Excerpt: A Mystery at Carlton House

Book 12: Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries

December 1818

“Sir.” A hand shook me as I dozed fitfully in a chair.

I jerked out of a dream of falling from my horse and landing surrounded by French cavalry, their glittering swords aimed straight at my throat. A cry of rage left my mouth as I grabbed the nearest arm coming down at me to haul the blackguard out of the saddle.

I found myself in a frigid hallway of a fine house, my hand locked around the arm of a tall specimen of footman, his blue eyes round with fright.

“Damn it all, Bartholomew,” I growled. My voice was hoarse, my throat parched, and I was chilled to the bone. The blanket Bartholomew had draped over me sometime in the night had fallen to the polished wooden floor.

“Sorry, sir.”

Bartholomew knew never to wake me suddenly like this, as the dreams of my past could sometimes be too incredibly real. I didn’t want to shove a knife into his chest before I realized he was the footman who’d become my valet and a friend.

I shook off the memories of battling at Ciudad Rodrigo and forced myself to the present. There was only one reason I slept in a stiff chair in the hall and only one reason Bartholomew would risk waking me so abruptly.

“Is she—” I couldn’t finish.

Bartholomew’s countenance was drawn, eyes worried. “You’d better send for the surgeon, sir.”

Ice-cold fear streaked through me, and I was on my feet at once. “Why? What’s happened?”

“I don’t know, Captain. That’s what the midwife says.”

The midwife was a stout woman with a mannish brow, a stern glare, and a no-nonsense attitude. She had no good opinion of doctors, and on that point, I agreed with her. Most were quacks who diagnosed a patient without coming near them, gave them a bottle of hideously expensive tonic, and then disappeared leaving a bill and a chill breeze in their wake.

The midwife wasn’t fond of surgeons either but conceded they were good in a pinch. She hadn’t objected when I told her I had one standing by in case he was needed. If she had asked for the surgeon, things were not well.

“Want me to run for him?” Bartholomew asked.

It was dark outside, snow stinging the windows of the long, ornate corridor. We were in Oxfordshire, on my wife’s father’s estate, and a brutal country winter had settled in.

“I’ll go,” I said. I took a step and was rewarded with a knifing pain in my knee that had grown too stiff as I slept. Bartholomew’s large hands caught me before I could fall.

“Rest yourself, sir. I’ll be back in a tick.”

“No.” I wrenched myself away from Bartholomew’s well-meaning grip and began thumping down the window-lined passage, hoping the walk would warm my knee and loosen my muscles. Time had healed the injury that I’d received four years ago, but my leg would never be what it had been. “I want to go. I can’t sit and wait.”

It had been too long already, though I could not remember exactly how many hours ago Donata had sent for the midwife. A night and a day at least, and we were on into the next night. Donata had made me promise I’d stay far enough away from her chamber that I wouldn’t hear her groans—she’d known I’d never take myself to bed or out to Oxford so my friend Grenville could pour ale and whisky down my throat.

I’d been too worried to pretend it was all women’s business and nothing to do with me. Donata had often been ill during the last months, and I’d never forgive myself if I were out of the house or insensible in bed if something happened to her.

Leaving to fetch the surgeon would allow me do something instead of standing outside the barred door, bowing my head and waiting in terror.

Bartholomew seemed to understand. “Yes, sir.” He ran ahead of me down the corridor and had my coat, gloves, and hat ready by the time I reached the side door that led to the path to the stables. Not long after I stepped into whirling whiteness, a groom led a saddled horse to me.

“Had him waiting,” the groom said. “In case.”

His face was wan beneath the yellow light from his lantern, fear in his eyes. He, like the rest of the servants in the house, who’d watched my wife grow from tiny girl into lovely woman, worried and wondered if this would be her last night on earth.

I couldn’t let it be. I thanked the man, let Bartholomew boost me exuberantly upward, steadied myself on the saddle, and turned the horse into the wind.

The surgeon was staying in a small house in Oxford. I’d wanted him to take a room at Donata’s father’s estate with the rest of us, but he’d refused. I’d decided not to argue—the fact that he’d agreed to come out here at all had been a victory.

Oxford was not far across the fields. A pleasant enough ride on a summer’s day, it turned brutal in the darkness of a winter night, and the scarf I’d raised over my nose and mouth barely kept out the blowing snow. Low clouds cut off the moonlight, though the snowy ground seemed to glow with a faint light of its own.

I’d have lost the way if the lights of Oxford hadn’t guided me. Warm lamplight on the streets, the glow of candles in windows, and flickering bonfires of those outside trying to stay warm beckoned me on. I had difficulty remembering that only one month ago I’d been hot—stiflingly so—in the embrace of the Egyptian sunshine. I would return to Cairo and Alexandria, I vowed, this time taking Donata and our child with me. This night would end, and we would go.

I had rented a small room over a shop in a back lane for the surgeon, paying much coin to keep the man in comfort and to ensure the landlord would say nothing to his neighbors about his guest. I threw aside all idea of discretion when I reached the shop and pounded on the outside door that led to the rooms above.

The surgeon must have been waiting, because he appeared a few moments later, candle in hand. He looked at me without surprise, cold eyes in an unmoving face, candlelight brushing his shaved head.

Before I could gasp, For God’s sake, you must come, he’d stepped back inside, snatched up a coat, blew out his candle and set it down, and shut the door. Without a word, he tramped around the corner of the lane, where he banged on another door.

A sleepy, portly man with a thatch of greasy hair yawned but came outside and led us through a tiny passage to the stables. There he saddled up a horse as sleepy-looking as he and handed the surgeon the reins.

“Take mine,” I snapped at the surgeon. “He’s a bit more lively.”

The surgeon—whose name I had never learned— swung easily into my horse’s saddle, and clattered through the passage to the street.

“I’ll need a leg-up,” I called to the portly man. He’d moved at a surprisingly quick pace back toward his warm house.

The man turned around, shuffled toward me, cupped his hands so I could step into them, and boosted me upward. I thanked him, turned the horse, and rode out. The man gave me a sour look as I went, no doubt expecting to be paid for his services. I’d have to settle with him later—I’d not take the time even to dig into my pocket for a coin.

I never caught up to the surgeon. On the better horse, he made the estate long before I rode breathlessly into the inner courtyard and swung down. I saw neither horse nor surgeon as I pulled up and a groom came to assist me down.

“He did come here?” I asked the groom as I landed on my feet. I had the momentary fear that the surgeon had deserted Donata and galloped off, and that I’d just handed a transported criminal who’d returned illegally to England one of the Earl of Pembroke’s prized horses.

“Aye, he ran inside.” The groom looked at me in trepidation. “She’ll be all right, won’t she? Our young lady?”

“She will,” I said, my mouth set. “I’ll make certain of it.”

“Godspeed, sir,” the groom said, and I moved past him into the house.

By the time I reached the upper floors, I felt fear rising until it crackled through me. The beginning of battle was like this, when the fighting began and men started dying. The stench of blood, death, gunpowder, and churned earth overlaid with the noise of guns, horses, men, and steel had sent my blood pounding—not only in fear but in determination that I would survive to the end of it.

Sweat filmed my skin though it was bitterly cold and my heart raced as I hurried to the chamber where my lady wife was trying to give birth to our child.

The noises were different, and the scents. I smelled beeswax, the smoke of hearth fires, and dampness inevitable in old houses. I heard the wind in the eaves and voices behind the door at the far end—a woman arguing, a man’s abrupt tones silencing her.

I limped to Donata’s chamber, my walking stick ringing on the polished wooden floor. I yanked open one of the double doors that led to her suite, moving straight through the small anteroom to the next room. Many of the chambers in the old part of the house were layered, one leading to another, the most private chamber tucked well away in the back.

I opened the last door, and was immediately assaulted by odors—here was the blood, the fear, the stifling heat, the hovering death.

The midwife came at me, arms extended as though trying to shove me out. I barely noticed her.

My wife lay on the bed, uncovered. Donata’s body was slick with perspiration, her hair wet with it, her belly hugely swollen. She was limp, her arms and legs puffy, her face ashen, and she never turned her head as I came lumbering in.

She should have opened her eyes, fixed me with a frosty glare, and said, “Really, Gabriel. You promised you’d wait until I sent for you.”

I had promised. I’d given my word. My word, my honor, was everything to me, and Donata knew that.

But I refused to let her die alone, refused to be told by a terrified Bartholomew that they’d lost her, and she was gone from me. They would cover her up and trundle her away, not allowing me to see her. She would ask them to do that.

I knew Donata was still alive. I’d seen death in many forms, and I knew the difference between life and the lack of it. Even so, her pallor was bad, and I could barely see the rise of her breath.

The surgeon had his back to me, rinsing his hands in a basin of water, catching up the towel there to dry them. The midwife regarded him in irritation.

“She’s dying,” she muttered, “and he’s groomin’ ’imself.”

I’d seen surgeons on the Peninsula who made certain they rinsed everything with water before they started, and I’d seen ones who dug in with muddy hands. I preferred cleanliness.

The surgeon dragged a table next to the bed and began laying out his instruments on it, metal things of differing lengths which had various points on them. I did not know what they were for—had no wish to. He put his hand on Donata’s abdomen. The touch was competent, professional, assessing. He squeezed, moved his hand, squeezed again.

“When was her last pain?” he asked the midwife.

“Hasn’t had any for a while,” the midwife said in a hushed voice. She gave me a sidewise glance. “I fear the poor bairn is gone.”

Bile wedged in my throat. I moved toward the bed—I have no idea why. I could do nothing.

“It isn’t dead,” the surgeon snapped, and I halted. “But it’s turned wrong.”

“Then there’s not much we can do,” the midwife said stubbornly.

The surgeon’s glare made her step back. “Either stay quiet and help me or get out,” he told her, then turned to me. “You, Captain. Wait outside.”

I didn’t want to leave. My feet were fixed to the floor, my voice gone. I couldn’t argue, couldn’t obey.

The surgeon turned his steely eyes back to the midwife. “When I tell you to do something, you do it. No question, no hesitation. If you want to save her, you’ll obey me. If not, find me someone who will.”

The midwife flushed in mounting fury. She opened her mouth, no doubt to tell the surgeon exactly what she thought of high-handed males who pushed their way into a woman’s chamber, but just then, Donata groaned.

My wife opened her eyes a slit, dark blue gleaming between her lashes. “Gabriel.”

My name was barely a whisper. I moved as swiftly as I could to her, bumping into the surgeon on the way. I seized her hand. “Donata.”

Her fingers were limp in mine as she looked past me at the surgeon. “Do what you must,” she croaked.

Then her eyes slid closed, and her hand relaxed.

“Captain,” the surgeon said in a hard voice. “Out.”

I swung to him. “Save her,” I said clearly. “Whatever it takes. Or you will answer to me.”

The surgeon did not move. His dead eyes didn’t even flicker.

We stood face-to-face for a long moment before I turned away from him back to the bed. I bent over my wife and kissed her sweat-drenched face. “Be well, Donata,” I whispered.

I pressed a light kiss to her lips, brushed her hair from her forehead, and then made myself turn and walk out of the room. I pulled the door closed behind me as I went, shutting off the tableau of the surgeon and midwife regarding each other stonily over my wife’s corpselike body.

It was a very long time before I could take my hand off the door handle and walk away. I took three whole steps to a window seat in the antechamber and collapsed numbly to it, never minding the bitter cold at my back.

* * *

I don’t remember how long I waited there. My breath fogged in the air, the anteroom unheated. It was a square chamber with its high ceiling painted by an artist of the last century who’d been quite fond of cherubs. Winged infants buzzed about painted meadows, chasing coyly draped goddesses with mad persistence.

The painting was full of sunshine and joy, brightness and summer. The window behind me showed darkness and snow, deep winter night.

I heard little from inside the chamber where Donata lay. The midwife must have decided to cease arguing with the surgeon, because I heard only his low commands and silence in response.

No cries from Donata, nothing of her pain, her fear. She must be deep asleep, which could only be a mercy for her. About our child, I had no idea. Many women died bringing in a babe, and even more often the child itself died, or lived only a while, being too weak to fight in the harsh world. That any of us survived at all was a miracle.

No one came to me. Bartholomew must be keeping everyone away, knowing I needed to be alone. I couldn’t bear to face the others in the house—Donata’s mother and father, servants, Grenville—and their well meaning comfort. They were afraid as well, and would look to me to comfort them.

I was hunched over, my head in my hands, when the door opened so quietly I almost missed it. Only a chance creak of the hinge made me look up to behold the surgeon standing in front of me. He’d discarded his coat and cravat to reveal a perspiration-beaded throat, and his hands were balled.

I sprang up, but questions died on my lips when I saw his face. It was bleak, empty, nothing in his eyes.

“You must be prepared to tell me,” he said. “Which I will save. The mother, or the child.”