The first hint that all was not well was the bizarre intelligence, received by the circuitous yet surprisingly effective route of a pair of waiters at Grillons Hotel, an inquisitive footman, fond of gossip, and a young Female possessed of considerable verve and a modicum of vocal talent who happened to count among her varied acquaintance one Mr Gilbert Ringwood. A boot boy with swift feet and a more than passing interest in financial gain finished the chain of communication, leaving Mr Ringwood and his friend Mr Fakenham considerably more agitated than was decent after a heavy wet at the Daffy Club, some exertions of a more amorous nature, followed by sleep and an as yet only partially addressed late nuncheon.
"Could be some start of m'Aunt Valeria's," Ferdy offered doubtfully as he carved a slice or three from the excellent ham. "Young cousin. Time to bring her out. Fetch her up to Town, can't travel on her own. Sherry better than post--" He wilted under Mr Ringwood's steady gaze.
"Without Lady Sheringham, Ferdy? Or any other chaperone? Sherry? Entrusted with a schoolgirl?" Gil said flatly, and Mr Fakenham, covered with embarrassment, mumbled something about the early hour confusing him, and buried himself in a slice of ham with mustard.
The mustard woke Mr Fakenham a little, and he had to swallow more swiftly than the meat deserved as his eyes widened with a fresh, more appalling thought, which he promptly shared. "I say, Gil, Sherry wouldn't have run off with the Incomparable?"
"Surely not," he said briskly. And yet a mere moment's thought left him with misgivings. Viscount Sheringham had gone to Kent for the express purpose of proposing to the peerless Miss Milborne, and his intemperate and impulsive starts were only too well known to Mr Ringwood to permit of him ignoring the possibility.
"But, Gil: Sherry. He goes up, asks for the Milbornes' blessing, is turned down flat, speaks to Miss Milborne. Realise they must be together: only thing for it: fly for Gretna!"
Mr Ringwood blenched. The previous evening's conviviality was rapidly taking on the appearance of being even more ill considered than his aching pate had previously intimated. Not merely condemned to suffering the after effects of a enjoyable evening in the company of friends, he was now expected to unravel the mystery of Sherry's odd return to Town, with a young female in train, and deal with Ferdy's flights of fancy.
"Nonsense, Ferdy." He shook his head. "If you want my opinion, she'll none of him. She's holding out for Severn, or her Mama is. Besides, Kent to Gretna: why come into Town and stop at Grillons if they're going to Scotland? They should be on the Great North Road before the Milbornes discover their flight." Ferdy looked much struck with this line of reasoning. Gil added more thoughtfully, "Besides, there was no whisper of her name, and Miss Milborne is well known in Town. No, no, surely not," he repeated, more for his own comfort than out of any sense that Sherry would not, in fact, do something precisely that reckless, particularly if he had, as seemed likely, met a rebuff. But who then was the young female he had brought to Town?
Mr Fakenham, unconvinced, dropped his fork with a clatter. "George!". They stared at each other, transfixed with the enormity of the potential catastrophe unfolding before them. Whether Sherry had made off with Miss Milborne or not, George would take the entire story precisely the worst possible way.
"Must find Sherry before George hears even a whisper of this," Gil said firmly. He caught the wince on the Honourable Ferdinand's pale countenance, and paused. "Ferdy, what did you--"
A brisk knocking at the door made them both flinch, and their fears showed themselves to be well founded as the errant Viscount Sheringham himself bounded up the stairs with the energy of one who had gone to bed sober and risen betimes, and eyed them both with a knowing eye.
"Gil, I want a word with you," he announced, tossing his hat and gloves onto a chair. "Hallo Ferdy."
Both men eyed him gloomily. The conversation was, in Gil's estimation, in many ways considerably worse than he had initially feared: Sherry had neither returned affianced to the eligible Miss Milborne, nor was he on his own, spurned and hell bent on mischief. No, he had instead kidnapped a schoolroom chit, absconding with her from the appalling Bagshots (which, admittedly, appeared to be a point in Sherry's favour if not in the girl's) and bringing her to Town with the avowed intent of wedding and bedding the girl legal and above board.
Worse than that, Sherry expected Gil to play bearleader to the girl while he flew around London cajoling recalcitrant clergymen into providing marriage licences under dubious auspices. Better to be married on the Fleet or over the anvil, surely, than get embroiled with bishops.
Meeting Hero left Mr Ringwood considerably more perturbed by the proceedings than he had already found himself. A child of no family, no fortune and a sweet, childlike face, with nothing but a taking way about her and a beguiling sweetness of character to recommend her, with too much book learning and as little good sense or polish as the kitten that Sherry had taken to calling her. The Viscount's description of her as 'not up to snuff' did not begin to detail the child's ignorance. A mere sixteen years of age, unworldly, and clearly fancying herself in love with Sherry while having not the faintest idea of what marriage might mean. An attack of conscience forced him into a deeply uncomfortable attempt to broach the delicate subject, carefully and obliquely hinting at events to occur after the marriage, but Hero mistook him entirely, and assured him that he and Ferdy were of course invited.
"How could you not, when you have been so kind?" she said, impulsively gripping his arm and leaning up to press a sisterly kiss to his cheek.
Mr Ringwood blushed, quite undone by this encomium, and simultaneously torn between embarrassment and a deep, inapposite amusement at the prospect of the young Viscount Sheringham hearing of his wife-to-be's bold invitation to both Gil and Ferdy. Hero was quite unconscious of the meaning that a young man about Town might construe from such a remark, and it became glaringly apparent over the next few days and weeks that the Viscount's estimation of the unworldiness of his young bride was an understatement of the grossest proportions. The newly wed Lady Sheringham was game as a bantam, but utterly unprepared for the perils of Polite Society.
Her naivete was not his only concern. Sherry didn't seem to notice his wife's devotion to him, merely accepting it as his due without any reciprocation or further thought, treating her more like a younger sister than a wife. Mr Ringwood could not even say with any surety that Sherry had bedded her, which might have lent a certain unwitting weight to Mrs Bagshot's threats to have the marriage set aside. Mercifully, the thought didn't seem to cross anyone else's minds, or at least, none were so indelicate -- or sufficiently close to the new bride -- to ask either party. Sherry's utter obliviousness and his careless, friendly gestures of affection towards his adoring new wife gave Gil furiously to think.
Gil watched and wondered, a kernel of an idea unfurling slowly and taking root. For a man who had purportedly leapt into marriage with never a thought for his bride, and no intent beyond meeting the conditions of his father's will and gaining access to his capital, Viscount Sheringham was oddly, if sporadically, solicitous for Hero. However, that was a conversation that the two of them would have to have for themselves; it being in no wise Gil's place to speak to either of them on such things, no matter how fond he had grown of them both.
Gil stared up at the ceiling, one arm wrapped around the warm curve of Ferdy's back where he lay snugged close into Gil's side, nose pressed to Gil's throat. His cold was much diminished, whether that was due to their earlier exertions or the hot mustard-and-water foot bath that Chilham had so expertly put together for him, he was entirely satisfied with the results.
The results of Ferdy's discussion with Lady Sheringham were considerably less satisfactory. If only Gil had felt as well even a day earlier as he did now he would have gone to see Hero himself, but he had been too unwell to consider leaving Stratton Street despite his deep concerns, raised by Lord Wrotham and unallayed by Ferdy's account of Hero's reception of his advice. Indeed, her blithe dismissal of any impropriety regarding the proposed horse race further fanned his anxieties, to the point that not even the warmth of Ferdy wrapped half around him was enough to hold him in place any further, sick bed or no. Ferdy had done his best to convince Hero to refrain from the ill advised race with Lady Royston, and had failed. Gil saw that he himself was now was the last hope for averting Lady Sheringham's social ruin before the Viscount returned from Leicester.
"Nothing for it," he said finally, and Ferdy mumbled a vaguely interrogative sound at him. "Going to Half Moon Street." Ferdy pushed himself up far enough to meet Gil's eyes.
"Did m'best, Gil," he said helplessly. "Called me an old fuddy-duddy. Compared me -- ME -- to that hag faced Mrs Bagshot."
Gil smothered a chuckle. "You look nothing like the Bagshots."
"I should think not." Ferdy flopped onto his back. "She can't do it, Gil. Sherry won't stand for it. No man would."
"Know that. Thinking." His thoughts made him purse his lips and frown deeply, but he forbore to share them with Ferdy. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps Kitten and Sherry could make a go of it, if only Gil could convince her to abandon this dreadful notion of hers of racing with Lady Royston. Still... Gil sighed. Fixing this would only avert the problem until the next time, and there would be a next time. Kitten tumbled from scrape to scrape. Rescuing her from this would change nothing. And worse, it let Sherry think that he could get away without dealing with it either.
Kitten certainly was exceedingly fond of her husband; but Sherry, well: possessiveness wasn't proof one way or the other. If he could only be shaken up a little, made to think, it seemed that all might even now be well -- and yet, for a single man to interfere in a friend's marriage, however inept the participants...
"Difficult," he murmured, and let the warmth of the bed lull his thoughts to more pleasant pastures, of which Mr Fakenham was most appreciative. Darkness fell, and the rumbling of his stomach and the tumbling of his thoughts woke him once more, none the clearer on the best path to take.
Gil would by far prefer to remain where he was, curled around Ferdy's warm, bare back with every intention of remaining asleep or otherwise entertained within the confines of their snug bedchamber. He felt almost entirely renewed. The cold had almost run its course, and Ferdy had been most accommodating despite his aversion to Gil's unshaven countenance and the odour of cold remedies permeating their bedchamber. He instead sat up, new purpose seizing him, and incidentally pulling the bedclothes away from Ferdy, who grumbled wordlessly, still mostly asleep.
"Got to do it, no point putting it off," he said firmly. "Dinner, and then Kitten." And he set about the tedious business of coaxing Mr Fakenham out of bed. As it happened, they were not a moment too soon, for a distant rapping on the door made it very clear that it was more than time to quit the bedchamber.
They skirted their ablutions almost entirely, sacrificing cleanliness for clothedness in the shortest possible space of time.
"Twenty to one it's George on some start," Ferdy grumbled. Gil could only hope he was correct, as more and worse possibilities occurred to him. Still, George's mercurial spirits, perturbed as they were by the unattainable Miss Milborne, seemed very likely to be the cause of the familiar sounding commotion going on downstairs.
"Could be Sherry," he pointed out with a yawn, and hoping that it was indeed George. He had a most lowering feeling in his gut, that he wished he could ascribe to the lack of dinner.
Chilham, fortunately, was the soul of discretion and held Mr Ringwood's visitor back for a good three minutes, which time was more than enough to drag on shirt and Unmentionables, and a dressing gown over the whole, covering a multitude of sins.
Lord Wrotham burst in, grinned at the pair of them, and politely refrained from comment, merely allowing that it was very forbearing of Ferdy to put up with a fellow who wore a garish Belcher handkerchief about his neck, cold or no cold. Chilham set out a modest repast, and shortly thereafter, hunger pangs abated, they had finished eating and began on a hand of piquet.
The conversation was not at first as lively as it might have been on another occasion, much concerned at the intelligence that Mr Fakenham's mission had failed, but once all three had determined that Mr Ringwood should attend on Lady Sheringham as early as possible the next morning, they moved to the more pressing matter that they had not a fourth so they might make up a table of whist to pass the evening.
Another knock on the street door raised their hopes momentarily, only to see them dashed, and all their worst fears realised.
It was Hero.
The Bath night-mail was, Mr Ringwood strongly felt, the single worst, most tortuous device ever created for transporting one person from one end of the country to the other. Not even taking up a room at the perfectly acceptable White Hart, a complete change of clothes, and half an hour spent freshening himself back to some semblance of gentlemanly appearance could make up for the lack of sleep, the importunate company, the cramped conditions and the overwhelming smell of onions, garlic and filth that permeated its environs.
His humour was not improved by Wrotham's account of events, unfolded as it was over breakfast. Sherry apparently had joined his mother's entourage for the sake of the Incomparable Miss Milborne, Ferdy was apparently chasing some Greek fellow, and not even Lady Saltash, formidable though she was, seemed equal to the task of keeping Lady Sheringham quietly out of the way, and George and Ferdy had utterly failed in their single task to keep her husband from discovering her whereabouts. The result was that the already tangled state of affairs had reached a new nadir of misunderstanding and confusion.
Gudgeons was the least of it. And now he was going to have to locate Sherry and have the single most uncomfortable, and most likely, unpleasant, interview of their lives with him.
It was fortunate that he was very fond of Hero, or nothing could persuade him to stand in place of some sort of fairy godmother to her.
In retrospect, the tumultuous events of the subsequent evening -- a theft, two kidnappings, a sword fight, a brawl, an unexpected invocation of Greek mythology, a reconciliation and a marriage proposal -- had left Mr Ringwood of the firm conviction that he would rather run a madhouse than be involved, in any respect, in the further marital adventures of any of his friends.
This being so, he said firmly some few months later, he declined to stand up for Lord Wrotham at his wedding. George, full of the milk of human kindness at the prospect of his upcoming nuptials took the refusal in good part, albeit not without noting that poor Mr Tarleton had more to complain about than Gil did.
"Spurned, punched, stabbed -- enough to set any man's face against marriage," George said cheerfully. "Sherry, how about--"
"Not that it put you off," Sherry noted with an easy grin. "I can recommend it, only dueled the once since I did it. With you. And no, I won't. Ask Ferdy since Gil's welched."
Gil shook his head. "Not the marrying sort," he said mildly. "Thinking of moving. Can't always be coming here. Stratton Street too small for you all. Get a bigger place."
"Oh, aye, bigger rooms. Maybe a second bedroom." Sherry grinned wickedly at him, and Hero brightened. She was tucked snugly under Sherry's arm, her waistline a little thickened, although everyone was pretending not to take notice until formal announcement was made.
"Oh Gil, really?" she said, her whole face lighting up. "Perhaps you could take our old place on Half Moon Street?"
Gil shook his head. "Bad memories. Find somewhere else. Better. Happier." His eyes rested fondly on Mr Fakenham, obliviously engaged in building the first floor of a house of cards on the abandoned card table.
The Viscount raised his eyebrows at Mr Ringwood. "It wasn't so bad, in the end," he allowed. "I find I prefer Sheringham House these days, though," he added with a fond kiss to his wife's ear, the closest point to his lips.
"But close by," she said with a smile and a swift sly glance at Mr Fakenham. "And perhaps dear Ferdy could share the costs, why, two people together may live as cheaply as one, I believe."
Gil's eyebrows also twitched upwards, and Sherry outright laughed. "Keep Ferdy away from any more adventures," Sherry said cheerfully, and George and Gil groaned.
"Might be for the best," Gil conceded. "Ferdy?" he asked, raising his voice a little. Mr Fakenham glanced up and smiled at him, then took in the careful way their friends were not looking, and said:
"Just thinking. Need new lodgings. Wondering whether you might consider--" He trailed off, hoping the meaning might convey itself without words.
Ferdy shook his head, not following, and Gil considered the way that he'd had to do all the heavy lifting in everyone else's matters of the heart, and was preparing to explain himself, when George intervened.
"Wants you to share his digs," he said, with an air of studied innocence.
"Save money," Hero added, dimpling at them both.
"Save --" Sherry's contribution was muffled by Gil's hand over his mouth, attempting to spare their blushes.
Gil stared anxiously at Ferdy. "Well?"
A slow smile spread over Ferdy's face. "Probably for the best," he said thoughtfully. "Just in case that Greek fellow ever comes back."