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After a time, Hal got up and wandered down the hall to the nook he’d taken over as his study. It was cramped as an eggshell, but he didn’t need much space—and the close confines seemed to help him think better, shutting out some of the outside world.
He plucked a quill from the jar and bit it absently, tasting the bitter tang of dried ink. He should cut a new one, but couldn’t summon up the energy to find his pen-knife, and after all, what did it matter? John wouldn’t mind a few blots.
Paper… there was a half-quire of the parchment sheets he’d used to reply to the expressions of sympathy about Esmè. They’d come in by the bushelful—unlike the spatter of embarrassed notes that had followed his father’s suicide three years before. He’d written the replies himself, in spite of his mother’s offer to help. He’d been filled with something like the electric fluid natural philosophers talked about—something that numbed him to any natural need like food or sleep, that filled his brain and body with a manic need to move, to do something—though God knew there was nothing more he could have done after killing Nathaniel Twelvetrees. Not that he hadn’t tried…
The paper felt gritty with dust; he didn’t let anyone touch his desk. He held up a sheet and blew at it, shook it a bit and set it down, then dipped his quill.
“J—” he wrote, and stopped dead. What was there to say? I hope to God you’re not dead? Have you seen anyone strange asking questions? How are you finding Aberdeen? Other than cold, wet, dreary, and gray…
After twiddling the quill for a while, he gave up, wrote, “Luck. —H,” sanded the sheet, folded it, and taking up the candle, dribbled smoke-stained wax onto the paper and stamped it firmly with his signet. A swan, flying, neck outstretched, across a full moon.
He was still sitting at his desk an hour later. There was progress: John’s letter sat there, squared to the corner of the desk, sealed and with the Armstrongs’ direction in Aberdeen neatly written—with a freshly-cut pen. The quire of parchment had been shaken free of dust, tapped into alignment and put away in a drawer. And he’d found the source of the dead-flower smell; a bunch of rotting carnations left in a pottery mug on the windowsill. He’d managed to open that window and throw them out, and then summoned a footman to take the mug away to be washed. He was exhausted.
He became aware of noises in the distance; the sound of the front door opening, voices. That was all right; Sylvester would take care of whoever it was.
To his surprise, the butler seemed to have been overcome by the intruder; there were raised voices, and a determined step coming rapidly toward his sanctum.
“What the devil are you doing, Melton?” The door flung open and Harry Quarry’s broad face glowered in at him.
“Writing letters,” Hal said, with what dignity he could summon. “What does it look like?”
Harry strode into the room, lit a taper from the fire and lit the candlestick on the desk. Hal hadn’t noticed it growing dark, but it must be tea-time, at least. His friend lifted the candlestick and examined him critically by its light.
“You don’t want to know what you look like,” said Harry, shaking his head. He put down the candle. “You didn’t recall that you were meant to be meeting with Washburn this afternoon, I take it.”
“Wash—oh, Jesus.” He’d risen halfway out of his chair at the name, and now sank back, feeling hollow at mention of his solicitor.
“I’ve spent the last hour with him, after meeting with Anstruther and Josper—you remember, the adjutant from the 14th?” He spoke with a strong note of sarcasm.
“I do,” Hal said shortly, and rubbed a hand hard over his face, trying to rouse his wits.
“I’m sorry, Harry,” he said, and shook his head. He rose, pulling his banyan round him. “Call Nasonby, will you? Have him bring us tea in the library. I have to change and wash.”
Washed, dressed, brushed and feeling some semblance of ability, he came into the library a quarter-hour later, to find the tea-trolley already in place and a wisp of aromatic steam rising from the teapot’s spout, to mingle with the spicy scents of ham and sardines and the unctuous sweetness of a currant sponge, oozing cream and butter.
“When’s the last time you ate anything?” Harry demanded, watching Hal consume sardines on toast with the single-mindedness of a starving cat.
“Yesterday. Maybe. I forget.” He reached for his cup and washed the sardines down far enough to make cake feasible as the next step. “Tell me what Washburn said.”
Harry disposed of his own cake, swallowed, and replied.
“Well, you can’t actually be tried in open court. Whatever you think about your damned title—no, don’t tell me, I’ve heard it.” He held out the palm of his hand in prevention, picking up a gherkin with the other.
“Whether you choose to call yourself the Duke of Pardloe, the Earl of Melton, or plain Harold Grey, you’re still a peer. You can’t be tried by anything save a jury of your peers, to wit, the House of Lords. And I didn’t really require Washburn to tell me that the odds of a hundred noblemen agreeing that you should be either imprisoned or hanged for challenging the man who seduced your wife to a duel, and killing him as a result, is roughly a thousand to one—but he did tell me so.”
“Oh.” Hal hadn’t given the matter a moment’s thought, but if he had, would likely have reached a similar conclusion. Still, he felt some relief at hearing that the Honorable Lawrence Washburn, KC, shared it.
“Mind you—are you going to eat that last slice of ham?”
“Yes.” Hal took it and reached for the mustard pot. Harry took an egg sandwich instead.
“Mind you,” he repeated, mouth half-full of devilled egg and thin white bread, “that doesn’t mean you aren’t in trouble.”
“You mean with Reginald Twelvetrees, I suppose.” Hal kept his eyes on his plate, carefully cutting the ham into pieces. “That isn’t news to me, Harry.”
“I shouldn’t have thought so, no,” Harry agreed. “I meant with the king.”
Hal set down his fork and stared at Harry.
“Or to be more exact, the army.” Harry delicately plucked an almond biscuit from the wreckage of the tea-trolley. “Reginald Twelvetrees has sent a petition to the Secretary of War, asking that you be brought to a court-martial for the unlawful killing of his brother, and further, that you be removed as Colonel of the 46th, and the regiment refused permanent re-commission, on grounds that your behavior is so deranged as to constitute a danger to the readiness and ability of said regiment. That being where His Majesty comes in.”
“Balderdash,” Hal said shortly. But his hand trembled slightly as he lifted the tea-pot, and the lid rattled. He saw Harry notice, and set it down carefully.
What the king giveth, the king also taketh away. It had taken months of painstaking work to have his father’s regiment provisionally re-commissioned, and more—much more—to find decent officers willing to join it.
“The scribblers,“ Harry began, but Hal made a quick, violent gesture, cutting him off.
“No, you don’t—”
“I do! Don’t bloody talk about it.”
Harry made a soft growling noise, but subsided. He picked up the pot and filled both cups, pushing Hal’s toward him.
The regiment—in its resurrected form—had not yet seen service anywhere; it had barely half its complement of men, and most of those didn’t know one end of a musket from the other. He had only a skeleton staff, and while most of his officers were good, solid men, only a handful, like Harry Quarry, had any personal allegiance to him. Any pressure, any hint of scandal—well, any more scandal—and the whole structure could collapse. The remnants to be greedily scooped up or trampled on by Reginald Twelvetrees, Hal’s father’s blackened memory left forever dishonored as a traitor, and his own name dragged further through the mud—painted by the scribblers of the press not only as a cuckold, but a murderer and lunatic.
The handle of his porcelain tea-cup broke off suddenly and shot across the table, striking the pot with a tink! The cup itself had cracked right through, and tea ran down his arm, soaking his cuff.
He carefully put down the two pieces of the cup and shook tea off his hand. Harry said nothing, but raised one bushy black brow at him.
[Thanks for the painting to Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789).
This excerpt is from “A Fugitive Green,” in SEVEN STONES TO STAND OR FAL, copyright © 2017 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved. Please do NOT copy all or part of this text, or any of my Excerpts ), and post them elsewhere. Instead, please refer others to this website, and share only the URL of this page. Thank you!
This excerpt (aka “Daily Lines”) was also posted on my official Facebook page on August 3, 2018. This page was last updated on Thursday, September 6, 2018 at 3:50 p.m. by Diana’s Webmistress.