeps his fighting skills sharp. But I do not think the Earl finds any woman up to his high standards."
"Well, the more fool him," Sue sighed. "And I mean that, of course, with all the respect one naturally accords an Earl." She sighed again. "Isnt he handsome? Like a blonde angel such a sweet face."
"No, Archie! I mean, Mr. Kennedy." Well that was a little bit better. "Ooh! Do you think he can hear us? I would die of embarrassment!" There was a brief silence and I thought I heard a pen scratch on paper, but it was probably just the rustle of a muslins or petticoats or whatever they wore under those marvelous dresses.
"Well, in that case he might just join you in the hereafter as I would expect he is going to want to die of embarrassment as soon as he comes around and realizes what happened."
"He shouldnt. Ive always known he had fits but I didnt mind. I think he must be terribly brave to serve in the Navy when it would have been so easy for him to stay home with his parents. My father was totally opposed to his going into the Navy because of them and I heard from his brother that there might even have been a letter written which was why the poor boy ended up on that awful leaky Justinian to begin with instead of on a really good ship. The rottenest old barque and the most negligent Captain in the whole Navy was what my father said about it."
"Well, I agree with YOU, Miss Northcote. Mr. Kennedy is brave and he is also handsome. Every woman of my acquaintance admires him excessively. A perfect hero is so tedious, what one wants to read about is a good man with true sensibility and interesting flaws he works hard to overcome. You found a very good pattern card to model your heroes on. And now thousands of girls all over England are in love with him through your wonderful stories."
"I wonder if his sisters read them?"
"I would think it unavoidable. Oh dear! What a quiz that must be!" The ladies laughed softly.
"Does Mr. Kennedy have a sweetheart now?"
"He has many admirers but I do not know of any lady who has been favored with his particular attentions."
"I think Lord Edrington is handsome." Now wait just a minute, I thought, I dont like the direction this conversation is taking. "Maybe he can be in my next story. You are a Lectrice, do you think I could render the Earl a fine romantic figure?"
There was a very long silence. "It would be tricky, but you do not lack for skill. When I first saw Alexander Edrington," Lady Madeline said in a whisper, "I thought he had the saddest eyes I ever saw and he must be terribly lonely. And then the second time I saw him, I thought he was the most insufferably snobbish and judgmental prig Id ever met. I was wrong on both counts. Yes, I think that if your readers would enjoy a tale about a man who is not quite handsome until he smiles, not quite charming unless he isnt trying to be, and who has courage, intelligence, and loyalty in abundance then you should definitely write him into a story. I would enjoy reading such a novel to Lady Edrington. Just make sure you give him a heroine who is worthy of him. And he has a quiet sort of wit, make sure you give him that if you want your readers to fall in love."
"That sounds too much of a bother. The hero should be obviously a hero from page one. I must say I think Lt. Col. Wellesley cuts a dashing figure! Maybe Ill use him instead."
"That he does, and knows it, too. Its quite amusing and somehow charming how well he knows it." There was a knock on the door and I heard Edringtons voice.
"Madeline? Miss Northcote? How fares our friend?"
"Sleeping peacefully, Alexander, just as you said he would."
"Miss Northcote, I hate to impose on you but my mother is most insistent that you come and read from your latest."
"Oh of course, my Lord." Muslins rustled again and I assumed she curtsied to him, dash it! "I had not forgotten the reason I am enjoying your beautiful house and superb hospitality. Well, Lady Madeline, Ive enjoyed our conversation but I must go sing for my supper."
"Madeline, I will sit with Kennedy if you would like to go with Miss Northcote."
"Thank you, Alexander, I would very much enjoy hearing her rendition of Captain Kelsey in the Caribbees. One so hopes there will be pirates."
"As you say, Lady Madeline, I strive not to disappoint my readers," Sue trilled gaily. Ah, she was still the charming, high-spirited missy I had kissed so shyly in the orchard all those years ago, but who would have thought she had such talent? And now she was clearly doing very well selling her novels, if I was any judge of the fineness of gowns and jewelry. She had not mentioned a husband yet, that was something.
I heard a chair creak and then pages begin to turn. I cracked open an eye, "Are they gone for awhile?"
"Yes," Edrington jumped a little in his chair. "I am sure of it. Are you just waking up?"
I swung myself into a sitting position. "Well, no. Actually, Ive been playing the possum."
"Never mind. But the ladies thought I was unconscious and they talked so freely. Alexander, you should have been here!"
"If I was, I doubt theyd have said anything of real interest." He leaned forward in his chair. "How are you feeling, Kennedy? My valet has your jacket and shirt and should be done cleaning it in a little while." Oh dear! I looked down and realized that I had been stripped of my own clothes and was wearing a silk dressing gown which was gaping open at the chest.
"Brilliant, Alexander, just brilliant. Could it possibly be any worse?"
"Well, yes, bye the bye Id say it could."
"Could have been the cake."
"Damme! Thats not what I meant!" I leaned back and ran my hands through my hair. Sticky. I licked a finger absentmindedly. It WAS good consommé. "What I mean is, you are in love with a girl, and then her father objects so you run off and join the Navy to prove your worthiness, but it doesnt quite work out as you planned and you end up in Spanish prison and then everyone thinks you are dead. But you arent dead and you finally get back into the Navy and then make something of yourself and then you get to go home and are an officer and friends with an Earl (thats you, Alexander, although Id want to be your friend even if you werent an Earl) and so you get invited to a Countesses birthday party and you dress up really well and think yourself quite impressive and very fine indeed and toddle off to the party where you are surprised beyond belief to meet your boyhood sweetheart who still thinks you are dead and has been writing romantic stories about you all this time and selling them and then so for a split second you think well, hell, shes still in love with you in some way else she wouldnt be still writing about you and here you are in uniform looking just like she imagines and so probably youre going to really impress her now and then you have a bally fit and end up wearing the first course. And then you are probably swept up and carted off like a dead mouse found in the centerpiece and are deposited in a sitting room where you end up lying flat on your back in a state of undress while the girl you loved picks little pieces of celery out of your hair and talks about how handsome you are!"
"Well," said Edrington. "That is a REAL problem." His mouth twitched and suddenly he laughed. A big, warm rich chuckle that erupted from out of seeming nowhere and at that moment I realized that I had never once, in all the time Id known him, heard him laugh aloud.
Ch. 43Confidence and Confidences
Well, when he put it like that it didnt seem to be so much of one. A problem, that is. After all, Sue had always known I was prone to fits and that my timing was abominable. I would just simply have to see if I could put things right. Once I got my clothing back, of course. One shouldnt court without being properly dressed. Our Kennedy clan hadnt become so prolific without us being well-versed in the basics of courtship.
"Do you know the most shocking thing I heard? Just appalling, really, and explains a lot of things Ive always wondered about."
"What was that, Archie?"
"Sue, I mean, Miss Northcote, said something about her father having written a letter when I went off and joined up. And that is why I was put on Justinian, instead of a better ship as one might have expected considering. He must have really hated me and wanted me to fail. He had a lot of power in the Navy in those days and his word would be enough to destroy a young officers career. Alexander, it was awful. In a way that I cant even begin to describe and dont care to remember. There was no discipline and one of the senior Midshipman was the next best thing to Caligula. And Nero, all rolled together with a touch of the Borgias to add a little evil leavening and spice. Things like that never happened on Indefatigable, I am sure of it. The Navy must have thought very little could be expected from me to put me on that ship."
"But I thought you met Hornblower there. And he is certainly a promising officer."
"Well, yes, now he is. But you didnt know him when he first came aboard. I was more promising than he was. He got sick all the time, and he didnt know the first thing about seamanship, and he pretty much kept to himself at first. He was quite shy and poor as any church mouse. He used to trip just going up and down the stairs and he was deathly afraid of heights. A more unlikely officer never embarked, Im sure of it. But there was something rather wonderful about him from the beginning. I liked him from the start."
"Well, I suppose it goes to show that great things come from unlikely beginnings." His fingers stroked the leather arm of the chair absentmindedly. "So what else did the ladies talk about while you were feigning sleep?"
"Well, they said nice things about meboth of them. It was lovely to hear them. And they admired Wellesley."
"Naturally they would. Hes so obviously to be admired.. Um, I am almost afraid to ask, but.."
"Oh yes. Miss Northcote said she thought you handsome and wondered about making YOU a character in a book."
"Beastly prank to play on an unsuspecting readership. And did Madeline agree with her?"
"Well, no. I mean, yes. What she said was that she thought you were not quite handsome. And " I searched carefully through my memory for those words. "that it would be tricky to make you a romantic hero, but she thought Sue had talent enough to do it" I finished proudly. "I think so, too, why Sue could make a romantic figure out of a three-legged, one-eyed son of .."
"Not quite handsome those were her exact words?" He interrupted, sounding a touch disappointed.
"Ah! Unless you smiled. Yes, that was it. If you smile, then she finds you handsome. But she said something else, Alexander, and I thought you should know it. She thinks that you do not admire her looks and want to marry her off as soon as possible so that you can go back to your division without anything here at home to worry about."
He fairly leapt from the chair. "Now why would the girl say that? Honestly, Archie, I just truly do not understand her." He turned to me with a pleading look. "How can she think I do not admire her? Ive never paid so much attention to a woman before other than my own mother and sister."
"She couldnt know that, Alexander. Have you ever told her that you find her beautiful?"
"No, I have not, for I do not find her beautiful."
"But you admire her.." I was confused.
He stalked over to the wall and indicated a painting that hung in the corner. A rosy-cheeked young woman with auburn hair worn in the old-fashioned style, white diaphanous dress with a blue satin sash. She was painted sitting on a little bench, a basket of flowers by her side and a pair of shears laying at her feet, as if she had just been surprised in the act of cutting flowers for the table and had sunk down on the stool to look up at her visitor with a somewhat simpering expression of apprehension mixed with pleasure.
"This, Archie, is Lady Madelines mother. Which is why this sitting room is so seldom used. Its too fine a work by too important a painter to be put away entirely. Do you think that this woman is beautiful?" I came over and looked intently at the portrait.
"Yes. I would say so. Look, her gown is lovely and her figure superb. The painter has taken great care to allow the folds of her fabric to drape in such a fashion that the outline of her limbs is revealed without immodesty. Her eyes are fine and she has a lovely complexion. Yes, I would say that this woman is beautiful."
"Well, I agree with you. And so, apparently, did my father to his utter misery. Lady Madeline has some resemblance to her but not as much as I initially thought. Her nose is too pert, and her eyes are set much wider. Her complexion is still somewhat freckled and her figure lacks elegance and her shoulders are too broad for fashion and her carriage is insolent and her manner gauche and Archie .Archie she lives in my mind like an unbidden stowaway that will not be put ashore and I am made a great fool to myself because I cannot seem to find the right words to tell her how ardently I admire her."
I was stunned by this admission.
"Er, you arent just saying these things to make me feel better about the soup, are you?" He glared at me fiercely. "Then why dont you just tell her what you just told me?"
"Archie, did she say anything at all to Miss Northcote that might give you the impression that she feels anything at all for me besides gratitude mixed with irritation?"
"Well, yes. But I cant recall the words specifically. But she said something about your being brave, intelligent, and loyal."
"Wonderful. So might she describe her dog but he still sleeps on the floor."
I had a sudden flash of insight. "You arent still troubled by the whole subject of your father and her mother are you? Damnation upon me that I didnt stop you looking at that portrait."
My friends expression was bleak. He stood ramrod straight in his perfectly tailored uniform, looking at nothing. His hands clenched tightly behind his back. I was discomfited to be so underdressed, and found myself pushing up the too-long sleeves and twiddling the sash of what had to be Edringtons dressing robe as I waited for the answer that I was sure would come. But he began with a surprising question.
"Archie, have you ever smelled her hair?"
"What?" This was a slippery deck to negotiate.
"Her hair. Have you ever been close enough to her to smell it?"
"Well. Yes. All right, I have. When we were reading Shakespeare in Horatios cabin. It was " I groped for the mot juste, "intoxicating."
"Yes. I remember that, as well as the effect," he smiled faintly. "That would have been the first time you got drenched in Lady Madelines presence."
"Well, no, I was still pretty wet when I met her on the beach. The Frenchman who tried to bean me with the water pitcher, remember?"
"Perhaps that was to your great benefit. It would have been well done if I could have had the advantage of a good dousing myself every time I came near her. Perhaps then I would not have arrived at this end." He was still standing very straight, but his shoulders appeared to sag and slump forward underneath the brave epaulettes. "That day, when we were fishing; and I was standing behind her teaching her to cast the fly. The sun was warm that day, surprisingly so for November. Do you remember Archie? How warm it was? It was warming her hair and as I stood behind her I felt her lean into me with the effort of her casting and the most wonderful scent rose up from her beautiful hair and it was at that moment I lost myself."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
"And still you said nothing?"
"Archie, she was very much uninterested, I tell you. She felt that I had insulted her parents, and rightly so as it turned out. And by the time I decided I might try to speak to her, she was being seriously courted by both Wellesley and Vaughn with every appearance of happiness and pleasure. And then I went off to London and while I was there I couldnt stop thinking about her and I really hoped that if I came home with a nice gift and made myself agreeable that it would not be too late, but then she went and got herself abducted again!"
"But I thought you were extremely angry at her, Alexander. And I am sure she thought so, too."
"I was angry. Of course I was angry. But I still loved her. I was angry because she didnt trust me with her secrets. I was angry because I wasnt there to stop her. I was angry because she oh, I dont know. All I know is that she is unlike any other woman in the world and if I cant have her then I dont want anyone else. Could there possibly be another woman in the world who is capable of causing this much trouble in just a few months time?"
I mulled this over. "No. Im sure there is not," I answered, truthful to a fault! "But I still dont understand why you are so caught up in affairs that happened so long ago."
"Its important that a man respect his father. Do you respect your father, Archie?"
"The Govnor? Of course. Hes quite all right. Mother still adores him and hes done well, managed our estates wisely and one cant say he hasnt done his duty. I dont think hes ever taken a great deal of interest in me, but I cant say he was ever cruel or hard."
"Well, I dont respect mine. But it helped to think of him as wronged. He wasnt much of a father. You can see the effect on Mother and Katherine."
"The effect? They both seem to have made themselves a good life here. They are..," I hunted for the words, "unique."
"Precisely. They had to become so but that doesnt make it right. My mother is a totally different lady since my father has been dead for so many years. He made her life a hell. And now she is free. And what does she do now that she is free but wallow in romantic imaginings. And my sister is determined never to marry at all. Damn him, anyhow. If he was going to make a loveless marriage he should have married someone cold and unfeeling who did not love him."
"Hmm since you put it that way, I suppose it must have been difficult for everyone."
"Ever since I realized what must have happened between my father and her mother, when I saw that damnable miniature, I scarcely trust myself to be in Maddys presence. Now I finally understand. I would never wish to harm her, or frighten her. What must my father have done to drive her mother pregnant and unwed into the arms of the Compte? I tell you , Archie, I cannot be alone with her. Not anymore. And her voice.." his eyes were dreamy. "I love how she says my name. "Alessander."" He mimicked her light French accent softly. "Her words fall like rain. Archie," he said huskily, "do you know she sometimes wears my pants to ride in?"
We were interrupted at this point by a knock on the door. Edringtons valet. "I took the liberty of removing one or two small stains from these items, Mr. Kennedy," he said, proffering the immaculate clothing.
"Thank you, Wodehouse," I said. "Perfect, as always."
"I endeavor to give uniform satisfaction, sir. And now, if you will excuse me ." he bowed and left the room.
I peeled off the dressing gown and once more donned my Lieutenants jacket and the whitest of shirts. Edrington donated his handkerchief to the cause of wiping any remaining soup out of my hair.
"Much as I was wishing an hour ago for a hole to open up and swallow me, I think I cant put off seeing the ladies forever so lets advance, shall we? Its going to be a long carriage ride with Cecil home after this, I can tell you. Great sport for him, Im sure."
"Oh, I dont know. Vaughn strikes me as being too caught up on his own affairs to give his full attention to your performance tonight."
"That he is," I agreed.
And so he was. For as we emerged from the sitting room, we came quietly upon Vaughn who had managed to shake off Ashok and was wheeling Katherine around the great entry hall. His voice rang off the marble-friezed walls. We paused on the threshold, loath to reveal ourselves.
"I say, Katherine, wont you marry a chap? I promise never to complain no matter how many parties you want to give. Ill even let you bring your dogs, every last pup Jack of em. Marry a fellow and make him the happiest man on earth."
"No, Cecil. Ill never marry. How many times must I refuse you before you give me a moments peace?" Katherine pealed.
"Youll have no peace until you accept. In fact, Im moving in and laying siege. Youll be seeing me over your eggs and bacon every morning until you say youll have me. Now wouldnt it be better to be married? Married people never see each other at breakfast at all. In fact, if you want to see less of me, youll just have to marry me. I tell you, Katherine, its your only chance for respite ." His voice trailed away as he pushed her out of the entry hall towards the library.
"There, Lt. Col. Alexander Edrington, Earl and so forth and so on, is a man who knows how to propose. I fancy his chances, I really do."
"Well, knowing Katherine, Id lay odds of 4 to 1 against. I think Ill try smiling and see how it goes from there."
We arrived in the library where Sue was just finishing up her reading. Lady Edrington looked enraptured by the performance.
"Oh my dear, this is your best one yet! I can hardly wait to see how Capt. Kelsey escapes from the pirates lair and rescues poor Miss Nutbeam. For one so young the human heart holds no secrets from you. And look, heres Mr. Kennedy. So good to see you are yourself again." She rose quite graciously and extended her hand for me to kiss. "Mr. Kennedy, I adore your present. How very thoughtful." She clasped her hands over her bosom. "This is by far the most exciting birthday Ive ever had. You know, my dears, as one gets old one can only hope that life gets more interesting and I thank you for that as well."
"The pleasure was mine. Happy Birthday, Lady Edrington, and may you have many more to come." I turned to Sue, who allowed me to do her similar, but more lingering honor. "Miss Northcote, I apologize for my sudden attack of ill health at the dinner table tonight. Can we begin anew to reacquaint ourselves?"
"Absolutely, Mr. Kennedy. It is a great pleasure to see you again after so long a parting. I would love to hear news of your family. And your own adventures, of course."
"May I call upon you in York?"
"I have to complete this manuscript and have promised it to the publishers by the end of the year. I shall be quite busy until after Christmas, but then I would be delighted if you would call upon me, Mr. Kennedy. My aunt will receive you with every hospitality though our household is modest."
"Miss Northcote has honored us by accepting an invitation to our Christmas ball," said Lady Madeline with the faintest of winks imaginable. "I am sure you will have even more opportunity to enjoy reminiscing if you make yourself a frequent presence on her dance card."
"No power on earth could prevent me from making the attempt," I smiled.
"I must leave now, I have had such a lovely time. It is the first time I have gotten to see the pleasure my work brings to others, for I have had to publish anonymously. Good-bye Lord Edrington, Lady Edrington, Lady Madeline, ArMr. Kennedy." Sue curtsied gracefully and left the room, a clatter of hooves outside shortly telling me that my opportunity to improve my standing in her eyes had flitted past at lightning speed.
"Alexander, what is the matter with your face? She isnt going to cause you to have a fit, too, is she?" Lady Madeline asked, peering in consternation at Edringtons fixed grimace.
"Maddy, you know I dont have fits."
"Well, it looks like you are feeling ill." Lady Madeline came to him and laid a hand gently on his forehead. He closed his eyes. "Yes, definitely a little feverish. You should go to bed."
"An excellent idea," said the Earl. His mother agreed and she made her apologies and with many wishes for my continued good health, all of which were well-meant yet excessively mortifying to endure, she exited with her son in filial attendance.
"And here you are, Mr. Kennedy. Since you missed out on dinner here are some rather good biscuits and a glass of port." Lady Madeline said kindly. "Why dont you relax and perhaps I can find Lord Vaughn. I must go and attend to Shannon. She is huge with puppies you ought to see her. Alexander and I have quite a substantial wager riding on the number."
"Where is Wellesley?" I was quite uninterested in the future puppies.
"He found to his surprise that the first chapter of Captain Kelsey in the Caribbees caused him to remember how vitally important it was for him to rejoin his regiment this evening. So with many pretty words and compliments, he made the hero's exit."
Vaughn returned shortly after they all had left me alone, munching a thoughtful biscuit. He looked delighted.
"Ah, Archie. Im really feeling very encouraged."
"She accepted you?"
"No, Ive been turned down three times already this evening but that last time, I began to perceive that her heart really wasnt in it. The old, get-on-down-the-pike-with-you-Cecil-and-stuff-yourself-into-a-drainpipe-of-appropriate-size-assuming-of-course-they-make-one-which-they-probably-don't spirit just wasnt to the forefront of her manner. In fact, I daresay I saw the hint of a twinkle in her lovely eye."
"Well, that is good news."
"Of course, one could hardly be expected to make much of an impression after your performance tonight. Never saw a fellow hold an audience enthralled like that, not even in Londons finest theaters! You always did have exquisite timing. I remember one particularly grueling mathematics examination my goodness, I thought young Lord Lennox would never get the ink out of his hair. Oh well done, Archie, now the poor girl will have no choice but to fall in love with you, if only to spare you a lifetime of the most exquisitely painful embarrassment a man could endure."
"A consomméation devoutly to be wished."
"Do tell .." his ruddy face was filled with good humor. "Or better yet, tell me later when theres something worth telling about. By the by, hows that little blot on the landscape, Partridge? I allow I've gotten fond of the lad. Might have to adopt him or something if the Navy gig doesnt work out for him."
"Finch! Really, Cecil! Hes happy enough at present working in our stables. My mother has fed him excessively on fresh eggs and mutton and now hell be needing new clothes. Im awfully glad, though, that my friend Lt. Hornblower is coming next week and can take him down to Portsmouth on his return. The sooner that lad gets himself on a ship of the line in Portsmouth the safer a sandwich will be, left out and unattended, on a counter in Northumberland." Cecil laughed and it occurred to me that he was, unlike Edrington, a man who laughed easily. Could a man have three more dissimilar friends than Hornblower, Vaughn, and Edrington?
"Well, Im off to bed. Theyve got me in some cavern they call the 'Persian Bedroom'. I feel like a bloody Pasha in there."
"Better get used to it, Cecil. I understand Lady Katherine is excessively keen on Persia and southern Asia in general. See you in the morning."
I was perusing the bookshelves in hopes of finding something diverting enough to read until I fell asleep when there was a soft knock on the door and Lady Madeline entered. It was practically the first time we had been alone, just the two of us, since our trip north.
"Archie," she whispered. "I must speak with you, dear friend. Can I trust you to tell me the truth?"
"Of course," I assured her. Would this evenings surprises, both pleasant and dreadful, never end? It had to be close on midnight by now.
"Archie, I was pleased to hear Alexanders laugh tonight. Its a sound weve heard little of, and I think that his mother is worried. Hes terribly moody. I would have thought that his promotion would make him happy, but all he does is ride his horse for hours and he is often in his study of an evening. I must know, is he angry with me still? I regret I felt unable to be more candid."
"Oh no, Madeline, far from it," I took her hand and gave it an encouraging squeeze. "He is distracted by another matter." I thought hard. Should I tell her?
"Archie, you have never, ever let me down. I am forever in your debt and have no right to ask anything more of you, particularly since you have had a difficult evening, but I must know if he has ever said anything to you, anything at all, that would help me to understand, so I could reassure his mother and his sister, of course oh my, what a charlatan I am," she looked quite tired. "I want to know because I esteem him and I do not wish to see him so obviously unhappy."
Well, that decided it. I felt that I should tell her and consequences be damned. I mean, there would be plenty of time for me to keep secrets. I wasnt a spy yet, not officially. And Edrington had said that one of the things that made me an obvious candidate for the position was that I was the sort of person people talked to. Shared confidences and so forth. It wasnt right that she shouldnt know.
"Madeline, Edrington is very distressed because he found the miniature portrait of your brother."
"What? When? How?!"
"You might have thought you hid it well enough, but when he searched your bedroom he came upon it the night after you were abducted. I tried to stop him, but he would look at it."
"And what ? Oh never mind, I can imagine what conclusion he must have drawn." Madelines face was expressionless. "Do you know, Archie, I have found friendship here, and a sense of family I have never known. It is very hard to throw it all away."
"Madeline, you speak in riddles. I do not understand. He has seen the portrait. The conclusions are obvious. It cant be helped. Perhaps time "
"No," she said. "Tonight sees an end of it. Archie, you have been part of this story from the beginning. Come with me, and let us wake up Alexander (She said his name with great softness and all the sibilance of Edringtons earlier impression. Strange Id never noticed before how she drew the syllables out to make them more than just a name and strange how jealous I was that my own name was so ill-favored in comparison). It is time he knew the truth." She disappeared for a few moments, returning with a small leather-wrapped parcel. And up to his bedroom door we went, where she knocked with no little vigor, surprising an Earl in his silk dressing gown of dark wine and yellow.
"What the devil?" he asked. "Archie, please tell me we dont have to go rescue anyone or shoot anyone or find anything or especially, most particularly, do not tell me that a mysterious note has been discovered in the driveway."
"I have something I want to say." Lady Madeline said, ignoring his sarcasm.
"Well, give me a moment." The Earl shut the door firmly and when he reappeared he was at least clad in a shirt over tan pantalons, feet bare, padding down the hall after Lady Madeline who was making a beeline for the study.
When we got there, she whirled around and slapped the little miniature of her brother in front of him. "Is this something you recognize, Alexander? I understand you found it. Why didnt you tell me?"
"Well, isnt it obvious?" He picked up the miniature and scrutinized it again with a pained expression.
"No, it isnt "obvious"", said Lady Madeline. "What do you make of this?"
"Oh why torment me, Maddy?" groaned the Earl, exasperated. "And in front of Archie, too."
"Archie can hear what I have to say."
"Then tell me this is the Comptes son."
"This boy is not the Comptes son."
"Tell me this is not the son of my father, the Earl of Edrington."
"He is the son of your father."
"Then what else should I think?" growled Edrington. "Did you haul me out of bed just to torment me further? Your half-brother, not your brother."
"Not my brother. Nor my half-brother."
"But are you not the daughter of the Compte? And this boy the son of my father?"
"Yes to both. But this boy is not my half-brother. I lied to Archie and I am eternally sorry for it since it has caused you pain."
"Madeline, I think my head is going to explode like a powder keg if you do not speak more plainly. Who, then, is this boy who looks so much like my own portrait that we might be twins?"
"The reason, Alexander, that this portrait looks like yours is that this is a portrait of none other than the present Earl of Edrington, as a young boy." She popped the portrait out of the frame and handed it to him. "Look, same artist as the portrait in the hall above. It looks like you because it IS you."
Now my head felt as if it might explode like a powder keg. And there stood Lady Madeline, ready to light the fuse. "It is time I told you both the truth."
Ch. 45Madelines Story
So there we were, frozen like a tableau in a farce. I do not think either Edrington or I breathed while we stared at Madeline, who was biting her lower lip and fighting back something that looked rather like tears. But she gathered herself as I had seen her do so many times before.
"This is a picture of you, Alexander. I saw this portrait lying in a drawer one day and I stole it."
"Why did you have to steal it?" I asked, "Surely if it was in a drawer no one cared much about it and wouldnt have minded if youd wanted to have a portrait of your cousin."
"No, I had no rights to it. I took it without even knowing whose portrait it was."
Edrington stood with his arms crossed over his chest, looking warily at her. "But why?"
"Because I thought ityouwere cute. I mean, just look at it. What a darling boy, so blonde and with all those curls. Mischief in the eyes, and sadness too. Such good work, too, masterfully done for something so small. I didnt think it was right for the artist," she squinted at the signature, "Mr. Gainesborough, to have exerted himself only to have his fine miniature languish unseen in a drawer. But I was never sure whose portrait this was until I saw the one here in the hall. And then it all made sense that your father must have sent it, and the Comptesse hid it in the drawer of an unused chest. Your father sent parcels to the Chateaux until shortly before he died. The Comptesse used to laugh at his letters in the beginning, but as time went on she began to cry."
"What an extremely pleasant feeling that must have been for you to have it all make sense, and I can but hope that at some point tonight, and hopefully in the next few minutes, Archie and I will know similar satisfaction " smiled the Earl in that even, low, pleasant tone that I had come to recognize as the first tremors of a major eruption.
"Its a very complicated story and will require more than just minutes to tell."
"But what about the boy who died, the child that your mother had shortly after marrying the Compte? Why dont you carry his portrait?" I asked.
"My mother never had any other children but me. That boy was my half-brother and no miniatures were painted of him during his life."
"All right, Ive had just about enough of this," said Edrington, beginning to pace the room. "If the Comptesse is your mother ."
"She was not my mother, Alexander."
He stared at her, guardedly, his mouth a thin tight line. "And the Compte?"
"I am the daughter of the Compte. I am his illegitimate daughter," said Madeline.
"CHRIST!" yelped the Earl. "Are you saying that the Comptesse raised the Comptes mistresses daughter as her own? Thats preposterous! Not even in my mothers idiot novels would something so absurd take place."
"I say, Edrington," I inserted, "I think that the word idiot is doing it rather brown where Miss Northcotes.." They both glared me into silence.
"No, Im not saying that. Now sit down, Alexander, you are distracting me. I wont finish the story if you stand over me glowering like that."
"My friend," I piped in. "I think now would be an excellent time for a large snifter of brandy."
"Brilliant suggestion!" he hissed through clenched teeth. "Yes, Archie, I am glad to see someone in here has finally said something intelligent." And going over to shelves, he removed a bottle and two beautifully cut glasses, and sloshed a generous amount in each, handing me one.
"What about me?" said Madeline.
"Ladies dont drink brandy unless they are ill. Have you learned nothing of proper deportment?
Just keep talking, Maddy."
"Very well." She took a chair and folded her hands in her lap. I was surprised how calm she looked. "In order to understand my life, you must know something about my father." She took a deep breath and smiled a small smile, staring through the night-blackened windows of the study as if she could see through the darkness, over the ocean, and all the way back to the France of her childhood.
"My father, now, there was a MAN! He was the greatest duelist in all of France, which he had to be for before he married he was challenged a lot. He loved women, and women loved him. When he was young, he served under Marshal De Saxe, whose name I know means something to you, Alexander, for you have his Reveries in your collection. Like De Saxe, he was a scholar and a free-thinker as well as a seeker of pleasure. He did indeed, as you have always thought, seduce Lady Madelines mother at the court of King Louis, or perhaps she even seduced him, but he had the honor when she presented herself to him in distress to marry her and to be sure, the sizeable dowry offered by her father sweetened the pot. The Comptesse never said an unkind word about your father in my hearing, or that of my mother. He had always treated her as a gentleman. And I wanted you to know that, Alexander, and you too, Archie, because if you had not told me tonight what you did I would not be sitting here now."
Edrington glared at me. "I thought you could keep a confidence, Archie."
"Archie acted out of friendship and you are damned lucky to have found him," said Madeline. "Save your illusions, youll need them in a moment. Lady Madelines mother never loved your father in the way she loved my father. She felt that her parents and your fathers parents had pushed them together, and she did not care to have her heart assumed for her when she found that everyone, including your father, had decided that since he wanted her that she must of necessity love him back in equal measure. For she wanted passion and romance from life."
Alexander was running his fingers over and over through the curly hair on the side of his temple. "Stop right there. Lady Madelines mother, you keep saying?"
"Yes, Lady Madelines mother."
"Then you were not raised as Lady Madeline? Where the devil is Lady Madeline, my cousin, if she isnt you?"
"Lady Madeline du Martine as was born to the Compte and Comptesse is dead, for four years now. I am sorry."
I gasped. I looked over at my friend and he was white as marble. "Did you kill her?"
"Of course not!" Madeline, or whoever she was, was outraged. "How can you think such a thing!" She glared at him, shaking. "Ive a mind to stop right here and you can go to the devil!"
"Its not entirely preposterous, considering that in the short time I have known you you have already killed.."
Madeline slapped the desktop hard with palm of her hand. It sounded like a rifleshot. "Every single man I have shot has been a bad man, the very worst sort, the kind of person who would sell the life of another human whose guilt or innocence they know nothing of simply for money," she hissed the words out, biting them off through bared teeth. "Can you say the same, Alexander? Or you, Archie? Has every man you have ever shot or run through with the sword or directed cannon fire at been a bad, evil man who you know deserved to die? Bounty hunters! Pah! I hate them!"
Edrington and I cast uncomfortable glances at each other, but he seemed to have regained a measure of control.
"I apologize. Profusely. Pray continue this implausible yet curiously gripping narrative."
And she did. "You must understand that life in a large Chateaux far from Paris is quite different from here, and things which would cause scandal in England are of little consequence to the French. My father was a loving husband to the Comptesse, but after the birth of that first child, she was never in good health or spirits and after the birth of Lady Madeline, the doctors told the Compte she could have no more children. Under those circumstances, it is only natural that a man will take a mistress." Edrington made a rude noise, but Madeline was not distracted. "It so happened that when the boy was 6 years old, the Comptesse brought over to France an Englishwoman she had befriended as a girl and stayed in touch with through the years, as she had several of the many characteristics that I now know to be typical of the Edrington strain, and those were that she was a prolific letter-writer and excessively loyal to her friends." Lady Madeline smiled a little at Alexander, but he did not return her warmth.
"This governess stayed on to care for the infant Lady Madeline even after the boy, Henri, died. And she and the Compte fell in love and she became his mistress. And they had a daughter, born 18 months after the birth of Lady Madeline, and I am that daughter." She took a deep breath.
"The Compte ordered that Lady Madeline and I be raised side-by-side. Not with the idea that I would ever take my place in society beside her there are some things that one does not do even in France, but with the idea that I should be educated and groomed for a better marriage than one might think an illegitimate daughter could aspire to. He thought I might marry a composer, or an artist, or a man of letters. But my father was also a great sportsman, and he loved few things better than to ride and shoot and fish and hunt all around his lands. Alexander, it is true that he taught me to shoot. And to ride like a man. All of these things he did in private for he knew the Comptesse would not approve. He loved me, once I was old enough for him to know. He saw me as an asset to his house, and how many other men would feel the same about a bastard child and a girl child at that? I say that my father loved me, he was proud of me, and because of this I became proud of myself and thought to one day choose my own destiny despite my birth. Then the Terror came."
A memory flashed through my mind of Lady Madeline balancing on tiptoes on the rocks, pleading with her eyes and her words to be taught to cast for salmon and I realized how she mustve looked as a girl, unwilling to be left out of her fathers sport. An idyllic girlhood she must have had, ended by the abhorrent violence that raged through the French countryside in 1793.
"But before that, when I was fourteen years old, I saw you for the first time."
"What?! Impossible. I never set foot in France until I was twenty-six years old."
"But I had been to England. My mother received word that her own mother was in ill health, and the Compte paid her passage to go back home to Northumberland and take me with her, so that I might know my grandmother. France and England were at peace then."
"Your grandmother lived near here?"
"Yes. Our coach took us right past the gates to Edrington Manor. And there I saw a young man in a fine brocade coat sitting on the wall throwing rocks at nothing. I couldnt have known that you were the boy in my stolen portrait. By then, your face had lost those soft lines of childhood and your hair was tightly pulled back and tied with a ribbon, so that those curls could no longer be seen as now. You looked sad, like you were waiting for something. My mother pointed at the gates and said "That boy is probably a relative of yours. Ill wager that is one of the sons of the Earl of Edrington." Then I thought you might be the boy of my miniature.
The Earl blinked, massaging his temples. "I remember that day. I was waiting for my father, who had promised to take me back to Oxford. He didnt show up, and Reese ended up driving me back to university. Yes, I was unhappy AND angry. But, you are saying your mother said we were related after all?"
"I am your second cousin, as I found out from my grandmother on that journey. I am just as closely related to you as the true Lady Madeline would have been, had she lived. So I really didnt lie to you about anything important."
"WELL, IN THAT CASE !" bellowed Edrington as he flung his empty brandy glass at the wall. It hit the doorframe and shattered into a hundred crystalline needles. Madeline and I both flinched, wide-eyed. "This WHOLE story is preposterous," he hissed. "I dont believe a word of it. If you arent Lady Madeline then you cant be my cousin! I dont have any other cousins."
"Yes, you do. Archie, while my second cousin is trying to think of a polite way to say the word "bastard" it might be best to get him another glass of brandy, if you would be so good."
An excellent suggestion. I got right to it.
"My mother was the Comptesses half-sister, the product of a dalliance between her father the Marquis and a servant of the house. Now dont look so insulted. None of us here are stupid, and certainment! this sort of thing is commonplace here as in France." My blush might have betrayed me, but no one saw because Madeline and Edrington were facing each other, eyes locked like the horns of rutting stags.
"While the Marquis was in no respect as loving a father to his illegitimate daughter as the Compte, he did at least when he found out the news marry my grandmother straight off to his Huntmaster, and so my mother was brought up on the estate and there she sometimes played with the lonely only child of the house. The Marquis paid for her tutoring in painting and French, and she learned to write a fine hand and was trained to become a governess or schoolmistress. And so it was that when she was of age and looking for a post, the Comptesse offered her a position as a governess to her son and the Compte was happy that the Comptesse had an English kinswoman in the house for by that time, the Comptesse was very homesick but her ill health prevented her from visiting her home again, even when her father the Marquis fell ill and died. I think perhaps it is possible she encouraged your father in her letters. I think she played at romance. She was a strong-willed woman, the Comptesse, but vain. When her health began to fail, she relieved her youth over and over again. Your father may not have appreciated Lady Edrington, but she is many times over a better woman than the Comptesse. And it goes without saying that neither you nor Katherine would be here. Both of you are strong. The Comptesses children were weak, and consumptive like she turned out to be."
Edrington mouth was set in a hard line, but his eyes betrayed his fatigue. I splashed a bit more brandy in his glass and some in mine as well, just to be companionable.
"How can say you never lied to me about anything important? Dont you think that being, er, illegitimate two times over and not Lady Madeline at all was IMPORTANT?" he snapped.
"It wasnt important to me. The degree of relationship is the same and since the Republic no aristocratic titles mean anything at all in France, and to present an emigre as an aristocrat here in England is to perpetrate a fraud. Alexander, all noble titles were abolished by decree. Do you know what an aristocrat is in France? Someone who owns a horse, a sword, and a dog. I have two of the three, and would have a sword if I were not a woman. Theres no such person as "Lady" Madeline. Only Citoyenne Madeline, and her Citoyenne half-sister. I am just as much your cousin as the girl born Lady Madeline du Martine."
"Thank you for the illuminating meditation on fraudulence. And just what the hell is your name?"
"What is a name, Alexander, but what you are known by? You have many and everyone seems to call you something different. Everyone I know now living calls me Madeline, or Lady Madeline".
I had a sudden idea. "Madeline, or whatever, all right, fine, Madeline," I stumbled over the name, "You didnt fall in love with Edrington did you that day you saw him from the carriage?"
"Three brandies into this story," muttered Edrington sourly, "I am just starting to believe I should have a fourth."
Ch. 46The Edrington Strain
"Then do have some more, because I am about to get to the heart of the subject," Lady Madeline said as she poured more amber liquid in each of our glasses. "Really, Ive seldom had such an attentive audience. Very well, I doubt either of you can imagine what it was like living in the first days of the Republic. One can hate the edifice, but admire the foundation and I fervently wanted to believe that France would become a better place and so, for that matter, did my father. Men began to believe that their birth did not limit them anymore, that the lowest born man in France could rise to an important position. Liberte, egalite, and "brother"hood. But of course, the women were only to be allowed to taste the crumbs of the new freedom. But, those women, I was not a part of their world. And instead of more justice and shared bounty, the streets began to run slick with blood and anyone who offended someone else could be accused of being an "aristocrat" and brought before a tribunal then slaughtered with less humanity than a pig."
"After the Terror, after Lady Madeline had died and I knew my family had been guillotined, I sat on a rock with Moustache and looked out across the sea and decided that I wanted my life to count for something. I wanted to have my own adventures, not just read about them in books. I chose England, for I had already begun to think of it as my own true country. I decided to offer to pass information in exchange for English citizenship. And I hated the thought that this violence and disorder would spread. England was the hope of all EuropeI believed it then and I believe it now."
"So I became a person who had never existedthe adventuress, Lady Madeline du Martine, who hated the Republicans for what they had done to her parents and who was loyal to England because of her English mother. I put on Lady Madelines own signet ring and her pearl earrings and I traveled to Paris and walked right into the British Ambassadors office and proceeded to give him information of such quality that it only took three hours of arguing and pleading to convince him that I would be useful. And for several years, I worked to make my name respected by British intelligence agents. I was nearly taken on several occasions, but each time I was able to retreat back into my other identity and name, the poor Lectrice from the farm, impoverished orphan daughter of a governess and one of the hated aristocrats."
"But why did you have to become Lady Madeline in order to spy on your countrymen?"
"Because the English, God love them, are keenly alive to class distinctions. Archie, do you believe that Major "Lord" Edrington, the Earl, Alexander, or even Zandy as we have come to know him, would have taken me with him to Indefatigable if he had not thought I was an aristocrat?"
"Er, well, um.." I stammered.
"Its all right, Archie," Edrington said quietly, "I wouldnt have. In this, she is right. But it gives me no pleasure to admit it."
"And believe me, the Ambassador would never have admitted me if I were just plain Josephine Martin."
"JOSEPHINE!" Edrington yelped, "What the hell kind of name is Josephine?"
"Its the name of the next Queen of France, you mark my words. And I dont go by Josephine any more. You dont have to call me "Lady" Madeline, but that is the name I answer to now. I feel I have grown into the part. To tell of my many adventures would be a book in itself, but when I heard what happened in Muzillac and I heard a certain Army Major with a last name I recognized had taken part in that doomed mission, I had an idea. I offered a Battery fortress and the ships that slept at anchor under its guns in exchange for an opportunity to meet my distant English cousin and try to talk my way back to England under his protection. The Admiralty agreed to set it up and include a certain Major Edrington in the company. It was, by that time, known to them that they had a traitor in the Diplomatic office and that he was a nobleman. So I offered to help look for him once I was established in society here by my cousin, who was by all accounts a gentleman and would do his duty."
Both of us were stunned. "Are you saying that an entire battle was fought just so you could meet Edrington?" I gasped.
"Entire wars have been fought for stupider and more trivial reasons. Besides, your side, OUR side, needed a good victory after Muzillac. If it wasnt Gironde, it would have been some other action and probably with far less information to plan the attack."
"Why didnt you just write to me?" Alexander said. "Surely the Ambassador would have gotten a dispatch out of France."
"Because I knew you would investigate and I did not think you would find enough evidence to satisfy yourself that I was not an impostor. See, I gave you credit, even then, for having some intelligence. Besides, it was too dangerous. Not all dispatches find England unread. I thought if I met you under the right circumstances, and brought along my Edrington Deerhound, that you would accept my identity without further investigation. Because from the time you saw a Scottish Deerhound in France, your mind naturally jumped to the obvious conclusion. You saw what you expected to see the Comptesses daughter." She laughed a little. "Only Mr. Styles was right. He saw through me from the beginning. He knew I was "no Comptessy"!"
"Oh, this is just better and better. Bested by an ill-, an ill-, um literiterate pressed man."
"Have some more brandy, cousin."
"Dont call me cousin! Faugh, I dont want to be your cousin."
"Everyone thinks you are my cousin so I suppose you will just have to decide if you want to enlighten them or not."
"What I dont understand," I proffered, trying to kick my brandy-sodden brain into a trot, "is why you are telling us this at all? Your shrub-, er SUBterfuge got you here where you wanted to be. You would have gotten married and that would be an end to it. You cant prove your story one way or the other .it is not as though we will go to France to check out this wild tale."
"I realized when Lady Katherine was abducted that I had gone too far and I should not have brought my intrigues to your very door."
"Well, that gives me some hope that you are not beyond all reason," Edrington commented dryly, "but I still cannot understand why you deliberately put yourself at such rishk."
Madelines dark eyes flashed. "Neither of you could possibly understand what it has been to grow up just slightly on the outside of things. Half-noble, living in a noble house, a bastard but too fine to be part of the world of the servants and their children. And then, living in the country with farm people, too educated to find true companionship in the company of those good folk. But free, Archie, my mind was always free and I had more options than the true Lady Madeline, who was already engaged to a nobleman, her future decided before she was even sixteen. When my parents died, and then Lady Madeline, I was truly alone. I could do whatever I pleased and no one would care and it would hurt no one but myself. If I died, no one would mourn me and few would miss me so I decided to really live. I wanted to do dangerous things simply for the thrill. I belonged nowhere and to no one."
I understood that, rather. "The Republic of Madeline," I mused.
"An exciting but lonely place to dwell, until I met you," Madeline returned with a rueful smile. "I had thought to tell the truth once I had made it on board the Indefatigable and was in sight of an English port, but then we sat for weeks off the shoreline of France. I feared being returned to the Gironde. You have seen that two attempts were made here in England to capture me. What chance would I have stood back in France? I gave myself away when I gave the Gironde to the Admiralty. By that time, I had decided that my cousin Alexander was the most narrow-minded, cold-hearted, and snobbish man I could possibly have had the foul luck to be stuck with on a small frigate. And his opinion of me was clear. A plain, gauche girl who was going to be a great burden but who must be dealt with so his own fine opinion of himself could be flattered some more."
Ch. 47 A Cutting-Out Party
But of course, I didnt go propose to Madeline. I had already determined that the least I could do for Edrington after he had been so kind as to find my Sue and arrange for us to meet again was to try to help his own romantic fortunes improve. It wouldnt, I reflected, do him any harm at all to fume in the study for awhile worrying that I might be proposing to his ladylove. Beyond that scheme, unfortunately, I wasnt thinking very well or clearly and so I decided to bring in reinforcements. I went straight to the Persian Bedroom and smashed my palm against the door hard, several times.
"Wake up, Cecil, you bloody Pasha!" I pounded some more. "Urp-Emergency!" I burped. There were some colorful curses and then the door opened to reveal Cecil, blinking and wearing a really shocking dressing robe.
"What the devil? Archie, you look like the dogs breakfast."
I peered curiously at him through eyes that were no doubt red-rimmed and bleary and held up one finger. "Shecil? Problem. Edrington is downstairs tearing up the library. He proposed to Madeline and she gave him what for. Um, its kind of complicated--Lady Madeline isnt really Lady Madeline but the Earl wants to marry her anyway and he doesnt have any shoes."
"Wait a minute. No shoes? This IS serious. Archie, you are, uh, drunk as a Lord."
"Yes." I agreed, then squinted some more, peering at his chest. "Thats really a foul sort of dressing robe. I wouldnt let Lady Katherine get an eyeful of that."
"Whats wrong with it?"
"You look like a Christmas Cracker."
"Well, who can resist opening a Christmas Cracker? Ill get dressed and come down in a few minutes."
"Wear shoes. Theres a lot of broken glassh lying about."
"This just gets better and better. Not to worry, Ill turn up."
"Do you think I should get the Earl some boots or something?
Cecil paused to consider, before shutting the door firmly in my face. "No. I would not think it prudent under these circumstances."
I returned to find Edrington on his hands and knees picking up glass with his fingers and depositing it piece by piece into a hat. He looked up at me angrily and said, "Well?"
"Dont be an ass, my Lord. I didnt go propose to Madeline. I went and woke up old Cecil. Hes on his way. Hes really very clever, I am sure he will think of something."
"What? The most talkative man in England? Have you lost your wits? Just when I was thinking this just couldnt possibly be worse!"
"Yes, bye the bye, it could."
"If Miss Northcote were staying here, I could have woken her up instead and then she would have written it all into a nice novel for Madeline to read to your mother." Edrington winced. "It would probably sell thousands of copies."
We were surprised to see Ashok appear again the doorway, and even more startled that he was wearing a splendidly cut Army uniform of the reddest red imaginable.
"Gentlemen? Mind if I join you?" he asked in his melodic lilt. I guess we both just stared at him, but he seemed unfazed. "Now that I am no longer your servant, I should probably introduce myself. I am Captain Ashok Saruvita, Medical officer in the Sipoy Bengal Lancers, and as such, I am entitled to share a brandy with fellow officers I believe." He picked up the bottle that was sitting on Edringtons desk, regarding it with a low whistle of exhaled breath. "Impressive. As your former Major-domo, I would have sworn this bottle was full."
"Actually," I said helpfully, "thats the second bottle. The first one is behind the chair."
"Ah. That is indeed a relief. And look, I have providentially brought my own glass!" Smiling faintly, he poured several fingers of the amber liquid.
"Captain Saruvita," began Edrington, stumbling over the unfamiliar cadence, "I demand to know what the devil youve been up to with my sister."
"Certainly, my Lord. I am familiar with European medical practices but I also study my fathers way, the Ayurvedic, a very ancient practice of healing. I have been treating your sister in private, to help her regain some use of her legs. It was meant to be her surprise for you."
"Youve been using heathen practices on Katherine?" Edrington said, alarmed.
"These methods have worked for many centuries. You might want to reflect on the fact that there are more of us than there are of you English, and some reasons why that might be."
"Well, have you had any success?" I asked cautiously.
"She is able to move her legs and stand with difficulty. Improvement in such cases is slow, but there has been progress. The most difficult thing in treating a European with Ayurvedic is to convince them that the mind has much to do with the body. Your sister does not walk because she believed she could not walk. The fever caused true weakness, but the body has healed. The mind forgot how to move the legs. I have been teaching her to use her mind to heal her body. And bye the bye, as you English so amusingly say, she is still pure. I might be a brown-skinned man, but that does not mean I lack honor."
"It seems I owe you an apology," said Edrington. He looked absolutely miserable. "I really did think that you and her ."
"The heart feels as it pleases, but the mind controls the body, my Lord. Besides, I return to India. My family has chosen a bride for me and I am eager to marry."
"You dont choose your own wife?" I asked, fascinated.
"Men of my caste have their wives chosen for them by their parents. We often do not even see each other until the wedding day." He smiled, white teeth flashing. He really was a fine-looking man to be so dark. "When you lift the veil of a high-caste Indian maiden, you will often find a jewel of such rare beauty as to make you faint with pleasure. And their mothers teach our women how to delight their husbands and themselves in a hundred different private ways. Perhaps again, my Lord, with all the fondness one feels for these English women who have spirit and are very amusing to converse with, this might also explain why there are more of us than there are of you."
He swirled and sipped the last droplets of liquid from his glass. "And now, I ride to rejoin Col. Wellesley. He has received the sort of encouragement he desired from the right quarters, my debt to him is paid, and I shall return home." He bowed, clicked his heels together. "Lt. Kennedy, a pleasure Sir! My Lord, perhaps we shall one day meet under more favorable circumstances."
"I feel surrounded," Edrington commented. "I wonder..."
Cecil chose this moment to come bustling in and I was astounded to see he had a great platter of steaming eggs and a large pot of what smelled remarkably like coffee. And was.
"I thought perhaps you gentlemen might be ready for something to soak up a little of that brandy and clear your heads."
"Did you wake up the cook?"
"Of course not. I made this stuff myself. Its like I keep telling you, Archie, I have hidden depths. Pick locks, mend broken hearts, break eggs, roast coffee beans... there is NO end to my talents. I love nothing more than to rustle up my own breakfast on my cooks day off. No one else in my kitchen can make coffee worth a damn. Here, gather around, eat up, drink your medicine, get sober, and tell your Uncle Cecil all about it." He served up eggs and coffee.
Edrington pronged a moody forkful.
"You have to promise first not to put any of this about. A Ladys reputation hangs in the balance," Edrington muttered, eyeing the coffee with suspicion. It was darker than tar.
"My word, given sincerely," vowed Cecil. "Mayhap, I hope to marry into this family so it behooves me to bone up on the family skeletons."
"Cecil, that's awful!" I grimaced.
So while Edrington threw back several cups of strong, black coffee I did my best to give Cecil the necessary facts. To be sure, I left out great chunks of the narrative but he got the gist of it all right. The coffee sliced through the haze in my brain and I was now just feeling tired, not quite so stupidly drunk.
"And you actually put it to her like that?" Cecil asked Edrington in disbelief when we had finished up the tale.
"Im afraid so."
"Well," he said removing his spectacles and cleaning them on his shirttail. "Its no surprise the lady handed you your hat. In fact, the only real surprise here is that weve not had to call for a surgeon to have the hat removed from somewhere rather deep inside your Lordships person."
"You do not find it surprising that Lady Madeline is not who, or what, we thought?" I queried.
"Oddly enough, old chap, no. She was too educated for one thing to be a French noblewoman, and far too handy with a pistol. I mean, have you ever met one? Ive met plenty in my day. They dont go in for that sort of thing there. Nor, with the laudable exception of your sister, my dear Edrington, do they here."
"What is needed is a plan," I noted. "Edrington has made a real hash of things and its going to take some pretty words and maybe a whole lot more to tack the lady off her current course, which seems to be towards Wellesley and India. Not that I, personally, have anything against either."
"Im bloody sick of bloody India and I've never even bloody been there," groaned the Earl. "I dont even know why I care so much WHAT she does, but there it is. I do. I cannot fathom it."
"You dont have to have a reason," I said gently, laying a hand on Edringtons hunched and sagging shoulders.
Cecil gave both of us an appraising look, which was not devoid of sympathy, but his tone was scientifically brisk. "You know, hearing what Archie just said, it strikes me that we might want to attempt what I believe you Naval chaps call a "cutting out" action. You know, isolate a ship and then launch a boarding party to take her over. And arent all ships a she? Now how is that done?"
"Well, as you say, you have to isolate the ship, and then the boarding party takes the vessel by surprise while another group keeps watch to provide covering fire if needed for the cutting-out and the escape. It takes tremendous nerve to send such a small force into an enemy encampment."
"Not a problem. Archie, you and I will isolate the lady and provide the covering fire. Id planned to haunt these hallways anyhow, so whenever Wellesley drops by to pay his respects to the lady I shall stick to him like glue so that he and Madeline do not have time alone. I will be Wellesleys new best friend at Edrington Hall."
"Yes, and I really should invite him to spend several days at my house. I can tell him that Hornblower is dying to meet him," I was beginning to get enthusiastic. "But what about the actual cutting-out itself?"
"Well, that happy task would fall to Edrington. From what you have told me, he has the element of surprise in his favor at least."
"I cant believe I am sitting here listening to you two plan my courtship for me its probably no use, shes really quite angry at me. I mean, just because you keep Wellesley away from her for a little while it doesnt follow that she will be willing to spend that time with me."
"But Edrington, you arent going to let yourself by bested by a preening popinjay like Wellesley are you? I mean, thats not like you," Cecil scolded.
"No, by God, Im not. I just dont know how I should proceed."
"Hes a Lt. Colonel, youre a Lt. Colonel."
"Hes got a bright future in the Army and considerable charm with the ladies. And---you?"
"Bright future, hell, Im already rich. Bright present more like!"
"Well then, put a mark for that on the black side of your ledger sheet and a red one on his."
"The charm thing, that would seem to be the problem," I observed. Cecil wrinkled his brow thoughtfully, then wagged his finger at Edrington.
"Probably any time youve looked at a girl, all you had to do was sort of let her know you were an Earl and an officer that was all it took to captivate her, am I right?"
"I suppose so."
"So actual wooing, you havent had to worry with that much, have you?"
"I suppose not."
"Gentlemen, we stand at the doorway of a new century. Gone are the days when a title and a big pile of money were sufficient to induce a lady worth winning to whisper a shy, "I do" or risk the wrath of their parents and the scorn of society. These modern females have considerably more spirit; weaned from girlhood on a steady diet of romance novels they expect more from a fiancee than a simple, "how about it, then?" Edrington, its my guess that you werent born knowing how to be a good soldier."
"Of course not! I have done considerable reading on the subject and I learned from those who were already the best military minds in the Army."
"Well, unfortunately, we have none among us who claim to be a master of the art of woomanship, but there are other resources available to be sure. Edrington, old boy, what I am going to propose is going to test your mettle as it has never been tested before. It is going to require a certain intrepid spirit and a willingness to endure excruciating torture, but I think it is your only chance."
"Id walk across live coals for Madeline, you know that I would," he said huskily.
"Edrington, the only walk you have to make is from one side of your library to the other."
"Oh, no, youre not seriously suggesting "
"Oh yes, I am. Look, the ladies love these romantic heroes. Well, we are going to find out what makes these chaps so damn fascinating and we are going to do and say exactly the same things. It cant miss!" He popped up from his chair, chortling, "Sometimes, I'm so brilliant I even amaze myself. Back in a moment!"
Ch. 48Sapphire Bullets
Edrington and I exchanged incredulous looks, but Cecil was very much in earnest for he returned with a stack of volumes of varying thickness but none terribly so; their gold-embossed spines having designs so floral in nature as to render their contents as well as their intended readership obvious. Why is it, I mused silently, that romance novels always have so many flowers on their covers? One would think it would make more sense to simply plaster a drawing of a handsome man and woman engaged in some sort of embrace. But then, that would perhaps be too obvious. No doubt any girl caught reading something which had an exterior that was truly representative of the interior would want to die of the shame. Hence, flowers on the cover, even if the novel be about dashing Lord Marlbury, who did not, as far as we could tell in skimming it for good lines and instructive illustrations of the proper way to propose matrimony to a reluctant and blushing maiden, go in much for gardening. Although he did, on occasion, flatter the heroine with the opinion that her cheeks were pink as rose petals.
"If such were indeed the case", Edrington commented huffily, "she should have put her parasol to its proper use. Instead, the silly chit limits its lone appearance in the 180 or so pages striking Lord Marlbury across the cheek when he attempted to make violent love to her in a carriage."
"Now look here, Edrington," Cecil said indicating a passage with a well-chewed pencil nub, "Lord Marlbury has softened up the lady by writing her what appear to be sincere and heartfelt letters of apology. But far from apologizing sincerely, he has actually blamed her for causing his shocking breach of gentlemanly etiquette by being entirely too adorable and bewitching for a man of strong and ardent feeling such as himself. What do you think? How about having a go at her in a carriage, and then writing her some letters of apology after she has smacked you about smartly? From what I see here, ladies love to be outraged, and then forgive, particularly when their own beauty is avowed the true culprit. And the idea that the hero (who in this novel appears to be as singularly unemployed as I am) does little all day but struggle to master his strong passions in the face of maidenly virtue leaves them quite breathless."
"Corsets get loosened," I added. "Smelling salts are passed around to all and sundry."
"Forget it, Vaughn. First of all, theres a vast difference between my situation and Marlburys, chiefly, Madeline and I live under the same roof. Theres no need for me to get her alone in a carriage when I can simply walk down the hall and surprise her in her nightshift any time I care to. Secondly, I dont think she would buy the whole youre-too-beautiful-and-I-cant-help-myself conceit. And she probably figures if my passions were that uncontrollably strong Id have already disgraced myself in some way during those times when we were actually alone together. Of course, Ive thought about it .but, I have my standards, unlike Marlbury, who strikes me as a bounder and a cad."
"Frankly, I dont see old Edrington grasping any part of Madeline, earnestly, passionately, or even with the desperation of a drowning man until she has given him a VERY encouraging look, or better yet an engraved invitation to proceed. She is quite often armed, you know," I pointed out.
"Youre right, gentlemen, Marlbury is a spent force. The appeal of reforming the hero through the love of a good woman dont apply in your case, anyhow, Edrington, since you arent really caddish enough to signify as such. A pity, that they do so love to reform a chapno wonder they find you such a dull fellow. A few more vices, which can be indulged or discarded depending on the effect one wishes to give, would not go amiss. But, my goodness, there are dozens more novels here. Something is bound to provide the desired inspiration. Here, you take this one " he tossed Edrington a slim volume, which hit him right in the stomach. "And Archie, this one is for you "
Great, I sighed to myself, The Forbidden Abbey. Ghosts, rattling windowpanes, moaning specters, and a sawdust-for-brains heroine who keeps leaping out of the bed and roaming about in the dark of night with only a guttering candle. The hero, dark and brooding; harboring a terrible secret. Cecil must have lost his mind, I thought. Its the only explanation. He picked up his choice, exclaiming over it with immoderate glee.
"Ah, The Bonny Lieutenant. Ive heard ladies talking about this one. It was all the crack last summer!"
"That one was also written by our dinner guest," Edrington informed him.
"You dont say!" said Cecil excitedly. "Well then, this is promising. And so the hero is loosely based on Mr. Kennedy?"
"Very loosely," I added. For some minutes, that peculiarly deep four-in-the-morning silence was only punctuated by the rattle of rapidly turned pages, an occasional exasperated sigh from Edrington, and frequent chuckles from Cecil, who appeared to be deriving far too much pleasure in The Bonny Lieutenant, which was a spot of prose I had begun to loathe with all my heart. However, as I skimmed through the adventures of Miss Sophie Darlington as she required the occasional rescue from the dark forces at work in the sprawling Abbey ruins, a little germ of an idea began to grow in my mind. But it was Cecil who spoke first.
"I say, this is quite a good proposal scene. Yes, I am sure this is how it should be done."
Edrington raised his eyebrows, "Well? How the devil do they want it put then?"
"All right, here it says, and I quote:" Cecil cleared his throat and adopted a lugubrious expression. "He chose the orchard, the apple orchard, when all the trees were in bloom and the sweet scent of the flowers on the gentle warm breeze carried the promise of abundant harvest to come. The white petals drifted down and caught in her chestnut curls, and it was the easiest thing in the world for him to lean over and stroke them gently from her ringlets. He heard her breath catch in her throat as she placed a hand over her maidenly bosom as if to shield its lacy expanse from his piercing blue gaze. Her eyes met his and he saw her question and her trust. Taking her small, white hand in his own, he pressed her delicate fingers gently and went down on one knee, heedless of the damp earth and his own snow-white breeches. As she returned his ardent gaze, she was thrilled by his handsome upturned face, his eyes were sapphire bullets of pure love, and she knew she could deny him nothing. My, my, Archie, what on earth did you do to the girl to inspire THAT burst of poesy?"
I knew I was blushing, which is something I have just always particularly despised about myself. I absolutely cannot control that telling rush of blood to my face. Even Edrington looked as if something was tickling his nose.
"Nothing!" I swore. "Look, Cecil, this is all too embarrassing. It was a boys folly, nothing more. I used to ride over to her house, climb the back wall, and meet her secretly in the gardens when I was sixteen. I kissed her five or six times, well four times certainly, in the orchard behind her fathers house. One day, he caught me at it and just like that I was riding home in his own carriage, disgraced as anything, with his groom riding my own horse back home for me. A strongly-worded note to the Govnor, and next thing Im off to join the Navy and so on and so forth and here I am, come full circle, hearing you, Cecil, who at 16 never missed an opportunity to have a bit of sport at my expense, read out loud about me, er..my character, kissing Sue in the bloody apple orchard!"
Edrington laughed at this. "But surely you didnt propose?"
"Of course not! I was sixteen! I just wanted to kiss her, so I did."
"Thereby proving beyond doubt, Archie, that you have more sense than most. That rivals your justly-famous "Horatio, they mean to kill us!" for simplicity and truth. But it would be a pretty short novel if you wrote it. Chapter One. Met Sue. Chapter Two. Wanted to kiss Sue, so did. Got caught, went home. The End," Edrington intoned loftily. "Even I might have the patience to sit through that one all the way. Would that you were the author of THIS particular bit of swill." He held up his book, cover pinched between thumb and forefinger, and waved it dismissively.
"But, Edrington, what do you think? I rather like the whole grasp the dainty hand and sink to one knee out in the garden method. That bit about the promise of ripening fruitallegory, my friends, allegory!" Cecil winked suggestively.
"No, Im sorry. I dont see it. First of all, its winter and nothing is blooming and the garden is pure cold mud at just present so if I suggested a walk in the garden, Maddy would think I was daft. Second of all, if I attempted to pick anything out of her hair shed definitely take it as a criticism. And third, in case you havent noticed, Ive got plain brown eyes so the whole sapphire bullets ruse is beyond my abilities, not that I wouldnt pony up the price of admission to see the technique as performed by the original cast member and still the incomparable best ever to play the part."
I groaned. This was agonizing.
"Must have been some kiss, though. Ambitious sort, werent you?" Cecil had the bit between his teeth and was clearly not going to let it drop. "Admirals daughter and all that. I recall my first kiss at sixteen was with my older sisters chambermaid a silly creature who giggled all the way through it. But to her credit as a candidate for a first kiss, her father did not have his own arsenal of naval-issue weaponry and a 68-gun Line of Battle Ship at the ready."
"Cant say as I blame the chambermaid for giggling," I retorted. "And friends, it was indeed some kiss and well worth risking a raking broadside to obtain. Which I, in fact, got upon my return to the Kennedy family seat! But as a gentleman, I can say no more."
"This is a complete waste of time. All they really want to see is the hero swathed in bandages, or with a prodigious black eye, or run through with a sword, or shot in a duel over them, lying on the ground at their feet," said Edrington. " Bloodthirsty females, all of these fictional types. If either of you could be prevailed upon to bring me a pair of my boots ."
"I know!" Cecil exclaimed. "We can bring you in on a stretcher with bandages wrapped around your head and say you fell off your horse chasing away a dognapper who was trying to steal Moustache! Archie, in disguise, can sneak onto the estate at night and steal Moustache, and you can chase him and then we will both bring you back on a stretcher and you will be a hero for saving her dog and she will find you romantic because you are hurt in her service, and surely she will fling herself sobbing across your chest and ..hmmm..what are we doing out there, Archie? Well need an answer for that."
Edringtons eyes rolled so far back they could scarcely be seen. "It is indicative of my utterly exhausted, inebriated state that I am almost prepared to believe that could work. Archie? Would you like to add dognapping to your list of accomplishments?"
"No!" I said. "What if Reese shoots me when I am sneaking around the stables! Isnt that where the beast is quartered?"
"Actually, Moustache sleeps in Madelines bedroom at night," Edrington reminded.
"Worse and worse, shes a much better shot than Reese!"
"A pity you wont help a friend, Archie." Cecil said. "Id do it for you, but Moustache takes a dim view of me and I dont think he would go along with the scheme. But Archie here, he loves Archie! Ive seen him licking Archies hand."
"Perhaps he likes the taste of soup," Edrington said, quite unnecessarily.
"Cecil always has a reasonable excuse," I explained. "He claimed he was too fat to wear the dress disguise, otherwise, he would have been MORE than happy to impersonate Lady Madeline and be taken hostage."
"Archie, Archie...you wrong me, indeed you do. Havent I already volunteered to spend the next few weeks dogging Wellesley? You have to know that could prove dangerous, to my sanity if not to my person. When I am laying cold in my grave, having expired from the tedium of another account of his exploits on the subcontinent..."
"I quite like Wellesley," I said hotly. "I do not see why you two do not! Oh, never mind. I believe I just figured it out."
"Well, then, what about the dognapping?"
"Oh, leave him be," Edrington said. "Besides, it would be a cruel thing to do to my mother. AND what about when the bandages come off and there isnt any wound underneath? That IS a problem. And I do not ever fall off my horse!" he finished up irritably.
"That problem could be easily dealt with," Cecil said, casting a subtle glance at the empty Brandy decanter. "But I can see it would be unfair to alarm Lady Edrington."
"Cecil, you have simply got to meet my sisters," I commented. "You have much in common. Anyhow, Edrington, did you find nothing of use in your novel?"
Edrington ignored the question. "What I dont understand is why these men, Bonny Lieutenants aside, who seem to all be some sort of war hero or fantastically wealthy nobleman, or at the very least a moderately successful curate, can be so very impressively skilled at all forms of warfare, swordplay, riding, politics, oratory, and so on but cant seem to come up with a simple and direct approach for winning the heart of the heroine. Why are they so good at almost everything important in life, but make such buffoons of themselves when confronted with the woman they adore? It defies all logic!"
We just stared back at him, unblinkingly.
"Right. Perhaps it would be best to say no more about that. Well, the hero of my slim volume seems to have reacted to his initial set down by the lady in question by pining away. His lack of appetite was noted and this raised a certain alarm in the lady, who immediately began to regret her harsh words and indifference. Absurd."
"Well now, no, that could work. I think that method has promise, it certainly does get you a great deal of sympathetic attention," I said.
"Inconceivable, Vaughn. In case you havent noticed, we are at war. And the Articles of War make it a very serious offense to render oneself unfit for service. Which is the primary reason I havent tried to walk out of here yet over broken glass with bare feet. I am quite sure starving myself in order to impress a girl would come under the same definition. Im due back with my regiment in two weeks."
"I think you should try it, Cecil." I said, grinning. "You know, just sort of stare morosely at your plate and shove the food around a bit. Poke at it wearily with your fork as if youve never seen anything quite so untempting. Push it away untouched, look sadly at Lady K, and the look quickly away and sigh heavily. You can always have a cold collation sent up to your room later."
Cecil appeared to give this ludicrous suggestion a very serious consideration. "Archie, youre a natural born thespian! Self, not quite so much but very well, I shall try to convince Lady Katherine that I am pining away and have lost my appetite completely because she will not give me the encouragement I need to find life worth living. Although, of course, I shall not abandon my customarily dashing manner of dress." He smoothed the lapels of his horrid dressing gown with satisfaction.
"An excellent plan, Cecil. I expect shell be quite alarmed to have caused this sad deterioration in a nobleman who was once reputed to have eaten an entire.."
"Thats enough, Archie," he said firmly.
"It should get her attention," commented Edrington. "Katherine is naturally maternal, though shed never admit to it. She will be alarmed at least. But I think it only fair to warn you that if my chef gives notice over the perceived insult to his abilities, you shall have to find me as talented a replacement. I seem to be going through household staff at an appalling rate as they all turn out to be spies and actors and Army surgeons and so on instead of the simple butlers and footmen one thought one had employed. Do make it clear that your lack of interest in the viands is entirely due to a lovesick heart, and not to lumps in the demi-glace or something like, for I can see Katherine storming the kitchen and demanding to know what the man is about disappointing a guest like Lord Vaughn who is well known by all to "
"And then your chef turns out to actually be the Archbishop of Canterbury who is here on a hot tip he got from a divine revelation that the Holy Grail is currently masquerading as a coffee cup in your scullery," Cecil inserted smoothly. "But I thought we were really here to come up with a suitable tack for you to take to convince the object of YOUR devotions that your esteem is sincere and lasting and to melt her maidenly heart, assuming for the moment that she has got one."
"She does!" I interjected. "She must. She left out that whole bally bit about the sapphire .well, that part, anyhow, when she read it out loud to Edringtons mother while I was there. That proves she has a kind and sympathetic heart and would not discomfit a fellow simply for sport, unlike some." I stuck my tongue out at Cecil. "But look, I have something," I continued. But in reading this book, I think I see something the hero has done that might work."
"Im no actor, Archie," protested Edrington. "It has to be something I can do sincerely."
"Well, I think Ive found it. Its my observation, and I say this of course with great respect and all the admiration that those of us with blue eyes that are alternately piercing, twinkling, or riveting feel for the majority; that you brown-eyed reserved and stoic types are fantastically good at brooding."
"Yes, brooding. The Brown Study gambit. Brooding, glowering, gazing into the distance in a bored and detached sort of fashion, smiling grimly, giving sarcastic responses as if unamused or disinterested Edrington, you have the complete arsenal of weapons employed by darkly-handsome Count Montoni in this novel. Except for not being darkly handsome, but hopefully, thats not a strict requirement. Apparently, women cannot stand to see a man brood any more than they can stand to see a man not eat. It makes them insane to know what he is brooding about, and if it is by any chance well them!"
"I think I would be up to the task."
"Me, too," I said. "It seems like days ago but it was really only last night when Madeline precipitated this whole ghastly evening by coming to me in the library and trying to get me to divulge what you were so obviously brooding about. So we know she is susceptible."
"Suffering in silence yet out loud" mused Cecil. "A time-honored ploy. But I think it would take a little more this time. The novelty factor just isnt there. I think a letter would be appropriate."
"Yes, apologizing for the misunderstandings of this evening."
"Proud, haughty, yet conciliatory. No lectures of course. Apologize for your hasty words. Ah! I know .wish her every happiness with Wellesley and tell you how very much you approve of her choice. Tell her that she has exceeded your wildest expectations for her future happiness."
"Edrington, has Madeline ever given the slightest sign that she chose to do something simply because you wished it?"
"No, she takes delight in confounding me at every turn oh, I see. Yes, I begin to get the idea."
He brooded authentically for several minutes and then said, "Very well, load me up with a few more novels to peruse at my leisure. And now, since I have been a real sport," he looked at Cecil almost piteously, "would you PLEASE go get me a pair of boots. Ive had three cups of coffee and countless brandies and, I have not, in fact, been able to leave this room for many hours so if it would not be TOO much to ask, I have got to get some relief!"
FROM THE PAPERS OF ALEXANDER EDRINGTON, EARL OF EDRINGTON
December 17, 1798
I cannot allow the unpleasantness that followed our most recent interview to linger without making a full apology for the part that I played in precipitating what I feel certain is a grievous misunderstanding of my true feelings. The brandy was in and the wit was out. You shall never again have to be subjected to such an ungallant proposition, at least not from this quarter.
While your revelations were indeed shocking and startling, and you are far too sensible not to realize what their effect must have been, I am all admiration for the courage and resourcefulness you have shown that has brought you from your fathers house all the way to England through so many dangers. England was lucky indeed the day you decided to throw your lot in with hers.
You have done splendidly to attract the notice of a man such as Lt. Colonel Wellesley and you may be assured that I only wish that you shall be married to the man who will make you happiest and who will appreciate what a singular woman he has the great good fortune to have for a wife.
Yours very sincerely,
December 19, 1798
I chose to write my assurances and apologies to you because I wished you to have a tangible record of my thoughts on the subject. It is easy enough to toss words lightly on the breeze, where they might be carried away and later denied or forgotten. But to commit them to paper requires an element of faith and sincerity that I hoped you would find reassuring as to my true feelings on the matter.
December 19, 1798
What true feelings? You have not told me anything of your feelings. It is all just so much squid ink. I have done what you asked of mehair, clothes, deportment, and copying Katherines graceful manners to the best of my ability. And you still seem displeased, and frown, and do not speak.
I have a suitor of aristocratic birth, who is certain to be a general some day. Is that not what you wanted? What more do I have to do to gain your good opinion?
And by the way, I am standing by my wager of 7 puppies. I trust as a gentleman you will honor that agreement, even though your certain disgrace will require you to read ten chapters of Captain Kelsey in the Caribbees, with feeling and out loud, to your mother.
p.s. What is the matter with Lord Vaughn? He seems to have developed a passionate interest in India. Cant you do something about him? He is very much in evidence.
December 20, 1798
What the devil are you about saying I havent said anything? Yes, it would please me if you were to marry an aristocratically-born suitor who should someday become a general. In fact, nothing would please me more.
But I wont show Cecil the door. He loves my sister. Katherine says you find me unromantic, but it seems to me that he should be welcome until SHE decides his company has become tiresome. If ever.
Is that romantic enough? I am in favor of romance. Generally. But not within a mile of Miss Northcote, for obvious reasons.
Dont look for me today at luncheon, Ill be out riding. And tomorrow, I am going to spend the day in consultation with my bailiff. If the litter comes early, send Reese to fetch me home.
p.s. It will be eight puppies, and you will be reading Tacitus, in the original Latin, with feeling, until I say I am bored.
p.s.s. I find Tacitus a source of endless fascination. Rest your voice, my darling.
December 20th, 1798
"Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemys resistance without fighting." So says Sun Tzu, and so say I.
Ch. 49Full Circle
"Very impressive indeed. Of course, Ive only seen him in the social sense, but he is an easy fellow to know." It was tearing me up inside that I didnt feel I could share the rescue of King Louis with Horatio. We had always been able to talk about anything before. Welcome to the purgatory of espionage, I thought to myself grimly. You do the most exciting things imaginable, but only those who were there with you and their superiors will ever know the true story. Or should.
And Madeline! Her revelations were the most startling of all. I wondered how Horatio would view her if he knew the truth. I would have thought in the beginning that the Earl would reject her in disgust outright, but he had not. In fact, he seemed to be more in love with her than ever, fully convinced now that she was a completely unique and inimitable woman. I thought they all were, women that is, unique. The trick is just to find one that is unique in the right sort of way to capture your own heart. Perhaps Horatio would admire her for it. Perhaps he would find her duplicity distasteful despite the Republican sentiments he was suspected to harbor. He had always been completely honest. It was one of the things I admired about him. But spies lie. That is what they do, unless they want to be dead spies. I could not find it my heart to censure her for it, and neither, apparently, could Edrington.
"You will get your chance," I added. "I have invited him to come over on the 22nd and visit us all day. It will be nice if you were to know more people than just myself, the Earl, and Lady M when you go to the Ball. I am sure you will enjoy his conversation. He speaks vividly of India. Fascinating country, I should love to see it."
"Perhaps you shall perhaps I shall, too."
"But you were saying about the Renown?"
"The bad news is, Ill be the most junior Lieutenant again. But at least it is a larger vessel. There should be good chances to see action and promotion. Not just taking prize ships." His broad, expressive mouth wrinkled with distaste. I had been privy to Horatio's near-heretical opinions on the whole prize money system on more than one occasion. A surprising sentiment from one so continually short of a shilling.
"Really important strategic battles!" He continued with more enthusiasm, "and at least I wasnt to be sent back to the Channel fleet and a ship like Justinian. But Archie, they are saying a treaty might be signed. Then we might even be decommissioned. Damme! Peace, at a time like this in my career!" He looked angry. "The new Captain of Indefatigable has his own precious Leftenants of course and is bringing them aboard with him."
I was shocked at these revelations. I had been so irate with Edrington over his interference, and by extension at Pellew for letting me go so easily, that it had never occurred to me that my happy illusion of continuing on as a Leftenant on the Indy with the same friends and officers as I had come to like so well was just that .an illusion. Did Edrington know what was about to happen? Did Pellew? Were they really looking after my interests to that degree? By God, if they were, I was going to prove them right by being the best damn spy that ever donned a wig or spoke a foreign tongue like a native. I felt a strange emotion well up inside my chest, and it occurred to me that it was pity for Horatio. A pity I had not felt since he had become the main target of Simpsons taunts. A pity mixed with disgust at myself for secretly feeling content it was him instead of me again.
Well, the best I could do now was to show my friend the finest hospitality in all of the North of England. Which I proceeded to do, and as Horatio began to relax by degrees his smile came easier and he waxed almost eloquent over dinner as he described some of the great sea battles the Indefatigable had fought, and before I knew it my oldest sisters hand was gripping my own under the table so tightly I thought her fingers would snap like twigs from the strain and I thought my own heart would burst with happiness that here was my friend, where I never thought to see him, looking handsome and sensible, holding court unselfconsciously with me looking on, just as it always had been on the Indefatigable in the officers mess.
"Archie," she leaned over and whispered in my ear under the pretext of reaching for the salt cellar, "Hes the most the most oooh, just the most of a mostness."
I squeezed her hand back. "Yes, I think so, too. But belay that, Margaret. By the time you are out of pigtails hell be old and bald and stout like our father." Whose wedding portrait showed to have been a man of striking blonde good looks with the Kennedy eyes, which I had come to think of wryly as sapphire bullets, my sisters blue artillery now drilling Horatios strong profile full of invisible bullet holes; my fathers now magnified behind his spectacles into something more akin to sapphire cannonballs. Hardly the same ring. Easy to see why Sue wrote the novels instead of self.
FROM THE PERSONAL PAPERS OF ALEXANDER EDRINGTON, EARL OF EDRINGTON
Dec. 21, 1798
Please accept all good wishes for a most pleasant visit at the Kennedys tomorrow. Please convey my compliments to Mrs. Kennedy on her new grandchildren, Exhibits A and B, which I expect shall be produced for your viewing pleasure and enjoyment within minutes, if not seconds, of your arrival. I anticipate you shall delight in renewing your acquaintance with Lt. Hornblower, and if you can endeavor to discover any way in which we can make his brief stay here on the 23rd and 24th any more pleasant I know you will not hesitate to share this intelligence with me. For I have great respect for your demonstrable talents at espionage.
I am sorry that certain business has detained me in York, but I would be gratified if you had several hours on the morning of the 23rd to accompany me in a ride through the tenant houses on the Edrington land and distribute the Christmas offerings that Katherine and my mother have prepared with such care. And then on into Berwick-upon-Tweed, where there is a jeweler of rare skill. As you, sadly for me since I have been so long away in the Army, seem to know my sister almost better than I; it would be of tremendous service if I could obtain your good opinion as to the merits of a jeweled necklace I am contemplating purchasing as a Christmas gift for my dear sister.
Yours in haste,
"Mr. Kennedy," Lady Katherine came straight to the point as we took tea in our drawing room. "I am both bemused and confused by the startling behavior of the men at Edrington Hall. You seem to have a grasp of the situation and I put great stock in your opinion. What is going on with my brother and Lord Vaughn? They are behaving most oddly." I suppressed a snort of laughter. I had volunteered to keep company with Lady Katherine while Madeline and Cecil rode off in search of a ruin-viewing party made up of Edward, Wellesley (who was our houseguest at present), and a Horatio Hornblower who was last seen bouncing up and down on the saddle like a basket of mangos on the back of a Moroccan ass. My mother had left us alone together under pretext of fussing over luncheon arrangements. It was clear to me that she hoped I was courting my wealthy and noble friend's wealthy and noble sister.
"For pitys sake, Hornblower, the body follows the head! Watch the head, and time your posting with that and youll ride with the poor animal and not against him " was the last thing I had heard my brother shout as they turned out of the stables earlier that afternoon. Poor Horatio. He was so eager to measure up to Wellesley. But I am certain that Wellesley would be of little use on board a Naval vessel when it came to navigation or seamanship, and would run the ship as hard aground as it appeared Horatios lean backside would likely do at some point during the ride.
"Lady Katherine," I volunteered. "You know that Lord Vaughn loves you and wants to marry you."
"Of course I do know he wants to marry me," she snapped, but smilingly. "He proposes several times a day. I suppose he may love me, though it is hard to tell, for his manner lacks the seriousness one expects in a truly ardent suitor."
"Well, and you may find this odd, it seems that your brother and your chief but by no means I am sure your only swain have determined to emulate the heroes in your mothers romances in the hopes that literary inspiration will succeed where their own natural impulses have failed." My admission was rewarded by a delighted peal of laughter. A Chinese fan was produced from some fold of fabric on her person and was employed energetically.
"Oh! Oh my oh my goodness!" she erupted, crinkling her nose attractively. "That is the silliest, most idiotic, most adorable thing I have EVER heard! So Lord Vaughn is refusing his dinner in the hopes of emulating of poor Mr. Bellweather, the Curate in "A Rose for Lydia"?! How could I have forgotten THAT story and to think I nearly sacked the cook!"
"Well ?" I asked. "Has it had any effect? Has your heart melted, your reserve crumbled, has concern for his well-being overwhelmed your admirable maidenly diffidence?" Now I was laughing, too.
"Heavens, no." Her expression became more serious. "Archie, I told myself years ago that I would never marry unless I could walk into the church on the arm of my husband. I will not be an object of pity or immodest speculation."
"But my Lady, if you will pardon me for making a simple observation of fact, that day appears to be surprisingly and blessedly close at hand."
"Yes " she trailed, looking out the window. "Although at times I almost wonder if Lord Vaughn does not prefer Wellesleys company to mine. He may stay in our home, but despite popping into the library and throwing down a quick proposal as if he were throwing down a good hand of whist and daring me to top it, he spends nearly all his time with Wellesley. I should so hate it if C--, Lord Vaughn, were to go in for a military career, for which he quite unsuited, or even go off to India to improve his fortunes. I love it here in the place where I have always lived, in the society I enjoy. If I am to marry, I should like my husband to remain at home, with me. It has been most displeasing that I am generally parted from my brother, though he writes a lovely letter and has been faithful to that duty."
Now it was my turn to laugh. "Let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth!" I took her hand and kissed it, just as my mother was about to enter the room behind her. She silently reversed course, looking rather pleased. I supposed I would have a difficult interview with her after our guests had departed. "Lord Vaughn is only seeking to prevent your cousin from being alone with Lt. Col. Wellesley."
"But why? "What concern is that of his?" Annoyance flashed across her face. "Surely he does not still court Madeline seriously while proposing marriage to me. Hateful duplicity! I could not countenance it!"
I swallowed hard. "No. That is not the plan. What we have here, is a sort of "cutting-out" action."
"A cutting-out? Like in Miss Northcotes stories?"
"Yes. Exactly so. The idea being that if Lady Madeline is not allowed to be courted by Wellesley in private that her affections could incline in another direction."
"To you, Mr. Kennedy? I confess I am pleased. There is no one I would rather see marry into our family than you. But what of Miss Northcote? I rather thought "
"Ah." I wondered if it was wise to reveal too much. But gazing into her frank, dark, intelligent eyes I could clearly see that she deserved to know her brothers state of heart and would be a valuable ally. "Your brother, well he, um basically, the gist of the matter is that.."
"Oh NO!" Katherine exclaimed. She sat with her lips pursed, staring down at her hands, deep in thought for a few minutes. "I see. You think he loves Madeline." She said it simply, but with no apparent dismay. "I suppose the relationship is not too close to preclude such a match, but can you be sure?"
"Well, yes. I am sure. It seems he does." I puffed out my upper lip, biting the lower one. It is so damnably hard talking about these things with a woman, especially when she is looking at one with large, luminous and almond-shaped brown eyes of extraordinary beauty. I am susceptible to those sort of eyes, so flog me round the fleet. "He cannot, of course, account for it. I think he finds himself flat aback over it. Lady Madeline is not, perhaps, the sort of girl he envisioned for the part. The body does not always follow the head."
"Of course not. Poor old Zandy, it so disturbs him not to know the logic behind things. But of course, he does not have to have a reason. The heart has reasons of its own," She straightened her back and popped my shoulder teasingly with her fan, "as you well know, Mr. Kennedy. I wonder that I never realized it before. I must have been quite distracted indeed. All the signs were there."
"My Lady, I was similarly mistaken, for I thought he strongly disapproved of her."
"Of course he does. But that has nought to do with it." She shook her head sadly. "Mr. Kennedy, I blame myself, for there is much I could have done to smooth his path. But I have steadfastly advanced Wellesley's fortunes thinking THAT was what he and Madeline both wished. So, what romance novel has my potty brother decided to base his courtship upon?"
"The Forbidden Abbey. He aims to brood romantically like Count Montoni."
"So that is why he stands at the balcony, staring out over the river. The wind tangles his hair quite frightfully and his nose turns pink, the poor darling. Count Montoni," Lady Katherine continued with rather more fervor than I would have thought strictly necessary. "was an ass, and I wouldnt have such a bloody bore if he were the last man on earth and neither, I would wager, would Madeline. Now dont be shocked. I swear to you, Mr. Kennedy Madeline and Zandy remind me of no couple Ive ever seen in a modern romance novel." She sipped her tea thoughtfully. "But they do remind me of another famous couple "
"Who? I am all eagerness to hear it, for I cannot see either one of them providing any degree of entertainment as they do little but argue and hurl barbs at each other."
Ch. 51The Holly and the Ivy
Something Shakespeare never said was "You have got to be kidding!" No, that was Cecil, whose animated discourse describing the eye-popping array of culinary delights that had been appearing on the table before him for the past week at Edrington Hall which he, Cecil, Lord Vaughn, had been stalwartly pushing away untouched and suffering the tortures of the damned in so doing, was interrupted by my admission that I had given the whole plot away to Lady Katherine. His face turned as darkly red as his hair. "Why," he spluttered, "she must think Im an idiot!"
"Aye, that she does." I punched him in the shoulder. "But an adorable idiot. Better than a damned nuisance which was what I believe she considered you before you rode to her rescue, shot a Frog, and picked a lock thereby extricating the claimant to the throne of France. Just imagine how your consequence would soar in her estimation if you scrambled her an egg."
Id been thinking a great deal after my conversation of the previous day with Lady Katherine. It occurred to me for the first time that perhaps we men had not given the ladies much credit. And that it was just possible that if we were plotting and scheming and thinking ourselves clever in devising ways to win their love that perhaps they were just as devious. Looking at it that way, certain things occurred to me that might have passed unnoticed by a younger, less battle-hardened Archie Kennedy.
"I say, Horatio," I had asked him after everyone had gone home. "Why DID you join the Navy?"
Edringtons words on the beach at Muzillac had come back to me as I watched Horatio ride awkwardly out with my brother and Wellesley. That sort of offhand sarcastic wit that was the hallmark of the way men of Edringtons class spoke to each other was not something to which Hornblower was accustomed. The words stung and humiliated him as he made repeated attempts to clamber on the back of the patient black mare. It was only after he had spent considerably more time with the Major that he was able to see that the Earl actually did have respect for his abilities. Other than his horsemanship, of course, which remained fertile ground for barbs and jests. And rightly so. He was truly and hilariously inept.
Horatio was sitting in my fathers big leather chair, his bandaged ankle propped up on a stool. He chewed an index finger thoughtfully, pulling slightly at his lower lip. "It seems so long ago. Ive almost forgotten .you know, I really dont have any family who cares that much if I live or die. I hardly knew my father. He was seldom home and then when he remarried well, that is his real family now. No reminders of the past for him."
"Thats terrifically sad."
"But I decided that being the case, that I wanted to serve my King and country and have an adventurous life. Do something really important to a lot of people, not just myself. I chose the Navy because a poor boy could advance, if he is lucky and good, and because I was always very good at mathematics. I did not have all that many options. Not like you." He smiled waving his hand as if to encompass the entire Kennedy estates. "I found a sort of family in the Navy. Besides, I am sure I should have made a very poor schoolmaster, and an even worse doctor."
"What do you think of Lady Katherine?"
"Oh, well, what can one say? It is sad about her legs, of course, but she is still so very pretty. I scarcely know how to talk to a lady of her class. I envy you that ease."
"And the young Finch? Do you think you can help him find a good berth on a ship with a good Captain?" The words "not like the Justinian" were completely unnecessary between us, as always.
"I would consider it my duty." His eyes widened. "Finchs father saved my life. I only wish hed also been able to stop your boat from drifting away when Simpson cut the line. I wonder how much better things would been for you had that happened."
"There is no way of knowing. I have thought about that often. Maybe if I had not drifted away, I would have returned to the Indefatigable disgraced. Maybe I would have been killed in the next action. Maybe I would have determined to make up for my inability to help cut out the Papillion and become an even better officer and you might be under my command by now. The point is, I will never know. It might have been better, or worse. Too many maybe's, for this Leftenant. But I am happy with my life right now, and Horatio, that is the important thing. The past is just history. Already in the Naval Times." I raised my glass of port to him. "When Finch saved your life, he saved mine as well. If you had not survived, you could not have run the Le Reve right into the middle of the Spanish fleet! And then who would have gotten me out of prison in Spain?"
Horatio grinned sheepishly, but said, "So you also feel a debt to Finch."
"Doublyto Finch Senior and Junior. The boy helped save Madeline twice. And I would not have wanted to be around the Earl if he had lost her to the Frogs. God knows I would expect to see myself in Paris by now if that had happened. One finds one's self caught up in Edringtons affairs before one realizes what has happened." I sipped pensively. "These Finches, though, they are not much for conversation but they are bloody good to have around in a crises." Horatio nodded assent.
"And you, too, Archie."
"Sidekick, right? Thats me. Why not? We all cannot be born to play the hero. Since I cannot know the future, and whether what happens today is for the better or the worse, I am grown sick to the back teeth of worrying about what might happen. From now on, I am going to do whatever seems to be the right thing to do, the smart thing to do, and what I really and truly want to do and consequences be damned."
Horatio nodded. But then, it seemed to me that he already knew this. Surely that was how he lived his life, and the source of his courage.
Which brought us to the Christmas Ball and red-faced, spluttering Cecil. Horatio had packed his belongings and we had taken one of our own carriages. Everyone in the county was going including my parents, and even Edward came in a separate carriage as he would be expected to return home rather earlier than the rest. Lady Georgina was still considered to be too frail from the exertions of the twins birth to enjoy a ball, which gave her and him a comfortable excuse. It was very fortunate that Hornblower had a good new uniform with him. Thats the glory of being an officer, I reassured him; we didnt have to worry about having all sorts of finery of the latest cut in case we get invited to a grand affair. Why, our host himself would not dream of appearing downstairs in anything other than his dress uniform. And Lord knows, Edrington had enough money to buy whatever he wanted from the finest tailors in London. These words seemed to give him heart though the look on his face was filled with trepidation as the carriage made the final turn and the splendid pile of stone and marble that was Edrington Hall loomed up in its sprawling majesty, brilliant light streaming through the big ballroom windows. We disembarked on a carriageway already packed with shouting coachmen pulling their teams of horses by their bits into ever smaller spaces around the circular drive before the immense entry hall.
"Do you mean to say just three people actually live in this this behemoth?" he gaped.
"Yes. Oh, you would be surprised how much room they require. That whole wing is just for balls and dances and to house overnight guests. The family never uses it for themselves. They mostly live in the other wing. There is a perfectly snug library, a lovely breakfast room, and Edringtons study is very much like my fathers. You will see it all tomorrow." Horatio gulped a little. I nudged him in the side. "Courage! Remember, youre a war hero. Most of the people here just run their estates and go on shooting parties. You are exotic wood and dont you forget it." Tall, elegantly austere, and scowling with intense concentration as he scrutinized the scene unfolding around us, he did make an exotic picture among so many affably plump squires and their dandyish sons.
"My God!" he said as he looked around at the richly dressed ladies spilling out of carriages, some of whom were already scrutinizing us over their shoulders as they swept up the stairs on the arms of their escorts and duennas, "I am SO relieved I have an excuse not to dance!" As we walked up the stairs together, slowly because Horatio was using a lovely black and gold cane of my fathers to support his injured ankle, he turned to me, puzzled, "I really do not understand why the Earl joined the Army. I should think he has little to gain and much to lose. This estate he has no son how can he risk all this?"
"Even an Earl," I said, "might enjoy the odd adventure. And he does have a sister. Believe me, he puts his knee-breeches on one leg at a time. Come now! Here is our host." And looking really splendid, I must say. Serious, but there was a sort of heightened sensitivity in his dark eyes reminiscent of a hound whose hours of patient trailing has finally put him in sight of his quarry. Any huntmaster knows the look, tired but rejuvenated by the prospect of an imminent taking.
He greeted Hornblower with every courtesy and proffered the opinion that since his injury would preclude him from taking part in the dancing that he might wish to spend some time keeping Lady Katherine company. Lady Katherine, also supporting herself with a cane, was radiant as she greeted the arriving ladies in the foyer, all of whom were chattering animatedly about how lovely it was to see her looking so well, for none would be tactless enough to point out that it was the first time they had seen her stand in seven years. Edrington smiled at her proudly then went over to help her through the ballroom and onto a long velvet divan from which vantage she could view all the dancing and festivities.
"Archie " Horatio hissed, "what in heavens name shall I talk to Lady Katherine about? I am to keep her company I am told."
"Oh, not for too long. I am sure we can find you a whist table in one of the drawing rooms." He brightened at this suggestion. "My brother considers himself a good player and I would be disappointed if you didnt humble him considerably. But you have to do the expected thing, you know. If you cannot dance then you are expected to make yourself agreeable to ladies in other ways. That," I winked, "means conversation."
"I have always found it advantageous to ask them what THEY think of things. Look," I gestured, taking in the entire ballroom, "is not this room beautifully decorated? The holly boughs, the trailing ivy, the candles arranged in graceful flights if I were you I would compliment Lady Katherine on the beauty of the ballroom and ask her from whence she derived her inspiration. I am sure that will eventually lead to some topic that sees you on solid ground. And if all else fails, admire her gown. She will tell you it is nothing out of the ordinary but that you look exceptionally fine in your uniform and how on earth do you get your brass to shine so brilliantly?"
Horatio looked so serious as he listened to this that I couldnt help but laugh at his obvious mental notetaking. "Trust me, Horatio. She is a delightful lady and friendly and kind, and she has a lively and curious mind. She will find a way to get you talking so eloquently you shall hold your own self spellbound as well as her. That, my friend, is breeding."
With Horatio settled in next to Lady Katherine, which conferred him instant status as an honored guest, I began to make myself useful on the dance floor. I was disappointed not to see Sue Northcote, but I did find Madeline, who graciously added my name to her list of dancing partners for the evening. This time, I did not shirk my highest duty, which was to request a dance from the Dowager Countess. Lady Edrington confessed herself delighted to be partnered by a young officer.
"Ah, Mr. Kennedy, if I were only thirty or so years younger. Did I say thirty? I meant twenty-five of course!"
"Of course, Lady Edrington. Twenty would be the grossest overestimate."
"A fine deceit, but I can see that your eyes rove the room. She assured us she would come, but she is late. Do not worry. She will show up. The journey from York it can be difficult this time of year. Not all the roads are good."
I felt embarrassed to be so obvious. "Maam, I think of nothing but matching my own steps to yours."
"Poppycock. Delightfully so. An accomplished liar is an asset to any social occasion." The music ended and it appeared the musicians would be taking a rest. "I think Lord Vaughn is trying to catch your eye. Go along now, you have done your duty."
"One day, Lady Edrington, I shall sail a ship up to the very mouth of the river and take you out on the sea to any destination you might wish. Should you like that?"
"Above all things, Mr. Kennedy. I shall watch with great constancy for your sails on the horizon."
The old Countess smiled at me with that ever so slightly insinuating expression that was both flattering and rather uncomfortable to see.
Some time later, Vaughn had recovered the greater part of his composure following my description of my conversation with Lady Katherine. He drew my attention towards Horatio and the object of his affection, who was sitting in rapt attention and gazing at Horatios long, eloquently gesturing hands.
"Katherine looks intrigued with your friend. A rival?" he asked.
"Not going to be here long enough," I assured him. "Besides, from the movements of his hands my guess is that he is caressing Lady Katherines shell-like ears with his theory on the correct angle of roll of a Frigate in order to maximize the damage done by a broadside volley of hot shot."
"Sounds as though she has worked her usual conversational artistry. I expect the poor girl is bored to tears."
"I expect. Do you know that the day I first met her she actually had me babbling about shooting flying fish at the dinner table? I mean to say, I was sitting at the table, going on and on about using those poor fish for target practice and I got the impression that she had never found any topic so fascinating." Cecil chuckled. "And the hell of it is, I now know that she is completely uninterested by fish that she cannot eat or catch in her own river. A viewpoint which I, in fact, share. God knows where that came from. I just feel my ears turn red whenever I recall myself that evening."
"I can recall many such moments," he said agreeably. "I once spent an entire evening discussing my views on Sir Isaac Newtons latest. What an ass. I should have just complimented her gown and then held silent and listened to her instead. Well, Ive come to a decision. One last proposal and that is the end of it. Do an old school friend a favor and assist yon Hornblower in finding some other female to educate on the finer points of battle etiquette."
Which I did, although instead of plunking him down on another divan next to a partnerless lady I found a whist table in the card room which was greatly in need of a skilled player to make a game. He rose up with real eagerness, for my friend could not resist a game of whist. It was his only vice. As I showed him the way through the throng of guests, all milling about and chatting and holding glasses of wine and wassail waiting for the musicians to reassemble and begin to play, I heard a low murmur begin in the center of the room which gradually turned into a deafening hush.
"What is happening over there?" I whispered. I was not able to see over the taller men in front of me, but he had no such problems.
"My WORD, Archie, that Lord Vaughn fellow is down on his knee in front of Lady Katherine!"
Ch. 52--One Down
"I know it, and I am not distressed, no, not unduly. I feel the blow keenly, but I shall recover. Do you think we shall have the excitement of seeing two engagements announced tonight? Colonel Wellesley looks frightfully braced, and your cousin looks torn between happiness for his sister and some private concern." I looked out towards the dance floor where other men were escorting their partners towards friends, family, food, and drink. Edrington and Wellesley were conspicuous as always in those red coats. Unlike at the Harvest Ball, the Earl had been making himself the perfect host by dancing with as many of the unpartnered ladies as his consequence could demand. His steps were impeccable, but his eyes had searched the room until they found us dancing together, and he appeared to visibly relax. I returned my gaze to Madeline. "Well? What say you, maam, in answer to my question? Shall we have another engagement announced tonight? I must confess it seems romantic to announce an engagement at Christmastime."
Madelines eyes grew damp. Her ability to hold in tears had never ceased to astonish me. "There, Madeline," I murmured, "things will be perfect, youll see. Just do what your heart tells you is right, and is what you want."
"Oh Archie, I fear that is impossible. Lady Katherine told me that Alexander loves me and I think in his own fashion that he does, but if Wellesley asks for me, I will accept him. I am very fond of Arthur. I respect him, hes a fine man, and attractive. Travel, new places all the time, really important people. Sure, he wants me for the usual reasons, but he offers me a good life. I could not bear it if I were married to Alexander and then he left me here for years at a time. I could not bear it if I loved him and he treated me as, well, as just a wife. Like Mrs. Pellew. Like any other. Archie, it would destroy me! I could accept treatment at Wellesleys hands that I could never abide from my that oh, that exasperating, stubborn, pigheaded, misogynistic, brilliant, fascinating puzzle of an Earl. I would he were a simple vicar, or a merchant, then maybe.." her fingers gripped mine tightly, "I would not care. I have not survived all that has happened in my life to end up ordinary. Damme him anyway! Why cant he see that I am NOT his problem to solve!"
Her words struck me like a blast of icy wind. It was as if a window had opened into a womans mind and I had been able to breath the fresh, sharp, biting essence of her innermost thoughts. For certain, it was a rare experience for a man to be given a glimpse of a womans true nature. Even a very unusual woman like Madeline.
"Madeline, perhaps HE is YOUR problem to solve. If I were you, Id not lose my chance by dawdling with Wellesley."
She suddenly reached up on tiptoes and kissed me lightly on the lips.
"Archie, I DO love you. Just not in the same way. Do you think it possible a woman and a man can love each other deeply in friendship?"
"I think it is a vast and beautiful world with oceans so deep and mountains so high that no one will ever know their mystery and anything is possible, even true friendship between a man and a woman. I love you, too, Madeline, as a friend who I hope will always remain so." And I cupped my hand around her cheek and kissed her back.
But suddenly, her eyes focused on something unseen behind me and she smiled wickedly up at me and said in a whisper.."Now here, Archie, here comes someone who burns for you," I whirled around to face a newly-arrived Miss Sue Northcote, from whose expression it was clear that not just one but both kisses had been all too evident, and all too unfortunately misinterpreted.
She gave me a curt nod. "Mr. Kennedy. So nice to see you with your wits about you this time. Lady Madeline, I understand an engagement was announced here tonight. I take it my congratulations are in order."
"Why yes! Isnt it wonderful?" She smiled radiantly up at me. "A perfect match, we are both in complete agreement."
"Miss Northcote," I stammered. Oh why do things always seem to blow up in my face just when I thought everything was finally getting settled! "Wait!"
But she had curtsied and was striding away to take the arm of some young man who had accompanied her. I went after her, elbowing several older ladies quite rudely in the process. But I did not care. Oh, she was pretty. I had forgotten how pretty. That décolletage! Her dark eyes flashing with outrage had thrilled me to the core.
"Wait up, Miss Northcote! A moment, if you please!" She turned, regarding me with a cool look.
"Now see here, youve got it all wrong. Its Lady Katherines engagement we are celebrating tonight. To Lord Vaughn. So, you see nothing, well, it was nothing. What you saw was nothing. Absolutely nothing." Stop babbling, Archie, I thought to myself. You sound guilty as hell.
"Mr. Kennedy, in all my romantic literary imaginings I never saw fit to have my hero kiss an unmarried woman of his own age twice in the middle of a public crush unless his intentions were serious. I saw what I saw. Theres nothing wrong with my eyes."
"No, they are lovely eyes. Beautiful eyes. Quite right. Nothing wrong with those. But.." And she turned her back on me and went out on the dance floor with her partner, who I already hated quite violently.
I honored my previous agreements and danced with various females but my heart was not in it. I was continually searching the room for chestnut curls and a beautiful hair ornament of blue feathers and pearls. Finally, I caught up with her near the refreshments. "Miss Northcote. Sue. I can understand how I must look to you."
"You look all right."
"No, I mean my character. I havent changed. No, I have. I have changed profoundly. So much you cant imagine. But not in that way. I" searching desperately for inspiration in the face of her stony expression, I recalled that she was to spend the night in one of the guest rooms at Edrington Hall. "Please, meet me outside the stables tomorrow morning. The grounds here are fabulous, the river is of incomparable beauty. For a river, of course. Nothing compared to you, Miss Northcote." Christ, Archie. What a sodding idiot. "Well, what I mean to say is, meet me after youve had your breakfast and I will show you around. I, um, would think it very sad indeed if you were not to see the wondrous beauty of the countryside. It might, well, it might prove inspirational. For your novels, of course." I hoped so. I most definitely hoped so. But not for her novels.
"Very well. You will be there?"
"Nothing on earth could keep me from it." At that moment, I became aware that Horatio had appeared at my side. "Ah, oh, Horatio. This is Miss Northcote. A old friend of my family."
"Admiral Northcotes daughter, I presume. I hear he came from these parts," he said with a bow. "My pleasure. Your father was a great man." Sue nodded to him and smiled politely. Wicked timing. "Archie, it seems that Lt. Colonel Lord Edrington has requested you join him briefly."
"Where is he?"
"In the wine cellar. Sorry, dont know the way."
But I did.
"Are you coming with me, Horatio?" I asked. "You would be welcome to, you know. Might as well see all of the place while you are here."
He grinned, satisfaction overcoming the tell-tale whiteness of pain at the corners of his mouth and eyes. "It seems that your brother felt very guilty about keeping me at the whist tables. He really was very concerned that I not miss out on the music and the other guests. Said he couldnt live with himself or face you either if he did not cut me adrift."
"How much did you win, then?" I was very familiar with Edwards brand of "compassion".
Horatio patted his jacket and a pleasant clinking sound emerged from the vicinity of the interior pocket. "Of course, it was only a friendly game being at a Christmas Ball, but I did well enough." Good for you, Horatio, I thought. A suitable vengeance for the damage Edward had done him by taking him over the ditches.
I devoutly hoped that there was not going to be some crises in progress when I finally got my companion painfully down the stone steps to the wine cellar. The roof was so low it scarcely cleared his head, or Edringtons either for that matter. This was the oldest part of the house and looked positively medieval by flickering lanternlight with rough hewn stone walls and a floor of old bricks which looked as if they had been gathered from other, older ruins. The arches and columns which supported the cellar were reminiscent of a cloister and Edrington had told me that this room had been part of the foundation of a medieval castle and was used as a private chapel as well as a safe refuge when the castle was under siege, which close as it was to the Scottish border was frequently the case through the centuries. It looked as though it could last a thousand years. But now this long low-ceilinged room was given over more to the worship of Baccheus, the god of wine, as the Edringtons went to services in town like most other families in the county. Despite the quantity of casks and racks, there was still a spacious area along one wall where an old iron-banded wooden table was set up. There were just two chairs and Horatio was offered one. I perched on a sturdy cask.
Cecil was already there. He looked quite as pleased as one would expect, while Edringtons pale face was composed and his countenance unexpectedly serene. Hornblower took in the scene quietly, nodding his greetings and salutations. I am sure that I was the only one who looked the worse for wear. My stomach was in knots over the catastrophic disaster of my second meeting with Sue. Perhaps a bit of wine would not be amiss, and then some brandy, and then maybe a wee dram of
"Gentlemen," Edrington began, "I have invited you here to toast the engagement of my sister, Katherine, to Cecil and I wanted to open the very best thing in the cellars so naturally it would have been rude to do so in front of the other guests. But only the best will do on such a happy occasion and one hopes we shall not be missed for a little while, particularly since two of our number have taken themselves out of circulation on the dance floor, one by getting thrown off and the other by taking the bit between his teeth. One scarcely knows which is more deserving of our sympathies, Archie."
He smiled mysteriously at me, pulled out a bottle, and blew off a thick coating of dust. "This wine is from a stock which was looted from Versailles and smuggled to England. It is a 1756 Chateau Petrus, from the most noble vineyard in all of France, which is where the best wines in the world were made and hopefully someday will again." He drew out the cork and began to pour it in glasses. It was a red so dark it was nearly black in the flickering light from the oil lamps. "When you taste it, you will not only taste the ancient earth and golden sunlight of France, but also the courage and daring possessed by those who chose to save this wine, instead of any of the art treasures and jewels that they could have brought out instead. I daresay this is one of the last bottles of this vintage to survive in all the world."
He handed each of us a glass to our murmured thanks.
"I cannot think of anything more fitting to pour to honor a man who would propose in such a fashion. To Katherine and Cecil, long may they live and love." We all raised our glasses to Cecil, who was biting his lower lip hard. My God, if I live to be a thousand I will never forget the first caress of that wine on my tongue. Even Horatio, who generally spurned spirits, was fascinated. He rolled it around in the glass, enjoying the color and taking rather large swallows. In fact, his glass was the first to need refilling. We all said the appropriate things, which were well and truly meant, about the engagement. Indeed it was a sort of reverent mood that the wine and Edringtons pretty speech about it cast over our small party. In the fullness of time, Cecil excused himself and legged it back upstairs to the ballroom to keep Katherine amused, thereby embarking on his life of duty.
"Well, Archie, I expect you have some dances with Miss Northcote, who is lately arrived I am told," the Earl said as we were draining the last droplets of the Petrus. "Id not keep you from that pleasant obligation, but you are welcome to stay down here a little longer, Hornblower."
"Actually, I dont have any remaining obligations " I stammered. "Miss Northcote is scarcely civil at just present."
"I cant believe that. No, it makes no sense. She came to see you, I am sure of it. Those ridiculous novels ."
"Novels?" Horatio asked, puzzled.
I shot Edrington a pleading look. The last thing I needed right about now was to have Horatio regaled with the exploits of The Bonny Leftenant. I decided to explain the situation to the Earl. He would find out one way or another, anyhow.
"Well," I said glumly, "It seems I came rather a cropper in the Miss Northcote department. Perhaps she did come to see me, but unfortunately she arrived just as I was kissing Madeline, so as it has turned out, 'tis a bit of a debacle already."
The Earl leapt to his feet, bumping his head on a ceiling beam.
"Bugger!" he rubbed the top of his head hard, blonde curls disarranging themselves over his forehead. "What the devil were you kissing Madeline for? Ive half a mind " his jaw muscles clenched and his hands curled into fists. Horatio, instantly alert, began to ease up slowly out of his chair.
"Alexander! Calm the hell down, man. It was NOT like that. She kissed me first, anyhow."
"She kissed YOU?!" He started to pace. "This is bloody incredible, just sodding unbelievable I am the one whose supposed to be in love with her and I have not kissed her yet and you have kissed her twice? Dammit, Archie, youre a slippery little bastard, arent you?" I started to stammer again. He was definitely working himself up into a snifter-tossing state of mind. Good thing the Petrus was all gone, anyhow. It would be a damn shame to see THAT splattered on the wall. He halted his pacing abruptly. "Well, how was it?"
"How was what?"
"The kiss, you weasel."
"Nice. The kiss was nice. The second kiss was better."
"Great! I am so happy for you." He sat down hard, staring at the pitted and stained wood of the tabletop.
"It was just sort of, well, friendly. Like brothers and sisters. Honestly, Alexander. It was not like that. She told me herself that she loves you."
"She did..?" He looked up hopefully. "She said that?"
"Yes. Well, not in so many words. But definitely, yes."
"All right. The situation is completely comprehensible to you, evidently, but I am still unclear on certain points. She loves me, but not in so many words, then kisses you. What else did she say?"
Horatios eyes were enormous as he watched this interchange. I cannot say as I blamed him. After all, Edrington, the dispassionate military tactician, he had served alongside with some distinction. Edrington, the disciplined army officer, he was familiar with from previous encounters. Edrington, the aloof aristocrat, he had met on several prior occasions, but Edrington the brilliantly-lit, Petrus-soaked, lovestruck Earl was a man whose existence he had never even suspected.
"She said that if Wellesley offered for her that she would accept him," I felt myself cringing as I said it. But I had to tell him the truth. Edrington blinked hard, then rested his forehead on his fist, grinding the knuckles into the skin of his furrowed brow.
"Yes. Right. Let us see where we are in all of this. She loves me, but wants to marry Wellesley, and then kisses you."
"And then Sue walks in."
"My God, Kennedy, are we back to talking about your problems again?" He looked over at Horatio, suddenly conscious of his presence and his empty wineglass. "More? I think more would be an excellent idea." And he opened another bottle, not a Petrus, but a good wine anyhow and poured another round. "This could take awhile to get through. Your friend and mine, Mr. Kennedy, has a rather long-winded and roundabout way of telling a perfectly simple story so as to make it as complicated as possible. I shudder to think what he will do with this tangled web he has hung himself in now."
"Now see here, Edrington!" for I was indignant. I mean, me? Long-winded? I am the soul of brevity, and therefore not far removed from wit! "The gist of it is that Madeline considers me a friend. It was a friendly kiss, nothing more."
"A friend? A friendly kiss, then? On the cheek, then, or the forehead?"
"No, on the lips--but it was nothing like you saw between, er, your sister and Cecil," I hastened to assure him. "And," I continued with more fervor, "I do value her friendship. She has taught me a lot. A remarkable woman, I could see that from the first though YOU did not, so all in all I would say I deserved a kiss, or two, or even three. She has shown me something about courage and something about how a woman really thinks about life. These lessons will no doubt serve me well," I added stoutly, then remembered my situation. "Assuming, of course, that I ever get Miss Northcote to speak to me again," I finished up lamely.
My words had calmed Edrington down considerably and he appeared to be willing to let the whole topic of the kiss drop. I continued, "The point is, and I am not entirely sure I grasp all of her meaning, that she loves you but thinks that she would be miserable if she married you, and while she does not love Wellesley in quite the same way although she is fond of him she thinks that since she does not love him that much that she would be happier with him than with you."
Edrington sat in thoughtful silence for several minutes etching lines in the wooden tabletop with his thumbnail. Horatio shifted in his chair, cleared his throat, and began, "You know, it seems to me that.."
But the cellar door banged open with such force as to make me jump a little and a cheerful booming voice echoed off the stone walls, "Hallo, Edrington. They told me I might find you skulking down here. Any of the good stuff still left? Damme, Im tired of blasted punch and wassail," followed shortly by its owner, Lt. Colonel Wellesley. Edrington looked thrilled beyond my meager powers of description. "Mind if I pull up a cask?" Edrington murmured lukewarm agreement and passed him a glass. Wellesley pulled out a cheroot and lit it. He did not sit, but placed one gleaming boot upon his cask and folded his arms over his thigh, cheroot dangling insouciantly from his fingers. "Nice cool cellar you've got here, Edrington. Clever place to get out of the crush. I actually hoped to have a private word with you."
"Anything you have to ask me can be asked in front of these two gentlemen," Edrington said flatly. "I am not going to ask Lt. Hornblower to move the merest inch...honestly, Wellesley, you are as much to blame for the state of this man's ankle as Kennedy's benighted brother." Horatio squirmed in his seat, grasping the rim of the chair with both hands and easing himself upward out of a slight slouch.
"Very well, then. I have come to ask for your permission to marry Lady Madeline. I know its just a formality, old boy, since she is certainly of age, but I would be grateful to have your blessing before I emulate Vaughns example. Well done, that! Wouldnt think to look at the chap that he had that much stuffing in his spine. Cant be bested by him! I've a mind to show him how we do things in the Army. And like you, I am expected to rejoin my division after the New Year so things need to be settled quickly. She knows I have come to speak to you, though. I have received encouragement that my suit is likely to be accepted," he grinned and blew a smoke ring.
Edrington looked disgusted.
"Put that thing out, Wellesley. I dont allow smoking in the cellar. It taints the air so
the wine cant breathe in the casks."
"My apologies," he said with exaggerated emphasis, stamping out the lit cheroot on the stone floor.
"Well, then, I suppose we can work out the details of the dowry later. I think I would like to marry her quickly so she can join me on the voyage back to India."
Edringtons face was oddly impassive. "Wellesley, do you love Madeline?"
His black eyebrows shot up in surprise.
"Love her? Ive scarcely gotten to know her well enough to say that has not helped of course that Ive been forever tripping over that Vaughn fellow whenever I have tried to get her alone these past few weeks. Good riddance to him tonight; was concerned he might have proposed to me instead so dedicated was his pursuit of my company! Hah!" His laugh boomed off the stone walls of the cellar.
"But, of course I am sure that marriage to our Maddy will take care of that problem. She strikes me as someone I could grow to love," he sat down and leaned back against the wall, one gleaming foot crossed over his knee, hands behind his dark carefully-combed head. "Handsome girl, no want of spirit, ready wit, and her figure leaves little to be desired. And I cannot say I am not pleased she is eager to travel. Plenty of time on the voyage back to India to get to know her very well indeed. Hah! She's by all accounts a good sailor, so no missish excuses. Best sea voyage I'll ever have," he winked insinuatingly at Edrington.
That was the wrong thing to do.
"As you know, Edrington, I come from a very large family myself. I would like to have many sons and a few daughters. Madeline's a strong, healthy girl. Ill take marvelous care of her, I promise. Plus, I welcome an alliance with your family. Good for both of our careers. My brothers are highly placed in his Majestys Government you know. Its a perfect match."
"Do you think so?" Edrington said smoothly and quietly. "And so here you are to ask for my blessing."
"Exactly. Do I have it? Id like to go back upstairs and get matters settled with the lady, who is waiting."
"No? No to what? She IS waiting, she said she would."
"No, you do not have my blessing. You do not have my permission, either, although you are correct that you do not strictly speaking need it."
"But this is infamous! You and your sister practically threw her in my lap! What is your reasoning?"
"I dont have to give a reason. The answer is no. Quote, N, O, period, exclamation point, unquote."
"By God, Edrington!" Wellesley sprang to his feet, his face coloring hotly. "I know what this is about and you do not have to spell it out for me. You must have another suitor in mind for her of a sudden." He glared at me. "You dont think Im worthy of her because Im Irish! That is it, isnt it?! You bloody English snobs!"
"I am not giving you a reason. I am just telling you, again, that my answer is no."
"Well, you may not give a reason, but others might read certain implications into the facts as laid out before us!" My stomach lurched. This situation was deteriorating dangerously. Horatio and I reflexively reached for our pistols, but of course, we had none.
"Others can think what they please. They always do. Go away, Wellesley. I am bored with this conversation."
"I have been insulted by you, My Lord Edrington, and in front of witnesses " he glared angrily at us. "See, look at them, they are shocked into craven silence. But they can hardly wait to go tell of it."
"Don't be absurd," Horatio said testily. "Kennedy and I do not carry tales, let me assure you on that point of honor."
"No matter. I demand satisfaction."
"Then you shall have it," Edrington said quietly. "Since you issued the challenge, I shall pick the weapon. Sabers."
"Sabers it is. And it will give me great pleasure to cut you where it shows. The place and time fall to me. The 27th of December, in the clearing by the river where we fished for salmon back when I thought you were my friend."
"Wellesley, I was never your friend. But it will give me no pleasure to cut you since it can but improve your looks. Very well, you have your duel, your honor is satisfied, now would you kindly push off? I am sure that you will be glad of more time to spend with Madeline so that you can get to know her all the better."
"The 27th," he spat, "cannot come soon enough!" He bounded energetically up the stairs, slamming the door behind him. Edrington looked at us without expression, but something of our confusion must have been plain to him.
"I'm not sure how things are done in the Navy, but it might reassure you somewhat to know that in the Army highly-ranked officers are prohibited from dueling to the death, so we duel for first blood only to satisfy honor. I do not want to kill the man, nor he, me."
"Ill be your second of course," I began. "but dont you think that Madeline will be terribly angry? I would not be surprised if she is not the one to draw first blood..."
"Is this the same compassionate angel of mercy who brightened my dark days in sickbay, Archie, that you speak of in that rude manner?" Horatio asked.
"The same," I said. "There is a lot about her you do not know. She is more than a match for.."
The Earl rapidly intervened. "What I hope is that Wellesley is as conceited and pompous as I make him out to be. If he is, he will allow her to believe that our duel could prove mortal. Recall, if you will Archie, that her father was a great duelist and always used pistols. And she esteems her father. No, I rather think this will give her a thrill. And furthermore, I think it will force her to use her heart, for once, to decide her course." He smiled thinly. "I want her to come to me. Thank you for offering to be my second. Lets hope it wont be necessary."
"I see. But Wellesley is supposed to be a champion swordsman. What if he does cut your face and ruins your looks?"
Horatio squirmed uncomfortably again as I asked the question.
"If Madeline does not choose me then it does not matter. Any wound on my face will heal in time." He glanced at Horatio. "I have not been a very good host tonight, have I? No, dont protest. I think it a bit hard that you had to see a scene like that when I had hoped you could simply enjoy the wine and spend some time relaxing away from the mob upstairs. Come now, Hornblower, you look very pensive of a sudden, shifting about in your chair like you have something important to say. I would be interested to hear your thoughts. You may speak freely here."
Horatio licked his lips and then said with a pained smile "My Lord, Ive drunk more wine, punch, and tea tonight than I ever have in my life and my ankle is hurting like the devil. I was just thinking of the distances we've traveled, and yet how much farther it seems I have to go to find the loo."
Which was the right thing to say, come to think of it.
"What a relief. For a moment there " Edrington mused thoughtfully, then laughed, clapping Horatio on the shoulder and helping him to his feet and up the stairs. "Lord, if there is one thing I cannot abide other than that bounder Wellesley, it is a sentimental drunk."
Ch. 54---The Rising of the Sun
FROM THE PRIVATE PAPERS OF ALEXANDER EDRINGTON, EARL OF EDRINGTON
December 23, 1798
It all comes down to tomorrow and fate has dealt me a better hand than I could possibly have hoped.
December 23, 1798
Madeline, my dearest,
I love you. There now, that wasnt so hard to write. I love you. You are Diana the Huntress of my fathers statueall strong and shapely and haughty and keen for the chase, and you are also that lonely girl who sat on a rock with her dog and stared at the sea and decided that since no one cared if she died that she would really and truly live. There cannot be anyone like you in all the world. Sometimes, I am so angry with you I wish I could give you a flogging, then a moment later I wish you would wrap me in a blanket and feed me soup, cooing tenderly as a new mother. I want to run you down as a hound after a stag, and take you and make violent love to you, and I want you slip silently into my room at night and kiss my brow and the tip of my nose as softly as a babys breath while I sleep. Oh how I have wished that you would come through my door, for I cannot go through yours. My honor has bound me with invisible manacles and I cannot break those chains of propriety except in pleasantly tortured dreams. But you, my darling, have tasted freedom.
Do you really want to marry Wellesley?
My love, I will not let you go unless you kiss me. But if you kiss me, then I will let you go.
I was perversely glad when I arose the next morning that my knock on Hornblowers door was answered by a muffled groan. I poked my head in and found Hornblower huddled miserably under the blankets, a basin handy on the bedstand. Poor Horatio; he wasnt used to having such long and well-lubricated conversations as had been the case on the previous evening. I patted his shoulder and told him to take as much time as he needed to feel himself again. For I had an engagement to walk out with Sue.
I had done my best to repair the damages of the previous evening and I fancied as I looked at myself in the hall mirror that I was not without an air. I was no longer in uniform, having taken the black grosgrain ribbon from my hair and combed it back from my face; and I was sporting tan breeches, boots, and a fine dark blue jacket in the "Incomparable" style which had been an early Christmas present from my father. I fancied my shoulders looked wider and I looked taller than I had last night in simple dancing shoes and my Lieutenants jacket. Over this, I slung my dark Naval cape with its bright red lining. It was a pleasure to dress with a certain lady in mind and I hoped that my hair would blow in glinting, red-gold strands across my face at some point in our walk and that she might feel the same powerful urge to tuck the wayward locks back behind my ears as the saucy heroines of her novels.
So unencumbered by anyone or anything other than the burden of my own hope, I downed a cup of strong coffee in the breakfast room, said the appropriate things to the people already there, and then wandered out to the stables. I felt it would be best to be early. It was a lovely morning the sort of crystalline lilac sky with high, wispy, pale golden clouds that presages a perfect winter day. If it had rained, or snowed, or even just been bitterly cold would my life be different now? How much of our fate is in our own hands as a tiller by which to steer? A walk I had promised, and thanks to merciful providence, nature was for once on my side.
I was milling about watching the horses already let out in their paddocks for their morning gallops when I became aware of Mr. Reese emerging from the stables looking habitually unshaven. He waved and nodded and came over to me.
"There na, Mr. Kennedy," he said, "Weve ad a big night, been up all night wi the bitch and got a happy result. Why dont ya go an ave a look, sir? The Earls in the fourth stall, on thleft. E said if I sawr you ta let you know."
Who could resist such a cryptic message? I went into the stables and found them unexpectedly warm from the glow of coal burning heatstoves. Fourth stall on the left proved to contain a very tired looking Edrington, but one who was down on his knees in the straw seeming content as all get out rummaging through a pile of squirming bodies around which was coiled the great female Deerhound, Shannon. He looked up at me and smiled with happy exhaustion.
"Hullo, Archie. I scarcely got to my chamber last night before there was a knock on the door and word that Shannon was hard at it. I didnt care to miss our first litter of Deerhounds in seven years. Look at them arent they amazing?" he cooed reverently. "Good girl, Shannon." Shannon rolled a suspicious eye at me and flashed me a fleeting display of impressive dentition. I decided it might be prudent to remain on the other side of the stall door.
"You mean, you have not been to sleep at all?" I asked. He shook his head, still stroking the puppies thoughtfully. "Your eyes," I observed, "look like pissholes in the snow. And Horatio is sick as, well, a dog this morning. But I slept great."
"You always do, Archie. You always do. And why are you so fine?"
"I am supposed to show Miss Northcote the environs. I have an idea that I can explain matters to her satisfaction once I get her undivided attention. If not, then she is not the girl I take her to be." Edrington nodded; agreeing with the plan of action. He was dressed in old tan pants and boots as if for a morning ride, and had thrown on a dark green greatcoat, which was covered with straw and light silvery gray hairs. "And your own concerns? I hope you will not duel Wellesley. Reconsider, Alexander, for Gods sake. Horatio and I will think none the less of you should you admit it was a passing fit of temper." Edringtons face was a marble mask, just as devoid of emotion as it was the first time I ever saw him. He stroked a puppy thoughtfully.
"Archie, do you recall what I said to you about why I had never wanted to marry any of the ladies that had been recommended to me?"
"I do. You said that it put you right off seeing that they wanted to be a Countess, but it seems to me that what you were really saying, if youll pardon my candor, is that you wanted to be admired for yourself alone and not what you had to give in terms of money and rank."
"But what sort of girl would choose someone who was so proud and self-satisfied, who was so concerned with rank, and who cared so much about how they looked to others? What vibrant, lively wonderful woman would not think such a man a crashing great bloody bore? No, Ive been thinking a great deal about that. I like to think I have changed. Id like to think the change would be evident on the outside, because I do feel like different person in my heart and mind."
"Alexander, you have not changed inside at all. People dont change that much. You have just changed how you see yourself and that changes how you act and what you say and do." I smiled at him encouragingly, but he still gazed silently down at the grunting puppies. "I have always found you great company. Exciting things seem to always happen to me whenever I am around you. I have not spent one single boring moment in your presence. Not one. Sure, Ive been terrified, cold, wet, muddy, covered with chicken shot, drunk as several Lords (pardon the expression), shot at by Frogs, pampered beyond belief by your hospitality, angry as hell with your interference, and crazy with longing for the woman you have miraculously found and returned to my life but I have never once been bored."
"But, Archie," he retorted. "That is because you are a man and therefore "
"No, Edrington. Look. You puzzle it out. You are a grand fellow and a smart one and I am honored to call myself your friend. But I still think, as that friend, that you are nuttier than last nights figgy pudding to be dueling Wellesley and Madeline shant like it a bit. She is going to give you what for and cut you into little pieces with her tongue alone. Anything Wellesley can do with his saber is going to be the merest scratch compared to the keelhauling you stand to get from Madeline. And," I added, "it would therefore seem you have fixed upon a lady who is not primarily concerned with being a Countess. I mean to say, one who does not rank Countessship overly high among her no doubt exacting criteria."
"Well then, I agree with you. How about that, Archie? All I can say is that the tirade you predict is a consummation devoutly to be wished. I stand ready to absorb her best volley anytime she chooses to give it. And she might be surprised. I should like to surprise her. One suspects shes not had very many surprises in her life that were pleasant." He stood up, arms hugged to his chest under his greatcoat. I wondered that he seemed that cold. It was warm in the stable. Perhaps the lack of sleep had finally caught up with him. Fatigue can make a person feel very cold indeed.
I glanced back out the door of the stables just to make sure that Sue was not arriving and saw a female figure advancing at a brisk trot, hem ruffles flouncing and cape swinging like a tolling bell, but from the quantity of wavy dark hair that blew around her face and the large gray dog loping in her wake it was clear that the impending feminine presence was not Sue but a Madeline who had thrown on enough clothing for decencys sake and was now, in short, in hot pursuit. "Well, it looks as though youd better find a favorable tack in a hurry because here comes the lady in question and I can see the steam rising off her from here."
"Archie!" Madeline barked. "Where is my blasted cousin? Dont tell me hes taken to skulking around and brooding out here in the stalls! Zut! When I find him Ive got one or two choice things to say on the subject of "
"Madeline," I said quietly as she blasted towards me throwing up a wake of fine dust. "Alexander is in here but you might want to lower your voice a trifle "
"Is he hurt?" she gasped. "Have they fought already? I thought it was not until after Christmas that they were going to fight their idiotic duel. He had better not expect me to sigh dramatically at his bedside ."
"No, no, I am more than fine," Edringtons voice rang out strongly. Madeline could not see over the stall walls until she drew up level with me at the stall door. She shoved the heavy wooden door open, brandishing a sheet of paper like a pennant.
"Alexander! This note, this letter, this lovely wonderful...WHAT is this foolish idea of dueling with Arthur? What is the point? Im furious at both of you and if he were to kill you I would never speak to you again, I swear it! I cannot believe you would do such a daft..oooh, the puppies!" she squealed delightedly, noticing the activity in the straw. Shannon lifted her head again as if to growl and Madeline smacked her smartly on the top of the head. "You settle. I wont hurt your babies." Chastened, Shannon lowered her head back onto the hay. Madeline dropped to her knees and lifted up a whelp, rubbing it against her cheek. "Oh, dont they smell marvelous? I had forgotten that sweet puppy scent. Its been years and years." Edrington kneeled beside her, arms still folded under his greatcoat. She punched him lightly on the shoulder. "You were supposed to tell me when they were coming. You promised. We had a wager. Have you been here all night?"
"Yes, but I thought you were possibly too caught up in your own affairs." He did not look at her.
"Alexander, for a brilliant military mind you are very dense about some things," Madeline said with a damp sniffle. "Arent they beautiful! Good girl, Shannon! Oh, Moustache will be so proud. Moustache!" she called out. He whimpered and scratched at the stall door beside me. "You have a fine family in here!"
"Maybe he will live to see them if she does not bite his head off the first time he tries to sniff them. I think they look like big gray rats," I opined. Three identical sets of dark brown eyes turned towards me with the same half-disgusted, half-pitying expression that one might see on the face of an Italian who had just been told that Michaelangelo was little more than a glorified house painter and stone cutter.
"They are beautiful puppies, so big and fat and healthy. Now lets just see how many there are.." Madeline began to stack the writhing, squealing bodies like cordwood. She frowned. "Oh. Eight. I suppose this means that you win the bet."
"Yes, I suppose it does. Hope your Latin is as good as your English."
"Hey!" Madeline said, giving him a hard look. "What is that under your coat? You have got another puppy under there, dont you?"
"What? Me? That would be cheating." But he hunched his shoulders and seemed to hug himself even tighter.
"There IS another puppy. I just heard it. How can a man who would fight a duel be so dishonorable as to hide a puppy just to win a bet? It had to be an exact guess, we shook hands on it.."
"What puppy? I am just cold, that is all. I have been here for hours."
"Then open your coat and hold out your arms."
"I do not want to."
"And why is that?"
"I dont have to give a reason. The answer is no. Quote, N-O, period, exclamation point, unquote."
"There IS another puppy! I can see it moving!"
"Fish for it."
And with that, she put a fist to each shoulder and pushed him down onto the straw, sitting on his legs, pulling open his coat, and extracting a wiggling gray object that was wearing a surprising band of emeralds and diamonds wrapped in a double-strand around its chubby neck and squirming body. She gasped, holding up the puppy to see the light glittering off the jewels. "Oh my God! Tis beautiful ."
"It is the best one."
"I can see that!" She held the puppy up, turning it this way and that. It was such a funny looking thing with the beautiful gemstones wrapped around it. "Such a nice long head and back, and a Lordly arch of neck." She held the puppy up by the armpits peering at its stomach. "Just like his daddy!" She rubbed the puppy against her cheek, kissed it on the head, and then gently unwound the glittering object, which was revealed to be a bracelet. She dropped the bracelet carelessly in her lap and stroked the puppy as she replaced it at its mothers side, encouraging it to find a likely spot.
"Only you would be more fascinated by a puppy than by a blaze of jewels. Merry Christmas, Madeline, my love and pray to God we have many more such," said the Earl of Edrington, stifling laughter, who was still laying back against the straw with Madeline straddling his thighs in a most unladylike fashion. With a cry and a sob, she slipped her hands under his blonde head and pulled his face to hers, tears finally flowing freely down her cheeks and wetting his in salty rivulets. He wrapped her in his greatcoat in one smooth graceful motion and I realized that I had become entirely superfluous.
Ch. 55The Running of the Deer
So I went back out to wait in front of the stables. Still no Sue, but I had not really expected her to be about so early. No doubt she would be taking her time at her dressing table this morning, I reflected with a growing anticipation, heightened by a pleasantly dizzy feeling brought on by the scene I had just witnessed in the stall. Of course. How clever. Not only had Edrington gotten Madeline to come to him, but he had actually gotten her to climb on top of him, and then kiss him first. Brilliant. Now she had to marry him, or she would have no honor at all! And wouldnt they be happy playing with those ugly puppies as they planned the wedding? I couldnt seem to stop grinning, even when Lt. Col. Arthur Wellesley made his appearance dressed in riding clothes.
"I say, Kennedy! What the devil are you grinning about? Care to go riding with me this morning? I had thought to take Lady M but her maid tells me she is not available. Poor girl, it was a long evening. Blasted Earl refusing to give his consent really upset my lady."
"Actually," I said. "Lady Madeline is in the fourth stall on the left. It seems there was a blessed event."
"Oh. The pups. She said something about looking forward to that. Funny looking animals, those. Snaky beasts. Nothing compared to our Irish hounds. But I supose I should look in on her."
"I rather think you should, Wellesley. I think a man should know where a womans really heartfelt interests lie."
"Right. Conversation and whatnot. Cannot be all slap and tickle," he said, nudging my elbow in a hearty sort of way. "Domestic bliss depends on it."
"Definitely," I agreed, with a broad smile.
It was not long before he beetled out of the barn looking like black thunder filled with hail. "You!" He spluttered, pointing at my chest. "You KNEW what I would find!"
"Sure I did. Better to find out now, eh, Wellesley? I confess I believe it to be an excellent match. I take it the duel is off?"
"Well " he mused, still angry, but far too much in control of himself to do more than dig a booted heel into the mud reflexively. "That is possibly the ONLY excuse I could accept for Edrington refusing to give his blessing. One wonders if they were living under the same roof what on earth took them so long. I mean, he had the advantage. Being here, in the same house. Seeing her every day. And yet last night, I thought she was all set for India. Bags as good as packed. Trousseau folded neatly in a cedar chest. She gave me every encouragement. The duplicity of women, Archie. I swear, as long as I live I shall never fully trust the sex."
"Hostile armies may face each other for years, striving for victory which is decided in a single day," I commented. Wellesley looked thoughtful, and stroked his chin.
"That is quite good. Yours?"
"No, some Chinaman named Son-Zoo."
"Dont mind if I do." We smoked in silence, watching the shadows cast by the fence posts shorten in the goldening light of the rising winter sun.
"You know, Kennedy, sometimes the only thing half as melancholy as a battle lost is a battle won," Wellesley said.
"THAT is good. Yours?" I echoed.
"Got it in one. But I don't mind if you put it about. Kennedy," he put a companionable arm about my shoulder, "this looks like the start of a beautiful.." but there was Sue, coming hesitantly towards us, no doubt having expected to find me alone. "Ah well," Wellesley said philosophically. "My advice to you is to keep her away from that bounder Edrington. Fellow is apparently capable of shocking behaviour when in proximity to hay. Go on, lad. Ill see you someday in Paris no doubt!" He grinned ruefully and strode off with his chin held high, hawkish profile proud as ever.
"What is the matter with Col. Wellesley?" Sue asked me as she watched his stiff back retreat towards Edrington Hall.
"He got the push," I said quickly. "Look. Sue. The thing is that Lady Madeline and the Earl of Edrington are, well, not to put too fine a point on it they are getting matters settled between them in a barn stall." Her delicate eyebrows arched in surprise.
"So you and Lady Madeline..?"
"Brotherly affection and well wishes only. Oh, I wish you had been willing to listen to me last night, Miss Northcote. A complete evening, a MAGIC evening, wasted in Edringtons cellar when I would much rather have been dancing with you," I howled. She regarded me with a certain pensive look that in my sisters has always signified that they cannot quite decide if you are only telling them what they want to hear so they will go away and quit bothering a fellow. "It is an amazing story, you would not believe it even if I told you the whole of it."
"Try me," said Sue. So I did. We walked and talked for hours and I told her the whole of it. Except of course, for those details that an officer can never divulge, not even to the woman who owns his heart. We strolled about the grounds of Edrington Manor, and my hair did at some point blow across my face and she did at some time reach up unconsciously to tuck it behind my ears and her hand did linger a little too long on my cheek and it was not unwelcome to her when I embraced her as we walked slowly along the wooded path down to the river.
"You should write this down, Archie. I am absolutely serious." Sue said some time later, faintly audible over the pounding hammer in my chest. "This is an amazing story. People might like to read it. It is not a romance, no, not as such, not like I write, but tis an interesting tale of a friendship."
"Oh, I could not!" I protested. "Im no author. I barely write sufficient letters to keep my friends and family from thinking me dead or back in Spanish prison! Besides, who would believe it? I mean, I am an unlikely sort of hero and Edrington a strange candidate for a romance."
"You may be right about that. The belief part, understand, not that bit about your being the hero. But I still think you should write it down, anyhow. Just write it as you spoke it to me just now." We strolled hand in hand along the riverbank and then returned to the house. At least four hours had passed since I had had the pleasure of a smoke with Wellesley, but I saw Madeline and Edrington just emerging from the barn. From the quantity of straw in their hair and on their clothing it appeared that they had been getting to know each other rather well. I knuckled my friend a little salute. He and his lady were wrapped so tightly together under his greatcoat it was hard to know where one ended and the other began.
Sue regarded them thoughtfully. "You know, the most poignant aspect of your story is how difficult it was for the Earl and Lord Vaughn to declare themselves in a way that would win their ladys hearts forever. They really did not need to go through all that that they did."
"But, your novels all those romances the complications and the misunderstandings "
"Archie," Sue said patiently, as if to a slow but dutiful child, squeezing my arm and smiling, "That is only so the story will run 250 pages, leatherbound, or 180 pages, cardboard for penny trade. We ladies do rather know what we want as soon as we see it." My heart swelled in my chest. I knew she was talking about me, as well as them. "In fact, all the poor fellows needed to do was, as soon as they decided they loved their ladies, to go down on one knee in front of them and say You are the only woman in my world. I love you more than life. Marry me."
"But then," I mused, "that would make for a short novel indeed." I smiled happily down at her lively, intelligent brown eyes, so different from my own. "Chapter One: Young Kennedy meets Miss Northcote. He is smitten, and sneaks over the wall just to talk with her and look at her but ends up kissing her."
"Chapter Two:" giggled Sue, "her stern old father catches the young scamp and gives him several of the juiciest, then sends him home in disgrace. Instead of behaving like a sensible lad and growing up a bit and finishing his schooling so he could pursue his suit with honor he "
"Chapter Three: runs off like a priceless ass and joins the British Navy just to show stern old father he is a man to be reckoned with. But, he is not, not yet, and he ends up getting himself bonked on the head by various well-meaning individuals and imprisoned for several years."
"Chapter Four: Newly-orphaned Miss Northcote believes him dead. Her life in ruins, she retreats to live with a Maiden Aunt and assuages her grief by making her dreams of what young Kennedy might have become if he had lived into a series of novels, which sell like firewood in January making her a woman of independent means. But she never forgets that sweet-faced, blue-eyed boy in the garden ."
"Chapter Five: who eventually returns and is an officer and someone to know. But the shock of seeing his Sue after all those years causes him to have a fit, which makes him wonder if he will EVER get it right. And when next he has an opportunity to impress her, she catches him "
Chapter Six: Being the same affectionate, funny, gentle soul she remembers so fondly from her girlhood. But being even handsomer than memory served." I took a deep breath. My time was now.
"Chapter Seven: So, having assured Miss Northcote as to his unchanged and constant heart, he goes down on one knee," which I did, "and says to her "You are the only woman in my world. I love you more than life. Marry me." And she says "
"Chapter Eight:" intoned Sue solemnly, her soft hand upon her bosom. "She is overcome. She gasps, "This is so sudden, sir. You must give me time I must think about your kind offer.""
"No!" I burst out. "Now that is not the way this story goes at all! You cant do this to our readers! Its cruel. Heartless!" And I took her, laughing out loud and with tears streaming from the corners of her eyes and, Readers, I kissed her.
What? You want details? The lovely Mrs. Kennedy and I still know a great many people around here and I hope I am a gentleman. It was a good kiss. Get lost.
The discovery of the above manuscript, if authentic, sheds light on certain mysteries surrounding a novel published in 1828 under the title of The Runaway Comptessa. It was the last of a series of novels which were published anonymously and which typified the romantic novel of that period which was written for the amusement of young ladies of all classes and was often the target of railings from the pulpits as encouraging immorality and base thoughts in chaste young women.
The author of this very successful series, which is hard to find today as the style is not comparable to that of the true literary giants of the era Austen, Brontes, Dafoe, and Thackaray to name a few .was the subject of tremendous speculation in her own time. For awhile, the gossips held that the true author was Lord Cecil Vaughn, a bon vivant and amateur scientist who was much taken with quoting passages from popular romances when in his cups. But the style is too feminine, even though the novels are primarily written from the heros point of view.
The manuscript sheds light onto the reason for certain inexplicable holes in the plot of The Runaway Contessa. Descendants of the Eighth Earl of Edrington generously donated excerpts from his private papers, letters, and journals to fill in other gaps.
As part of my Doctorate, I researched these family histories thoroughly. It turns out that the Earl of Edrington and Madeline, the Countess of Edrington had a marriage which was as tempestuous as it was productive. Lady Madeline presented the Earl with four sons and two daughters before she reached the age of 39. Household expense records, as well as the Earls own journals, show that she accompanied him on almost all his campaigns, whether pregnant or with an infant in tow. Other than an extraordinarily large sum spent for crockery and glassware, there is little reason to suppose that their marriage was not generally a harmonious one, although they lived in a tumultuous era during which their nation was almost constantly at war. A portrait painted when the couple had reached middle age, shows a slender, silver-haired man in the uniform of a General, resting his hand upon the shoulder of a handsome woman with broad shoulders, extraordinarily large dark eyes, and rather bold smile for the era. Their children stand around them, blonde and brunette, all with the dark eyes of the Edrington strain. Some years later, Lady Madeline was reputed to have shot two assassins in her husbands tent in the Crimea, saving his life, though the story was given little credence at the time.
The Vaughn/Edrington marriage was by all accounts a happy one, but remained childless, perhaps due to the lingering effects of the illness that had struck down Lady Katherine Vaughn at a young age. Their home became one the closest thing Northern England ever offered to a Paris-style salon and several celebrated scandals erupted there among their weekend guests. Lord Vaughn became a great patron of the sciences and his estate passed to a nephew. Their portrait shows a dark-haired, voluptuous woman of astonishing beauty and a stocky, but strongly built man with unruly reddish hair, spectacles, and an aspect of great good humor.
As for Lt. Kennedy, he was not married to Susan Northcote until 1803. He essentially disappeared from all military records for the period of 1799 until May of 1803. He then married Miss Northcote and then disappears again for five more years, during which time she has the first two of three children. So he must have found the means to visit her. His activities during this time have left no record, but in 1810, he reappeared, was made a Viscount by Royal decree and bought the property in Northumberland formerly occupied by Lord Neville. One can but hope that at some point a similar account of these missing years will surface. He was my great, great, great grandfather.
Prior to publication, the Edrington heirs released one more document from the 8th Earls papers. This is the longest surviving letter written by Lady Madeline to her husband. It is undated, but may serve to explain why the Earl took the rather unconventional step of allowing his wife to accompany him on his most dangerous campaigns.
I have slipped this note into your journal for I know you write in it every night. I have read nothing your thoughts before tonight are your own. But I leave it here so that I know you might find it.
These months of waiting grow hard on me. I am weary of our constant battle over how and where I am to live when you return to duty. All I know is that I do not care to live where you are not.
I wait for you at the stables. Our horses are saddled, there are an infinity of stars above. I have readied all we should need or want. Under the stars, we might be anywhere in the world and at any time. The line between us shall disappear, and I might as well be you, and you, me. Run with me, and I shall show you why you do not wish to leave me here in England under these stars which are the same stars as you will see when you look up in some other land and realize that you and I are alone.
N.B. This letter might also explain another mystery, which is why the Countess of Edringtons tombstone reads "Madeline, Countess of Edrington, Beloved Wife of the 7th Earl of Edrington/1773-1856/ "Josephine by Night" However, in the interest of historical accuracy, it must be noted that an extensive search of birth records in France turned up no evidence of a girl child OTHER than Lady Madeline du Martine born on the Estate of the Compte Du Martine in 1773, nor was there any record ever found of an English governess being retained by that family.
And an addendum from Mrs. Cheever Robson Porter, President of the East Anglia Scottish Deerhound Club:
"By 1799, the "Great Gray Ghosts of Scotland" had dwindled to a mere handful of surviving specimens. Since their ownership was indeed restricted to those of rank and title, the breed was never numerous. The clearances and fighting amongst the Lairds had left the quality stock that remained in the hands of a few English nobles along the border counties. Through judicious selection and sharing of bloodstock, these aristocrats preserved a breed that was described as "the most glorious creature under heaven" by those fortunate enough to see the thrilling sight of a brace of them pursuing the stag in the old way. Today, the breed is strong and of good numbers, and is enjoyed by fanciers in nearly every country on earth. Our Scottish Deerhound fanciers owe a great debt to the House of Edrington for the part they played in preserving this living piece of Scottish history. All Scottish Deerhounds now living trace their ancestry back at least in part to the litter described in this manuscript."
Archie & Edrington Acknowledgements
No movies starring Brendan Fraser were ripped off in the writing of this story. But just about everyone and everything else was. First, the most important debts I must pay are to the persons who post on the A&E boards as Madeline5 and Mags.
Madeline5 got the ball rolling with a statement back in August, '99 that she would enjoy reading a fan fic where the guys do some fighting and shooting and the boyz don't cry. I combined that thought with a promise I had made to SueN. to write her into a story where she gets with Archie and this is the result. M5 was with me every step of the way, commenting and just discussing things in general which have often sparked ideas for me that had little correlation on the surface with what we were actually talking about. It was synergy.
Mags read the beta version of at least a third of the chapters. She sent her edits and comments back speedily, pointing out things that were obviously absurd anachronisms for the time period. She gave me a sense of what things I was doing were particularly enjoyable to read, and that was more valuable even than her education in period manners, dress, and mores. Mags is a fine fan fic author in her own right for the best in Jane Austen-inspired fan fiction, essays, and fun her UTL is:
Check it out. Mags is cool.
In the process of writing the story, I based most of my chapters on a single line or fragment from a song or another novel. I prefer to think of this as "sampling" in the Hip Hop sense, and not actual stealing. Some of the varied artists I sampled include The Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, The River Why (a fine book by David James Duncan), and quite obviously I stole liberally from Shakespeare and Wodehouse, with a few nods to Jane Austen herself. And of course, Foresters characters and a lot of the lines from the scriptwriters of Hornblower yada yada yada . The whole concept of plagiarism in fan fiction is ludicrous, anyhow. Im not telling everything I sampled. If you cant spot it, then I figure I got away with it.
All the really bad writing I lampooned in this story is my own. I based the whole Sue/Archie relationship on the sixth track of Fountains of Waynes "Utopia Parkway". No, Im not printing out the lyrics. FoW, like Jamie Bamber, need a boost. Go buy it. Youll like it. Have I ever lied to you?
I decided to write Archie first person POV because I really wanted to write about Edrington. I didnt want to write about Archie, wasnt that interested in Archie, and thought so, fine, Ill just be him and then he can describe things as he sees them and they happen around him. But Ive gotten to like Archie a bunch. I based my Archie much more on the talkative, likable boy who welcomes Hornblower onto Justinian with a "Welcome to Purgatory!", and not the broken fellow we see in Duchess & Devil. It seemed to me at the end of Wrong War that all Archie really needed to be splendid was a few years and a damn good rogering. In which cause, I now hand him back over to you other keepers of the Archie flame.
God knows who my Alexander Edrington is. There wasnt enough of him in Wrong War and I mean that in both the literal and figurative sense. But a lot of men I know who are very intimidating in their professional life are big mushpiles in their private life. This story is also full of references to Sam Wests film career. And although I do consider it to be basically about friendship and how that plays into self-image, its also about me writing a story about people who have stories written about them.
The Edrington and Vaughn horses are quite obviously a combination of the best characteristics of Secretariat and the endurance gallopers of the Pony Express. But then again, those Edringtons have a real flair for breeding.
Thanks again to those who have followed my story and been so very encouraging along the way.