If there was going to be a treaty with France, it had to take into account the way that treaty would affect English farmers. Not English noblemen, and their penchant for French brandy and French silk—he cast an affectionate glance at the ribbed twill of his coat—but English farmers. Men like Higgle, who farmed part of the Fletcher duchy. Higgle had the de vil of a time making ends meet, what with his eight children and the price of bread.
Fletch thought about it, started a paragraph, threw it away.
The Duke of Beaumont had given him a bit of advice one day: that if he truly wanted to obliterate an opponent, the key was to create a story that would catch everyone’s attention. Higgle could be his story.
He started again, crumpled up the page when he was nearly to the end, threw it away.
Finally he started over again, just talking about Higgle. The way the man worked from dawn til dusk, tilling the ground. The way he had all his children working in the fields with him, until Fletch made him stop and let the children go to the village school.The fact that he received less than a penny for ten pounds of wheat, but then had to pay seven pence for a loaf of bread.
By the time shadows started to grow in the museum entryway, he had five credible pages. And what’s more, he knew that he could give the speech without looking at the paper, though it helped to write it down. It was simple, it was clear, and by God, it was powerful.
Just then Poppy came around the corner. He leapt to his feet. His wife looked as if she’d been in a fight. Her pink polonaise gown was streaked with brown smudges, and the lace hem was torn. “What the hell happened?” His voice echoed around the marble entry.
She blinked up at him, and he realized instantly that she was unharmed. Curls had fallen out of her elaborate arrangement; he’d never seen her so disheveled. Even when they’d made love she’d kept her head still so her curls weren’t rumpled.
Museums seemed to be the exception to that rule.
“Mr. Munson let me see the collections that Captain Cook sent back from his second voyage. Even the ones in the basement that are uncatalogued.”
“More flying squirrels?” Fletch tried to brush a black smear from Poppy’s shoulder.
“There’s an animal that’s about twice the size of a large rat,” she told him.
Fletch handed Mr. Munson a purse while Poppy wasn’t looking. He’d never seen her so excited. Her excitement had a terrible effect on his body; he was about to burst out of his breeches. Luckily, Poppy never paid the faintest attention to his body. It was just that her hair was flying, and her eyes were bubbling with excitement. Her cheeks were pink, just a soft rosy color on top of her cheekbones that made him want to kiss her there, and maybe bite her ear…
He realized she was staring at him. “Are you quite all right, Fletch?”
“Your maid will have an apoplectic fit when she sees you. I was just thinking about that.”
“The odd thing,” Poppy said, ignoring the question of maids, “is that this animal carries its young in a pouch.”
“It’s called a possum, though Captain Cook apparently decided it was in the family of dogs.”
“Ah,” Fletch said intelligently.
“I don’t agree,” Poppy said. “I shall write Dr. Loudan immediately and tell him so. Even though its head resembled a dog’s, the pouch puts it in an entirely different species. Do you see my point, Fletch?”
“Of course,” he said, handing her into the carriage.
“The Dog and the Partridge,” he told his coachman, James. The name of the inn had an odd rightness about it, given Poppy’s subject of conversation.
When he got inside the carriage, Poppy was still talking about the dog. In fact, he didn’t think she’d stopped for a moment.
“The curator said that Captain Cook suggested that the animal liked fruit. He gave one an orange. No dog would eat an orange.”
“Definitely not,” Fletch said.
They pulled up at the Dog and the Partridge, and Fletch stepped out into the damp twilight. The air smelled chill and raw, as if snow was on the way. Poppy still didn’t seem to have realized how awful she looked, so Fletch just took her arm as if there were nothing untoward about her appearance.
Given the raucous noises pouring out of the public room, not to mention the fellow sleeping at the end of the corridor, the Dog and the Partridge was overrun by customers. The innkeeper came forward to meet them smiling the peculiarly tight grimace of a man with one too many guests in his inn.
“My lord,” the man said, bowing nervously. “I’m not sure that we’re able to accommodate you…”
“We reserved the rooms,” Fletch said. “My man should have been here hours ago. I am the Duke of Fletcher.”
“I’m afraid your man hasn’t arrived yet,” the innkeeper said. “I have Andrew Whiston here, Your Grace, and he’s attracted quite a lot of attention, as you can see.” He didn’t even jump when a sodden heap of a man reeled out of a door and crashed into the wall.
“Hasn’t arrived,” Fletch said. “How can that be? The second carriage left Chalgrove when we did, early this morning.”
“Do you think there was an accident?” Poppy asked, knitting her brow.
“It’s possible,” the innkeeper asked. He snapped his fingers and two postilions leapt to their feet. “Accompany His Grace’s men; search the Chalgrove Road.” He turned back to Fletch. “It may be that they’re stuck in the mud. Unfortunately, there isn’t another inn for at least an hour’s drive. But I will do my best to accommodate you.”
“Naturally I will reimburse anyone who is inconvenienced by our arrival,” Fletch said.
Another man crashed out of the door and noisily began throwing up just outside the door. Poppy shuddered. “Who is Andrew Whiston?” she asked.
“The King of Beggars,” the innkeeper said. “Only twenty-eight inches high, he is, and he’s quite a curiosity in these parts. Comes out from London once a year and sings us a few songs.”
“He’s a drunkard, but a very short one,” Fletch said. “Spends every night drinking in Surr’s wine vaults when he’s in London.”
“He do love his liquor,” the innkeeper said, turning about. “And the lads love to share it with him, if you take my meaning. I’ll do everything I can to make you comfortable. I can put you in a good chamber now, but I’ll have to see about a private dining room for yourself and your lady.”
“We need two chambers,” Poppy chirped up, “plus accommodations for my maid, of course.”
A look of panic crossed the innkeeper’s face. “I gave away my rooms already, Your Grace. I can likely put two of my guests together, but I’m afraid I can’t turn people out altogether.”
Fletch took his wife’s arm. “We aren’t going to turn anyone out into the cold and dark, are we, Poppy?”
She looked up at him and said, “Absolutely, we are. If you pay them double, Fletch, they’ll probably be quite grateful.”
He always knew that women were the crueler sex. But there was something slightly unnerved in her voice that he found interesting. “Unkind wench. I don’t turn people out into the dark. It’s coming on to snow. That isn’t right.”