Lord John and the Private Matter (9 page)

BOOK: Lord John and the Private Matter
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“He saw what a profit could be made, and so he’d go out now and again, huntin’, and come back wi’ some poor lass he’d found starvin’ on the roads. He’d speak soft to them, buy them shoes and feed them up, and next thing they kent, they were spreading their legs three times a night for the soldiers who’d put a bullet through their husbands’ heids—and within two years, Bob Harte was drivin’ a coach-and-four.”

It might be an approximation of the truth—or it might not.

Having no grounds for personal delusion, it was clear to Grey that a whore’s profession was one founded on mendacity. And if one could not believe in a whore’s central premise, unspoken though it was, one could scarcely place great credence in anything she said.

Still, it was an absorbing story—as it was meant to be, he thought cynically. He did not stop her, though; beyond the necessity of putting her at ease if he was to get any information from her, the simple fact was that he enjoyed hearing her talk.

“We met Bob Harte when I was nay more than five,” she said, putting a fist to her mouth to stifle a belch. “He waited until I was eleven—when I began to bleed—and then . . .” She paused, blinking, as though searching for inspiration.

“And then your mother, bent upon protecting your virtue, slew him in order to preserve you,” Grey suggested. “She was taken up and hanged, of course, whereupon you found yourself obliged by necessity to embrace the fate which she had sacrificed herself to prevent?” He lifted his glass to her in ironic toast, leaning back in his seat.

Rather to his surprise, she burst out laughing.

“No,” she said, wiping a hand beneath her nose, which had gone quite pink, “but that’s no bad. Better than the truth, aye? I’ll remember that one.” She lifted her glass in acknowledgment, then tilted back her head and drained it.

He reached for the bottle, only to find it empty. Rather to his surprise, the other was empty, too.

“I’ll get more,” Nessie said promptly. She bounced off the bed and was out of the room before he could protest. She had left the knife, he saw; it lay on the table, next to a covered basket. Leaning over and lifting the napkin from this, he discovered that it contained a pot of some slippery unguent, and various interesting appliances, a few of obvious intent, others quite mysterious in function.

He was holding one of the more obvious of these engines, admiring the artistry of it—which was remarkably detailed, even to the turgid veins visible upon the surface of the bronze—when she came back, a large jug clasped to her bosom.

“Oh, is that what ye like?” she asked, nodding at the object in his hand.

His mouth opened, but fortunately no words emerged. He dropped the heavy object, which struck him painfully in the thigh before hitting the carpeted floor with a thump.

Nessie finished pouring two fresh glasses of wine and took a gulp from hers before bending to pick the thing up.

“Oh, good, ye’ve warmed it a bit,” she said with approval. “That bronze is mortal cold.” Holding her full glass carefully in one hand and the phallic engine in the other, she knee-walked over the bed and settled herself among the pillows. Sipping her wine, she took hold of the engine with her other hand and used the tip to inch her shift languidly up the reaches of her skinny thighs.

“Shall I say things?” she inquired, in a businesslike tone. “Or d’ye want just to watch and I’ll pretend ye’re no there?”

“No!” Emerging suddenly from his tongue-tied state, Grey spoke more loudly than he had intended to. “I mean—no. Please. Don’t . . . do that.”

She looked surprised, then mildly irritated, but relinquished her hold on the object and sat up.

“Well, what then?” She pushed back the brambles of her hair, eyeing him in speculation. “I suppose I could suckle ye a bit,” she said reluctantly. “But only if ye wash it well first. With soap, mind.”

Feeling suddenly that he had drunk a great deal, and much more quickly than he had intended, Grey shook his head, fumbling in his coat.

“No, not that. What I want—” He withdrew the miniature of Joseph Trevelyan, which he had abstracted from his cousin’s bedroom, and laid it on the bed before her. “I want to know if this man has the pox. Not clap—syphilis.”

Nessie’s eyes, hitherto narrowed, went round with surprise. She glanced at the picture, then at Grey.

“Ye think I can tell from lookin’ at his
face
?” she inquired incredulously.

         

A more comprehensive explanation given, Nessie sat back on her heels, blinking meditatively at the miniature of Trevelyan.

“So ye dinna want him to marry your cousin, and he’s poxed, eh?”

“That is the situation, yes.”

She nodded gravely at Grey.

“That’s verra sweet of you. And you an Englishman, too!”

“Englishmen are capable of loyalty,” he assured her dryly. “At least to their families. Do you know the man?”

“I’ve no had him, myself, but aye, I think I’ve maybe seen him once or twice.” She closed one eye, considering the portrait again. She was swaying slightly, and Grey began to fear that his wine strategy had miscarried of its own success.

“Hmm!” she said, and nodded to herself. Tucking the miniature into the neck of her shift—given the meagerness of her aspect, he couldn’t imagine what held it there—she slid off the bed and took a soft blue wrapper from its peg.

“Some of the lasses will be busy the noo, but I’ll go and have a word wi’ those still in the sallong, shall I?”

“The . . . oh, the salon. Yes, that would be very helpful. Can you be discreet about your inquiries, though?”

She drew herself up with tipsy dignity.

“O’ course I can. Leave me a bit o’ the wine, aye?” Waving at the jug, she pulled the wrapper around her and swayed from the room in an exaggerated manner better suited to someone with hips.

Sighing, Grey sat back in his chair and poured another glass of wine. He had no idea what the vintage was costing him, but it was worth it.

He held his glass to the light, examining it. Wonderful color, and the nose of it was excellent—fruity and deep. He took another sip, contemplating progress to date. So far, so good. With luck, he would have an answer regarding Trevelyan almost at once—though it might be necessary to return, if Nessie could not manage to speak to whichever girls had most recently been with him.

The prospect of a return visit to the brothel gave him no qualms, though, since he and Nessie had reached their unspoken understanding.

He did wonder what she would have done, had he been truly interested in a carnal encounter rather than information. She had appeared deeply sincere in her objections to servicing one of Cumberland’s men—and in all honesty, he thought those objections not unreasonable.

The Highland campaign following Culloden had been his first, and he had seen such sights during it as would have made him ashamed to be a soldier, had he been in any frame of mind at the time as to encompass them. As it was, he had been shocked to numbness, and by the time he saw real action in battle, he was in France, and fighting against an honorable enemy—not the women and children of a defeated foe.

Culloden had been his first battle, in a way—though he had not seen action there, thanks to the scruples of his elder brother, who had brought him along to have a taste of military life but drew the line at letting him fight.

“If you think I am risking having to take your mutilated body home to Mother, you are demented,” Hal had grimly informed him. “You haven’t a commission; it’s not your duty yet to go and get your arse shot off, so you’re not going to. Stir one foot out of camp, and I’ll have Sergeant O’Connell thrash you in front of the entire regiment, I promise you.”

Fool that he was at sixteen, he had regarded this as monstrous injustice. And when he was at length allowed to set foot on the field, in the aftermath of the battle, he had gone out with pulse pounding, pistol cold in a sweating hand.

He and Hector had discussed it before, lying close together in a nest of spring grass under the stars, a little apart from the others. Hector had killed two men, face-to-face—God knew how many more, in the smoke of battle.

“You can’t tell, really,” Hector had explained, from the lofty heights of his four years’ advantage and his second lieutenant’s commission. “Not unless it’s face-to-face, with a bayonet, say, or your sword. Otherwise, it’s all black smoke and noise and you’ve no idea what you’re doing—you just watch your officer and run when he tells you, fire and reload—and sometimes you see a Scot go down, but you never know if it was your shot that took him. He might just have stepped in a mole hole, for all you know!”

“But you do know—when it’s close.” He had given Hector a rude nudge with his knee. “So what was it like then? Your first? Don’t dare to tell me you don’t remember!”

Hector had grabbed him and squeezed the muscle of his thigh until he squealed like a rabbit, then gathered him in close, laughing, forcing John’s face into the hollow of his shoulder.

“All right, I do remember, then. Wait, though.” He was quiet for a moment, his breath stirring John’s hair warm above the ear. It was too early in the year for midges, but the wind moved over them fresh and cool, tickling their skins with ends of waving grass.

“It was—well, it was fast. Lieutenant Bork had sent me and another fellow round a bit of copse to see if anything was doing, and I was in the lead. I heard a sort of thump and a cough behind me, and I thought Meadows—he was following me—I thought he’d stumbled. I turned to tell him to be quiet, and there he was lying on the ground, with blood all over his head, and a Scot just dropping the thumping great rock he’d hit Meadows with, and bending down to snatch his gun.

“They’re like animals, you know; all wild whiskers and dirt, generally barefoot and half-naked to boot. This one glanced up and saw me, and tried to seize the musket up and brain me, only Meadows had fallen on it, and I—well, I just screamed and lunged at him. I didn’t think a bit about it; it was just like the drills—only it felt a lot different when the bayonet went into him.”

John had felt a small shudder run through the body pressed against him, and put his arm round Hector’s waist, squeezing in reassurance.

“Did he die right away?” he asked.

“No,” Hector said softly, and John felt him swallow. “He fell back and sat down hard on the ground, and—and I lost hold of the gun, so he was sitting there with the bayonet sticking in him, and the gun’s butt . . . it was on the ground, bracing him, almost, like a shooting stick.”

“What did you do?” He stroked Hector’s chest, trying in some clumsy way to comfort him, but that was far beyond his powers at the moment.

“I knew I should do something—try to finish him, somehow—but I couldn’t think how. All I could do was to stand there, like a ninny, and him staring up at me out of that dirty face, and I . . .”

Hector swallowed again, hard.

“I was crying,” he said, all in a rush. “I kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ and crying. And he sort of shook his head, and he said something to me, but it was in that barbarous Erse, and I couldn’t understand if he knew what I’d said, or was cursing me, or if he wanted something, water maybe . . . I had water . . .”

Hector’s voice trailed off, but John could tell from the thickened sound of his breath that he was near to crying now. His hand was fastened hard around John’s upper arm, clinging hard enough to leave a bruise, but John stayed still, perfectly still, until Hector’s breathing eased and the iron-hard grip relaxed at last.

“It seemed to take a long time,” he said, and cleared his throat. “Though I suppose it wasn’t, really. After a bit, his head just fell forward, very slowly, and stayed that way.”

He took a deep, wet breath, as though cleansing himself of the memory, and gave John a reassuring hug.

“Yes, you do remember the first one. But I’m sure it will be easier for you—you’ll do it better.”

Grey lay on Nessie’s bed, wineglass in hand, sipping slowly. He stared up at the soot-stained ceiling, but was seeing instead the gray skies over Culloden. It
had
been easier—to do, at least, if not to recall.

“You’ll go with Windom’s detail,” Hal had said, handing him a long pistol. “Your job is to give the
coup de grâce,
if you find any still alive. Through one eye is surest, but behind the ear will answer well enough, if you find you can’t bear the eyes.”

His brother’s face was drawn with strain, white under the smudges of powder smoke; Hal was only twenty-five, but looked twice that, uniform plastered to him with rain and filthy with mud from the field. He gave his orders in a calm, clear voice, but Grey felt his brother’s hand tremble as he gave him the gun.

“Hal,” he said, as his brother turned away.

“Yes?” Hal turned back, patient but empty-eyed.

“You all right, Hal?” he asked, lowering his voice lest anyone nearby hear him.

Hal seemed to be looking somewhere far beyond him; it took a visible effort for him to bring his gaze back from that distant place, to fix it on his younger brother’s face.

“Fine,” he said. The edge of his mouth trembled, as though he wanted to smile in reassurance, but it fell back in exhaustion. He clapped a hand on John’s shoulder and squeezed hard; John felt oddly as though he were providing support to his brother, rather than the other way round.

“Just remember, Johnny—it’s a mercy that you give them. A mercy,” he repeated softly, then dropped his hand and left.

It lacked perhaps two hours ’til sunset when Corporal Windom’s detail set out onto the field, slogging through mud and moor plants that clung and grasped at their boots as they passed. The rain had stopped, but a freezing wind plastered his damp cloak to his body. He remembered the mixture of dread and excitement in his belly, superseded by the numbness of his fingers and his fear that he would not be able to prime the pistol again, if he had to use it more than once.

As it was, he had no need to use it at all for some time; all the men they came across were clearly dead. Nearly all Scots, though here and there a red coat burned like flame among the dull moor plants. The fallen of the English were taken away with respect, on stretchers. The enemy were thrown in heaps, the soldiers blue-fingered and mumbling curses in puffs of white breath as they dragged the bodies like so many felled logs, naked limbs like pale branches, stiff and awkward in the handling. He was not sure if he should help with this work, but no one seemed to expect him to; he trailed after the soldiers, gun in hand, growing colder by the moment.

BOOK: Lord John and the Private Matter
8.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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