Happy Monday! To start off your week in the proper spirit of procrastination, I bring you the third dose of That Still Untitled Selwick Christmas Novella.
Otherwise, head right on down to Chapter Three….
I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day,
I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas Day in the morning.
And what was in those ships all three?
— “I Saw Three Ships”
The air was cooler in the hallway, away from the pressing heat of too many people, too many candles, and too much hot food all crammed into the same space. Funny, how even a room the size of a village green could feel crammed with enough people stuffed into it.
That wasn’t it, though, was it? It wasn’t the number of people or the smell of the food or the glare of the candles. It was the expression on Amy’s face when she had made that comment about being stranded in England. Richard couldn’t remember the exact phrasing of it, but the meaning had been clear enough.
It was maddening to know what she wanted and to be incapable of doing anything at all about it.
Only that wasn’t quite honest, was it? He could do something about it. That was the worst of it. In the back of his mind lurked the niggling possibility that if Amy really wanted to go back to France, it could be arranged. The only person who knew of her complicity in his escape was the Assistant to the Minister of Police, and he had since been retired to a private institution on the outskirts of Paris—for a rest, as the official report went. Absolutely barking barmy, was the way Richard’s source had put it. With Delaroche out of the way, Amy’s path would be clear.
Or it would have been, if she hadn’t married him. Marriage to the former Purple Gentian was a sure way to blight the career of a budding spy.
Even so, she might manage it. Her brother was well-liked in Bonaparte’s court, her cousin received without a qualm. There were few people in Paris who would recognize her. She could pose as a cousin, a maid, anything she liked, rather than staying in rural seclusion in Sussex, yoked to a useless former member of His Majesty’s secret service, with nothing better to do than tell over the tales of his aging exploits by the crackle of the winter fire.
Richard’s head thudded painfully.
It took him a moment to realize the noise wasn’t entirely coming from inside his own skull. Heavy footfalls reverberated along the marble passageway behind him as a very large object propelled itself down the hallway with a vigor that made the statues shake in their niches.
“I say! Hold up a moment!” Richard’s one-time best friend came skidding to a halt beside Richard.
Not one-time. Long-time. He and Miles had been inseparable from Eton on, until Miles had had the temerity to marry Richard’s sister. Yet another upheaval in a year of upheavals.
It had been pointed out to Richard, forcibly and repeatedly, by the various females in his family, that the choice had not been entirely Miles’. Henrietta had had a hand in it, too.
But it had still felt like a betrayal. A betrayal of whom, of what, and of why was not something that Richard felt like examining too closely. He had clung stubbornly to the mantra that Miles Should Have Known Better.
“Known better than whom?” his mother had said, with a pointed look at him.
That just made it worse. Just which one of them was her actual offspring? Miles might have been practically part of the family, but he was only so because Richard had brought him home, like a stray dog found begging at the kitchen door. He was supposed to be Richard’s dog—well, friend.
At the moment, he looked more like a kicked dog, gearing up to dodge another blow. As he trotted along beside, Richard could see Miles watching him warily, gearing up for yet another rebuff. He had been administering a lot of those recently, hadn’t he?
“Don’t look like that,” said Richard irritably. He hadn’t meant to say it irritably. It was just that everything seemed to come out that way these days. “I’m not going to bite.”
“A fine way you have of showing it,” Miles said, rolling his eyes in an exaggerated way, but there was too much truth in it for it to be entirely in fun.
It made Richard want to lower his head in his hands and groan. A fine mess he had made of things, hadn’t he? His wife unhappy, his best friend afraid of him…. Could he take the hands of the clock, turn them back, and do it all over again, starting somewhere back last Christmas?
“I’m sorry,” he said, instead, not meeting his old friend’s eyes as he pushed open the door to one of the smaller book rooms. There were three of them in Uppington Hall, in gradations of grandness. Richard had deliberately chosen the least grand, the one his father tended to use the most.
Richard went unerringly to the cabinet where the port was kept, drawing out a decanter and two glasses. He had been raiding the decanter in this particular study since he had turned twelve. Richard pulled out the stopper, filling each glass half full of ruby liquid, the finest product of Oporto. Funny, how some things stayed the same, while other things turned inside out and upside down.
Sometimes, Richard felt as though the world had chosen 1803 to turn on its head and spin like a top, with nothing to do but to cling to the sides and hope that it eventually would all turn right side up.
Shrugging, he handed Miles a glass. “It’s been a strange year.”
“At least it’s almost over!” Miles said cheerfully, seizing eagerly at the olive branch, pathetic and puny one though it was. He raised his glass in an impromptu toast. “Here’s to 1804! Mmm, port,” he added happily, smacking his lips. “Nice port, too.”
Richard’s lips twisted, despite himself. He’d missed Miles. He didn’t like to admit it, but he had.
But all he said was, “Let’s hope a good wine makes a good year.”
Miles grinned as he plopped himself down in a Jacobean cane chair. “It can’t hurt.”
“Yes, it can,” said Richard dryly. “The next morning.”
Miles looked at him warily, as though suspecting a dangerous double meaning, but said, easily enough, “Time enough to think about that then.” He waved a hand airily through the air. “Sufficient unto the day, and all that—urgh!”
The hand, unfortunately, had been the one holding his glass.
“I hate to be the one to tell you this,” said Richard, nodding at the puddle of crimson liquid sinking nicely into the tan buckskin of Miles’ breeches, “but port is meant to be ingested through the lips, not the leg. Just something you might want to know.”
“Oh, ha bloody ha.” Removing a handkerchief from his sleeve, Miles scrubbed at the stain, succeeding only in spreading it across a wider area. Richard couldn’t fail to notice that the handkerchief had been unevenly embroidered with Miles’ initials. Or, rather, initial. The placement of the single, wobbly “M” suggested that it had initially been planned as part of a larger grouping.
“Henrietta embroider you handkerchiefs, did she?” said Richard, nodding at the scrap of cloth.
Stopping mid-scrub, Miles grinned fondly at the now reddened scrap. “Well, handkerchief, really. The others are still in progress.”
“Ah, yes,” said Richard cynically. “I still have the slipper Henrietta gave me for my birthday last year. When I asked her where the other one was, she told me it would be good for my health to hop.”
Miles beamed proudly. “She does like to get the last word. Jolly long ones, too, most of the time.”
Something about the glow on his old friend’s face suddenly made Richard feel very, very small.
He looked down into his own port, and saw only the wobbly reflection of his own face, darkened and distorted by the effect of light on liquid. If they were happy, who was he to object? Not that he hadn’t had cause, back in June, he told himself, when he had found his best friend and sister together in an extremely compromising position. But if Miles really loved her….
The force of Richard’s exhalation made ripples across the surface of the liquid, wrinkling his reflected face into a dozen identical folds.
“Look,” he said gruffly, by way of preamble.
Miles obediently looked. Henrietta had always said that Miles was excellent with direct commands. The recollection made Richard wince, but he continued doggedly on, nonetheless. It was Christmas, devil take it, and he was bloody well going to be noble if it killed him.
It did occur to him that there might be something a little self-defeating about framing the sentiment in that way, but he dismissed that as beside the point.
Richard cleared his throat. It was the port, of course. Bloody viscous stuff, port. “Look,” he repeated. “Shall we let bygones be? New year, new leaf?”
Miles grinned at him, an all out grin that all but split his face in half. “I don’t see any bygones here, do you?”
Richard could. They were all around him, like evil sprites. Lost friends, lost opportunities, lost causes. “No,” he said. “Not a one.”
“Excellent.” Miles rubbed his hands together, flinging himself back across his chair with an unaffected exuberance that seriously taxed the capabilities of the two hundred year old frame. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to run by you, something that came across my desk at the War Office….”
Stretching his legs out in front of him, Richard permitted himself a groan. The port must be mellowing him. “I miss the War Office.”
“They miss you, too,” said Miles sympathetically, before getting down to business. “Do you know a Captain Wright?”
“With an arr or a double-u?”
Miles did some quick mental spelling. No one watching him would ever have been able to guess that he had been top of their class at Eton for classical Greek.
Triumphantly shaking back the hair from his brow, Miles announced, “Both.”
“Has a boat, hasn’t he?” recalled Richard.
Miles was generous enough not to point out that the word “captain” generally implied the possession of some form of nautical conveyance.
It was beginning to come back. “Captain John Wright? He’s a naval man. He carried the odd packet back to England for me, when I couldn’t get hold of another means of convoy.”
Miles nodded. “He’s carrying more than correspondence these days. There’s a rumor than he’s been smuggling émigrés back into France.”
“What kind of émigrés?”
Miles flopped back in his chair. “That’s the devil of it. We don’t know. They might just be simple souls yearning for home and hearth. Or….”
That “or” carried a multitude of possibilities, most of them dangerous. All of Richard’s old instincts twanged discordantly. If Captain Wright was smuggling across French émigrés intent on fomenting revolution against the revolution, their amateur bumblings might do more harm to the royalist cause than—well, than any number of Bonaparte’s canons. The last thing they needed was another failed Royalist coup to give Bonaparte an excuse to tighten security and call public sympathy to his side.
If that was the case, something would have to be done immediately to neutralize the amateur plotters. They would have to—
Richard caught himself up short. They. Not he. He had nothing to do with it anymore. He had been retired. Rusticated. It was Jane Wooliston’s business now. The Purple Gentian had left the garden.
Richard took a long swig of his port before speaking. “Why tell me? I’m out of commission these days.” He could feel himself wallowing. Surely, a little wallow was permissible, on an occasion such as this.
“Only in France,” said Miles helpfully.
“If you’ll forgive me pointing out the obvious,” Richard said sarcastically, leaning over to splash a second round of port into Miles’ glass before topping up his own, “France just happens to be where the enemy is.”
“That doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done here. Some of us never got to go romp around France in a black mask in the first place.”
“Do you expect me to feel sorry for you?” Richard tossed back, setting the stopper firmly in the decanter.
“No.” Something in Miles’ voice made Richard’s hand still on the stopper. It was perfectly cheerful, but…. Richard looked up from the decanter and met his old friend’s guileless brown eyes. “No more than I do for you.”
“Hmph,” said Richard.
Miles played the buffoon so well, it was easy to forget that he was generally brighter than he let on. He was bright enough not to spoil his advantage by pressing it home. Instead, he said cheerfully, “You still have connections among the émigré community in London, haven’t you? And on the coast?”
Not entirely recent ones, but…. “Yes,” he said guardedly.
“Excellent! Once Christmas is over—”
He broke off as Richard abruptly held up a hand. What was that? Old instincts died hard. He had acted before he had even fully identified the noise. There had been a creaking sound, like a floorboard, or a door hinge.
“Is anyone there?” he called out sharply.
His instincts were rewarded. The door swung slowly inward, revealing the figure of a woman, her hair drawn into curls at the sides, held up by violet flowers that matched the color of her half-mourning.
“I’m so sorry,” said Deirdre. No, not Deirdre, Richard reminded himself. Lady Jerard. “I do hope I’m not interrupting.”
Both gentlemen rose hastily to their feet.
“Not at all,” said Richard smoothly.
Miles made a grunting noise that just barely passed for assent, but the expression on his face couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than hostility, iced over with a fragile veneer of good manners. He nodded generally in Deirdre’s direction, without ever looking directly at her.
Miles had never forgiven Deirdre for Tony.
“I should be getting back,” Miles said, brushing his hands vigorously against his thighs, as though scrubbing off something unpleasant.
Richard suppressed a sigh, feeling all the fatigue of the day descending upon him. He didn’t particularly want to deal with Deirdre either, but his reasons weren’t quite the same as Miles’. When he looked at Deirdre, he didn’t see her crime. He saw his. He had been young and foolish and desperate to impress the object of his infatuation. It had been his indiscretion, boasting to Deirdre of their plans in France, that had led to Tony’s death. Why should Deirdre have suspected her maid of being a French spy? That had been his responsibility, not hers, and he had failed.
The only crime Deirdre had committed was in choosing Baron Jerard over him, and that was a crime he could easily forgive, although at the time, it had felt like capital treason. Now, years removed, it was hard to remember why. Oh, she was certainly easy on the eyes—she still was, at that—but there had never been anything more. All his memories were of long looks, of worshipful silences, of his own voice singing her praises. They must have conversed, but he couldn’t recall a single conversation worth remembering. When it came down to it, they had never really had anything to say to each other.
That was not a problem from which he and Amy could be said to suffer.
He really ought to get back to the drawing room and Amy. But there was Deirdre to be dealt with. He did feel that he owed her something, after all these years. She had been his first love, even if a hollow one, and one didn’t dismiss that lightly.
Richard forced a pleasant smile onto his face, and said, “Were you looking for me?” Given their history, that hadn’t come out quite right. He modified it to, “Might I help you?”
Deirdre’s eyes scanned the room, as though searching for something she had lost, before settling, sadly, on him. “You might have. Once.”
Richard could hear the chime of silvery bells in his brain. Warning bells.
Before he could get too alarmed, Deirdre shook her head, holding up her hands in a charming gesture of abnegation. “Don’t mind me,” she said ruefully. She glanced down at the bulbous sapphire ring that still circled her finger, Baron Jerard’s betrothal ring. “It has been a difficult season.”
“At least you had several good years together,” said Richard awkwardly. It did feel a bit bizarre to be belatedly consoling her for the death of the man for whom she had jilted him. But he felt, in retrospect, more than a little bit grateful to Baron Jerard. Who knows, he thought generously. Perhaps Deirdre had genuinely loved the man, for all that he had been fifty if he was a day and shaped like the more bulbous sort of beer barrel.
“Several years, yes.” Deirdre stared down into the depths of her sapphire as though it were an oracle and might speak to her. “Good years?” She shook her head slowly in unspoken condemnation of her late husband.
Bloody, bloody, bloody blast. This was the last thing he needed, to play father confessor to outworn infatuation.
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” he said, for lack of anything better.
His half-hearted words made more of an impression than he had intended. Deirdre roamed idly around the room, her ruffled flounce making a muted swishing sound, like snow shifting in tree branches.
She braced her hands against the edge of Robert’s father’s desk. Her head bowed, she said, “There is something I have wanted to say to you for a very long time, something long overdue.”
“If it is that overdue,” suggested Richard gently, trying very hard not to glance at the clock on the mantle as he said it, “perhaps, then, it is better not said at all.”
“How like you,” murmured Deirdre, “to try to spare me pain.”
Well, no. Once upon a time, he had wished her a good deal of pain. Once upon a time, he had also written a vast quantity of very mawkish poetry, comparing her eyes to pansies sprinkled with morning dew, and her teeth to peerless pearls. Or was it her skin that had been peerless pearl? One forgot, after all these years. Richard tried to imagine how Amy would react were he to address something of the kind to her. Hooting sounds of laughter seemed the most likely response.
He nearly betrayed himself into a grin, but the somber expression on Deirdre’s face caught him up short just in time.
Poor woman; they had both suffered from their brief affair. They had both lost the dream of what might have been between them. He, at least, had had the luxury of resenting her for it. He had fumed and come to terms and found someone, in the end, who suited him a hundred times better, not in an illusion of romantic love, but in the rough and tumble of the workaday thing. She, on the other hand, had borne the burden of having made the decision, with nothing to show for it in the end but an empty title and an emptier bed. He could find it in himself to feel sorry for her. Now.
Deirdre looked at him long and earnestly. “I am sorry that it ended… as it did.”
It was a compliment, of a sort. “Thank you,” said Richard gravely.
What time was it? Long past time to be getting back to the drawing room. Unfortunately, Deirdre didn’t seem to be done yet. She held out one gloved hand to him.
“I never meant to hurt you.” Candlelight glinted off her curls as she bowed her head in remembered pain. “I never meant to hurt anyone.”
Poor consolation for Tony, dead these six years.
But there was no point in recriminations. Deirdre had been careless, not malicious. In his hurt and resentment, it had been easy to forget that she must suffer Tony on her conscience, just as he did.
“Of course, you didn’t,” said Richard, all manly solicitude. “Let’s say nothing more about it.”
“I hope…” she began falteringly, stopped, and tried again. “I hope that I was not the end of your operations abroad. So much good to be stopped for so little.”
Her mathematical skills never had been much to talk about, had they? His unmasking in the press—and, more importantly, in Bonaparte’s files—had occurred last spring; Deirdre’s role in his life had ended six years ago. There was a slight time lag there.
“Think nothing of it,” he said gallantly. At least, it might have been gallant if he hadn’t meant it quite literally. There really was nothing to think of.
“Do you mean… that is…” her voice dropped to a breathy whisper. “Are you still carrying on your work, despite it all?”
Richard felt as though he were stuck in a curious sort of gap in time. If they had to have this conversation, shouldn’t it have been seven years ago? It was entirely irrelevant now. Unless, he thought, she was still caught in the net she had woven for herself, even though, to him, those were all as events from another lifetime.
He much preferred this lifetime, he realized—even if it did mean a cessation of those cross-Channel activities that even Deirdre’s accidental meddling had failed to end.
Kindly, but firmly, he said, “Whatever passed between us was over long, long ago. Your conscience should have no qualms about it.”
“How noble you are,” she said sadly. “How good! If I had known then one half of what I know now…. Oh, Richard!”
“Well!” said Richard heartily, beating a hasty retreat to the window. “Just look at that snow!”
Thank goodness for the weather. It was always there, always a proper topic of conversation. Nothing forestalled inconvenient displays of emotion quite like a disquisition on climatic conditions.
“Oh dear,” said Deirdre softly. Richard had once dotingly termed that tone “dulcet”. In his new lexicon, Richard re-labeled it “bloody hard to hear properly”. “It is coming down.”
“That is what snow does,” Richard agreed, moving purposefully towards the study door. “Shall I show you and your mother to your carriage? You must want to get a start on the drive.”
Deirdre remained remarkably stationary. She looked up at him from under her lashes.
“Our coachman doesn’t like driving in the snow….”