As some of you know, last week, Miss Gwen shamelessly hijacked Pink X.
This didn’t come entirely out of the blue. I’d known for a while that Miss Gwen was going to get a story of her own.
And by “for a while”, I mean since summer of ’08.
In the summer of ’08, I followed Penelope Deveraux to India. One of the first people Penelope met in Calcutta was a seasoned veteran of the Madras Cavalry, known to his friends as “the Laughing Colonel” for his easy good humor. Penelope struck up a rapport with Colonel William Reid right away– and who wouldn’t? Colonel Reid, father of a brood of legitimate and illegitimate children, has been effortlessly charming women on two continents for several decades.
I think he’s met his match in Miss Gwen, don’t you?
More on Colonel William Reid next week, but, in the meantime, here’s that scene from The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, where we first meet Miss Gwen’s hero. (Bearing in mind that it’s all from Penelope’s point of view.)
Penelope found herself facing the regard of a man in the bright red uniform of one of the native regiments, spangled with enough gold braid to suggest that he had attained a suitably impressive form of command. He was no longer in the first, or even the second, flush of youth. His hair must once have been as red as her own, but age had speckled it with white, making his face seem even ruddier in contrast. His face was seared by sunshine and laugh lines and liberally spattered with a lifetime of freckles. Beneath wrinkled lids, his pale blue eyes were kindly.
Too kindly. It made Penelope want to shake him.
He strolled forward in an unhurried fashion. Just as Penelope was prepared to stare him down with her best Dowager Duchess of Dovedale glare, he said, “That’s always the way of it with these young men, isn’t it?”
He gave a sympathetic wag of his head, his matter-of-fact tone making it sound as though abandonment by one’s spouse was a commonplace, and nothing to be bothered about at all.
“No sooner do they arrive at a party than they’re straight off to the card tables. A blight on society, it is, and a lamentable offense to all the fairer sex.”
Penelope’s stiff posture relaxed. It wasn’t that she cared what people thought—but it was very unpleasant to be left standing by oneself.
“I imagine you are a notable card player yourself, sir,” she riposted.
“Not I,” he averred, pressing one hand to the general vicinity of his heart, but there was a twinkle in his sun-bleached blue eyes that told Penelope he must have been quite a rogue in his youth. It took one to know one, after all. “I have my share of vices, to be sure, but the cards are not among them. At least, not when there’s a lovely lady present.” He swept into a bow that would have done credit to the court of St. James. “Colonel William Reid, at your service, fair lady.”
“I am—,” Penelope began, and stuck. She had been about to say Penelope Deveraux, only she wasn’t anymore. She was Lady Frederick Staines now, her identity subsumed within her husband’s. She wasn’t quite sure who Lady Frederick was, only that it wasn’t really her. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” she substituted.
Mistaking her hesitation, the Colonel leaned away, holding up both hands in a gesture of contrition. “But not without a proper introduction, I wager. I should beg your pardon for being so bold as to impose myself upon you. After years in a mess, one forgets how to go about.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Penelope hastened to correct him. “It’s just that I’m recently married and I still forget which name I’m meant to call myself. My husband’s name doesn’t feel quite my own.”
A sentiment with which Freddy would heartily agree.
“Married?” The Colonel rearranged his features in a comical look of dismay. “That’s a pity. I meant to introduce you to my Alex.”
“My boy,” the Colonel said proudly. Before Penelope could stop him, he raised his arm to hail a man who stood in conversation with an elderly lady in an exuberant silk turban, his back to them. “Alex! Alex, lad.”
Hearing his father’s exuberant hail, the man turned in a fluid movement that bespoke a swordsman’s grace. “Boy” was the last word Penelope would have used to refer to him; he was tall and lean, with the muscles of a man used to spending long hours in the saddle. Unlike his father, he wore civilian dress, but the indifferently tailored breeches and blue frock coat looked wrong on him, like a costume that didn’t quite fit. His face was as tan as the Colonel’s was ruddy. Had she not been told otherwise, Penelope would have taken him for an Indian, so dark were his hair and eyes. A thin scar showed white against the dark skin of his face, starting just to the left of one eyebrow and disappearing into his hair. He was a handsome man, but not in the way the Colonel must have been handsome once. Where one could picture the Colonel in a kilt and claymore, standing by a distant loch, his son looked as though he belonged in a white robe and Persian trousers with a falcon perched upon his wrist.
Tact had never been Penelope’s strong suit. “Are you quite sure you’re related?”
Far from being offended, the Colonel chuckled comfortably. “It takes many people that way on first meeting—sometimes after, too! My Maria, the boy’s mother, was of Welsh extraction. He gets his coloring from her. It’s been a mixed blessing for him out here,” said the Colonel.
Penelope looked at him quizzically.
“Life is seldom kind to the half-caste,” explained the Colonel, and some of the twinkle seemed to go out of him. “Or those perceived to be so. And especially not in India.”
“I’m half Irish,” Penelope volunteered, by way of solidarity.
She could picture her mother cringing as she said it. Respectably brunette herself, her mother had spent most of her life trying to pretend that she was as English as Wedgwood pottery. Penelope’s hair had been a sore point with her mother, who saw her secret shame revealed every time her daughter’s flaming head hove into view.
“A fine people, the Irish, and bonny fighters,” said the Colonel politely. From his name and his diction, he was Scots, although his accent veered off in odd ways on vowels in a way that was no longer quite any one particular accent at all. “Ah,” he said with pleasure, looking over her shoulder. “Here comes my Alex. He’ll be far more entertaining for you than an old man like me.”
“Nonsense,” said Penelope, smiling up at the darling old colonel. “I couldn’t have been better entertained.”
His Alex appeared just as the Colonel was tapping a finger against Penelope’s cheek. He looked from his father to her with a resigned expression that suggested that this was not the first time he had come upon his father chatting up an attractive young woman.
But all he said was, “Forgive me. I didn’t like to rush away from the Begum.” Unlike his father’s, his accent was unimpeachably English.
The Colonel laughed his rolling laugh. “She’s in her usual form, is she?”
“Invariably,” he said fondly, with a glance over his shoulder to where the Begum held court in her chair. Recalling himself to his social duties, he looked quizzically at his father.
His father knew exactly what was required. With all the bombast of a born raconteur, he began, “Alex, this charming young lady has been kind enough to sacrifice her own amusement to enliven an old man’s dull existence—”
“Scarcely old,” interjected Penelope, “and never dull.”
The Colonel beamed approval at her, clearly delighted to have found someone who played the game as he did. “See what I mean, Alex? An angel of goodness, she is.”
But does he play the game well enough to win over Miss Gwen? More on Colonel Reid next week…. And huge props to everyone who guessed that Miss Gwen’s hero would be he!