During the normal course of events, the Duke of Wellington would not have been termed a goggler. Ask anyone who knew him, whether during his illustrious military career, in government or as family or friend and not one man jack amongst them could have recalled an instance in which the Duke had goggled. But he was certainly goggling at Captain Hugh Bradley-Smythe, who was standing upon the threshold of Walmer Castle now.
Mrs. Allen, the Duke's housekeeper who stood beside him, put a hand to her mouth in response to the sight before her eyes. Hugh's dress uniform was covered in road dust, as were his boots and hair. A trickle of blood had dried in a line from his left brow to just below his ear. His right eye was almost completely swollen shut and surrounded by a blue and purple raised bruise. Hugh's left arm was tied up in a makeshift sling and Hugh himself stood at a sort of bent angle, as one who was favouring one leg was wont to do. Oddly, the Duke and Mrs. Allen both detected the smell of fish about the Captain's person.
"Good God, man, what in thunder happened to you?" asked the Duke.
"Never mind that now, your Grace, let's get the boy inside first." Mrs. Allen went forward to assist Hugh, causing him to flinch.
"If you put your good arm around my shoulder and lean on me, could you make your way into that room there?" asked the Duke.
"I don't have a good arm," said Hugh. "I have an arm that's less damaged, but I've got cracked ribs on that side, so I can't use it very well."
"Were you involved in a brawl?" the Duke asked.
"No! Of course not, your Lordship."
"Do you think, if you walked very, very slowly with the Duke and I on either side you could make it into the study?"
"He's going to have to try, woman, he can't stand in the doorway all night." And so the three began the agonizingly slow walk across the foyer to the Duke's study. Finally, they settled Hugh upon the sofa and the Duke went to the sideboard for the brandy decanter and a glass. He poured Hugh a hefty measure and handed it to him. "Get that into you, lad."
Using his good hand, Hugh accepted the drink gratefully and drank it down in two swallows. The Duke poured him another.
"What you need is a hot bath," Mrs. Allen said.
Hugh shook his head, "Please, no. I don't think I could manage it. I've been through enough as it is."
"Well you'll allow us to take that filthy coat off your back. Your boots, as well," Mrs. Allen told him. She carefully untied the sling and then tenderly supported Hugh's arm as the Duke peeled Hugh's coat off. That done, Mrs. Allen turned her attention to Hugh's boots.
"You'll have to be careful of the right ankle. It's sprained." Hugh told her.
"Demmed fine boots," the Duke commented.
"Hoby," Hugh said. "To your specifications."
"I can see that."
"Not a bit of it," Mrs. Allen scoffed. "A lashing of spit and polish and they'll be good as new." Hugh gave up a few groans as Mrs. Allen eased his boots off as gingerly as one could. "I think you gentlemen will be eating your dinner in here. I'll go and see to it." Before she left, Mrs. Allen unfolded the blanket that was kept on the sofa and used by the Duke occasionally during a nap and laid it over Hugh, who collapsed into its warmth with a sigh.
Once Mrs. Allen had gone, the Duke sat in an armchair across from Hugh and said, "Well?"
"Two days ago, your Grace, I was riding my horse when it got spooked and threw me from the saddle. My foot got caught up in the stirrup and I twisted my ankle. I cracked some ribs, as well, when I hit the ground."
"But you should have written, man, we could have postponed your visit."
Hugh gave the Duke the ghost of a smile and shook his head. "Begging your pardon, your Grace, but one doesn't allow small inconveniences such as a sprained ankle and cracked ribs to keep one from a answering a summons by the Duke of Wellington."
"Not to mention a bad arm and blackened eye."
"Oh no, I hadn't either of those before today. You see, I had to take the coach early this morning. I couldn't have ridden here what with the ankle and ribs."
"When I got into the coach, there was a very large woman inside, along with a young girl and her brother and an older gentleman. Somewhere along the route, I'd fallen asleep and the next thing I knew, we were being jostled about, all manner of articles were being tossed willy nilly and then the body of the coach fell over on its side, with the large woman landing directly on top of me, her blasted fish paste sandwiches crushed between her body and mine. The old man was on top of me next and then the two youngsters." Hugh shivered. "It was ghastly and it seemed an age before the coachman and guard got the door to the carriage open and began hauling everyone out. When it came to the fish woman, she kept putting all of her weight upon my arm in an effort to gain purchase and something, a valise or some such, must have come into contact with head and cut my scalp. I cannot for the life of me account for the black eye."
"Tell me, are you usually so accident prone?"
"No! No, your Grace I am not. I had been riding with a few of the men from my regiment and they were giving me grief over your invitation. They'd been taking the mickey with me for days, saying as how you had no doubt summoned me to Walmer in order to personally court martial me for being such a dismal failure at soldiering. You know the sort of thing. Well, I was giving it right back to them and not paying attention so that when the horse bolted I was easily thrown. And then the spring, and afterward the braces, on the one side of the carriage broke and I found myself buried beneath four strangers."
"Quite. Were you seen to by a medical man? What did he say about your arm?"
"Oh, the arm is alright, just bruised" Hugh said, wiggling his fingers and rotating his wrist. "The fish woman insisted on fashioning the sling from her petticoats when I mentioned that she'd stepped on my arm. It's a good thing she didn't snap it in two. Or three, for that matter."
"Well, Mrs. Allen will get a hot dinner into you before long," the Duke told him as he got up from his chair and walked to his desk. "You close your eyes and rest for a few minutes whilst I attend to one or two letters."
Hugh obeyed gladly as the Duke dipped his pen into the inkwell and wrote, "My Dear Louisa - Due to unforseen circumstances, Captain Bradley-Smythe and I must delay our visit to you . . . . . . "
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