Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 68

   

The Sister, coming ashore at Edinburgh with a group of nuns bound for London, had been abducted from the docks, without any of her companions noticing her absence in the confusion. By the time she was discovered in one of Edinburgh’s wynds, after nightfall, it was far too late.

“Raped?” I asked, with clinical interest.

Bruno eyed me with considerable suspicion.

“I do not know,” he said formally. He rose heavily to his feet, his simian shoulders drooping with fatigue. I supposed he had been on duty all night; it must be his bedtime now. “If you will excuse me, Madame,” he said, with remote formality, and went out.

I sat back on the small velvet sofa, feeling mildly dazed. Somehow I hadn’t realized that quite so much went on in brothels in the daytime.

There was a sudden loud hammering at the door. It didn’t sound like knocking, but as though someone really were using a metal-headed hammer to demand admittance. I got to my feet to answer the summons, but without further warning, the door burst open, and a slender imperious figure strode into the room, speaking French in an accent so pronounced and an attitude so furious that I could not follow it all.

“Are you looking for Madame Jeanne?” I managed to put in, seizing a small pause when he stopped to draw breath for more invective. The visitor was a young man of about thirty, slightly built and strikingly handsome, with thick black hair and brows. He glared at me under these, and as he got a good look at me, an extraordinary change went across his face. The brows rose, his black eyes grew huge, and his face went white.

“Milady!” he exclaimed, and flung himself on his knees, embracing me about the thighs as he pressed his face into the cotton shift at crotch level.

“Let go!” I exclaimed, shoving at his shoulders to detach him. “I don’t work here. Let go, I say!”

“Milady!” he was repeating in tones of rapture. “Milady! You have come back! A miracle! God has restored you!”

He looked up at me, smiling as tears streamed down his face. He had large white perfect teeth. Suddenly memory stirred and shifted, showing me the outlines of an urchin’s face beneath the man’s bold visage.

“Fergus!” I said. “Fergus, is that really you? Get up, for God’s sake—let me see you!”

He rose to his feet, but didn’t pause to let me inspect him. He gathered me into a rib-cracking hug, and I clutched him in return, pounding his back in the excitement of seeing him again. He had been ten or so when I last saw him, just before Culloden. Now he was a man, and the stubble of his beard rasped against my cheek.

“I thought I was seeing a ghost!” he exclaimed. “It is really you, then?”

“Yes, it’s me,” I assured him.

“You have seen milord?” he asked excitedly. “He knows you are here?”

“Yes.”

“Oh!” He blinked and stepped back half a pace, as something occurred to him. “But—but what about—” He paused, clearly confused.

“What about what?”

“There ye are! What in the name of God are ye doing up here, Fergus?” Jamie’s tall figure loomed suddenly in the doorway. His eyes widened at the sight of me in my embroidered shift. “Where are your clothes?” he asked. “Never mind,” he said then, waving his hand impatiently as I opened my mouth to answer. “I havena time just now. Come along, Fergus, there’s eighteen ankers of brandy in the alleyway, and the excisemen on my heels!”

And with a thunder of boots on the wooden staircase, they were gone, leaving me alone once more.

I wasn’t sure whether I should join the party downstairs or not, but curiosity got the better of discretion. After a quick visit to the sewing room in search of more extensive covering, I made my way down, a large shawl half-embroidered with hollyhocks flung round my shoulders.

I had gathered only a vague impression of the layout of the house the night before, but the street noises that filtered through the windows made it clear which side of the building faced the High Street. I assumed the alleyway to which Jamie had referred must be on the other side, but wasn’t sure. The houses of Edinburgh were frequently constructed with odd little wings and twisting walls, to take advantage of every inch of space.

I paused on the large landing at the foot of the stairs, listening for the sound of rolling casks as a guide. As I stood there, I felt a sudden draft on my bare feet, and turned to see a man standing in the open doorway from the kitchen.

He seemed as surprised as I, but after blinking at me, he smiled and stepped forward to grip me by the elbow.

“And a good morning to you, my dear. I didn’t expect to find any of you ladies up and about so early in the morning.”

“Well, you know what they say about early to bed and early to rise,” I said, trying to extricate my elbow.

He laughed, showing rather badly stained teeth in a narrow jaw. “No, what do they say about it?”

“Well, it’s something they say in America, come to think of it,” I replied, suddenly realizing that Benjamin Franklin, even if currently publishing, probably didn’t have a wide readership in Edinburgh.

“Got a wit about you, chuckie,” he said, with a slight smile. “Send you down as a decoy, did she?”

“No. Who?” I said.

“The madam,” he said, glancing around. “Where is she?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Let go!”

Instead, he tightened his grip, so that his fingers dug uncomfortably into the muscles of my upper arm. He leaned closer, whispering in my ear with a gust of stale tobacco fumes.

“There’s a reward, you know,” he murmured confidentially. “A percentage of the value of the seized contraband. No one would need to know but you and me.” He flicked one finger gently under my breast, making the nipple stand up under the thin cotton. “What d’ye say, chuck?”

I stared at him. “The excisemen are on my heels,” Jamie had said. This must be one, then; an officer of the Crown, charged with the prevention of smuggling and the apprehension of smugglers. What had Jamie said? “The pillory, transportation, flogging, imprisonment, ear-nailing,” waving an airy hand as though such penalties were the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

“Whatever are you talking about?” I said, trying to sound puzzled. “And for the last time, let go of me!” He couldn’t be alone, I thought. How many others were there around the building?

“Yes, please let go,” said a voice behind me. I saw the exciseman’s eyes widen as he glanced over my shoulder.

Mr. Willoughby stood on the second stair in rumpled blue silk, a large pistol gripped in both hands. He bobbed his head politely at the excise officer.

“Not stinking whore,” he explained, blinking owlishly. “Honorable wife.”

The exciseman, clearly startled by the unexpected appearance of a Chinese, gawked from me to Mr. Willoughby and back again.

“Wife?” he said disbelievingly. “You say she’s your wife?”

Mr. Willoughby, clearly catching only the salient word, nodded pleasantly.

“Wife,” he said again. “Please letting go.” His eyes were mere bloodshot slits, and it was apparent to me, if not to the exciseman, that his blood was still approximately 80 proof.

The exciseman pulled me toward himself and scowled at Mr. Willoughby. “Now, listen here—” he began. He got no further, for Mr. Willoughby, evidently assuming that he had given fair warning, raised the pistol and pulled the trigger.

There was a loud crack, an even louder shriek, which must have been mine, and the landing was filled with a cloud of gray powder-smoke. The exciseman staggered back against the paneling, a look of intense surprise on his face, and a spreading rosette of blood on the breast of his coat.

Moving by reflex, I leapt forward and grasped the man under the arms, easing him gently down to the floorboards of the landing. There was a flurry of noise from above, as the inhabitants of the house crowded chattering and exclaiming onto the upper landing, attracted by the shot. Bounding footsteps came up the lower stairs two at a time.

Fergus burst through what must be the cellar door, a pistol in his hand.

“Milady,” he gasped, catching sight of me sitting in the corner with the exciseman’s body sprawled across my lap. “What have you done?”

“Me?” I said indignantly. “I haven’t done anything; it’s Jamie’s pet Chinaman.” I nodded briefly toward the stair, where Mr. Willoughby, the pistol dropped unregarded by his feet, had sat down on the step and was now regarding the scene below with a benign and bloodshot eye.

Fergus said something in French that was too colloquial to translate, but sounded highly uncomplimentary to Mr. Willoughby. He strode across the landing, and reached out a hand to grasp the little Chinaman’s shoulder—or so I assumed, until I saw that the arm he extended did not end in a hand, but in a hook of gleaming dark metal.

“Fergus!” I was so shocked at the sight that I stopped my attempts to stanch the exciseman’s wound with my shawl. “What—what—” I said incoherently.

“What?” he said, glancing at me. Then, following the direction of my gaze, said, “Oh, that,” and shrugged. “The English. Don’t worry about it, milady, we haven’t time. You, canaille, get downstairs!” He jerked Mr. Willoughby off the stairs, dragged him to the cellar door and shoved him through it, with a callous disregard for safety. I could hear a series of bumps, suggesting that the Chinese was rolling downstairs, his acrobatic skills having temporarily deserted him, but had no time to worry about it.

Fergus squatted next to me, and lifted the exciseman’s head by the hair. “How many companions are with you?” he demanded. “Tell me quickly, cochon, or I slit your throat!”

From the evident signs, this was a superfluous threat. The man’s eyes were already glazing over. With considerable effort, the corners of his mouth drew back in a smile.

“I’ll see…you…burn…in…hell,” he whispered, and with a last convulsion that fixed the smile in a hideous rictus upon his face, he coughed up a startling quantity of bright red foamy blood, and died in my lap.

More feet were coming up the stairs at a high rate of speed. Jamie charged through the cellar door and barely stopped himself before stepping on the excise officer’s trailing legs. His eyes traveled up the body’s length and rested on my face with horrified amazement.

“What have ye done, Sassenach?” he demanded.

“Not her—the yellow pox,” Fergus put in, saving me the trouble. He thrust the pistol into his belt and offered me his real hand. “Come, milady, you must get downstairs!”

Jamie forestalled him, bending over me as he jerked his head in the direction of the front hall.

“I’ll manage here,” he said. “Guard the front, Fergus. The usual signal, and keep your pistol hidden unless there’s need.”

Fergus nodded and vanished at once through the door to the hall.

Jamie had succeeded in bundling the corpse awkwardly in the shawl; he lifted it off me, and I scrambled to my feet, greatly relieved to be rid of it, in spite of the blood and other objectionable substances soaking the front of my shift.

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