Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade

Page 23

“I take your point,” Grey said dryly. “You are not yourself a sodomite.”

“That’s right,” said Bates, leaning back in his chair. “Just your basic traitor. But that’s not what I’ll be hanged for.” For the first time, a tinge of bitterness entered his tone.

Grey inclined his head. Evidently Bates took it for granted that Grey knew the truth of the matter. How? he wondered, but his mind automatically supplied the answer—Minnie, of course, and her sympathetic acquaintance with Mrs. Tomlinson. So Hal did talk to her.

“Yet you’ve chosen not to make that public,” Grey observed. “There are any number of journalists who would listen.” He’d been obliged to fight his way through a crowd of them outside the main gate, all hoping for the opportunity to get a private interview with one or more of the infamous conspirators.

“They’d listen if I told them what they want to hear,” the captain observed caustically. “The public has made up its mind, d’ye see. And there are too many voices from Whitehall whispering in Fleet Street’s ear these days; mine wouldn’t be heard past the door of this place. I’m a convicted sodomite conspirator, after all—obviously, I’d say anything.”

Grey let this pass; he was likely right.

“You sent for me,” he said.

“I did, and I thank you for coming.” Bates raised the flask ceremoniously to him, and drank, then leaned his head back, studying Grey with interest.

“Why?” Grey said after a moment.

“You’re an officer and a gentleman, aren’t you? Whatever else you may be.”

“What do you mean by that?” Grey kept his voice calm, though his heart leapt convulsively.

Bates looked at him for a long moment, a half smile on his face.

“One would never guess, to look at you,” he said conversationally.

“I’m afraid I don’t take your meaning, sir,” Grey said politely.

“Yes, you do.” Bates waved a hand, dismissing it, and took another drink from the flask. “Not to worry. I wouldn’t say a word—and if I did, no one would believe me.” He spoke without rancor. “You know a man named Richard Caswell, I imagine. So do I.”

“In what capacity, may I ask?” Grey inquired, out of personal curiosity as much as duty. Caswell was the proprietor of Lavender House, an exclusive club for gentlemen who preferred gentlemen—but he undoubtedly had other irons in the fire. And if the suborning of treason was one of those…

“Moneylender,” Bates said frankly. “I gamble, d’ye see. That’s what’s brought me to this pass; need of money. My old granny said as the cards were the devil’s pasteboards, and they’d lead me straight to hell. I wonder if I shall get to see her and tell her she was right? Though if so, I suppose she’ll be in hell, too, won’t she? Serve her right, the prating old bizzom.”

Grey declined the offered distraction.

“And Richard Caswell mentioned my name to you? In what connexion, may I ask?” He was more than surprised to hear that Caswell had spoken of him, and in fact, doubted it. Dickie Caswell would have died a long time ago were he that careless with the secrets he held.

Bates gave him a long, shrewd look, then shook his head and laughed.

“Play cards, do you, Major?”

“Not often.”

“You should. I see you aren’t easily bluffed.” He shifted his feet, the irons clanking.

“No, Caswell didn’t mention your name. He had one of those beastly coughing fits of his and was obliged to rush into his chamber for his medicine. I took the opportunity to rummage his desk. His diary was all in code, the wily beast, but he’d written Lord John Grey on the margin of his blotter. Didn’t know who you were, but happened by chance to be at cards with Melton that night, and he spoke of his brother John. Susannah knew your brother’s wife, had heard the story of your title, and…voilà.” He smiled at Grey, all good-fellowship.

Grey felt the fist in his midsection relax by degrees. It clenched again at the captain’s next words.

“And then of course, Mr. Bowles’s assistant mentioned you in my hearing, sometime later.”

The word “Bowles” went through him like an electric shock. Followed by a slightly lesser one at the word “assistant.”

“Neil Stapleton?” he asked, surprised at the calmness of his own voice.

“Don’t know his name. Fairish chap, pretty face like a girl’s, sulky-looking?”

Grey managed to nod.

“You were with Mr. Bowles at the time?” he asked. Dickie Caswell dealt in secrets. Hubert Bowles dealt in lives. Presumably on behalf of the government.

“That would be telling, wouldn’t it?” Bates put back his head and drained the last of the brandy. “God, that’s good!”

“I know nothing of the particulars against you,” Grey said carefully. “The material you passed to Melchior Ffoulkes—this came from Mr. Bowles?” And if so, what sort of game was Bowles playing?

Bates stifled a belch with his fist, and gave him an eye.

“I may be a cardsharp, a traitor, and a scoundrel in general, Grey. Doesn’t mean I’ve no sense of honor, you know. I won’t betray any of my associates. Believe me, it’s been tried. No one swings on my word.”

He turned the empty flask over. A single drop fell onto the table, its warm pungency a welcome relief from the cold scent of turpentine. Bates put his finger in it, and licked it thoughtfully.

“What is it they say—‘Live by the sword, die by the sword’? I imagine you know that one, don’t you?”

“I know that one, yes.” Grey’s mind was working like a Welsh miner at the coal face, great black chunks of supposition mounting in a dirty pile round his feet. He essayed one or two further questions regarding Bowles and Stapleton, but was met with shrugs. Bates had given him Bowles’s name, but would go no further. Had that been his only purpose? Grey wondered.

“You did send for me,” he pointed out. “Presumably there is something you wish to tell me.”

“No. To ask you. A favor. Or rather, two.” The captain looked him over, seriously, as though evaluating a questionable hand that might still be played to advantage.

“Ask me what?”

“Susannah,” the captain said abruptly.

“Mrs. Tomlinson?”

“The same, and bad cess to the mister, as Susie’s fond of saying.” A brief smile flickered, then disappeared. “She was wed to him young, and he’s a right bastard.”

“My sister-in-law says he’s a bore.”

“He is, but the two aren’t exclusive. He beats her—or he did, before she took up with me. I put the fear of God into him—wish I’d killed the sniveling little shit when I’d the chance….” Batesbrooded for a moment on lost opportunities, but then shook off his regrets.

“Well, plainly once I’m gone, she’ll be at his mercy again—if he’s not already at it.”

“And you wish me to step into your place and threaten Mr. Tomlinson with bodily harm if he mistreats his wife? I should be pleased to do that, but I fear—”

“No, I want you to get her away from him,” Bates interrupted. “She’s a brother in Ireland, in Kilkenny. If she can reach him, he can protect her. But she’s no money of her own, and I’m in no position to give her any.”

Grey looked at him sharply.

“A nice choice of words,” he observed. “Rather than saying that you haven’t any, either.”

Bates returned his stare.

“Let us merely say that if I had funds available, I should turn them over to you on the spot, to use in her behalf, and leave it at that, shall we?”

Grey gave a brief nod of assent, chucking that into the pile at his feet for later analysis.

“And the second favor that you mentioned?”

“Ah. Well, I suppose that’s Susannah, as well—in a way of speaking. She insists she’ll come to the hanging.”

For the first time, the captain appeared to experience some perturbation at the thought of his demise.

“I don’t want her there, Grey,” he said. “You know what it’ll be like.”

“Yes, I do,” Grey said quietly. “No, you don’t want her there. Do you wish me to see her? Explain, as gently as I can—”

“I’ve explained, and not gently,” Bates interrupted. He grimaced. “That only made her more insistent. She says that she can’t stand the thought of me dying alone in a crowd of people convinced that I’m a disgusting pervert. She says—” His voice thickened momentarily, and he paused to cough heavily into his handkerchief, in order to cover the lapse. “She says,” he continued more firmly, “that she wants someone to be there who knows why I’m really dying, and what I really am. Someone for me to look at from the gallows, and know.” He looked at Grey, a faint smile on his lips.

“I don’t know what you are, Grey, and I don’t care. But you do know what I am, and the truth of why I’m dying here. You’ll do.”

Grey felt as though someone had suddenly snatched the chair out from under him.

“You want me to attend your hanging?”

His tone must have contained some of the incredulity he felt, for the captain gave him an impatient look.

“I’d have sent an engraved invitation, had I time,” he said.

Grey wished he’d brought an extra flask for himself. He rubbed a knuckle slowly down the bridge of his nose.

“And you expect that I will accede to these—you will pardon my characterizing them as peculiar, I trust—requests…why?”

Bates smiled crookedly.

“Let’s put it this way. You swear to see Susie safe to her brother in Ireland, and to see me safe to wherever I’m going—and I undertake to see to it that Hubert Bowles never sees your name in my handwriting.”

Grey blinked.

“Saying what?”

Bates raised one fair brow.

“Does it matter?”

It took the space of one breath for Grey to come to a conclusion regarding the possibilities.

“No, it doesn’t. Done.” He paused for an instant. “You trust my word?”

“Officer and gentleman,” Bates repeated, with a tinge of ruefulness. “Besides, I haven’t a great deal of choice in the matter, do I?”

There seemed no more to say after that. He nodded, considered offering his hand to Bates in farewell, and thought better of it. Then something else occurred to him.

“One last question, Captain—if you will allow me?”

Bates made an expansive gesture.

“I’ve all the time in the world, Major. Until Wednesday, that is.”

“I respect your determination to safeguard the names of any associates still at large. But perhaps you will tell me this: are any of them Jacobites?”

The blank surprise on Bates’s face was so patent that it would have been laughable under other circumstances.

“Jacobites?” he said. “God, no. Why would you think that?”

“The French are involved,” Grey pointed out. Bates shrugged.

“Well, yes. But it isn’t always religion with the frogs, no matter what old Louis tells the Pope, and the Stuart cause is deader than I’ll be on Wednesday. Louis’s a merchant at heart, and not about to throw good money after bad. Besides, he never wanted James Stuart on the English throne, and never expected him to take it—just wanted the distraction, while he got on with quietly pocketing Brussels.”

“You know a great deal about what King Louis wants.”

Bates nodded, slowly.

“And you know what I want, Major. We have our bargain. But if Mr. Bowles should be moved to seek one of his own…” He quirked a brow, and Grey saw a nerve twitch in his jaw. “He’s got four days left.” But it was said without hope.

Grey bowed and put on his hat.

“I’ll see you on Wednesday.”

He had nearly reached the door, when he stopped and turned for a moment.

“I’ll send the brandy Tuesday night.”

Percy Wainwright was expected to return from his journey on Wednesday. Grey thought of sending him a note, of asking for his company, but didn’t. He did know what it would be like.

Chapter 14

Place of Execution

Grey had always thought the roar of a mob to be one of the worst sounds possible. Worse than the howl of a hurricane or the clap of thunder that follows in the wake of nearby lightning. And the mob itself every bit as random and as lethal as other forces of nature. The only difference, Grey thought, was that you would not call a mob an act of God.

He spread his feet a little, to keep his footing against the waves of people who were lapping up the slopes of Tyburn Hill, and kept one hand on his sword hilt, the other on his dagger. He’d considered for some time whether to wear his uniform or not, but at last had decided that he must. Soldiers were not universally popular, by any means, and it was not unknown for a maddened crowd to turn on them. But if the point of his presence was to give some reassurance to Michael Bates, then he must be recognizable. To which end, he’d worn uniform, chosen a spot as near to the gallows as he could get, and held it grimly against all comers.

He hoped the brandy had arrived in time, but there was no way to tell. He’d gone direct to Tyburn, rather than follow the cart from Newgate as many spectators did. By the time it rumbled into view, the three prisoners in it were so plastered with mud and filth that they might have been bears, bound for a baiting.

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.