Here's a scene I wound up cutting from A Gentleman Undone. It would have occurred somewhere in between Will and Lydia's first trip to the gaming hell (the one that ended with the ill-advised kiss and all the bad feelings that followed) and everyone's trip to the house party. In this earlier version of the manuscript, Will and Lydia had already begun to tentatively patch up their partnership by this point, rather than waiting to have that outdoor conversation at Chiswell.
Oh, also in this version Will had made another visit to the Talbot house, this time with his older sister Kitty. (Poor Kitty wound up almost entirely on the cutting-room floor in this book.) And Martha, in this version, had not learned the truth about Lydia's profession. Hopefully that clears up the things that might otherwise be confusing here.
"Have you been to see Mrs. Talbot again?" Martha strode beside him in a circuit round a maple-planted square, child at her shoulder, skirts whipped by the frigid wind. His sister had notions about exercise, and notions about instilling hardiness in children, and neither husband nor nurse nor the coldest spring anyone could remember was going to dissuade her.
"Surely our sister will have given you that intelligence already." Will drove his fists down into the pockets of his greatcoat. At this rate Prince Square-jaw's house party would be an all-indoor affair. No way to tell you'd left London, save for the lengthy carriage ride.
"Kitty and I do speak of you, as any sisters might discuss a brother for whom they care. You needn't make us out to be gossips." On her shoulder, young Augusta gnawed at her own mitted knuckles, eyes wide as she watched the scenery jostling by. "She didn't care much for those relations. But she did approve Mrs. Talbot."
"I wasn't aware of having submitted the lady for her approval. Yours either." No, this wasn't right. It sounded too much like the defense of a lady to whom a gentleman was adamantly attached. "I believe I did tell you that my visits to her are a courtesy to her husband's memory, nothing more. Do I need to make that explanation again?"
"Of course not. But a person's feelings and intentions can change. Even mourning is no sure safeguard against the advent of... fondness, and so forth." Certainly she should be the expert there. "Are you supporting her?" She swiveled with the question to face him; he had not even an instant to master his surprise and put on a dissembling face. "Only I wondered at her remark about receiving funds from her husband, and I wonder, too, that you remain in your current lodgings when surely the sale of your commission should have made it possible for you to afford something better. And Mr. Mirkwood is under the impression you may be pinched for money. I trust you see how the question arises."
"Your husband ought to keep his impressions to himself. I told him I didn't need his help." Some women might now spring to the defense of the husband in question, and forget the original topic altogether. Martha only watched him patiently, never breaking stride, apparently never doubting he'd come across with an explanation. "I've arranged for some money to go to her, yes. I promised Talbot I'd look after her and the child."
"He had no right to exact that promise." Confound her. So help him, fond as he was of his little sister there were times he wanted to clout the constant assurance right out of her. She knew nothing of Talbot, nothing of the battlefield, nothing of soul-shattering desperation, and everything in the world about how everyone ought to behave.
"Yes, Martha, he did have a right." He fixed his eyes straight ahead as they rounded a corner, his stride lengthening because he walked on the outside, like a horse rounding the turn of a track.
Her half-boots clopped along undaunted beside him. The baby made some noncommittal sounds in the time it took her mother to assemble a reply. "Will, I don't even try to imagine the things you must have seen and undergone during your time on the Continent. I'm quite certain the ordeal of war is beyond my ability to conceive. And to undergo that ordeal together must understandably forge a bond of loyalty among soldiers. I can see that." But. She would acknowledge how ill-equipped she was to render judgment in the case, and then she would render judgment all the same. "But life does go on. You have yourself to think of now."
Life did go on. Impervious to horrors that ought to stop the world turning, the sun came up the next day and the next, casting light on churches and cemeteries and people in their houses having tea. So had it done for soldiers in wars before him; so would it doubtless do for soldiers to come. "I do think of myself. Only sometimes that thinking takes the form of a meditation on what I, who have come home, owe to those who were not so fortunate." He took one extra step to pull ahead of her and cocked his head to see back into the funnel of her bonnet. "I count on you, out of all my siblings, to understand the aspect of duty. The claims of dead soldiers on those who survived."
"Of course." Her steady dark gaze met his own. "You're an honorable man. One of the best I know." She was as confident of this as of everything else in her orderly world. "But I don't think it's right that you should be bound so to someone else's widow, unless you expect you might one day marry her."
"I don't. It's out of the question. And I'm sure it's not what Talbot intended."
"Then I cannot like it." She shifted Augusta from her near shoulder to the other. "Are you to go on supporting her and the child for the rest of your days? How are you ever to marry, then? Where are you to come by the means to keep your own wife if you must provide for someone else's? And what wife would approve of the arrangement? I'm sorry to say this of your Mr. Talbot but I think he did you a grave wrong."
He looked away. A gentleman and lady in a high-perch phaeton were coming up the street, the lady with her hands on the reins, the gentleman with one arm reached round her to cover her hands with his. A husband teaching his wife to handle the thrilling but precarious rig, perhaps. Or maybe a protector indulging a mistress's whim.
The sight stirred up wistful thoughts, as though he hadn't a surfeit of those already. He fixed his eyes ahead again. "As to means, I do have a plan to come by them. You shall have to trust to my word on that. If everything goes as it ought, I'll be able to discharge my duty to the Talbots and provide a comfortable life for myself besides." He put up a hand to anchor his hat as a stronger breeze swept in. "As to a wife, I must say such matters are not at all in my thoughts at present."
"Why ever not?" Her voice rang with married-sister indignation.
Because I can't be a fit husband to a lady. Because the decent thing to do is keep my darkness to myself. Because I'm falling in love with a courtesan and I can't think of any woman but her. "Because I'm six and twenty and I haven't even been back in England for a year. I need to work at establishing myself as something other than a former soldier. Marriage can wait."
He'd put her in check. She couldn't very well argue that he ought to be seeking a wife when she'd already pronounced him ineligible because of the bond to Mrs. Talbot.
But she always had been one for finding a way out of check. She allowed a silence of perhaps five seconds and said, "Do you ever see that lady we met on the street that day? Miss Slaughter? The one whose maid I drove home?"
As though she'd been reading his bloody thoughts. "I do sometimes, in fact." He tugged his hat securely down and returned his hands to his pockets, which gave him at least the appearance of unconcern. "But don't think of gaining her for a sister, either. That's even less likely than the prospect of Mrs. Talbot."
"Her consideration for Miss Collier spoke well of her, I thought." Here was her subtle strategy: he must now explain why such a considerate lady merited no consideration as a prospective wife.
"Very well indeed. But she has an understanding with another gentleman. That rather rules her out as a candidate for my bride, wouldn't you say?"
"It's not that you don't like her, then."
Like was but the tip of the iceberg, and yet like might be its core as well, the last thing remaining when the rest all melted away. Why else would he so crave her company even when he knew where the hard limits to their relation stood? He gave a shrug, possibly not even discernible beneath the capes of his greatcoat. "Rather I would say I esteem her. She possesses a number of admirable qualities."
"I see." Two syllables plump with the suggestion that she did indeed see, a great deal more than he'd meant to reveal.
Let her see what she liked. The particulars of his situation were beyond her influence, anyway. "For Heaven's sake, sister, cannot you turn these efforts on Nick? He's my elder by two years, well established in his practice, with every hope of attaching himself to some influential lord and having a voice in the direction of—Oh, good Lord, you're not going round again." They'd arrived at the street that led westward to her house and she'd turned east, along the square's perimeter, marching on in her indefatigable way.
"I always make three circuits. The third is the most beneficial. Your blood's gone all the way through your body by then and you can breathe out all the accumulated impurities."
This sounded like some faddish quackery—surely a person out of doors in London breathed in impurities enough to replace all those breathed out, and then some—but to say so would gain him nothing but a vigorous and ultimately absurd argument. "Here, then." He caught her elbow to stop her. "Give me that child."
Martha frowned, and furrowed her brow, but stood still for the moment it took him to pluck the baby from her shoulder.
"Go on with your walk." He canted his head to usher her away. "Augusta and I will await you on that bench there, where I assure you she'll be every bit as uncomfortable as a growing constitution requires."
"You'll be colder sitting still than if you were to walk."
"Undoubtedly. Laden with impurities as well. We'll wait for you here."
But when she strode off, empty arms now pumping like pistons to fire her on her way, he settled on the bench with the baby and wrapped his greatcoat about them both. They could watch the world go by together, she upright in his lap with only her face poking out from his coat, the two of them hoarding what warmth could be had out of doors on such a day. "She means well, your mother." He touched his chin to the top of her head, to her stiff little bonnet. "But she lost her own mother too young and had no one to pattern herself after besides a governess. You see the result."
Augusta made no answer. Her small warm weight sagged into his chest; perhaps she meant to go to sleep. Martha had said something about a nap, though whether she'd been referring to a past event or anticipating a future one was a detail he'd not bothered to absorb. He made a careful cage with his arms to prevent her tipping over, and relaxed against the bench's tall back.
From some astoundingly impudent part of his brain a thought winged in: Miss Slaughter could never give you a child. As though she were obliged, or even disposed, to give him anything at all. As though he were fit to be anyone's father in the first place. What appalling arrogance. He ought to be ashamed of the thought. He was ashamed of the thought.
And still it was true. Even if a thousand things were different—if she came to feel a preference for him, and if he were willing to throw off his family for marriage to a courtesan, and hell, even if she knew all; knew the worst of him and was willing to overlook it—their union could never bear fruit. There would be no blank-eyed, aquiline-nosed faces in miniature to stare up at his black hair and black brows with infant fascination. He could not hope to know this sweetness of a child's trusting weight, her simple taciturn companionship.
Well, that wasn't strictly accurate. He was knowing that sweetness this minute, wasn't he? Doubtless it was of another degree entirely with one's own child. But this, the small form with its head now listing onto the capes of his coat, was pleasant enough that he need not spend these few minutes mulling over the joys he would never know if he were to marry a woman he could not marry in any case.
He drew a deep breath and expelled it. Augusta made a sleepy muttering sound, only just audible. What did Lydia think of her condition? It must grieve her, at least in private. Women hoped to be mothers, didn't they? To leave what mark they could on the world by bearing and influencing the next generation? To lavish affection on an innocent, wholly deserving recipient? A woman must put so many of her hopes for happiness in that prospect. Though perhaps a woman who made her living as a mistress had different views.
He might find out more of her views. Now that they appeared to have regained a basic civility, he would strive for a cordial, trustworthy manner and see whether they might return to that juncture where confidences had seemed possible. If he could not know her in one sense, he could still know her in another.
God, what folly. He was falling in love with her—so he'd admitted, to himself at least. To pursue friendship would surely only hasten the fall.
Little matter. Even if he conducted himself with cool circumspection, he'd still have to watch her—work with her—in the hells, and that would cook his goose just as thoroughly. Only by severing the connection altogether could he hope to spare his heart, and with a fortune in the balance, he couldn't afford that indulgence. Well enough. To nurse an unrequited tendre would be but one more kind of self-punishment, and Lord knows he was getting to be an expert at that.
"You're undoing all the benefits of her being outside, you know," Martha said when she'd finished her circuit and drew up beside the bench. She said it mildly, though, and fondness lit her face as she beheld this novel alignment in her family's ever-shifting constellation.
He would do well to remember this: the privilege of belonging to a family. The pleasures of being a brother and an uncle. A man couldn't marry a courtesan and hope to retain his familial ties. "Wait until she's older and I'm teaching her to fire a pistol." He pivoted the baby to his shoulder, where her head sank heavy and insensate. "You'll look back wistfully on the time when the worst you had to fear was she'd be comfortable on a cold day." With his right arm he pulled one side of his coat across to cover her as he rose from the bench.
If Martha objected, she kept the fact to herself. She fell into step beside him and they made their way back to the house, the weight on his shoulder like a tentative consolation for all the things he could not have.
© Cecilia Grant