“Yes, of course. But—” His father pressed the handkerchief to his mouth, his shoulders shaking silently.
“Feel free to stop cackling at any point,” William said coldly. “Where the devil are we going, anyway?” They’d reached the end of the quay, and his father was leading them—still snorting like a grampus—into one of the quiet, tree-lined streets, away from the taverns and inns near the harbor.
“We’re dining with a Captain Richardson,” his father said, controlling himself with an obvious effort. He coughed, blew his nose, and put away the handkerchief. “At the house of a Mr. Bell.”
Mr. Bell’s house was whitewashed, neat, and prosperous, without being ostentatious. Captain Richardson gave much the same sort of impression: of middle age, well-groomed and well-tailored, but without any notable style, and with a face you couldn’t pick out of a crowd two minutes after seeing it.
The two Misses Bell made a much stronger impression, particularly the younger, Miriam, who had honey-colored curls peeping out of her cap, and big, round eyes that remained fixed on William throughout dinner. She was seated too far away for him to be able to converse with her directly, but he fancied that the language of the eyes was sufficient to indicate to her that the fascination was mutual, and if an opportunity for more personal communication should offer later … ? A smile, and a demure lowering of honey-colored lashes, followed by a quick glance toward a door that stood open to the side porch, for air. He smiled back.
“Do you think so, William?” his father said, loudly enough to indicate that it was the second time of asking.
“Oh, certainly. Um … think what?” he asked, since it was after all Papa, and not his commander. His father gave him the look that meant he would have rolled his eyes had they not been in public, but replied patiently.
“Mr. Bell was asking whether Sir Peter intends to remain long in Wilmington.” Mr. Bell, at the head of the table, bowed graciously—though William observed a certain narrowing of his eyes in Miriam’s direction. Perhaps he’d best come back to call tomorrow, he thought, when Mr. Bell might be at his place of business.
“Oh. I believe we’ll remain here for only a short time, sir,” he said respectfully to Mr. Bell. “I collect that the chief trouble is in the backcountry, and so we will no doubt move to suppress it without delay.”
Mr. Bell looked pleased, though from the corner of his eye, William saw Miriam pout prettily at the suggestion of his imminent departure.
“Good, good,” Bell said jovially. “No doubt hundreds of Loyalists will flock to join you along your march.”
“Doubtless so, sir,” William murmured, taking another spoonful of soup. He doubted that Mr. Bell would be among them. Not really the marching type, to look at. And not that the assistance of a lot of untrained provincials armed with shovels would be helpful in any case, but he could hardly say so.
William, trying to see Miriam without looking directly at her, instead intercepted the flicker of a glance that traveled between his father and Captain Richardson, and for the first time, began to wonder. His father had distinctly said they were dining with Captain Richardson—meaning that a meeting with the captain was the point of the evening. Why?
Then he caught a look from Miss Lillian Bell, who was seated across from him, next his father, and ceased thinking about Captain Richardson. Dark-eyed, taller and more slender than her sister—but really quite a handsome girl, now he noticed.
Still, when Mrs. Bell and her daughters rose and the men retired to the porch after dinner, William was not surprised to find himself at one end with Captain Richardson, while his father engaged Mr. Bell at the other in a spirited discussion of tar prices. Papa could talk to anyone about anything.
“I have a proposition to put before you, Lieutenant,” Richardson said, after the usual cordialities had been exchanged.
“Yes, sir,” William said respectfully. His curiosity had begun to rise. Richardson was a captain of light dragoons, but not presently with his regiment; that much he had revealed over dinner, saying casually that he was on detached duty. Detached to do what?
“I do not know how much your father has told you regarding my mission?”
“Ah. I am charged with the gathering of intelligence in the Southern Department. Not that I am in command of such operations, you understand”—the captain smiled modestly—“but a small part of them.”
“I … appreciate the great value of such operations, sir,” William said, groping for diplomacy, “but I—for myself, that is to say—”
“You have no interest in spying. No, of course not.” It was dark on the porch, but the dryness of the captain’s tone was evident. “Few men who regard themselves as soldiers do.”
“I meant no offense, sir.”
“None taken. I am not, however, recruiting you as a spy—that is a delicate occupation, and one involving some danger—but rather as a messenger. Though should you find opportunity to act the intelligencer along your way … well, that would be an additional contribution, and much appreciated.”
William felt the blood rise in his face at the implication that he was capable neither of delicacy nor danger, but kept his temper, saying only, “Oh?”
The captain, it seemed, had gathered significant information regarding local conditions in the Carolinas, and now required to send this to the commander of the Northern Department—General Howe, presently in Halifax.
“I will of course be sending more than one messenger,” Richardson said. “It is naturally somewhat quicker by ship—but I desire to have at least one messenger travel overland, both for safety’s sake and for the sake of making observations en route. Your father speaks very highly of your abilities, Lieutenant”—did he detect a hint of amusement in that dry-as-sawdust voice?—“and I collect that you have traveled extensively in North Carolina and Virginia. That is a valuable attribute. You will appreciate that I do not wish my messenger to disappear into the Dismal Swamp, never to be seen again.”
“Ha-ha,” said William, politely, perceiving this to be meant as a jest. Clearly, Captain Richardson had never been near the Great Dismal; William had, though he didn’t think anyone in his right mind would go that way a-purpose, save to hunt.
He also had severe doubts regarding Richardson’s suggestion—though even as he told himself that he shouldn’t consider leaving his men, his regiment … he was already seeing a romantic vision of himself, alone in the vast wilderness, bearing important news through storm and danger.
More of a consideration, though, was what he might expect at the other end of the journey.
Richardson anticipated his question, answering before he could speak.
“Once in the north, you would—it being agreeable—join General Howe’s staff.”
Well, now, he thought. Here was the apple, and a juicy red one, too. He was aware that Richardson meant “it being agreeable” to General Howe, rather than to William—but he had some confidence in his own capabilities, and rather thought he might prove himself useful.
He had been in North Carolina only a few days, but that was quite long enough for him to have made an accurate assessment of the relative chances for advancement between the Northern Department and the Southern. The entire Continental army was with Washington in the north; the southern rebellion appeared to consist of troublesome pockets of backwoodsmen and impromptu militia—hardly a threat. And as for the relative status of Sir Peter and General Howe as commanders …
“I would like to think on your offer, if I might, Captain,” he said, hoping eagerness didn’t show in his voice. “May I give my answer tomorrow?”
“Certainly. I imagine you will wish to discuss the prospects with your father—you may do so.”
The captain then deliberately changed the subject, and within a few moments, Lord John and Mr. Bell had joined them, the conversation becoming general.
William paid little heed to what was said, his own attention distracted by the sight of two slender white figures that hovered ghostlike among the bushes at the outer edge of the yard. Two capped white heads drew together, then apart. Now and then, one turned briefly toward the porch in what looked like speculation.
“ ‘And for his vesture, they cast lots,’ ” his father murmured, shaking his head.
“Never mind.” His father smiled, and turned toward Captain Richardson, who had just said something about the weather.
Fireflies lit the yard, drifting like green sparks among the damp, lush growth of plants. It was good to see fireflies again; he had missed them, in England—and that peculiar softness of the southern air that molded his linen to his body and made the blood throb in his fingertips. Crickets were chirping all around them, and for an instant, their song seemed to drown out everything save the sound of his pulse.
“Coffee’s ready, gen’mun.” The soft voice of the Bells’ slave cut through the small ferment of his blood, though, and he went in with the other men, with no more than a glance toward the yard. The white figures had disappeared, but a sense of promise lingered in the soft, warm air.
An hour later, he found himself walking back toward his billet, thoughts in a pleasant muddle, his father strolling silent by his side.
Miss Lillian Bell had granted him a kiss among the fireflies at the end of the evening, chaste and fleeting, but upon the lips, and the thick summer air seemed to taste of coffee and ripe strawberries, despite the pervasive dank smell of the harbor.
“Captain Richardson told me of the proposal he made to you,” Lord John said casually. “Are you inclined?”
“Don’t know,” William replied, with equal casualness. “I should miss my men, of course, but …” Mrs. Bell had pressed him to come to tea, later in the week.
“Little permanence in a military life,” his father said, with a brief shake of the head. “I did warn you.”
William gave a brief grunt of assent, not really listening.
“A good opportunity for advancement,” his father was saying, adding offhandedly, “though of course there is some danger to the proposition.”
“What?” William scoffed, hearing this. “Riding from Wilmington to take ship at New York? There’s a road, nearly all the way!”
“And quite a number of Continentals on it,” Lord John pointed out. “General Washington’s entire army lies this side of Philadelphia, if the news I hear be correct.”
“Richardson said he wanted me because I knew the country. I can make my way well enough without roads.”
“Are you sure? You have not been in Virginia for nearly four years.”
The dubious tone of this annoyed William.
“Do you think me incapable of finding my way?”
“No, not at all,” his father said, still with that note of doubt in his voice. “But there is no little risk to this proposition; I should not like to see you undertake it without due thought.”
“Well, I have thought,” said William, stung. “I’ll do it.”
Lord John walked in silence for a few steps, then nodded, reluctantly.
“It’s your decision, Willie,” he said softly. “I should be personally obliged if you would take care, though.”
William’s annoyance melted at once.
“Course I will,” he said gruffly. They walked on beneath the dark canopy of maple and hickory, not talking, close enough that their shoulders brushed now and then.
At the inn, William bade Lord John good night, but didn’t return at once to his own lodgings. Instead, he wandered out along the quay, restless, unready for sleep.
The tide had turned and was well out, he saw; the smell of dead fish and decaying seaweed was stronger, though a smooth sheet of water still covered the mudflats, quiet in the light of a quarter-moon.
It took a moment to locate the stake. For an instant, he thought it had gone, but no—there it was, a thin dark line against the glimmer of the water. Empty.
The stake no longer stood upright, but leaned sharply, as though about to fall, and a thin loop of rope trailed from it, floating like a hangman’s noose on the waning tide. William was conscious of some visceral uneasiness; the tide alone would not have taken the whole body. Some said there were crocodiles or alligators here, though he had not yet seen one himself. He glanced down involuntarily, as though one of these reptiles might suddenly lunge from the water at his feet. The air was still warm, but a small shiver went through him.
He shook this off, and turned away toward his lodgings. There would be a day or two before he must go, he thought, and wondered whether he might see the blue-eyed Mrs. MacKenzie again before he left.
LORD JOHN LINGERED for a moment on the porch of the inn, watching his son vanish into the shadows under the trees. He had some qualms; the matter had been arranged with more haste than he would have liked—but he did have confidence in William’s abilities. And while the arrangement clearly had its risks, that was the nature of a soldier’s life. Some situations were riskier than others, though.
He hesitated, hearing the buzz of talk from the taproom inside, but he had had enough of company for the night, and the thought of tossing to and fro under the low ceiling of his room, stifling in the day’s trapped heat, determined him to walk about until bodily exhaustion should ensure sleep.
It wasn’t just the heat, he reflected, stepping off the porch and setting off in the opposite direction to the one Willie had taken. He knew himself well enough to realize that even the apparent success of his plan would not prevent his lying awake, worrying at it like a dog with a bone, testing for weaknesses, seeking for ways of improvement. After all, William would not depart immediately; there was a little time to consider, to make alterations, should that be necessary.