“So I see you’ve met Michael,” she smiled.
“Is that what happened?” he replied. “I was rather of the impression that I had been swept up in one of those Atlantic hurricanes Viscount Melville’s captains are always going on about and deposited somewhere a thousand miles away.”
She giggled up at him and he had never felt so…wholly at peace as he did in that particular moment.
“Colonel Scott can be like that. Let’s see if we can find you safe anchorage, shall we?”
He intimated that he would like that very much, and she guided him around the ballroom with a deft touch. In the course of their journey he discovered that this angel in blue was as pleasant to speak with as she was to look at, if not indeed more so. Their humours matched perfectly; more than once he found himself on the verge of a quip or a quiddity only to see the edge of her mouth turn up and hear a whispered confidence that pre-empted his own, often in more amusing terms. He could not tell if he had the same effect on her, but if her frequent lowering of her voice so that only he could hear was any indication, it seemed most like. He lived for her smile. It seemed impossible that he had known her only a few minutes. Surely it must have been years.
She slowly drew him out of the centre of the room where Colonel Scott had led him and brought him towards the card tables. Had he still been in the dumps he had been upon contemplating attendance at this function, he would have visibly perked up at the sight, for James Halpert was an accomplished player of all manner of cardgames—not through direct inclination, but as a natural outgrowth of his keen insight and careful attention to detail, both traits he preferred to demonstrate only in his idle time unless strictly necessary. However, as Mark’s tastes ran in the pasteboard way, he had had ample opportunity to evince them in the empty hours spent in their Fleet Street flat, and could almost give Hoyle a shout in his encyclopaedic knowledge of the field. As such, had he been constitutionally capable of greater joy than he was experiencing simply tarrying with Pamela Beesly, he would have experienced it when she led him to the tables—but as he was not, he did not.
However, some inkling of his reaction must have filtered onto his face—far too expressive to be proper for his diplomatic career, though when he concentrated as he was not doing now quite capable of the most stoic deceptions at need—for she turned to him and said “Oh! Do you like cards, Mr. Halpert?”
“I have been known to dabble, Miss Beesly. When the stakes are low and the company reasonable.”
“Well, I cannot speak to the company. That you must judge for yourself. But despite appearances, Colonel Scott is always insistent that the stakes here are set as low as can be managed. I hear” and here she lowered her voice for him only, and a warm sensation floated down the back of his neck. “I hear that he had some difficulties at table once with Admiral Packer, and that ever since he has refused to play for stakes above tenpence.”
She giggled. Jim would have said it was infectious if it were not improper for a gentleman of his standing to giggle like a schoolgirl. As it was so, he would not have mentioned it, lest he be forced to reveal that he did so indeed.
“I believe I could stake myself to so high a rate, if milady is game.”
“Oh, could you? Then perhaps we have a bargain.” They smiled at each other. After a moment she broke eye contact to discreetly signal someone behind him. “And I do believe I have found us two more for whist.”
He turned casually to see a sharp-cut man in military colours deep in conversation with a rather rotund gentleman in a Cumberland corset. At Pam’s signal the two broke off their discussion and came up to join the pair. As they did so, Pam whispered by his ear.
“If I were you, I would enjoy this moment, because you're never going to back to this time before you met your tablemate, Lieutenant Schrute.” Her eyes danced as he glanced back at her.
“Lieutenant? But Colonel Scott…”
“Said he was a captain? Yes, but it’s only a courtesy title as he owns a little ship down on the Regent’s Canal. He’s a lieutenant, Scott’s aide-de-camp, and somewhat starchy about it.”
“Thank you for the intelligence.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure if you had any yourself.” He almost didn’t catch the quip as she went on. “The other is Kevin, Lord Malone. He has recently returned from a sojourn in Chile as His Majesty’s Ambassador.”
“Oh yes, Lord Malone and I are well-acquainted. Before serving in Chile he was in Vienna with Viscount Castlereagh, whose staff I was on.”
This brief conversation had covered the time it took the Lieutenant and the Ambassador to cross the territory between them and the pair. Jim greeted Malone with good humour and was received in kind, and turned to Schrute, whose hand was already out.
“Dwight K. Schurte, Lieutenant Colonel. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“And I yours. James Halpert, son of Gerald Baron Denbigh. Are you sure you don’t mean Lieutenant to the Colonel, my good sir? I hear you are high in our host’s graces.”
The mention of Scott seemed to have mollified the initial dislike that shot into Schrute’s eyes at being corrected on his rank. They settled into a table and drew for positions—Jim finding himself paired with Malone for the first game, which he found a pity as it prevented him from staring into Pam’s eyes but which was most likely for the best in terms of his ability to recall his cards. He shook himself imperceptibly and tried to think about whist.