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Chapter 3 - A Stoop to a Rake by A.J. Hall

“I don’t understand.” The combination of Lord Lestrade’s long, athletic legs, cloaked in fine dark hair and his short white night-shirt gave him an absurd, heron-like appearance. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the moment Charis found herself hard-pressed to stifle a giggle.

She took a deep breath, brought the sheet up beneath her chin for modesty, and sat up.

“It’s as I said. My marriage to Sher — to the Crown Prince has not been consummated. If we only have a little patience, I may have it annulled and we can be properly and honourably married, in the sight of God and the whole world.”

The silence that followed went on a little too long. She craned her neck so she could see Lord Lestrade properly. He was standing by the marble-topped wash-stand, gripping its edge so tightly his fingers had turned white.

Something shifted in her guts. This was not how she had expected her announcement to be received.

“My love? Is there something wrong? I thought you’d be pleased —”

Lord Lestrade hiccupped — at least, that was what it sounded like.

“My darling girl, of course I am. But — that is — have you thought what it would mean for you? Don’t you remember the Carfax annulment case, in ‘83?”

In ‘83 she had just arrived with the nuns, terrified by being so far from home, elated that her father had at last given in to her pleas to follow Agnes and Beatrice to school, despite Papa’s qualms that it put her too much on a level with those whom Divine Providence had placed her above. No breath of Court scandal had been allowed to penetrate that remote Northern fastness. Mother Superior would not have permitted it.

Charis shook her head.

“Well, dear heart, from the moment the case began everyone was talking about the Carfaxes, in the most prurient detail possible. It went on for months. He, of course, was the main target, but Lady Frances didn’t escape. I heard one old dowager confide to a dozen or so of her dearest cronies that she’d had it in confidence from her own maid that the reason Lady Frances couldn’t keep an attendant wasn’t just her shrewish temper, but her personal grossness; that her maids had to hold their breath to stand to be in her presence long enough to dress her, so no wonder any man, however lusty, found intimacy with her an insupportable prospect. And a great deal more in the same vein. Look; I know the generous spirit which moves you to make the offer, but you have no idea of the cost it would entail.”

Despite herself, Charis flinched. She had heard dowagers of the courts of Gondal and of Gaaldine dissect characters faster and more ruthlessly than Sherlock analysed corpses. Still, she had not come this point to fall at the first real challenge.

“I know it will be hard, but it will have to be done. Otherwise, how can we marry?”

Again, a pause held just a second too long.

“My dear — this is wholly unexpected —”

Awkward, jangling, uneven: an inexperienced equestrian making a hash of the transition between gaits. In a blinding flash of clarity she understood. He had not dreaded Sherlock tracking them down and pressing the issue to a duel, as she had. He had yearned for it. That moment in the withdrawing room, when he had all-but challenged Colonel Ross over a misunderstood word, came back to her with increased force.

Memory jerked her further back. She was sitting on a sunlit slope below the old castle in Gaaldine town, gossiping to a girl she had not known then was Frances.

“He was exiled to his country estates before his twentieth birthday. Not even Marguerite told me the details, so it must have been the most tremendous scandal.”

Another memory: John, in blood-stained jacket and breeches, striding along a palace corridor, talking in a fast, angry undertone to the assistant chirugeon who, despite John’s limp, was having a hard time keeping up. “Three lives ruined. If he survives, what life can he have, missing half his jaw? His wife brought to labour seven weeks early with the shock; the baby no bigger than a half-drowned cat, and less apt to live. And no more than a slap on the wrist for that young hothead! They should hang men for it, as they do in Gaaldine.”

Her stomach dropped, as for the first time she made the connection. Her hands started to shake; she flipped a fold of sheet over them lest Lord Lestrade see.

“My Lord, do you not see this as your chance to take your name — your House — through to the glory it deserves?”

She could see that thought blaze in his eyes and then, like a taper put to too-green wood, sputter and die away. The tip of his tongue flicked out to moisten his full red lips.

“Ssh, my girl. Even here — even within my own manor — such words are treason.”

“But surely — “

“No more, I beg you.” He was backing towards the door. “We will talk on this further, but not here. Not tonight.”

He was gone.

Her pillow was soaked with tears before sleep’s mercy at last took her.

The next day’s ride was an uneasy business, though the bogle-haunted uplands were soon left behind. They rode through a wide, rolling landscape, lush with orchards and trailing wild roses. The peasants they saw tipped their hats or bobbed curtseys. Some of the bolder shouted greetings. It was plain they were welcoming their own lord back to his native land.

By contrast, Charis, riding beside him, seemed almost invisible. None of the women acknowledged her directly. One old grannie, indeed, turned pointedly aside and spat in the dust. As for the men — there was something a little too appraising, a little too forthright about how they looked at her. She made a mental note that when they reached their destination she would take a long hard look at the riding habit. Perhaps it needed to be restyled, to give her more dignity or err a trifle more on the side of modesty.

Lord Lestrade exerted himself to amuse, but more and more frequently as the day wore on, fell into odd silences. By the time they rounded the final bend in the road, they had not exchanged a word for at least a turn of the glass. Perhaps he, too, was longing for an end to this ride, looking forward to washing off the dust of the road and to a long, cool, refreshing drink before dinner.

She had not seen Castle Lestrade for almost ten years, and would not have recognised it from those fragmented childhood memories. The main dwelling part had been rebuilt after the modern, German style. The mansion soared above the crumbling stone of the old curtain walls, faced with brick, its rows of great glass windows blazing fire in the evening sun.

Charis had spent far too long checking and re-checking accounts for the renovations to Cavron against estimates. (Mycroft would pay them, of course, but one didn’t want to look like a gullible fool to the King.) Lestrade family lands were good, but successive generations were reputed to have lived up to their rent-rolls and beyond. Rebuilding on that reckless scale (all that glass! and in the Borders, too!): where on earth had the money come from?

Her stomach gave another lurch. How much did it cost to obtain an annulment of marriage? She had assumed, blithely, that Lord Lestrade would fund the lawyers and bribe any churchmen who might stand between them and their objective. After all, once she was free to marry him, she would join her own dower lands to his. The long game surely justified any outlay at the start.

Looking up at the gold-red glare of those windows, she saw another reason for Lord Lestrade’s reluctance. Not fear of the Pretender’s wrath, but sheer, sordid financial calculation. She tasted bile at the back of her throat. What kind of man saw a duel to the death in terms of thalers and cents saved?

Beside her, Lestrade gave a shout of sheer anger. Her head jerked up in surprise, but he was off, plunging recklessly down the narrow path, scattering pedestrians to left and right. Taken unawares, she failed to prevent the Creature following in his wake. The next few moments were a breathless, frantic scramble to keep her seat and bring her horse under control. She had barely managed it when she arrived at the incident which had provoked Lestrade’s anger.

A baggage wagon had shed a wheel in the archway which led through the perimeter wall into the castle courtyard and over-turned. Its unlucky driver had, by some freak, managed to choose that very moment in early evening when the workers flooding in from duties about the estate met the out-flux of castle servants to lodgings or taverns in the village. The clamour, the swearing, the snorting and stamping of horses was indescribable.

A few yards upslope from the chaos, a Moorish woman was sitting on a white mule, observing the chaos as if it were a show put on for her especial benefit. Lord Lestrade stood at the mule’s head, remonstrating with its rider: from his gestures, remonstrating very angrily indeed, if to little apparent effect. After a moment or so he gave up and signalled a servitor to lead mule and rider through a small postern into the castle courtyard, vanishing through the door after them without a backwards glance.

Charis spurred forward to the postern. For a moment she thought one of the officious men at arms was about to bar her passage, but she gave him her best Royal glare. He fell back the half-pace it needed for her to squeeze through.

Inside the castle courtyard Lord Lestrade and the Moorish woman, both now dismounted, were glaring at each other in a way that made clear Charis had walked in on a most tremendous row.

She slid to the ground herself. The man-at-arms had followed her in and was standing behind her, looking, she thought, uncommonly foolish. She handed him the Creature’s reins.

“Pray see my mount is watered and stabled. I shall be along to see him later.”

Lord Lestrade half-turned at the sound of her voice, his mouth agape as if startled to find her there.

“Will you not introduce your guest to me?” Charis enquired.

“Guest! That’s a nice one!” The Moorish girl — she was younger than Charis had at first thought — had three fingers’ breadth of height on her, which Charis was minded to consider unfair. Further, the grace and pride of her carriage as she paced the courtyard could only be called magnificent.

Lord Lestrade gulped. The other woman turned in a swirl of skirts, and glared at him.

“Yes, darling, why don’t you introduce me to your new little friend?”

“Sally, hold your tongue!”

That heedless use of the woman’s Christian name (assuming she was a Christian) made all certain. A man might address his sister so, but the woman was patently not his sister. Which only left — Charis felt she had taken a blow to her solar plexus. She bit the inside of her lip to keep from crying out, and tasted blood.

The significance of the baggage wagon now became clear. Lord Lestrade must have packed this Sally off on some trip — he most assuredly had not expected to find her here — only for her to return unexpectedly early, no doubt having got wind of his doings at the Pentecost fair. If it had not been for the wagon being overset, they would have come upon her ensconced in state, acting the chatelaine of Castle Lestrade.

Belatedly, Charis recalled her dignity. She inclined her head with the subtle gradation of courtesy which befitted a younger woman of rank greeting an older dependent, whose age and infirmities demanded respect. She had no hope this foreigner would take the point, but Lord Lestrade was a noble of Gondal, of the very first rank. She was gratified to see him go plum-dark. His words caught in his throat.

“My lady and — um — my lady. The hour advances and — well. I shall put back dinner.”

His whole countenance had somehow turned wobbly, as if the bones had softened within, as in Phyllis’ famous Whole Steamed Cockerel in Aromatics, Complete With Comb.

Charis and Sally spoke at the same moment.

“Pray have someone bring a tub of hot water to my room.”

“I need to sluice the dust off. Make sure they see to it.”

Lord Lestrade backed away, bowing.

“Indeed, my lady. Miladies.”