Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Page 68)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade(68)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

“I suppose you were too young,” he said finally. “And it wasn’t a term one heard much during the Rising in ’45. But there was—still is, I suppose—a certain amount of support for the Stuarts in Ireland. And for what the observation is worth, the younger Irish nobles who followed the Old Pretender—they called themselves ‘wild geese.’” He glanced up, quizzical. “Are you by any chance in search of an Irish Jacobite, Grey?”

Grey blinked, taken aback.

“To tell you the truth, Harry, I haven’t the slightest idea,” he said. “Perhaps I am.”

He plucked Symington’s ring out of the mess and handed it to Quarry.

“Will you see Symington gets this back when he returns?”

“Certainly,” Quarry said, frowning at him. “But why not give it to him yourself?”

“I don’t know quite where I might be then, Harry. Perhaps in Ireland—chasing a wild goose.” Grey shoveled the rest of his rubbish back into his pocket and smiled at Quarry. “Thank you, Harry. Enjoy your cigar.”

Chapter 33

Leaving Party

The district near St. Giles was known as the Rookery, and for good reason. Rooks could not be half so filthy, nor so noisy, as the poor Irish of London; the narrow lanes rang with curses, shrieks, and church bells, and Tom Byrd drove with one hand on the reins and the other on the pistol in his belt.

As the horse clopped into Banbridge Street, Grey leaned down from the wagon, a shilling in his hand. The glint of the metal drew a ragged boy from a doorway as though he were magnetized.

“Your honor?” The boy couldn’t decide where to stare—at the coin, at Grey, or at the contents of the wagon.

“Rafe and Mick O’Higgins,” Grey said. “You know them?”

“Everybody does.”

“Good. I’ve something that belongs to them. Can you take me to them?”

The boy’s hand shot out for the coin, but he had decided where his attention properly lay; his gaze was rapt, riveted to the wagon.

“Aye, your honor. They’ll be at Kitty O’Donnell’s wake just now, I’d say. Near the end of O’Grady Street. But you’ll not get by this way,” he added, tearing his attention briefly from the wagon. “You’ll need to back up and go round by Filley Lane, that’s quickest.”

“You’ll take us?” Grey had another coin ready, but the boy was up on the seat beside him before he could offer it, neck craned round to look at the automaton.

Grey had paused just on the edge of St. Giles, and there removed both the discreet canvas that had covered the object on the drive through London, and also the upper cabinet, so the brilliantly colored figurine was now clearly visible, riding like an emperor in the bed of the wagon, its arms moving stiffly and its trunk rotating to the occasional whir of clockwork.

Tom Byrd, who had the reins, gave their guide a narrow look and muttered something under his breath, but clucked to the horse and guided the equipage carefully through the refuse-choked streets. Grey and the guide were both obliged to get down every so often and move some object—crushed barrels, a heap of spoilt cabbage, and on one notable occasion, a recently deceased pig—out of the way, but the distance was not great, and within half an hour, they had reached their destination.

“In there?” Grey looked dubiously at the building, which gave every evidence of being about to collapse. Structural integrity quite aside, it looked like a place that no one concerned with his personal safety would enter. Soot black faces peeped from the alley, loungers on the street drew casually upright, hands in pockets, and the doorless entry yawned black and lightless as the doorway to hell.

Somewhere above, inside the house, a tin whistle played something whining and lugubrious.

Grey drew breath to ask whether the boy might go inside and fetch out the O’Higgins brothers, but the sound of a door opening came from somewhere inside, and a sudden draft whooshed out of the entrance, wafting a stench that caught in his throat and made him gag.

“Bloody hell!” Tom Byrd exclaimed. He snatched a kerchief from his sleeve and clapped it to his nose. “What’s that?”

“Something dead,” Grey said, trying not to breathe. “Or someone. And a long time dead, at that.”

“Kitty O’Donnell,” their guide said, matter-of-fact. “Told ye ’twas a wake, didn’t I?”

“You did,” Grey agreed, and groped in his purse, breathing shallowly through his mouth. “I believe it is customary to contribute something to the, er, refreshment of the attendees?”

To his surprise, the boy hesitated.

“Well, so it is, sir, to be sure. Only that…well, d’ye see, it’s old Ma O’Donnell.”

“The dead woman?”

“No, her mother, it would be.”

It was indeed the custom to offer gin at least to the mourners who came to wake the dead, the boy explained, and sure, it was kindly taken if the mourners then might subscribe a few pennies toward the burial. But Kitty O’Donnell had been popular, and so many folk came and such a fine time was had in the singing and telling of tales that the gin was all drunk and more sent for, and by the end of it, all the subscription money had been spent, and not a penny left for the shroud.

“So she did it again,” the boy said, with a shrug.

“Did what—held another wake?”

“Aye, sir. Folk thought a great deal o’ Kitty. And there were folk who’d not heard in time to come before, and so…” He glanced reluctantly toward the open doorway. Someone had shut the inner door, and the stink had decreased, though it was still noticeable, even over the multifarious odors of the Rookery.

“How long’s that corpse been a-lying there, then?” Tom demanded through his handkerchief.

“Best part of two weeks,” the boy said. “She’s taken up six subscriptions, Old Ma has; stayed drunk as a captain’s parrot the whole time. The folk what live downstairs are fed to the back teeth see”—he nodded toward the windowless building—“but when they tried to complain, the mourners what hadn’t had anything yet put them out. So Rose Behan—it’s her what lives downstairs, with her six kids—she went to Rafe and Mick, to ask could they see about it. So I’m thinking, sir—not to discourage yer honor from a kindly thought—as might be ye should wait?”

“It might be that I should,” Grey murmured. “How long—”

The inner door was flung open again with some violence—he heard the bang, and the miasma thickened, so dense a smell as to be nearly visible. There was a thumping noise, as some heavy body rolled downstairs, and the tin whistle ceased abruptly. Noises of argument and the trampling of feet, and a few moments later, an elderly man, much the worse for drink, emerged backward from the building, staggering and mumbling.

He clutched the ankles of a fat, blowzy woman, whom he was dragging, very slowly, over the threshold. The woman was either dead herself or simply dead drunk; it made little difference, so far as Grey could see. Her head bumped over the cobbles, matted gray hair straggling from her cap, and her tattered skirts were dragged up round her raddled thighs; the prospect so exposed was enough to make him avert his eyes, from respect for his own modesty, as much as hers.

This small procession was followed by one of the O’Higgins brothers, who poked his head out of the doorway, frowning.

“Now, then, Paulie, you take the auld bitch home to your wife, and see she don’t come out again ’til poor Kitty’s put away decent, will ye now?”

The old gent shook his head doubtfully, muttering toothlessly to himself, but continued his laborious progress, making his way down the lane, his companion’s ample bottom scraping a wide furrow in the layers of dead leaves, dog turds, and bits of fireplace ash as they went.

“Should someone not assist him?” Grey inquired, watching this. “She seems rather heavy.”

“Ah, no, God save ye, sir,” O’Higgins said, seeming to notice him for the first time. “She ain’t heavy; she’s his sister.” The man’s eye passed over the wagon and its content with elaborate casualness.

“And what might bring your honor to O’Grady Street, I wonder?”

Grey coughed, and put away his handkerchief.

“I have a proposition, Mr. O’Higgins, that may be to our mutual advantage. If there is a slightly more salubrious place where we could talk?”

With Tom left sitting in the wagon, pistol at the ready, Grey followed the O’Higginses to a squalid ordinary, where the force of their presences promptly cleared a small back room. Grey was interested to note this; evidently his assessment of the O’Higginses’ influence in St. Giles had not been mistaken.

He still could not tell one from the other with any certainty, but supposed it didn’t matter. Rafe was the elder; he supposed the one who was doing most of the talking must be he. Both of them listened avidly, though, making no more than token objections to his proposition.

“Jack Flynn’s leaving party?” Rafe—he supposed it was Rafe—said, and laughed. “Sure, and that will be the grand affair. Rumor has it that he left all his proceeds with his dolly, with orders to spend every farthing of it on drink.”

“There will be a great many people there, then, you think?” Jack Flynn was a notorious highwayman, due to be hanged at Tyburn in two days’ time. Like many well-known thieves, he was expected to have a large “leaving party” at Newgate, with dozens—sometimes hundreds—of friends and well-wishers flooding into the prison to bid him a proper farewell and see him in style to his execution.

“Oh, indeed,” Mick—if it was Mick—agreed, nodding. “Be a tremenjous crowd; Flynn’s well liked.”

“Excellent. And there would be no difficulty in taking your automaton in, to provide entertainment at the party? Perhaps with a few companions to help carry it? One of whom might be visibly the worse for drink?”

Four Irish eyes sparkled with the thought. A fortune-telling automaton would be the greatest and most profitable attraction, particularly at a highwayman’s send-off.

“Nothing easier, sir,” they assured him with one voice.

Kitty O’Donnell’s wake had in fact suggested a refinement to his original plan. To begin with, he had thought of using the automaton’s cabinet, the clockwork removed and left behind in the prison. But if a body could be procured…

“It will need to be fresh, mind, and of roughly a similar appearance,” Grey said, a little dubiously. “But I don’t want you to kill anyone,” he added hastily.

“Not the slightest difficulty there, your honor,” one of the O’Higginses assured him. “A quick word in the priest’s ear, and we’ll have what’s needed. Father Jim knows every corpus what drops in the Rookery. And it’s not as though we mean any disrespect to the corpus,” he added piously. “It will get decent burial, won’t it?”

“The best funeral money can buy,” Grey assured him. It would be an Anglican funeral, but he supposed that would be all right. It was far from unusual for prisoners to be found dead in Newgate. And neither Newgate officials nor the military, he thought, would be eager to raise questions: the former not wishing to admit they had lost a prisoner, the latter only too glad to be rid of a troublesome nuisance before trial and scandal overtook them.