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“This is a tiresome business, Prescott. I can settle to nothing.”
The Captain regarded his host’s half-eaten plate of kidneys and bacon and deduced that something serious was amiss. Berkeley had been distant and on edge for several weeks and had volunteered no reason. They had known each other since their early days at St Marylebone School, but the Captain was not a man to look for confidences. His claim that he went through the world in a straight line and did not concern himself with other people’s business had stood him in good stead. His own recent history he was not prepared to share beyond the spare facts. There was an abandoned wife and small son living at Kew who, though well taken care of, were seldom visited. At the time of the marital split, Berkeley had invited his friend to look upon his house as his own. At first, the Captain had resisted, thinking it might cramp his style, but Berkeley had been routinely about his own affairs and their lives quickly fell into a mutually agreeable pattern. On furlough from his naval duties, Prescott shifted between Grafton Street, Cranford House and Berkeley Castle with almost the same regularity as his peer.
“You certainly seem all at sea. I conjecture there is a lady in the case.”
“I was never in such a coil. But I cannot speak of it. The circumstances are rather intricate.”
Captain Prescott buttered some toast, thankful that he had ordered his life differently. “Mrs Bayly, if I may so observe, hardly gave you a moment’s concern.”
“You weren’t there when she got her marching orders,” said the Earl ruefully. “She’d have called me out if she’d been a man!”
Mrs Bayly had been consigned to the tender mercy of the Captain who fielded her ejection with the utmost diplomacy, then turned his attention to sea-faring. “In my opinion, she is a good woman. Most companionable.”
“Don’t tell me you felt sorry for her, Prescott. You’ve no idea how I had to sweeten the pill.”
“After last year’s returns, I can see that would have been a blow, but it sounds to me as though you are laying another trap for yourself.”
“I must go down to Gloucester at once.”
“My dear fellow, you have not long returned!”
Later that morning, the Earl set out for the country, leaving Captain Prescott to contemplate the whirlwind of his departure. On this occasion, he did not intend to go down to Berkeley, but to seek rooms at The King’s Head in Gloucester. He had received intelligence that Mary was ill and that Mr Parker had been called to prescribe elixir of vitriol for a raging sore throat that was either the cause or effect of some deeper malady. Having gone to her relatives, she seemed to be sickening rather than recovering.
It was not until dusk the following night that he presented himself at the Farrens’ door. Mary had retired to bed, but one guttering candle on a wooden chair gave out its glow-worm light. At the creaking of the door, she stirred and raised herself.
“My lord! What brings you here at this hour?” she said in a croaking whisper.
“I could not risk coming at any other! How are you, Polly? I perceive you are very drawn.” He embraced her gently and touched his lips to her forehead. She was hot and slightly damp through the thin chemise.
“Mr Parker cannot tell what ails me. It has been severe enough to confine me to the house these two weeks. I feel as though I’ve swallowed caustic.”
The Earl looked out of place wedged into the small cottage room. “I have passed some confoundedly miserable days in London, Polly…”
“I hope Harriet is remembering to feed and water Daffy and let him out of his cage now and then,” Mary rasped. “He’ll have no one to sing to. Oh, don’t speak of London!”
“Well, you don’t belong here! As soon as you are better, perhaps…”
“My lord, I beg you won’t tax me with this now. I must bide awhile. There’s the baby’s christening in June.”
“And is Susan to attend?”
“Tis a family occasion,” Mary shrugged. “I can’t avoid her altogether when she does not know we are married.”
“I concede it is hard for you to discern where your loyalty rests. Polly, there are things...I cannot speak of. Trust me to know what is right in this.”
“Do not press me. I’ll not be drawn.” Berkeley held up his hands and his tone was firm.
Mary besought no further. For the most part she preferred to remain in ignorance. She was ashamed of her sister’s permissive ways and fervently hoped their mother would not learn the truth. Mrs Cole seemed convinced that it was Susan’s rise in the world that had aided the Berkeley espousal.
The children slept soundly. Farren had long gone to The White Hart next door for a jug of ale. The low hum of women’s voices drifted up the staircase. The absurdity of having a peer of the realm on the doorstep looking for favours, like a tramp seeking shelter, defied belief. When Berkeley took his leave and descended the narrow steps into the parlour, Mrs Cole got up to meet him and earnestly counselled:
“I hesitates to say so, my lord, but you’d best leave by the back door. There’s folk still abroad in the street.”
“Top marks for sentry duties, ma’am. I’ll thank you and bid you goodnight. Mrs Farren.”
“What a rigmarole!” Ann huffed when he had gone.
“I can’t make head nor tail on’t, Nan.”
“If Mary’s good enough to be his wife, then he should have the courage to own it!”
“Well, but it can’t have helped, your Will in hock to half the county’s farmers. When he regains his standing in the community, things will improve, I’m sure.”