He sniffed surreptitiously at the lustrous collar of his court suit.
It smelt, faintly, of stale rosewater and tobacco and sea-coal fumes, with an acrid note of sweat, and a slight overlay of wine. Under that was the strange, fugitive scent of silk, of tar and the sea and the spices of the hold of an East Indiaman – although that was possibly in his imagination, for he had never set foot on a ship bound for anywhere more exotic than the Low Countries.
He’d been told, in no uncertain terms, that he’d shirked long enough. That an officer of some seniority, even a supply officer of no great military significance or birth – General Monck had been very specific on that last, and Russell could still hear his commander’s round rural Devonshire accent in the memory of it – it was his duty to present himself at court, and pay his loyal respects to His Majesty, on the glorious event of his restoration to the throne after eleven years of misery under the Commonwealth.
And then Monck had glowered, and narrowed his little bull’s eyes, pouched in sagging red flesh. “You’ll do the pretty, Major Russell, for all ye were a damnable Roundhead.”
The which Major Thankful Russell could not argue, for with a name like Thankful, he could scarcely deny his staunch Puritan upbringing, and having almost had himself executed as a political subversive, he had to admire General Monck’s perspicacity.
But. He had thought that after twenty years of keeping his head down, of being a ferociously good supply officer of no great military significance or birth, of waking and sleeping lists and requisitions and logistics – after a life of ruthless and selfless service, he might not, actually, be forced to show his face at court against his will. Monck said it was a matter of respect. Russell was a god-damned administrator, a jumped-up pen-pusher, who the hell did he think he was, in his arrogance, to refuse to present his respects to His Majesty in person?
They forgot, you see. They saw this neat, slightly austere, mouse-haired gentleman in his forty-second year, tall and a little stiff in the shoulders as a result of stooping over his requisition lists these last years. Short-haired, where preposterously curled wigs were the fashion, and so they called him Old Crophead, for his old Parliament leanings and his present lack of vanity. Not given to excess, of any nature, but a most prim and sober and respectable senior officer, the sight of whose scarred face could be relied upon to damp the high spirits of any gathering.
They forgot that twenty years ago he had been a firebrand, and a rebel. He looked cold and implacable, but how else might a man look, who had taken the thrust of the shattered butt of a pike through his cheek in the early years of the civil wars?
And so it had been a matter of duty, and a direct order, that Russell should present himself at court. Well, he had. He remembered little of it. He had, admittedly, fortified himself with perhaps more wine than he ought to have: anything to stop the shaking of his hands, his absolute bone-deep horror of being so conspicuously displayed in a public place. More than that, though, it had just been dull. Nothing happened. Lots of nothing happened. Just a lot of people talking a lot of nothing in a big room, that smelt of stale bodies and tallow and too much scent. He didn’t remember being presented to the King, though he supposed he must have, or Monck would have made him go back. Smiling politely at everyone, because he didn’t have a clue who was sleeping with whom, male or female, and it did not do to cut the reigning favourite, or the court wit. Being called Bosola, which he did not understand, but which had been kindly explained to him some months later by a friend who had read such old-fashioned tragedies that it referred to a most notorious court malcontent and bird of ill omen, in a play.
Being told, by a gaggle of cackling, bewigged striplings, that if one gilded a turd, it remained, regardless, a turd.
Suggesting to the Earl of Rochester that if he passed such remarks in Russell’s hearing again, Russell would take Rochester’s ungodly ape and insert it where the Lord’s grace did not shine.
(Russell had known poets, in his time. The men he knew would have hesitated to scrawl such doggerel as Rochester wrote, on the wall of a troop latrine. He was not impressed by a seventeen-year-old libertine. And he meant it about the monkey.)
He’d stayed close to the wall, mostly, trembling, with the small of his back against the moulded plaster, taking some comfort from that cool strength. Holding to his duty, because that was what he did, what he had done since he was seventeen, and first a young officer. Feeling like an impostor, in his charcoal-grey lutestring silk, with a jacket that was so short and tight it barely covered his arse, and great billowing shirt-sleeves hanging from under the shrunken sleeves. Festooned with ribbon, like a damnable maypole, with a cravat that trailed in his supper if he was not cautious how he sat. Ribbons and lace and high-heeled shoes, which made him mince like a girl, and he could not and would not grow one of those ashy smears of moustache, even if his scarred face would allow it.
He had been a little drunk, and a lot nervous, and his teeth had been chattering on the rim of his delicate Venetian glass goblet even before he’d seen a face he knew, however vaguely: the chubby, deceptively amiable countenance of Charles Fairmantle, a distant Buckinghamshire neighbour. Member of Parliament now, he thought. Couldn’t remember, and did not care, overly much. Fairmantle was a toady and a lecher, and a hanger-on to the peripheries of Rochester’s lewd cohort, and the touch of his pudgy hand made a sweat of sheer repulsion break out on Russell’s top lip, as if a warm slug had crawled over his skin.
They exchanged idle pleasantries, or at the least, Fairmantle made idle pleasantry and Russell stared blankly at him for the most part. And then,
“Accept my condolences, Major. A bad business. A bad business, indeed. You must be devastated.”
“Oh. Indeed. Which condolences?”
The pudgy hand on his sleeve, solicitous, leaving a faint, damp print on the glimmering silk.
“I am so sorry, sir. I had assumed you knew. Your sister, major. God rest her, she – Four Ashes was burned, not three months ago, and poor Mistress Coventry with it.” Fairmantle shook his head. “I am sorry. I had not meant – I had not known – sir, you turn positively pale -“
And Russell, who had hated his sister, and not set eyes on her in the better part of ten years, had bitten clean through the rim of his goblet in his shock nonetheless.
He thought that had been the moment when he had decided to come back to Buckinghamshire for good and all, though it had taken him a few months of despair and penny-pinching and soul-searching to work out how he might rebuild the house at Four Ashes.
And then a further few months of despair and soul-searching when he realised that there was only one woman he’d have entertained as mistress there, and that she was as utterly, irrevocably not for him as the moon for the moth.
Possibly he ought to have mentioned that fact to Thomazine Babbitt, for she was under no such doubts at all, as it turned out. There had only ever been one man for Thomazine, and the Lord be praised, it turned out it had always been Russell. It seemed she’d considered him her especial property since she was three years old. It might have saved him some considerable distress if she’d thought to tell him, though, he thought wryly.
Well. He smoothed the charcoal silk again, absently.
He’d thought to do her honour on their wedding day, and wear his finest.
Well, she was marrying a plain gentleman, not a courtier. He’d given all that up, along with his commission, just under a year ago. He was no man’s but his own.
– And hers, of course. Always hers.
He took a deep breath, and pulled on the plain, decent, pewter-grey wool waistcoat with the plain silver buttons, and the plain, old-fashioned, straight-fitting coat that went with it.
“At least the lass will recognise you,” he told himself, smiling wanly at his reflection in the mirror.
Ruffled a hand through his hair – grown to his shoulders, now, and no longer so indeterminately mouse as it had been when he’d worn it close-cropped, but streaked fair and dark as a field of wheat when the wind blows through it. She liked it so, worn long, and straight.
He was scarred, and worn, and weary, and his head hurt when the wind was in the north.
All that was true.
But Thomazine loved him. And further than that, he did not care.
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