Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 134

   

Elias was the natural place to begin. I waited until the end of the day to ask, trusting to fatigue to dull his natural curiosity.

“Tompkins?” The boy’s round face drew together in a brief frown, then cleared. “Oh, yes, ma’am. One o’ the forecastle hands.”

“Where did he come aboard, do you know?” There was no good way of accounting for this sudden interest in a man I had never met, but luckily, Elias was much too tired to wonder about it.

“Oh,” he said vaguely, “at Spithead, I think. Or—no! I remember now, ’twas Edinburgh.” He rubbed his knuckles under his nose to stifle a yawn. “That’s it, Edinburgh. I wouldn’ remember, only he was a pressed man, and a unholy fuss he made about it, claimin’ as how they couldn’ press him, he was protected, account of he worked for Sir Percival Turner, in the Customs.” The yawn got the better of him and he gaped widely, then subsided. “But he didn’ have no written protection from Sir Percival,” he concluded, blinking, “so there wasn’ nothing to be done.”

“A Customs agent, was he?” That went quite some way toward explaining things, all right.

“Mm-hm. Yes, mum, I mean.” Elias was trying manfully to stay awake, but his glazing eyes were fixed on the swaying lantern at the end of the sickbay, and he was swaying with it.

“You go on to bed, Elias,” I said, taking pity on him. “I’ll finish here.”

He shook his head quickly, trying to shake off sleep.

“Oh, no, ma’am! I ain’t sleepy, not a bit!” He reached clumsily for the cup and bottle I held. “You give me that, mum, and go to rest yourself.” He would not be moved, but stubbornly insisted on helping to administer the last round of water before staggering off to his cot.

I was nearly as tired as Elias by the time we finished, but sleep would not come. I lay in the dead surgeon’s cabin, staring up at the shadowy beam above my head, listening to the creak and rumble of the ship about me, wondering.

So Tompkins worked for Sir Percival. And Sir Percival assuredly knew that Jamie was a smuggler. But was there more to it than that? Tompkins knew Jamie by sight. How? And if Sir Percival had been willing to tolerate Jamie’s clandestine activities in return for bribes, then—well, perhaps none of those bribes had made it to Tompkins’s pockets. But in that case…and what about the ambush at Arbroath cove? Was there a traitor among the smugglers? And if so…

My thoughts were losing coherence, spinning in circles like the revolutions of a dying top. The powdered white face of Sir Percival faded into the purple mask of the hanged Customs agent on the Arbroath road, and the gold and red flames of an exploding lantern lit the crevices of my mind. I rolled onto my stomach, clutching the pillow to my chest, the last thought in my mind that I must find Tompkins.

As it was, Tompkins found me. For more than two days, the situation in the sickbay was too pressing for me to leave for more than the barest space of time. On the third day, though, matters seemed easier, and I retired to the surgeon’s cabin, intending to wash myself and rest briefly before the midday drum beat for the noon meal.

I was lying on the cot, a cool cloth over my tired eyes, when I heard the sound of bumping and voices in the passage outside my door. A tentative knock sounded on my door, and an unfamiliar voice said, “Mrs. Malcolm? There’s been a h’accident, if you please, ma’am.”

I swung open the door to find two seamen supporting a third, who stood storklike on one leg, his face white with shock and pain.

It took no more than a single glance for me to know whom I was looking at. The man’s face was ridged down one side with the livid scars of a bad burn, and the twisted eyelid on that side exposed the milky lens of a blind eye, had I needed any further confirmation that here stood the one-eyed seaman Young Ian had thought he’d killed, lank brown hair grew back from a balding brow to a scrawny pigtail that drooped over one shoulder, exposing a pair of large, transparent ears.

“Mr. Tompkins,” I said with certainty, and his remaining eye widened in surprise. “Put him down over there, please.”

The men deposited Tompkins on a stool by the wall, and went back to their work; the ship was too shorthanded to allow for distraction. Heart beating heavily, I knelt down to examine the wounded leg.

He knew who I was, all right; I had seen it in his face when I opened the door. There was a great deal of tension in the leg under my hand. The injury was gory, but not serious, given suitable care; a deep gash scored down the calf of the leg. It had bled substantially, but there were no deep arteries cut; it had been well-wrapped with a piece of someone’s shirt, and the bleeding had nearly stopped when I unwound the homemade bandage.

“How did you do this, Mr. Tompkins?” I asked, standing up and reaching for the bottle of alcohol. He glanced up, his single eye alert and wary.

“Splinter wound, ma’am,” he answered, in the nasal tones I had heard once before. “A spar broke as I was a-standing on it.” The tip of his tongue stole out, furtively wetting his lower lip.

“I see.” I turned and flipped open the lid of my empty medicine box, pretending to survey the available remedies. I studied him out of the corner of one eye, while I tried to think how best to approach him. He was on his guard; tricking him into revelations or winning his trust were clearly out of the question.

My eyes flicked over the tabletop, seeking inspiration. And found it. With a mental apology to the shade of Aesculapius the physician, I picked up the late surgeon’s bone-saw, a wicked thing some eighteen inches long, a rust-flecked steel. I looked at this thoughtfully, turned, and laid the toothed edge of the instrument gently against the injured leg, just above the knee. I smiled charmingly into the seaman’s terrified single eye.

“Mr. Tompkins,” I said, “let us talk frankly.”

An hour later, able-bodied seaman Tompkins had been restored to his hammock, stitched and bandaged, shaking in every limb, but able-bodied still. For my part, I felt a little shaky as well.

Tompkins was, as he had insisted to the press-gang in Edinburgh, an agent of Sir Percival Turner. In that capacity, he went about the docks and warehouses of all the shipping ports in the Firth of Forth, from Culross and Donibristle to Restalrig and Musselburgh, picking up gossip and keeping his beady eye sharp-peeled to catch any evidence of unlawful activity.

The attitude of Scots toward English tax laws being what it was, there was no lack of such activity to report. What was done with such reports, though, varied. Small smugglers, caught red-handed with a bottle or two of unbonded rum or whisky, might be summarily arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to anything from penal servitude to transportation, with forfeiture of all their property to the Crown.

The bigger fish, though, were reserved to Sir Percival’s private judgment. In other words, allowed to pay substantial bribes for the privilege of continuing their operations under the blind eye (here Tompkins laughed sardonically, touching the ruined side of his face) of the King’s agents.

“Sir Percival’s got ambitions, see?” While not noticeably relaxed, Tompkins had at least unbent enough to lean forward, one eye narrowing as he gestured in explanation. “He’s in with Dundas and all them. Everything goes right, and he might have a peerage, not just a knighthood, eh? But that’ll take more than money.”

One thing that could help was some spectacular demonstration of competence and service to the Crown.

“As in the sort of arrest that might make ’em sit up and take notice, eh? Ooh! That smarts, missus. You sure of what you’re a-doing of, there?” Tompkins squinted dubiously downward, to where I was sponging the site of the injury with dilute alcohol.

“I’m sure,” I said. “Go on, then. I suppose a simple smuggler wouldn’t have been good enough, no matter how big?”

Evidently not. However, when word had reached Sir Percival that there might just possibly be a major political criminal within his grasp, the old gentleman had nearly blown a gasket with excitement.

“But sedition’s a harder thing to prove than smuggling, eh? You catch one of the little fish with the goods, and they’re saying not a thing will lead you further on. Idealists, them seditionists,” Tompkins said, shaking his head with disgust. “Never rat on each other, they don’t.”

“So you didn’t know who you were looking for?” I stood and took one of my cat-gut sutures from its jar, threading it through a needle. I caught Tompkins’s apprehensive look, but did nothing to allay his anxiety. I wanted him anxious—and voluble.

“No, we didn’t know who the big fish was—not until another of Sir Percival’s agents had the luck to tumble to one of Fraser’s associates, what gave ’em the tip he was Malcolm the printer, and told his real name. Then it all come clear, o’ course.”

My heart skipped a beat.

“Who was the associate?” I asked. The names and faces of the six smugglers darted through my mind—little fish. Not idealists, any of them. But to which of them was loyalty no bar?

“I don’t know. No, it’s true, missus, I swear! Ow!” he said frantically as I jabbed the needle under the skin.

“I’m not trying to hurt you,” I assured him, in as false a voice as I could muster. “I have to stitch the wound, though.”

“Oh! Ow! I don’t know, to be sure I don’t! I’d tell, if I did, as God’s my witness!”

“I’m sure you would,” I said, intent on my stitching.

“Oh! Please, missus! Stop! Just for a moment! All I know is it was an Englishman! That’s all!”

I stopped, and stared up at him. “An Englishman?” I said blankly.

“Yes, missus. That’s what Sir Percival said.” He looked down at me, tears trembling on the lashes of both his eyes. I took the final stitch, as gently as I could, and tied the suture knot. Without speaking, I got up, poured a small tot of brandy from my private bottle, and handed it to him.

He gulped it gratefully, and seemed much restored in consequence. Whether out of gratitude, or sheer relief for the end of the ordeal, he told me the rest of the story. In search of evidence to support a charge of sedition, he had gone to the printshop in Carfax Close.

“I know what happened there,” I assured him. I turned his face toward the light, examining the burn scars. “Is it still painful?”

“No, Missus, but it hurt precious bad for some time,” he said. Being incapacitated by his injuries, Tompkins had taken no part in the ambush at Arbroath cove, but he had heard—“not direct-like, but I heard, you know,” he said, with a shrewd nod of the head—what had happened.

Sir Percival had given Jamie warning of an ambush, to lessen the chances of Jamie’s thinking him involved in the affair, and possibly revealing the details of their financial arrangements in quarters where such revelations would be detrimental to Sir Percival’s interests.

At the same time, Sir Percival had learned—from the associate, the mysterious Englishman—of the fallback arrangement with the French delivery vessel, and had arranged the grave-ambush on the beach at Arbroath.

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