Villiers didn’t even have the strength to read the rest of the letter, which was galling.
He had his chess board by the bed, but he couldn’t seem to keep his mind on a good chess problem, even though Finchley set it up from Chess Analyzed, by Philidor, just as he had asked him to do.
His eyes kept slipping around his room, his empty, tedious room. He had redone it two years ago in a pale gray, the color of an early sky over the ocean, of a day when autumn is just turning into winter. He still liked the color. But it was empty…empty…terribly empty.
He could even find it in himself to regret the fact that his fiancée had left him for Jemma’s brother, though he didn’t give a damn about that when it happened.
“May I bring you some barley soup, Your Grace?” Finchley said, hovering in the doorway like some sort of specter of death.
“No,” Villiers said. And then: “No, thank you, Finchley.”
“A number of visitors called this morning,” Finchley announced with some pride. He took a tray from a waiting footman and displayed it as if it were a baby. Sure enough there was a little heap of cardboard bits, embossed with the names of nobility, acquaintances, friends and the purely curious.
“No, thank you,” Villiers said. There was no one he cared to see among the heaps of cardboard. The truth was that he was depressed. He would have liked to see Benjamin. Benjamin would have rushed into the room like a breath of chill water, and Villiers would have had to say something sharp to him, and would have thought about clumsy-footed puppies and the like.
It was something, to come so close to death. And then to remember that his friend Benjamin had already died.
“I don’t suppose,” he said, just as Finchley was about to leave, “that the Duchess of Beaumont paid a call? Or the Duchess of Berrow?” That would be Benjamin’s widow.
Finchley bowed. “No ladies were among your visitors, Your Grace.” He said it patiently, as though Villiers had forgotten all the social etiquette. Of course no ladies came. Why on earth would Benjamin’s widow pay him a call? Doubtless she blamed him for Benjamin’s suicide.
He would have thought that Jemma might have come. She had said they were friends, after all. One had to suppose that they weren’t as good friends as that. It was hard to remember…his brain was all foggy.
“The Duchess of Beaumont didn’t call, did she?” he asked again, just to make sure.
Finchley got an odd expression on his face, but he shook his head. “No, Your Grace.”
“Raved about her, did I?” Villiers guessed. “I suspect I said all sorts of things, Finchley. I have the oddest memories. Did the solicitor ever come?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Finchley said. “Do you not remember creating your will?”
“Of course,” Villiers said, lying through his teeth. Then he took pity on the uncomfortable manservant. “You may go.”
Finchley disappeared and Villiers stared at his fingers in the light. They had grown thinner, almost transparent, really. Of course Jemma hadn’t visited. She couldn’t visit him. That would be tantamount to telling all London that they were having an affaire—and the worst of it was that they weren’t. In fact, Villiers had been stupid enough, as he recalled it, to turn down what might have been an invitation.
“Fool, fool,” he whispered under his breath.
And then, thinking of Benjamin, “Fool.” The fever was coming back, making his head reel. It lapsed in the mornings, but he felt it coming back now that luncheon was over, approaching like a dark velvet tide that would pull him under.
And for the first time, he thought: I might die. I really might die. And what a fool way to die, dueling over a fiancée for whom he didn’t give a fig. A life thrown away for a careless word, for a twist of steel.
Not that there was much to give up but a tangle of regrets and some lost friends. Benjamin…dead. Elijah. Elijah, married to Jemma. His life made his head ache.
There was one thing, though…
One thing that had to be done.
Already his eyesight was wavering. “Finchley,” he called, hearing his voice crack.
His manservant appeared instantly. “I’ve got the fever again,” he said, to forestall the patient hand on his forehead. “I’ll have some water please, and I need to write a note. Quickly, before it comes on.”
But by the time Finchley came back with a sheet of foolscap, the fever had come, and Villiers couldn’t remember what he meant to say.
“That woman,” he managed. “Address it to her.”
Finchley sat beside the bed and said, “What woman?”
To Villiers, his valet’s lean figure grew longer, grew horns, swayed against the wall. He closed his eyes. “We were all friends, of course. What is her name? Charlotte, I think. Perhaps Charlotte.From His Grace, the Duke of Villiers.Greetings.”
He forgot what he wanted to say and that he wanted to say anything, and fell into a pool of warm water that was inexplicably waiting behind his closed lids. He was floating in it, flying really, when Finchley’s per sis tent voice came through the water, dimly, watery. “Your Grace. Can you tell me this woman’s last name?”
“Charlotte,” Finchley said. “A woman named Charlotte. You are writing her a missive, Your Grace.”
“I am? Charlotte? Do you mean Charlotte Tatlock?” he said, knowing he sounded irritable. “A rather odd young woman, long in the tooth.”
Saying all that exhausted him and he fell back. A missive? What the hell is that? “No, no, I mean to say, tell her—tell her—” The pool yawned at his feet again, welcoming, warm. Perhaps there were mermaids there with bright eyes who would make him feel warm and loved. Nourished. Perhaps…Surely Benjamin’s widow’s name wasn’t Tatlock. Because Benjamin’s last name…what was Benjamin’s last name? “Tell her to visit me,” he said. “Tell her that— tell her that I miss Benjamin.”
He could hear Finchley’s quill scratching and it made his head throb. “Now go away, do,” he said. “Deliver it by messenger.”
When the door closed, he closed his eyes and fell into the pool but there were no bright-eyed mermaids with sleek green tails, merely shifting shadows and heat. It was so hot that the pool must be heated by volcanos.
And so it went, until another dawn.
Grudner’s Curiosity Shop was set well back from the street, its gabled windows crowded with a variety of what looked like rubbish.
Poppy sprang out of the carriage. She’d wanted to visit Grudner’s for years, ever since she learned of its existence, but her mother had said no. Grudner’s was located in one of the liberties of London, Whitefriars, which was an area without rule or law, according to her mother. To Poppy, the street looked as dingy and crowded as any street and showed no obvious sign that it was located in a hub for criminal activity.
Jemma followed in a more leisurely fashion, making sure that her side bustles didn’t touch the carriage door. “I suspect that Mr. Grudner doesn’t believe in cleaning,” she said, looking in the window.
“Look at that,” Poppy said, pointing.
Jemma peered closer. “An old riding glove? What does it do, fly by itself?”