Chapter Twenty - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
Seven days earlier
Georgiana looked up from her embroidery, alerted by the uncharacteristically flustered note in Mrs Reynolds’ voice. Colonel Fitzwilliam often joked that running Pemberley took at least as much effort as running a regiment and the housekeeper had far fewer staff officers to assist her. Yet Georgiana had never heard Mrs Reynolds raise her voice, or seen her serenity ruffled, not even during the last terrible days of Papa’s illness.
Across the hearth, its grate filled with summer flowers, Mrs Annesley paused in her work. “What is it?”
Mrs Reynolds jerked her head towards the window. “One of the gardener’s boys came running in with a message. There’s a party of troopers down at the South Lodge. Wearing the Royal livery, ma’am. They’d be here now, but the lodge-keeper’s wife begged them try her best ale and they were that hot and dusty with travelling in the heat that the officer gave them leave and very grateful they were, so Jim said. But they’ll be with us in under a quarter of a turn, and what are we to do?”
Mrs Annesley rose to her feet and walked to the window which commanded a view of the south drive. “Did they drop any hint of what their errand is?”
Now it had happened at last, Georgiana found herself almost calm.
“They will have come for me.”
“For you, my dear?” Mrs Annesley looked at her as if the sculpted naiad in the fountain had started talking.
She tossed her head, fighting tears of sheer hopelessness.
“Before he left, my brother warned me this might happen. They will want to take me to the King. Once there, I will be a hostage against my brother. And there is nothing I can do to stop it.”
Mrs Reynolds’ back stiffened. “No call to give up before the fight’s begun.”
“Fight? How can we fight the King? He will have every village for ten miles around flattened and the crops burned. I cannot do that to our people.”
“No more you can, my dear.” Mrs Annesley patted her on the shoulder. “And besides, I doubt there’s thirty men on the place, and two-thirds of them beardless boys or doddering granddads. But there must be something we can do. Mrs Reynolds, have you any thoughts?”
“It strikes me, what we need most is time. Miss Georgiana; take to your bed, at once. I shall send up a draught for you and you must drink it all off, however unpalatable you find it. I’m sorry for it, but trust me, like you did when you were little and had the croup.”
That reminder helped, just a little. It was impossible to imagine anyone standing against the King, but then it had been impossible, a year and a half ago, to imagine that she would ever emerge from the fog of grief and guilt which had engulfed her once news drifted back to Gondal of the ambush of the Princess’ party and the horrific fate of her ladies. If not for my vanity and It should have been me resounded through her waking thoughts, and then in the night came the dreams; dreams in which she had indeed set out and the monstrous attackers rising from behind every rock had all borne Mr Wickham’s face.
Fitzwilliam — darling Fitzwilliam, whom she had so profoundly wronged — had hovered and stammered and tried to make up to her by filling her room with flowers that made her sneeze. But Mrs Reynolds had removed the irritating blossoms, sent him to bring music and books, brewed her soothing possets, replaced sheets soiled with night sweats with lavender-scented fresh linen and held her hand during an infinity of white nights, freeing Fitzwilliam to pace the grounds or take out his anger by wreaking havoc on the rats in Pemberley great barn.
So. She would put her faith in Mrs Reynolds, even unto defying the King.
“Excuse me,” she breathed. “I must go upstairs. My head — my head is pounding.”
This was not how it was supposed to go.
His commanding officer had made clear, by every means short of absolute assertion, that had their numbers not been stretched so thin by the depredations of the bandit styling himself Duke of Malham there was no possible officer he could have chosen for this particular mission he would not have preferred to Lieutenant Peter Brenzaida.
Since Lieutenant Peter Brenzaida had, if anything, an even lower estimation of his own powers than the c/o’s, he could only share that regret. More especially, since the maximum strength the c/o could allow him was less than a third of a company: twenty privates of dragoons, one sergeant, one corporal and a farrier.
“And may God have mercy on your souls, for you can expect none from me if you fail in this of all missions,” the c/o had finished, crisply.
A day and a half later, no crisis had yet occurred. Peter and his men had been welcomed with open arms by the lodge-keeper’s wife, who had directed them to a well-filled trough for their horses and offered home-brewed ale to their riders. Peter gave a sidelong glance at his sergeant; not for permission, of course, which would be an inversion of the natural order, but for confirmation that he was not breaching one of the numerous unwritten rules for the proper conduct of officers.
The sergeant coughed.
“One mug per man would be most acceptable, ma’am. We’ll not drain your barrel: I’ll see to that.”
A couple of the bolder men essayed a mock-groan, and the sergeant glared at them. Most, though, untied their leather jacks from their belts, and queued to have them filled, loudly calling blessings on the lodge-keeper’s wife, and somewhat exaggerating both the hardships of the journey and the length of time they had been travelling. According to the most up-to-date Army maps, the distance from their quarters at Deadholm Barracks to Pemberley was barely twenty leagues and they had covered less than half that distance today. If things went smoothly at the house they could be on their way back to camp by nightfall. By the day after tomorrow, perhaps, this would all be over, his charge consigned to someone else for the remaining journey to Gondal Town, and the welcome tedium of his normal duties would resume.
If nothing went wrong. If nothing else went wrong.
He eyed the men, who seemed to be in good, though not dangerously elevated, spirits. The sergeant, seeing the direction of his scrutiny, stood straight and clapped his hands.
“Right, lads, finish up. You’ve got a job to do. The King’s not paying you to stand about drinking.”
“King’s not paying us at all.”
The voice was so low Peter could not tell its source. His blood froze. To make a bad situation worse, the men’s pay had, indeed, been in arrears for the third month running and it was whispered in the mess that Traquair of the War Office had rendered a very dusty answer to the c/o’s enquiry as to when the situation might change. Dragging a man on charges for imprudently telling a harsh truth stank in his nostrils, but letting insubordination (in front of a civilian, too!) go unpunished went against all his training.
Oh God. What on earth was he to do?
“Nasty draught in here.” The sergeant was a hard-bitten Borderer. His accent — the strongest Peter had ever heard it — conveyed an infinity of menace. He’ll make the bairns a’ fatherless/And then, the land it may lie lee.
“Wind whistling in the thatch. Almost sounds like someone was talking. Which it can’t be, because if it were, it would be the kind of talk that gets men strapped to a grating in the middle of the parade ground and given forty lashes. And no-one would be tomfool enough to say anything of that kind in my hearing. So this time we’ll put it down to wind in the thatch. But we’ve wasted too much of this goodwife’s day. Sincere thanks to you for the ale, ma’am. Once our commander gives us the word, we’ll leave you be.”
That, Peter realised, was his cue.
“Fall in, men. At the double.”
Once they reached the house, a magnificent butler effortlessly despatched the men and the sergeant (not without a dubious backward glance) to the rear of the house. Then, he turned to Peter.
“The lady will receive you in the blue drawing-room, sir. Would sir wish to refresh himself before doing so? The roads begin to be very dusty, now full summer is upon us.”
Taking this for the pointed hint it clearly was, Peter allowed himself to be shepherded into a small closet where a bowl of steaming, scented water, towels and soap were already laid out. An appalled glance in the looking glass which had also been provided showed him how wise the butler had been. He could hardly uphold the might of the King’s commission covered in white dust and with his hair sticking to his head with sweat. He took rather longer than he had intended but felt much the better for it, almost up to the task before him.
A footman was waiting outside the door, the butler’s time presumably being too precious to waste. They passed rapidly through a succession of grand apartments, Peter’s heart sinking with every step he took. This family, so great, so well-established; how could he avoid their vengeance for carrying out the task entrusted to him, even though it had been his duty?
True: he had no positive knowledge that the King intended his cousin harm. Given the threat of war on all sides, and the severance of the Great North Road a few leagues to the north, small wonder if his Grace might prefer the most vulnerable members of his family to be under his own eye.
And yet —
He had not been to Gondal Town for two years or more, but officers passing through the transit camp (few stayed at Deadholm Barracks: it was not a coveted posting) had dropped hints which chilled the blood. A forgetful old dowager had automatically added the words, “and the Princess Charis, may the Lord bless her and keep her in grace” after the prayers for the King in Mass one day and by nightfall been under house arrest. Those who had served under Colonel Abruzzi whispered details of his so-called “duel” which had not been allowed to become public knowledge. Abruzzi’s successor seemed himself to have dropped out of circulation. Mess nights had become almost sober, with each man eyeing his neighbour and wondering to whom he truly reported.
Had Peter a sister, he would not have been happy to see her brought to the King by an armed troop, no demurral possible.
A grey-clothed woman — no, he corrected, a grey-clothed lady — looked up from her embroidery as he entered, rose, and dropped him a curtsey. He boggled; she had to be at least in her thirties, if not her forties. An older sister of Mr Darcy of Pemberley — a half-sister, perhaps? But his orders — he resisted the temptation to feel for them inside his uniform jacket, though it was a struggle — had surely emphasised the youth and innocence of his charge, and the consequent need to protect her delicate maiden sensibilities from the rough soldiery. Which, Lieutenant Brenzaida had thought at the time, might have been an easier task if the powers that be hadn’t insisted on sending twenty troopers, one sergeant, one corporal and a farrier to bear her back to Gondal Town.
“Sir, may I know your name?” the lady enquired. “I am Mrs Annesley, a connexion of the Darcy family. I am the companion to Miss Georgiana.”
“Oh. Oh of course.” He bowed, very low. “Lieutenant Peter Brenzaida. I apologise for my intrusion, but I come under Royal command —” He reached inside his uniform jacket to produce the formal paper. “His Grace the King notes that the times are unquiet, both within and without the borders of Gondal, and that he would accordingly rest more easily were his young cousin to be within his palace in Gondal Town, far from the turbulent and lawless forces who might threaten her peace and — um — innocence.”
Mrs Annesley sank down into a chair, and gestured to Peter to do likewise. “His Grace’s concern is natural and very welcome. But —” she dimpled a little. “He does not know these Northern Dales. Nor did I, until my late husband brought me here as a young bride. The people may sound uncouth, but they are the truest and most loyal one could ever hope to find. Georgiana has grown up among them; our tenants would do anything for her. May I offer you refreshment? Tea, or lemonade, or ratafia? Military gentlemen, I know, are often partial to ratafia of a hot afternoon when their duties permit and Colonel Fitzwilliam, Miss Georgiana’s other guardian, has said that Mrs Reynolds’ ratafia is some of the finest he has ever tasted.”
Peter made some sort of response, though he hardly knew what. Internally, his thoughts could be summarised thus: I knew about the King. I knew about the Earl. I knew about the great landowner. But now there’s a Colonel, too?
This mission could not possibly end well. There were too many people who would hate him, however this fell out.
“Lemonade would be delightful, ma’am. But I may not linger long. We need to be on the road back to Deadholm Barracks and thereafter to Gondal Town as soon as may be and surely the young lady will need time to pack?”
Mrs Annesley’s face was puzzled. “But sir, Miss Georgiana has retired to her room with one of her sick headaches. Did no-one tell you? They are short-lived, thanks to the Virgin, but she cannot possibly move while in the grip of one of them. She must lie very still in an absolutely dark room, poor lamb, with wet cloth over her eyes, and sip camomile tea. Perhaps this time tomorrow we might think of her being well enough to travel, but certainly not today.”
The room spun round him. “But — but I have my orders.”
Gentle as she seemed, Mrs Annesley was inexorable. “But surely, they are orders from the King for Georgiana’s welfare. His Grace cannot possibly mean you to risk her health by setting out prematurely — surely, you may interpret his order in the spirit, rather than the letter? Miss Georgiana Darcy cannot possibly leave Pemberley today.”
Trooper Arthur Musgrave had had a bad feeling about this expedition from the outset and Trooper Musgrave’s bad feelings, when he chose to share them with his cronies in the company, were respected. That was what came of having the best part of a quarter of a century of service in Gondal’s army under your belt.
Holy Virgin, quarter of a century, that made you think. Joined as a drummer boy at twelve, trooper at seventeen, promoted three times to sergeant and each time busted back to private within the year. More wounds than he could shake a stick at, but none of them incapacitating, thank St Typasius, though that break in his thigh (a rogue horse kicked out and all-but got him in the family jewels) still ached when stormy weather was on the way. Still, at least it’d mended straight, courtesy of that sandy-haired bastard of a Surgeon-General setting it with his own hands as a pointed rebuke to the duty medical officer who’d been in the process of fucking it up beyond repair, despite Trooper Musgrave’s voluble remonstrances, when said Surgeon-General had swung through on a surprise inspection trailing half the barracks’ physicians in his wake. And the subsequent healing of that bugger of a leg had kept him confined to barracks during the whole of the Vannstown action, which by all accounts had been a pic-nic to which no-one in his right mind would have wanted an invitation. So silver lining there, too.
Anyway, he’d had a bad feeling about this mission from the start, and the better the food and beer were now they’d reached their objective (and they weren’t being stinted, either, credit to the Pemberley kitchens) the worse his feeling got. Further, while he and Sarge had a proper professional detestation of each other, he had to admit that Sarge had an equally proper and even more professional detestation of the wet-behind-the-ears pathetic excuse of a Rupert with which the brass at HQ had landed them with this time. Which made his bad feeling practically official.
“They’ve sent for a physician.” Trooper Potts, nineteen and looking younger, was a weaselly bit of work but his information was normally reliable and always early.
“Do they have one, this far out in the wilderness?” Trooper Ferris, who had been forced to enlist following what he genteelly referred to as “unfortunate confusion” surrounding the accounts of a bookseller in Gondal Town, had adopted an impossibly refined urbanity as the only way for him to survive in the army. Trooper Musgrave found Ferris amusing, informative and generally harmless, but avoided engaging in games of chance where he was a participant.
“Turns out there’s some sawbones come up here for the fishing, taken a cottage on the edge of the estate.” Trooper Potts again.
“There is indeed, Trooper Potts.” Sarge popped up besides them, with the shiny red face and screwed up eyes which they had all come to know as danger signs. “The trouble being, as he’s fishing, he’s not in his cottage, being as there aren’t no fish there, until he catches them, on account as they are still in the river. And the local fishing beats happen to be about five leagues long and wander all over the place splitting off bastard branches like an alley cat what’s been taking lessons from Lord Lestrade. So I need to send some of you useless layabouts to find the sawbones and bring him back to Pemberley because that’s the King’s own cousin on her sickbed in the house up there and it’ll be on us if we don’t deliver her safe and healthy to her loving family in the capital. So, Trooper Potts, you’re going upstream along that branch there. Trooper Musgrave, downstream along the main flood. Trooper Crosier, upstream along the other branch. Trooper Ferris —”
Trooper Musgrave flicked up a quick salute, and departed along the indicated path at a smart trot before any counter order could be given. He was under no illusions: the insistence on finding a physician came entirely from the Sarge’s devious little mind. Their Rupert couldn’t find his arse with both hands and a flaming cresset, so the concept of covering the same against the wrath of those upstairs would be a foreign country to him.
Physician or no physician, they were already fathoms deep in the shit for losing a day, or would be when they got back to barracks. Granted, it was the girl’s fault, she having taken to her bed with a sick headache, but trust the brass not to see it that way and to blame the poor bloody rankers instead. It made proper sense to find a quack to either prove the illness was genuine or expose her as a malingerer (bright lass, if so, Trooper Musgrave conceded, because the healthy air was the air one breathed as far away as possible from one’s superior officers, who in the girl’s case were the King and his creatures, whom they said swarmed like biting ants in Gondal Town and credit to the girl for spotting that.)
It was pleasant, too, in the shade of the trees, even at his conscientious jogging pace. The river was at its widest here; peat brown, spreading across broad reaches, caressing pebbled shores, rushing over shoals and rocks. Birds sang above him.
Before he’d succumbed to the recruiting sergeant’s promises, as a lad he’d been something of a nature lover. The old Squire encouraged such things in his tenants’ children, provided it didn’t manifest as disrespect or insubordination. Trooper Musgrave felt that he probably owed his neck, to say nothing of an un-marked back, to those early lessons in walking a fine line between confidence (good) and disrespect (abhorrent.)
Any fisherman worthy of the name, on a hot sultry day like today would have sought the deepest pools beneath the thickest shadow. Trooper Musgrave took that as guidance, and passed quickly up above languorous reaches and delightful shoals. On the edge of a broad pool, beneath the shade of a spreading willow, he spotted his man. Game over.
Or not. The sawbones turned and, without a blink, made him in an instant.
“Musgrave, isn’t it? Happy to see you, glad to see you kept that leg. But hush, now. I’ve a whopper on the line. If you want to help, come close and hold the landing net. If not, bugger off, but, in the name of St Nicholas, off-bugger quietly.”
Much later, “I must have been fucking bewitched” Trooper Musgrave swore aloud.
In the here-and-now, Trooper Musgrave crept into the shadow of a huge oak and extended his hand to grasp the landing net, holding it still until the big salmon was flapping in its meshes.
Then he turned to the small, sandy-haired figure, knowing him to be Destiny, whom no soldier could outrun or outfox. When one’s number came up, up it came and he’d had a good run at it, all things considered.
“You shouldn’t by rights be here.” He paused for a beat. “Surgeon-General. My lord. Sir.”
“No more I should.”
The little doctor smartly knocked the salmon on the head, whipped out a knife from inside his coat, ripped through its belly, and emptied its entrails into the stream, doubtless for the profit of its ever-loving family and in view of the chance of capturing a bigger fish in the same spot three years from now. Trooper Musgrave, who had once spent a drunken evening around their mess fire hearing Trooper Ferris discoursing on ‘metaphor’, shivered through every nerve.
“So, Musgrave, are you planning to take me in? Good business, that, I grant you. In Gondal Town, the King’s reward would buy you out of the Army, free and clear, and leave enough over to buy that village tavern you always talked of.”
For a moment, he gaped.
“I never talked of that to you. Sir.”
The sandy-haired sawbones shrugged.
“Did you not? Well, I could be wrong. Men under poppy-draughts after surgery babble of a great deal. I confess, it tends to blur in one’s head, after a while. And again, soldiers seem to dream of spoils that allow them to buy taverns, rather than grander aspirations. Cut some of that fresh bracken by your side, if you’ll be so good; I need to wrap my catch. I’d hate to see a good fish go to waste. Share it with your mess, to celebrate the taking of a notorious traitor, eh?”
Musgrave’s tongue thickened in his mouth, but around it he managed to gasp out the following truths: namely, and as God and the Holy Virgin was his judge, or judges, that he had never known anyone claim the Surgeon-General of Gondal (hero of Vannstown, chosen by his late Majesty Ambrosine, Seventeenth of that name, to be protector of his only daughter) to be forsworn; that the kingdoms of Gondal and Gaaldine were not (formally) at war at the present moment, making treason a moot issue; and that in any event the cousin of the King himself lay sick at Pemberley, and that he had been sent to bring to her bedside the best physician in the district and since the best physician in the district happened to be the best physician in the whole of Gondal, other considerations came a very remote second.
The Surgeon-General eyed him. “Well, then we’d best hurry, hadn’t we? Give the salmon to your mess-mates, nonetheless, with my compliments. As I learnt at Vannstown, if the imminent fight is hopeless, at least it’s a comfort to meet it well-fed.”
Again, Trooper Musgrave’s stomach flip-flopped.
“Sir,” he essayed, “We have no idea of this ending in a fight.”
“So I surmised, when from a high hill in the south of the district I surveyed your troop’s erratic progress down the road. Tell me, Trooper Musgrave, have you entire confidence in your commanding officer?”
This, at least, King’s Regulations provided for.
“Sir, by the oath of my calling and by the dedicated blood of my heart, I shall not disparage those set in office over me, and in all cases the dignity of rank will be preserved. Sir!”
“So he’s an incompetent idiot, then.” The Surgeon-General seemed utterly unsurprised. “How do you think he would fare in a serious attack, with much at stake?”
“Sir, by the oath of my calling and by the dedicated blood of my heart, I shall not disparage those set in —”
“Dear God, that bad? Hasn’t it crossed your minds to desert?”
“Where to?” Trooper Musgrave blurted, before he could think.
The Surgeon-General raised his eyebrows. “I’m told these dales afford mercenaries for half the armies of Europe. When I passed through Lambton I came across a man who told me he was recruiting for the French wars. He was staying at the Fitzwilliam Arms, I collect.”
“Mercenaries?” It came out with an outraged lift on the last syllable, like — Trooper Musgrave thought, with a belated recovery of his sense of humour — the response of a dowager advised that her granddaughters could hardly do better for their futures than try a little light whoring.
The Surgeon-General shook his head sadly, as if the ignorance of his companion were a personal reproach.
“Yes, you know. Mercenaries. Men paid to fight for whoever can afford them.”
That opened the floodgates, all right.
“Paid! We — the troopers of the Crown — we haven’t been paid in months, and we’ll not see the thalers owed us for as long as Traquair squats in the War Office, spending our money on liquor and loose women.”
For the first time, he saw the Surgeon-General momentarily disconcerted. “The Pretender preferred Traquair to the War Office? Traquair? Why, almost three years ago the man could not put both heels together with his eyes shut without staggering.”
That was news but hardly surprised Trooper Musgrave. “The Black Lion got him, did it? Explains a lot. But anyway, sir, suppose I take the fish and report to the Sarge I’ve found the doctor he sent me to look for, and you go straight up to the house, to avoid running into anyone else from the troop. I’m not saying they’d recognise you, most of them being on the youngish side, though I’d not go bail for all of them, and certainly not for the sarge. But the only one of our troop up at the house is the officer, so you’re safe enough there.”
The news that the sawbones had been successfully rounded up and despatched up to the great house to minister to the young lady put Sarge in such a good mood that he told the troop that they could consider themselves off-duty until the state of the young lady’s health had been reported upon. Trooper Musgrave sidled up to his messmates, waving the salmon as token.
“I helped him land a big’un, but when I told him there was a big fee waiting for him up at the big house he was so made up he handed it over to me. But if we let on to the others, we’ll not get more than a bite apiece, if that. There’s a likely bit of shingle upriver on the beat I was searching. I’ll go ahead and get the fire started; you follow with our rations, jacks, and anything you can scrounge to put in them.”
When they were relaxing round the fire, replete and passing a skin of Pemberley wine between them — young, thin, but by no means contemptible in flavour — Trooper Musgrave, judging the time to be ripe, murmured, “Trust me. I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I’ve heard one or two things. Suppose I tell you about them? Then we can work out what to do. Together.”
“Five deserters, overnight! With their horses and all their gear! What, sergeant, can you possibly have been about, to let such a thing happen?”
In his military career Lieutenant Peter Brenzaida had never been sure of much, but now he knew he had the moral high ground. His sergeant looked positively green. And sheepish. The corporal, on the edge of his vision, seemed to have difficulty keeping his expression composed in accordance with regulations.
“Sir! I —” At this point, the sergeant bolted for the latrine trench. Light screens of woven reeds had been erected to screen it for modesty’s sake, but they could not block out sounds. The sergeant’s intestinal struggles were neither silent or discreet. Repulsed, Lieutenant Brenzaida clicked his fingers, and bade the corporal follow him out of earshot, around the corner of the barn which had served the troop for bivouac last night, he himself having been accommodated — with inconceivable generosity — in a room in Pemberley House itself.
When the sergeant found them, his face grey and some decidedly non-regulation stains about his person, Peter felt that at last he had the upper hand.
“So, drunk to insensibility last night, was it?” The way his first c/o had dealt with recalcitrant men had awed Peter. Improbably, it seemed some of his lessons had stuck. The sarge looked almost — guilty?
“Sir, I didn’t. I ate the food they sent down from the House. Like anyone did. And I drank —” At the thought of drink, the sergeant was forced to excuse himself again. This time, he did not return.
“Permission to speak, sir?” So far as Peter was aware, the corporal had never spoken in his presence before; at least, not beyond, “Sir!”
He nodded, hoping his bemusement didn’t show.
“Sir, there was a desertion case in my last posting; when I was serving down on the Borders. Four men crossed into Gaaldine, like this, with their horses and gear, at night; got clean away. In that case, though, they’d rendered the pickets insensible by putting powdered opium in their evening meal.”
“Powdered opium? But surely, the taste —”
The corporal shook his head. “Have you eaten the food of the Borders? There’s a dish there they make from a sheep’s pluck, stuffed with oatmeal mixed with chopped offal — liver and lights and so forth — and heavily peppered.”
Everything Peter had ever heard about the Border lands, which he had never visited, made this delicacy sound depressingly plausible.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” the corporal said. “I mean, you get used to it.”
“Vaughan.” After no more than an decent interval Peter’s faltering memory had thrown up the corporal’s name whole and complete. “Enough. Would the flavour of that — thing — be strong enough to conceal powdered opium?”
The corporal nodded. “Yes, sir. Sometimes, the pluck and the lights weren’t as fresh as they might be. The deserters could easily have concealed any poison then, sir.”
Peter drew a deep breath.
“And was anything like that sent down from the kitchens to the —” He looked over his shoulder at the barn. “To your bivouac?”
“They sent down all sorts, sir, and no-one could complain about how we were treated. But yes: I can confirm there was a sheep’s pluck pudding, all steaming and stinky. Me and the lads, we left that one to Sarge. He’s the only one of us from the Borders, you see, sir, and he was proper made up to see it. It’d have been rude to butt in, sir.”
And all his men, including the deserters, must have been insinuating themselves into the household, especially with the kitchen and scullery maids, for the best part of a day. Anyone could have learnt of the bill of fare, and raided the troop’s medical supplies for enough opium to render the sergeant hors de combat.
Still, how had the deserters, even having incapacitated the sergeant, made their escape? Why did the house dogs not bark at their passing? Peter groped, as if through thick mud, at answers, but the sheer magnitude of the disaster at last overwhelmed him. This was, above anything else, a disaster of epic proportions. His career — perhaps even his life — was forfeit as a result. That was one truth shining out above the murk.
But — as he hit the very bottom — he perceived a second truth.
He had been given a mission. That mission had not yet failed. If he could only deliver Miss Darcy to Deadholm Barracks much of the impending disaster, which weighed like incipient thunder in his ears and made his limbs flounder, might be averted.
Peter drew himself up straight. “We dare not lose another day, and yet the sergeant is visibly unfit to travel. Vaughan, consider this a brevet promotion to acting-sergeant.”
The corporal braced. “Sir!”
“I can spare one additional man to stay with the sergeant. Briefly. Both of them are to take no more than half a day in pursuing enquiries as to our deserters in the district. It may be they have sought to sign as mercenaries. That may be a line of enquiry. They may press into service such additional resource as the district affords. If they cannot recapture our deserters within the time allowed, they are to intercept us on our passage south as quickly as they may contrive. We shall have Miss Darcy and her companion with us, in their carriage, so they have a chance to catch up, but they must not waste it. Understood?”
The cavalcade had been in motion for almost two hours, and they were still barely past Lambton, travelling due east on the way to the Great Northern Road. The officer in command of the troop had looked a trifle disconcerted when the Darcy state coach — all gilding and ornament, polished up to the nines by a troop of stable-boys — had lumbered out of the carriage-house. It had, to be fair, not had an airing since her parents’ marriage journey from the parish church in Lambton to the doors of Pemberley, drawn every step of the way by teams of their tenants, as legend had it. Still, it was plain that if Miss Georgiana Darcy, of Pemberley, was being taken to visit her cousin, the King, no meaner vehicle would do, however tedious it made their progress. Anyway, they needed the biggest coach for their luggage: it would not do, Mrs Reynolds and Mrs Annesley had both agreed, for the heiress of Pemberley to arrive on a visit to her cousin the King without the choicest selections of her wardrobe, all her jewels and the six crates containing her dower plate, the most generous gift on the occasion of Georgiana’s christening from Sir Lewis and Lady Catherine de Bourgh and sufficient to dine a party of thirty-six.
Mrs Annesley, sitting backwards, reached out and took her hand.
“My poor dear,” she said. “I can see from your expression that your head-ache has not quite dissipated. It was brave of you to set out.”
Georgiana pursed her lips. “What choice did I have? It was the command of the King.”
“I prefer to think that it was the thoughtfulness of your cousin — what was that?”
The carriage juddered to a halt. Despite Mrs Annesley’s remonstrances, Georgiana let down the window and peered out. Up ahead, at the point where the overgrown road curved out of sight round a bluff, the soldiers seemed to be engrossed in an intense discussion.
“What is it?” Georgiana called to the nearest soldier. He picked his way close to the coach before responding, looking rather like a startled rabbit. Still, when he spoke, it was in a surprisingly cultivated accent, sounding, in her limited experience, more like the better class of clerk than a trooper.
“It’s the bank up ahead, milady. There’s been a landslip — it may have been undermined by those bad thunderstorms we had a couple of days ago, and then it looks like some beasts got out and collapsed it entirely. We’ve broken out the entrenching tools, so we’ll have the road clear in a turn or so, but we can’t get the coach along until we do.”
She and Mrs Annesley exchanged glances.
“A turn? Or more?”
Georgiana unlatched the coach door and descended to the road, looking back up to her chaperone in the coach.
“Might you pass down my parasol, please, and my sketching bag? We cannot stay in this stuffy coach, not if we are not moving for turns. And I am sure Coachman John will wish to unhitch and bate our horses, to prepare them against the journey ahead, since we cannot proceed at present.”
Without waiting for a more direct order, the coachman went directly to the traces, making soothing and clicking noises to his team.
The soldier looked at her nervously, and muttered something about “the officer.”
“Of course.” Mrs Annesley was all gracious smiles. “Colonel Fitzwilliam has always impressed upon us the importance in the Army of respecting the chain of command. Pray could you pass a message to your commanding officer? My compliments to Lieutenant Brenzaida: pray tell him we do not blame in the smallest particular for the chance-fallen delay on our journey: we propose to sit down on this rock, here, and while away our time in sketching the scene while you clear the road ahead. We shall be perfectly quiet and not contribute to his cares.”
She flipped up her voluminous skirts and sank, emphatically, to the rock in question. Taking her cue, Georgiana sank down next to her and began to set up her easel.
“You must not be alarmed, my dear. It is not such a bad situation,” Mrs Annesley observed. “We have driven out as far on parties of pleasure from Pemberley, many times, have we not? I collect there is a most picturesque view from the ruined fort on the crest of that hill, over there.”
“Indeed. I recall it well. But it is terribly hot. I must open my parasol.”
“Of course, my dear. Let me arrange it above your head. Yes. There. How pretty it looks with those bright pink ribbons, especially against the darkness of the thicket. Your brother chose his gift to you well, my dear. How elegant you look.”
They could hardly have been there a quarter of a turn when a dull, booming roar shattered the afternoon. Then another. Mrs Annesley grasped Georgiana’s wrist in an inexorable grip.
“Trust me, my dear. That is not summer thunder. Now. Up the hill. To the ruined fort. Run.”