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Lady Fiasco: Chapter 12

Ghosts in London

Tyrell chose not to hail a hack. Instead, he walked down the streets of London like a man possessed. He’d spent a restless night, waking up from nightmares in a fevered sweat, and then unable to get back to sleep, because her confounded face kept dancing up in front of him like a relentless specter. A good walk was what he needed, and a drink at White’s.

By the time he reached the corner of Piccadilly and Fleet, his vehement strides relaxed into a more rational pace. He glanced occasionally into the windows, and perused a few of the entertaining caricatures.

Fleet Street was home to scores of printers whose shop windows displayed half a dozen new caricatures for sale each week. These lampoons provided the browsing masses with political and social commentaries and a lively dose of humor. They also furnished the printers with a handsome source of additional income. Patrons purchased the cartoons to amuse their friends and acquaintances. At two pence apiece, they were a bargain. The more scandalous the lampoon, the better.

Lord Wesmont strolled from window to window. While he didn’t actually laugh, a wry grin formed on his face as he perused a caricature of the Prince Regent drawn as a big whale spouting water from his mouth. The whale was eyeing the buxom Lady B___. Portrayed as a fish with enormous breasts, she was floating alongside the Prince George whale. Her husband, Lord B___, sketched as a skinny little fish with cuckold’s antlers on his head, swam precariously underneath the whale’s upraised tail.

Tyrell noticed a large crowd gathering in front of Laurie and Whittle’s print shop. He overheard loud guffaws as someone read out a verse in a mocking singsong voice. Shoppers chuckled and pointed at a caricature set prominently in the window, he strained to see what drew so much attention. When, at last, he caught a glimpse of the cartoon he felt as if someone had punched him in the stomach.

“It can’t be.” He muttered. He pushed and shoved through the crowd to get closer to the drawing. Planting both hands on the glass, he blocked everyone else’s view. He didn’t care about the complaints from the crowd behind him. He stared at the caricature of an all-too-familiar face.

It could not be.

It should not be.

Nevertheless, it most assuredly was Fiona Hawthorn. It had to be, because in one corner stood the Dowager Countess Alameda with a lecherous jackanapes crawling under her skirt. Tyrell closed his eyes and then reopened them, but the cartoon remained.

It featured Fiona center stage with Prince George, who had obviously been dancing with her. The Regent was drawn comically flipping through the air in one direction, while Miss Hawthorn was flying backward in the opposite direction. Count A___, clearly identifiable as Count Alameda, held out his arms in anticipation of catching her. Tyrell hated the way the cartoonist depicted Lord Alameda leering at Fiona’s bosom while waiting for the young lady to come flying into his arms.

“Blast his eyes,” he snarled out loud.

The woman next to him giggled. He glowered down at her and she clamped her mouth shut. Then Tyrell read the limerick captioning the drawing.

Beware the Duchess of Disaster

She ought to have a dancing master.

She wounds our soldiers on the ballroom floor,

And if that’s not enough, there’s more.

Britain is in jeopardy, Ladies and Gents,

For now Lady Fiasco trips our Prince!

A lovely young girl, as Count A___ observes,

A succulent beauty, with pleasing curves

He’d read enough. Tyrell growled again and followed it up with several colorful oaths, abusing the ears of the other shoppers at the window. He elbowed his way through the crowd and flung open the door of printer’s establishment.

People outside the shop watched through Laurie and Whittle’s window with interest as his lordship waved his arms emphatically toward the window display. Muffled shouting seeped out of the shop as he argued with the proprietor. Groans of protest issued from the crowd as Mr. Laurie walked to the window display and removed the entire stack of amusing cartoons about the Duchess of Disaster. He plopped them on the counter in front of the complainant, who slapped down a handful of coins, stuffed the caricatures under his arm, and tromped out of the shop seething.

Tyrell felt like a bear on a rampage as he marched down the street in a fury. If King George and the entire royal family stood naked in the street singing and waving red ribbons, he would not have noticed or cared. Therefore, it must have been divine intervention when he stumbled across Robert Anbel, and actually took notice.

At first, the two men merely grunted when they collided. Tyrell still couldn’t see anything but the red angry cloud enveloping him. The man he bumped into shifted to the side and passed by. When he did, an empty coat sleeve flapped against Tyrell’s arm. That empty coat sleeve riveted his attention.

He stopped abruptly. As quick as lightning, he felt as if he were back at Badajoz. He could almost smell the gunpowder, see the flashes of gunfire, his hands felt slick with blood.

He turned. At the same moment, the other man glanced back over his shoulder and froze. Both men squinted as if straining to see through a dense fog.

“Ty?” Robert Anbel turned slowly around.

“As I live and breathe. Anbel, is that you?”

“Most of me.”

They stood silent, studying each other for a moment. Then Tyrell shot out a hand toward Robert, who immediately clasped it. Tyrell’s heart suddenly remembered how to function. The unpredictable organ erupted with gladness. It bubbled up and spilled over like a dam bursting apart. He was excessively pleased to see this man.

“This is the confounded-est day of my life. Robert, you must surely be an apparition because nothing this good could possibly happen today.”

Robert laughed. “Well, I don’t mean to disappoint you, but I haven’t stuck my spoon in the wall yet. My arm, mind you, may be in heaven or hell, don’t know which, but I remain here, in the world of the living—if you can call it living. Leastwise, I ain’t no ghost.”

No, but Tyrell had thought him one.

Robert chuckled. “Shall we stand out here on the street shaking each other’s hand like a couple of lovesick monkeys? Or shall we retire to a quiet table and have a glass of Madeira like civilized gentlemen?”

 “Lead on.” Tyrell smiled and murmured, “I’d forgotten how you do prose on.”

Robert shot him a quelling look.

Tyrell raised his hand to signal peace. “More welcome prose there never was.”

In a private corner at White’s they raised their glasses to one another. “I must confess, Robert, I thought you were dead.”

“Oh, I suppose I was dead once or twice.” Robert stared into the red liquid of his cup. “There were times, Ty, when I certainly wished I were dead. Ah, but that is past. Mainly.” He lifted his glass again. “You, Captain—excuse me, I mean Lord Wesmont—I’m deuced sorry about your father—you are just as great a surprise to me. When I left you at Badajoz more than two years ago, I thought your chances for survival were considerably less than mine. I was safely ensconced in the surgeon’s tent. Apparently, some foolhardy hero hauled my worthless carcass off that wretched battlefield.” Robert raised a sardonic eyebrow in mock disapproval of his companion. “Or don’t you remember?”

Tyrell lifted his glass, but said nothing. As if in a waking nightmare, Ty could still feel Robert’s warm blood drenching his uniform, gushing over his hands as he slung his friend over his shoulder and fought his way back through the ranks to find a surgeon.

Robert shook his head. “Never fear. I know I ought to thank you, you damn fool, but I won’t.”

“Don’t.” The image vanished and Tyrell felt the tension ebb.

“No, of course not. Well then, tell me, why the Earl of Wesmont is sulking around London with a stack of cartoons under his arm. For that matter, what are you doing in London? Shouldn’t you be cloistered in that country manor of yours with a fertile young wife, begetting heirs? I believe that is what it’s called, begetting. A delightful pastime, or so I’m told.”

Tyrell smacked his hand down on the table. “Don’t you start! Had enough badgering on that score from my mother. Arm or no arm, I’ll serve you up a facer!”

“Oh, I am fairly certain there is no arm.” Robert lifted his coat sleeve, pretending to search for the missing appendage. “However, if you must bash in my nose I stand awaiting your pleasure. Or rather, I sit awaiting your pleasure. Too much bother to stand. Not your favorite subject, eh, the begetting of heirs?”

“No,” snapped Tyrell. “That’s why I’m in London—to avoid the subject.” He picked up the caricatures from the floor and plopped them on the table. “It would seem that I have not run far enough. I cannot walk down Fleet Street without being reminded of plaguey females.”

Robert Anbel took a cartoon from the top of the pile and set it aside only to find that the next etching contained an identical drawing. “Bought the whole lot did you?” He chuckled as he perused the caricature, and laughed again when he read the limerick. “But this is delightful.”

Tyrell merely scowled at him.

“Ahh, let me guess.”  Robert tapped the edge of the cartoon. “This cartoon disturbs you because it insults our Prince Regent. No, no, that cannot be it. There are hundreds of even more insulting caricatures of his Royal Largeness. No, perhaps you are annoyed because it depicts your friend, Lord Alameda, as a lecherous scoundrel. However, I cannot remember you ever mentioning he was your friend. Aside from which, all of London knows that the man is rather proud of his libertine reputation.”

Robert baited Tyrell further. “Can it be that you have formed a tendre for the fascinating Lady Alameda? I understand she has pots of money, a captivating woman, or so I’ve heard. See here, it shows Lord M___ groveling at her hem and straining to peer up her gown. That must upset you terribly.”

Robert schooled his face into an expression of mock sympathy. “Chin up, old man. It does look like Lady Alameda is about to kick the lusty fellow in the eye.”

Tyrell refused to rise to the bait.

Robert grinned and set the cartoon in front of his sour companion, pointing to the corner of the drawing. “See there. She most certainly IS about to kick him.”

“I hadn’t noticed.” Tyrell sat with his arms folded.

“Oh, I see. Well then, that eliminates the intriguing countess, doesn’t it?” He pulled the cartoon back and made a great work of studying it. “That leaves only this mysterious Duchess of Disaster. Hmm, yes, how does the poet phrase it? A succulent young beauty–”

“Enough!” Tyrell snatched the cartoon from Robert’s hand.

When the wretch threw back his head and laughed, Tyrell glowered at him. Robert made a feeble attempt to contain himself, but his shoulders shook and tears of mirth trickled from his eyes until at last he burst out laughing again. “Oh, my friend, I haven’t had such a belly-shaker since before the war. Come, have another glass. You must tell me who she is.” He signaled to the porter for service.

“I should have left you on that field.”

“Ah, but then, who would be here to persecute you?”

“Have no fear, I am quite loaded down with persecutors. And Lady Fiasco, here, heads the list.” He tapped the offending cartoon.

Robert shook his head skeptically. “She looks like a complete innocent in this drawing. Tell me, has she wounded you on the ballroom floor?”

“No.” But then, Tyrell remembered being tangled up with her on his balcony and smiled crookedly. “No, but it was a near thing.”

“I see.”

“You don’t see.” Tyrell raked his fingers through his hair. “This little baggage keeps putting a spoke in my wheel. I came to London to get thoroughly dissipated, to forget her, to forget the war and everything else. I fully intended to become a lecherous scoundrel myself. I’m not ready to set up a nursery full of whining brats. Had enough of ‘em on the Continent. What I plan to do is gamble away my inheritance like the rest of the care-for-nothing fribbles loitering about London. I’m going to ravish beautiful women. Follow the hounds. Get roiling drunk every night.”

“Hmm. Sounds like a stratagem the vicar would recommend.”

“The blasted vicar hasn’t been to Badajoz, has he?” Tyrell answered harshly.

“No. Although, I have,” Robert stared at his glass before lifting it in a toast. “I heartily endorse this plan of yours. In fact, it parallels my own to an amazing degree.”

Robert lifted his glass high. “We shall go forth and dissipate together.” He gulped the contents of his glass and slammed it down on the table. “Let us find a gaming hell to gamble away our fortunes in. Forget that chit with the pleasing curves. Let us away to a brothel! We’ll ravish the lustiest highfliers we can find.”

He purported to rise, while Tyrell slid deeper in his chair.

“What? Not coming?” A smirk played on Robert’s lips.

“Didn’t I just say she put a spoke in my wheels? It’s no good, Robert. She’s ruined me. I don’t want anyone else. Dratted female.”

“Oh, this is bad.” Robert shook his head mournfully. “Very bad, indeed. I suppose you are besotted with joy knowing that she is in the company of that rascal, Alameda.”

“The vulture. I’d like to cut his heart out. However”—Tyrell smoothed his waistcoat and ordered his emotions—“I have no claim on the chit.” He paused. “Nor, do I want one.”

“Of course, you don’t.” Robert nodded sympathetically. “Why, it’s a common thing for you to carry several hundred cartoons of a young lady around with you. Did you buy them to give to your friends? I’ll take one. After all, she is a rather fine-looking filly.”

Tyrell grumbled, snatched the stack of cartoons from the table and slapped them onto the floor beside his chair. “This is serious, Anbel. As usual, you can do nothing but roast me.”

“Now that is odd. I have not roasted anyone since we parted in Spain. However, I must confess, it does my weary soul good to make light of your problems. Forgive me.”

Tyrell waved his hand, dismissing his friend’s apology. “Happy to be of service. Only tell me one thing, Robert, how do I purge my weary soul of this vexatious female and that nightmare of a war?”

“That’s two things, my friend. Two very different things, a woman, and the war.”

Robert toyed with his empty glass. A shock of straw-colored hair fell across his brow. For a moment, he looked like the young man he’d once been, before they’d both seen too much bloodshed. Then he squared his shoulders, and with a slight movement of his head the hair flipped back into place.

“Napoleon changed us forever, Ty. If you try to cut out that part of your soul, it will leave you a crippled man. You’ll lose more than an arm or a leg. The war, with all of its gore and cruelty, as well as its small triumphs, became part of us. The green young bucks we once were, those foolish lads who bought their colors and rode off to fight Napoleon, they’re gone forever.”

Tyrell stared at the dark paneling beyond Robert’s head. He saw nothing of the club walls. Instead, he saw the mists swirling around himself as a young man before the war. He wanted that innocence returned, but Robert was right. They could not turn back time.

Robert laughed abruptly, a short cynical snort. “Oh, I suppose they’re not exactly gonethose green boys. It’s rather like a sapling turning into a tree. Can’t scrape off the bark, and whittle it down until you find that sapling again, now can you? No, of course not. The sapling becomes an oak. Forever changed. The realities of that war will remain inside us through heaven or hell. Best try and face it, Ty. Running from it won’t help. You’ll never turn back into the innocent sapling you once were.” Robert lifted his glass and grinned. “My friend, we’ve become a pair of gnarled old trees.”

Tyrell tried to smile. “Anbel, I swear, I can’t ascertain whether you’ve taken up gardening or sermonizing. Gnarled old trees, indeed.” Tyrell swallowed the last of his drink. Then he bowed his head and added softly, “Although, I think you probably have the right of it.”

“Haven’t taken up gardening or sermons. I’ve turned into a ruddy nursemaid. My grandmother cajoled me into escorting m’ two cousins all over town. The old dragon is too ancient to do the pretty through all the late hours. So she enlisted me, the merciless old crow. I tried to beg off. Told her I wanted to ship out with the East India Company, but she gave me her worst ‘how-can-you-abandon-me-in-my-time-of-need’ glare. Bless her pointy old beak. So, I folded.”

“My sympathies. The East India, eh?”

“Yes, and as soon as I puff off the chits, I’ll be aboard the first ship going.” He rubbed his chin. “Say Tyrell, you wouldn’t want to take one of ‘em off my hands, would you?”

Tyrell’s eyebrows shot up in alarm.

Robert taunted him. “Come to think of it, you’re just the man for Diana. The chubby minx needs a grumpy old husband like you. She’s so cheerful I often want to slap her. Yes, she’d suit you admirably. She has some wits too, or at least I think she does, under all that bouncy hair and incessant chattering. Say you’ll marry her–I can’t stand much more of this squiring-them-around-town business.” Robert dropped back into his seat and sulked.

It was Tyrell’s turn to laugh. “I’d like to help you out, Anbel. But, like I said, I refuse to get leg-shackled to anyone.” His hasty declaration spun his mind back to the sunshine and water and Fiona’s anguished face when he had shouted those same words at her. He lowered his eyes.

Robert studied his friend and then leaned forward suddenly serious. “Why not, Ty? Might be pleasant. Lord knows, I wouldn’t do it. But you, you’re the type that does. You’re a country fellow, with country character and ideals.” He glanced sympathetically at Tyrell. “Truth is, Captain, you couldn’t sink into dissipation if you spent a thousand years on the effort. Your conscience wouldn’t let you. Even in Spain, you didn’t trifle with the camp-followers like the other men did. You aren’t like me. You don’t have a burning desire to go haring off to India or parts unknown. Why not marry?”

Why not?” Tyrell grimaced. “Because it isn’t pleasant. It’s a great wagonload of responsibility. That’s why!” He picked up the stack of caricatures and stood to leave.

“Oh, don’t go off in a lather.” Robert followed him toward the door. “Very well. I’ll not say another word about it.”

Tyrell lifted a skeptical eyebrow.

“See here, I will change the topic entirely. Do you go to Lady Sefton’s ball tomorrow night?”

“Whatever for?”

“Well, you might come and keep a fellow soldier company. We’ll retire to the card room as soon as we’ve situated my cousins along the debutante wall. Who knows, I might even let you win back some of the blunt you lost to me in Spain.”

“I never lost to you. It was always the other way ‘round.”

“Oh no, my friend. As I remember it, it was I who cleaned your purse out regularly.”

“Folderol. Shrapnel must have nicked your brain box. I recall a rainy night in Lisbon…”

Thus, they headed down St. James Street bickering as amiably as children.


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