Actions

Work Header

A Close Call

Chapter Text

It wasn’t often that Lord Alfred Paget had any reason to suppose he was being avoided.

Particularly not by a friend.

Not that he had any enemies. Not personally. Not to his knowledge, at least…

However, since that night in the yacht, he has been meaning to seek out Lady Portman for a bit of a chat.

Whenever he has tried to interrogate her about her secret liaison or whatever it was with Miss Drummond, the baroness would hide behind a witticism and retain her privacy.

But now that he wanted to talk to her again since that night, he noticed a change in her. It was nearly impossible to keep sitting still for a bit of a chat for five minutes. This was jarringly peculiar as Alfred had always enjoyed a particularly dear friendship with the baroness, and an uncommonly confidential one since he had foolishly called William out for a duel.

William, who Alfred hoped was enjoying much more peaceful a weather than the unforgiving summer showers in London, wherever he was.

But, every cloud has a silver lining, so they say, even those horribly dark ones gathered above the Buckingham Palace gardens, forcing those having ventured too far from the house to take refuge under the nearest shelters: finding a large tree, or flattening themselves against the greenhouse’s walls, as it was regrettably closed, or, in the case of little Vicky, Lord Alfred, and Lady Portman, under the tiniest of follies enough for just the three of them not to get wet.

‘Your Grace, please be careful,’ Lady Portman said kindly, keeping the little girl from running after the others and get drenched to the bone.

‘I have an umbrella, Lady Portman!’ Vicky said proudly.

‘I’m afraid, Your Grace, that is a parasol, not an umbrella, and as such, unfortunately it cannot protect one from the rain.’

‘A parsol?’

‘A pa-ra-sol,’ Lady Portman taught her patiently.

‘Pa-ra-sol. Parasol!’

‘Yes, indeed, very good. See, I have my own, would you like to see?’

‘It’s very pretty!’ Vicky said, observing Lady Portman’s parasol.

‘It is, but not as pretty as yours, Your Grace…’

Lord Alfred wanted to lean against one of the thin stone columns of the tiny folly to watch the scene but it would have been terrible manners. Besides, he was a bit tense. He knew this was an opportunity to talk to Lady Portman at last, presenting itself so luckily, but he also had a feeling the baroness was also aware of his plans to discuss delicate matters and therefore she was stalling.

Lucky for her, they could hardly speak frankly in front of the remarkably sharp child.

But this meant they did not speak at all. They exchanged awkward smiles, sighing and rolling eyes at the rain, a small talk without words, which made for even more awkwardness.

And these adults were deadly boring for a child.

‘I’m going to see Mama’s parasol!’ Vicky said suddenly, forgetting that she wasn’t meant to run out into the rain, and did just that. Across the grass, towards a horrified Queen Victoria.

‘Don’t,’ Lord Alfred said, touching Emma’s arm in the lightest way before she ran after the princess just as foolishly. ‘It wouldn’t do to ruin your dress, too, Lady Portman.’

The baroness nearly laughed at her own momentary silliness before she realised this left her stuck quite alone with Lord Alfred for an indeterminate amount of time. There went her little protector, frilly little dress and ringlets drenched by the summer shower, leaving her alone with the ever resourceful Lord Alfred.

But he was unsure about how to broach the subject.

She hid her feelings well, just as she did when Melbourne fell ill. Most of the time. Not infallibly. But just as back then, Alfred left her alone. Instead, to echo that time, he offered a dram of whisky in his flask.

Lady Portman glanced around. And took a sip discreetly before handing it back to Alfred.

‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ he commented on the garden.

She smiled but it was short-lived.

‘I can offer you my coat as cover if you’d like to go inside.’

A shake of the head, a polite declining of the offer, and still nothing more.

‘I can, if you find my company disagreeable….’

‘Lord Alfred, how can you say that?’

‘You do seem reserved. Avoidant, even… lately. Have I done anything to offend you?’

‘Not at all,’ she said kindly, dispersing any of his fears. ‘But you are right. I find myself wanting to withdraw. To think.’

‘…About Miss Drummond?’

Lady Portman tensed, both excited at the sound of her name but also very troubled.

Alfred glanced around to check their privacy was quite undisturbed. ‘I don’t mean to pry, but… would it not be a relief to confide in a friend about… what went on with…’

‘Nothing “went on”, Lord Alfred,’ Lady Portman said with dignity.

‘Alright,’ Lord Alfred said diplomatically, trying to rephrase what he was getting at. ‘I do confess you surprised me, though. I would not have dreamt you had, um… With her. With women.’

Lady Portman tutted. ‘You are usually more eloquent than that,’ she commented elusively, wondering when the rain would let up at last.

Alfred sighed. They listened to the rain for a while, to enjoy its calming and refreshing effect.

But he did have such a knot in his throat. He had to speak.

‘Lady Portman,’ he said, trying to overcome the difficulty with which he must now break through a sort of unspoken glass wall in their friendship, and so as to leave no shards he had to go about it as delicately as he could. ‘I have spent my life hiding my capabilities of love from the world. The world, which includes so extent a number of people as to include my closest confidants and family. I am aware of my privileges, and I have enjoyed the love of my father, my mother, my sisters, brothers, and such excellent friends as yourself. But always keeping in mind that their love is conditional. The relief of finding out, on extremely rare occasions, that I really do have the unconditional support of a friend after they learn about my… intent to stay a bachelor… It only highlights just how distant even my closest friends are in comparison, those who do not know my true self because they would not take kindly to it. You cannot imagine— wait, you can imagine, you can understand how much I treasure your support.’

‘Of course. It is a given.’

‘No, I do not take it for granted at all. Previously, I thought you were an uncommonly kind friend. But you know some – or all? – of what I am going through because I love Edward. It has been difficult already thus far – I can only imagine with horror how lonely and frustrated I will feel when I catch up on your years, if you forgive my saying so. To think that it will be like this forever… one cannot go through it easily without friends. If you have other friends, perhaps ladies, who understand and give you the moral support one does need from time to time, I will not pry anymore. But if you don’t, Lady Portman… Emma… You can talk to me. Do talk to me. It is my business too, because of Edward. I want to help him, I should know.’

Alfred was terrified he had overstepped the mark, as most of his spontaneous though no less heartfelt speech was addressed to Lady Portman’s back.

‘And besides that, Miss Drummond may be your lady, but she is my friend too, though it seems to go forgotten, and I wonder if I was right to… Did I do the right thing? If she’s hurt in any way, it shall be my fault, and my fault alone. Edward is most distressed, he is in agony from not knowing where she is, what she is doing, and it’s my responsibility. I want him to be happy. And he is not.’

Alfred felt ashamed now that he said it. He felt he was failing Edward. He could take his mind off things for brief periods of time, briefer and briefer the more months passed. If he could only be more useful…

The rain was falling steadily, its white noise comforting even as Alfred was met with silence in the wake of his confession.

‘You are so lucky, Lord Alfred,’ Lady Portman spoke quietly after a while.

He followed the line of her vision – she wasn’t simply watching the rain and the gardens, she had been watching Her Majesty, and Prince Albert, quite enjoying the romantic moment the rain offered: they used their being trapped to have a laugh and steal a kiss from each other while the children and the nannies weren’t looking.

She turned away from the idyllic tableau, to walk around the edge of the small plinth, searching for something. She bent down to pluck a flower from the grass she could reach. Then she stood and turned to Alfred at last.

‘I have been lucky, too. I did want to marry. I have loved. I have been loved. My personal tragedy is that those never aligned.’

Alfred listened intently, heart racing so.

‘Now, I know that rumours have been cohorted about me in the past, claims that I had some entanglements with a number of men who for all their illustriousness and respectability are not unknown to have had illicit adventures. They whisper about my being well-connected,’ Lady Portman said, absent-mindedly plucking the petals off the flower one by one. ‘I admit to the agony of longing, I admit to directing my attentions elsewhere than where my vows say I should. But whatever you or others may assume therefore…’

She shook her head, plucking at the flower still.

‘I envy you. I may have your advantage in age but I still envy you. You have felt the kiss of passion on your own skin. I have only known it as a tormenting sting in my heart that I cannot get out. Forgive my secrecy or withdrawal. After one too many stings I find it hard to recover much less to hope.’

Alfred, for once, did not need to make up his words of comfort as he was confidant to Charlotte’s story, too. But he also had his own, and if women were anything like men, he had to tread carefully. It was his duty, as a friend. To both.

‘I’m sorry, I have to ask… What are your intentions?’

‘My intentions?’

‘What are you designs on Miss Drummond? Or were. Are. I don’t know…. Gosh, I feel like a father interrogating a young lad having come to propose to his daughter! Lady Portman, do answer honestly: did you feel a kind of passion for Charlotte or did you actually grow to love her?’

‘How can you ask that?!’

‘Forgive my indiscretion, but…’

‘It’s not the indiscretion, it’s that you can doubt me at all after I’ve told you. Of course I love her.’

‘Do you? Truly?’

‘I think I should be able to tell what love feels like,’ Lady Portman said, trying not to be too patronising.

Lord Alfred’s heart was warmed, relief passing through him.

‘Oh, if you knew how happy she would be to know that,’ he said.

Lady Portman was ever sadder for that, however.

‘But she cannot. She left.’

‘She had to.’

‘Nevertheless. We weren’t given enough time. It’s not fair.’

‘No, alas.’ He glanced at the last petal on the poor flower in her hand and smirked. ‘And does she love you or love you not?’

‘Now, that’s prying,’ she said elusively but Alfred was having none of it.

‘Of course she does. One could see…’

‘Oh, Goodness, Alfred, it’s not as you think, judging by that look on your face now, oh you…’

‘What look?’ Alfred asked blinking innocently.

‘That look such as the one you gave me that night she left when I told you I knew where her room was. Do not be vulgar.’

‘No such intention,’ Alfred claimed, though unable to hide his red cheeks.

Emma’s smile was feeble. ‘But she left. And now… I know you will have a few words of flattery up your sleeve, you really are your father’s son, but the fact is that I am not as young as to hope easily. My grey hairs starting to appear deny me any illusions to the contrary. Hey-ho… some miss out on it. I am one of them.’

‘No, I do not believe so.’

‘You are as kind as ever.’

‘Do not be so defeatist. I will not rest until she knows how you feel. She deserves to know. Which leads me to ask…’ Alfred remembered he wasn’t only here for the comforting chat. ‘Edward really is distraught, I can hardly put him out of his misery over the uncertainly at times. You see, he has received no word whatsoever. Of course she is hiding but it does make me worry also. We wondered whether you had any idea or whether she might have contacted you about her wellbeing or about her whereabouts in any form. Any lead would be appreciated.’

Lady Portman’s face said it all.

‘She has?’ Alfred asked with a flicker of hope in his chest.

But she was on the verge of crying suddenly. ‘Yes, she has. But she doesn’t say anything. Well, not much.’

‘But whatever has she said? Has she been writing to you all this time?’

‘No. It’s just the one note.’

‘When?’

‘Only just a fortnight ago.’

‘What does she say? I really can offer you my coat, if it’s in your room, let us go in at once—’ he suggested eagerly, already moving to take off his coat but she held up a hand and reached into the purse on her wrist.

Alfred had to smile – of course she would carry it around.

‘It’s not signed but it is definitely from her,’ she said, folding the small note open. ‘But I don’t know what she means! I have tried and tried to decipher it but I just can’t!’

Alfred frowned and stepped next to Lady Portman to read it:

 

Loveliest Lady Portman,

I took a wise man’s fair advice.

Longingly, in L---

P.S.: Lose a spare key and a tea.

 

If he hoped his confusion would dissipate once he read the note, Alfred was sorely mistaken. His frown only deepened on his handsome face.

‘Lose a key? And… a wise man? Who could that be?’

‘Well,’ she said, less confused about that part. ‘She referred to you as such on the night she left, actually. In the garden.’

Alfred laughed. ‘Me? A wise man? That’s flattering from her. And I had no idea there was any talking going on in that gard--- Oh! But if she took my advice! Then…’

‘What, Alfred, do you know what she could mean?’

‘I did advise her to…’

‘What!?’ she asked, most intrigued and frustrated! ‘Just tell me, if you have any idea!’

‘I do have some idea but I must first… Look!’ Alfred glanced around. ‘The rain has ceased!’ he checked his pocket watch hastily and smiled in triumph. ‘I think I have a tea to which to invite myself!’

And without further ado, Alfred ran off, not in the direction of the Palace but towards the stables.

 

‘By God but who on Earth could that be!?’ Lord Anglesey asked his wife. ‘Did you invite someone?’

‘I think I would remember!’ Lady Anglesey said, dabbing a napkin on her dress as she, too, was startled by the sudden sound of the newly installed doorbell and enthusiastic knocking that followed, causing her to spill her tea.

‘My Lord and Lady, Lord Alfred’s here to see you,’ the announcement sounded, and sure enough their son was brushing past the footman swiftly, nearly knocking the wind out of him by handing him his top hat.

‘Alfred!’ Lady Anglesey exclaimed happily, and so did Lord Anglesey.

‘Do not get up! Papa, good to see you, and you Mama,’ Alfred greeted them familiarly, with a kiss on his mother’s cheek, too. ‘Might I sit?’

‘Well, of course, son, sit, eat – Andrew, do make sure Lord Alfred has a cup,’ Lord Anglesey told the footman, and soon they were alone again, with fresh tea in their cups and pretty cakes on their plates, in the sunny drawing room of the Angleseys’ fashionable London address.

‘Did Her Majesty run out of cakes, then?’ Henry joked.

‘That would be the end of civilisation, Papa. No, I just thought I’d pay you a visit. Can’t I call on my own dear Mama and Papa? How is the session today?’

‘Oh, ghastly.’

‘Yes, Drummond tells me the same every day.’

‘Oh, I do not understand how he tolerates carrying that fool Bentinck’s paperwork daily!’

‘Now, now, Henry,’ Lady Anglesey said. ‘You have come home for tea to escape the House for a while, have you not?’

‘That’s true, my dear Charlotte, that’s true.’

The sound of his mother’s Christian name reminded Alfred anew about why he was here really.

‘How are you finding London in the summer again?’ he asked, tucking into a strawberry tart.

‘Oh, lovely! The garden is blooming so beautifully! Would you like to see?’

‘Let him finish his cake, my dearest,’ Henry grumbled good-naturedly.

‘Did you not get drenched earlier?’ Lady Anglesey asked Alfred.

‘No, I was eager to ride here but only as soon as the rain stopped. So… you have not been home in Wales for some time, is that right?’

‘No, not since the autumn. Why, pumpkin?’

‘Mama! Don’t call me that!’

‘Oh, it’s only us!’

‘Fine… Nevertheless, you would have left some of the staff in Plas Newydd, would you not?’

‘Yes,’ she replied, not sure what her son was getting at.

‘Do you correspond with them often?’

‘Wh-- Alfred, what are these questions?’ she asked, most amused. ‘We do occasionally, when the need arises. When they send the books for the coal and wood burnt for heating, whether they should weed the gardens, the sort of thing with which you need not concern yourself.’

Alfred put his cup of tea back on its saucer. ‘I was wondering if you had any word about any visitors there. Any at all?’

Lord and Lady Anglesey exchanged a confounded look.

‘No, we have not,’ Henry replied. ‘Who would visit in our absence?’

‘Really, no one?’ Alfred asked, not wanting to give up hope yet.

‘Should we have?’

‘No, not really…’ Alfred thought hard. How to find out?

‘Alfred, please speak to us in a way we understand!’ Lady Anglesey pleaded. ‘You’re being very odd.’

‘I apologise, Mama, only… As you know, Edward—that is, Drummond, his sister is missing.’

‘Oh, yes, how sad. Still no news?’

‘None, alas. He is of course duly distressed, Ed-Drummond is. It simply occurred to me that she might have taken refuge in Anglesey, that’s all. But obviously, you know nothing about it,’ Alfred explained, having difficulty not letting his heart sink.

Lord and Lady Anglesey exchanged another look, but it was not that of confusion but something more grim and shady.

‘What is it?’ Alfred asked.

‘My son,’ Henry began carefully. ‘Why do you have reason to believe Miss Drummond would have travelled to our home?’

Alfred hesitated to reply, thinking about how to explain it all without exposing anyone, including himself.

‘She did quite enjoy herself there,’ Alfred replied feebly. ‘She expressed a longing to revisit. And it’s quite remote.’

Lord Anglesey was still confused by the whole thing. ‘Why did she go missing, Alfred?’

‘I told you.’

‘You said she ran away to escape a marriage. There must be more to it if she took such drastic steps.’

Alfred put down his tea, bracing to relive the sorry tale.

‘Mr Drummond and Mrs Drummond were, I regret to say, unwavering in their plan to marry Miss Drummond to the Duke of Fife.’

‘Fife?’ Henry asked with recognition in his voice.

‘You know him?’

‘I did his father. I thought the son was a jolly young lad.’

‘He may be able to give a good impression when he wants to but in reality he is a brute, and a rogue, and at any rate even if he wasn’t such a ghastly man, she has expressed her wishes against marriage altogether.’

‘Are you sure about that?’ Lady Anglesey asked sceptically.

‘She objects to marriage quite adamantly, particularly to this match. She has every right to. Alas, her parents, they wouldn’t have it, quite simply. So, she ran away. Nobody knows where. Edw- Drummond is out of his wits with worry. I just wondered if you knew anything.’

Lady Anglesey tutted sadly at the forlorn look on Alfred’s face. But with every word escaping his lips, he realised more how foolish it was to hope to find a clue.

‘Do not be alarmed, I have no doubt in her abilities and determination, she’s brilliant, I do not think she is in any danger but for Edward’s sake I should like to find out where she is. He is really most devastated, the uncertainty is agonizing. I feel so helpless watching him…’

Lord Anglesey cleared his throat, as if reminding Lady Anglesey not to dwell on Alfred’s visible melancholy in favour of asking more questions:

‘Alfred, darling, are you sure you have got it right?’ she asked.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Because… we had a letter from Mrs Drummond,’ Lady Anglesey revealed.

Alfred’s eyes bulged wide with surprise.

‘Mrs Drummond? Wrote? To you? I did not know you were acquainted. In fact she spoke rather ill-manneredly about you, about all of us, at the wedding!’

‘Well, we’re not exactly acquainted,’ Lady Anglesey was quick to say. ‘But she’s a mother, too – do not tut, pumpkin, I understand she was forceful but a mother’s love and worry surpass all other sentiments. She wrote to me, asking us whether she was staying with us, which I found a most peculiar suggestion. But then… darling, she seems to be under the impression that you… that you…’

‘Did you really propose to the Drummond girl?’ Henry asked straightforwardly.

Alfred wanted to sink twenty feet below the ground.

He could not deny it because it was true but telling his parents it was a pact between friends would have made so little sense to them as to raise suspicion. Perhaps it was better if they did think Alfred had wanted to marry her.

He could go along with that lie, right?

‘Why did you not just elope?’ Lord Anglesey asked.

‘Papa!’ Alfred forced a laugh, though he was unnerved. He stood to walk over to the bookshelf, browsing to seem more casual. Alfred knew about his parents’ story but he had never actually heard them encourage this sort of behaviour in their children! ‘Anyway, it is of no significance. She ran away.’

‘Well, we would be delighted if you settled, pumpkin,’ Lady Anglesey said.

‘Mama…’ Alfred tried to downplay the usual remark, going back to busy himself with the books, hoping this would not be a day where this went further than the odd nudge. It wouldn’t do to get too entangled in the idiotic lie.

But he had no such luck.

‘You seemed quite friendly in Wales,’ his Mama remarked between blowing the surface of her steaming hot tea.

‘Mama…’

‘Well, do you deny you are friends?’

‘We are friends. I’m friends with a number of ladies. And men. Edward- I mean, Drummond, he is my closest friend, a constant in my days, and so it was unavoidable that she should become a friend, too. Could I borrow this for Edward?’ Alfred asked, holding up a book of metaphysical poetry that would certainly have his love clutching his pearls.

‘I did like Miss Drummond. She’s a very bright girl,’ she continued. ‘And accomplished.’

‘And pretty,’ Henry added. ‘And if her brother is your best pal as you say, what could be better?’

‘Not to mention how much she must be worth---’ she added.

‘Good Lord!’ Alfred exclaimed, not at all liking where this conversation has gone. ‘Mama! Papa? Really, now…’

‘You have to admit, sweetheart, though they are in banking, it would be a splendidly suited match. We would support it.’

Alfred had to keep from rolling his eyes. He cursed himself now for having come up with the idea in the first place. Why was it biting him in the backside even after all this time?

He closed an encyclopaedia with annoyance and put it back on its shelf before turning back to his parents.

‘It’s not as if we’re paupers, really, now, enough.’

‘You were the one who proposed to her, it’s only natural we should be allowed to have a say.’

‘Have a say? More like prod and push.’

‘You proposed to her, Alfred,’ Henry insisted, as if not truly believing this day would ever have come.

‘Only because her parents were relentless about giving her to the Duke, a horrid prospect. It was a friendly gesture, a moment of foolishness.’

‘Oh, so you claim you only proposed to a pretty, clever girl of remarkable prospects to be gallant?’ Henry asked sarcastically.

‘Do not be like Mr and Mrs Drummond,’ Alfred said, flipping through The Iliad.

‘Like what?’

‘Forceful about marriage. No regard for what she wants. Or her safety. Unforgivingly so. No doubt they would try to force the match between her and the Duke the second they discovered her. Hence why she ran away in the first place, and hiding God knows where, driving poor Edward mad with fear. Therefore, I must insist you do not write them. If you come to know anything, you write to me, no one else. Please. Directly, not through servants. I mean it.’

‘Hold your horses, son: if they insist on making her marry, why did they object to you? Have you done anything to offend them?’

‘Never, I hardly met them! I’ll have you know Mrs Drummond expressed her disdain quite plainly and openly at the idea of Charlotte—’

‘Oh, “Charlotte”?’ Lady Anglesey remarked on the familiarity…

Miss Drummond,’ Alfred corrected himself, ‘marrying a Paget, as she so scornfully uttered our family name. It’s more than sanctimony, I’m afraid it’s piousness. They do not take kindly to their daughter’s reluctance to marry, nor to… to your divorces.’

Ah, at that neither Henry nor Lady Anglesey wanted to argue more. They were not at all ashamed, that was never something they were about the way they got married, after divorcing their respective spouses so scandalously. But they knew even more than Alfred how hostile people could be in higher society, even if the Drummonds were a banking family.

‘I’m sorry. Now, would you focus on the fact that she is missing? Edward is awfully worried. It’s…’ Alfred wanted to say it was breaking his heart but sensed that it would be going too far once again. How difficult it was to ask for the simplest help, from his own parents, when he kept bumping into brick walls beyond which he could not explain himself!

This whole visit had turned out to be a disaster! Not only were Alfred’s hopes of finding clues dashed quite plainly, but now he was having this futile conversation again, scared that the day would come when he ran out of excuses. He never felt unsafe with his family but one never knew.

Henry observed him pick at the spines of books thoughtfully.

‘Are the police looking for her?’ he asked.

‘Edward has not received any letters from them for months. We think they have given up on her. Besides, as I said, if the police found her, she would be turned back to Scotland, not to Edward, and we cannot allow that.’

‘You obviously care for her deeply, pumpkin.’

He simply nodded and hummed noncommittally, pretending to be immersed in a pocket book of Poe’s detective stories. He wished he had the deduction skills of Dupin indeed. It was a letter not purloined but undeciphered that troubled him.

‘Would it not be good to use this opportunity for me to build ties with the Drummonds to show them we aren’t what they think and—’

‘Mama, no!’ Alfred was quick to say, tears of frustration welling in his eyes. ‘I forbid it. Papa?’ he asked for support, and thankfully got it:

‘Alfred is right, my dearest, even if he is insolent,’ Henry said. ‘I do not believe it would do any good.’

She nodded and sighed. ‘That’s a relief, to be honest. Mrs Drummond is not someone I should love to have as an in-law by the sounds of her!’ she said, standing. I’m going to lie down, my spine is ailing me after all that gardening this morning. But you, pumpkin, try not to worry so.’

She stepped over to Alfred for a goodbye kiss on the cheek.

‘And tell your Edward…’ she added confidentially, which made Alfred’s heart skip a beat, ‘That… we are praying for him and his sister.’

Alfred was too practiced at hiding his true feelings, which were raging like a storm inside him. How he wished he could tell his mother about the joy he has found in being with Edward as they were! How he wanted to gush about how brilliant and gorgeous and talented his Edward was, and how happy he made him, and talk about their plans to travel when Parliament went into recess, and everything married couples were allowed to do!

But on the outside Alfred simply nodded, though he was touched, despite the difficulties of negotiating this conversation. And he had nthing to show for it. Lady Portman was going to be so disappointed!

‘I ought to return to the Palace, too,’ he said.

‘And I to the House,’ Henry said, standing with difficulty because of his false leg. ‘Need a ride in my carriage, son?’

‘No, I rode here, thank you.’

And back to the Palace he rode, making use of the fresh air after the rain. The sky was clear, the horse itching for a run, and his head needed clearing after the visit. Why did his lies have to deepen and deepen? How much more was his conscience able to take?

 

‘ORDER! ORDER!’ the Speaker bellowed again to no avail.

Lord Anglesey felt as if he had come to the zoo rather than the Parliament. And goodness, that buffoon Bentinck from the shadow cabinet stood to speak again.

Next to him, he noticed, Drummond was indeed looking less than his best.

The private secretary seemed to want the earth to swallow him whole whenever Bentinck spoke up, taking notes furiously so as to avoid the scorn of the House falling on him by proxy. Though Drummond had indeed worked for much brighter statesmen, this was a step down, Henry now knew that far greater problems troubled the chap.

Alfred seemed rather more devoted to his friend’s wellbeing than the sister he had proposed to. He must have mentioned Drummond’s name about a hundred times at tea.

Alfred did that, he had phases of dropping a friend’s name frequently, whoever he cared for the most at a given time, it was always “Charles thinks” and “Lucien told me” and “William says” but it was never this jarring and lasting as “Edward this” and “Edward that” and Edward, Edward, Edward...

Henry hadn’t really paid much attention to him before, not in Wales, not beyond Wellington’s praises and the scandal of the assassination attempt.

Perhaps he should get to know this man better.

 

‘Lord Alfred!’ Queen Victoria greeted him on his return at the Palace. ‘I was told you went out for a tea. Where?’

‘My parents, Your Majesty,’ Alfred replied, still catching his breath.

‘Did they serve tea in the garden?’ she joked, taking in Lord Alfred’s appearance, which was quite muddy.

‘No, I apologise, I was riding there and back, and on my shortcut through the park, as I was galloping past a row of shrubbery, the firing of a gun sounded with no trace of any culprit! It startled all in the vicinity! My horse nearly threw me off. Hence my appearance.’

‘Oh, how odd! Albert! Albert!’ she called, walking into her study from the hallway, Alfred following suit, regretting having opened his mouth at all. ‘Some ruffian fired a gun in the park!’

‘Really?’ the Prince asked, much more dramatically than the situation called for it.

‘No, it might not have been a gun, we don’t know for certain… It’s nothing…’

‘Noh, it is the opposite of nothing, Lord Alfred! See, Victoria, it is not safe in the parks of London!’

‘The parks are perfectly safe, Albert…’

Lord Alfred sensed this was not a fight he was eager to be here for and he barely had time to clean up and change before dinner so he backed out of the room invisibly.

 

‘Well?’ Lady Portman asked as soon as she got Alfred alone in the corner of the music room where they congregated after dinner, currently listening to Harriet play a less gloomy piece at the piano. She would of course be expected to be in half-mourning for a long time yet, but this was progress.

The royal couple were strangely quite happy again, very content even, making Alfred wonder what the trick was to their marriage that seemed to be so tempestuous one minute, then the exemplary definition of the very institution the next.

Not all were so devoted to their spouses, such as the baroness who had sat next to him on the recamier and was asking about someone definitely not her husband.

Lord Alfred sighed, which was enough to let Lady Portman know their hopes had been quite false.

She could not help the signs of disappointment.

‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have got all enthusiastic earlier,’ he said very quietly only to her ears, careful not to seem as if they were having an interesting conversation lest other might want to join them instead of listening to the music or playing another round of cards.

‘No, it’s not your fault. I feel like the foolish one. I feel as if I were as silly as a debutante at their first ball. So silly.’

‘Not silly. That’s love for you…’

They drank cognac in silence for a while. Thinking. Thinking…

‘May I see the note again?’ Alfred asked, without any sort of a plan. He just wanted to take one more look before dismissing it.

Lady Portman discreetly handed it to him.

‘“Loveliest Lady Portman… I took a wise man’s fair advice… Longingly, in L---“ see, that is not ambiguous at all. She sends her love,’ Alfred winked covertly at Emma.

‘It’s not spelled out.’

‘Maybe it reflects on the way she cut you off that night? She didn’t let you say it.’

‘How is it you remember so well?’

‘It’s not every day one sees a display like that…’ Alfred blushed, images of that night burnt into his retina for good. He vowed never to spy on anyone ever again. ‘Besides, she told me enough for me to know just how immensely much that means to her.’

Would have meant.’

Alfred sighed and turned back to the note. ‘”P.S.: Lose a spare key and a tea”? That’s a funny thing to say. Is that a private joke?’

‘No,’ Lady Portman surprised Alfred.

‘No? Are you sure there is no significance to it that you can think of? A conversation you had, a place you visited…’

‘No, I remember everything quite vividly. It makes as little sense to me as it does to you. I’m sorry,’ she said, frustrated at herself.

‘Sorry? Why?’

‘Because I feel as if I’ve failed her.’

Alfred hang his head in sorrow. Lady Portman looked eager to leave so she could cry.

He was staring at the note absent-mindedly.

‘Just as a matter of interest, what did you believe the note suggested?’ she asked.

‘I thought she was in Wales,’ he said, thinking the whole idea foolish now. ‘I went to see my parents to inquire.’

Loveliest Lady Portman,

I took a wise man’s fair advice.

Longingly, in L---

P.S.: Lose a spare key and a tea.

She was certainly no poet, Charlotte. He thought her cleverer than this. The note hardly sounded like her, Alfred thought, but he didn’t have the heart to shatter that last illusion of Emma’s.

She sure liked to use a lot of L’s…

‘By God!’ Alfred exclaimed loudly all of a sudden.

Harriet stopped playing, the card gamers stopped dealing, and every head turned towards him!

‘I apologise, I… I thought I forgot to tell my valet to pick up my new cravats from my tailor. But I just remembered I did not. Do carry on.’

After a second’s hesitation, Harriet continued playing and the party returned to its previous noisy cheer, ignoring the Chief Equerry’s dandyish silliness.

‘What is it, Lord Alfred?’ Lady Portman asked covertly.

‘Maybe I am a wise man! I think it’s a riddle of sorts. I think I can make out words if…’ Alfred whispered and concentrated, reading and rereading the short note. ‘Ah, may I take this to Edward? He is much better at these things.’

‘Of course, let us go at once. In my carriage.’

‘No, you stay, I shall ride there with haste, it’ll be quicker,’ Alfred said, standing discreetly and inching towards a door without drawing attention to himself.

‘Come back to tell me what you found as soon as you do!’ Lady Portman whispered to him.

‘I will, I promise.’

 

‘WHAT?’ Edward nearly roused the whole of Lower Grosvenor Street once Alfred had told him about the note and his idea that it might be a sort of coded message.

Edward tore the small piece of paper out of Alfred’s hand and paced around his study.

Alfred always enjoyed this sight: he had to rouse Edward from his bed so he was already in his night clothes, an elegant dressing gown over his nightshirt, hiding a lot less of his perfectly sculpted body than his usual daywear.

Not to mention his hair...!

Alfred shook his head: they must focus on the note now.

‘Do you have any memory of any games in your childhood? Tricks, riddles, anything this could be?’

‘Do I? You credit my family to be a lot more interesting than we are. We were bored to death in Scotland! Of course we always made up riddles.’

Alfred’s heart skipped a beat. ‘So you do think this could be a secret message?’

‘I do not think so, I know so.’

‘What does it say?’

‘I need to…’

‘What do you need?’

‘A pen. And paper,’ Edward said, rushing to the desk. ‘And time!’

Alfred watched as Edward slashed a sheet of paper into half. And quarters. And a lot more smaller bits, scribbling a letter on each madly.

He took the bits of paper and laid them out on the carpet.

They knelt on the floor, not giving a fig about etiquette.

Edward began to shift the letters around, changing his mind often, muttering to himself incoherently, sighing, huffing and puffing in frustration, and rejoicing at times in triumph.

After a while, Alfred could see a different sort of letter forming on the carpet.

Edward still had bits of paper but he seemed reluctant to place them on the carpet.

‘What?’

‘I think… no… it can’t be…’ Edward blushed, eyeing the scraps in his hand.

‘What?’ Alfred asked, glancing over to the letters in Edward’s hand, and burst into laughter.

‘I must have been mistaken, they might go elsewhere, surely… Let me start again…’

‘No! Leave it, It’s perfect. Put these there.’

And so it was that a whole new message was in front of them:

 

My Pet Cat,

I am safe in Llangollen, in Wales.

Avoiding idiot, sorry.

Love

 

‘Key and tea,’ Alfred checked for the only spare letters in Edward’s hands. As the strange post scriptum instructed, a letter K and a T.

Surely that meant the solution was accurate.

Alfred hadn’t seen Edward this relaxed and joyous in months.

‘See? She is safe,’ he told him, and Edward fought off tears for the sake of lunging at Alfred with happy kisses.

Alfred fell back on the carpet, Edward on top of him, making him giggle with kisses and touches and pleas for him to stay for the night.

Alas, Alfred had promised to go back to tell Lady Portman the news at once. With a heavy heart, and only after many more kisses, he left, knowing Edward would not be so tormented by the emptiness of his house anymore.

 

 

‘Lord Alfred didn’t want to stay?’ the housekeeper Mrs Quibell asked Mr Clarke upon his return to the dinner table downstairs in the servants’ quarters. He sighed, almost all the bread was gone – why must he fight the rest of the staff for food every night? He was the butler, after all. Well, valet, officially, but he was the butler of the house in all but name. He sat at the head of the table, for heaven’s sake!

‘No, he left quite purposefully to the Palace. Thank you, Mrs Butterworth,’ Clarke said, grateful for the cook for ladling him more soup.

‘Why, still he’s visiting constantly, despite Miss Drummond’s absence – I thought he was knocking on the door so oft for her but he’s still practically living here! Surely a bed were needed to be made…’ the chattier of the house maids piped up without swallowing her mouthful of dinner.

‘Millie, I would thank you not to stick your nose in what upstairs gentlemen do, as they are responsible for grander things than you can imagine, certainly grander than whether a spare bed is required for the night,’ he chided her patiently.

‘No, I disagree!’ Millie replied, swallowing heartily at last. ‘I ought to know, Mr Clarke. I’m not going into the green bedroom on me own!’

‘Why not? Another one of your superstitions?’

‘Not still afraid of ghosts, Millie?’ the other housemaid Alice asked patronisingly.

‘No!’ Millie replied – she did believe in ghosts particularly in this grand old house without a family to fill the silence – but it wasn’t that this time. ‘Another cat died in that room just this morning, didn’t it? I’m not setting foot in there until we know why!’

‘You said the cat had chewed on the wallpaper, did you not, Millie?’ Clarke said sensibly. ‘Poor thing probably choked on a piece.’

‘No, something’s in that wallpaper, I’m telling you! We should tell Lord Alfred, put him up in another room from now on.’

‘He seems perfectly fine to me. Besides, I hardly think Lord Alfred has ever taken to eating the wallpaper whilst staying in for the night.’

‘No, Mr Clarke, that may be true,’ the Mrs Quibell weighed in wisely. ‘But if the newspapers are telling the truth, it’s not the size of the bits that the cat was chewing on but their content. Green wallpaper like that might have a fair bit of arsenic, they say. Not good for anyone.’

‘Arsenic? Oh lord!’ Millie shrieked at once.

‘Stop this, Millie, no need for scaremongering on a Wednesday,’ Mr Clarke tried to nip the usual panic in the bud. ‘And thank you Mrs Quibell, but no need to talk of the devil. Guests have often stayed in that room and have left in perfectly healthy conditions.’

‘I don’t know, did Lord Alfred not seem a bit pallid when you saw him?’

‘Wh— no, as I say, he was perfectly fine, his complexion quite lively, even, I assure you, as always, and---‘ Mr Clarke suddenly found himself trailing off…

It was true, the room was slept in often. But not by many guests. Only by Lord Alfred. If the walls really had contained any toxic arsenic all this time, he’d have been showing signs of ill-health by now, what with the frequency of his visits.

Unless he wasn’t ever spending the night in that room at all.

Good Lord, Mr Clarke thought, that would explain the cravat he didn’t remember Mr Drummond had made suddenly appearing in the cupboard.

‘What? Are you not getting sick too, Mr Clarke!?’ Millie asked, worried that the valet would drop dead on the floor that second.

‘N-no, I’m perfectly fine, Millie,’ Mr Clarke cleared his throat trying to recover. ‘I was just going to say… that… perhaps, for the sake of the cats, of which Miss Drummond was always so fond of so it wouldn’t do to lose them by the time she returns---‘

‘Ha! If she returns!’

‘Shush, you, honestly,’ Alice reprimanded her fellow housemaid.

‘…Thank you, Alice,’ Mr Clarke continued authoritatively. ‘So, as I was saying, for the sake of the cats, I might suggest to Mr Drummond to ask a specialist to examine the room. Would that make everyone happy?’

General agreement followed this decision but Mr Clarke was not looking forward to that conversation. If his assumptions were true, he sensed it would be useful to discuss other matters than the wallpaper with Mr Drummond while he was at it, indeed for the sake of his and Lord Alfred’s safety...