Tea with Alex

The best way to move Alex downstairs, his sister had decreed, was to press a chair into use and set a stout footman on each leg. Susan insisted he spend part of each day out of his room, and in truth he was going mad with only the same four walls, the same ceiling, to distract him from the pain and the craving for the oblivion of poppy juice. To which he would not surrender. He might be in agony, but at least he was in his right mind.

So here he was, dressed at least above the waist, ensconced on a sofa in the smaller of the two drawing rooms with a view out over the early Spring garden.

The blanket draped over his bandaged broken legs to hide them from sight and protect the modesty of the maids was the lightest Susan could find, most of its weight taken on cushions either side of the useless appendages. They would heal. Or so the doctors promised, though weeks ago they had proclaimed he was certain to die, so perhaps they were wrong again.

Susan had left him with a pile of books and a pack of cards, all within easy reach, and had promised him visitors to amuse him. Even so, he did not expect the butler’s announcement.

“Her Grace the Duchess of Haverford. The Marquis of Aldridge.”

Decades of conditioning had him attempting to rise—a poor effort that died in a white blaze of pain, and the gracious lady had seated herself and was holding his hand in a firm grip before he fought it back enough to be conscious of her again. And of her son, who was returning across the room from the brandy decanter, a glass in his hand.

“Redepenning,” he said, in greeting, handing over the drink. Alex let it burn down his throat, not waiting for it to warm. Breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. And again.

“Don’t try to talk until you are ready, Major Redepenning,” Her Grace cautioned. “The sick bed is no place for conventional manners. Besides, Aldridge and I have come to entertain you, not make you feel worse.”

Even a serving officer (at least one from his family) knew the Duchess of Haverford entertained visitors At Home on a Monday, and surely today was a Monday?

But Her Grace answered the unasked question. “I have been anxiously waiting to see for myself how you are, and today is the first that Mrs Cunningham allowed you to have visitors. So here I am, though it is a Monday, and Aldridge swears that the world shall wobble in its orbit at my departure from practice.”

“But one would not wish to be predictable, Mama,” Aldridge teased.

Alex cracked open an eyelid and then another. The room was no longer spinning, and the brandy had helped settle his nausea. He had been wrestling with his pain for long enough that the servants had brought in a tea trolley.

“Thank you for your good wishes,” he said, his voice calm, if a little strained.

The duchess gave his hand another squeeze and released it so that she could prepare herself a cup of tea. Aldridge, Alex noted, had helped himself to the brandy.

“I can see you are in pain, and look half-starved, my dear,” Her Grace said, “so I will need to take your sister’s word that your condition has improved, and forgive her for being so protective. Now. We shall not remain long, so what do you wish from us on this first visit? Shall Aldridge give you the news? Or shall I show you what we have brought to amuse you?”

“I have war, government, and court news,” Aldridge offered, “and Mama knows more than me about what is newsworthy in Society. If you want to hear about less disreputable matters,” he slid a glance sideways at his Mama, “we will ask Her Grace to step into the next room.”

The world was carrying on without him, and Alex could not summon the energy to care. “Presents, Your Grace? You are too kind.”

“My dear Major, you were raised almost a brother to my dear nephew, you are my good friend’s son, and I have known you from the cradle. I can spoil you if I wish. Besides…” She lowered her voice, “Her Majesty has told me something of the circumstances of your injury, and I am grateful on her behalf.”

Alex grimaced. All the gratitude in the world wouldn’t give him back the use of his legs.

But the duchess intended him to make the most of sitting in one place. In the ten minutes that was all she allowed herself, she loaded him with gifts, some purchased and others made specifically for him.

First, she had Aldridge and a footman bring in a table made with two legs so that it would fit across the sofa, and informed him that one with higher legs had been delivered to his bedroom.

“Now that you can sit up, Major Redepenning, you will find this surface more stable than a tray for taking meals, keeping up with your correspondence, playing cards, or whatever pleases you.”

A long procession of packages followed: books, a games board marked for backgammon on one side and chess on the other, the pieces in a matching box, several packs of cards, note paper, an inkwell that Aldridge assured him was non-spill.

So many, each showing the giver’s awareness of his interests and his limited abilities, but when Alex roused himself to express his gratitude, the duchess claimed that Aldridge had been her deputy in choosing what to bring, and Aldridge brushed off his thanks with a challenge to a game of backgammon “In a day or too, when you are more the thing.”

By the time Susan returned from whatever errand had taken her out, Alex had slept for a restless half hour and was laying out a solitaire game of patience on his new table. He greeted her with a smile, and she exclaimed with delight, “You are feeling better, Alex. I hoped you would.”

And he was, he discovered. The pain was no less, the legs no more co-operative, but the visit had done him good, reminding him that he had friends who loved him, and that the wide world still waited on the other side of this long stretch in the sickroom. He would get better. He vowed it. He owed it, after all, to the doctors, having confounded their expectations once.

This scene takes place some time in March 1807. Readers of Farewell to Kindness will see Alex, a secondary character in that book, still recovering but able to get around on crutches and in an invalid chair. My forthcoming novel, A Raging Madness (published 9 May 2017), begins in October of that same year, as does A Baron for Becky. Alex is the hero of A Raging Madness, and Aldridge could have been the hero of A Baron for Becky, but chose to please his family rather than follow his heart. Poor Aldridge.

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