Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Page 27)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade(27)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

Grey held his brother’s gaze and ostentatiously unclenched his fist, laying his hand flat on the desk.

“I hesitate to insult your intelligence by pointing out the fact that I am a grown man,” he said, politely.

“Good,” Hal said, very dryly indeed. “Then I won’t insult yours by explaining that it is the fact that you are indeed a man that prevents my telling you anything further. Be on the square at ten o’clock tomorrow.”

He left the room without looking round, though there was a certain tenseness about his shoulders that suggested he thought Grey might conceivably throw something at him.

Had there been anything suitable within reach, he likely would have. As it was, Grey was left with the blood thundering in his ears and both fists clenched.

A flurry of mutually contradictory instructions from three Whitehall offices, an outbreak of fever in the barracks, and the sudden sinking—in harbor—of one of the transport ships meant to carry them to Germany kept Grey too busy for the next week to worry about what might be happening in Sussex, or to pay more than cursory attention to the news that the sodomite conspirators had been condemned to death.

He was sitting in his own small office at the end of the day, staring at the wall, and trying to decide whether it was worth the trouble to put on his coat and walk to the Beefsteak for supper or whether he might simply send the door guard to bring him a Cornish pasty from the street, when the door guard himself appeared, come to ask if he would receive a visitor—a Mrs. Tomlinson.

Well, that resolved his immediate dilemma. He would have to put on his coat to receive this woman, whoever she was.

A soldier’s wife, perhaps, come to beg him to get her husband out of some difficulty or to advance her his pay. Tomlinson, Tomlinson…he was running mentally through his roster, but failing to recall any Tomlinsons. Still, there were always new recruits—oh, no. Now he remembered; this Tomlinson woman was Minnie’s acquaintance, the mistress of the Captain Bates who had just been condemned to death. He said something which caused the door guard to blink.

“Bring her up,” he said, settling his lapels and brushing crumbs from his luncheon pasty off his shirt ruffle.

Mrs. Tomlinson reminded Grey—not unpleasantly—of his favorite horse. Like Karolus, she had a strong jaw, a kind eye, and a pale mane, which she wore in a bundle of tight plaits, as though on parade. She dropped into a low curtsy before him, spreading her skirts as if he were the king. He took her hand to raise her, and kissed it, taking advantage of the gesture to think uncharitable thoughts about his sister-in-law.

No hint of these thoughts showed in his voice, though, as he begged her to be seated and sent Tom for wine and biscuits.

“Ah, no, sir,” she said hurriedly. “I’ll not stay. I’ve come only to thank your lordship for discovering Captain Bates’s whereabouts for me—and to beg a further favor of your lordship.” A becoming color rose in her cheeks, but she held his gaze, her own pale hazel eyes clear and direct. “I hesitate to impose upon you, my lord. Will you believe me that only the most urgent necessity impels me?”

“Of course,” he said, as cordially as possible under the circumstances. “What may I have the pleasure of doing for you, madam?”

“Will you go and see him?”

He stared at her, uncomprehending.

“Captain Bates,” she said. “Will you go and see him?”

“What,” he said stupidly, “in Newgate?”

The faintest of smiles lifted her long, solid jaw.

“I’m sure he would wait upon your honor here, and he was able,” she said, very respectful. “I’m sure he would prefer it.” She had the faintest trace of an Irish accent; rather charming.

“I’m sure he would,” Grey said dryly, recovered from the surprise. “Why ought I to go and see him? Beyond, of course, the simple fact of your request.”

“I think he must tell you that himself, sir.”

He rubbed his own jaw, considering.

“Do you…wish me to carry a message for you?” he hazarded. The kind eyes widened.

“Ah, no, my lord. No need; I see him every day.”

“You do?” It wasn’t impossible; even the most depraved felons received visitors. But…“Does your husband not object?” Grey said, as delicately as possible.

She neither blushed nor looked away.

“I haven’t asked him, my lord.”

He thought of inquiring exactly where her husband was, but decided that it was no business of his.

Hal would doubtless advise against it, but Grey’s own curiosity was strong. It was likely the only opportunity he might get to hear any unfiltered details regarding the affair. Between the highly colored public version of events in the newspapers and Hal’s coldly cynical view was a substantial gap; he would like very much to know where the truth lay—or, if not the truth, another view of matters.

What the devil could Bates want with him, though? He hesitated for a moment longer, fixed by those large hazel eyes, but at last capitulated. No harm to hear what Bates had to say.

“Yes, all right. When?”

“Tomorrow, my lord, if you can. The time is short, you see. The ha—the execution is set for Wednesday noon.” Only with the word “hanging” did her composure desert her momentarily. She paled a little and her hand went unthinking to her throat, though she snatched it away again at once.

“Very well,” he said slowly. “May I—” But she had seized his hand and, falling to one knee, kissed it passionately.

“Thank you,” she said, and with a hard squeeze of the hand, was gone in a flurry of petticoats.

Chapter 13

A Visit to Newgate

Entering a prison is never a pleasant experience, even if such entrance be accomplished voluntarily, rather than under duress. Grey had been governor of Ardsmuir Prison for more than a year, and he had never entered the place—even his own quarters—without a deep breath and a stiffening of the spine. Neither had he enjoyed visiting the Fleet in search of recruits who would accept army service to escape debt, nor any of the smaller prisons and gaols from which it had been his occasional duty to abstract errant soldiers. Still, Newgate was notable, even for a connoisseur like himself, and he passed under the portcullis at the main gate with a sense of foreboding.

Henry Fielding had described it in one of his recent novels as “a prototype of hell,” and Grey was inclined to think this description admirably succinct.

The room to which he was shown was bleak, nothing but a deal table, two chairs, and an empty hearth, surrounded by walls of discolored stone that bore many laboriously chiseled names, and a number of disquieting scratches, suggesting that more than one desperate wretch had attempted to claw his—or her—way out. Outside the room, though, the prison teemed like a butcher’s offal pile, rich with maggots.

He’d brought a vial of spirits of turpentine, and applied this periodically to his handkerchief. It numbed his sense of smell, which was a blessing, and might perhaps keep pestilence away. It did nothing for the noises—a cacophony of wailing, cursing, manic laughter and singing second only to Bedlam—nor for the sights.

Through the barred window, he could see across a narrow courtyard to a large opening that apparently provided light and air to an underground cell, and was likewise barred. A woman stood upon the inside sill of this opening, clinging precariously to the bars with one hand, the other being used to lift her ragged petticoats above her waist.

Her privates were pressed through the opening between the bars, for the convenience of a guard who clung, beetlelike, to the outside of the bars. His jacket hung down far enough as to obscure his straining buttocks, but the droop of his breeches and the rhythmic movements of his h*ps were plain enough.

Prisoners passing through the courtyard ignored this, walking by with downcast eyes. Several guards also ignored it, though one man stopped and said something, evidently an inquiry, for the woman turned her head and made lewd kissing motions toward him, then let go her skirts in order to extend a hand through the bars, fingers curling in enticement—or perhaps demand.

The sound of the door opening behind him tore Grey’s fascinated gaze from this tableau.

Bates was decently dressed in a clean uniform, but heavily shackled. He shuffled across the room and collapsed into one of the chairs, not waiting for introduction or invitation.

“Thank God,” he said, sighing deeply. “Haven’t sat in a proper chair in weeks. My back’s been giving me the very devil.” He stretched, groaning luxuriously, then settled back and looked at Grey.

His eyes were a quick, light blue, and he was shaved to perfection. Grey looked him over slowly, noting the pristine linen, neatly tied wig, and manicured nails.

“I didn’t know one could procure the services of a valet in here,” Grey said, for lack of a better introduction.

Bates shrugged.

“It’s like anywhere else, I imagine; you can get almost anything—provided you can pay for it.”

“And you can.” It wasn’t quite a question, and Bates’s mouth turned up a little. He had a heavy, handsome face, and a body to match; evidently he wasn’t starved in prison.

“Haven’t a great deal else to spend my money on, have I? And you can’t take it with you—or so that very tedious minister tells me. Did you know they force you not merely to go to church on a Sunday here but to sit beside your coffin at the front?”

“I’d heard that, yes. Meant to encourage repentance, is it?” He could not imagine anyone less repentant in outward appearance than the captain.

“Can’t say what it’s meant to do,” the captain said judiciously. “Bloody bore, I call it, and a pain in the arse—literally, as well as metaphorically. No proper pews; just filthy benches with no backs.” He pressed his shoulders against his chair, as though determined to extract as much enjoyment from his present circumstances as possible.

Grey took the other chair.

“You are otherwise well treated?” Not waiting for an answer, Grey withdrew the flask of brandy he had brought, unstoppered it, and passed it across.

Bates snorted, accepting it.

“The buggers here who think I’m a sodomite are bad enough; the buggers who are sodomites are a damn sight worse.” He gave a short laugh, took a healthy swallow of brandy, and breathed slow and deep for a moment. “Oh, God. Will you send me more of this for the hanging? They’ll give you brandy here, if you pay for it, but it’s swill. Rather die sober.”

“I’ll see what can be done,” Grey said. “What do you mean, the sodomites are worse?”

Bates’s eyes roamed over him, sardonic.

“The sodomites…They had me chummed for a bit with a decorator from Brighton, name of Keyes. Woke me in the middle of the night, jabbing his yard at my fundament like a goddamned woodpecker. Offered to smash his teeth in, he didn’t leave off that business, whereupon he has a go at my privates, slobbering like a dog!” Bates looked both affronted and mildly amused, and Grey began to be convinced that Minnie’s opinion was correct.