A Gentleman in Challenging Circumstances
Book 3 in the Lord Julian Mysteries series
Lord Julian Caldicott, still recovering from his years at war, is tasked with investigating the circumstances of a small boy who could be either the salvation of the Waltham dukedom or a pawn in a scheme to sink the Caldicott family in endless scandal. The boy is alone in the world, though any one of several women might be his mother, and they all claim that Julian’s brother, the late Lord Harry Caldicott, was the child’s father.
To uncover the boy’s parentage, Julian must face demons from his own past, solve puzzles left behind by Lord Harry, and thwart enemies who wish the lad harm for reasons of their own. His investigation takes him from barracks, to brothels, and to Hyde Park by dark of night. The longer he searches, the more tangled—and dangerous—the mystery becomes, for Julian and for the innocent child who deserves to know the truth of his own birthright.
Enjoy An Excerpt
My task was simple though far from easy: To ascertain whether the little fellow grubbing about in Mrs. Danforth’s herbaceous borders could be the salvation of the Waltham dukedom.
The lad himself shed little light on the question. I’d put his age at about five. He was enjoying that halcyon interval between breeching in his third year, and going into men’s hands sometime after he turned seven. All would be toy soldiers, imaginary dragons, and bedtime fables with him. His nurse, a youngish woman in serviceable gray twill and spotless mobcap, sat on a nearby bench, handkerchief at the ready, her expression one of patient amusement.
Like the boy, I had done my earliest exploring in the family garden. I’d graduated to fields, forests, and eventually, when I’d joined Wellington’s army, foreign territory. I was happy to be back in England, and had learned to keep my hands mostly clean somewhere along the way.
“Is he quiet by nature?” I asked, searching in vain for some visual clue that he could be my nephew. Caldicotts tended to be tall and lean, but we had no Hapsburg chin, no unusual eye color to otherwise distinguish us.
Mrs. Danforth was a spare woman who might once have been called handsome, but her looks had been blighted by time and the hardships of military life. The boy bore no obvious resemblance to her, which was a relief.
She frowned at the busy boy. “I don’t know how to answer that, Lord Julian. I met Leander about a month ago, when his mother washed up on my shores, very ill, and begging for sanctuary. Our husbands served together, and you know how the old regimental ties can bind. The boy can be loud, but does any child say much when his mother is dying?”
“You have no children of your own?”
“We were not so blessed. Nurse says some children chatter, some children climb trees, some turn the pages of books by the hour, and they all grow into adulthood. She would know better than I if Leander is simply reticent or whether recent events have made him withdrawn. He’s certainly industrious.”
Her tone said busy boys were cause for polite dismay.
“What can you tell me of his mother?”
Mrs. Danforth sat at her shaded garden table and sipped her tea. She was doubtless sorting through the vestiges of those regimental ties, the desire to be free of Leander, and the deference due me as a duke’s son and heir.
“I honestly can’t tell you much at all,” she said. “Ten years ago, Martha Waites was the darling of the regiment, her husband a junior officer who’d beggared himself buying his colors. Like most of his ilk, he lived above his means and expected that life in the east would magically fill his coffers. The fevers got him. Martha became widowed at a young age and without worldly security, an all too common tale for officers’ wives. We scraped together passage home for her lest she fall prey to the exigencies of life at an obscure fort. She was pretty and popular. That can end badly.”
Another sip of tea, while Leander came upon that most versatile of toys, the stout stick.
“I received a note of thanks months after Martha left for home,” Mrs. Danforth went on more quietly. “She had survived the journey, and then I heard nothing from her until she showed up on my doorstep this summer. We bumped into one another outside some shop or other. I came home myself only last year, and this house belonged to my late aunt until then. Unless young the child is very, very small for his age, and quite slow, he was not the product of Martha’s first marriage.”
The stick had become a mighty broad sword, and Leander was laying about, intent on subduing Mrs. Danforth’s perfectly manicured lavender. I waited for the inevitable scold—Mrs. Danforth’s expression had become thunderously composed—when the nurse took up a stick of her own, and began to battle the fierce warrior.
“Surrender!” she cried, with mock severity. “We will have no truck with barbarians in Londontown.”
“I conquer in the name of Good King George,” the boy yelled back. “I will never surrender.”
The nurse rapped his stick lightly with her own. “Not even if we feed our captives pudding?”
He delivered a stout rebeat. “It’s not time for pudding, and you didn’t say pret, allez, en-garde.”
The nurse pretended to look chagrinned and lowered her sword. “I am sorry. I thought you were being a Visigoth. Are you an officer in the 95th Rifles, per chance?”
“I’m a light dragoon!” He cantered around waving his stick in the air. “I’ll show old Boney!”
The light dragoons had, alas, become infamous for showing their impulsiveness and lack of discipline, as had the heavy dragoons.
“He speaks,” I murmured, though who had taught him that bit of French fencing protocol?
“And he yells. Nurse says children should exercise their lungs. She is insistent that he have regular fresh air and exercise, despite the noise.” Mrs. Danforth offered that observation as a warning. “Junior officers benefit from the same regimen in my experience.”
Having been a child myself, and a boy child at that, I agreed with Nurse. “She appears devoted to him.”
Master Leander was now engaged in a post mortem examination of the fallen lavender sprigs. The nurse crushed one and held it to Leander’s nose. He pulled buds from the stems and enthusiastically ground them in his grubby palms.
“Nurse has more patience than any saint ever claimed,” Mrs. Danforth replied. “While I… Mine is a widow’s household, my lord. I haven’t a proper nursery, and even a devoted nurse expects some remuneration.”
That remuneration was clearly not in Mrs. Danforth’s budget, and the lady had a point. Children grew hungry with predictable regularity. They needed shoes which they promptly outgrew. They required clothing which they tore and stained upon first wearing. They deserved an education, which meant governesses and tutors, or in families of more modest station, buying an apprenticeship in a respectable trade.
“I will send along a bank draft to assist with the boy’s upkeep for the nonce,” I said, “but he might well be no relation of mine. Mrs. Waites told you that my brother is the boy’s father?”
“She implied as much. I was hoping the child bore sufficient resemblance to the late Lord Harry that you’d see fit to take him in.”
I considered young Leander, who was still absorbed with dissecting summer flowers.
He was a sturdy little lad, no longer given to the roundness of toddlerhood, but neither was he what I would call lanky. His hair was reddish, and would probably fade to brown as he aged and spent less time out of doors. Harry’s hair had been brown.
“What color was Mrs. Waites’s hair?”
“Brown, my lord. Medium brown.”
As Harry’s had been. “The boy’s appearance doesn’t tell me much, and you say Mrs. Waites only implied that Lord Harry could be the father. Can you be more specific?”
Mrs. Danforth’s gaze narrowed on the child playing in the dirt. “She said the boy had Lord Harry’s laugh and his chin. Why say that, if Lord Harry is no relation to him?”
I retreated into polite silence. The late Lord Harry, sought-after-bachelor of note and hero of various battles, had also been the ducal heir in his turn. The obvious motivation for attributing paternity to him was money, closely followed by social standing. Aristocratic by-blows were not typically apprenticed to tailors or coopers.
“If Harry sired this child,” I asked, “why didn’t Mrs. Waites come to the Caldicotts when she realized her health was failing?”
Why not come to us when the child was born? When conception had become evident? But then, perhaps she’d gone to Harry, and he’d settled a sum on her or rebuffed her claims.
“I cannot answer for the choices Martha Waites made, my lord, but neither can I be expected to raise this child. If my aunt hadn’t left me this house…”
The threat was clear. Leander would be put on the parish—assuming somebody could sort out which parish he belonged to—or failing that, left with his favorite toy soldiers at some busy tavern, there to be claimed by the nearest chimney sweep in need of a climbing boy.
Mrs. Danforth wouldn’t abandon him personally. Officer’s widow that she was, she’d delegate that task to her scullery maid or groom, and maybe even put tuppence in the boy’s pockets for a meat pie.
“You would not agree to keep him in your household even for a sum certain?” I asked. Proving paternity of an orphaned five year old would require several miracles, good luck, and a happy coincidence or two.
Mrs. Danforth delayed her reply by pouring herself another cup of tea from the jasperware service. Twenty years ago, the pale blue cups and saucers with their classical cream relief might well have formed the most impressive article in her trousseau. Now, jasperware was neither heirloom nor luxury. Merely pretty in an everyday sort of way.
And the teapot was a slightly darker shade of blue.
“People talk, my lord,” Mrs. Danforth said tiredly. “I’m not elderly. The boy could be mine. I cannot have that said, implied, or even whispered. Polite society wants all the benefits of a robust military, but they attribute all manner of poor behavior to those who embrace army life. Whatever else is true, I do not deserve to have your brother’s indiscretion laid at my feet.”
That she would lay Harry’s indiscretion at my feet rankled, but I well knew the power of rumor when it came to ruining a life. No force on earth, not Wellington’s artillery nor his accursed calvary, equaled military gossip when it came to destroying a reputation.
Besides, no less person than Arthur, His Grace of Waltham, had charged me with sorting out Leander’s situation. I would not fail my only surviving brother—or my deceased brother, either.
“His mother hasn’t been dead a month,” I said, rising. “Talk won’t start up just yet, and before I make any decisions regarding the boy’s situation. I will need to know every detail you can recall regarding Martha Waites. Where she was born, her maiden name, date of birth, any friends she made in the regiment. If Leander was baptized, a record of that exists somewhere, and the information could be pertinent.”
“He might well have been baptized in Spain, my lord. Women develop a taste for following the drum, and even to the last, Martha was pretty.”
And because she’d been pretty and without male protection, she must therefore have turned to prostitution?
“She will have family somewhere, Mrs. Danforth, and they should be notified of her passing. Perhaps they will be eager to take Leander in, and some effort must be made to locate them.”
And to wring answers from them.
Mrs. Danforth finished her plain, weak tea and rose as well. Her husband had been an officer of some rank, a modest hero, but Mrs. Danforth had been left to battle on without him into old age, her fight accorded no appreciation or renown. The rest of her days would be parlous at best, assuming she practiced economies and suffered no untoward financial shocks
She wasn’t about to allow Leander to become such a shock, and nobody—not the Bishop of London, not Wellington himself—would criticize her for that. She’d taken in the ailing mother, seen her given a Christian burial, and notified what next of kin she could by writing to His Grace of Waltham.
And yet, I did not care for the woman at all.
“Time to go in,” the nurse said, holding out a hand to her charge.
“I’d rather go to Cathay,” the boy muttered putting his grubby mitt into her clean grasp. “Might we go to Hyde Park after our nooning?”
“A fine suggestion,” the nurse replied, “provided it doesn’t grow too hot and you do your sums accurately.”
He trundled at her side, a proper little Visigoth subdued by the promise of food. “Mightn’t we go to Hyde Park first, Miss? It’s not too hot now.”
“No, we might not, and if you continue wheedling, we might not get there at all today.”
“That’s not fair. I’ve been a good boy and my hands are hardly dirty.”
He continued in that vein to no avail as he was led into the house. A normal little boy, secure in his nurse’s regard, though he’d sent Mrs. Danforth and me a few furtive glances.
“I can give you a fortnight, my lord,” Mrs. Danforth said. “The boy needs to know what his situation is, and he would be a barely noticeable imposition on the Caldicott family coffers, while he is an intolerable burden on my finances.”
And on her nerves. She was too much a lady to be so blunt, but not too much of a lady to turn out an orphaned child after a fortnight’s more charity. She doubtless regularly attended divine services too, and put an occasional penny in the poor box when the ranking ladies in the congregations were watching.
“I will send along that bank draft, and some coin for the nurse. If you could make notes for me regarding Mrs. Waites’s particulars, I’d appreciate it. I’d also like to have a look through any effects Mrs. Waites left behind.”
“Her clothing has been given to charity, what there was of it. Come by the day after tomorrow. I will document everything I know regarding the late Martha Waites, though she might have remarried.”
That possibility was offered grudgingly. “Because she was pretty?”
“Pretty, charming, and ambitious. The ambitious ones tend to land on their feet. Until Wednesday, my lord.” She curtseyed and left me to wander out through the garden gate. I paused to sweep the bits of lavender from the walkway with the toe of my boot, and to consider the past hour’s discussion.
I knew little more than I had when I’d arrived, ostensibly because Mrs. Danforth had little to tell me. I had hoped she’d lie to me, to state unequivocally that Martha Waites had named Harry as the boy’s father. Such was Mrs. Danforth’s sense of military hierarchy, that she would not lie outright to a man far above her station, one who’d served under Wellington.
She had lied about Martha Waites’s clothing though. I had every confidence any dresses, cloaks, reticules or bonnets had been sent to Rosemary Lane to fetch a few coins, and that was a pity. Clothing didn’t necessarily maketh the man, but it might hold a few clues to the lady.
I crossed to the garden gate, and resigned myself to talking directly with the boy. He might know details of his origins without realizing he was in possession of certain facts. He might have memories that bore significance he could not understand.
I had hoped to be spared an introduction to him, which did not speak very well for my own sense of charity. The lad was orphaned, his prospects uncertain, and nobody was stepping forth to look after him.
Harry’s passing had left me orphaned in a sense, forever parted from a certain innocence and from a once spotless reputation. I no longer blamed myself for his death at the hands of French captors, but that left room for barge-loads of regret.
The latch on the gate was rusty, and I had to use some force to get it up. As I stepped through into the alley, I happened to look back at Mrs. Danforth’s personal castle. A modest half-timbered home, separated from its neighbors by two mere yards on either side. Those two yards imbued the house with miles of social significance, giving it a gentility that attached domiciles in this neighborhood lacked.
I was wrestling the latch back into place when I noticed the nursemaid standing in a third floor window. Her arms were crossed, her expression pensive.
I would have to talk to her too, and find a way to do that outside the hearing of either the boy or Mrs. Danforth. I didn’t want to. I wanted to saddle my horse and quit the stifling confines of London in high summer, but I’d been given my assignment by His Grace.
I would successfully complete my mission, even if that required me to play toy soldiers in the mud or impersonate a rampaging dragon in the middle of Hyde Park.
End of Excerpt
This book will begin shipping on December 5, 2023
A Gentleman in Challenging Circumstances is available in the following formats:
Grace Burrowes Publishing
December 5, 2023
Print order links coming soon!
A Gentleman in Challenging Circumstances is Book 3 in the Lord Julian Mysteries series. The full series reading order is as follows:
- Book 1: A Gentleman Fallen on Hard Times •
- Book 2: A Gentleman of Dubious Reputation •
- Book 3: A Gentleman in Challenging Circumstances •
- Book 4: A Gentleman in Pursuit of Truth •