The Custom of the Army Page 1

All things considered, it was probably the fault of the electric eel. John Grey could—and for a time, did—blame the Honorable Caroline Woodford, as well. And the surgeon. And certainly that blasted poet. Still … no, it was the eel’s fault.

The party had been at Lucinda Joffrey’s house. Sir Richard was absent; a diplomat of his stature could not have countenanced something so frivolous. Electric-eel parties were a mania in London just now, but owing to the scarcity of the creatures, a private party was a rare occasion. Most such parties were held at public theaters, with the fortunate few selected for encounter with the eel summoned onstage, there to be shocked and sent reeling like ninepins for the entertainment of the audience.

“The record is forty-two at once!” Caroline had told him, her eyes wide and shining as she looked up from the creature in its tank.

“Really?” It was one of the most peculiar things he’d seen, though not very striking. Nearly three feet long, it had a heavy, squarish body with a blunt head, which looked to have been inexpertly molded out of sculptor’s clay, and tiny eyes like dull glass beads. It had little in common with the lashing, lithesome eels of the fish market—and certainly did not seem capable of felling forty-two people at once.

The thing had no grace at all, save for a small thin ruffle of a fin that ran the length of its lower body, undulating as a gauze curtain does in the wind. Lord John expressed this observation to the Honorable Caroline and was accused in consequence of being poetic.

“Poetic?” said an amused voice behind him. “Is there no end to our gallant major’s talents?”

Lord John turned, with an inward grimace and an outward smile, and bowed to Edwin Nicholls.

“I should not think of trespassing upon your province, Mr. Nicholls,” he said politely. Nicholls wrote execrable verse, mostly upon the subject of love, and was much admired by young women of a certain turn of mind. The Honorable Caroline wasn’t one of them; she’d written a very clever parody of his style, though Grey thought Nicholls had not heard about it. He hoped not.

“Oh, don’t you?” Nicholls raised one honey-colored brow at him and glanced briefly but meaningfully at Miss Woodford. His tone was jocular, but his look was not, and Grey wondered just how much Mr. Nicholls had had to drink. Nicholls was flushed of cheek and glittering of eye, but that might be only the heat of the room, which was considerable, and the excitement of the party.

“Do you think of composing an ode to our friend?” Grey asked, ignoring Nicholls’s allusion and gesturing toward the large tank that contained the eel.

Nicholls laughed, too loudly—yes, quite a bit the worse for drink—and waved a dismissive hand.

“No, no, Major. How could I think of expending my energies upon such a gross and insignificant creature, when there are angels of delight such as this to inspire me?” He leered—Grey did not wish to impugn the fellow, but he undeniably leered—at Miss Woodford, who smiled, with compressed lips, and tapped him rebukingly with her fan.

Where was Caroline’s uncle? Grey wondered. Simon Woodford shared his niece’s interest in natural history and would certainly have escorted her.… Oh, there. Simon Woodford was deep in discussion with Dr. Hunter, the famous surgeon—what had possessed Lucinda to invite him? Then he caught sight of Lucinda, viewing Dr. Hunter over her fan with narrowed eyes, and realized that she hadn’t invited him.

John Hunter was a famous surgeon—and an infamous anatomist. Rumor had it that he would stop at nothing to bag a particularly desirable body—whether human or not. He did move in society, but not in the Joffreys’ circles.

Lucinda Joffrey had most expressive eyes. Her one claim to beauty, they were almond-shaped, clear gray in color, and capable of sending remarkably minatory messages across a crowded room.

Come here! they said. Grey smiled and lifted his glass in salute to her but made no move to obey. The eyes narrowed further, gleaming dangerously, then cut abruptly toward the surgeon, who was edging toward the tank, his face alight with curiosity and acquisitiveness.

The eyes whipped back to Grey.

Get rid of him! they said.

Grey glanced at Miss Woodford. Mr. Nicholls had seized her hand in his and appeared to be declaiming something; she looked as though she wanted the hand back. Grey looked back at Lucinda and shrugged, with a small gesture toward Mr. Nicholls’s ochre-velvet back, expressing regret that social responsibility prevented his carrying out her order.

“Not only the face of an angel,” Nicholls was saying, squeezing Caroline’s fingers so hard that she squeaked, “but the skin, as well.” He stroked her hand, the leer intensifying. “What do angels smell like in the morning, I wonder?”

Grey measured him up thoughtfully. One more remark of that sort, and he might be obliged to invite Mr. Nicholls to step outside. Nicholls was tall and heavily built, outweighed Grey by a couple of stone, and had a reputation for bellicosity. Best try to break his nose first, Grey thought, shifting his weight, then run him headfirst into a hedge. He won’t come back in if I make a mess of him.

“What are you looking at?” Nicholls inquired unpleasantly, catching Grey’s gaze upon him.

Grey was saved from reply by a loud clapping of hands—the eel’s proprietor calling the party to order. Miss Woodford took advantage of the distraction to snatch her hand away, cheeks flaming with mortification. Grey moved at once to her side and put a hand beneath her elbow, fixing Nicholls with an icy stare.

“Come with me, Miss Woodford,” he said. “Let us find a good place from which to watch the proceedings.”

“Watch?” said a voice beside him. “Why, surely you don’t mean to watch, do you, sir? Are you not curious to try the phenomenon yourself?”

It was Hunter himself, bushy hair tied carelessly back, though decently dressed in a damson-red suit, and grinning up at Grey; the surgeon was broad-shouldered and muscular but quite short—barely five foot two, to Grey’s five-six. Evidently he had noted Grey’s wordless exchange with Lucinda.

“Oh, I think—” Grey began, but Hunter had his arm and was tugging him toward the crowd gathering round the tank. Caroline, with an alarmed glance at the glowering Nicholls, hastily followed him.

“I shall be most interested to hear your account of the sensation,” Hunter was saying chattily. “Some people report a remarkable euphoria, a momentary disorientation … shortness of breath or dizziness—sometimes pain in the chest. You have not a weak heart, I hope, Major? Or you, Miss Woodford?”

“Me?” Caroline looked surprised.

Hunter bowed to her.

“I should be particularly interested to see your own response, ma’am,” he said respectfully. “So few women have the courage to undertake such an adventure.”

“She doesn’t want to,” Grey said hurriedly.

“Well, perhaps I do,” she said, and gave him a little frown, before glancing at the tank and the long gray form inside it. She gave a brief shiver—but Grey recognized it, from long acquaintance with the lady, as a shiver of anticipation rather than revulsion.

Dr. Hunter recognized it, too. He grinned more broadly and bowed again, extending his arm to Miss Woodford.

“Allow me to secure you a place, ma’am.”

Grey and Nicholls both moved purposefully to prevent him, collided, and were left scowling at each other as Dr. Hunter escorted Caroline to the tank and introduced her to the eel’s owner, a small dark-looking creature named Horace Suddfield.

Grey nudged Nicholls aside and plunged into the crowd, elbowing his way ruthlessly to the front. Hunter spotted him and beamed.

“Have you any metal remaining in your chest, Major?”

“Have I—what?”

“Metal,” Hunter repeated. “Arthur Longstreet described to me the operation in which he removed thirty-seven pieces of metal from your chest—most impressive. If any bits remain, though, I must advise you against trying the eel. Metal conducts electricity, you see, and the chance of burns—”

Nicholls had made his way through the throng, as well, and gave an unpleasant laugh, hearing this.

“A good excuse, Major,” he said, a noticeable jeer in his voice. He was very drunk indeed, Grey thought. Still—

“No, I haven’t,” he said abruptly.

“Excellent,” Suddfield said politely. “A soldier, I understand you are, sir? A bold gentleman, I perceive—who better to take first place?”

And before Grey could protest, he found himself next to the tank, Caroline Woodford’s hand clutching his, her other held by Nicholls, who was glaring malevolently.

“Are we all arranged, ladies and gentlemen?” Suddfield cried. “How many, Dobbs?”

“Forty-five!” came a call from his assistant in the next room, through which the line of participants snaked, joined hand-to-hand and twitching with excitement, the rest of the party standing well back, agog.

“All touching, all touching?” Suddfield cried. “Take a firm grip of your friends, please, a very firm grip!” He turned to Grey, his small face alight. “Go ahead, sir! Grip it tightly, please—just there, just there before the tail!”

Disregarding his better judgment and the consequences to his lace cuff, Grey set his jaw and plunged his hand into the water.

In the split second when he grasped the slimy thing, he expected something like the snap one got from touching a Leyden jar and making it spark. Then he was flung violently backward, every muscle in his body contorted, and he found himself on the floor, thrashing like a landed fish, gasping in a vain attempt to recall how to breathe.

The surgeon, Mr. Hunter, squatted next to him, observing him with bright-eyed interest.

“How do you feel?” he inquired. “Dizzy at all?”

Grey shook his head, mouth opening and closing like a goldfish’s, and with some effort thumped his chest. Thus invited, Mr. Hunter leaned down at once, unbuttoned Grey’s waistcoat, and pressed an ear to his shirtfront. Whatever he heard—or didn’t—seemed to alarm him, for he jerked up, clenched both fists together, and brought them down on Grey’s chest with a thud that reverberated to his backbone.

This blow had the salutary effect of forcing breath out of his lungs; they filled again by reflex, and suddenly he remembered how to breathe. His heart also seemed to have been recalled to a sense of its duty, and began beating again. He sat up, fending off another blow from Mr. Hunter, and sat blinking at the carnage round him.

The floor was filled with bodies. Some still writhing, some lying still, limbs outflung in abandonment; some already recovered and being helped to their feet by friends. Excited exclamations filled the air, and Suddfield stood by his eel, beaming with pride and accepting congratulations. The eel itself seemed annoyed; it was swimming round in circles, angrily switching its heavy body.

Edwin Nicholls was on hands and knees, Grey saw, rising slowly to his feet. He reached down to grasp Caroline Woodford’s arms and help her to rise. This she did, but so awkwardly that she lost her balance and fell face-first into Mr. Nicholls. He in turn lost his own balance and sat down hard, the Honorable Caroline atop him. Whether from shock, excitement, drink, or simple boorishness, he seized the moment—and Caroline—and planted a hearty kiss upon her astonished lips.

Matters thereafter were somewhat confused. He had a vague impression that he had broken Nicholls’s nose—and there was a set of burst and swollen knuckles on his right hand to give weight to the supposition. There was a lot of noise, though, and he had the disconcerting feeling of not being altogether firmly confined within his own body. Parts of him seemed to be constantly drifting off, escaping the outlines of his flesh.

What did remain inside was distinctly jangled. His hearing—still somewhat impaired from the cannon explosion a few months before—had given up entirely under the strain of electric shock. That is, he could hear, but what he heard made no sense. Random words reached him through a fog of buzzing and ringing, but he could not connect them sensibly to the moving mouths around him. He wasn’t at all sure that his own voice was saying what he meant it to, for that matter.

He was surrounded by voices, faces—a sea of feverish sound and movement. People touched him, pulled him, pushed him. He flung out an arm, trying as much to discover where it was as to strike anyone, but felt the impact of flesh. More noise. Here and there a face he recognized: Lucinda, shocked and furious; Caroline, distraught, her red hair disheveled and coming down, all its powder lost.

The net result of everything was that he was not positive whether he had called Nicholls out or the reverse. Surely Nicholls must have challenged him? He had a vivid recollection of Nicholls, gore-soaked handkerchief held to his nose and a homicidal light in his narrowed eyes. But then he’d found himself outside, in his shirtsleeves, standing in the little park that fronted the Joffreys’ house, with a pistol in his hand. He wouldn’t have chosen to fight with a strange pistol, would he?

Maybe Nicholls had insulted him, and he had called Nicholls out without quite realizing it?

It had rained earlier, was chilly now; wind was whipping his shirt round his body. His sense of smell was remarkably acute; it seemed to be the only thing working properly. He smelled smoke from the chimneys, the damp green of the plants, and his own sweat, oddly metallic. And something faintly foul—something redolent of mud and slime. By reflex, he rubbed the hand that had touched the eel against his breeches.

Someone was saying something to him. With difficulty, he fixed his attention on Mr. Hunter, standing by his side, still with that look of penetrating interest. Well, of course. They’d need a surgeon, he thought dimly. Have to have a surgeon at a duel.

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