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Dunwoody, Southern England, 1834
Phillip Rothembow was dead.
None of the mourners gathered around the grave had expected his demise to occur precisely this way, although there were certainly those who had wagered he would not live to see his thirty-third year. They never dreamed he would die by forcing the hand of his very own cousin. And they all agreed--rather adamantly in front of the justice of the peace--that Adrian Spence, the Earl of Albright, did not have a choice--it was either kill or be killed.
Still, some of the mourners privately argued (at the public house, before the services commenced) that Albright might have avoided the confrontation had he not asked Rothembow to stop cheating. Not that anyone could dispute that Rothembow's cheating was legion, or that Albright had been a virtual saint of patience through the years. But he might have thought twice before accusing his cousin before a roomful of people.
That sentiment was met with the equally insistent one that as Rothembow had been cheating so very blatantly, he had obviously been asking to be called on it. A few tried to put forth that Rothembow had been simply too drunk to know what he was doing, particularly evidenced by his calling Albright a coward. Of all men, the Earl of Albright was the last one any of them would have called a coward, and furthermore, they argued, what could Albright have done? A man could hardly have his character challenged in the face of so many peers and not avenge his honor. Not one of the mourners could fault Albright for accepting Rothembow's drunken challenge.
Not one of them could believe that either man had actually gone through with it.
So it was the collective opinion of the mourners that no matter how Rothembow and Albright came to be standing in that yellow field, Albright had had no choice. And he had done the honorable thing by deloping. Rothembow, who was still staggering drunk that morning, had responded by firing on him (a sin so great that the men shuddered each time they recalled it) and missing badly. Yet that paled in comparison to what Rothembow did next, and the mourners were divided on the subject of Lord Fitzhugh's culpability.
Having recently obtained a fine double-barreled German pistol inlaid with mother-of-pearl, Lord Fitzhugh had felt compelled to wear it in his new leather holster for the entire weekend in the event the party was set upon by thieves or an otherwise marauding band of ne'er-do-wells. So confident was he in his new pistol that he was in the habit of draping his coat in a manner that clearly displayed the firearm. Which was exactly how he was wearing it when Rothembow grabbed it from its holster. He had lunged for that pistol--primed for any event, naturally--and had fired a second time at Albright, clearly intending to kill him. Albright had to defend himself, and most agreed it was a bloody miracle that he was able to retrieve his own pistol and fire before his cousin gunned him down with a third shot. Fitzhugh had been the fool and Rothembow the coward--although one mourner noted that the wild look in Rothembow's eyes suggested he was perhaps more deranged than cowardly.
That, naturally, had prompted another round of debate as to whether Rothembow had actually meant Albright to kill him. It was hardly a secret among their set that Rothembow was drowning in debt, having squandered his funds and his life on excessive drink and Madam Farantino's women, and was seemingly bent on self-destruction. That notwithstanding, it was inconceivable to them that a man might want to end his own life so desperately he would go to such extraordinary measures. Inconceivable, but apparently possible.
Now, at the gravesite, all of the mourners who had come to witness the fantastic end to their hunting trip in the country covertly watched Albright and his friends beneath the brims of their hats as the vicar droned on.
"Know ye in this death the light of our Lord . . ."
The Rogues of Regent Street--Adrian Spence, Phillip Rothembow, Arthur Christian, and Julian Dane--were the idols of every man of the Quality. In fact, the final argument that had risen over the din of the public house was just how, exactly, the four childhood friends had come by that moniker. None could really recall, but they agreed the name had been earned honestly enough. The four had met at Eton, earning themselves reputations as young reprobates even then. But it was when their names started to appear with alarming frequency in the Times a few years ago that the name had stuck. The Rogues exhibited a penchant for breaking the hearts of proper young debutantes who strolled amid the Regent Street shops during the day. Capable of charming the young ladies and their mamas to the tips of their toes, they also were ruthless in winning their dowries from their fathers in the gaming clubs at night.
"Know ye the quality of love . . ."
That habit hardly endeared the four men to the Regent Street set, and for the more conservative members, their habit of openly frequenting the notorious Regent Street boudoirs in the early hours of the morning was the most egregious of their many sins.
"And the quality of life . . ."
Nonetheless, the Rogues were an enviable group who lived by their own code and amassed great sums of wealth in their various business ventures. They lived on the edge, never fearing danger, never fearing the law, and flaunting their disdain of society's expectations for titled young men in the ton's collective face--exactly what every mourner privately wished he had the courage to do. Until today.
"And know ye the quality of mercy . . ."
Until the solemn pain on the faces of the surviving Rogues suggested they had tasted their own mortality.
And the mourners had tasted their own.
Having seen what they had come to see, the mourners at last began to drift away from the gravesite in search of shelter from the threatening skies. Only five remained. Two were gravediggers, working to fill the hole before the rains came. The three surviving Rogues stood slightly apart, seemingly oblivious to the light rain as they stared blankly into the yawning grave.
From the Paperback edition.