BAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN
BAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN
In the dim starlight Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower could discern the narrow shoreline as the jollyboat was rowed steadily forward. From the bow Matthews quietly reported the depth at 13 and 4. In an equally soft tone, Hornblower gave the order to ship oars and render the signal. Styles held aloft two lanterns, and after a minute doused one, waited another minute, then doused the second.
"What next, sir?" he whispered to Hornblower.
"We wait, Styles, for two hours after we receive the response to our signal. If our passenger hasn't made himself known to us by then our orders are to return to the Inde without him."
If Hornblower's voice carried a note of skepticism, Styles could hardly blame him. There was very little shoreline where a man might walk or stand or hide. The cliffs seem to rise almost straight up several hundred feet from the sea, with only the occasional perch large enough to house a seabird's nest jutting from its facade.
Rising from the top of the cliff, almost appearing to be part of it, was a great hulk of a chateau dating from the 14th century. From the battlements a handful of 14-pounders were trained on the water below, rendering the castle and its surrounds virtually impregnable from the sea. From his reading, Hornblower knew the ground sloped away from the front of the castle making the gates easily defensible. In its 400-year history, Chateau Montfeuille had never been captured by an enemy army without having also been assisted by traitors within its unyielding walls. Even more telling, no prisoner had ever escaped its confines.
"Bloody waste of time! No one's going to be 'anging around 'ere." And no sooner had Styles got the thought out than a 4-inch ball of fire flashed over his head and plunged, sizzling, into the water only a few feet from the boat.
"What the 'ell was that?" Other than Styles' exclamation the crew seemed paralyzed with shock.
"That," said Hornblower dryly, "was a flaming arrow. I believe it was also our signal. Two hours now, Matthews. Mark the time, if you please. Quiet all."
If the young lieutenant was at all impressed with the dramatic flair of the bowman, he was careful to not make it apparent.
About three hundred feet up the cliff, Nick Collins, England's premier assassin, slung his bow across his shoulder to join the quiver and the small pack already hanging there. Dressed entirely in black and with his wild black curls ruthlessly bound back from his finely boned features, his deceptively slight frame was nearly invisible against the rock. Moving slowly and carefully in the darkness, testing every finger- and toehold, he inched his way up the stone face. He had made this climb twice before in daylight, right under the Frenchies' collective noses, and blind-folded on one of those occasions, learning the secrets of the stone which would allow him to make this climb with out any light save what the stars gave him. He smiled to himself. The starlight was a significant improvement over the blindfold. As long as he was careful - and strangely enough considering his line of work, he considered himself a very cautious fellow - this cliff was now like an old friend to him.
But even old friends had a way of surprising one, and so he
remained calm and cautious, moving slowly but inexorably upwards,
like the creeping in of the tide.
Reaching the zenith, he pulled himself over the rocky lip of the cliff and strolled in a manner as casually as he might have strolled in Hyde Park, right up to the castle wall, where he sat down with his back against the stones. Unclasping a canteen from a belt which also secured a small grappling hook attached to a length of rope, he drank deeply before discarding the now-empty canteen.
His internal clock was the most accurate one he knew. The boat would wait two hours from the time of his signal. It had taken him one hour and forty-six minutes to scale the last 200 yards of the cliff and take up his position at the foot of the semicircular tower. He rested for exactly five minutes before rising again and unclipping the grapnel from his belt.
The tines of the hook, except for the points, were tightly wrapped in yarn. When he attached the hook to an arrow and fired it up to the battlements, the tines made only the merest whisper as they caught and grabbed the edge of the merlon, leaving the rope to dangle the length of the wall. Bearing down with all ten stone of his fragile-looking frame, he assured himself the hook was properly set and, with the bow once again slung over his shoulder, began the hand-over-hand ascension of the impenetrable Chateau Montfeuille.
Slipping over the battlement and releasing the grappling hook, allowing it to fall to earth with the noise of the sea to muffle the dull thud, one part of his mind was focused on the task ahead, one part was tracking the time: Another five minutes gone. Only four minutes until the boat left without him. His breathing was soft and regulated.
Like a shadow he slipped past two bored and ill-disciplined soldiers who were whiling away their time on guard duty by sharing a bottle of wine, and ran lightly down the curved outside staircase until he came to a lighted window in the tower. As usual in this July heat, the window had been left open. Peering cautiously around the edge, the tableau inside made Nick smile. He'd left precisely one minute free in his calculations in case he needed to make some sound to draw the officers inside to the window, to give him a clear shot at his target.
It was unnecessary.
Colonel Auguste Robert de Purvaisse, the Butcher of Tudela
and numerous other
Iberian pueblos, who had slain so many innocent Spanish villagers in so many obscene ways, sat directly opposite the window, with nothing blocking his assassin's aim. In a whisper of a moment, Nick had his bow in position, the arrow notched, the string drawn. Scant seconds later, a two-foot shaft of wood pierced the Colonel's heart. He died without ever hearing the shocked exclamations of his companions, or the cries of alarm, or the pistol being fired through the window at his killer who had already vanished, leaving bow and quiver behind.
Only two minutes left.
Nick fled at full tilt back up the stairs, hearing but not looking back to see the first of the French officers come through the window and pound up the steps after him. Another pistol was discharged but the curvature of the staircase was Nick's ally and the ball caromed off the stone wall and back toward the shooter, narrowly missing a French skull.
Reaching the battlements, Nick simply lowered his head and barreled past the two befuddled guards, and leaped up into the crenel.
One minute left.
As the angry French officers gained the battlement, entirely bowling over the useless guards, Nick turned his head and flashed a brief smile at them.
"Au revoir, mes amis. Rapellez-moi!"
And like a giant black swan he dived gracefully from the tower, more than 500 hundred feet above the water, an enormous cloud of black seeming to blossom in his wake. He was gone from sight before one French officer, sword drawn, gained the crenel and peered down, seeing nothing in the blackness below.
"Mon Dieu!" he breathed. "C'est un diable!"
"Two hours now, Mr. Hornblower," Matthews informed him.
"Thank you, Matthews. Come astern and take the tiller, if you please." Hornblower made way for Matthews and ordered, "Take us back to the Inde."
The oars had dipped in the water but once when an object splashed heavily into the water several yards to larboard.
"Quiet!" ordered Hornblower. Oars were frozen in mid-air. The men scarcely breathed.
"I say!" called a distinctly English voice across
the water. The voice moved
closer to the boat as the speaker continued. "You chaps weren't going to leave without me were you? I still had half a minute left, you know!"
A fine-boned face with rivulets of water streaming down it popped up by the gunwale, almost at Hornblower's knee. Looking around at the astonished expressions just readable in the dim light, Nick inquired politely while treading water, "You were expecting me, I hope?"
Horatio recovered his aplomb and stretched out a hand to assist this strange man into the boat. "Indeed we were, sir. Your appearance is timely."
"In a minute," Nick said, shaking his head at taking the hand offered. "Have you got a knife? This damned rag weighs a ton now. It's like to drown me if I don't cut it off."
Oldroyd passed over a knife, but in the darkness none of the men could make out exactly what the man in the water was doing with it, though he was splashing and sloshing a good bit.
"At last! I swear I'd no thought that once it got wet it would weigh more than Hetty Bracegirdle!"
Nick returned Oldroyd's knife and clambered into the boat, happily accepting Hornblower's jacket to wrap around himself, oblivious to the raised eyebrows at the mention of their First Lieutenant's wife. Hornblower coughed to disguise a laugh, then repeated his order to row for the Indefatigable, before addressing his passenger.
"Lieutenant Hornblower, sir, Indefatigable. May I have the pleasure?"
"Nicholas Collins, sir, and you must believe me when I tell you the pleasure is entirely mine. And my heartiest thanks to all of you," he nodded to the crew, "for sitting through what must have been a singularly boring two hours for you."
"If I may be so bold," Horatio inquired as the boat pulled smoothly through the water, "what was it you were referring to which weighed so much? And how did you come to fall into the water?"
Nick answered the latter question first. "Oh, I had to jump for it. There was no other way." He was entirely nonchalant. "The Frogs were hot for my blood."
"Jumped? From the castle?" Styles exclaimed. "But that must be --- well, I dunno how high up it is, but you can't bleedin' well say you jumped off there and landed here all safe and sound and expect any of us to believe it!"
"That will do, Styles!" Hornblower barked.
Nick only laughed. "I understand your skepticism, Mr. Styles. But that rag I just cut myself loose from is what the French call a parachute. Clever idea some chap named LeNormand came up with six or seven years ago in Paris. It acts as a kind of sail and catches the wind as you fall, slowing your descent. I'd not want to try that particular jump over land, as I'm a fairly cautious type of fellow, but it was safe enough over water. At least it was once I'd cut the thing away."
In the starlight, Hornblower and Matthews exchanged glances of amazement.
Styles lost the beat of the oars for a moment as he stared in disbelief at this odd creature. Finally swinging back into the rhythm of the stroke, he snorted, "Cautious! Aye, just as cautious as --"
"Styles!" Hornblower snapped sharply.
Styles piped down, but promised himself he would have a chat later with this Mr. Collins about "perrychoots."
"Oh, damnation!" exclaimed Mr. Collins in sudden dismay. "My brain must be awash with sea water! Did you say Indefatigable, sir?"
Nick turned up the overlong sleeves of his borrowed shirt and tucked the tail into breeches clearly made for a man twice his size. Lieutenant Bracegirdle was making very plain to him his jealousy and dislike. God alone knew what Hetty had put into her letters to the man.
"Now, why," Nick grimaced to himself at his oversight, "did I not have the forethought to intercept her letters to him? I have got lazy, that's what!"
Indeed, of all tasks ever assigned to him, as an agent of the Crown, making up to Henrietta Bracegirdle had surely been the easiest to accomplish. There was never any need for prying or skulking when he wanted information regarding the ship on which Robin Halliwell had sailed. In fact, Hetty so doted upon him that she insisted on sharing all her incoming correspondence with him, even of the most personal nature from her husband. As both Mr. and Mrs. Bracegirdle's enormous appetites extended beyond the culinary and into the erotic arts, Nick might have been put to the blush more than once if his early years had not been spent in hearing about the innermost workings of a brothel from his grandmother, who had once operated the most notorious house in The Mint when that area was still a bastard sanctuary.
Instead of blushing, Nick's strong sense of the ridiculous occasionally induced him to mop at his eyes with his handkerchief when Henrietta would read to him the latest amorous epistle from her spouse. This in turn led Hetty to perceive Nick as a tenderhearted, romantical, and poetical sort of fellow. Or as Nick had put it to himself, "She thinks I am a saphead."
Even so, after Robin's return to England and Nick's assignment in regard to Mrs. Bracegirdle was officially ended, Nick maintained the acquaintance, regularly taking tea with Hetty as well as escorting her on shopping excursions, to parties and the theatre, when he was not engaged on government business.
Some men might have found her an encumbrance, but Nick took no small amount of pleasure in the foibles of his fellow man. He considered that Hetty had more than her rightful share of idiosyncrasies, particularly in matters of a gastronomic nature. In short, her outlook, her manners (or occasional lack thereof), her opinions, her attire, her very being all afforded him a great deal of delight. And now that he thought on't, delight might well be too mild a word to describe the hilarity she furnished him, albeit unknowingly for the most part.
Was he arrogant, conceited, patronizing, he wondered, for enjoying her flaws so enthusiastically? He conceded that indeed he was, but further excused himself by noting how very little humor a man such as he, so occupied by death, must find in life. He also allowed that if Hetty Bracegirdle did not find a reciprocal degree of pleasure in his company he would have quitted her without further thought. If she thought him some sort of impoverished poet to be nourished with food and encouragement, he viewed her as a rather eccentric aunt. In the privacy of his own rooms he might chuckle at the never-ending list of scrapes she got into, but he strove mightily never do so to her face. Nor would he dream of speaking to anyone of her in a derogatory fashion.
Still, the bill for this bizarre friendship had now been presented to Nick, for Mr. Bracegirdle made it clear from the outset of their introduction that the name of Nicholas Collins had appeared far too often and in much too favorable a light in Mrs. B's letters to him.
Nick sighed. It had seemed from the lieutenant's letters home that the man must have the patience of Job and the inexhaustibility of Priam to remain happily married to Hetty. But after months at sea, reading letter after letter from the prolific Hetty, Mr. Bracegirdle's patience was quite threadbare. No, it was more than that, Nick decided. Bracegirdle wanted blood. It was going to be demmed tricky to stay out of a duel until he could quit the Indefatigable.
Again, he sighed. What the DEVIL had Hetty put in those letters?
He perched on the cot in the tiny cabin allotted to him and so recently vacated by its likely-disgruntled occupant. Beside him on the cot was the packet of orders handed to him by Sir Edward Pellew, the ship's captain. Here was another little surprise, receiving orders through this channel. Military dispatches were an incredibly careless and insecure way to pass information and orders, but then things in the intelligence branch just hadn't been the same since the Old Gentleman had died.
Nick looked the packet over carefully but in spite of its virginal appearance, he doubted that it had arrived in his hands without contamination. If this should be another assassination order, he would have to carefully weigh the possibility of its being a plant. He could just imagine the furor at Westminster if he killed one of their own in some particularly nasty fashion.
At last he broke the seal and opened the pages. As expected, a small calling card was enclosed and lay face down against the blank whiteness of the cover. Flipping it over, Nick's eyebrows climbed into twin arches over startled black eyes. Unlike the black-edged calling cards he usually received, this one was scalloped in bright crimson. No, this was definitely not an order he had ever before received. But thinking the matter over, there was no question of the legitimacy of the command regarding the single name scribed upon the card. No, no Frenchman could have planted this. The times were indeed changing.
He shook his wild curls and pursed his lips in distaste. This could and should have been dealt with without intervention from an agent as specialized as Nick. What the hell was Westminster playing at? If they'd wanted this done, why the devil hadn't it been taken care of while the ship was in port? Nick rarely questioned his orders, and he would carry this one out with as little fuss as possible, but someone in London would answer for this.
With long, elegant fingers he tore and re-tore the card into the tiniest of shreds, until nothing remained of it but a ball of lint. Then he lay down upon the cot and closed his eyes, not to sleep, but to consider what little he knew of this ship and its crew.
And he wondered if Captain Pellew had any notion that he was about to die.
Nick's efforts to draw for Styles the basic design of a parachute while explaining the physical mathematics necessary to its success were being hindered by the presence of the cook's cat. Dubbed Vernon by the cook and referred to as Vermin by the crew, the battle-scarred orange tabby wound ceaselessly in and out and around Nick's ankles, butting his head against Nick's calf occasionally. Impatient with being ignored, he decided drastic action was necessary.
"...And so the speed at which one is falling is countered -- Damnation!" swore Nick, as the insistent feline leaped into his arms, dislodging slate and chalk, and startling even Styles, who had been intent upon the lesson in "perrychooting."
A grin spread across Styles' scarred face. "That cat has surely taken a fancy to you, Mr. Collins. Been feedin' it a bit on the side like?"
An exasperated Nick pulled Vermin's head around until he looked the cat in the eyes. "When I'm through here," he said firmly, "I will pet you. And not a moment before I say it is time, is that understood?"
Vermin blinked at him slowly.
"No!" Nick was adamant and spoke more forcefully. "When I am ready. Not until then. Now go harass some rats or something. Don't come back for at least half an hour."
Vermin softly batted Nick's chin with one paw.
"Never mind that now," Nick ordered. "I said it and I mean it!"
And he lightly placed Vermin back on the deck, giving him a gentle nudge to move on. For long seconds the cat sat on his haunches and eyed Nick speculatively. Styles was amused by the appearance of communication between man and cat.
Nick frowned, one arm akimbo in an attitude of impatience. "If you can't follow orders, Vernon, I have no use for you. Out of my sight this instant or don't come near me for the remainder of this voyage."
Vermin rose, slowly stretched one hind leg, then the other, and with a saucy twitch of the tail wandered away.
Styles could hardly contain his merriment.
"I'd swear that animal understands every word you say, sir! Cook'll be jealous if he sees how that cat hangs about you."
Nick shook his head ruefully, but definitely did not want to continue further with a subject on which he knew himself to be a trifle sensitive.
"Where were we?" He picked up the slate and began answering a barrage of technical questions about jumping from the sky with only a bit of fabric to break one's fall. At times he would lift his black thatch of curls and sweep the deck with a single, piercing glance. If his gaze strayed most often to one of the seaman recently transferred to Indefatigable, a narrow-eyed, lantern-jawed Irishman named Mahoney, it did not rest there for so prolonged a period that Styles or anyone else noted it.
And if Nick allowed himself to be distracted for minutes at a time from observing Mahoney's every move, well, it hardly made a difference in regard to his duty regarding Captain Pellew, who had been keeping close to his quarters these past two days with some stomach ailment or other. Lurking about the captain's door while a marine sentry stood looking on was hardly the action of a cautious man, and Nick considered caution to be his watchword. No, this would all be so much simpler if only he chose the right man: A man willing to kill in cold blood. It remained only to determine whether Mahoney was the man Nick thought he was.
Nick sipped at his grog as he strolled amongst the crew skylarking during the second dogwatch. He stopped here to listen to a jest, there to raise his eyes to watch two men race their way up the rigging to the foretop, pausing just often enough that it seemed mere happenstance that he ended his foray by idly leaning against the same gun as Mahoney.
When two of the men began chiming a song, without looking at Mahoney Nick inclined his head closer and said softly, "Vive l'Empereur!"
The big Irishman froze for a long second, then bent a disdainful look from his narrow eyes on Nick.
"Aye," he growled, "I moight've knowed it'ud be a Frenchified popinjay they'd send to make contact. No more muscle than a woman, have ye?"
"I can do what's needed," Nick assured him, "but we can't talk here. Wait half an hour, then meet me in the cable tiers." Downing his grog, he resumed his languid stroll around the deck. Not even Mahoney noticed when he vanished below decks.
Down on the orlop deck, Nick lowered his lantern carefully before sitting down next to it amid the great coils of rope stored there.
"Wonderful," he sighed dejectedly, noting three pairs of tiny red eyes peering at him through the gloom. "This voyage would have been woefully incomplete without spending half an hour with a pack of rats. Look, boys," he now addressed the trio of rodents, "I have serious work to do here. Why not go chew on some poor soul's hammock, or gnaw your way through a barrel of flour, eh?"
One of the rats edged out into the lamplight, nose testing the air.
"Go on then," Nick made a shooing motion with one hand. "I really don't care for rodents anyway, you know." He was never more sincere.
A tiny squeak came from the leader, and his two friends clittered up behind him, all bright beady eyes on Nick.
"Nothing personal," he assured his companions, grimacing at their yellow teeth, matted grey fur, and whipcord thin tails. "I am also not fond of squirrels and rabbits. And I really am expecting another human down here shortly. A lot of these seamen eat rats, you know, so you don't want to be hanging about when the bad man comes."
The only effect this dire warning had was to cause the leader to tiptoe another few inches closer to Nick.
"And there's a great monstrosity of a cat named Vernon who roams this ship," Nick informed them conversationally. "You'd not want to run into him in some dark corner, I promise you!"
The leader was not deterred and crept closer still.
"Oh, all right!" Nick suddenly gave in as if under the power of some great persuasion. "Just you," he pointed at the leader and beckoned with two fingers, "and all of you take yourselves off when the bad man comes. He really does seem the sort to eat rats." He shuddered in delicate distaste.
By the time Mahoney was winding his way between the cables to where Nick sat, the rat leader had been determined to be female and would sit, or stand stretched out, or carry its own tail in its front paws at Nick's quiet behest. At a sharp signal from one elegant hand, she scampered obediently away into the gloom accompanied by her friends.
Nick fastidiously wiped at his hands with his kerchief and rose effortlessly to meet Mahoney.
"Well?" the man demanded roughly, a cold smile lighting his features not at all. "Tell me then, boy-o, 'as a fragile little bit of fluff like you ever done 'is own killin' afore?"
"I don't think Pellew will present a problem," Nick snapped indignantly, before announcing in grandiose style, "I have a plan!"
"O' course you do, o' course you do!" laughed the Irishman. "My plan is, take him tonight, that's my plan."
Nick shook his head. "No, not tonight. Here's the way I believe we ought to proceed."
He looked around, as if to assure himself no one else was listening, then gestured for Mahoney to come closer, deliberately using the same gesture as when he had beckoned the rat. The conspirator, too, glanced around as if aware that aboard ship, the walls indeed had ears, before leaning in to hear the plan. Without warning, the side of Nick's fist slammed into Mahoney's head just behind one ear, and the Irishman sank into an undignified and unconscious heap.
Casually Nick flipped a marling spike end over end, catching it before lightly kissing the rounded head, then tucking the iron utensil back into the belt securing his borrowed breeches.
"Frenchified popinjay, indeed!" he muttered.
A squeak of approval came from the shadows. "Yes, well, don't let me catch you above this deck," Nick warned the shadows at large, "or I'll feed you to the sharks. Faugh! I need to wash my hands!"
On the following evening Nick cheerfully clambered down the companionway, following behind Mr. Hornblower as they made their way to the captain's quarters. His mood was partially elevated by the return of his own clothing, clean and neatly folded, appearing as if by magic on the foot of his cot this morning. Unrelieved black was not the most exhuberant attire, but he was pleased to be once again standing in clothes which fit properly. He had returned Mr. Bracegirdle's yardage with a gracious note of appreciation for the use of his clothing, but not being the sort of fellow to forgive and foget a slight, particularly a calculated slight, Nick had patiently taken the time to snip through every third stitch before returning the borrowed garments. He rubbed his hands together in anticipatory glee as he hoped Mr. Bracegirdle would wear those breeches soon.
He also was happy to be dining with the other officers at the Captain's table this evening. That meant Pellew was feeling better, but more importantly, Nick hoped for a decent meal. And even if the cuisine proved to be no more than what the crew was having, no doubt Pellew would still have a bottle of fine wine for a garnish. Grog served its purpose well enough, but nothing replaced a good claret in Nick's opinion.
Greeting Pellew with a well-deserved compliment on the color scheme of his dining room, Nick noted how tired the older man looked. There was a touch of pink to the whites of his eyes, as if his sleep had been too long disturbed. Always a trim figure, to Nick's eye the man's thin face with its long jaw seemed almost gaunt, the cheeks slightly sunken and the eyes shadowed. Ah, well, at least Mahoney would not now be adding to the good Captain's troubles. And there were three very interesting looking bottles resting on the sideboard. Better and better, he thought, and put himself out to be an entertaining and delightful dinner companion.
If his efforts at wit and conversation were unappreciated by a glowering Bracegirdle, and if Pellew only toyed with his food Nick could hardly blame him, it was only salt pork, boiled peas, and sea biscuit -- and seemed restless, the other officers displayed an appropriate level of pleasure, responding with their own jests and tall tales of the sea. Inevitably, as will happen when men of like employment are gathered for relaxation, the talk gradually turned to their work: The winds, the tides, ship's repairs, and manpower shortages.
"And I am short one man again today," complained Lieutenant Kennedy, as the steward, Phibbs, began to pour the wine.
"Mahoney is still missing, I take it?" queried Hornblower, who sat opposite his friend.
The steward clattered the wine bottle against Nick's glass, and he glanced up at the man to see a fleeting expression, much like fear, gleam in the man's eyes. A tiny vertical line appeared between Nick's brows.
Kennedy shrugged his mystification. "We searched the entire ship. I even made Jemson and Clavers drag the bilge. He must have gone over, but no one knows when. He was skylarking with the others last night. No one saw him leave, but no one saw him afterwards either."
"How peculiar," Nick observed. "Do you think it was suicide or an accident?"
Kennedy's expression was bland but the tone of his voice told the story. "He was too experienced to have fallen overboard in these relatively calm waters. Suicide?" He shrugged again. "Possibly. But he was new to our crew, and he wasn't putting himself out to make friends."
Everyone took a second to absorb the implication. The steward had started to refill Pellew's wine glass, which he had barely sipped from. To prevent him, Pellew covered the glass with his hand but the steward's gaze was fixed on Kennedy and he poured the wine on the Captain's hand.
"Watch what you're about!" snapped Pellew, jerking his hand back and using his serviette to wipe the wine from his fingers. Nick's eye was caught by this action and for several seconds he stared in horror at the almost unnoticeable discoloration beneath Pellew's fingernails.
Evidence snapped in sequential pictures in his mind like so many portraits in a gallery.
The discoloration. The stomach ailment. The pinkish tinge to Pellew's eyes. His weary restlessness. Mahoney. The wine bottle clanking against the glass. Phibbs. Mahoney. The wine spilling over Pellew's fingers. Phibbs.
Sound receded from Nick's ears and his breathing gradually slowed and deepened as he raised his head and fixed the black concentrated stare of a predator upon the steward.
Not a new man.
Mahoney's words rang in his mind. "I moight've knowed it'ud be a Frenchified popinjay they'd send to make contact."
Two killers, not one.
He should have seen it, should have guarded against it even if there had been nothing to point to a second man in the plot. But Mahoney had pointed him straight to it and in his arrogance or his carelessness he had overlooked it. But he would rectify the problem.
Phibbs was mopping the wine from the table when the intensity of Nick's gaze penetrated his consciousness. He lifted his eyes and met Nick's. Fear flashed across his face and he jumped, but Nick jumped as well, and one long, lean hand was fastened around Phibbs' throat before he could utter a sound. With the impetus of his forward motion, he silently and relentlessly drove the squawking steward back against the bulkhead.
"Good God! Mr. Collins, what do you think you are doing?" Captain Pellew's voice boomed his shock at this disruption to his table.
Nick felt rough hands grabbing him, prying him away from Phibbs, voices yelling at him to let go. Naturally, Nick thought, it must be Bracegirdle who wrenched him away, nearly dislocating one of Nick's shoulders in the process. Pinned to the First Lieutenant's bulky frame, Nick watched as Phibbs sank to his knees, clutching his bruised throat and alternately gasping for air and pleading for mercy.
Pellew swore fluently, exhausting himself still further, while Nick made a note in his mental diary commending the Captain on his Rabelaisian eloquence. Nick tried to ease away from Bracegirdle's grip and suffered another wrench to his shoulder. He could feel Bracegirdle slowly tightening his grip, squeezing the air from Nick's lungs, and he thought he'd better make his words count before the First Lieutenant rendered him unconscious.
"Poison! Phibbs has poisoned your wine, Captain!" he managed to wheeze..
Bracegirdle was sufficiently stunned by this statement that he relaxed his hold on Nick, who took instant advantage and tore himself from the bigger man's grasp. All eyes were on Nick, save for Phibbs who lay face down on the deck whimpering.
Nick straightened his clothes as he pulled the cloak of his composure around him.
"Unless I miss my guess, Captain, he's put arsenic in your wine."
A collective gasp went up from the junior officers, but Pellew looked unbearably weary at this news, as if he could not summon the strength to be astonished. He did not even turn his head as he ordered calmly, "Mr. Kennedy, please find Dr. Hepplewhite and request his immediate presence in my quarters. Mr. Cleveland, place Mr. Phibbs under close arrest. He is to have no contact with anyone save yourself for the time being. No hint of Mr. Collins' accusation to leave these quarters, is that clear?"
His last question was meant for everyone, and a chorus of "aye aye's" was returned.
"Mr. Collins," he continued, "when the doctor arrives, you may relate any evidence of your accusation to him for verification. Mr. Hornblower, please take my wineglass, and see if you cannot coax its contents inside a rat or two, and observe the results. Mr. Heather will assist you. And again, I must warn you against enlisting any of the crew to aid you in this task."
A wide-eyed Cleveland hauled a whimpering Phibbs to his feet and dragged him away, preceded by Kennedy and followed by Heather and Hornblower bearing away the wine.
"Very well, gentlemen," and Pellew stressed the appellation, "let us all be seated again and be comfortable until the doctor arrives."
Nick returned to the table, hoping that Mr. Hornblower would not choose his victims from the rats on the orlop deck.
When he looked up and saw Mr. Bracegirdle's stern eyes watching
him closely, his demeanour that of a well-trained canine patiently
awaiting a juicy bone, Nick sighed. On the whole, he decided,
he'd rather be racing back up the tower steps in Chateau Montfeuille
with an entire army of Frogs on his heels.
As Pellew was no great admirer of or believer in Dr. Hepplewhite's healing skills, he had not heretofore been called upon to physick his Captain. Nick felt fortunate then, that although he was certain Mr. Hornblower's experiments with the rats would support his accusation of poisoning, the doctor had no interest in covering up a prior misdiagnosis. On the other hand, in the short time Nick had been aboard ship, he had learned not to count upon the doctor's medical knowledge, it being very limited -- not to say outdated -- in scope.
"Thank you for coming so quickly, Doctor," Pellew remained ever the courteous gentleman, no matter his personal distress, as he gestured to Hepplewhite to sit down. Kennedy resumed his own place at table.
"I must apologize to you, sir, for not having sought your advice earlier. Naturally I thought the nature of my illness to be brief and something I would overcome without having to disturb you from duties I know to be onerous."
Having flattered Hepplewhite into complacency, Pellew came directly to the point. "But I now feel the need to have your -- er, expert opinion on my situation."
"Certainly, certainly!" beamed Hepplewhite, and added with a relish which indicated just how very rarely Pellew ever called upon him, "Perhaps you would begin with a description of your symptoms, sir, and then we will proceed with an examination."
The Captain appeared startled for a moment at the thought of being examined by Hepplewhite, but only murmured, "We shall see. Mr. Collins will give you a list of my symptoms. If you would be so good, sir?"
Nick had to admire Pellew's strategy. He would have made a good intelligence agent, for he clearly was going to compare Nick's list of symptoms against his own, and hear also Hepplewhite's opinion with giving away any information at all.
"Certainly, sir." Nick turned in his chair to address the doctor, and tried to remember the all the most common results of arsenic poisoning, aside from death. "I believe Captain Pellew has been suffering intermittent bouts of severe gastric distress, including nausea, cramps and vomiting. No matter how much he rests, he remains tired, yet restless and edgy. He has been suffering unusually painful headaches. He has had the occasional spell of dizziness, I think, but has probably attributed it to the ship's motion and his nausea. He also has conjunctivitis, and the faintest discoloration under his fingernails, which, to be honest, I am not sure is related to his other symptoms, but is unusual and so I include it."
Hepplewhite's expression was entirely grave by the time Nick ended, but he only cleared his throat and peered at Pellew for a long moment. He rubbed his one thumb against the opposing forefinger in a nervous mannerism, before asking, "And is that the extent of your symptoms, Captain?"
Pellew cocked his head to one side. "What other symptoms might you expect in conjunction with those already named, sir?" he countered.
"Have you experienced any burning pains in your hand or feet?"
"In your throat?"
"Yes, a constant, raw burning sensation."
"A numbing sensation throughout the body?"
"Moments of -- paralysis?"
"Difficulty focusing your eyes?"
"Palpitations of the heart?"
"When did you last eat?"
"A bite or two at dinner just now. Well, Doctor?"
Hepplewhite hemmed and hawed until the Captain snapped, "Let's have it, man! For God's sake, stop fidgeting and speak up!"
"I'm sure I must be mistaken, sir," Hepplewhite hedged. "You must allow me to consult my books --."
"Damn your books, sir! I want your opinion and I want it now!"
"Captain, I -- I -- it sounds very much to me as though you are eating arsenic." The doctor was cringing even as he blurted it out. Nick felt both gratified and relieved to have his suspicions supported by Hepplewhite.
"Eating arsenic, sir! You make it sound as though I had been ordering it up alongside a portion of peas and biscuit! Eating arsenic! And what would be the remedy for 'eating arsenic,' Dr. Hepplewhite?" Pellew demanded.
The doctor went from cringing to a certain grim assurance. "There is no remedy, Captain Pellew."
Nick interjected: "While it is by no means a cure, milk seems to act as a counter-agent, and I would recommend that you drink as much of it as you are able to stomach, Captain. And then drink some more of it."
Mr. Bracegirdle exchanged a look with Captain Pellew which Nick could not interpret. The two men had worked together long enough that each seemed to know the other's mind without speaking, and it was certain that Mr. Bracegirdle's quiet composure was a direct reflection of his Captain's tutelage. But whatever Bracegirdle was thinking was left unspoken due to the abrupt reappearance of Hornblower and Heather.
"S -sir!" Hornblower's nervous stammer caused Pellew's hopes to sink before the young man uttered another word. "The - the rats, sir, we fed them the wine on a bit of biscuit. I didn't stay to see them die, but they -- it is obvious, sir. There was poison in your glass."
Pellew was, Nick thought, the calmest man under possible sentence of death he had ever seen.
"Then I have a problem, gentleman," he announced in precise tones. "Mr. Collins tells me I need to drink milk to counter this poison. And, as Mr. Bracegirdle is already aware, when I requested cream with my tea this morning, cook sent word that our sole cow has been dry these past three days."
Hornblower thought fast. "We're not so far off the French coast still, Captain. We could stand in and - and --."
"And steal a cow!" finished a grinning Nick.
A strange kind of embarrassment crept over the little company.
"My God," Pellew was disgusted, "the finest frigate in His Majesty's Navy, reduced to thieving cattle! I despair, I really do!"
"Mr. Hornblower, work out a plan, take what men you need, and obtain a cow. Mr. Bracegirdle, stand us in, if you will, and gentlemen, you will all take your orders tonight from Mr. Bracegirdle. Doctor, I have already ordered that nothing which has occurred here tonight will leave this room, by word or suggestion. You are included in that order. And now, gentlemen, if you will all excuse me. Except you, Mr. Collins. A word with you, if you please."
When the two men were alone, still seated at the table, Pellew asked, "What made you suspect, Mr. Collins?"
"I am ashamed to say I did not suspect. The packet you gave me when I came aboard contained an order to guard your life. I have never been assigned such a task, and I am afraid I have bungled it rather badly. I thought the man Mr. Kennedy spoke of, Mahoney, I thought he was the sole assassin. I know he was part of the plot at any rate."
Pellew rose wearily. "I'm very tired, Mr. Collins, and wish to retire. Will you assist me?"
Nick nodded his assent and stood to lend Pellew his arm. They made the trek to Pellew's sleeping quarters, aft of the quarterdeck, in what Nick felt was almost a companionable silence. It wasn't until he was helping Pellew off with his shoes, the Captain asked, "So you determined Mahoney was going to murder me, and you threw him overboard?"
Nick was startled and raised his curly black head to meet Pellew's level brown gaze.
"Good Lord, no, sir! I wasn't ordered to kill anyone, just to guard you! But you have reminded me that I have forgotten the man is my prisoner and he is probably like to perish of thirst by now. He's had nothing to drink since just before dawn."
Pellew was amused and, as Nick helped him off with his waistcoat, asked, "And where did you hide him so that Kennedy was unable to find him?"
"I tied him to the figure head. I had to gag him as well, of course, but as soon as I've finished here, I'll get him back aboard."
Pellew half-smiled and shook his head as he dragged off his shirt. "The figure head! That must have taken some doing on your part. A devilish day he's had, I make no doubt. Don't concern yourself any further with him. Ask Mr. Bracegirdle to have him brought aboard and placed under arrest. I would prefer that you accompany Mr. Hornblower on the -- er, the expedition to obtain a cow."
"Sir?" Nick was startled at the request.
"I have been ill, Mr. Collins, not dead! I understand that you have quite a way with animals. With cats, anyway. Dare I hope it is a general talent, encompassing bovines as well as felines?"
Nick held up the nightshirt for Pellew to crawl into, while a crimson stain spread across his cheekbones. "Everything save dogs," he muttered. "But I could be more hindrance than help to Mr. Hornblower, sir."
"Did you want just one cow, Captain, or an entire herd?"
This surprised a laugh out of Pellew.
"A regular Pied Piper, Mr. Collins?"
"He was able to put down the pipe whenever he chose," Nick said enviously. Then, in a more serious tone, "Captain Pellew, when I return --."
"I know," Pellew yawned, "I know, Mr. Collins. I must find out who wants me dead. Besides the French fleet, that is. First, though, you must keep me alive by bringing me that damned cow!"
Had it not been for the gravity of Captain Pellew's condition, Nick would have been amused by the task upon which Mr. Hornblower's little group was embarked. Trying to keep secret from the men the conspiracy against the Captain had strenuously taxed Hornblower's diplomatic skills when trying to explain their mission.
Oldroyd had asked if they couldn't simply purchase a cow, and Hornblower had patiently pointed out that at the hour of night when they would be landing, not many cattle dealers would be open for business, nor would they be likely to want to do business with His Majesty's Navy. Waiting for daybreak was not an option, and beyond that Hornblower refused to explain the matter, which left the men wondering if the officers had not all gone off the deep end. Find and take by whatever means necessary a cow, and only a cow, not a bull, in the dark of night. And get it safely back aboard the Inde. Somehow.
Now four men found themselves hiking in the dark across a portion of Brittany in search of a milk cow, while two men had been left behind with the boat and a pair of empty barrels. The dim starlight that had aided Nick's flight from Chateau Montfeuille only two nights previous was now abetted by a slim crescent of moonlight. Hornblower had carefully studied his maps before selecting a landing spot, avoiding coming ashore so close to a fishing village as to invite detection and yet landing close enough to make locating a cow a conceivable prospect.
"There's a light up there, Mr. Hornblower, just beyond those trees," Matthews said in a low tone. "Could be a farmhouse."
Horatio nodded. "All right, let us go in that direction. Quietly, then."
The four men crossed through the stand of trees, moving cautiously so as not to turn an ankle on an unseen tree root. Emerging from the woods, they found themselves standing in the curve of a road. At the heavy sound of hoofbeats, they quickly melded back into the shadows of the trees and watched as half a dozen French cavalrymen thundered past them.
Once the horses were safely past, the men came together again. Hornblower spoke first.
"They looked like dragoons. Did anyone get a good look at them?"
"Not just dragoons," Nick replied grimly. "Elite cavalry. Did you see those wretched bearskin hats?"
"What the deuce are they doing here?" Horatio was worried. "They should be hundreds of miles away with the main force."
"Bonaparte rarely lets them stray too far from his control," Nick agreed almost absently. Possibilities were already racing through his mind. Could the Little Corsican be in the vicinity? Or were the Guardsmen merely an advance patrol for a forthcoming push into Brittany? No, that didn't make sense to Nick.
"Could they be preparing to launch another invasion attempt?" Nick asked Hornblower, who led the way across the road and up a gradual rise toward the light. "Is this a suitable staging area?"
"Not here," Hornblower was confident. "They'd have to get their fleet into the Bay first, past our blockade. Load the troops, and even if they managed to do that without some interruptions from our ships, they'd still have to run the blockade again. They don't have much in the way of good natural defenses here, not like down the coast at Chateau Montfeuille. And where there are good natural defenses, they haven't a decent staging area for a significant force."
Nick absorbed this information, mentally discarded some possibilities, and focused on others.
"And Napoleon's army? Merengo was fought scarcely more than a month ago. It is not possible to move an army so far, so fast, not even for a general as wily as Bonaparte. You can bet there's a damned good reason for those dragoons being so far from where they ought to be." Nick stopped his vocal reasoning, as Hornblower threw up a hand for silence.
Some 150 yards away stood a barn, and beyond it was a tiny cottage with a light burning inside. Three more outbuildings stood well away to the right of the cottage. These other buildings were easily the size of the barn but even from this distance they appeared to be more recently constructed. Nick was unaware of the tiny vertical crease forming between his eyebrows. Those few people who knew him well knew that tiny line indicated his mind was engaged in high-speed problem solving: Napoleon's elite where they ought not be. New buildings. He needed to know what was in those buildings.
"Styles! Matthews! Got your pistols ready?" A determined Hornblower was ready to move on the barn.
"Wait!" Nick urged, his eyes alight with curiosity. "I want to know what is housed in those other buildings. Let's have a look!"
"The cow first," Hornblower ordered, shaking his head. If he couldn't return to the Inde with a source of milk, he didn't care if those other buildings were stuffed to the rafters with gold.
"I'll get the cow," Nick assured him. "You go and have a look."
Horatio assented. "Matthews, come with me. Styles, you go with Mr. Collins. We'll meet back at this spot."
The little group separated, with Nick and Styles swiftly covering the open ground before the barn. Easing open the barn door and sliding inside, Styles right behind him, Nick froze as a distinctively bovine cry split the night. Softly he whispered to Styles, "Keep a watch outside. If you see or hear anyone coming this way, knock on the door and then run like hell. Don't wait for me, understand?"
Styles silently edged back outside, while Nick took each step forward very slowly and cautiously. Outside Styles heard nothing at first, then thought he heard a humming sound. Finally convinced that he did indeed hear humming, he started to knock on the barn and suddenly realized the sound was coming from inside. Softly, gradually, it built until he could barely distinguish a melody. Mr. Collins was humming to the cows!
Styles grinned wickedly, then resumed his alert stance, his eyes and ears alert to the possibility of detection.
In the darkness of the barn, and still humming softly, Nick moved cautiously so as not to alarm whatever animals were in here with him. With the same patience and resolve used to ascend the cliff at Montfeuille, he edged his way from one stall to another, finally finding by feel an animal which might be a cow. Running his hands over the animal's back and finding the head, he began to talk in a low murmur.
"Terrible, isn't it, when one cannot even get an undisturbed night of sleep in one's own boudoir? I know, I know," he sympathized as his hands continued to stroke the beast, "and I wouldn't be doing this if it weren't absolutely necessary. Now listen, I can't see whether you are male or female, and I know you can't tell me, so we'll both just have to be glad we can't see each other's face while I try to determine ."
The animal angrily shifted from foot to foot, but did not bawl.
"I am so sorry," Nick jerked his hands away and apologized in dismay. "Neither male nor female. Beg pardon, this hasn't been a very good year for you, has it?" The steer continued to shuffle in his stall, obviously unhappy with this personal invasion.
He slid out of the stall and into the next one, maintaining a steady flow of gentle conversation. This time his blind search of the big animal there led his hands to what was unquestionably an udder. He gave her a congratulatory pat on the rump.
"Looks as though you're the lucky girl," he smiled. "You're about to be liberated from all this farm drudgery, and go sailing around the world with a lot of scurvy-looking knaves. You'll be making butter for the British, cream for the Captain! You'll be almost as famous as the cow that jumped over the moon. Come on, now, I know you're sleepy, but this is your big chance. Join the navy and see the world." He urged her out of the stall, keeping one hand on her neck so that he wouldn't be knocked over or stepped on.
Styles jumped when a large head suddenly rested on his shoulder.
"Easy, there!" Nick whispered, and Styles got the feeling the words were meant for him rather than for the cow. "Get the rope on her, and let's go."
Nick and Styles had been waiting for several minutes before Hornblower and Matthews rejoined them. Nick was anxious to hear what they had seen, but Hornblower only whispered, "Later. There are Frogs everywhere. Good God! Is that the cow?" He was taken aback by the height and bulk of the animal.
"Never mind," he added, "let's get away from here. We can talk in the boat."
Once again the Lieutenant led them, this time down the incline toward the road, with Styles leading the cow by means of a loop around her neck. When Nick moved too far ahead for her liking, she unexpectedly broke into a trot and Styles lost hold of the rope. His exclamation alerted the others and Nick turned abruptly to find several hundred pounds of purebred Normande lumbering down the slope at him.
Nick stood perfectly still, waiting for her to come up with him, but Styles was unaccustomed to affectionate beasts and fearing Mr. Collins might be trampled, he raced down the slope and flung himself bodily at Nick, pushing him from what he perceived to be harm's way. His impetus drove both men to the ground and together they rolled down the incline nearly to the bottom before they were able to halt their progress.
Styles was up first, and seeing that Matthews had caught the rope on the cow and had the creature well under control, he reached to assist Nick to his feet.
"No, don't!" Nick wouldn't accept his hand, but climbed to his feet unaided. Styles apologized profusely, but the smaller man interrupted him with a brusque, "Never mind, I understand. Just just please keep your distance, Mr. Styles."
The seaman lapsed into offended silence. He'd not thought Mr. Collins a man to stand so high on his dignity, and really, Styles had only been trying to protect the man from serious injury.
"All right, Mr. Collins? Styles? Nothing broken?" inquired Horatio as he and Matthews came abreast of them.
"Nothing broken, at any rate," Nick replied coolly.
"Fine, sir," muttered Styles.
Hornblower sniffed deeply. "What ever is that smell?" His tone was one of deep repugnance.
Nick sighed. "That would be me. I'm afraid I rolled in the er, the usual things one finds on a farm," he explained, bending down to fastidiously wipe his hands on the grass.
Styles' eyes widened. "Oh! Is that why you wouldn't take my hand?"
"That's it," Nick said flatly and wondered whether, upon their return to the Indefatigable, he would be able to exchange his befouled clothing for some better-fitting attire than Mr. Bracegirdle had previously provided.
Styles apologized to Nick once again, but the other men were all aware he was having great difficulty stifling his giggles all the way back to the boat.
Nick had stripped off his malodorous shirt and was dragging it through the water as the small boat was rowed back to the Indefatigable. There was nothing to be done about his breeches until they gained the ship. Hornblower was minding the tiller, but had given Nick a great deal on which to ponder since those first minutes after shoving off, and his thoughts were consumed with speculation.
One of the outbuildings Hornblower had cautiously inspected seemed to be no more than an additional barn, housing a wagon with a long flat bed, and several pair of oxen. Another building was some sort of workshop or laboratory, filled with pipes and tubes and metal sheeting, as well as numerous tools and other unidentifiable paraphernalia scattered about.
But the last building was the one that intrigued Nick. Hornblower's description of the object housed there, as well as his report of a pair of dragoons guarding each building, had set every instinct on alert.
Wringing out his shirt as they approached the frigate, Nick tied it around his waist, and checked to see that Giselle, as he had dubbed the great Normande cow, was still floating luxuriantly along behind the boat. She was kept effortlessly buoyant by the two barrels Oldroyd and Taggers had tied to her sides while Nick had soothed her. She had been reluctant but not mulish when led into the water, and had only really caused a commotion when Nick gave her a final pat on the head and clambered into the boat and out of her reach. They had nearly been capsized before his powers of quadrupedal persuasion had eased her fears. Indeed, he had set the whole boat to chuckling as he chatted to her in nonsensical fashion, but after hearing him go on to explain to a rapt Giselle that she had been cow-napped into the service of a great man who would appreciate her importance and treat her in positively regal fashion, along with his detailed explanation as to how they would use a sling to carry her from the sea to the ship, none of the men was surprised at how little fuss the animal made as she was taken aboard. Styles thought that if ever a cow could be thought to be wholly taken with herself and her place in the grand scheme of things, Giselle was that cow, as she nonchalantly swished her wet tail and displayed a long-suffering, almost haughty patience with those seaman responsible for bestowing her safely in the manger.
Aboard ship again, Hornblower approached Mr. Bracegirdle on the quarterdeck, moving out of earshot of the helmsman, and inquired as to the Captain's condition. Nick followed, untying his wet shirt and shaking it out while listening to the First Lieutenant.
Pellew was resting, they were informed. He had had no further bouts of nausea or vomiting, but he remained very tired, unable to rest, and his throat continued to burn. Nick asked if Pellew might be able to receive Mr. Hornblower and himself, in order to report some unusual circumstances they had encountered ashore.
"He might," Bracegirdle snapped, "but I am not willing to disturb him for any reason other than to take him the milk." His confidence suddenly seemed to ebb for a moment, and his voice betrayed just the faintest tremor. "Will the milk really do him any good, Mr. Collins?"
Nick strove to give all the reassurance he might. Bracegirdle might be a ridiculously jealous husband, but he worshipped his captain.
"That he is still alive, and has had no further nausea is, I believe, an excellent sign, Mr. Bracegirdle." Hornblower recognized the soothing quality in Nick's voice as identical to the tone he had taken with the frightened cow. "I understand from a physician who is a friend of mine, that the milk will act to bind the poison and wash it from his system. Give him as much milk as he can stand for the rest of tonight and tomorrow. If he begins to recover his appetite and has no further stomach distress, then by tomorrow night I think we may all count ourselves fortunate indeed, and the Captain in particular, although it may be some days yet before he is entirely comfortable again."
Bracegirdle nodded his thanks, and sniffed lightly, frowning at Nick. "What is that smell?"
A sudden laugh escaped Hornblower.
In his cramped cabin, Nick eased out of his breeches and held them out from him, wondering just how he was going to manage the task of cleaning them. No point in getting manure on everything else, he determined, and carefully turned the breeches inside out before dropping them to the deck. His shirt hung limply from one of the pegs on the wall, and he peeled off his sopping stockings before hanging them next to the shirt. Liberally he doused himself with water from a bucket, and shivering, wrapped himself in a thin blanket before sitting down to consider further what Hornblower had seen.
He was an assassin, not a spy, but he had a pretty good notion about what the lieutenant had seen and he wondered if the lieutenant also had an idea about it. Hornblower had a good poker face, and he certainly knew a lot more than he cared for others to see. And just for a moment, before a cloud had crossed over the sliver of moon, Nick thought Hornblower had looked just as intrigued and excited as Nick himself.
"Enter!" he called, as a knock came at the door.
Styles entered. "Just brought you a change of clothing," he offered the folded garments. "These came from Jock MacTavish, so they ought to fit you better than Mr. Bracegirdle's cast-offs."
Nick was inordinately grateful, and rose to change immediately. "Thank you so much, Mr. Styles. I hope you apprised Mr. MacTavish of the odds of getting his clothing returned in the same condition which he has loaned them. I fear I am very rough on my apparel."
"We're used to it aboard ship. When we wear out what we have, we usually make more out of sailcloth."
Nick paused in the act of buttoning his breeches, and looked up at Styles from under a damp mop of curls.
"Sailcloth? What other fabric do you carry?"
Styles shook his head. "Nothing. Some blankets, and some o' the officers have their linens I reckon."
"Nothing taken from the odd prize ship?" Nick pressed.
"Oh, well, yes. The captain got some bolts of cloth off a South Sea merchantman trying to sneak into Calais some weeks back. He'll never let you use that to make clothes though!"
"He must be persuaded," Nick grinned as he tugged on the sailor's smock and began tucking in the ends. "Not that I want to make clothing out of it, whatever it is. In fact, if it is not silk, I do not want it at all, Mr. Styles."
Styles looked uncomfortable then blurted, "Ye don't have to call me mister, Mr. Collins. Only th' officers are called mister. I don't hardly know who you're talking to when ye say Mr. Styles."
Nick solemnly approached the bigger man. "Well, I am no officer, so you don't need to mister me either. Call me Nick." And he held out his hand for Styles to shake.
A broad smile beamed across Styles' scarred face, and he clasped the offered hand. "You're a regular gentleman, Nick."
Nick started to refute the term, but another knock sounded and this time he opened the door to find one of the idlers carrying another stack of garments.
Thrusting the clothes at Nick, the man said, "Compliments o' Mr. Bracegirdle, sir, and 'e 'opes as 'ow you manages to do justice by'em."
Nick accepted the clothes, realizing almost instantly that these were exactly the same shirt and breeches which he had taken such great care to sabotage.
The idler started to leave, then added, "Oh, and Mr. Bracegirdle says to tell you that you was doin' it up much too brown with that thankee letter."
Both Styles and the idler were taken aback when Nick suddenly
gave a shout of laughter.
The warm July sun poured through the gallery windows into Captain Pellew's day quarters, trapping the steamy humidity around the four men huddled over the desk. Pellew, dressed as casually as Hornblower had ever seen him, was in his shirt sleeves but had left off his waistcoat and stock, and appeared more comfortable, if still somewhat weary, than he had the previous day. Horatio himself felt a trickle of sweat ooze down his back between his shoulder blades, and mentally cursed the heavy uniform required of His Majesty's junior officers. Mr. Bracegirdle, whose lips had twitched slightly upon seeing Nick in his sailor's garb, was mopping at his face and neck with an already damp kerchief, while Nick himself seemed oblivious to the thick air even as perspiration collected along his forehead, plastering his curls in place.
Horatio had just completed drawing the machine he had seen at what Nick referred to as "Giselle's place." An irregular ellipsoid graced the paper, with a paddle drawn at one end and a dark bubble, which Hornblower had noted appeared to be glass, on the top nearer to the opposite end. A spar stood perpendicular to the body and appeared to be rigged for a sail.
"How long, Mr. Hornblower?" inquired Pellew.
"At least twenty feet, sir, and perhaps as much as six feet in the beam. The hull appeared to be iron, and there were fins -- here, along her rudder."
Pellew shook his head and moved to the windows, staring grimly out at the calm seas beyond. "Gentlemen, I think there can be no doubt that the French are building -- have built! -- a submersible craft. The only question is, to what extent is it operational?"
"But what would be the purpose of such a vessel?" pondered Mr. Bracegirdle, considerably worried by the only answer at which he could arrive.
"The purpose is plain, sir! Stealthy attacks upon our fleet, at any time, any place!"
"I do not quite see how this craft is capable of delivering a bomb, but I suppose it must be possible," opined Hornblower, studying his drawing.
"Oh, it is more than possible, Mr. Hornblower," Pellew assured him. "A submersible craft such as this one, one built for attacking the enemy -- Look here!" He strode to the desk and with a quick dip of the quill to the inkwell, drew a single fine line leading away from the body of the craft, and at the end of the line a plain circle. "One only has to attach a bomb by means of a towline. The bomb makes contact with a ship." He tossed down the quill. "And there are probably a dozen more efficient ways!"
"It seems suicidal," Bracegirdle shook his head, shrugging off this bizarre invention. "I cannot believe that, even if this machine is a submersible vessel, that it could be of any practical or constant use to a navy."
"Do you not?" Pellew's tone had lowered an octave, an indication to those who knew him well just how deeply this topic disturbed him. He turned his back to the others, resuming his stance at the windows. His head rose and dipped in a mannerism Hornblower had only witnessed when his Captain was fighting his emotions.
"When I was twenty years of age, I already had more than a half dozen years of service in His Majesty's Navy. I was still young enough that I could yet be foolish enough to think I had experienced all that Nature and our enemies could present to me. That was 1776, the year all hell broke loose in the American colonies. Circumstances chanced that one night in September, while stationed on the Hudson River, I was privileged to be a dinner guest aboard the Eagle, Admiral Lord Richard Howe's flagship. Not much of that dinner is particularly noteworthy. Suffice it to say I ended by spending the night aboard the Eagle. The army, under the command of the Admiral's brother, had the rebels well on the run, and their navy was, for all practical purposes, nonexistent. Our ships moved against them with complete contempt. At one point during our blockade we sailed so close to their batteries they could not aim low enough to fire at us."
Pellew shook his head, but did not turn to see the three rapt gazes fixed on him. "Hubris, gentlemen, pure hubris. As Lord Cornwallis later discovered for himself at Yorktown. At any rate, sometime after midnight the Americans launched a submersible vessel against us."
A sound of disbelief came from behind him, and he turned with raised eyebrow to regard their expressions. "Yes, this bit of history always gets left out when the veterans of that campaign gather to tell war stories, because it don't redound to our credit at all. It is only through divine Providence that those of us aboard the Eagle survived the night. That submersible craft was powered and operated by only one man, and his mission was to attach a cask of gunpowder to the hull of the Eagle. For whatever reason, their mission failed in that particular aim. The first we had any inkling of the existence of a submerged craft was when morning came, and soldiers at the fort nearby saw the craft surface and release the powder keg before sailing towards the Rebel encampment. Not long after, something triggered the gunpowder. The explosion was tremendous. Not knowing what was happening, I thought at the very least there must have been an earthquake! The entire fleet was thrown into confusion. Officers ordered their anchor cables slashed so that their ships might drift out of harm's way. Everyone was scrambling, bugles sounded, and drums and pipes, and every order given conflicted with a previous order. I have never seen so many experienced and knowledgeable officers lose their composure simultaneously. Pandemonium swept our ranks. Some ships managed to make sail and flee, others collided as they drifted on the tide. The Eagle, with me still aboard, ignominiously ended the event in the far reaches of New York Bay."
He slammed a fist against the desk, jarring his listeners.
"It was disgraceful! The finest navy in the world, shamed
into fumbling and fleeing by a FAILED enemy mission! And that,
gentlemen, is but one possible outcome of the use of submersibles.
Imagine, if you will, what naval warfare would be today had the
rebels succeeded! This drawing of yours, Mr. Hornblower, tells
me that the design and practical usage of submersible ships has
greatly progressed since my youth. Therefore we will make all
sail for Ushant, Mr. Bracegirdle," he ordered, "and
report this to the Fleet, but I make no doubt our orders will
be to take this vessel -- or destroy her!"
The Captain had dismissed his lieutenants with orders to make for Ushant, but indicated for Nick to remain behind. After a long silence during which Pellew seated himself at the desk and sipped at a mug of milk, frowning at the drawing before him, Nick queried, "You are thinking of how drastically such a ship will forever change warfare, sir? You think undersea warfare will be everything that is distasteful and dishonorable?"
"I am thinking, Mr. Collins," Pellew replied acerbically, "of how very much I dislike milk." And he lifted his eyes to meet Nick's black gaze, while that young man responded with a wry grin.
"I doubt this change in your diet will enhance your stature among frigate captains, but rest assured that your crew at least does not hold it against you. Mr. Hornblower has let it out that Dr. Hepplewhite has encouraged you to take milk, albeit only temporarily, for a dyspeptic condition. Some of the men were openly sympathetic."
"Hardly the emotion a captain wishes to engender amongst his crew," Pellew noted dryly, and waved a hand to silence Nick when he would have answered. "You saved my life, Mr. Collins. A salvation from what was promising to be a most agonizing death. Words are insufficient, I know, but I must thank you, and I believe I may speak for my family when I extend their gratitude also to you. I know I can never repay you --"
"I think you might!" Nick's swift interjection took Pellew off guard, and his expression -- was it one of umbrage? -- made Nick laugh. "I beg pardon, Captain, it is just that you do have something in your possession, easily within your power to grant me, which I think you will not readily feel the loss of and which I very much wish to have."
If Pellew was nettled by this young man's impudence he quickly masked it and nodded graciously. "Naturally, Mr. Collins, if it is anything within my power, and does not contravene my authority or control of this ship, it is yours, sir."
Nick smiled sweetly, almost guilelessly, and his tone was almost unrecognizably humble as he asked, "I believe you have several bolts of silk cloth aboard? I doubt I shall need it all, but I ask your permission to take as much of it as I require. If you feel you can spare it to me, of course, sir?"
Pellew was too old and too astute to be dumbfounded by this request or in any way swayed by the humility in Nick's tone, but he would have freely admitted to being taken aback momentarily before saying, "Yes, of course, Mr. Collins. My wife, for whom it was intended, will, I know, freely surrender it as recompense for my well-being. Indeed it seems very little to ask in return for my life, but -- would you be so good as to satisfy my curiosity? For what purpose can you want so much silk?"
And as Nick began to explain, there began to appear the first
glints of amusement anyone had seen in Pellew's eyes for several
Nick accompanied Captain Pellew and Lieutenant Bracegirdle ashore at Ushant, but parted company with them shortly before they arrived at the Port Admiralty office. He found the tiny island as lush as he remembered, almost breathtaking in its simple, natural beauty. Tearing his eyes from the luxuriant landscape, vibrant in its summer shades of green and with wild blossoms strewn across the slopes rising gradually from the port, he sauntered through the brilliantly sunlit streets.
His was an inconspicuous figure, strolling casually along, occasionally backing up a step to examine the contents of a shop window before moving on toward his destination. The sole animal to cross his path was a mangy yellow dog of scrawny build and protruding ribs, who stopped long enough to give a low growl, raise his hackles and bare his yellowed teeth at Nick before slinking away into an alley.
It might be said that Nick had a peculiar, almost ambivalent affection for dogs, for as he did not care for canines in general they in turn distrusted and despised him. But had it not been for his man Splinter's dog, a great brute of a creature innocuously dubbed Charley, who could not abide the sight of Nick nor indeed any other creature but his master, his home would have soon been overrun by cats, rats, mice, opossum, rabbits, and sundry other creatures who found their way to his garden gate on a regular basis. Charley's inability to tolerate all other creatures in the animal kingdom save for Splinter made him the perfect safeguard for Nick's small house. Consequently Nick felt a kind of grateful tolerance of dogs for their sheer dislike of him.
A quick check behind him reassured Nick that no string of animals had begun queuing in his wake. It didn't happen often, his attraction for animals seeming to be lessened in open spaces, but when it did he felt himself rendered helpless by his own mortification. On one occasion he had arrived on foot at his London home unknowingly accompanied by six cats (who had at least served to deter the presence of rodents), a donkey that had broke free of its tether, and a brightly plumaged parrot escaped from God-knew-where.
Nick might have shaken off his chagrin sooner but for the untimely appearance next door of Miss Amanda Tate and her youngest sister, Miss Alice, exiting their own abode just as the parrot descended onto Nick's shoulder, bursting into a Mozart aria while tugging, not gently, at Nick's curls. A shudder went through Nick every time he remembered how completely drenched in humiliation he had been at having what he felt was his greatest weakness so exposed to the world in general and Miss Tate in particular.
If prior to that small circus he had entertained any hopes of favorably impressing Miss Tate, if he had permitted his gaze to sometimes dwell admiringly upon her fair countenance when by chance he espied her cutting flowers in the garden, the sound of her laughter on that morning had sounded as a death knell to the unspecified yearnings beginning to take tender root in his heart. He told himself that given his occupation he'd no business daring to raise his eyes to such a delicately bred creature anyway, and had resolutely turned his mind from all thoughts of the pocket-Venus who dwelled next door, failing to see the sadness that overcame the bewildered young miss, who genuinely had no notion as to how she might have offended this most unusual neighbour to whom she felt herself becoming increasingly attracted.
Satisfied that today at least he had not gathered a menagerie behind him, Nick rounded a corner and found himself before the door of a small apothecary. The bell over the door rang merrily as he entered the shadowed shop. Glancing about he noted that the heavy layer of dust covering the shelves appeared entirely undisturbed since his last visit, just prior to his journey to Chateau Montfeuille. Hearing a sound from the back of the shop he called out to its proprietor.
"Here, Giles, it's Nick! Come back from the dead again, old boy." When no response was forthcoming, Nick walked behind the counter, talking all the while, and pulled back the curtain dividing the front of the shop from the back.
"I say, Giles, no point in avoiding me. If you don't see me now I'll come round to your house and cozen Abby into leaving you. You "
Nick came to an abrupt halt at the sight before him. Giles, a thick-set, ginger-haired man perhaps a decade older than Nick, was held pinned by the throat to a wall by a heavily tattooed, one-eyed sailor easily three times Nick's size.
Spying Nick, Giles struggled frantically, choking and pointing to a bottle and to Nick, desperately indicating his need for assistance.
"I beg your pardon!" Nick drawled, a slow smile starting in his eyes and lighting his tanned face. "I seem to have interrupted a private moment here. Still, my business is somewhat pressing, so unless either of you objects I shall just wait right here until the apothecary is free." And so saying he perched cheerily on a nearby stool, glancing around the dimly lit room. "Have you something I might read while you are finishing?"
Quick fury filled Giles' face and he found strength enough to briefly tear himself from the giant sailor's grasp.
"Damn ye, Nick!" he croaked. "Help me!"
With a meaty paw the sailor gripped Giles' fiery locks and slammed his head into the wall, pausing momentarily to eye Nick for any sign of his joining the fray.
Nick shrugged and held out both hands defensively. "Not me!" he informed the seaman. "I have no quarrel with you. Ah Giles, what offense have you committed that makes this gentleman so so very vexed with you?"
Giles managed a brief flurry of punches to the sailor's midsection, none of which seemed to have any effect but to anger him further.
"The poxy whoreson sold me some lozenges to cure my to cure me!" The voice coming from the sailor was astonishingly high-pitched and so very feminine sounding that Nick's sense of the ridiculous was immediately aroused.
"To cure you of what?" he inquired, only just managing
to maintain a blank expression.
The sailor gave a last thump of Giles' head to the wall before releasing him and turning to Nick as one sympathetic to his cause. He shuffled feet the size of sea turtles, and looked abashed at what he was confiding.
"My voice," he trilled.
"What about your voice?" Nick asked evenly, closely examining a smudge on his breeches.
"Wellyou know!" The coy manner in which the sailor roundabouted his problem put Nick forcefully in mind of Hetty Bracegirdle.
"No, what?" he managed most solemnly.
"I got a girl's voice."
"Give it back to her." The quip slid out before Nick could check himself. The big sailor's eyes widened, Nick's did as well, and as the giant took his first lumbering step toward Nick, that young man saw that wisdom was indeed the better part of valor, and had up and fled the shop on the instant.
More than a quarter of an hour passed before a perspiring Nick eased back into the shop, and found Giles still in the back room, rubbing liniment into his myriad bruises.
Spotting Nick, he spat and cursed at him, ending with, "I was hoping to the saints he'd catch yer puny hide and give ye some of yer own sauce, ye damned scoundrel! Why didn't ye help me, blast ye?"
"You looked as though you were doing all right," Nick protested self-righteously, lounging against the wall. "I don't like to interfere in these family squabbles. Besides, it wouldn't have been fair to him, since I was the one who baited him and he'd no thought what he was getting into."
"Well, damn and blast ye! Ah, hell's bells, I already said that! Ye've got me so I dunno what I'm sayin'!" Capping the liniment bottle, he eased back into his shirt, his irascible mood not soothed by the lotion. "What ye doing here again? I suppose ye think I'll have a packet or a letter or some such for ye?"
"I'm rather counting on it," Nick told him. "But of course, I really only stopped by to make certain of your whereabouts before I go calling on the adorable Abby."
"Now then! Now -- jest ye keep away from her," Giles was flustered. "I was the better part of a year getting that horse to trust me! I'll not have ye ruining her!"
"Ruin her! I'll be the making of that spavined old nag," Nick retorted, pulling the odd jar off the shelves and peering curiously into its contents before replacing it. "What are all these herbs doing here? Are you really taking up the business after all this time? You want to watch that, old man! That Cyclops who just treated you so unpleasantly will be nothing like to what will happen if you set yourself up as someone who can cure the French disease. You'll be wearing your skin wrong side out. Have you ever seen a man who's been started? Nasty thing, that! And it's far from the worst thing they'll do if they catch you passing off chamomile as a cure-all."
"I had to do something," Giles grumbled, "so I reckoned since I already had the shop as a blind, I'd see what I could make of it."
Nick turned with a frown. "What do you mean, you had to do something?"
"Well, it's all changin' since the Old Gent passed on, isn't it? Communiques ain't coming through me no more. Ye've got to go down to the Port Admiral's office and report in to get yer orders now. I'm out of it. And better off for it, that's what I say, now that that bean-countin' gussywiper has took to running the show!" Giles plopped into a defeated-looking armchair listing perilously to one side.
Nick was clearly unhappy with this state of affairs. "What else has changed that I ought to know about? Are they cutting me loose as well?"
Giles gave a short bark of laughter. "They'd like to! They'd like to, don't ye think that snitterpate wouldn't love to find a reason to scratch your name from the ranks! But 'e don't dare, do 'e? A-cause 'e ain't got the gumption. They're all skeert to death of you, boy, so they won't be settin' you adrift. But watch your back, Nick, boy. Watch yer back, I say. They'll send some up-and-comin' one against you, like as not, and see who lasts. Filthy ways and means they got, filthy!"
Nick's expression turned so grim, his eyes the deep cold black of a sea predator, that Giles felt a shiver run along his spine. If they crossed Nick, the bloodbath would be terrible. He wasn't a bad lad, but he'd not learned much of forgiveness. And betrayal was the one thing he'd not stomach. Aye, the lad had a real blind spot there. His stomach did a slow, sickening roll before he got a grip on his own fear. No reason Nick should ever learn what Giles had done. No reason at all.
The building housing the Port Admiral was a low, elegant affair with a long porch running its length. Nick strode purposefully through its main doors of heavy wood and wrought ironwork. Happily he had not encountered Pellew and Hornblower in the vicinity, and he found his way unimpeded to a back staircase. Taking the steps two at a time, he arrived at an unmarked door, and without knocking, turned the handle and entered.
Inside were two clerks laboriously copying documents, both of whom froze in what might be construed as postures of guilt, for both immediately began to clear their desks, while the elder of the two demanded Nick state his name and business.
Slowly Nick allowed his gaze to roam over the room. He'd only ever been here once for an urgent midnight meeting, but he'd taken an instant liking to the room and felt at home in it. Gone now were the framed illustrations of Ushant's flora, drawn by one of the intelligence officers. Gone probably burned -- were the bookcases crammed full and overflowing with books, journals, charts, newspapers and old letters. Vanished was everything that to Nick had made the room seem a place for the intelligent discussion of ideas, tactics, and strategy. What remained was everything that reeked of cold accounting and bureaucracy. His disdainful gaze at last came to rest on the clerk who had spoken, and without blinking, Nick moved so gracefully that he seemed to flow rather than to stroll across the bare wood flooring.
"Be so good as to inform Mr. Chilton that Mr. Nicholas Collins desires to see him." His voice was silky, his manner frosty.
"And your business, Mr. Collins?"
"Is with Mr. Chilton," he smiled in pleasant obstinacy.
"You will need to make an appointment, sir," the clerk said stiffly. "Mr. Chilton only entertains by appointment, unless you care to state your proposed business with him."
Nick weighed the matter and decided that absolute compliance could be as effective as resistance.
"In that case," Nick strode to stand by the adjoining door and spoke very loudly, with every intention of being as indiscreet as possible, "you may tell Mr. Chilton that I am here to report the assassination of a French colonel by a British subject, the attempted murder of a British sea captain by two British subjects, the recent lapse in secure communications to Britain's intelligence agents, the discovery of a submersible ship "
The door abruptly opened and an older man, tall, fair-haired, and sharp-featured, fairly quivering with outrage stood there.
"Mr. Collins! How dare you, sir! Your behavior violates every confidential imperative required by this service!"
"Cut line, Chilton!" Nick rolled his eyes. "If confidentiality is so crucial, why am I now receiving my orders by means of Naval dispatches? Why am I made to report here, virtually painting a target on my back for every French spy watching this building? If you'd get your head out of your your account books, you might learn something about the intelligence business. And you might as well inform your flunkies here that if I'm ever told to "state my business" again, I shall happily recite the details of every assignment I've ever received, starting with the deaths of a certain group of "
"Damn you! Be quiet!" Chilton gestured Nick into his office and slammed the door. The contrast between this office and the anteroom was striking. Artfully rendered oil paintings adorned the walls, soft rugs covered the floors, the furniture was highly polished. Silver candelabra were found on nearly every flat surface: The desk, the bookcases, the cabinets. The setting reeked of expensive elegance. Nick gave a low whistle.
"Nice," he approved. "Very nice indeed. Get all this with the money you saved by giving Giles and the others the axe, did you?" He meandered around the room, examining the various small treasures that appointed the office.
Chilton's lips tightened further. "What have you to report?" he snapped.
Nick shrugged. "De Purvaisse is dead, as ordered. Sir Edward Pellew is alive, as ordered. His crew have discovered that the French have built what we believe to be a submersible ship. The Admiral will know of that by now. And I am due for a holiday."
"A holiday, Collins! There is no holiday from this damned war! I have orders already prepared for you. You were supposed to have been here two days ago." Chilton grumbled, but would not meet Nick's cold stare.
"You know, Chilton "
"MR. Chilton to you," he interjected.
"You know, Silas," Nick began again, his tone deceptively mild, "if you will persist in thinking of me as a cannon or a pistol you can simply load, point, and fire, you must remember that occasionally a gun bursts unexpectedly. When that happens, the damage is," he shook his head sadly, " unimaginable."
"You do not frighten me, sir, so spare me these veiled threats." Chilton seated himself behind his desk, and folded his hands across his embroidered waistcoat. "You and I both know your loyalty to the Crown is unshakeable."
Nick's eyebrows arched in a question. "Do you think yourself synonymous with the Crown, Silas? I assure you I do not." He waved a hand as Chilton began forming a reply. "As you say, my loyalty is unshakeable. But you ought never to confuse it with my patience. I am singularly deficient in that particular virtue. These petty bureaucratic policies and practices you are instituting are not only self-serving but can be obstacles to the very aims of your office. And speaking of, have you my orders?"
Chilton tugged a key from the pocket of his coat, and unlocked
a lower desk drawer.
"You have two sets of orders. This packet was prepared yesterday." He thrust a thin envelope across the desk. "You won't like it, but I do trust your loyalty is in fact steadier than your patience. This," and he slid a small parcel toward Nick, "arrived yesterday from London. And no," he added, "I am not acquainted with its contents."
Nick began opening the envelope. "What's my cipher key for this assignment?"
"For that," Chilton pointed at the envelope, "you won't need one. I'll know soon enough whether you complete the task."
Nick raised a curious eyebrow, and turned his attention to the page before him as Chilton continued. "Your key for the other task will be, I suppose, in that parcel. Failing that, use the same key as for the de Purvaisse job. Something wrong, Collins? Orders not to your liking?" A trace of a sneer crossed Chilton's aristocratic features as he observed the effect of his own directive on the younger man.
Blazing black eyes in a face gone suddenly pale looked up from the paper in his hand and fixed on Chilton. His voice was soft and deadly. "You bastard. You unutterable bastard. You could have dealt with this days ago, but you are deliberately trying me. I hope you fall from grace someday, I really do. If ever I am so fortunate as to receive a card with your name on it, I shall tear out your heart while you watch! And I'd not accept payment for the pleasure!"
With an angry swirl of his coat, he was gone.
Alone again, Chilton's composure was sufficiently shaken that he tugged out his kerchief and mopped the cold sweat from his brow. As he remembered certain vivid descriptions of Nick's handiwork against the French, he was well aware that Nick's words were neither extravagant nor impossible. They were a promise.
The afternoon had dwindled by with Nick performing some personal errands, and packing a small trunk of clothing and belongings and having it removed to the Indefatigable. He had not been displeased to find his second set of orders commanded his return to the frigate as it would afford ample opportunity to make good use of Captain Pellew's silk.
But Chilton's order remained to be carried out before he could board. Devil take the man, for putting him in the position of killing a fellow agent. All right, former agent, but even so, Chilton had deliberately delayed the execution for Nick to perform. Standing motionless in the deep shadows at the top of the stairs, Nick waited for his quarry to arrive home. The shadows were lengthening as the sun was well into its downward trek, approaching that moment of limbo, when it was neither day nor night but some hybrid hour when fantastical and groteque events could occur and pass unnoticed by the world at large.
Not much longer.
He had always secretly wondered what his reaction would be if ever ordered to kill one of his own. Of course, before his death the Old Gentleman had tested him in that regard, personally handing him a black-edged calling card with Kitty Cobham's name on it. Nick had only worked with Kitty once, and had thought her a grand creature, attractive, courageous, and quick-witted. But when their assignment had ended he'd known she would not willingly work with him again. She'd neither the taste nor tolerance for Nick's duties, and the particularly gruesome methods he'd been forced to apply in that instance had sickened her. Possibly it had been one of the factors which had turned her, made her into a double agent. Just as possible though, it might have had to do with her intimate encounters with one of the French spies. Whatever had swayed her into betrayal was irrelevant to Nick. The betrayal was all that mattered.
And Nick would have carried out the order, had the Old Gent not been playing his cards deep. He'd not given Nick the assignment on Kitty until after he'd told Robin Halliwell of his intentions. Robin, Kitty's oldest and closest friend, had immediately taken steps to secure Kitty's safe and permanent departure from England. Nick had not been able to complete the assignment, missing Kitty at the docks by mere minutes, but he was not unhappy to have failed. Any threat to England from her work had been stymied, and she would never dare return.
But now he'd been ordered to kill a man he'd worked with half a dozen times; a man who'd hired two others to kill Captain Pellew; a man who had allowed himself to become the traitorous pawn of an as-yet unidentified puppet master. Loyalty had been Nick's watchword his entire life, and he'd long known the moment might come when his loyalties would be divided and he would be forced to choose between serving his country and sparing a friend. The cold iron logic at the core of his intelligence demanded he perform his duty as ordered while affection and friendship rose up in shock that he should even consider taking the life of this man. Yet he never doubted his long-established hierarchy of loyalties. At the top of his list, always, was King and Country. He had privately sworn his allegiance at the age of twelve, when His Majesty had unknowingly purchased the unswerving loyalty of his most steadfast subject for the price of a guinea.
And for that single guinea, he would play Judas to another Judas, no matter the personal cost.
Downstairs the door opened and closed, and a cheerfully whistled melody nearly brought a smile to Nick's lips before he realized that he would never again hear that tune without recalling the pain of these minutes.
He would be quick, he promised himself. Faster than he had ever been. There would be no recognition, no suffering, just a candle whose flame was there one instant and gone the next. He could not bear it otherwise, he might be tempted to allow himself to be turned from his course.
Eventually heavy footsteps sounded on the steep stairs, the whistling softened as the man used more of his breath to climb them. Nick's own breathing was silent and even, as a coil of tension wound tightly within him, until at last the traitor arrived at the landing where Death waited. Had an observer been present, he would have been hard pressed to describe precisely what happened. Nick moved with an inhuman speed. His victim gave no cry, there was no light of recognition or understanding or even of surprise in his eyes as he toppled back down the stairs, coming to rest in an ungainly heap of humanity.
Whoever found him would think he had fallen and snapped his neck. Only Nick and Chilton, of course would know that Giles' neck had been snapped first, and then he had fallen.
With fists clenched in the residue of tension, Nick descended the stairs, carefully stepping over the body without looking directly at it. He made a swift and thorough search of the house, something he had not dared do before Giles had come home. It might have warned him. There was little to be found though; Giles had been a careful agent. Only on a small bookshelf among several treatises on training and breeding horses was a copy of Milton's "Paradise Lost," with a scrap of paper inside, a few numbers jotted on it. This Nick pocketed before leaving the cottage and walking across the yard to the barn.
As he entered, a pair of hens scrambled from their nests to
come and inspect his boots, but they could fend for themselves.
The gleaming chestnut mare stamping and snorting uneasily in the
far stall could not. Abby had been Giles' pride and joy, but he'd
been the first to admit she was a rare handful, highstrung and
nervous. No doubt Chilton would send someone out to "find"
Giles tomorrow but there was no reason Abby should go hungry tonight.
He returned to the yard long enough to pump a bucket of water
for her. Slipping a nosebag onto her, he tried to soothe her
agitation with his usual nonsense but stopped when he heard his
voice break and he realized he was near to being overwhelmed by
a swirling mix of fury and guilt. He stood a long time with his
head leaned into Abby's neck, one hand clenched in her mane, the
other stroking her back until he felt his nerves unknot. At last
he stood up straight, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand,
slipped the bag off Abby, and walked away.
Styles had been the first to welcome Nick back aboard Indefatigable that evening, babbling away in a manner uncharacteristic of the stolid seaman. The silk, he informed Nick, had been cut to specifications but wouldn't he please come and see what Styles had come up with in the way of grommets to fasten the lines to the canopy? Two men had volunteered well, some extra grog was held out as a lure, so Nick shouldn't expect to have any for a couple of days at any rate, they were helping with the sewing neat, even stitchers, no snarls or knots were overlooked by them! and that was coming along nicely.
"And I dunno how ye've talked the Cap'n into allowin' us this, but 'e even seems to be takin' quite the interest in it, always stoppin' to ask us how much till we're finished and what's the reason for the shape and so many more questions that I told him you'd have to be the one to answer, you bein' the hexpert an' all."
Nick rubbed a weary hand through his curls. "All right if I have a look in the morning, Styles? The light's going now anyway, and I am rather tired."
The seaman's enthusiasm for his parachute project was in no way abated by the proposed delay, his words pouring into Nick's ears as he followed the smaller man making his way down the companionway toward his cabin.
"Sure, you'll be better able to see the stitchin, and see how those grommets fit, won't you? But we're sailing on the mornin' tide so mebbe if the weather holds when I'm off watch?"
"That sounds fine, fine," Nick agreed absently.
"You all right, then, Nick?" He was anxious lest his newfound friend had begun regretting volunteering to help Styles make and use a parachute. "Havin' second thoughts about it, are you? But we'll be all right and tight, just wait till you see what "
"Good heavens, Styles! I'm not having second thoughts. I'm not the one who'll be jumping off the mizzen top yard, after all." Nick flashed a wicked grin through the waning light barely filtering to this deck. "How are the odds? Will I make any money off you?"
"Better'n three to one that I won't jump at all. Five to one that I jump and live. Even money on jumpin' and dyin'. And Oldroyd's got a side bet with no takers that I'll land on the deck and not in the water. How's that for faith in a mate, eh? And I hear as how even though we're not supposed to gamble, some of the officers have put down the odd shilling one way or t'other."
"Five to one? Sounds like easy money to me. You are wagering on yourself, I hope?" Nick opened the cabin door and spied his small trunk, locks intact, stored neatly in the corner. Waving Styles to enter, he closed the door and began tugging off his coat of blue superfine, hanging it on one of the wall pegs.
"I would," Styles shrugged, "but I'm that short of a shilling. Anyway, not doin' it for the money, am I?"
"But it isn't fair," Nick's slender eyebrows arched in protest, "that you should take all the chances and reap none of the profits."
"What chances?" the seaman asked warily. "Thought you said this is a certain-sure thing?"
"It is, I vow it is!" Nick's face was alight with amusement. "A figure of speech, that's all. I'll advance you a couple of shillings, shall I, so you'll come out of this with more than seawater in your pockets? You can pay me back out of your winnings."
Styles was bowled over at the notion a gentleman like Nick Collins would be willing to lend him money, and hardly knew where to look or what to say.
"Fine, it's done, then," Nick continued as if he hadn't seen the expression on the man's face. "And only fair, since I intend to clean Oldroyd's pockets. Serve him right. He should have more faith in his shipmates."
Styles snorted. "That one's got bilge water between the ears. Even managed to get on the wrong side of Mr. Bracegirdle today."
Nick motioned to Styles to sit down. As there was only the cot to sit on and Nick was already seated there, he made himself comfortable against the door, his long legs stretched out before him.
"Good God, did I take those feet into account?" asked a startled Nick, eyeing Styles' feet while kicking off his own shoes. "We may have to build small parachutes for each one."
Styles was at ease with this kind of good-natured teasing. "Well," he retorted, "least I got a man's foot. Wot you call them dainties you got?"
Nick lifted a bestockinged foot and examined it objectively. "Perfect?" he suggested.
A snort was his only reply.
Leaning back into his cot, his fingers interlaced behind his head, Nick was the picture of relaxation.
"Anything happen while I was on shore leave?"
"Nah. The Cap'n and Mr. Bracegirdle came back just after noon. Cap'n seemed same as ever, but somethin's got Old Bracey in a tizz. Nastier than a shark in a shipwreck."
A small frown creased Nick's brow. From the letters the Lieutenant had penned to his wife, he was well aware that the man was extraordinarily even-tempered. Only the name and presence of one Nicholas Collins seemed to irritate him unduly.
"Perhaps he received an unpleasant piece of news from home," suggested Nick.
Styles nodded. "Like as not. It allus worrits me for a bit when I get news of my family."
"You're married then?"
"Not me!" His vehemence was pronounced. "But I got a sister younger'n me. Wants to marry a sojer. Or mebbe she already has. And two older sisters, one widowed and the other married to a man serving on the Eleanor, so she's like to be widowed as well."
"And you refuse to leave some young woman a widow?" Nick asked gently.
"Wouldn't be right," he agreed, then smiled. "Asides, I like being a bachelor! Wot about you, you got family?"
Nick looked surprised, as if he had been reminded of something nearly forgotten. "Not what I'd call family, but I have two half-brothers."
"Why wouldn't they be family?"
"They don't know I exist." Nick gave him a meaningful look, and Styles quickly understood his friend to mean he'd been born on the wrong side of the blanket.
"Wouldn't want to know, eh?"
"Probably not. I have not asked them." He changed the subject abruptly. "Styles, who is the cleverest officer aboard? What I mean is, if you had a puzzle you couldn't solve, who would you ask for help?"
"Mr. Hornblower, no question, if you're talking riddles and such." Styles averred. "But if it was a question about the ship or sailing, then I'd ask the Cap'n. Best sailor in the whole bleedin' Navy, he is. But other stuff, stuff nobody knows nothin' about, Mr. Hornblower's gifted-like. A tidy hand with his sums, too. None of the other officers can do'em as fast, or so Mr. Bowles says."
Nick nodded and changed the subject again. "What were you saying before about those grommets? Made of metal? How heavy are they?"
And as he had expected, Styles' face lit up at the topic of
his beloved parachute, and for the next half hour both men were
engrossed in the technical details of the proposed leap from the
Nick did his best to stay out of the way of the bustling seamen as they went about the business of manning the capstan to hoist the anchor, and setting and trimming the sails as the Indefatigable began separating herself from Ushant. He tried especially to avoid the notice of Lieutenant Bracegirdle without being forced to go below, as he was fascinated at the speed with which the topmen could ascend the ratlines, and then descend again via the clew lines. He finally caught Mr. Kennedy standing still for a moment and began plying him with questions about blocks and tackle, cleats and halliards, hawsers and pulleys, before Mr. Bracegirdle snapped at Kennedy to attend to his duties.
"Mr. Collins," he added peremptorily, his cherubic countenance flushed with vexation, "would you please refrain from interfering with the men's duties? A moment, sir," he ordered," as Nick tried to slide away before he did anything to further raise the Lieutenant's ire. "I should like a private word with you later."
Nick only nodded and bowed, and silently blessed the idle seaman who caught both Bracegirdle's attention and wrath and allowed Nick to make his escape. Going below he encountered Mr. Hornblower and upon learning that Horatio was willing to spare some time to discuss a problem vexing Nick, they arranged to meet in Nick's cabin as soon as Horatio could manage it.
Nearly an hour had passed before Nick opened the door to Horatio's knock.
"Please come in, Mr. Hornblower. These are not your quarters I have appropriated, I hope? Good. How awkward it would be to invite you into your own cabin. We make for Brittany again, no doubt?"
Horatio ducked his tall figure under the lintel and stood hunched to keep from hitting his head on the low deck.
"The Captain has not said so, but I believe we will discover those are our orders. I was not sure we would see you back aboard, Mr. Collins. Am I to be pleasurably surprised to discover you have orders similar to our own?"
Nick's black eyes twinkled. "Please have a seat, Mr. Hornblower. It must be terribly uncomfortable to stand in that position for any length of time. No, I think when Captain Pellew shares his orders we will find that my own run along similar lines. But my purpose in asking you here was not to pump you for information. Rather I wonder if you might be willing to assist me in a small problem I have."
Horatio responded with exquisite if wary politeness, which amused Nick. Kneeling to unlock the small trunk, Nick took from it the copy of "Paradise Lost," and handed it to the lanky young lieutenant.
"Are you familiar with this work?"
Hornblower shook his head. "I may have read it in school but I do not remember. I specialized in rather poor Latin, I am afraid. I believe I have heard Captain Pellew speak of this poem more than once. I know him to be an admirer of Milton's work as a whole."
Nick's expression darkened, and he sat on the floor across from Horatio, back to the wall.
"Mr. Hornblower, you may of course decline to assist me if you feel the problem I beset you is beyond your capabilities. I know it is beyond mine, which is why I am petitioning you in the matter. But whether you agree or decline, I must ask for your solemn oath that nothing of this matter is mentioned, whether in word, writing, or gesture to any other living soul. I especially include Captain Pellew in this."
Horatio hesitated. "I may not give such an oath when it may result in contradicting an order from a superior officer. You understand my position?"
Nick nodded, pushing a curly lock of hair back off his forehead. "I do understand. And I doubt that what I would ask of you could result in putting you in such a position. If you will swear you will at least hold secret what I am about to show you and ask of you, then you may determine for yourself whether to proceed with this task and what level of silence you ought best to maintain. For I am convinced you will find yourself in agreement with me, that the matter must be dealt with in the utmost secrecy."
Hornblower weighed what he knew or suspected about Nick Collins, and after a few moments nodded his agreement. "Explain your problem then, Mr. Collins. I swear on my honour not to reveal it."
Nick gestured at the book. "That, sir, is my problem. Open it."
Horatio did so, finding just inside the frontispiece the scrap of paper on which Giles had jotted several sets of numbers.
"That bit of paper those numbers: I believe this to be a cipher from the man who hired Mahoney and Phibbs to kill Captain Pellew. I found the paper in that book, so I also believe that book is the key to the cipher. I have examined both in light of what I know about enciphering and deciphering and I can tell you honestly that's demmed little, Mr. Hornblower. I can encipher and decipher perfectly well, given my own key, but the key could be anything in that book. Or anything backwards, or a number of letters offset, or the variations to me seem endless! I'm told you are something of a hand at solving mathematical dilemmas, so it seems to me you are my best hope at deciphering this message in the shortest amount of time. And you must see why no one, especially the Captain, is to know?"
Horatio was fascinated, in spite of himself. "Why not the Captain? It most directly concerns him."
"And if we find the person or persons behind this plot are closely linked to him? We cannot know what the cipher will reveal, if anything. Best to say nothing. But you have my assurance, Mr. Hornblower, there are persons in England who are even now working to discover the perpetrators of this plot." Nick wanted to add further persuasions but held back. If the possibility of a continued threat to Pellew's life would not convince him, nothing would.
Horatio began leafing through the pages of the book, looked up suddenly and met Nick's direct stare.
"I'll do it," he agreed. "But I cannot guarantee I have never "
"You cannot be more hopeless at it than myself, Lieutenant," Nick said fervently. "I thank you, sir."
Nick had successfully eluded a determined Lieutenant Bracegirdle until the officers were all met to discuss the plans regarding the submersible. Having been requested by Pellew to attend, Nick realized he had little chance of avoiding Bracegirdle afterward.
The Captain had been correct in guessing the Admiralty orders were to take or destroy the submersible craft, and Nick's orders ran parallel, in that his task was to find the inventor, an American named Fulton, and either persuade him to remove his work to England for her benefit or well! No assassination had been directly ordered; instead Nick was to use his judgment as to how dangerous such a man as Fulton could prove if left under French protection, and proceed accordingly.
With half a dozen of Napoleon's elite on duty at the farmhouse at any time, and who knows how many more in the vicinity, but with still a great need to keep the expedition as quiet as possible, Pellew authorized the dispatch a total of two dozen men, including a Marine detachment of twelve, to be led by Lieutenant Hornblower. Nick would, of course, accompany them ashore and would remain there unless he was fortunate enough to find Mr. Fulton on the scene. The Inde would cruise out of sight of shore during the day, and make her way landward at night to watch for one of two possible signals from Nick: Either a pickup signal, or else a signal to release the Inde from her wait and to proceed on her orders without him.
Satisfied with the plan, Pellew dismissed the officers, and Nick promptly fell into Bracegirdle's clutches. Knowing that Hornblower would be too busy this evening for further work on the cipher, and that his own cabin afforded the best privacy, Nick reluctantly admitted Mr. Bracegirdle to his tiny domain, though he did not invite the man to be seated as he had no wish to indicate the interview should last any longer than it must.
A direct man, Bracegirdle came bluntly to the point.
"I have had a letter from my wife, Mr. Collins," he declared firmly, taking the document from the inner pocket of his jacket.
"I feared as much," muttered Nick, hands stuffed in his pockets and looking for all the world like an errant schoolboy, hoping the façade might induce the Lieutenant to reconsider his spurious jealousy.
"In it, sir, she dwells at some length on her description of a man who spends much time with her, who escorts her everywhere, it seems! A man who dotes upon her, lavishes small trifles on her. A man who is, in her own words, very much a man, fearless and confident."
Nick felt himself blushing, was furious with himself and only blushed more noticeably.
"I see you are experiencing much the same reaction as I myself," noted Mr. Bracegirdle. "But beware the green-eyed monster, Mr. Collins, it is a viscious creature that devours one from the inside out."
"You must know, sir," Nick attempted feebly, "that although I have an acquaintance with Mrs. Bracegirdle "
"Yes, Mr. Collins, I am aware of your partiality for Hetty, that is, Mrs. Bracegirdle," the Lieutenant replied sternly. "It is why I choose to inform you of the contents of this letter. In the absence of a husband's firm discipline, I believe my wife may occasionally stray into meaningless flirtation "
Nick grew agitated. "Please, Mr. Bracegirdle! You must
believe me, sir, when I tell
But Bracegirdle could not be swayed from his course. "I know that Hetty cannot always appreciate the depths of passions to which her her being will bestir a man. And since this man has so completely engaged her attentions note that I do not say her Affections, Mr. Collins! although I may understand and look upon her with the benign eye of a loving and forgiving mate, I do not wish for you "
"Sir! I protest! I look upon her as a cherished aunt! Nothing more sinister, I assure "
"-- Do not wish for you to also endure undue heartache when you learn she has got up a flirtation with Another Man."
"Like and older sister, she is what!? She what? Who?" An astonished Nick tore the letter from Bracegirdle's grasp and skimmed it rapidly before turning back to the beginning and reading again slowly. Lifting his curly head at last, his black eyes met Bracegirdle's sad blue orbs.
"Do you know this man, sir, this Ninian Ormsby?"
"No, Mr. Collins. Neither did I know you when Hetty first began writing to me of the abundant care and attention you bestowed upon her. I confess that for some while I believed you had stolen the natural affections of my wife. Now," he shook his head forlornly, "I see that I have left her alone for too long a period, and her exuberance and high spirits having gone unchecked have now blossomed intointo I do not care for the word wanton, Mr. Collins, but --."
"Then do not use it," Nick gently urged. "Please be seated, Mr. Bracegirdle. No, there, on the cot. I shall be comfortable here." Pulling forward the small trunk, he perched on it and pondered how best to go on, before at last he decided on honesty.
"I do not know what Hetty has writ to you about me, but allow me to tell you how we met." His voice was soothing, reassuring as he went on to describe his friendship with Hetty, and touching only briefly on some of the scrapes which, with Nick's assistance, she had narrowly avoided, at last concluding with, "I never had an aunt, Mr. Bracegirdle, nor even a sister. I beg you to believe that emotions of any nature other than friendly and familial never entered Hetty's thoughts, nor mine. She speaks constantly of you, sir, and longs always to have you at her side. You are in no danger of losing her affections. They are steadfastly yours."
The Lieutenant's eyelashes appeared damp but he only said, "And what think you of this man Ormsby, then?"
"I think he is set upon to watch her, much as I was at first, to gain intelligence from this ship, or indeed from any other source. Hetty gets all the gossip first, you know. She is a bottomless well of social information."
"An enemy spy!" declared Bracegirdle. "I'll put an end to this immediately!".
"No, no, no! An' you put your foot down from this distance you will only drive her in the very direction you do not choose she should take," Nick argued. "Instead, write her as warmly and passionately as ever you have, but with just the tiniest of warnings that you have heard how officers' wives are being spied upon by the enemy posing as gentlemen, and that you know she is much too level-headed and full of common sense as to allow such a thing to happen to her. Trust me on this, Mr. Bracegirdle, if you leaven words of adoration and endearment with only this faint alarm for her well-being you know your wife best, sir! Do you not think she will take these few words and make Alps out of Cotswolds with them?" Nick was gleeful at the prospect.
"Mr. Collins," replied the Lieutenant slowly, "I begin to think you no less than a genius, sir! Aye, she'll spike his guns, Hetty will!" He jumped to his feet, barely remembering to duck his head in time to prevent thumping it against the beams. "Thank you, sir, thank you! I intend to write this letter immediately. God knows when I shall have opportunity to post it, but I shall be prepared when that day arrives!"
And so saying, he opened the door to leave, turning again to ask in puzzlement, "Oh, Mr. Collins, one thing more. What did you mean when you said to write Hetty as warmly and passionately as I ever had? How did you know --?"
Nick flashed his most guileless smile, and ruthlessly lied
his way past the question.
Twilight had just edged over into nightfall when six men Hornblower, Matthews, Styles, Nick, and two marines pistols at the ready, hunkered down in the woods edging the farm. Four more marines were only a few yards behind them while the remaining men were either with the boats or stationed in the brush along either side of the road, their orders to cover the six lead men in the event of a hasty retreat to the boats.
"No lights, no smoke from the chimney, no sign of dragoons or anyone else. What do you think, Mr. Hornblower?" Nick deferred to the commander of the little group.
Horatio brushed a night insect from his cheek and said, "Perhaps they've taken the submersible and cleared out."
"Mm-hmm." Nick murmured.
"You think it may be a trap?"
"Possibly. Only one way to know for certain." He stopped Hornblower as he began to move. "With all due respect, Lieutenant, let us be cautious. If this IS a trap, your Captain can spare my services far more readily than he can yours. And my orders will keep me here regardless of whether there is a trap or no."
Hornblower shook his head. "You'll not go alone, I want someone watching your back at all times."
"Me, sir." Hornblower blinked at how readily Styles had spoken up. He was aware that a close friendship had been developing between Styles and Collins but it was atypical of Styles to volunteer for such a potentially dangerous task.
"Very well, Styles."
Nick shook his head but only said, "Mr. Hornblower, if
you are going to help provide covering fire, in the event it becomes
necessary, I wish you will cock that pistol first."
And with Styles following closely, he eased out of the woods, and slowly and gradually traversed the open land between trees and outbuildings.
Only a few feet from the building which Horatio had indicated housed the submersible, Nick motioned for Styles to stay still. For several minutes, Nick listened intently, regulating his own breathing and heartbeat until he could hear distinctly between each. The first layer of sound was the densest, as it drowned the area near and far: The nightly noise of insects stirring and whirring. Below that layer was the wind, soughing through the nearby trees and swishing the long meadow grass in which they lay hidden. The next layer was the closest: Styles' breathing and occasional small fidget. Nick learned these sounds, accepted them and dismissed them, keeping his mind and ears open only to that which did not belong. A tiny screech was emitted from some small nocturnal creature pursued by the unseen.
Below all of these Nick finally discerned a soft, almost muffled stamping sound. Just once, but no question about it, there was a horse nearby. Might be a cavalry mount, might be a dray horse. He accepted it, and waited for another noise to confirm or deny. At last, a kind of creaking noise, so faint as to be almost imaginary. The tiny creak of well-oiled leather, as if somewhere someone was shifting in his saddle.
Just as Nick turned to motion Styles back to the woods, thunder poured around them as French cavalry exploded from their hiding places in the outbuildings, and battle cries split the darkness. Not pausing to wonder what might have given them away, Nick screamed for Styles to run, and both men scrambled to their feet and fled toward the forest. It was an impossible goal.
Only yards ahead of him, Nick saw a dragoon gallop out in front of Styles, and turning his horse back to face Styles, the Frenchman unsheathed his sabre in the same motion he urged his horse to charge. Nick's pistol was in his fist and he fired in the same instant as a volley came from the woods. The dragoon went down but so did Styles, and half a dozen more cavalrymen surged past their fallen cohort, chasing their enemies deeper into the woods.
Nick reached Styles, saw immediately that he could not run without assistance, and knelt by him, barely remembering to toss away his pistol before raising his hands and shouting his surrender in French. He could see the riders who had gone into the woods emerging again. Whether they had not liked chancing their mounts in the darkened forest or whether the marines had made the uneven odds of staying alive atop a slow-moving horse having to carefully pick its way through the brush, Nick couldn't guess, but knew it meant that the others still had a chance to get safely away in the boats.
Looking down at Styles' leg slugglishly oozing blood, he clamped long fingers tightly around the limb just above the wound, then looked up to meet Style's eyes, shaking his head. "I'm sorry, Styles. I'm sorry. I waited too long to decide. Sometimes," he said ruefully, "I am just too damned cautious."
Styles' eyes grew wide but he had no time to breathe a word
of warning before a rifle butt slammed into Nick's head.
A staggering headache welcomed Nick to consciousness, and his first thought was a hope that the cretin who had clubbed him had not fractured his skull. His second thought was more a recognition of the uneven rocking motion indicative of traveling via coach. With his next thought, which was of Styles, his eyes flared open only to squeeze shut again when a sudden stab of pain pinioned him in place.
"Easy then, Nick." It was Styles' voice, not cheerful, but alive at least. "Bloody Frog blindsided you! Can you talk?"
Nick edged first one eye, then the other, open, and found that as long as he moved slowly and was careful not to jar himself, he could pull himself up off the floor of the coach and onto the narrow seat across from Styles. A sudden jolt of the carriage sent a shaft of pain ricocheting behind his eyes, and his stomach turned over sickeningly.
"Good God!" he said unevenly after the queasiness had subsided. "These French roads will be the death of me." Carefully turning his head to look out the windows on either side of the coach, the dragoons were in close evidence, their mounted figures distinguishable even in the dark. "I suppose we're lucky to be alive. Any idea where they might be taking us, or why?"
"I dunno for sure. I don't speak that heathen talk. Jabber, jabber, jabber, they sound like squirrels to me. They talked to me like I orta understand, kept saying "monfooey, monfooey" and laughing. Bloody Frogs! Why can't they speak English like everyone else?" he asked sulkily, if not logically.
Nick was so startled he inadvertently jerked his head around to stare at Styles, and the pain made him groan aloud.
When he could speak again without whimpering, he asked, "How's the leg, man? Any broken bones?"
"The ball went clean through my thigh. No bones broke, but if I move it or stand on it, it starts in to bleedin' again. Hurts like the devil but at least I'm still wearin' it. I think all the others got away safe. I didn't see no souvenirs or nothing like on any of the Frogs."
"Wonderful. Better than I could have hoped for." Nick murmured, gathering his courage and leaning forward to the window to try for a better view of the moonlit countryside. By Nick's internal clock, he estimated the hour to be just gone midnight. Another sharp jolt to the carriage squeezed a moan out of him.
"Mebbe you better stay quiet for a while," suggested Styles.
"I think it's easing now," refuted Nick, and indeed the sharp, sudden pains were being replaced by a permanent dull thumping at the top of his skull. "Styles, I think perhaps this is the road to Chateau Montfeuille. A clear case of what goes around, comes around, eh?" He settled back against the squabs to get what rest he could, now that he knew their destination.
"I don't follow ye."
"Chateau Montfeuille, that's where I jumped from the wall. The parachute. You remember," he reminded.
"Aye, I remember! What did you do that made the Frogs so hot for ye that night?"
"Killed one of their officers, a colonel."
"Shot him in a duel?"
"Shot him with a bow and arrow."
Styles digested this information, then observed, "You gots to take'em as they come, I reckon."
"Indeed," Nick agreed faintly. "Wake me when we get to the castle, won't you? When I've slept off this headache perhaps I can think how we're to get out of this."
A grin of hope split the seaman's scarred face. Before him was a man who had already escaped a fortress once, and Styles firmly believed that what a man could do once, he could easily manage a second time. But then Styles had never heard of Montfeuille's reputation for holding prisoners.
The dragoons had exhibited so little enthusiasm in their chase of the Indes, that on the side of the road nearest the beach Lieutenant Hornblower had finally called a halt to the retreat, reorganized his men, and turned them about back toward the farmhouse, arriving in time to see a lumbering old barouche departing in a cloud of cavalry. He counted 17 dragoons accompanying the coach. There was an 18th man draped over his mount. With no sign of Styles or Collins, Horatio assumed they had been captured and were likely being transported to a French prison, probably to be executed there as spies.
An unexpected light flared in the window of the farmhouse, and the marines on either side of Hornblower raised their Brown Besses and took aim. The door was slowly edged open and a man in civilian garb, lantern in hand, cautiously stepped out.
"Hold your fire," whispered Horatio.
Starting with every step, as if afraid of his own shadow, the man jumped and jerked his way to where the submersible was housed. Entering the wooden construct, the lantern light swung and played for a few minutes before the man again exited the building and more confidently strolled back to the farmhouse.
Horatio's smile was brilliant as he paraphrased scripture. "For what doth it profit a Frog, if he shall gain two Englishmen but loseth an inventor?"
His words made no sense to the others, but they willingly followed him as he led the way down to the farmhouse.
The sun was a fiery crown at the top of the sky when the prisoners' carriage rolled past the gatehouse of the fortress Montfeuille. Nick was alert to his surroundings by then, leaning past Styles to peer first out the window on one side then the other, in order to observe as much as possible. His previous foray into the castle had taken him only into the round tower nearest the cliffs, but his preparatory study of the old compound had been scrupulously thorough, as a result of which he experienced a false feeling of distant memory as if he had walked here long years ago, so familiar did it all seem to him.
By daylight the immensity of the compound was awe-inspiring, as they had already passed a curtain wall, barbican, through the portcullis and rolled into what Nick knew was only the first of two baileys. Of the two towers at either end of the portal dividing the baileys, one had been built as an armory and the other had held living quarters for the garrison. By the comings and goings of a number of soldiers from this latter structure, Nick concluded the tower's original purpose was still being served.
The carriage slowed upon entering the second bailey and Styles gasped at the sight.
"Wot the bloody -- !?"
Nick smiled but kept his eyes trained outside their conveyance, at the imposing wooden structures that dotted the bailey.
"They're siege engines," he explained. "A century or two back, these were used to attack castles such as this one. They're just kept here for show nowadays. The last Duc de Montfeuille was a great collector of weaponry, and supposedly there are some remarkable pieces in the armory. Unless the Republicans have got hold of them and destroyed them, of course."
"But wot do they do?"
"Take that one over there, the one those Frogs are stupidly playing about with, that's a mangonel. It's a kind of early cannon, but without the powder. The old warriors would load the basket with heavy stone and shoot it at the walls. Makes a nasty dent, it does. And I don't remember what that's called over there," he pointed, "but it fires heavy darts very rapidly. And that's a trebuchet there, with that long arm on it. Same premise as the mangonel, a catapult to shoot heavy stones, but it has a higher trajectory."
Styles grunted. "I'll take a 24-pounder if it's all the same to you."
But Nick was suddenly quiet, avidly eyeing the machines and grinning when the rollicking soldiers accidentally fired the mangelon, sending a heavy boulder crashing into the perimeter wall and causing even the battle-hardened Styles to flinch. A corporal, caught off guard and made weak-kneed with fear by the explosion, went screaming across the bailey, sending the idle soldiers scattering. Some ran in the direction of the lumbering barouche, which had at last halted closest to the cliffside tower directly opposite the one in which Colonel de Purvaisse had met his death. This tower, Nick knew, was the one made for the containment and easy disposal of pesky prisoners. It had been a particularly close point of study for him, in the event his plans for de Purvaisse had gone awry.
The carriage door was yanked open and a blast of French ordered them to get out and be quick about it. Nick hopped down lightly and turned to give Styles a hand but was pushed back as the soldiers roughly yanked the wounded seaman out of the carriage. With only one good leg and no support, Styles collapsed to the ground. One of the soldiers spat at him and cursed, and another kicked at his wounded leg, before Nick loosed a barrage of epithets and threats at them in their own language, struggling heatedly against the soldiers restraining him.
Laughter chimed from behind Nick, and an unseen pair of hands applauded his spirit, while a heavily accented voice purred its satisfaction at his captivity.
"But it is so good, M'sieur Collins, to see that after so much time you have not changed. Still the banty rooster, threatening the wolf. We are so frightened! Spare us, please!" And the derisive laughter rang out across the bailey again, echoed by from the soldiers.
Without turning his head, Nick grimaced. "And you're still the same old sheep dressed in wolf's clothing, DeVergesse. Your odor betrays you."
Colonel Etienne DeVergesse flushed angrily. Nick's response had been in perfectly accented French for all the soldiers to hear, and he was rewarded with an immediate blow to the kidneys, which drove him to his knees. DeVergesse grabbed the queue of black curls and ruthlessly pulled Nick's head back until the prisoner felt the sharp cold steel poised against the vulnerable artery in his neck.
"This time," he hissed, "this time, M'sieur Collins, you will not escape me so easy. There will be no women's skirts for you to hide behind now. We have special guest quarters here at Chateau Montfeuille from which I am sure even you will find it difficult impossible even! to escape. Search him!"
DeVergesse released Nick and rough hands ran over his slight frame in search of possible weapons.
"Nothing, Colonel," reported the soldier.
"Nothing? Not even a knife? How unlike you to be so ill prepared, M'sieur Collins. Search him again," he demanded.
Again, more thoroughly and more uncomfortably, an impassive Nick was searched and left further disheveled. Neither pistol nor knife was found, much to DeVergesse's obvious disappointment. Nick began tucking his shirt neatly back into his breeches, as he mocked, "Still just a colonel, Etienne? How unlike you to be so unambitious."
DeVergesse's hand flashed out, striking Nick across the face, staggering him.
"Capturing you is quite a, how do you say, a feather in the cap, yes?" DeVergesse smirked. "Ironic that after so nearly being my downfall in Paris, you shall now become the instrument of my advancement, n'est ce pas?"
"Speaking of your downfall, how is your so-charming wife? I remember "
Nick's words were cut off abruptly as an enraged DeVergesse, spurred by only the merest mention of Madame DeVergesse, grabbed him by the throat. He responded to the attack with two quick jabs to the Frenchman's nose, sending blood spurting across both men's faces, before the soldiers intervened, pummeling Nick to the ground in a hail of blows while a sergeant restrained his colonel by reminding him of the Minister of Police's order to keep the prisoners alive until his agent could interrogate them.
Half-dazed as he lay on the ground, Nick still managed a chuckle to torment his captor. "Good heavens, man! Never say you're told to keep me alive! And you're going to obey that order, are you? Hard to believe, but you must want that promotion even more than you want me dead." He struggled to a kneeling position, wiping flecks of blood from his face. "Oh, dear me," he taunted. "Is this your blood, Etienne? Your blood on my hands, fancy that! Now that is what I call a good omen!"
By now DeVergesse had regained some measure of self-control, though anger and loathing had distorted his normally attractive features until he resembled some evil gargoyle plucked from a gothic ruin. Dabbing at his bloody nose with a handkerchief, he intoned, "You may laugh all you like, m'sieur, but our Minister of Police has promised that I shall be your gaoler when his man has completed his interrogation of you. We shall see how well I amuse you then, eh?"
"What? Aren't you sending me to Paris to be questioned by Fouche?" Nick climbed painfully to his feet, instantly revising his mental list of possible escape plans.
"Montfeuille now has the optical telegraph, you see, and we have been communicating with Paris all morning, ever since the advance patrol arrived and announced your capture," DeVergesse explained with a sneer. "As Monsieur Fouche has an agent already en route to Nantes, it is but a simple matter to arrange that he shall at once proceed here. It is possible he may choose to take you to Paris to be tried as a spy, but then again L'Oiseau is not known for his merciful interrogations. You might not survive a journey to Paris when he is finished. How sad, how tragic that would be!"
Nick felt himself go a little dizzy. almost sinking back to one knee again. "L'Oiseau, did you say?" He swallowed with some difficulty. "Daniel L'Oiseau?" His tone was disbelieving.
DeVergesse laughed maniacally, a peculiar gleam in his grey eyes making them stand out even more in his tanned face.
"Eh bien, his reputation precedes him! He shall be most delighted to make your acquaintance, mais oui. But I make no doubt you will not be able to say the same, M'sieur Collins. No doubt at all!" He laughed again, louder, and as he ordered the two Englishmen to be taken to their prison, Nick wondered if the good colonel mightn't be ripe for Bedlam.
Sitting cross-legged on the stone floor of their dank cell, with Styles stretched prone beside him, Nick tilted his head back to watch as from the room above them the French soldiers maneuvered a huge stone into place in the ceiling, leaving a small opening high up in one wall as the only egress into the interior of the castle. No bigger than six inches in either direction, the opening might be used as a peephole to keep watch on the prisoners or to pass food down to the inmates, should they be so fortunate.
The cell was circular, its only amenity the garderobe hewn into the outermost portion of the wall, while a recessed arrow loop, barely large enough for Nick to slide his hand through, allowed a small wedge of light to pierce the blackness of the cell. Cut into the floor was another stone which covered the opening into yet another cell below them. That cell, Nick surmised, would have been created for prisoners destined never to have any further contact with their captors. He hoped not to see the day he would be pushed through that opening.
"Wot was all that Frog talk outside?" asked Styles.
Nick motioned to him for silence, pointing to the peephole in the wall. Styles nodded in comprehension, and was quiet as Nick gestured that he wanted to look at Styles' wound. Examining the ragged bloody hole as closely as he might in the gloom of their dungeon, he was pleased that Styles' earlier assessment of his own condition was accurate.
"Very clean," he confirmed. "Just a question of whether we can prevent infection. You're already a touch feverish."
"Tell me somethin' I dunno," begged Styles.
"Hurts, does it?" Nick sympathized.
"I've known it when it felt a damned sight better," he retorted.
In a spate of French, Nick yelled in the direction of the opening. "We need a doctor here, please! This man is badly wounded. Please bring a doctor! If you won't bring a doctor, please give us some brandy or cognac to clean the wound."
His requests were met with stony silence, yet Nick still felt as if someone was watching them from the tiny window and every few minutes he would repeat the need for a physician.
By Nick's inner clock more than two hours had passed before a voice shouted to them and a flask of water and a loaf of bread were lowered to them by a rope through the small gap. The rope was withdrawn as soon as Nick had untied the flask and bread. A portion of the water went for the washing of Styles' wound and the remainder Nick gave to Styles to drink. When Styles protested, Nick spoke carefully, conscious that a whisper would carry farther than lower tones.
"Drink it, man. If the luck is with me at all I'll find a way out of this cell tonight. And even if I cannot just yet think how we are to leave this prison alive, I believe we might at least dine on better victuals then."
Nick shook his head. "No questions, there's no way to know when they are or are not watching us. Once all's dark down here it won't matter a whit. But we must be careful what we say. You may not be aware when I leave this hole so if you speak to me and I do not answer, pretend I have fallen asleep. I'll be back in here long before morning, barring disaster."
"Mr. Hornblower will be coming for us," Styles assured him. "He'd not leave us without at least making an attempt to free us. Right smart, he is, especially for an officer."
"I don't doubt it," Nick replied, not nearly so confident in the boyish lieutenant as was Styles, "but we came across the short side of the peninsula to get here. Look," he held out one hand, palm down. "We were taken here," he explained, pointing to the knuckle at the base of his thumb, "and we were brought here," pointing now to the knuckle at the base of his little finger. "The ship has to come all the way 'round, at least three or perhaps four times the distance we traveled by coach. As I recall, the ship will also have to stay well to windward when she passes Penmarck Point. So even if she made sail as soon as Hornblower returned -- and you must know it is entirely possible, likely even, that they will NOT come for us they won't arrive before sometime late tomorrow. And I'm not too keen on the odds of your shipmates showing up at all. We will do better to rely on our own wits, I believe."
Styles smiled before a stab of pain in his thigh turned it to a grimace. "I still say Mr. Hornblower will be coming for us."
Some two miles south of Chateau Montfeuille, a trio of sweaty men rolled their wagon to a halt in the heat of the early evening. The freshening breeze off the bay was heartening to the two seamen, Hornblower and Matthews, the latter of whom especially never liked to be far from the water. Though upon learning from the submersible's inventor the destination of the coach bearing Styles and Collins, it had still been another two hours before they had left the farm with the submersible loaded and covered in the wagon bed. Taking a less direct route to this side of the peninsula to avoid as many locals as possible, as well as selecting a site close to the castle that was both safe and suitable for launching Mr. Fulton's contraption had consumed yet more time. The small stretch of shore before them was accessible for the wagon and yet unpopulated save for a bevy of gulls and shorebirds who skittered from their path, but were otherwise unalarmed by the presence of man.
"The light will be going in about two hours," Hornblower noted. "We'll have to launch as close to that time as possible. There will be some source of light in the submersible?" he queried its inventor again.
"Submarine, not submersible. Yes, Lieutenant, as I said," Robert Fulton replied testily. He liked the English even less than he liked the French, but since Napoleon had seen fit to foolishly decline the use of Fulton's machine, despite having proved itself both safe and reliable, he might as well see what these toffee-nosed Brits had to offer. But the man designated to make him any sort of monetary offer at all was apparently a prisoner, along with one other, in Montfeuille, and this Hornblower boy was bound and determined to seek a way these men might be assisted to escape.
"Then we will launch as close to sunset as we safely can," Hornblower went through his plan, such as it was, once more. "We will not submerge unless the batteries fire upon us. At a speed of two knots we should be able to take up a position below the castle under cover of darkness. We will raise the same signal we used when we picked up Mr. Collins before, two lanterns for one minute, douse one lantern, then douse the other a minute later. We'll do it every hour on the hour until dawn, rotating watch. Whether we get a signal or not, the Indefatigable should arrive tomorrow and then it will be up to Captain Pellew to decide our course. For now, let's eat and rest."
When Matthews had divided the bread and cheese among the three of them, and each man had drunk his share from a jug of rough red wine, Horatio lay down on the sand, his head cushioned by one arm while he used the other to shield his eyes from the glare of the lowering sun. With his eyes closed, groups of numbers suddenly sprang to his mental vision and as he toyed with them, adding, dividing, rearranging, almost sliding into a light sleep, a sudden clarity of truth that he only ever experienced with mathematics rushed over him. He sat up suddenly, startling his companions by declaring, "Eureka!"
By the time darkness had completely encompassed their cell, Nick had paced off every inch of the floor, over and over, telling Styles it would keep his muscles from stiffening under the bruises inflicted by the dragoons.
Styles slept fitfully, off and on throughout the afternoon. When he was awake, Nick would sit by him and talk, idle chatter designed to do no more than keep Styles' mind from a debilitating view of his condition.
He had made Styles laugh heartily, setting his leg to aching again, by describing his previous encounters with Colonel DeVergesse, at a time in Paris when a more lighthearted and careless Nick had very nearly seduced that man's young bride, a delightfully charming coquette, into jilting her new husband and eloping. DeVergesse, it seemed, was uncharacteristically jealous for a Frenchman, and apparently he never forgot a grudge. Even Nick had chuckled as he recanted the tale of scrambling into Madame's dress and pretending to be her maid in order to avoid a frothing Etienne, gleaming colichemarde in hand, who burst into the boudoir scant seconds after Nick had donned his ersatz disguise. Chantal DeVergesse might have been young, but even at that age she had all the makings of a hedonist. He wondered whether she had ever come to terms with having a jealous, though far from faithful, lout for a husband.
When Styles slept, Nick resumed his ceaseless pacing, round and round the circle of stone, often trailing one hand against the smooth coolness of the wall. Nothing further in the way of food or drink had been given them, and both men were growing painfully thirsty. When night fell and the blackness of the cell was impenetrable by the human eye, Nick at last halted his perambulations and sat down facing the outer wall just to the right of the garderobe. In perfect stillness he sat for long patient minutes until the keenness of his hearing assured him there was no guard either stirring or sleeping in the space overlooking the cell.
Silently blessing the old Duc de Montfeuille for having kept such detailed journals -- although Chilton had probably thought them worthless scrawlings and used them to line his trunk -- Nick ran both hands along the stone edging the garderobe, until his fingers had once again found the small hidden notch they had earlier brushed against in his search for it. The Duc had written that the old fortress was honeycombed with secret passages, but some of them had caved in while others had deliberately been blocked. Still, he had described two that had been used even during his own lifetime and how they might be accessed, for which Nick was mightily grateful.
He conceded to himself that although a secret passage might as easily lead him straight back into the clutches of DeVergesse as it might to escape, it was his first and best hope for a quick departure. Much as he loathed DeVergesse for his petty cruelties and crude nature, the prospect of renewing his acquaintance with the wholly unpredictable Daniel L'Oiseau kindled in him a fire of revulsion. If DeVergesse knew the things Nick did about L'Oiseau, he'd defend the castle to the last man before allowing the White Wolf access. And as for Daniel, well, Daniel knew the reason Nick was so discomfited by his merest appearance, and it amused him. Few things amused Daniel, but Nick seemed to, and it always gave him the feeling he was about to become the Wolf's next meal, an all too-real possibility as things now stood.
His primary goal must be to get Styles safely away. His friend would stand a better chance of survival even along the rough coast of Brittany than he would if left to Daniel's less-than-tender mercies. A wounded seaman, not even an officer there would be very little, if anything, to be gained from keeping Styles alive. Daniel would put him down faster than a rabid dog, Nick had no doubt.
Gingerly, Nick applied himself to learning the secrets of the tiny trigger in the wall. Crouching, he slowly increased the pressure and was rewarded at last with a faint scraping noise with the wall. Maintaining the pressure with one hand, his fingers pried at the stone beneath without success. Only when he pushed rather than tugged did he suddenly feel the stone give beneath his hand. Pushing harder against it, the cold stone seemed to fold downward, not easily after what must be years of disuse, but steadily as Nick released the trigger mechanism and applied his entire weight to the stone. Within a minute or two, the stone had given way and a waft of fetid air rolled from the black void.
Seating himself again, he removed his right shoe. Gripping the heel in one hand, he wrested it from the sole and removed from the hollowed-out portion of the leather heel a slow-burning fuse, no more than four inches in length. Holding the fuse carefully between his lips, so as to neither lose it nor dampen it, he replaced both the heel and the shoe. His left heel produced the necessary flint and steel, though so small that he singed his fingers even as he managed to light the fuse. It mightn't give much light but it would be better than wandering entirely blind through some godforsaken tunnel, he thought, eyeing the opening in the wall with some trepidity. Heights he adored; water was a miracle; crowds were made to vanish in; and even metaphorically tight places were a source of energy and inspiration to him. Genuinely narrow, dark, tortuous tunnels were another matter altogether. Ah, well, maybe a friendly rat would happen along to show him the way. He shuddered.
Taking three or four deep breaths, he held the fuse carefully then slid headfirst into the unknown.
Despite the tiny fuse glowing in his hand, the walls of the passage closed in around Nick with an astonishing rapidity. The air was suddenly cooler here, dense and compact and befouled by lack of sunlight. Feeling his way more than seeing, he had traveled no more than ten feet when he nearly went toppling face first down a narrow stone staircase made slippery by mold. Only by letting go of the fuse and clinging fiercely to the crevices between stones was he able to halt his descent.
In the cramped confines he was hard pressed to reverse his position without tumbling down the slick steps, so that he might descend feet first. He considered the effort more than worthwhile though, as at last he could stand upright on the stairs. If this tunnel and staircase were part of one of the passages described by the old Duc they would eventually lead to a sallyport opening out of the eastern wall of the first bailey. If he could only get Styles that far he had no doubt of his ability to keep both Styles and himself alive in a hostile countryside. All he wanted was a bit of luck and timing, and he reckoned on making those himself.
Once he got himself turned around and retrieved his small light, he cautiously began the descent, estimating how much time before the fuse burned out, and trying to gauge how difficult the passage would be for Styles to traverse on his injured leg. He had counted 17 steps when he came upon a landing that turned the stairs toward the interior of the tower. He felt carefully with one foot for the next step but could not find it, so cautiously he lowered himself to a sitting position on the landing and let his legs dangle over the edge to find the steps.
Nick swallowed hard as his position became clear in his mind's eye.
There were no more steps. He was perched directly above a bottomless black void.
Whether this was a trap for the unwary -- medieval lords had been nothing if not devious -- or whether the staircase had simply collapsed over the years, Nick's fuse did not cast sufficient light to reveal.
With the precious minutes of his light dwindling, Nick wasted no time in regaining his feet and ascending the stairs he had so laboriously just descended, yet he was ever mindful of the danger of slipping and injuring himself in the treacherous passage. It wouldn't do Styles a damned bit of good if Nick dashed his brains out on some ancient stone and left his friend to rot in the nearest thing to an oubliette anyone could ever hope to encounter. But Daniel wouldn't let Styles rot, would he? Daniel liked fresh meat.
The very thought spurred him on, and soon he was down on hands
and knees again.
Passing the hole through which he had entered the tunnel, he re-oriented himself, checked the time left on his fuse and pushed himself forward.
Here, at last! Another staircase, this one ascending, and he clambered thankfully up the first few steps before the fuse smoldered and singed his finger and thumb as the last glimmer faded. leaving him blind.. And still the stairs went up. With his light gone and feeling walled-in by the blackness, he paused to rest while he tried to calculate how much distance he was covering horizontally. He decided he must be nearly halfway across the wall running between the two seaside towers, the one in which he'd been imprisoned and the one in which he'd slain de Purvaisse. That tower was where the officers had been quartered. It was too much to hope that this passage would open directly into DeVergesse's bedroom, but his lips tightened into a semblance of a smile at the thought.
Another landing. Careful, careful, he warned himself.
Bracing himself against one wall, he very slowly slid one foot first, then edged the other up beside it. Would there be more steps, either up or down? Would he walk blindly into a wall?
Instead the landing proved to be a long, narrow hallway, which he guessed ran parallel to the battlement. Still, he could not afford to take chances and it took him nearly half an hour to travel a hundred feet. His hunger and thirst and bruises all faded into oblivion when at last he reached the end of the tunnel and his searching fingers easily found and grasped a trigger mechanism much larger than the one inside his cell. Whoever had designed this secret passage had not wanted to chance missing the way out once he was in't.
Nick gave silent thanks to the foresight of the old lords of the castle, and running both hands over the trigger, he guessed what he was about to open would be something close to the size of a door. Taking a deep breath, all the possibilities ran through his mind: A rusty, creaking exit; soldiers on the other side, waiting to pounce. Or even worse, DeVergesse standing there laughing, sword in hand, ready to slash at him. All the possibilities flickered in his head like dying firelight.
All but one.
He opened the door and found Sleeping Beauty.
A single candle flickered near the bed, but after having stumbled his way through the black void between the castle walls, to Nick it shone as the brightest of beacons, illuminating the pale satin skin and auburn tresses of the most beautiful woman he had ever known. This enchantingly feminine creature lay curled on her side, softly slumbering in the depths of a great old bed carved out of massive timbers more suited to the rest of some giant ogre than to that of the delicate fairy who nestled so sweetly within.
His breath caught in his throat and he barely remembered to look around for anyone else who might be present, before flowing like a shadow to her side.
Coquette. Vixen. Enchantress. Siren.
He could almost laugh now at how young, how callow he'd been. Both of them, hardly more than children really, though he was the older and should perhaps have been wiser.
She was so damned lovely it made his throat ache. Not ice-princess beautiful as so many high-born women were, but desirably beautiful, sensuously beautiful. Everything about her invited his touch: Hair that shone like a new minted guinea, gold one second and copper the next; eyes he remembered that changed with her mood, from the deep-blue ocean of her laughter to the fiery green of her passion. Pale skin so perfectly white that the blue veins marbling her ivory breasts had been a constant temptation to his fingers to trace their paths over and over. Lips - there had been a time when the merest touch from those soft pink petals could make his entire body tremble in anticipation.
God! He'd been raised at the knee of his grandmother, a veritable queen of whores in her younger years. His mother had been the same, and had died at the hands of one of her own customers when he was barely out of his swaddling clothes. He'd thought there was nothing anyone could teach him about women, and perhaps there wasn't. But no one had taught him anything about his own heart.
How crushed he had been, how boyishly abject and despondent when she had decided not to leave her husband to be with him. Her fear of Etienne, she'd told him, was stronger than her love for him. Etienne would destroy them both if he learned of their affair, she was convinced of it, and nothing Nick had said could persuade her otherwise. They had quarreled so long about it that for once Nick had failed to mind the time, and Etienne was home all too soon, furiously but ineffectively slashing at the skirts Nick had donned as a last-minute disguise before making good his escape.
He'd never seen Chantal again until this instant. By the following morning Etienne had taken her away and hidden her. Long before Nick had any hope of finding her, the Old Gentleman had hauled him back to England and put a flea in his ear about attending to his duties, and the importance of his work to the Crown. Between his fierce loyalty to the King and the stinging remembrance of her rejection of his love and lack of confidence in his ability to protect her, he had fallen to his work like a man possessed. But he had never forgotten her. How could he? She was as close to him as his own shadow; as far from him as his hope of heaven.
He had bloodied his hands too often since then to consider himself a fit mate for any gentlewoman, but he neither could he conceive of a lifetime in the company of the rough sort of women who had begotten and raised him. The Old Gentleman had taken him beyond being happy with his own kind, and he wasn't fit to be with any other. He might occasionally yearn to try his luck with the pretty little miss who lived next door to him in London, but he'd not do more than spin daydreams about the kind of life that would lead to. It would be unfair to the little innocent; he had irreversibly blackened his soul.
But Chantal had been real, no daydream. She had been all he had ever known of perfect joy, had been warm and vibrant and responsive. It had maddened him to see this creature of light and laughter chained to one such as DeVergesse. His crudeness, his bullying, his excesses and abuses of the weakest and most vulnerable of his fellow man made him loathsome to Nick. Whether it was his adoration of Chantal or his seething abhorrence of Etienne that had made him persist in trying to persuade her to elope, Nick was no longer certain. The two feelings, perfect love and pure hatred, were inextricably intertwined, so that even with the maturation lent by time and distance he could not part the strands. Had she been married to a different, worthier, man would Nick still have been so intent on elopement? Or would he have pursued any woman married to Etienne, just out of sheer malevolence?
A maelstrom of emotion swept him, stirred merely by the sight of this one woman. Look at her, he thought. Look how her shoulder curves around into the fine column of her neck, then sweeps up into that determined little chin. Adorn that with a soft, smooth, clinging mouth. Add a straightly chiseled little nose, and eyes rimmed with velvet lashes so long they shadowed the silky skin just below.
Lashes that now lifted to reveal eyes wide with terror.
"Shh! Tais-toi, cherie. It is only your Nick here with you," he murmured, his fingers lightly touching her mouth.
"Nick?" A few seconds of confusion and then, recognition. "Nick! Ah, Nick, my soul!"
With a smothered cry of delight she was in his arms, her own wrapped tightly 'round his neck. For long moments they clung to each other like abandoned children. The scent of her, the softness of her breasts crushed against him, the sheer, warm unexpectedness of her was nearly his undoing. His long tanned fingers caught and tangled in her hair, over and over. He could not speak for the well of joy rising in him. In his ear, his name was repeated like a mantra, again and again, as if she could not believe he was real, but only a wondrous, all too fleeting dream.
At last she pulled back a little to look at him, searching his face with the tips of her fingers; hearing and seeing were senses were not to be trusted. He smoothed back a soft lock of hair from her brow, and with both hands cradling her head, brought her lips to his. So many words he spoke, so many things he told her with one tender kiss: How lonely he had been without her, how he had wanted to search for her, how very lost he had been until this instant. When his kiss moved from the gladness of reunion to one tinged with need and desire, she gently pulled away again, and though he felt his hands quiver with the urge to bring her back again, he restrained himself. The years had changed him, he knew, and not for the better; and he recognized also that her years with Etienne DeVergesse could not have been easy. There was much to discover about each other, and time was, as it ever had been for them, all too short.
Yet he could not stop smiling! Gently he nudged her forehead with his own, moistened his lips, and said with a slight laugh, "I'm dying of thirst, cherie. Is there anything to drink?"
Her smile was not so broad as his and it held a hint of wistfulness, but she only replied, "Mais oui! Are we not still in France? In that cabinet," she directed.
He found a bottle of brandy, still three-quarters full, and brought it with two glasses to the bed. Handing her one glass, he poured for both of them and set the bottle aside. Raising his glass to her, he found himself uncharacteristically lost for words. She leaned forward and kissed him lightly, touched her glass to his and drank. He tossed off the brandy as if it were so much water, poured another glass and then made himself comfortable on the bed. Arranging a pillow behind him, he sank back with a sigh and drew Chantal down until her head rested on his shoulder.
"Nick, what are you doing here?" she questioned urgently. "You did not know I was here. I could tell, you did not know."
"No, but I ought to have guessed when I ran into Etienne earlier today. He took me prisoner this morning, you see. A friend and myself."
She sat up in shock. "A prisoner? But he wants you dead! And yet now here you are with me? This must be one of his terrible games! You must go, and go quickly! Please, Nick!"
He only pulled her down again, soothing her by saying, "Calm yourself, ma petite. Doubtless he thinks I am still in that filthy hole where he threw me. Mais non! You see before you a man on the verge of escape! Just as soon as I can see my way clear, that is," he laughed. "Daniel L'Oiseau will be arriving in a day or two for the express purpose of interrogating me, and I am determined to disappoint him."
"Monsieur L'Oiseau is not so bad as Etienne, I think. He he has been very kind to me," she whispered.
Nick was astonished.
"Darling, you must be joking! You know what they call L'Oiseau, don't you? The White Wolf. Trust me on this; you'd be a good deal safer in the company of a real wolf. A whole pack of'em even!"
She nodded. "I know what is said of him, but to me, he has been tres gallant. And, no," she said firmly, "he has not been flirting with me. He is just nice. I think he understands how it is with Etienne, and perhaps he pities me a little." She sighed. "Times have changed, n'est ce pas? There was a time I would have hated any man who pitied me."
Nick felt the old guilt swelling in him. "I looked for you, Chantal. I swear to you I did, but I was ordered back to England before I could find him and wring your whereabouts from his throat. I should have stayed! I should have tried harder!" he berated himself.
"No, Nick," she said tiredly. "Do not blame yourself. We all make choices for ourselves. Etienne made his, I made mine. And I chose badly. I knew you would search for me and I sometimes think I am glad you did not find me. Those were terrible days for me and I do not know what I might have done if you had seen me in such a desperate condition. Gone a little mad, perhaps." She drained her glass. "Or perhaps I have gone mad anyway."
Nick was disturbed by her words, by the resignation in her voice.
"I don't understand, cherie."
"Who does, Nick? Who does?" She seemed to be growing more distant from him, even as he held her. Alarmed, he sought to reassure her.
'I'll not leave you behind again, my darling," he vowed fervently. "This time we go together."
She withdrew gently from his embrace, sat up and looked down at him sadly. "I wish it might be so, but no," she shook her head. "I do not leave France just yet. Not while Etienne lives."
Nick stared at her, speechless. Slowly he rose from the bed, and paced blindly about the room, finally coming to Chantal's side. Kneeling by her he clasped her hand.
"Help me understand, Chantal," he begged hoarsely. "You cannot mean you want to stay with that that pestilence. I won't believe it. I won't. I ." Eyes closed in agony, he broke off, drawing her hand to his lips and pressing a desperate kiss to her palm. Her expression was shuttered, and he entreated her, "Do not do this, please, please, do not! I will not leave you again!"
"I will not leave while Etienne lives," she declared flatly, meeting his imploring gaze directly.
His expression hardened with resolve. Softly he said, "Say the word then, and he is a dead man."
She laughed bitterly, but shook her head. "You have not the understanding, mon coeur. He must die at my hands. If I can never have any other satisfaction before I die, I will have that! Not you, not the angels can persuade me otherwise."
"No, I don't understand!" he argued hotly. "Killing a man is not so easily done as you might think, and is even more difficult to live with. If his blood should stain my hands, he is but one among many, tu comprends? One such as he should mar neither your conscience nor your soul. Let the sin be mine," he urged.
She looked at him piercingly. "So this is what you are become? Or what you think you are? A sin-eater? Listen to me!" She cupped his face in her hands, stroking his high cheekbones with her thumbs. "For you to kill Etienne for love of me how soon would you hate me for it?"
He shook his head but she would not let him speak.
"Yes, you would, Nick! I do not care how many others there have been, this would be one that would someday come between us. Besides, the satisfaction for me will not be in his death. Satisfaction will be in accomplishing his death and in him knowing who and why."
More and more Nick felt they had been separated by something more insidiously divisive than mere time and space, and he stared at her, uncomprehending.
"Why, then?" he finally asked. "Why must it be you?"
She replied with simple, forceful passion, her hands clutching at his sleeves.
"Because what he did to me is not something I can ever put in the past. Not even his death will change that. His mark is on me pour l'eternite." Her voice broke and hot tears spilled from her eyes.
His arms enveloped her, and he gently rocked her.
"No, no, ma pauvre. Hush, now. I will wipe every trace of his memory away, I promise you this. I will make you so happy you will forget he ever existed. Yes, I will!" he insisted as she shook her head vehemently against his chest. "We will go to the English countryside, and always be together and if ever we see someone crying we will gape in astonishment, because we will not remember what tears are. And we will raise babies, sweet little baby girls who will be almost as beautiful as their mother. And she "
He broke off as she raised her head and jerked away from him, fending off the hands that would hold her.
"No babies!" she cried in torment. "All the children I shall never bear! Etienne has murdered them all!"
Nick could only stare at her, could not seem to grasp what she was trying to tell him. He felt a kind of blank horror creeping over him, as if anticipating the nightmare she slowly began to relate to him, sobbing between breaths.
"He has killed all hope that I might bear a child. He has killed me, too, but somehow I am alive still and I hate him so much because he has made me hate myself! No, don't touch me again, please, Nick, I cannot bear it just now."
She covered her face with her hands, scrubbed the tears from her eyes as if she detested them.
"That night," she whispered, by a visible effort calming herself enough to continue speaking, "he beat me. I was nearly out of my senses when he put me into a carriage and took me to a house -- I don't know what street it was in. There were people there, mostly women. Not French, I think perhaps Egyptian or -- I don't know. Those horrid women, their faces hidden behind veils. They tied me down. And I was so afraid, I did not know what was going to happen, I thought -- I feared Etienne was going to let other men --." Her voice broke again. "I did not what real fear was until then, what it meant to live a nightmare. The women cut my clothing off below my waist, and then oh, mon Dieu, quel horreur! -- they cut me! Oh, God, they cut me!"
She was trembling all over, tears streaming down a face contorted with the humiliation of reliving the horror of that night, a horror that had been her companion for every waking second since its first occurrence.
Nick felt as if he had frozen in place. He could feel the ice forming in the center of his chest and racing along his sinews until he could not move. For all the horrors he himself had conceived and perpetrated he was aghast at her words. His mind could hardly comprehend the pain and terror she had endured.
He shivered in wintry stillness as she painted a bloody portrait of what Etienne had called an operation to cure her lustful nature. She had been mutilated not only against her will, but without any laudanum to ease the pain of the crude operation. She remembered screaming and writhing, but the woman cutting her had not even paused in her bloody work. Etienne had slapped her repeatedly as the pain increased her fear, and hysteria overwhelmed her. At last she had mercifully fainted.
"When I awakened," she told Nick, "I understood that my suffering, my punishment had only just begun. Pain, infection, these I have survived. But Etienne was wrong; the operation did nothing to smother my desires. In that, I am as I ever was. More so even, but I learned with much difficulty that I cannot any longer find satisfaction in my body. The pain of being with a man is so great, and where once was great joy there is now no pleasure for me. Only the pain. I cannot contemplate bearing children, to endure such pain would destroy me, I know it. My children taken from me, before I could ever even learn to hope for them! He has done everything but lay me in the grave. I am not a woman anymore; I do not know what I am. I feel as if I have become some foul, undead creature, with no right to exist. My hatred for him festers like a wound that will not heal. I keep myself alive solely in the hope that one day I will find a way to kill the monster that did this to me! I will never be at peace until I can do so. You see now why this is all the satisfaction life holds for me? Don't take that from me, Nick. He dies at MY hand!"
She fell silent after this declaration, and watched her lover as he struggled with the knowledge of the price she had paid for his love.
He felt as if he had stepped outside his frozen shell of a body and had lost the way in again. Imagination, so long his ally in adventure, now turned on him with a savage ferocity as vivid images of how terrified, how wounded, how helpless she had been at the hands of one who should have been her greatest protector washed over him. An anguished scream lay trapped in his throat, fighting with waves of nausea that ebbed only to recur with greater force.
His own guilt paralyzed him. Guilt for having seduced her into a position to be the target of DeVergesse's cruel wrath; guilt for not having taken greater precautions for her safety; guilt for not having rescued her, for not even continuing to search for her. He knew himself to be as culpable as Etienne and this abrupt realization of his perfidy, more than any assassination he had ever committed in the name of the King, laid ruin to his soul. He felt himself looking down the long, barren years to come and seeing only a frozen wasteland of guilt, with bitter winds of blame whistling across the icy reaches of his life.
Chantal recognized his shock and despair -- to her, they were intimate companions -- and she took his hands and stroked them gently, murmuring to him soft reassurances that, through his haze of guilt, smote him like daggers. In his world, when he had failed, only he was made to pay for it. That this sweet, gentle soul should have been made to pay and dear Lord! At what cost! for his sins was more than he could bear.
When at long last he could feel himself breathe, could swallow, could speak, his voice still shook with raw emotion.
"He shall die in whatever way pleases you, ma chere.
No matter what it takes. I swear this to you."
The icily detached feeling had persisted even as Nick had made his way back along the secret passage. He was a little astonished that one part of him could remain so pragmatic that he should remember his and Styles' need for food and drink. Lifting the heavy bar from Chantal's door and making his way undetected down to the kitchens had seemed the work of another man altogether. The slim young man who liberally helped himself to victuals and a lantern could surely not be he? Returning to Chantal's bedroom, embracing her gently, even using his nonsensical charm to coax a genuine, albeit brief, laugh from her -- this was not Nick Collins. Nick Collins was always in easy control of himself. That other man only just barely had himself under control. He was clearly on the verge of some desperate act. Nick tried to warn him, tried to pull him back from the brink, but that man could not, would not hear him; could hear nothing beyond the blood rushing in his ears.
Making his way back along the secret passage was considerably easier with the aid of the lantern and his mind registered two or three more places where the passageway might be entered from either the tower or the bailey itself. Without dwelling on it, he recognized the good sense of the design, which, if necessity demanded, would have allowed the hard-pressed occupants of Montfeuille, under close attack, to escape from the seaward towers and bailey into the passage and climb down to what? With the stairs likely having caved in below the dungeons it was hard to say, but the old knights were canny fellows, and Nick would have bet even money the stairs would have led down to the shore where they could have escaped by boat. Tomorrow night he would take the lantern and see whether it was at all possible to bridge that empty blackness at the bottom of the steps. He felt strangely exhausted tonight, and tried to tell himself it was due to hunger and thirst.
As soon as he spotted the opening back into his cell he dowsed the lantern and placed it within arm's reach of the hole. Along with two loaves of bread, a hunk of yellow cheese, and a large kitchen knife, he had appropriated three bottles of wine and a basket to carry his ill-gotten gains. One of the bottles and the knife he placed next to the lantern. No point in getting drunk, he thought. It wouldn't make him forget anything. And the knife was a symbolic reminder he did not need at the moment.
He had no sooner slithered back into the cell than he felt a hand grip his ankle and he froze.
" 'S'only me," whispered Styles. "W'er've you been? You been gone half the night."
"Well worth the time, my anxious little mother-hen," Nick said easily, astonished that the other man walking around in his body had subsided enough to allow him to respond normally. And as soon as the thought crossed his mind, a jagged shard of ice rose up in his throat, threatening to choke him. Quickly he forced his thoughts back to Styles.
"Here," he thrust a bottle into Styles' hands. "Hold onto that, we don't want broken glass all over the place. And here's some bread and cheese."
Both men huddled against the wall, downing their rough meal, Styles with great gusto, Nick more contemplatively. Once he commented offhandedly that the wine was "not a half bad claret," and was amazed at his own poise, giving no hint of the violent shadows flickering just below the surface.
Downing the last crumbs of his portion, Styles asked, "Well, wot did you find besides the galley? Any way out?"
"No, not directly. I'll have another go at it tomorrow night. Sooner if I can be sure there's no guard set up there to watch us."
"Just in case you think I was sitting here doing nothing, I found out something that will help us." Styles could not have sounded more pleased with himself and was a bit disappointed when Nick replied with an absent, "Oh?"
"Wot would you say if I told you Mr. Hornblower was here?" he asked smugly.
His words brought Nick bolt upright. "Ah, now you're interested," Styles nodded sagaciously. "Told ye he'd come, didn't I? He's a right lad, that one!"
"Give over," Nick found he could still laugh, even through the chill locked around his heart. "All right, you told me so. So where is he? How -- ?"
"I woke up sometime after you went took French leave, and found that hole in the wall. I reckoned I'd just wait till you showed up, but I got sleepy-like again. I tried to get some air through that poor excuse for a porthole, and that's when I saw the signal. Down on the water it was. Two lights, one put out and then after a minute, t'other. Just like when I signaled before. It has to be Mr. Hornblower, although for a bit I thought I was dreamin'."
Nick could feel his heart pumping a bit faster but said skeptically, "Are you sure you weren't?"
"Certain-sure! I saw it twicet after. And I'm thinking that it's about time for it again."
"What!? They must be signaling every hour then."
Nick scrambled to his feet and felt his way around the wall until he felt the slight draught edging its way through the arrow loop. Peering down, he watched for a minute or two, then said, "Styles, how's your leg? I know you've been on it a bit tonight if you stood here for long, but can you watch for a bit?"
Styles agreed and instead of crawling across the floor as he had done earlier, with Nick's assistance he got to his feet and hopped over to the embrasure. While he watched, Nick undid his shoe again, retrieving the tiny flint and steel. Again opening the small door into the secret passage, he withdrew the lantern, and brought it next to Styles.
"Tell me as soon as you see the signal again," he ordered. With quiet tension they waited until at last Styles said sharply, "There it is! One two lights."
Immediately Nick busied himself getting the lantern relit. As soon as that was done, he tugged off his cravat carefully, so as not to smother the lantern light, set fire to the neckcloth. Clutching the brightly blazing cloth, already burning more rapidly than he would have liked, Nick thrust his hand out the loop. He held onto the burning cravat until he was in danger of being blistered, before allowing it to drop down the outside wall and burn itself out.
Far below and out on the water, all was blackness again. For long seconds Nick thought there would be no response, that perhaps Styles had been imagining it after all or perhaps had mistaken some phosphorescent occurrence in the sea for the signals. Suddenly, two small lights glimmered side by side in the night, and after a minute were snuffed in sequence.
Shocked, Nick felt something was wrong with his eyes. They were burning and he rubbed at them furiously. He was not, he told himself, overwhelmed simply because Mr. Hornblower had come to their aid. He was not moved, he assured himself, just because there was not one other time in his life he could remember anyone ever coming to his rescue when the odds were all against him. Hornblower had come for Styles, after all, and not for Nick. Still
"He must have waited his chance and captured the submersible. God knows how he got it over to this side of the peninsula so quickly. The damned countryside is crawling with dragoons." Nick clapped a hand on the taller man's shoulder, and grinned. "You were entirely right, Styles, and I confess it. Your Mr. Hornblower is indeed quite a lad!"
In the dim shelter of the cliffs the 25-foot Nautilus submersible bobbed gently in the sequestered waters of the bay. Lieutenant Hornblower had allowed Mr. Fulton to open a bottle of wine, and the three of them, Hornblower, Fulton, and Matthews, drank a toast to the two men held prisoner in the fortress high above them, prisoners who had somehow found a way to signal back to their comrades. Like nearly all British seamen, Matthews had a strong preference for grog, and he grimaced at the sourness of the wine. But his face unscrewed and his jaw went slack a moment later when Mr. Hornblower wondered aloud, "What do you think it would take to get someone inside that castle to see them?"
The young officer flushed a little when he realized the other men were gaping at him in disbelief.
"It might be possible," he defended his thoughts. "Styles was wounded, wasn't he, Matthews? D'you think we could get a doctor inside? He might have to bribe the guards. And we'd be putting a lot of trust in a Frenchman."
Always prompt to follow where Hornblower led, Matthews moved swiftly from surprise to suggestion. "Beggin' yer pardon, sir, but if the doctor has a fambly, we could make use of'em. Then we wouldn't have to trust him, boot'd be on t'other foot, if ye take my meaning."
Hornblower drew in a deep breath, his brow furrowed in thought. "Threaten civilians? Women and children? Matthews, I'm surprised at you." He paused. "But if the doctor is not open to bribery -- we may have no choice."
By the following afternoon, around the headland and standing off so that she was not visible from the Chateau, the Indefatigable was hove to. Trim as she was, and in the wise hands of England's finest frigate captain, she had made far better time than Nick had calculated, even though she had cautiously steered well clear of the Penmarck Rocks. Captain Pellew had already witnessed, and very nearly experienced, the devastation those jagged fingers of stone could wreak on a ship, and had taken no chances when charting his course for the return to Montfeuille.
With Fulton and the submarine now in his possession, thanks to the persistence and initiative of Lieutenant Hornblower, Pellew was now anxious to deliver his prizes to the Admiralty. Even so, he allowed himself to be persuaded by Hornblower's report of a return signal from the Chateau to remain in the vicinity for one night, in the event Collins and Styles might effect an immediate escape. Unlikely, yes, but Hornblower was seldom without a plan, and the one he presented to Pellew involved a need for Styles' parachute as well as for a cooperative French physician. Whether or not the plan succeeded, at sunrise on the following day the Indefatigable would make sail for Portsmouth.
Hornblower, along with Matthews and Mr. Fulton, who was delighted to demonstrate the effectiveness of his machine to officers who understood its significance, as opposed to politicians and soldiers, had taken the Nautilus once more into the waters below Montfeuille, to give whatever assistance they might to the prisoners. Pellew had rapped out a sharp order for silence as the Indes gathered at the larboard side, watching and marvelling while the small craft gradually submerged, finally disappearing into the blue depths.
While the crew and officers of the frigate nervously voiced their qualms about ships that would carry them under water and the various disasters that could ensue, Pellew's fear was more global and he expressed his dismay to the First Lieutenant.
"That vessel changes everything, Mr. Bracegirdle," he said gravely. "Our wooden world is all but finished."
Clasping his hands behind his back he stared grimly out past the horizon and into a future he did not particularly relish.
Jean-Luc Clermont's most distinguishing characteristic was his stubborness. Indeed, the universal belief of all who knew him well was that the mule had yet to be born that could outmatch the good doctor for sheer, hardheaded obstinacy. Those who were merely passing acquaintances of the obdurate sawbones simply said that Dr. Clermont could argue a dog's hind leg straight.
As this intractable physician was not a man open to bribery nor was he possessed of any family, it was a most happy circumstance for Lieutenant Hornblower that Dr. Clermont was an adamant, almost radical believer in the provision of medical attention for any and all who required such, regardless of race, religion, political persuasion, or ability to pay. He was in fact among the rarest of medical men, a true healer: Selfless in service, pigheaded in practice. Whenever one of the villagers was in need of his skills his inflexibility was generously described as dedication or zeal or even fervor. In less demanding circumstances, however, the local Bretons were proportionately less charitable, and quarreled with him constantly.
Any social skills the doctor might once have possessed were long since smothered by his immovable self-assurance and by a singularly narrow view of the world which encompassed only his work. Whereupon he was, as was his wont, taking his afternoon coffee in peaceful solitude when a young naval officer suddenly appeared before him, demanding his assistance for a wounded man imprisoned up at the Chateau.
Learning someone who needed medical assistance was also being denied the same, was just the sort of circumstance to make Dr. Clermont hotly dismiss the remainder of his coffee and jump to his feet. He'd moved so swiftly to implement his Hippocratic oath, with no questions asked and without seeming to realize the man before him was a British officer, that Horatio had been hard pressed to quickly stuff the parachute into the enormous black leather bag containing Clermont's tools of trade before that gentleman strode out the door on his errand of mercy. The message which Horatio had hoped to persuade the doctor to pass on to Collins and Styles fell on selectively deaf ears. As the young lieutenant was not addressing any medical needs of the patient, nothing else he said was of any import whatsoever to Dr. Clermont.
The dragoons at the barbican proved to be no match for the determined doctor, as any of the villagers could have predicted. Their corporal was even less effective. The sergeant did his utmost, bellowing himself hoarse in the attempt to turn away the leech, resulting only in drawing the attention of his captain, who was suffering an unpleasant hangover and demanded to know what the ruckus was all about. Being informed that a physician had arrived who insisted on treating the wounded prisoner, the Captain snapped at the sergeant, "Don't be so stupid! Search him for weapons, and let him through. And don't let me hear you caterwauling like that again! Come along, Doctor. If you'll just give me something for this head, then you may see the prisoner at your convenience."
Nick had thought he would not be able to sleep, but within an hour after signalling Mr. Hornblower he had fallen into an exhausted slumber, mercifully free of dreams. He even slept through the shout from the guard when a loaf of bread and jug of water were again lowered into the cell shortly past noon. The guard had continued shouting and with some pointing and gesturing through the tiny aperture, Styles finally made out that he was to return the water jug from the previous day. When that simple task, made laborious by the pain in his thigh each time he drug himself across the cell, was accomplished he rested against the wall facing the arrow loop and eyed the narrowly visible strip of sky while he consumed his share of bread and water.
He was feeling positively cheerful, certain that between Nick and Mr. Hornblower it could not be much longer until he reboarded the Inde. Aye, a mug of grog to gargle and a slap to the back of Oldroyd's head, he'd miss all of that if they didn't find a way out of this bloody hole soon. And he hadn't had a chance to try out his parachute yet. Funny how every man jack of'em aboard the Inde took an interest in that bit of silk but not a one of'em was willin' to have a go at trying it out.
He could just see himself, climbing the rigging, the parachute tied to his back. Nick would be standing alongside him at the mizzen top, gauging the wind and going over the instructions again. The men would gather below to watch him jump. Even Cap'n Pellew would be watching. Coins would change hands surreptitiously as the wagers would mount and the odds change. For the first time, he allowed himself to think about what it would be like to willingly step away from the swaying top and plunge to the water below (and not the deck, please God!). But Nick had told him there would be a sharp jerk and instead of hurling into the water like shot from a gun, the parachute would unfold into a huge sail over his head and he would just glide down, so smooth as any seagull. A broad smile split Styles' scarred visage as he remembered Nick recounting the first time he himself had used a parachute, how his natural fear had vanished as soon as the parachute had checked the speed of his descent and he'd suddenly found himself laughing, as he put it, like any Bedlamite.
Now as Nick continued to sleep, Styles began to wonder if that rifle butt head hadn't affected his friend more than he'd previously thought. Once he'd seen a man take a heavy blow to the head from a belaying pin that had laid the man out colder than the stone he now sat on. The man had regained consciousness and for the next three days had seemed entirely sound and normal. On the fourth day he had lapsed into a fit of violence, frothing at the mouth and lashing out with iron fists at anyone who came near him. Afterward the man had slept round the clock and awakened normal again, only to have another such fit a week later and dying in the course of its rigor.
A sharp, grating noise from above not only drew Styles' attention but proved enough to even awaken Nick from his deep repose. Entirely alert now, he moved to sit cross-legged beside Styles, and they watched in silence as the giant stone was removed from the ceiling to the accompaniment of hearty French curses. The two men's thoughts could not have been more opposed. Styles had nearly convinced himself that the first face he would see peering down from the hole in the top of the cell would be that of Lieutenant Hornblower. Nick was concerned that either L'Oiseau had arrived earlier than expected to begin his interrogation or else that DeVergesse had somehow discovered that Nick had found his way through the honeycombed walls of the castle to Chantal. He knew that if DeVergesse had got any inkling at all of Chantal's intent to kill her husband, she would simply disappear again, this time forever.
A ladder was thrust down the hole to the floor of the dimly lit cell, and slowly the figure of a man began a somewhat shaky descent.
"Too short to be Mr. Hornblower," thought Styles.
"Too short to be L'Oiseau," thought Nick.
Upon reaching the bottom of the ladder, the man called up to the soldiers to drop his bag down. As Dr. Clermont had already made himself as popular with the guards as he was with the villagers, his oversized medical bag landed nearly on top of him, prevented only by the doctor nimbly dodging to one side. The ladder was then withdrawn and a single guard stayed to watch the proceedings in the cell below.
"I am Doctor Jean-Luc Clermont," announced the imperious stranger. "Which of you is my patient?"
Styles looked at Nick for an interpretation.
"I believe the doctor is here to see to your wound," Nick grinned.
"A Frog! I don't want " Styles interrupted himself to watch the busy little man approach him.
"I am a doctor," Clermont spoke louder and enunciated each syllable carefully, as if this would help Styles better understand the French language. "Where is the wound?"
Nick laughed. "He's from the Oldroyd school of lingual education, I see. Let him have a look at your leg, Styles, while I try to get some information from him."
Styles groaned but the little Frenchman was already probing at the nasty-looking hole in his thigh, occasionally muttering something under his breath about the filthy habits of the English, which if Nick had translated for Styles would have put the seaman in a towering rage.
In trying to pry some useful information from the physician, Nick was for once at a loss as he found his questions and remarks alike ignored. It wasn't that Dr. Clermont refused to answer his questions or respond to his conversational sallies, it was simply that the doctor had no thought other than for his patient. Abruptly announcing that the wound looked well enough but needed cleaning, Nick was translating this promise of a painful few minutes to Styles when the doctor opened his bag and Nick stopped in mid-speech.
The bright silk spilling over the edges of the bag was unquestionably Styles' parachute. Nick glanced at Styles and realized that he, too, had recognized it and was hard pressed to control his excitement. Even Nick's sang froid was shaken when Dr. Clermont impatiently yanked the fabric out of the bag and thrust it aside with blind impatience, while damning his housekeeper for her slothful ways.
"Qu'est-ce que c'est?" the guard called down suspiciously.
"Just some cloth," Nick said, picking up the silk and noting that its weight did not connote any hidden weapons. He sighed. Well, not even a "right lad" like Hornblower could think of everything. He shook out the fabric to show the guard its harmlessness, before they were both distracted by a howl of pain from Styles as the doctor began a robust cleaning of the wound. There followed an exchange of insults between physician and patient that if either man could have understood only half of what the other was saying, would have resulted in the pair coming to immediate blows. Curses gave way to aspersions on each other's lineage before erupting into virulent name-calling. As the only one present who understood every word, Nick found himself shaking with silent laughter when Styles gritted out an exclamation of "Whoreson butcher!" which was elegantly rejoindered by Clermont's "Swine dropping!"
When at last the doctor closed his bag and rose to his feet,
he found the small prisoner with the black curls, the one who
had seemed so healthy, convulsing on the floor with the silk clutched
to him. When Dr. Clermont again opened his bag and announced that
he would give the prisoner a dose of salts, Nick made a complete
and abrupt recovery from his hilarity. Brushing himself off, but
never letting go his hold on the parachute, he rose to thank the
good doctor for his trouble and assured him his services were
no longer necessary. Clermont was, of course, not a man easily
-- if ever -- swayed from acting upon what he felt to be his duty,
to which the villagers, the soldiers, and now Styles could have
testified, but when Nick whispered a few threatening words in
decidedly Rabelaisian French about just who would administer any
salts and in what particular fashion, Clermont suddenly and remarkably
found himself persuaded that this was one prisoner who was in
the best of health, and immediately called for the guards to send
down the ladder.
Night had scarcely fallen when Nick retrieved the lantern from its hiding place in the wall and lit it.
"I'm going to have another look at the steps that lead down," he informed Styles. "If there's no way down them I'll go back up again and see where the other ports lead. I'm hoping not to have to make you crawl all the way to the top of the wall on that game leg, but there may be no choice. I shall probably be gone for a couple of hours, so try to get some rest. This could be a long night."
With these terse instructions, he vanished into the wall. Styles had too much nervous energy to sleep so he stationed himself by the arrow loop and waited to see if the signals would reappear tonight. There would be no way to respond if they did, but it would bring a small measure of comfort to actually see that Mr. Hornblower was out still there trying to help them.
The presence of the parachute in the Frog's bag had boosted Styles' spirits no end, but the realization had slowly sunk in on him that there was only one parachute and two prisoners. And what was a common seaman to the Royal Navy compared to someone the likes of Nick Collins? Styles wasn't entirely sure in what capacity Nick was employed by the government, but he was a brilliant lad, and he must be important to have had the Inde ordered off blockade duty and sent expressly to pick him up. Well, that settled the question of who would have the parachute, didn't it? Styles could hardly walk without assistance anyway, no matter what Nick said about going to the top of the wall, so he'd just have to sit tight in this bloody hole and hope that Nick would soon come back for him.
There was no doubt in his mind that Nick could just about come and go from the castle of his own free will, and that the only thing holding him here was Styles. Look at how he'd found a secret passage right off, and brought food and wine and a lantern. He probably could have walked out that first night, and the Frogs none the wiser! So if Styles could only be a little patient, Nick would come back for him. Probably wouldn't be more than a few days at most.
It'd be bloody lonely though.
Over the next couple of hours, Styles' mood swung from glum to exhuberant each time the signals resumed from the water below. Just those pinpoints of light flaring from below triggered in him a rush of hope and a desperate wish to be doing something anything that might get him out of this prison. He was frustrated with leaving everything to Nick, frustrated by his enforced inactivity. He wanted to be up and doing again.
When Nick again slithered back into the cell, he handed Styles half a roast chicken and what proved to be a bottle of gin. The latter provided another small improvement to Styles' frame of mind, as Nick had foreseen when he had appropriated it. He was going to have to carefully gauge his friend's consumption of gin though. Styles would need just enough to make him good-humored and cooperative, but not so much he could not listen and follow instructions. Best tell him now some of what he needed to know, Nick reckoned.
"Enjoy that gin. It's probably the only bottle in the
whole of this benighted country," he advised. "Here's
how it lies," he went on. "We cannot go down, the stairs
have caved in and blocked the passage entirely in that direction."
"So it's up to the top then?" Styles paused in his gustatory appreciation of the chicken, swallowed hard and asked,"When when do you think you might come back for me?"
Nick was silent for so long that Styles began to fear the answer.
At last Nick spoke, his tone scornful.
"You great gaby!" he accused. "Come back for you? Is that what you think? That I'd just leave you in this oversized coffin first chance I got for a break? I damned well ought to leave you, you gudgeon! But I shan't. You're out of here tonight, Styles, and no mistake. Drink up that gin and we'll go over the details."
Styles had so resigned himself to being left behind that he was nearly unmanned by Nick's words and felt that he must, in all fairness to his friend, point out the obvious.
"But there's only the one perrychoot!" he objected, even as the immediate prospect of escape excited him.
"Well, I hope you'll not be asking me to risk my life on the work of a lot of floating seamstresses!" Nick chided. "I'm a cautious fellow, after all. I have my health to think about. No, you'll be sailing out of here in about an hour or so."
And for the next half-hour he grilled Styles relentlessly on the procedures to follow with the parachute. At the last, as he was adjusting the carefully folded silk on Styles' back, he added, "One last thing, don't unfold the parachute until you actually feel yourself falling, is that clear? If you can hold back for as much as one second or even two when you start falling, so much the better, but no more than a second or two, mind now!"
Styles nodded, "Count one or two after I jump."
"No!" Nick exclaimed. "Count when you start
"Same thing, innit?"
"No, it isn't the same thing at all. You won't jump, you'll
fall. There's a remarkable difference."
Styles looked puzzled but only said, "A'right then, count one or two after I fall."
"It is very important, Styles, please don't forget it," Nick exhorted him.
"I won't," Styles snapped, knowing that Nick was keeping something from him, and knowing also that he would not find out what it was even a moment before Nick meant for him to know. Then, with a greater measure of assurance, "I won't forget, Nick." He took a pull from the gin, and saw that Nick was watching him closely.
"You think I orta lay off the gin?" he asked defiantly.
Nick grinned. "No, I don't. Not just yet, at any rate. Have another go, you've hardly touched it."
Styles did so, and Nick continued.
"There's something else I need for you to remember. When you see Mr. Hornblower again, when you get a chance to talk with him privately, tell him -- I gave him something and he's bound to wonder what he ought to do with it when I don't show up."
Styles jerked upright, pulling the gin bottle from his mouth.
"Wot do you mean? You're coming, too, you have to!"
"As you have so perspicaciously pointed out, there is only one parachute. No," he stopped the other man's objections before they could be voiced, "I can find a way out later. It's more urgent to get you out of here as soon as possible. There's a man named L'Oiseau the French are sending to question me. I am afraid that once I am his prisoner he may decide you are an unnecessary Englishman. Trust me on this, Styles. I do my best work alone. Besides, I'll wager you a week's pay I'll be back in England before you."
"I'm not having any of that," Styles retorted. "It'd be just like you. Besides, no telling when the Inde will see England again."
"Very soon, if we're right about Hornblower having captured the submersible. And that's another reason to get you out of here tonight: The Indefatigable cannot afford to linger in these waters indefinitely. Your captain is probably already impatient to be gone. What I was going to tell you is this: Tell Mr. Hornblower that when he arrives in England, he must take the item I gave him to my house and give it to my man there. My house is in Skeffington Street, number 7. My man's name is Splinter. He'll know what's to be done." Nick's glance flickered over the gin bottle once more. "Got all that?"
"Tell 'im to take it to Splinter, number 7, Skeffington Street. All esses, that's easy enough. Anything else?"
"Yes, you'll be landing in the water and the weight of the wet parachute will drag you down after a bit. I've got but one knife and I won't have time to hand it off to you before you before you go. You'll want to sing out for help as soon as you hit the water, so the others can find you, right?"
"Then I think that's everything." Nick picked up the gin bottle and handed to Styles again. "A last swallow, and then we'll be off, eh?"
Crawling along the passageway for the short distance until both men could stand upright again proved to be the easiest part of the journey. Nick was thankful they only had to climb a dozen steps to reach the opening into the bailey. Styles was a big man, and he was forced to lean so heavily on Nick, that the smaller man knew the wound was troubling him more than he was willing to say. The gin was having its own small effect as well, making Styles more relaxed, but also prone to be a bit noisy.
Propping Styles against the wall, he whispered. "Listen up! It's very important that from the moment I start opening this port, we have to be as quiet as possible."
"Are we at the top a'ready?"
"No, this door opens into the bailey. There are soldiers on guard on the walls above us, and we'll be moving across an open space. If we're completely quiet we can get by without them raising so much as an eyebrow."
Styles nodded owlishly, and Nick cautiously began to ease open the port, which was just large enough for a man to slip through, as long as he went head- or feet-first. Sliding out it like a shadow, Nick softly dropped to the ground below and turned to help Styles, who landed with a grunt of pain on his injured leg. Before the sound was fully formed, Nick's hand covered his mouth, partly to stop the sound and partly to remind Styles of the need for silence.
Looking around in the darkness of the bailey, the big siege engines appeared like so many giant sea monsters whose enormous roars had been mysteriously muted. Was it really only 48 hours ago they'd been taken prisoner? Well, anytime in a prison was an eternity, Styles had learned that much in the sweltering heat of a Spanish prison called El Ferrol, and he decided that a damp castle in France was not one whit better.
With Nick's arm and shoulder supporting him they moved away from the shadowed safety of the perimeter out into the dangerously open spaces between the looming wood frames of the old battle machines. They were both a little out of breath when Nick used his free arm to indicate to Styles they should pause to rest in the lee of one of the monsters. Both men leaned gratefully against the nearest wooden structure and fought to keep the harshness of their breathing from sounding aloud in the still night air. Nick stirred first, then breathed in Styles' ear, "Sit down here for a moment and rest." Nick helped maneuver him back onto a low parapet covered with a heavy woven cane, like some kind of giant basket, which proved to be a good deal more comfortable than standing about on one leg.
Nick moved away for a few seconds, then was back and breathing in Styles' ear again. "Remember what I told you about counting at least one second after you start to fall?"
"Good," Nick said. "Then all you have to do now is hold on as tight as you can. Later I'll be asking you to forgive me."
Styles was confused. "Why ?" he started to ask, but Nick had moved away again. In the darkness, Styles saw the knife flash in Nick's hand and for one awful second thought Nick meant to kill him. That thought was wiped away by an even greater fear as he heard a low grinding, grumbling sound coming from where he sat, and suddenly he found himself moving. Sitting still and moving! So quickly he hadn't time to think about could be happening, he was being pulled along by some unseen force and then -- a huge weight flung itself against his entire body, pressing him down so that he could not move or breathe, and then as quickly as it hit him, it was gone and so was the basket and he was flying??
He was flying!
Eyes wide with panic and shock and wonder, he saw the ground falling away from him, knew he cried out in spite of himself. There was Nick growing smaller and smaller, with one hand lifted as if to salute him, and he was suddenly flying over the castle walls and there was the cliff dropping away. Now he could see the white crest of dark wavelets lapping at the narrow shoreline. And then he was falling.
Shock yanked at him again, and there was Nick's voice in his ear telling him to --.
'One!' he counted, then in mad desperation pulled the straps to unfold the parachute and he was still falling!
Damn Nick! Damn his conniving soul!
Suddenly a giant hand seemed to jerk at him from above, fingers pulling at his shoulders, and his fall was checked, began again, but now slower and steady and easy.
And the miracle of it nearly overwhelmed him.
When all too soon he dropped into the cold waters off Brittany, he was laughing like a lunatic and calling out Mr. Hornblower's name.
A strange and deepening chill came over Nick as he watched Styles vanish over the wall and into the night. A fleeting hope that all went well for his friend and then the glacier that had gripped his emotions these past twenty-four hours advanced swiftly across both spirit and body, leaving him exhausted. It was as if Styles' presence had been all that held the black ice at bay, and with his departure had gone whatever spark of warmth that kept Nick safe from the seeping cold.
The deep grinding noise and twanging recoil from the trebuchet had sent an alarm through the dragoons, and now, bearing muskets and torches, they set up a ruckus of their own as they flooded the bailey. Nick could barely force himself to move at all, let alone to slide undetected into the deep shadows at the base of an ancient siege tower. In all his life he could not remember being so tired, and instead of being disgusted with himself, he wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep. He could hardly think, as images of a tortured Chantal now crowded all other thought aside. And he was so cold he was actually shivering.
"Mustn't sleep," and was appalled that he had nearly uttered the words aloud. If he didn't collect himself and be damned quick about it, he'd be dead. He fought to clear his frozen brain. Either he was in a state of shock or else he'd contracted some sort of tropical disease. How else could he be so cold in July?
Priorities. He'd listed them hours ago. What were they again? Get Styles out. Done. Then get to Chantal. Have to convince her to leave with him now. DeVergesse could be dealt with later. No, would be dealt with later. Have to be. Steady then, he told himself, forget Etienne for a minute. Get to Chantal. Got to get clear of this bailey first. As he forced himself to think, to reason, to anticipate, the more alert he became. Slowly he forced himself to stand up straight and take stock of his situation.
Confound it all, it looked like half the Grand Army had occupied the bailey. The most disciplined troops were taking up positions or beginning a systematic search amongst the siege engines, while the less experienced soldiers were having orders screamed in their faces by pitiless sergeants and corporals.
Where the devil was DeVergesse? The thought of Nick escaping his clutches should have drawn that mongrel from his kennel, but if he'd turned out for all the fun Nick could not see him. Nor hear him, now that he thought about it. Granted his mind did not seem to be functioning at anything like its normal speed, but he knew he would have reacted to the sound of the Frenchman's voice. Just thinking about DeVergesse again rather than Chantal inflamed Nick's temper so that the glacier encasing him seemed to retreat a little.
So where was the dirty little Frog? Why wouldn't he be out here shouting orders to his men, trying to recapture Nick? Unless he had anticipated an escape attempt? Perhaps even wanted an escape attempt. Was that possible? Nick tried to force his mind along the same sickly twisted path his enemy would pursue.
DeVergesse's most obvious character flaw, apart from his brutality, was his covetousness. What he desired, he took. What he took, was for himself alone. Etienne wouldn't have a shared a loaf of bread with his own mother if she were dying of starvation, and him with a full larder. No question about it, he was the most possessive man Nick had ever known. Once DeVergesse had caught a footman trying on his chapeau, and he'd had that man flogged nearly to death; and then to be as spiteful as any human could be, he'd burned the hat. With a promotion on the line wouldn't DeVergesse be as possessive of his prisoners, especially of one who had helped himself to the affections of his wife? Then why wasn't the rotter here, checking every shadow and scouring Montfeuille until he found Nick and either killed him or dragged him back to prison?
She had to be the key. Etienne's prize possession, sought after by every man who saw her, but most especially by Nick Collins. He would have been watching her closely to make sure Nick didn't steal her away. Carefully his mind trod the warped path of Etienne's reasoning: Unless he wanted Nick to find her. But then, that would mean ? Could DeVergesse already know about the secret passages? Had Nick been placed in that particular cell for a reason?
He took a deep breath, his mind clear again now, sorting through the possibilities and working to predict the Colonel's actions. The cold still permeated him, but instead of weakening his limbs it now hardened his resolve.
This was war indeed, he realized, as close as he might come to a true battleground, and there was no shred of pity in him for the hapless enemy who blundered across his path just as he had settled on the to camouflage himself. That soldier was dead before he could even think of crying out, and in the deep shadow of the siege tower Nick speedily exchanged his clothes for the uniform of the lifeless young man, tucking the long kitchen blade into one ill-fitting boot.
Out in the semi-darkness of torch light, dressed as a French rifleman and once calling out urgently to the other soldiers that he thought he'd seen something move by the gate, it was simplicity itself to make his way through the confusion to the tower entrance. Passing another soldier on his way in, he asked the man where the Colonel was. The soldier replied that he supposed the Colonel was either in the bailey or atop the walls directng the men. Before Nick could move on, the Frenchman went on to inquire in awed tones if the prisoners had really escaped. Nick's answer carried the brusque tones of a harried soldier.
"How the devil should I know? Ask one of the sergeants out there. They think they know everything."
The Frenchman rolled his eyes in agreement and continued outside. Seeing no other soldiers in the hall, he took the stairs at rapid clip and came to a halt by Chantal's door. He knocked and called out, "Madame? Madame, va bien?"
He heard the bar being lifted on the other side of the massive door, and remembering the weight of that wooden plank, marvelled that Chantal managed it seemingly without difficulty. Then she was in his arms, and for the tiniest fraction of a second his world was righted. But speed was of the essence and he pulled away from her, dropping the bar back into place. If he couldn't convince her to leave, that bar might be all that held DeVergesse back. For all its weight, it appeared curiously flimsy when regarded in that light.
"Cherie, we have to get out of the castle now, tonight, this instant." He tried to think of persuasive words, words that would sway her to his plan, but the words came out as cold facts. "We're both dead if we delay. You hear the commotion outside?"
She nodded once. "I knew it must be you. But you must go, Nick. Go alone. I have told you, I will not leave. I am ready now for Etienne."
There was no defiance in her, only determination. Nick had to smile, even as he was frustrated by her obstinacy. His love had an iron will, but he vowed he was her equal.
"Listen to me," he urged, his hands clasping her shoulders, "You were right when you suspected Etienne of playing one of his foul games." She nodded, tried to interrupt, but he gave her no chance to speak. "I think he has merely been biding his time, waiting for an escape attempt. I think he wants to trap the both of us. You ."
His words trailed off as he stared beyond the bright flame of her hair, and watched horrified as the doorway to the secret passage opened and Colonel Etienne Francois Xavier DeVergesses emerged, pistol in hand and his face a mask of triumphant hate.
"And so I have, M'sieur Collins. Trapped my unfaithful bitch of a wife with her foolish lover. How very gratifying of you to behave just as I thought you would, m'sieur. No, please don't come any closer. I will be almost as happy to place a ball in your guts this minute as I will in due course." Stepping closer he snapped, "Move over to the bed, both of you. Please keep your hands just where they are, m'sieur, so that I may see them."
As they cautiously proceeded, Nick considered the odds of reaching for the knife in his boot, knew they were long odds at best, and with Chantal so close by no, he'd not risk it. Wait for a chance, wait for it. A tiny vertical line appeared between his brows, his concentration intense and every muscle tensely coiled to spring at the first opportunity.
He felt a soft hand brush his own and he glanced down at Chantal, meeting her eyes, wanting to reassure her. Those incredible eyes. Tonight they were a wild shade of green, almost sparkling. And she was entirely composed. Not a trace of fear showed in her expression, and Nick briefly pondered what a wonderfully amazing partner she would be in his business, compatible in every way. That flicker of an eye was she reassuring him? What a remarkable woman he loved! But Etienne was still chattering, and he really ought to be paying attention. He turned back to see the pistol still trained on himself.
"So your friend somehow flew over the walls, and no doubt you might have gone in his place but for the bait," he gestured with the pistol at Chantal, "which you could not resist. But my wife, she disappoints me, and not for the first time. No doubt she recalls with great clarity the last time she disappointed me. Yes, she really ought to have at least tried to flee with you that first night. She ruined my so-beautiful plan for you both then. And I asked myself, why does she stay? Why not fly with her lover, that dirty spy? What holds my beauteous Chantal here, I ask myself," he went on conversationally. "And then I discover this!"
Satisfied that he held Nick and Chantal in his power, he sidled over to the escritoire by the window and turned his head briefly, using his free hand to open a drawer and withdraw yet another pistol. With a grin so evil it rivaled the gargoyles of Notre Dame, he waggled the second pistol at them.
"Not loaded now, but yes! She meant to shoot me. Me, her lord and master. Me, who she should worship but has spurned. Traitorous slut!"
He threw the pistol at her head, and she barely dodged it. Before the heavy weapon had even crashed against the wall behind the bed, she stood upright again and her hand jerked up, pointing to her husband. Nick felt his heart nearly stop when he saw the tiny pistol she grasped.
The shot resonated within the confines of the stone walls, and Etienne staggered back as blood appeared high on one shoulder. Looking down at the wound in disbelief, then looking up again, he snarling his revenge at her.
Ever the opportunist, Nick had moved swiftly and was already nearly upon him. Etienne leveled his pistol and fired, but now Nick was on him, those long fingers reaching for his throat. Behind Nick, Chantal cried out, a hurtful sound to his ears. He turned to look at her and his vision seemed to telescope down to a pinpoint of light that was Chantal. He released his grasp on Etienne, who slumped to the floor, now shock and pain from the shattered bones of his shoulder
He had no memory of going to her. One moment he was looking across the room at her as she now sat limply on the bed, the pistol at her feet, a crimson flower blossoming between her breasts. The next moment he was by her side, laying her gently down upon the bed. Small, obscene bubbles of air disrupted the smoothness of the bloom as the fabric of her gown grew saturated with her blood. He tried to absorb what he knew it meant, and could not.
"Did I kill him?" Breathing was agony for her, but her determination was fixed.
Nick stared at her for a long second, the ice back in his throat again, clogging his speech. He took her hands, drew them to his lips and kissed them gently. He'd never been so helpless. What could he possibly do for her? How brave she was to have faced Etienne that way. No sly assassin's ways for her. He would give anything -- anything, if only...
"Yes," his voice grated as he forced the word out, and from the corner of his eye he saw DeVergesse stirring feebly. "Yes, he's dead. You've done it, cherie." The lie was all he had to offer her.
"Finally," she whispered, closing her eyes, "sat -- satis--faction". Her smile was victorious, her beauty luminous.
"Je t'aime, Chantal," he pleaded, his voice breaking. "Please don't -- please --."
But she was already gone.
END OF PART ONE