April 25, 1815, Tuesday
John Cecil de Sackville located the buttons of his trousers and stumbled back up the muddy hill strewn with blue flowers. He wasn’t much on botanicals and couldn’t name them. Ale now—the tavern last night had a damned fine ale. His aching head was proof. Jack de Sack had an excellent head for alcohol, but he’d been felled by last night’s barrel.
He probably shouldn’t have celebrated so heartily on St. George’s Day, but if he were to die with Wellington, he wanted to say farewell properly. Except, then he’d needed a hair of the dog that bit him the next day after he realized he’d have to make a substantial detour to rural outposts with an aching head. Now it was Tuesday, and he was lost. Civilian life took some adjustment, but he’d be a soldier again once he finished a few errands.
Having watered the hedgerow with this morning’s partaking, Jack contemplated his very rural surroundings. If the recipients of the package he carried had oddly retired to the country when they should be in London, it was his responsibility to track them down. After all these years, he should at least have the courtesy to deliver it personally and explain the delay.
According to his directions, there ought to be a village nearby, although Gravesyde Priory seemed an ominous destination. Still, manors did not exist without villages, although he couldn’t discern even a puff of smoke on the horizon.
A brook babbled between the dirt lane he traversed and abandoned fields. After the neat spring crops and paved roadways he’d passed on his way from the city, he wondered if he’d taken a wrong turn into an uninhabited farm.
He ran his hand over his cropped brown hair, swung a proper curly-brimmed beaver on top of it, and hoped his great coat protected his new civilian attire. He didn’t want to ruin a lady’s warm memory because the bearer was a wastrel.
Before untying his horse from the shrubbery, he checked his Hessians for mud—and spied a polished boot poking from blooming nettles beneath the hedgerow.
Jack’s head wasn’t so muddled as to not recognize Hoby’s expensive new design. Those boots cost enough to feed a family of four—lousy for long horse rides but designed to impress ladies. What the devil?
In no particular hurry and always ready for a challenge, Jack unsheathed his sword from the saddle and hacked away at the brambles.
His gorge rose as the branches fell aside, and he discerned the owner of the boots. He’d seen dead bodies in his career. One did not fight Napoleon and spend years in India without viewing corpses. Sometimes, they were even men he knew. But they were usually soldiers who tempted death—not foppish nobles who sauntered city streets in fancy boots.
“Bastard.” Jack stopped hacking and planted his sword in the muddy ground as he studied a face he hadn’t seen since his frivolous youth. A dozen years ago, he’d considered him a friend. Ten years ago he would have cut off the fellow’s head, if he had not been on the wrong side of the Channel at the time.
A dozen years and a bloody great hole in his head hadn’t improved Culpepper’s once handsome phiz.
Jack rolled his eyes skyward, but the Man above seldom provided answers.
He could leave the bastard here for the beasts of the field to gnaw on, save everyone a lot of trouble. Ten years ago, he probably would have.
He’d learned a little more respect for the law since his rakehell youth, not much, but some.
Why was an impoverished dandy on this road to nowhere? Even if Culpepper had changed his colors and finally left London to apologize to the lady whose happiness he’d destroyed, he’d missed the main highway. As far as Jack was aware, Elspeth still resided in Newchurch, well north of here. Besides, apologizing to everyone Culpepper had offended would probably take until Doomsday.
It seemed unlikely that the bastard would be on any such mission. Even so, Jack couldn’t leave his corpse for the buzzards.
In disgust, he sheathed his sword. Malaria had weakened him, but he’d spent these past months rebuilding his strength. He tested it now, dragging the fop’s body from the mud and tossing him over the saddle with more difficulty than he liked.
Good old Beans didn’t do more than flinch at the stench of death. Jack petted the gelding, and in resignation, proceeded down the lane on foot. Fine gift he brought for poor Miss Knightley, a lady he’d last seen in the worst of circumstances. She’d think him cursed.
The guardian of his late friend’s infant had been a bookish creature. Jack wasn’t in the least surprised to learn she remained unmarried. He was rather surprised, however, to discover she’d leased her wealthy family’s townhome and absconded to rural nonentity. He’d hoped to be on his way to Wellington by now, not traipsing about the Midlands.
Miss Knightley’s lawyers had given him directions to this outpost of bloody rural Worcestershire. He hoped they hadn’t misled him.
After hours of walking a corpse along the designated farm road, accompanied by swooping raptors and ravens, and meeting no one, Jack was ready to stop at the first tavern he found.
He owed Henry Owen a lot, but if the man hadn’t been dead these six years or more, he’d have started counting the debt in reverse in recompense for this miserable jaunt. Maybe this suffering was the cost of not carrying out his duty sooner. He understood debts and finance in terms of money, not in personal obligation.
By the time he came across what appeared to be a newly repaired drive with a faded, overgrown sign indicating it belonged to his destination of Wycliffe Manor, he was in no humor for riding up with his ghoulish burden and setting off a household of shrieking females. Besides, the drive led up a bloody great hill with no manor in sight, and his boots had worn through. The village would be closer to the road. A village should have a physician or vicar or someone to handle this situation.
He told himself this lie until the first dilapidated chimneys came into sight.