It seemed the Earl and Countess had chosen to spend this, their first Christmas out of mourning, in some style, and the green room was fair filled to overflowing when Jordan at last entered – a trifle late, to be sure, but he neither felt nor displayed any sense of guilt as he greeted a few familiar faces and availed himself of the glass proffered with a carefully schooled expression.
The butler ran a quick eye over the youngest St John brother and nodded, and a distinct twinkle lurked in his eye as he turned to resume his station at the door. No doubt I owe him, Jordan thought, his batman’s insistence that he wear the dreaded pantaloons now explained. Certainly none of the other family members had thought to warn him that the holidays were but an excuse for a house party, and that dressing for dinner would be required.
Not, of course, that if would have worried him. His mood was such that very little penetrated beyond the cold indifference he felt, though he knew he pattered the phrases and made the right noises at the right time. No-one, not even Annette, who stole the odd puzzled glance at him right through the interminable dinner, would have guessed that he felt anything but relaxed. A sterling performance, all in all. The Old Man would have been proud of him.
Possibly for the only time in my life. Instead of regret or guilt, the thought brought a smile.
Unfortunately, the girl – surely she could have been no more than sixteen – seated opposite assumed he had smiled at her and promptly responded with one of her own. Just as unfortunately, her attempt to seem both a little bold and a little shy all at the same time fell horribly flat and Jordan was obliged, with some difficulty, to school his features against his amusement at her expense.
He noticed she seemed a little ill at ease, and for a moment allowed his attention to be diverted to an unobtrusive examination. She was pretty enough, in a slightly blowsy way that definitely hinted at merchant class. His eyes drifted further up the table to the solid fellow seated close to Edward. It didn’t require much intelligence to notice the similar, almost square features, and a shared inner discomfort as if they wore their finery with no familiarity. Father and daughter, he decided, and immediately lost interest.
“No uniform, Sir?” Grateful for the diversion, Jordan turned to the Rector – another brother, of course – and shrugged, choosing to ignore the formal address of one who should show a little more familiarity. Not that anyone expected less of Leslie. He was a man of the cloth, after all, with an excruciating sensibility for his hallowed station.
“On furlough.” Jordan saw little point in expanding on the bare bones of truth.
“Oh?” Leslie took a slow sip of wine – for his constitution of course, as even his Divine Master was known to do – and licked his lips. Jordan ignored the hated habit and simply waited. Leslie seldom spoke without having some point to make, be it wrong or right. “I had heard that you had sold out.”
The words, addressed in the Rector’s pulpit tones which had long since become a daily habit which endeared him to no-one, and having fallen in a brief lull in the general conversation, were audible to all and drew an immediate reaction. Jordan steeled himself to ignore the sudden inspection of a good two dozen pairs of eyes.
“Oh, but of course not!” Annette’s exclamation seemed oddly passionate and, as if suddenly conscious that she had spoken without thinking, and that almost the entire table had turned to regard her in astonishment, she took a moment to wipe her mouth delicately with a napkin. “Goodness,” she exclaimed then laughed as her husband flashed her a swift and angry look. “Everyone knows that Jordan is married to the army.”
“Well, I certainly never thought so.” Elizabeth set down her knife and fork with a quiet, ladylike gesture. His sister-in-law wore, Jordan noted with amusement, her vague and somewhat silly look – one he knew, though he doubted others had ever paid enough attention, was a perfect mask for an exceptionally bright and practical mind. “Why,” she continued gaily, seemingly quite unaware that she had now become the centre of attention, “I do believe it is the other way around entirely, I mean, the way they drag him from one place to another, and persist in pinning all those medals on him, and are forever recalling him when there seems to be just the most minute hint of trouble… oh, one can only believe that the army thinks itself married to him.”
Not for nothing did Jordan believe she might just be the only one of the family he could possibly be fond of. Still, he laughed with the rest and made no attempt to catch her eye lest he betray her unnecessary but endearing attempt divert the company from an uncomfortable reminder of he and Annette’s history – something not mentioned but quite obviously not forgotten.
“I do believe it is time, ladies.” Annette rose gracefully and even managed to smile at the stone-faced footmen who hurried forward to draw back her chair. “We shall leave you and the gentlemen to your port, dear.” She rested a hand on his shoulder for just a brief moment, a tellingly possessive demonstration, then led the ladies out.
As the doors closed behind them, more than one gentleman let out a small sigh of relief, and quite a few more glanced uneasily between Edward and Jordan, both of whom seemed oblivious to the general sense of discomfort around them.
“Good man, Selby,” Edward said cheerfully as the solemn butler placed the tray with the glasses on the table. The gentlemen, more at ease in the familiarity of tradition, settled into a somewhat desultory conversation which revolved primarily around horseflesh and hounds, and which favourite was tipped to win the upcoming races. Jordan willed himself to relax into the inanities and longed for an excuse to remove himself to his chamber.
“Come now, Jordie, you haven’t answered Lionel’s question y’know.” Edward slid into the chair opposite. Jordan decided he’d rather have the odd young lady than the Earl’s oily smile.
“Because is there is no answer,” he said equably, his veneer polished and polite. “I haven’t made up my mind yet. Toying with it, is all, getting a little bored now that Boney’s rousted.”
“There is India,” Leslie interjected.
“Lord, no, too hot by all accounts.” Drew pulled out the chair between Jordan and Leslie and settled himself with the languid ease of a politician. Third in line, and with a good few rungs of the political ladder behind him, he tended to regard his siblings – the Earl included – with something close to superior bewilderment. It wasn’t an endearing habit and, although just short of supercilious, did manage to create a satisfactory degree of separation between him and his siblings that at times was quite tempting. Perhaps, Jordan though, he should learn the trick.
Still, though Jordan was tempted to ask him just what he personally knew of the supposed heat in India, he silently acknowledged that, out of all of them, Drew had perhaps shown the greatest degree of success. He had, after all, married Elizabeth, and while that lady could not be boasted a beauty she nevertheless was possessed of wit and intelligence, not to mention a substantial inheritance.
“Devilish hot,” Jordan agreed. “But, thankfully, not on my horizon. If I choose not to sell out, I will rejoin my regiment at the Cape.”
“The Cape!” Leslie choked on his wine – a good clergyman of his status did not, after all, succumb to the worldly temptations, even of port – and it took a moment of solid back-thumping by Drew, who seemed suspiciously enthusiastic in delivering the remedy rather than genuinely concerned for his brother’s welfare, before he was able to vent his horror. “Among the savages?”
Jordan smiled, a brief moment of pure enjoyment in the bleakness of his existence. “By savages I take it you mean the black tribes? But of course. It is my duty as an Englishman to bring the light to the darkness – surely you, of all, people understand?”
Leslie, though a little fuzzed with the languor of the grape, knew full well he was being ribbed and, as expected, took exception. He began a valiant but somewhat blustery protest, which prompted the company to a burst of raucous laughter which quickly silenced him.
“Oh,” Jordan added as they all rose to join the ladies. “Let’s not forget the Philistines.”
“Philistines?” Leslie asked in frigid tones. Of course, his retreat into splendid superiority was somewhat diminished by this irresistible bait.
“Oh leave off, Jordie.” Drew chuckled and thumped his palm on the table. “The Boers, Lionel. Those dirty, hairy remnants of Dutch occupation that by all accounts terrorize the servants of the crown as much as do their native counterparts.” Leslie sniffed and gathered the rest of his dignity about him like an invisible mantle.
“I take it,” he said with cold dignity, “that it’s spelt B-o-e-r, and not b-o-o-r?”
“But of course, old boy,” Dres returned smartly, “though I daresay there’s little distinction between them, come to think of it.”
“Spoken like a true Englishman.” Edward slapped Jordan on the back in a gesture which somehow spoke both familiarity and contempt. “I applaud you, little brother. But if you do decide to stay, you know of course I shall do everything in my power to ensure that you are settled as you deserve.”
“I have no doubt you will.” Jordan kept his response distant but agreeable, yet the cold understanding, cemented by a knowing look between them, spoke the truth far more eloquently.
Jordan wondered with wry amusement just what Edward thought he deserved. Whatever it was, it would be heartily unpleasant.