“Mr. Hart, whatever would we do without you?” the old dowager asked as he brought her a glass of ratafia.
“Well, I rather think go parched, be as dry as a desert,” Harry said with a smile, “A terrible shame, wouldn’t it be? But rest assured, I am, as ever, a humble servant to such delightful and enchanting women.” He gave a polite bow and there was much laughter and he went to the woman he was promised to for the next dance and spoke of the evening as they circled the room. It was all perfectly polite and she returned to her group and then he danced with a young man, who was still new to society and did his best to soothe the boy’s fears. He seemed a good sort, a little seasoning and he would find a good match.
Harry moved around the room, leaving smiles and blushes in his wake and promises to attend upcoming salons, and accepting a seat in a box at the opera. It was well after midnight when he called for the hired carriage and returned to his modest but very respectably-located house. He let himself in and went to his bedchamber where Eggsy was asleep in the chair. Harry coughed.
“Bugger off, I’m having a good dream,” Eggsy said, not bothering to open his eyes.
“I do require some help,” Harry said.
“You have two hands, you can undo your own clothes,” Eggsy sat up a little and stretched. There was a yawn and he stood up. “Oh right, we did that new tie on the cravat, you can’t actually get it undone, can you?”
“There were several compliments,” Harry said.
Eggsy began to help him undress. “Heard a bit of interesting gossip.”
“Down at the tailors,” Eggsy had the cravat loose and began to help Harry with the rest. “A couple bolts of fabrics dyed wrong. Nice stuff, right expensive, but really bright pink. If there were a gentleman bold enough to wear a bit as a waistcoat, create a trend, why, the shop would be so grateful, there would be several other fine pieces - of more traditional colours - free of charge.”
“How pink?” Harry was curious.
“You’ll be able to signal ships in the Channel with how bright it is,” Eggsy promised. “But you’ll pull it off. And if I may, sir?”
“You are asking permission to speak freely?” Harry snorted a little at that and soon was divested of all his clothes. He went to the washstand and poured some of the water that had been left out and wiped his face, it felt cool and wonderful. Ballrooms were always such stifling places. Eggsy had his sleeping gown and robe ready for him and Harry put them on.
“If you do this, request a masquerade outfit, not breeches or evening wear.”
“Why?” Harry poured himself a dram of brandy and held the bottle up, but Eggsy declined.
“Because sir, the cook heard from -”
“Please spare the chain of information,” Harry begged. He sat on the bed with his brandy and stretched out. “Who will be having a masquerade?”
“The Earl of Harrington,” Eggsy said. “Thinks it will make him look good, by no one being able to see his face.”
Harry found some of his brandy going up his nose at Eggsy’s comment. “His family was important in the war effort.”
Eggsy rolled his eyes a bit, “He needs a wife, and he is an unfortunate man, but a lavish masquerade? Spare no expense? Makes him look good, it does. And your clothes for such a party are out of date and cannot mended yet again.”
“A fair point,” Harry had to admit. “The tables were poor tonight, nothing to be gained.”
“Next time,” Eggsy said. “You have nothing tomorrow, and can rest.”
Harry started to drift, as he always did after large parties. “There is something, I think. Maybe not tomorrow, soon?”
“I’ll check your schedule on the morrow, sir,” Eggsy said softly. He went over and pulled the glass out of Harry’s hand and helped him out of the robe. He tucked him in and stepped back. “Rest well, Harry.”
“Go to bed, Eggsy, I won’t need you in the night.”
Eggsy left without another word, blowing out candles as he went. His room was just down the hall and he settled in for the night as well, knowing morning would come soon enough.
Morning in fact came too soon, with a banging on the door before the sky was fully light. Eggsy threw on breeches and ran down the steps, the knife he kept under his pillow in his hand. He opened the door. “Sir.”
James was out of breath from running. “Hart needs to be awoken.”
“He was out late, not waking him.”
“His cousin, Hesketh,” James was trying to get the words out, but they were trapped between breaths. “Duel. Viscount Roberts.”
“That man is the best shot in town,” Eggsy said. “Bugger, what’s Charlie done now?” He let James into the house. “And how are you mixed up in this?”
“Because I’m mixed up in everything scandalous and interesting in town,” James replied. “Now get Harry, there may be time to stop this.”
Eggsy ran up the stairs and James paced in the hallway until Harry appeared dressing as he ran down the steps, Eggsy trailing with his coat. “Charlie wasn’t even supposed to be in town. Chester called him home due to his…associations,” Harry said.
“Well your cousin has never been good at listening has he?” James said. “I have two horses out front.”
“Harry ain’t going without me,” Eggsy protested.
“You cannot join us,” Harry said firmly. “And do not follow,” he added, knowing Eggsy.
He and James rode fast through the empty streets, and Harry was not one to believe in portents but the sun was blotted out by clouds and he could hear a dog with a mournful howl; he knew they would be too late.
The doctor was just covering Charlie’s body when they arrived. The Viscount was shaken. “I meant to hit his arm. He didn’t...He moved towards the bullet. I don’t understand.”
Harry well knew about his cousin’s habits in town, and Eggsy had heard enough rumours, that Harry could well guess why his cousin may have been willing to step into the path of the bullet. He went to the Viscount, “It’s not…” He had to pause to find the words. “I am sorry for whatever brought the two of you here and lead to this. I will inform his father.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hart,” the Viscount said. “If you require anything of me, let me know.” The man hurried away, haunted by what had occurred.
Harry went over to the corpse. He flicked his wrist and the doctor removed the blanket. Harry crouched down. “He shares your profile,” James said. “Odd, I never noticed that.”
“We were seldom seen together. Age and preferences had us more strangers than family. His father will be inconsolable.”
“Charlie was his only heir.”
“There is always someone to be found. I need to return home.” Harry let his hand rest on Charlie’s bloody shirt for just a moment and then covered him up. The doctor and Charlie’s seconds took his body away and Harry and James headed for home. Harry lead them on a long path through many streets, delaying the tasks that were ahead of him for as long as he could, but eventually they turned towards his house. Eggsy was pacing the halls when they arrived back.
“Tell me Charlie got arrested,” Eggsy said. “Serves him right. Who even duels anymore?”
“Not him, not anymore,” Harry said. He wasn’t broken up, it was difficult to mourn a man he barely knew, no matter that they were family.
“Bugger, means you need to go see Chester right?”
“Eggsy,” Harry chided, not bothering to correct the informal Chester to “Lord Cardoc”.
Eggsy straightened his back. “I’ll ready your things for a journey to the Marquess of Cardoc’s house. It’s a full day’s ride.” Eggsy went upstairs and Harry went to his office, with James following.
“He’ll take the news poorly,” Harry said, “If I even beat word getting to him. How do I explain this, James?”
“I don’t know,” James offered. “But better it comes from you, than a stranger yes?”
They both heard the knock at the door. It was not yet 9am. “We shouldn’t answer that,” Harry said, “it is more ill news.”
“Harry?” James was worried about the look on his friend’s face. They could hear another servant answering the knock. Harry sat behind his desk, and realized that some of Charlie’s blood was still on his hands. He wiped them on his dark breeches but it wouldn’t come off. He folded his hands on his desk and tried for an appearance of calm. “People about the duel?” James asked. “You were not involved.”
There was a small knock on his door. “Yes?” Harry called and the servant opened the door.
“Sir, a man to see you about the Marquess, said it were urgent sir,” she said with a curtsy.
“Of course, thank you,” Harry said and a man of a similar age came into the room. “You are here about my cousin?” he asked politely. “I have news I have to take to him, that cannot be delayed.”
“There is no news that need be brought to him,” the man replied. “I am the one that carries the news. Chester King, the Marquess of Cardoc passed away five days ago, a heart attack. I went to inform his son and learned that he died this morning.”
“Indeed,” Harry was stunned. “That was the news I was to carry. The Marquess passed on?”
“He has been in ill health for a while, and if I may be frank, there were circumstances which pushed that to the edge.”
“Knew Charlie would be the end of someone,” James whispered to Harry, but Harry ignored that.
“What happens now?” Harry asked, “Why are you informing me?”
“Because you are the last male heir in the line, sir,” the man explained. “It is my duty to inform you that you are now to inherit the title and the estate of the Marquess of Cardoc.”
Harry went numb and could not respond to the man. He grew so distant that James quickly arranged for the man to return later in the day to properly discuss the situation. He called for tea and food, sure that hunger was at least part of the problem. He tried to bring Harry around but he just stared into space. Eggsy brought in a tray and took one look at Harry and shoved it into James’s arms.
“Wot happened?” Eggsy asked.
“Many things,” James said and put the tray on the desk. “Too many.”
Eggsy knelt in front of Harry. “Harry? Sir?” He took Harry’s hand. “You are scaring us, Mr. Hart.” Eggsy so seldom used Harry’s last name that it brought him back to the room.
“Eggsy it appears that we will have to adjust to a slight change in circumstances.”
“It appears that you will need to call me “milord”. I’m now the Marquess of Cardoc.” A tear slipped down Harry’s face and Eggsy brushed it away. “I don’t want this,” he whispered, and made both Eggsy and James’s hearts ache. “It’s too much.”
“You’ll get sorted, and manage, I know you will,” James said.
“You’ll be the most grand Marquess ever,” Eggsy offered.
“People are trained from birth to this position, I was not.”
“You’ll learn,” Eggsy said, “We’ll learn.”
Harry gave a nod and took the cup of tea that James nudged towards him. He clutched it desperately and tried not to think of all the daunting tasks that lay ahead.