The Gathering Storm (The Jacobite Chronicles Book 3)(9)

By: Julia Brannan

“Ah, that is one of the advantages of breastfeeding, Anthony. It has given me a cleavage,” Caroline declared into one of those odd sudden silences that naturally punctuate any lively gathering. Edwin looked up, startled. The eyes of every male in the room rested involuntarily on his wife’s bosom. She reddened. A brief unnatural silence descended on the table. During this Sir Anthony had been attempting to cut a potato, which now startled him by sliding from under his knife and skidding from his plate across the table, almost overturning Clarissa’s wineglass. The previous potato the baronet had tried to halve had subsided sullenly into a pile of pale yellow slush at the first touch of his knife.

“I must say, Lord Edward, that the food tonight is remarkably…English,” he said, retrieving the runaway vegetable from the damask tablecloth and returning it to the edge of his plate.

“Thank you,” replied the lord. “Yes, I have finally managed to convince Isabella of the impossibility of retaining a French cook in the current climate. Why, one cannot welcome spies into one’s house at any time, let alone when one is at war!”

“You thought the man to be a spy, Lord Edward?” asked the earl.

“There was no proof, of course, my lord. These people are too clever to leave evidence lying around. But the man was a Frenchman, and a Papist. And I like to think I have a nose for deception. One can recognise spies, my lord, by their very desire not to be noticed. Andre was such a man, very quiet and deferential. A sure sign that he was up to no good.” Caroline and Edwin, who were aware of the baronet’s brief flirtation with espionage in Rome, and the earl, who was not, all glanced at Sir Anthony.

“I would have thought modesty and deference to have been the sign of a good servant, myself,” the baronet responded.

“It is difficult to explain, sir. There is a certain slyness about those involved in espionage, which one as…ah…ingenuous as yourself might fail to see. And I am proved right. The scoundrel has persuaded our plain cook to abscond with him. We have been compelled to engage another at short notice.”

“Yes, Susan was an excellent cook. I am afraid the food is not up to our usual standard. I am most terribly sorry,” said Isabella.

“The excellent company makes up for any small imperfections in the meal, my dear Isabella,” Sir Anthony reassured her, patting her hand. “You have made a very patriotic gesture. The man would most likely have been arrested before long anyway. I hear that suspected Jacobites are being taken into custody, and Catholics are now severely restricted in their movements.”

“It’s quite ridiculous,” snorted Thomas Fortesque. “Edwin and I were just discussing that very subject. The arrest of known Jacobites is all well and good, but persecuting Roman Catholics and other dissenters for no good reason does us no credit.”

“I am surprised to hear you say that, sir, and you a Whig,” said Lord Winter. “Why, it is well known that Papists are Jacobites to a man. They should all be clapped in irons, in my view.”

“It is hardly surprising that Catholics look to the Stuarts to redress the wrongs done them, when Hanover persists in its bigotry,” said Edwin.

“Are you inclined to the Roman faith yourself, Mr Harlow?” asked the earl.

“No, my lord,” bristled Edwin, a devout Anglican. “I am inclined to religious tolerance, which is quite another thing.”

“I hear you were almost seduced by the Catholics, Sir Anthony, whilst at Versailles,” said Lord Edward with poorly-veiled disgust.

“Not at all,” replied the baronet calmly. “I merely engaged in some interesting theological discussions with Roman priests. I will discourse with anyone, on any subject, as is widely known. I find it extremely tedious to converse only with those who hold the same opinion as myself, or in fact hold no intelligent opinion at all.” He smiled meaningfully at his host.

“Nevertheless, it can be dangerous to fraternise with some sections of the community,” Edward replied, oblivious.

“Only when one lives in a country which does not enjoy freedom of speech, thought and action. I was unaware that England was such a country.”

“It is not, sir,” put in Thomas, “providing you believe that we should be supporting useless troops in Hanover, and that we should be stirring Catholics and Tories as well to an even greater fervour to see the Stuarts restored, by exacting repressive measures against them.”

“We have had a frustrating few days in Parliament,” explained Edwin. “Ministers are wasting a good deal of time, in our view, arguing as to whether the author of a recent pamphlet denouncing the funding of Hanoverian troops should be hunted down and arrested, and discussing how to enforce the unenforceable Act against Catholics, when both Thomas and I, and a good many others feel we should instead be addressing the long-term implications of this action of France, who as we speak, is loading her ships with cannon, guns and men, and preparing to sail against England. In fact by now, news travelling as slowly as it does, they may well be engaged in battle.”

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