"The aggressive pruning was a necessary step, Cynthia. You'll no doubt recall that last autumn was exceedingly damp," Lord Barton said, "the perfect conditions for mildew and black spot to spread in the garden. Mackay is to be credited for saving the plants by cutting out all the bad canes. He knows what he's doing. Come have some tea."
Lady Barton turned to the cafe jardin table upon which the service had been laid for them. The Earl did so love his private "lover's teas", which he had often told her were "a welcome bit of romance and fancy in a dull life". She watched as Lord Barton poured, his palsied and liver-spotted old hands making the pot rattle on the rim of her cup with their tremor. Annoyed with her husband as always, she strode toward her chair, her usual flowing beauty marred by winces of visible pain. She eased down into the wicker chair, June sunlight playing across her smooth, satiny body.
"I recall last autumn as being exceptionally fine," she said, taking the cup from him. She picked up the sugar bowl before he could hand it to her, taking three lumps instead of her usual two. "Exceptionally fine indeed."
Lord Barton sucked on his heavy gray mustache in thought, a habit she particularly detested.
"There were a few fine days among the wet," he conceded, "but overall, it was not a good autumn for roses."
She set her spoon down, allowing it to click on the porcelain tabletop. "You are mistaken, but let's say no more about it. Fine or wet, the roses have been ruined by Mackay's handiwork." In a smooth, practiced motion, she drank off the cup in three continuous swallows then set it down hard into the saucer. Nothing could have conveyed more clearly that she did not find the present company either convivial or desirable.
"My dear, you seem out of sorts. Are you arisen from your bed too hastily?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Barton, I've delivered a child, not come back from the wars. After four weeks indoors, I'm desperate for a bit of sunshine and fresh air. Dr. Wickersby is an overprotective fool."
"An abundance of caution is no bad thing, Cynthia. He just wants to be sure you and little William are quite safe. The first few weeks are the most dangerous."
"Wickersby is an old hen and, if I may gently bring it to your attention, after James and William, I believe I know more about childbirth and its aftermath than either he or you."
He bowed his head over the tea service. "As you say, my dear, of course. And yet..."
"And yet what?" She mopped her brow with her lace handkerchief. "My god, this heat is so oppressive! It looked like it would be a fine day, but it's just beastly!"
They sat in silence for a time. Lord Barton sipped his tea, Lady Barton folding and refolding her handkerchief as it dampened with use.
She rolled her eyes and glared at him.
"I was just going to say that I have good reason to believe that there were a number of pleasant days last autumn. At least, a number of days that were made pleasant for you."
Her hand slowed, nearly pausing halfway to her forehead, lace dangling. It was only a momentary flicker, hardly noticeable. As she mopped, she closed her eyes, pained.
"Don't be an ass, Barton."
He stirred his tea. "Yes, I think the time is right for us to clear the air between us. Cynthia, I've known for quite some time that you and Mackay have been lovers. This point is quite beyond discussion."
"I... that's a lie! You odious, hateful man!" She shook in her chair, gripping the arms until her fingers turned white. Her face was a strange combination of deathly pale with hard reddenings along the cheeks. A fresh sheen of perspiration broke out across her brow.
"Cynthia, please. Marrying you was the easy part. It took me the better part of a year to find and hire Mackay. Do you have any idea how tricky it was to locate a gardener who not only resembled me in face and form as I was when I was twenty years old, but who would have the brass to carry on a pas de deux romantique with the mistress of the house? I think I should be congratulated for throwing him in your path before you took up with someone more unsuitable."
She could only stare at him, the shock of revelation unlike any she ever expected. Discovery, yes. Humiliation, yes. Fury, confrontation, and condemnation, yes, yes, and yes. All of these she had prepared for, but this? This... calculation?
"Of course," he went on, "now that I have what I want from him, and from you for that matter, it's all at an end. I wanted to apologize to you, my dear. You are owed that much."
"A-apologize to me? F-for what?" The words came staggering, shuddering from her.
"Our infrequent marital congregations, which I am man enough to acknowledge as tepid and unsatisfying, must surely have suggested to you the reason for this outré escapade. Though I am unable to sire an heir to the estate, I have no desire to let it slip from my line. I needed a wife young enough, passionate enough, and foolish enough to carry on an affair under my nose. I also needed someone to father sons that I could plausibly claim as my own. James and William look enough like me that no one could question their patrimony. For the purposes of the Barton name, they are my sons and I shall raise them as such. The two people who know the truth are Mackay and you. Mackay was conveniently beaten to death last night in a pub incident I arranged. That just leaves you."
"I don't expect congratulations for my thoroughness, Cynthia. I'm telling you because, after providing me with what your low-born relatives would no doubt call an 'heir and a spare', you deserve to know the truth. The curare that Wickersby has been feeding you since William was born has provided ample evidence of a lingering childbed fever. As the doctor will attest, should there be an inquest, such fevers can flare up at any time, even weeks later."
The old man rose from the table, drawing a dropper bottle from his vest pocket and circling behind her chair. Writhing but unable to stand, she tried to push his hands away. Old, spotted, and palsied though they were, his hands were still strong. He ran his fingers into her hair and gripped a handful, pulling her head back hard.
"I hoped the tea would be enough to do the job, my dear, but it seems I shall have to augment your final dose. Just to make sure you don't vomit it back up, these drops will go in the nostrils and straight to the lungs. It's a trick I learned in Bangalore. Never thought I'd have occasion to use it again."
With weak and shaking fingers, she tried to claw at him, but her French kidskin gloves rendered her nails useless.
"This will sting rather brutally, my dear, but it will be over soon. Thank you for James and William. I will forever be in your debt. Goodbye, Cynthia."
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