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BOOK: Lord John and the Private Matter
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Taken by surprise, Grey laughed. This was a tactical error, as it drew von Namtzen’s attention to him once more.

“However,” von Namtzen added, with a gracious nod toward Grey over the heads of the intervening crowd, “whatever else may be said of them, the English are . . . invariably ferocious.”

Grey lifted his glass in polite acknowledgment, ignoring his mother, who had gone quite pink in the face with the difficulty of containing her emotions.

He turned half away from the Hanoverian and the Countess, which left him face-to-face with Trevelyan; an awkward position, under the circumstances. Requiring some pretext of conversation, he thanked Trevelyan for his graciousness in sending Byrd.

“Byrd?” Trevelyan said, surprised. “Jack Byrd? You’ve seen him?”

“No.” Grey was surprised in turn. “I referred to Tom Byrd. Another of your footmen—though he says he is brother to Jack.”

“Tom Byrd?” Trevelyan’s dark brows drew together in puzzlement. “Certainly he is Jack Byrd’s brother—but he is no footman. Beyond that . . . I did not send him anywhere. Do you mean to tell me that he has imposed his presence upon you, on the pretext that
I
sent him?”

“He said that Colonel Quarry had sent a note to you, advising you of . . . recent events,” he temporized, returning the nod of a passing acquaintance. “And that you had in consequence dispatched him to assist me in my enquiries.”

Trevelyan said something that Grey supposed to be a Cornish oath, his lean cheeks growing red beneath his face powder. Glancing about, he drew Grey aside, lowering his voice.

“Harry Quarry did communicate with me—but I said nothing to Byrd. Tom Byrd is the boy who cleans the boots, for God’s sake! I should scarcely take him into my confidence!”

“I see.” Grey rubbed a knuckle across his upper lip, suppressing his involuntary smile at the recollection of Tom Byrd, drawing himself up to his full height, claiming to be a footman. “I gather that he somehow informed himself, then, that I was charged with . . . certain enquiries. No doubt he is concerned for his brother’s welfare,” he added, remembering the young man’s white face and subdued manner as they left the Bow Street compter.

“No doubt he is,” Trevelyan said, plainly not perceiving this as mitigation. “But that is scarcely an excuse. I cannot believe such behavior! Inform himself—why, he has invaded my private office and read my correspondence—the infernal cheek! I should have him arrested. And then to have left my house without permission, and come here to practice upon you . . . This is unconscionable! Where is he? Bring him to me at once! I shall have him whipped, and dismissed without character!”

Trevelyan was growing more livid by the moment. His anger was surely justified, and yet Grey found himself oddly reluctant to hand Tom Byrd over to justice. The boy must plainly have been aware that he was sacrificing his position—and quite possibly his skin—by his actions, and yet he had not hesitated to act.

“A moment, if you will, sir.” He bowed to Trevelyan, and made his way toward Thomas, who was passing through the crowd with a tray of drinks—and not a moment too soon.

“Wine, my lord?” Thomas dipped his tray invitingly.

“Yes, if you haven’t anything stronger.” Grey took a glass at random and drained it in a manner grossly disrespectful to the vintage, but highly necessary to his state of mind, and took another. “Is Tom Byrd in the house?”

“Yes, my lord. I saw him in the kitchens just now.”

“Ah. Well, go and make sure that he stays there, would you?”

“Yes, my lord.”

Seeing Thomas off with his tray, Grey returned slowly to Trevelyan, a wineglass in either hand.

“I am sorry,” he said, offering one of the glasses to Trevelyan. “The boy seems to have disappeared. Fearful of being discovered in his imposture, I daresay.”

Trevelyan was still flushed with indignation, though his breeding had by now overtaken his temper.

“I must apologize,” he said stiffly. “I regret most extremely this deplorable situation. That a servant of mine should have practiced upon you in such fashion—I cannot excuse such unwarrantable intrusion, on any grounds.”

“Well, he has caused me no inconvenience,” Grey said mildly, “and was in fact helpful in some small way.” He brushed a thumb unobtrusively over the edge of his jaw, finding it still smooth.

“That is of no importance. He is dismissed at once from my service,” Trevelyan said, mouth hardening. “And I beg you will accept my apologies for this base imposition.”

Grey was not surprised at Trevelyan’s reaction. He
was
surprised at the revelation of Tom Byrd’s behavior; the boy must have the strongest of feelings for his brother—and under the circumstances, Grey was inclined to a certain sympathy. He was also impressed at the lad’s imagination in conceiving such a scheme—to say nothing of his boldness in carrying it out.

Dismissing Trevelyan’s apologies with a gesture, he sought to turn the conversation to other matters.

“You enjoyed the music this evening?” he asked.

“Music?” Trevelyan looked blank for a moment, then recovered his manners. “Yes, certainly. Your mother has exquisite taste—do tell her I said so, will you?”

“Certainly. In truth, I am somewhat surprised that my mother has found time for such social pursuits,” Grey said pleasantly, waving a hand at the harpist, who had resumed playing as background to the supper conversation. “My female relations are so obsessed with wedding preparations of late that I should have thought any other preoccupation would be summarily dismissed.”

“Oh?” Trevelyan frowned, his mind plainly still on the matter of the Byrds. Then his expression cleared, and he smiled, quite transforming his face. “Oh, yes, I suppose so. Women do love weddings.”

“The house is filled from attic to cellar with bridesmaids, bolts of lace, and sempstresses,” Grey went on carelessly, keeping a sharp eye on Trevelyan’s face for any indications of guilt or hesitancy. “I cannot sit down anywhere without fear of impalement upon stray pins and needles. But I daresay the same conditions obtain at your establishment?”

Trevelyan laughed, and Grey could see that despite the ordinariness of his features, he was possessed of a certain charm.

“They do,” he admitted. “With the exception of the bridesmaids. I am spared that, at least. But it will all be over soon.” He glanced across the room toward Olivia as he spoke, with a faint wistfulness in his expression that both surprised Grey and reassured him somewhat.

The conversation concluded in a scatter of cordialities, and Trevelyan took his leave with grace, heading across the room to speak to Olivia before departing. Grey looked after him, reluctantly admiring the smoothness of his manners, and wondering whether a man who knew himself to be afflicted with the French disease could possibly discuss his forthcoming wedding with such insouciance. But there was Quarry’s finding of the house in Meacham Street—conflicting, rather, with Trevelyan’s pious promise to his dying mother.

“Thank God he’s gone at last.” His own mother had approached without his notice, and stood beside him, fanning herself with satisfaction as she watched Captain von Namtzen’s plumes bobbing out of the library toward the front door.

“Beastly Hun,” she remarked, smiling and bowing to Mr. and Mrs. Hartsell, who were also departing. “Did you
smell
that dreadful pomade he was using? What was it, some disgusting scent like patchouli? Civet, perhaps?” She turned her head, sniffing suspiciously at a blue damask shoulder. “The man reeks as though he had just emerged from a whorehouse, I swear. And he
would
keep touching me, the hound.”

“What would you know of whorehouses?” Grey demanded. Then he saw the gimlet gleam in the Countess’s eye and the slight curve of her lips. His mother delighted in answering rhetorical questions.

“No, don’t tell me,” he said hastily. “I don’t want to know.” The Countess pouted prettily, then folded her fan with a snap and pressed it against her lips in a token of silence.

“Have you eaten, Johnny?” she asked, flipping the fan open again.

“No,” he said, suddenly recalling that he was starving. “I hadn’t the chance.”

“Well, then.” The Countess waved one of the footmen over, selected a small pie from his tray, and handed it to her son. “Yes, I saw you talking to Lady Mumford. Kind of you; the dear old thing dotes upon you.”

Dear old thing. Lady Mumford was possibly the Countess’s senior by a year. Grey mumbled a response, impeded by pie. It was steak with mushrooms, delectable in flaky pastry.

“Whatever were you talking to Joseph Trevelyan so intently about, though?” the Countess asked, raising her fan in farewell to the Misses Humber. She turned to look at her son, and lifted one brow, then laughed. “Why, you’ve gone quite red in the face, John—one might think Mr. Trevelyan had made you some indecent proposal!”

“Ha ha,” Grey said, thickly, and put the rest of the pie into his mouth.

Chapter 6

A Visit to the Convent

I
n the event, they did not visit the brothel in Meacham Street until Saturday night.

The doorman gave Quarry an amiable nod of recognition—a welcome expanded upon by the madam, a long-lipped, big-arsed woman in a most unusual green velvet gown, topped by a surprisingly respectable-looking lace-trimmed cap and kerchief that matched the lavish trim of gown and stomacher.

“Well, if it’s not Handsome Harry!” she exclaimed in a voice nearly as deep as Quarry’s own. “You been neglectin’ us, me old son.” She gave Quarry a companionable buffet in the ribs, and wrinkled back her upper lip like an ancient horse, exposing two large yellow teeth, these appearing to be the last remaining in her upper jaw.

“Still, I s’pose we must forgive you, mustn’t we, for bringing such a sweet poppet as this along!”

She turned her oddly engaging smile on Grey, a shrewd eye taking in the silver buttons on his coat and the fine lawn of his ruffles at a glance.

“And what’s your name, then, me sweet child?” she asked, seizing him firmly by the arm and drawing him after her into a small parlor. “You’ve never come here before, I know; I should recall a pretty face like yours!”

“This is Lord John Grey, Mags,” Quarry said, throwing off his cloak and tossing it familiarly over a chair. “A particular friend of mine, eh?”

“Oh, to be sure, to be sure. Well, now, I wonder who might suit? . . .” Mags was sizing Grey up with the skill of a horse trader on fair day; he felt tight in the chest and avoided her glance by affecting an interest in the room’s decoration, which was eccentric, to say the least.

He had been in brothels before, though not often. This was a cut above the usual bagnio, with paintings on the walls and a good Turkey carpet before a handsome mantelpiece, on which sat a collection of thumbscrews, irons, tongue-borers, and other implements whose use he didn’t wish to imagine. A calico cat was sprawled among these ornaments, eyes closed, one paw dangling indolently over the fire.

“Like me collection, do you?” Mags hovered at his shoulder, nodding at the mantelpiece. “That little ’un’s from Newgate; got the irons from the whipping post at Bridewell when the new one was put up last year.”

“They ain’t for use,” Quarry murmured in his other ear. “Just show. Though if your taste runs that way, there’s a gel called Josephine—”

“What a handsome cat,” Grey said, rather loudly. He extended a forefinger and scratched the beast under the chin. It suffered this attention for a moment, then opened bright yellow eyes and sharply bit him.

“You want to watch out for Batty,” Mags said, as Grey jerked back his hand with an exclamation. “Sneaky, that’s what she is.” She shook her head indulgently at the cat, which had resumed its doze, and poured out two large glasses of porter, which she handed to her guests.

“Now, we’ve lost Nan, I’m afraid, since you was last here,” she said to Quarry. “But I’ve a sweet lass called Peg, from Devonshire, as I think you’ll like.”

“Blonde?” Quarry said with interest.

“Oh, to be sure! Tits like melons, too.”

Quarry promptly drained his glass and set it down, belching slightly.

“Splendid.”

Grey managed to catch Quarry’s eye, as he was turning to follow Mags to the parlor door.

“What about Trevelyan?” he mouthed.

“Later,” Quarry mouthed back, patting his pocket. He winked, and disappeared into the corridor.

Grey sucked his wounded finger, brooding. Doubtless Quarry was right; the chances of extracting information were better once social relations had been loosened by the expenditure of cash—and it was of course sensible to question the whores; the girls might spill things in privacy that the madam’s professional discretion would guard. He just hoped that Harry would remember to ask his blonde about Trevelyan.

He stuck his injured finger in the glass of porter and frowned at the cat, now wallowing on its back among the thumbscrews, inviting the unwary to rub its furry belly.

“The things I do for family,” he muttered balefully, and resigned himself to an evening of dubious pleasure.

He did wonder about Quarry’s motives in suggesting this expedition. He had no idea how much Harry knew or suspected about his own predilections; things had been said, during the affair of the Hellfire Club . . . but he had no notion how much Harry might have overheard on that occasion, nor yet what he had made of it, if he had.

On the other hand, given what he himself knew of Quarry’s own character and predilections, it was unlikely that any ulterior motive was involved. Harry simply liked whores—well, any woman, actually; he wasn’t particular.

The madam returned a moment later to find Grey in fascinated contemplation of the paintings. Mythological in subject and mediocre in execution, the paintings nonetheless boasted a remarkable sense of invention on the part of the artist. Grey pulled himself away from a large study showing a centaur engaged in amorous coupling with a very game young woman, and forestalled Mags’ suggestions.

“Young,” he said firmly. “Quite young. But not a child,” he added hastily. He withdrew his finger from the glass and licked it, making a face. “And some decent wine, if you please. A lot of it.”

         

Much to his surprise, the wine
was
decent; a rich, fruity red, whose origin he didn’t recognize. The whore was young, as per his request, but also a surprise.

“You won’t mind that she’s Scotch, me dear?” Mags flung back the chamber door, exposing a scrawny dark-haired girl crouched on the bed, wrapped up in a wooly shawl, despite a good fire burning in the hearth. “Some chaps finds the barbarous accent puts ’em off, but she’s a good girl, Nessie—she’ll keep stumm, and you tell her to.”

The madam set the decanter and glasses on a small table and smiled at the whore with genial threat, receiving a hostile glare in return.

“Not at all,” Grey murmured, gesturing the madam out with a courteous bow. “I am sure we shall suit splendidly.”

He closed the door and turned to the girl. Despite his outward self-possession, he felt an odd sensation in the pit of his stomach.

“Stumm?” he asked.

“’Tis the German word for dumb,” the girl said, eyeing him narrowly. She jerked her head toward the door, where the madam had vanished. “She’s German, though ye wouldna think it, to hear her. Magda, she’s called. But she calls the doorkeep Stummle—and he’s a mute, to be sure. So, d’ye want me to clapper it, then?” She put a hand across her mouth, slitted eyes above it reminding him of the cat just before it bit him.

“No,” he said. “Not at all.”

In fact, the sound of her speech had unleashed an extraordinary—and quite unexpected—tumult of sensation in his bosom. A mad mix of memory, arousal, and alarm, it was not an entirely pleasant feeling—but he wanted her to go on talking, at all costs.

“Nessie,” he said, pouring out a glass of wine for her. “I’ve heard that name before—though it was not applied to a person.”

Her eyes stayed narrow, but she took the drink.

“I’m a person, no? It’s short for Agnes.”

“Agnes?” He laughed, from the sheer exhilaration of her presence. Not just her speech—that slit-eyed look of dour suspicion was so ineffably
Scots
that he felt transported. “I thought it was the name the local inhabitants gave to a legendary monster, believed to live in Loch Ness.”

The slitted eyes popped open in surprise.

“Ye’ve heard of it? Ye’ve been in Scotland?”

“Yes.” He took a large swallow of his own wine, warm and rough on his palate. “In the north. A place called Ardsmuir. You know it?”

Evidently she did; she scrambled off the bed and backed away from him, wineglass clenched so hard in one hand, he thought she might break it.

“Get out,” she said.

“What?” He stared at her blankly.

“Out!” A skinny arm shot out of the folds of her shawl, finger jabbing toward the door.

“But—”

“Soldiers are the one thing, and bad enough, forbye—but I’m no takin’ on one of Butcher Billy’s men, and that’s flat!”

Her hand dipped back under the shawl, and reemerged with something small and shiny. Lord John froze.

“My dear young woman,” he began, slowly reaching out to set down his wineglass, all the time keeping an eye on the knife. “I am afraid you mistake me. I—”

“Oh, no, I dinna mistake ye a bit.” She shook her head, making frizzy dark curls fluff round her head like a halo. Her eyes had gone back to slits, and her face was white, with two hectic spots burning over her cheekbones.

“My da and two brothers died at Culloden,
duine na galladh
! Take that English prick out your breeks, and I’ll slice it off at the root, I swear I will!”

“I have not the slightest intention of doing so,” he assured her, lifting both hands to indicate his lack of offensive intent. “How old are you?” Short and skinny, she looked about eleven, but must be somewhat older, if her father had perished at Culloden.

The question seemed to give her pause. Her lips pursed uncertainly, though her knife hand held steady.

“Fourteen. But ye needna think I dinna ken what to do with this!”

“I should never suspect you of inability in any sphere, I assure you, madam.”

There was a moment of silence that lengthened into awkwardness as they faced each other warily, both unsure how to proceed from this point. He wanted to laugh; she was at once so doubtful and yet so in earnest. At the same time, her passion forbade any sort of disrespect.

Nessie licked her lips and made an uncertain jabbing motion toward him with the knife.

“I said ye should get out!”

Keeping a wary eye on the blade, he slowly lowered his hands and reached for his wineglass.

“Believe me, madam, if you are disinclined, I should be the last to force you. It would be a shame to waste such excellent wine, though. Will you not finish your glass, at least?”

She had forgotten the glass she was holding in her other hand. She glanced down at it, surprised, then up at him.

“Ye dinna want to swive me?”

“No, indeed,” he assured her, with complete sincerity. “I should be obliged, though, if you would honor me with a few moments’ conversation. That is—I suppose that you do not wish me to summon Mrs. Magda at once?”

He gestured toward the door, raising one eyebrow, and she bit her lower lip. Inexperienced as he might be in brothels, he was reasonably sure that a madam would look askance at a whore who not only refused custom, but who took a knife to the patrons without evident provocation.

“Mmphm,” she said, reluctantly lowering the blade.

Without warning, he felt an unexpected rush of arousal, and turned from her to hide it. Christ, he hadn’t heard that uncouth Scottish noise in months—not since his last visit to Helwater—and had certainly not expected it to have such a powerful effect, rendered as it was in a sniffy girlish register, rather than with the tone of gruff menace to which he was accustomed.

He gulped his wine, and busied himself in pouring out another glass, asking casually over his shoulder, “Tell me—given the undoubted strength and justice of your feelings regarding English soldiers, how is it that you find yourself in London?”

Her lips pressed into a seam, and her dark brows lowered, but after a moment she relaxed enough to raise her glass and take a sip.

“Ye dinna want to ken how I came to be a whore—only why I’m here?”

“I should say that the former question, while of undoubted interest, is your own affair,” he said politely. “But since the latter question affects my own interests—yes, that is what I am asking.”

“Ye’re an odd cove, and no mistake.” She tilted back her head and drank off the wine quickly, keeping a suspicious eye trained on him all the while. She lowered it with a deep exhalation of satisfaction, licking red-stained lips.

“That’s no bad stuff,” she said, sounding a little surprised. “It’s the madam’s private stock—German, aye? Gie us another, then, and I’ll tell ye, if ye want to know so bad.”

He obliged, refilling his own glass at the same time. It
was
good wine; good enough to warm stomach and limbs, while not unduly clouding the mind. Under its beneficent influence, he felt the tension he had carried in neck and shoulders since entering the brothel gradually fade away.

For her part, the Scottish whore seemed similarly affected. She sipped with a delicate greed that drained her cup twice while she told her tale—a tale he gathered she had told before, recounted as it was with circumstantial embellishments and dramatic anecdotes. In sum, it was simple enough, though; finding life insupportable in the Highlands after Culloden and Cumberland’s devastations, her surviving brother had gone away to sea, and she and her mother had come south, begging for their bread, her mother occasionally reduced to the expedient of selling her body when begging was not fruitful.

“Then we fell in with
him
,” she said, making a sour grimace of the word, “in Berwick.”
He
had been an English soldier named Harte, newly released from service, who took them “under his protection”—a concept that Harte implemented by setting up Nessie’s mother in a small cottage where she could entertain his army acquaintances in comfort and privacy.

BOOK: Lord John and the Private Matter
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