“Oh cock.” Planta rolled his dark eyes toward the office’s narrow ceiling and sighed. Already it had been a long day and it was not yet gone midday. And he had been in this mood since early morning.
Planta laid down the stack of papers he had been sorting and made to rise from his desk.
“Planta!” The voice again bellowed through the open doorway.
“My lord?” Planta came to stand at the door of the Foreign Secretary’s inner sanctum and produced what he hoped was a willing smile.
“Oh, there you are…Tell me, Planta, did I not recall several of my agents in from the field earlier in the month?”
It was a rhetorical question and Planta knew he knew the answer. “Yes, my lord.”
“Then where the blazes are they?” the Foreign Secretary barked.
Planta shifted his weight from one foot to the other and kept the smile in place. It was looking tired. He did not attempt an explanation. He wasn’t in listening mood. “Not here, my lord.”
“Well, get them here!”
“Yes, my lord. Right away.” An impossible task. And if not impossible, then certainly improbable—given that at least two of the individuals in question were in France and proving most elusive. Which was, of course, what they were meant to be. Elusive, that is. And in France. Indeed, it was that very art of elusion, in France, which made them so…useful. Invaluable even. A point which he, Planta, would not be mentioning. At least not today. “Will there be anything else, my lord?”
“No! Yes. Do those fools not understand the meaning of an order?”
Planta considered the painting upon the opposite wall, listing sidledywry to the left. “It would seem not, my lord…Though it may be that they have got caught up in the bad weather in the Channel, my lord,” he temporised. “Will there be anything else?”
The decaying walls of the garret room were blotched and mottled—green, brown, ochre and grey—with the damp and grease, soil and soot of half a century. But the boy lying on the bare straw mattress did not notice. Nor would he have cared if he had. Sprawled upon the worm-riddled bed like some jug-bitten spider, he gazed idly up at a crack in the dingy plaster. Like a river and its tributaries, it ran, raw and gaping, up one wall before breaking into smaller cracks which rent the ceiling plaster to reveal, here and there, the rotting roof struts above.
Another crack spanned the breadth of the low ceiling and it was this that the boy regarded with some degree of interest: the jagged path it carved through the ceiling, the blistering edges of damp plaster that would drift or fall to the floor in powdery clots when next it rained—perhaps to scatter with it the bodies of long dead insects or spiders or mice.
Early summer in Paris: the air hung hot, still and rank over a city of beggars, women, children, old men and cripples.
Just weeks ago—and for many months—it had been a city of bustle and prowess and pomp, a city of military spectacle, as regiments from all over the Empire assembled in their bright glory. The Illyrian infantry regiments, the Chevau-Légers, and the multitudes of cavalry—the cuirasseurs with their helmets and breastplates gleaming in the weak sunlight, lancers in crimson and blue, hussars in braid and bearskin, the dragoons in helmets and uniforms of every colour—hundreds upon hundreds of men—tall, moustachioed and grand, warriors and heroes to a man, they, and their sleek matched horses, drawn from every corner of the continent, all parading in their splendid coveted honour.
Daily, every street and alleyway had been clogged with the drays and wagons of the commissariats, jammed with baggage wagons and cannon and strings of snorting horses and camp followers; while the city’s notaries, oblivious to the cheering crowds, the choruses of ‘Vive l’Empereur’, worked frantically and without ceasing, writing and copying the wills of so many thousands. And among that constant throng he had passed—unnoticed and unseen—just another young male in a city of men. And he had come and gone freely, an unknown, unobserved, no one among the press.
But now it was quiet. The soldiers were gone. The tents and horses and mules and grooms, the kitchen, cellar and forges were gone too, all following their beloved Emperor to the East. To Berlin and beyond. Pour l’Empire. Pour la gloire. Into the deathtrap that lay beyond Prussia.
Frowning suddenly, the boy rolled off the bed. And standing, stretching, calculating, he stared at the body on the straw mattress opposite. The boy, Brioche he’d been called, had been dead since morning. Kicked and beaten and dead. His thin ribs crushed by a guardsman’s boot. Dead because of his resemblance to another plain-faced boy.
“Poxy cullion,” the boy murmured, though not in anger.
He’d spent his anger years earlier, when the brutality of heroes and guardsmen was new to him. Now…well, now, it was all detail work. Then, he would have sought personal vengeance on the great bastard who’d done this. Now he just made them look like fools. Fools, every one.
He went to the window to peer through one grimy pane. The watcher was still below, his dust-coloured clothes blending with the limestone and shadows of the house opposite, rendering him almost invisible. But not invisible enough.
“Cock…” the boy muttered.
Then, his lips pressed tight into an uncompromising line, he returned to his bedside and drew a rapier-pointed knife from out the back of his stained breeches. Gripping the mattress at one end, he slit it open; the blade sliced easily through the rotting fabric and straw.
He replaced the knife in his waistband and reached into the mattress to remove handfuls of the matted straw, arranging them in neat clumps atop the mattress until they appeared almost as a series of interconnected ant-heaps.
He crossed to the body. And squatting beside it, smoothed the dead boy’s lank hair from off his forehead and sketched the sign of the cross in the air over him. Brioche, the baker’s son, left to starve in the streets of Paris after the army had taken his father to bake bread for Napoleon’s generals. Poor bruised Brioche.
He took hold of the mattress to drag it and the battered child upon it to his own gutted bed. And grunted with exertion. Brioche, dead, weighed more than ever he had in life.
Silently, he hauled the unstiffening body onto the bed, onto the spread straw, then slit apart the second mattress to strew its contents over the body. Then, gathering up a handful of tallow candle stubs he’d collected, he placed them, one by one, nestling them amongst the straw.
His task finished, he crossed to the opposite side of the room and crouched down against one wall to wait. To doze and patiently to wait. To wait until midnight, when the sky was blackest and all that was left of Paris was asleep. Or better still, drunk.
He closed his eyes, resting his head against the wall with its coating of mould and grime. Just a few hours to wait until he lit the funeral pyre. Then, once the flames took hold of the tallow and lamp oil and straw, an escape through the blackened skylight above the landing and out over the rooftops, out to the Porte St. Denis.
It would take them days to discover that the charred remains were not his, if ever they did discover it. And by then, it would be too late. By morning he would be out of the city; in three days he would be beyond their grasp.
He rose and went to the window to watch as their sentry gulped down the contents of a bottle. The boy checked the battered watch in his pocket. Nearly seven. Five more hours then. The sentry belched and ogled a young woman—a prostitute in a stained gown and tatty bonnet—as she strolled past him.
It was the barrenest strip of beach in all of Brittany. Fiske did not like it. He liked a beach with plenty of cover. Or even better, a deep cleft of an inlet in which to land—like at Biville in the old days. Anything but this expanse of sand and pebble as broad as it was long, stretching out for miles below a headland where half the French army could be lying on their bellies waiting to blow his head off, and him none the wiser.
He sniffed hard, clearing his head. Sand and small shells crushed and crunched underfoot. Grimacing, he gave his dinghy a last backward glance. It was still there—the only vessel of any kind as far as the eye could see. The storm that finished the Frenchies at Trafalgar six years earlier had also paid a call here, emptying the beach of its sand and smashing the local fishing fleet. Once, a long time since, the beach had been a favourite haven of wreckers, and the Bretons—a superstitious folk at the best of times—regarded the storm that ravaged their coast as those drowned sailors’ revenge. And mayhap they were right. So though the sea had returned the sand, the beach was believed to be haunted, and now only smugglers used it. Smugglers, or intelligence men.
It was not a good night for landing in France. The wind had been whipping down off the Channel all day, amassing enough cloud to give old Noah a nasty fright. Fiske reckoned he had an hour, a little more, a little less, before the storm broke in earnest. He didn’t fancy rowing back to the Cutter in driving rain.
He came to the edge of the beach. The path to the headland lay ahead, a straggling ribbon of packed earth between borders of cleavers and quitch grass. He checked, listening. Nothing. Nothing but the thundering of the waves and the keening of the wind over the deserted landscape, and in the farthest distance, the creak and bang of an unlatcheted shutter. He walked on, his collar turned up against the wind, shoulders hunched against the rising gale.
He was nearly upon the house before he could make it out—the lichen covered stone walls, the boarded-up windows, the rag stuffed through the hole in the one remaining pane of glass. Burrs caught at his stockings as he hurried up the garden path. The wood door was rotting on its hinges. The cottage looked deserted, dead. Fiske raised his fist and banged on the door.
There was no answer.
“The pox take you, Dupont,” Fiske swore. It would be just like him to be off whoring when he was wanted. “Idle cock.”
He banged again. Hard.
Nothing. Nothing but the wind and the silence indoors.
“I shall kill him if he’s away, sodomitical bastard…” Fiske promised himself. He hammered on the door, then turned to scan the garden for any sign of life, any furtive movement, anything. Nothing. Nothing but the howl and roar of the wind. He turned, beating on the door till it rattled.
“Qui est là?”
Fiske caught his breath and gave the door a final pounding.
“Eh bien, soyez patient! Je viens, je viens.”
Fiske stashed his hands in his pockets and waited.
Through the one green-stained window came a glimmering of weak light. The door rattled as inside the bar was removed and the bolt shot back. A moment later, it swung open.
“Est-ce que vous faites du miel pour les abeilles?” Fiske said sharply.
The man standing within the distorting halo of the tallow candle was not one Fiske recognised. The sheen of sweaty grime covered his face. His hair hung, thick and dark, in greasy strings over his forehead, ears and neck. The ragged jersey and torn canvas trousers he wore were the same as countless poor fishermen or deserters on either side of the Channel. His feet were bare and dirty.
“Est-ce que vous faites du miel pour les abeilles?” Fiske repeated.
The fisherman eyed Fiske warily, then spat. “Mais non. Moi, je préfère chasser au nom des lions.” His breath was foul.
“Good God, it is you, Dupont! I couldn’t tell.” Fiske lowered his voice. “Castlereagh’s recalling you on the instant. He wants you. Now.”
Narrowing his eyes, the man paused, perhaps in surprise, then stepped back and jerked his head for Fiske to enter. “It’ll take me a few minutes. Viens.”
Fiske shut and barred the door behind him.
“Anyone see you?”
“No. Not that I could tell. Anyone with a grain of sense is indoors with their windows shuttered an’ barred,” Fiske grumbled.
Dupont snorted. “Aye.”
Fiske followed him into the cottage’s main room and sat cautiously upon a broken-backed chair. Beneath him the ground was sticky with wine that had spilt and dried. Against one wall was a wooden bedstead with nothing upon it but a fouled mattress and a blanket, a single moth-eaten blanket liberally spattered and stained with wine, or blood. A dark layer of dust and ash coated everything. From behind the wooden sideboard, he heard the scrambling and scratching of mice. “Did anyone ever tell you, you live like a pig, Dupont?”
“It discourages unwelcome visitors,” Dupont retorted. He knelt down beside the unswept hearth and slid the point of a gutting knife along the edge of the ashy hearthstone. Carefully, he prised it up, lifted it out and propped it against the grate. “Does old Nosey know that I’m off?”
Fiske shrugged. “How would I know? They don’t tell me anything.” He hesitated. “But…I’ve heard that the boy has gone missing.”
Dupont gave him a hard, angry look. “The boy?”
Fiske shrugged again. He knew, as he said, nothing.
From out of the earthen cavity, Dupont drew a brace of military pistols, a sheaf of papers, a leather purse, and a polished brass spyglass.
“’Struth now, that’s a bonny piece,” Fiske murmured.
“What, this?” Dupont held up the spyglass. “It does the job.” He slid the stone back into its niche and brushed a handful of ashes over it. “I’ll follow you out to the Cutter in my own boat, then cut it loose. If they find the wreckage, they’ll blame the storm.” He dumped his few belongings on the table, then slid his feet into a pair of water-stained shoes. “Take the things on the table, will you, Fiske?”
“Yes, all right.” Fiske thrust the purse and papers into his pockets and the pistols into the waist of his breeches. “There’s nothing else? After all this time?”
“No,” Dupont said shortly.
Fiske had heard different.
Dupont shook his head, his expression hard and empty, and snuffed the candle. “Shall we go?” He followed Fiske out of the cottage, slamming the door behind him.
Three days of solid rain—an unrelenting torrent of water it had been—had left the roads grey and thick with a deep heavy layer of mud. It coated the carriage wheels, sucking at the horses’ hooves and splattering the carriage and the horses’ flanks with great gobs of brown muck.
Dunphail had come into this sodden corner of south Kent at the rumour of a mill between…’Struth, did it matter? He had been unable to find a decent bed any nearer than Rye. Then the authorities and the rain had arrived. Simultaneously. As if by prearranged signal.
Word that the mill was cancelled had been slow to reach him. By the time it had, the rain had started. So he’d waited. Filling in the time with endless games of patience in a close private parlour when he couldn’t find a partner for a hand of piquet. And waited. Avoiding the amorous overtures of a serving wench who fancied herself, and floating his insides on a sea of local ale. And waited.
When the clouds had finally broken this morning, he’d needed no more encouragement than that. He ordered his horses hitched to the carriage and drove out of the inn yard and over the pebbled surface of Mermaid Street less than half an hour later. But even now, mounting billows of silver and black cloud blanketed the sky, the wind had sharpened, and he was still driving at this snail’s pace over country lanes, between ditches full of rainwater turning brackish, the horses stumbling in the rutted and churned up clay and mud, no more than half the way back to London.
“God’s balls! Not another bloody market crowd!”
Dunphail’s groom, More, the short and solid individual who sat beside him on the front seat, squinted into the distance at the gathering of people—peasants and farmers they looked to him—blocking the road ahead, and cast a wary eye at his master.
“Aye. It does look tha’ way, dun’t it? I’ll blow the yard o’ tin, shall I?” he said evenly and reached for the long copper horn which rested at his feet. Three short blasts ought to clear the road.
Dunphail reined in gently, squeezing upon the reins as one squeezes a sea sponge in the bath, slowing the horses to a quieter pace. “Aye.”
Sucking in his breath, More put the horn to his pursed lips and produced three honking blasts that blared out like an elephant’s trumpet in a water fight.
“Sod you for a devil, More. Are you tryin’ to deafen me?”
At the sound of the horn, those at the edge of the crowd had turned. Seeing the approaching carriage and its team of blood horses, they reached for their friends or children to hurry them to the side of the road.
But the knot of those at the core of the crowd did not turn, their attentions fixed as they yelped shouts of encouragement or grunted their approval. At something. A dogfight perhaps?
“Daft Southron clots.” Dunphail’s speech lost its veneer of Englishness easily. “Blow it again, More.” Gently, he slowed the horses to a plodding walk. They grew nervy in a crowd.
Again, More blew the horn. Three short blasts that barked through the chilling afternoon air.
Now the crowd did part, some to either side of the road, leaving at the centre of the lane the spectacle that had drawn them in the first instance: a towering brute of a man with long curling hair, beating, with repeated blows to the face and head, a boy.
The man raised his hand and brought it down, backhanded and hard across the lad’s cheek, knocking his head back. Blood spattered from the boy’s mouth onto his chin. It spilled from his nose over his cheeks and down his throat, staining the fabric of his shirt. The man tightened his grip on the boy’s jacket, raised his fist for a blow to the jaw and landed it.
“God’s balls,” Dunphail swore. He halted the carriage.
The boy’s head snapped back and he staggered. A cut below his eye was bleeding freely.
“Sweet Christ,” More grunted, his eyes widening. “That were a nasty blow.”
The man cuffed the boy’s ear. Twice. Three times. The ear flushed crimson.
The man slapped the boy twice more, then drew his fist back and smacked the other side of his face. The boy’s cheeks burned red.
Dunphail’s jaw clenched, unclenched. For there was something peculiar here. Puzzling. Something about the way the boy was receiving the blows. Passively it was. Almost practised, you might say. Like a staged fight. His face was bloodied, but…’suredly, so many blows should have wrought more damage. Odd. The boy’s hands remained unresisting, unopposing at his side. Very odd. “What’s that, More?” Dunphail shook his head to clear it. He prized a good mill more highly than most. But this? He stood up. “You! I say, you there!” His Englishness was back.
A few of the local people, their eyes growing cautious, backed away from the brawling couple, backed away from the perch phaeton and the matched dun geldings. For with the unwanted arrival of ‘Quality’, the atmosphere had changed. A mother took her small son’s hand and dragged him protesting off toward a whitewashed cottage.
“I say, you there! Stop! Stop beating upon the lad!”
The bully grabbed a handful of the boy’s hair, yanked his head backward, then slammed his knuckles against the boy’s jaw.
“D’you not hear? I said, stop!”
The man threw Dunphail a look of contempt and raised his fist again.
“I say, stop!” Dunphail roared.
With a provocative, sly smile and sneering sideways glance, playing to his audience, the bully pulled his arm back another inch in preparation for a face-shattering blow.
The villagers glanced warily from the gentleman in his well-cut clothes and his gentry-voice to the man in his leather waistcoat, and back again.
The man loosed his blow.
Frowning, his whip hand held high, Dunphail snapped it. Hard. The full length of plaited leather whistled through the air. The thong coiled about the bully’s wrist, jerking it back and high over his head. He screeched with pain, or anger. The horses shifted and sidled.
“I said, stop thrashing the lad,” Dunphail enunciated, yanking on the whip handle.
The villagers edged farther away.
“Who’s the lad?” Dunphail demanded, dragging the whip upward, hauling the bully’s arm up into an unnatural position. “And, what is it he’s done? Who owns him then? Does no one claim him?” He raked the crowd with a look. “And who might you be, laddie?” He directed his last question to the big man, now struggling to free himself.
The man let out a ferocious stream of obscenities and oaths, startling those nearest him. An ex-soldier then. Or a navy man, a pressed man.
“Fetch the lad, More,” Dunphail ordered.
“Sod it, I said, ‘bring the lad’. Sweet Christ, is everyone gone deaf?” A bright red flush stained Dunphail’s cheeks. “No one claims him. ’Struth, if we don’t take him, yon billy’ll do more than just sort him. An’ I’ve no wish to add that to my conscience. At least, not today.”
More shot Dunphail a queer look. Since when did he have a conscience? It was nobbut a common lad. A thief from the look of him. Mud-stained and bloodied.
“Right, then.” More hopped down from the phaeton’s high step and stamped across to the boy. The onlookers stepped back, out of his path.
More nodded briskly to the lad. “The laird says you’re to come awa’ wi’ us.” His accent was a curious blend of the London stables and alehouses he frequented and his native Highland district.
“I’ll teach you to mess with John Brown!” the big man snarled.
More eyed him with marked disfavour. “Don’ get niffy wi’ me, son,” he barked, neatly slamming his knee into Brown’s groin. As he doubled over, gasping, More brought both fists up hard, smashing Brown’s jaw upward just as Dunphail tugged on the whip. “I can ’ave the scrote off a stallion like ’e quicker than ye can spit,” he snapped. “Now mind yoursel’.”
The boy had not moved.
“Did ye not hear? What are ye, deaf? Th’laird says you’re to come wi’ us the now, so get on wi’ ye.” He gestured toward the waiting carriage and the horses which had begun to fidget and snort. Sweet Christ! Daft Southron buggers, gormless to a man.
The boy considered More with his one unbruised eye. Blood was smeared across his cheeks and chin. His bottom lip was split and swelling. “Yes. All right.” He swallowed raggedly. Blood oozed from a cut in his top lip and flowed from his nose. His temple and cheekbone were bruised to a stippled scarlet. “Thank you.” For all that his words were slurred, he spoke like a gently reared child.
Graceful, proud, like a trained athlete or an unvanquished prize-fighter, he walked past the man who would have beaten his face in, away from the gawping crowd, his narrow shoulders squared and his head held erect.
A young widow in black disengaged herself from her neighbours and hurried to catch up with him. “Here. Take it.” She thrust a crumpled handkerchief into his hand, then rushed back to the safe anonymity of the crowd without ever having looked directly at his bleeding face.
The boy remained still for a moment. He drew a deep shuddering breath, blinked, then began to daub, gingerly and ineffectually, at his nose and mouth. Behind him, the villagers murmured and nodded amongst themselves. Small children stared with round eyes.
At the corner of the carriage, the boy halted to train his unflinching and impassive gaze upon his rescuer, to measure him, even. An outsider he was. An alien and a stranger. A Scot. As unlike himself as could be. A well-heeled Scot, with a handsome Scots face, the forehead high and smooth, the nose thin with an aquiline cast. The mouth was thin too, with a slight fullness at the centre of the bottom lip; his hair the colour of old, age-tempered red oak beside his fair skin; and his eyes, beneath flyaway brows, were an inky grey. A tall man too, and well-knit, broad through the shoulders, his legs and arms in good proportion to his torso, wearing well-cut ‘Quality’ clothes. He would know him anywhere now.
Dunphail affected not to notice, sparing the boy only a cursory glance. Dark matted hair, a battered face, a black eye, probably or possibly of twelve or thirteen years, wearing nondescript clothes that had seen better days. He was too thin, probably lousy, and unquestionably stank. Dunphail looked away. “More, release my whip.”
Like the others, More had been watching the lad—considering the fluid, effortless gait, the unnerving absence of tears. “Oh aye.”
More surveyed John Brown’s acne-scarred face without enthusi-asm—it was contorting unpleasantly, the muscles working in his jaw. “Bring your arm down slow-like, laddie, an’ I’ll undo the lash. But don’t go messin wi’ me or I’ll finish wha’ I started. D’ye ken? Aye… Good.” Deftly he unknotted and unwound the whip from about Brown’s wrist and hand.
The instant he was freed, Brown jerked away from the groom. Shoving past the still-curious villagers, he ducked between two cottages and out of sight. None spoke to nor stopped him.
More shrugged and returned to the phaeton, patting the horses on their rumps as he passed. “Good lads.” The boy had not moved.
“Can ye no’ manage? Right then, I’ll gie ye a hand,” More said, stepping up onto the front wheel and extending a hand to the lad to haul him up.
Dunphail drew in the length of his whip and shortened the reins in his fingers. “See to his face, More.”
More surveyed the mosaic of bruises, blood and skin thrashed raw, and scowled. “You’ll pardon my askin’, milor’, but wi’ what?”
Dunphail slapped the reins. “Walk on.” The geldings stepped into action throwing the boy against the seat back. “Use what’s left in the flask.”
The carriage bowled through the centre of the village. Then, before its few thatched cottages, blacksmith’s and alehouse were behind them, Dunphail snapped the whip over the leader’s head, and the horses quickened their pace to a measured trot.
“What is your name, child?” Dunphail asked. It was a demand, not a question.
More rummaged in his coat pocket for the flask.
“Boy, sir.” He spoke as through a mouthful of pebbles.
“Show th’laird the proper respect,” More growled. “He’s the Marquis o’ Dunphail. Dunphail of Abriachan. An’ don’t ye forget it.”
“Your Christian name?” Dunphail clarified, never looking from the road.
The boy hesitated. Despite all appearance of impassivity, to speak, to move at all, cost him dear. “Boy, my lord.”
“That’s it? Boy?”
“Queer name for a lad,” More grunted, soaking a handkerchief in brandy from an etched and polished silver hip flask.
“Yes, my lord.”
“And your surname, Boy?”
“Tirrell. Boy Tirrell, my lord.” He said it flatly.
“Here, now. Look this way, will ye?” More said, gentle as he patted and dabbed at the scraped flesh beneath the boy’s eyes. The lad winced, his spine straightening instinctively.
“Trust me, it’s painin’ me twice as much knowin’ it’s fine French brandy I’m washin’ your face with,” More grumbled.
The boy might have smiled but his eyes were stinging and his mouth had grown immobile. “Ow!” he yelped through clenched teeth.
“Aye, that’s cut deep.” More daubed at the split lip again. “How’re your teeth? Loose, are they?”
The rain-flattened countryside, all miry fields and drooping foxgloves, went past unnoticed.
“No. Not really,” Boy answered. His jaw was stiffening with the bruising. “They’ll mend.”
More busied himself with wiping the crusting blood from off the boy’s chin and throat. “You’re familiar wi’ this sort o’ thing, then?”
The boy paused. “It happens,” he said simply.
More gave a nod. “Aye. It will do.”
A patchwork of small scabs was forming across his bruised cheekbones. The side of his jaw was darkening—crimson to violet. His left eye had swollen shut and the bruises about it bled into one another like paint on an old, muddied palette.
More tossed the bloodied handkerchief at his feet. “That’s the best I can do for ye, laddie. A bit o’ raw steak would help wi’ the eye, but as for the rest, it’ll just take time.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Though they drove through the occasional squall of rain, drenching, and cold as snow, Dunphail neither slackened the pace nor stopped. More folded his arms across his chest and waited, a dour expression marking his craggy face whenever he glanced at the boy beside him. Eventually the pasturelands and hop fields gave place to the orchards and neat country houses of Greenwich, the roads widened, and the traffic grew heavier and noisier with drovers and goose-girls with their herds and flocks, with horsemen, with hackney and post carriages, private vehicles and drays.
The boy volunteered nothing until they reached the wastelands—the rubble fields and dust heaps and collections of miserable huts that formed the outskirts of the metropolis. There, through his teeth, he thanked Dunphail for his timely rescue and having brought him to Town, and requested that he might be set down at Westminster Bridge, if that was convenient. He spoke like a gentry child, his speech unmarked by local accent, nothing like a common lad. Dunphail acquiesced. More bristled and waited.
But by then they had become caught up in the lock—the disorderly mass of carriages of every description, to be found at every approach to the city, all blocking, manoeuvring and obstructing one another as far in every direction as one could see, their drivers muttering oaths or swearing loudly or silently cursing—which was the approach to Westminster Bridge. And somewhere amongst this crush of humanity and horses and vehicles, the boy slipped from the carriage seat and into the crowd, there to be seen one moment, then gone the next, vanishing facilely into a flock of tradesmen and children.
At length, his face set like an undertaker’s, Dunphail brought his horses and carriage to a halt before an imposing red brick house on Mount Street—the house he had shared with his cousin, Hardy, until just recently. With three floors and an attic, it was too large for a single gentleman. And he would have preferred Bath stone. Or granite.
“There was something very odd about that lad, milor’,” More commented.
Dunphail ignored him. “Stable them down well, More.” He knotted the reins about the whip stand. The Englishness had returned to his speech.
More climbed down from his seat and went to the horses’ heads. “Did ye not notice?” He rubbed the leader’s chin. “Good lad.
“He didna cry. Nor cry out! Did ye notice that? There’s no’ a man alive wha hae ta’en sich a beating wi’out a tear. An’ his hands. There wasnae a scratch on ’em. D’ye see? He’d no tried to defend himsel’. Not at a’!”
Dunphail surveyed the sky. The clouds were thick and heavy. More rain. He reached into his pocket for his snuffbox. Then, blandly: “No.” He sniffed. “And he took the punches. Prepared for them, and accepted them, so that he received the least amount of hurt from each—coached by an expert fight-master, I should have said. Any other child would have been unconscious. Or dead. But there was nothing broken, was there? Not even his nose so far as one could tell. Or do I mistake?” he questioned. Then as More confirmed it with a shake of his head, he shrugged. “’Struth, it was a rare performance.”
“Aye! Does that no’ bother ye?” More demanded.
“No, More. ’Struth, why should it? It’s nothing to do with me. He was a smuggler’s brat. Or a thief. In all likelihood, both. Born to be hanged, I dare say. All of which don’t concern me in the slightest.”
“Then why’d ye stop it?”
Dunphail favoured the groom with a rare piercing glare. His nostrils flared slightly. “Because I happen to dislike murder.” He paused. “No. ’Struth, I don’t give a gunner’s damn. However, I should very much dislike bein’ made an accessory to it. Now, stop standin’ about an’ stable the lads, will you?” He strode round the phaeton and up his two front steps. “Christ, why do I put up with him?”
“You put up wi’ me,” More retorted, “on account of I’m the only man south o’ the Tay wha can handle your poxy sow-tempered cattle!”
Dunphail took a pinch of snuff. Od’s life, he detested Town life these days. He shrugged. No. He just needed to go wenching later. “Aye. That’ll be it, then.”
© M. M. Bennetts 2010. All rights reserved.