All for One
Lieutenant Basil Bracegirdle, first of HMS Indefatigable, was
shocked at the appearance of his wife, Henrietta. Granted, he
had been at sea for more than 15 months and so some change might
have been expected. Still, nothing could have prepared him for
the sight of Henrietta on this day, for not only did she easily
weigh two stone less than when he'd last bade farewell to her,
but she was weeping as though she had just received word of her
adored husband's demise instead of witnessing his return in the
same hale and hearty condition as when he'd kissed her goodbye.
"My dear Hetty," he gently put his arms around her,
noting that for the first time in their acquaintance his hands
actually met when doing so. "My dear, you mustn't take on
so! Whatever can be the matter? Hush, now, hush," he urged,
rocking her gently.
"Oh, Baaaaa-sil!" she wailed. "It's too awful!"
Sobs shook her still-sizable frame.
"Shh, shh, quiet now." The lieutenant had no experience
at calming hysterical women, and was at a loss as to how to induce
her to cease caterwauling, so he simply continued to hold her
until exhaustion at last reduced her sobs to watery hiccups. Gently
then he eased her away and mopped her broad face with his handkerchief.
"Now, then, take a deep breath and calmly - calmly, Hetty!
-- tell me what makes you so distraught?"
She sniffled a little, took his handkerchief and honked loudly
into it, before whispering brokenly, "It's too dreadful,
Basil! Oh, my dear one, if it were anyone but Pellew! He is ruined!
Ruined!" She fell to keening again.
"What? What are you saying, woman? Explain yourself!"
His alarm was evident in the way he shook her roughly.
"It's true," she insisted. "Basil, Sir Edward is
ruined. It is only a matter of time until all of London knows
it. Such a great career, such a fine figure of a man! And it's
all lies! Lies and nothing but lies!"
Mr. Bracegirdle urged his wife toward a sturdy chair, where she
willingly collapsed. At the sideboard, he poured two glasses of
sherry and offered one to Henrietta. Taking the seat across from
her, he said with grim calm, "All right, then, Hetty. Tell
She gulped her sherry, then began, "There are some dispatches,
Chagrin was not an emotion with which Captain Sir Edward Pellew,
Indefatigable, claimed an intimate acquaintance. Nonetheless,
he recognized that sensation as chief among the others, namely
frustration, irritation, and impatience, which clogged his throat.
Calling upon an iron discipline forged by not only surviving but
thriving on the rigors of nearly three decades in the service
of His Majesty's Royal Navy, he managed to maintain an impassive
countenance in the teeth of what he privately considered to be
extreme provocation. His restraint would have awed his crew, who
were well used to hearing Pellew's stentorian bark readily imparting
his displeasure with them, both collectively and individually.
That their Captain was not above average height, and that his
physique would be called fragile rather than trim only by one
who had never seen Pellew co-existing with his crew on half-rations
for weeks at a time, could not mitigate the intense vigor with
which he maintained the discipline of his command or his relentlessly
energetic pursuit of the enemy.
Standing before the massive oak desk gracing the library of Viscount
Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, Pellew had already felt
the sting of the Viscount's condescension. That Pellew, along
with Nelson, had been a staunch supporter of Lord Hood at the
time that gentleman was made to haul down his flag, was no secret
to Spencer, himself a devoted detractor of Hood. Therefore Spencer's
civilities to one of England's finest frigate captains had thus
far consisted of little more than thinly veiled insults.
On the desk between the two men lay a small packet of papers,
still sealed, the edges worn. Placed there by Pellew nearly half
an hour earlier, Spencer had not yet deigned to touch these dispatches
from the Port Admiralty in Gibraltar. Rather he had spent this
valuable time with a direct witness of the war, one possessed
of a superlative military mind, grilling Pellew on the tortuous
journey of the dispatches. The length of Lieutenant Hornblower's
imprisonment and the circumstances of his later escape were dwelled
on at length, as were Spencer's animadversions on what he deemed
Mr. Hornblower's "ill-advised" notions of honor which
had spurred that young officer's return to a Spanish prison. And
that inquisition was as nothing to the scrutiny of minutiae the
Viscount turned upon the Duchess of Wharfedale and the role she
played in the return of the dispatches, as well as her character
and conduct aboard the Indefatigable. It seemed to Pellew any
information he possessed on the strength, capability and location
of the enemies' fleets were entirely inconsequential to the First
Lord, a man more consumed by the personal prestige of his role
in the Admiralty than with the actual accomplishment of the duties
The Captain had parried most of the interrogatives with simple
one or two word responses, appearing to answer the questions but
by no means elaborating. He was scrupulously polite, but try as
Spencer might, Pellew would not allow himself be drawn into indiscretion
or presumption. When his lordship voiced some innuendo having
to do with the effect of the presence of a low-born Duchess traveling
without escort on the behavior of the ill-disciplined rabble who
made up the crew of a fighting ship, Pellew felt the fuse on his
temper grow perilously short, since he considered his crew to
be among the best trained and disciplined in the Royal Navy. He
attempted once again to re-direct Spencer's attention to the matter
at hand. Rising fury lent a particular crispness to his naturally
authoritarian voice as he inquired, "Surely you intend to
open the dispatches today, my lord? I can only regret the delinquency
of their delivery, but Major-General Sir Hew Dalrymple assured
me the information contained in these papers continues to be vital
to England's welfare. 'Tis why I took the liberty of imposing
upon you at home rather than waiting upon you tomorrow at Admiralty
The Viscount, a pallid, emaciated man of uncertain age and undistinguished
features save for uncommonly large nostrils at the end of an aquiline
nose which served to render his expression perennially disdainful,
appeared entirely indifferent to his nation's welfare, but took
strong and immediate exception to Pellew's tone of voice.
"Thanks to your Lieutenant Hornblower," he snapped,
"the dispatches have taken months longer than anticipated
to reach me. I daresay they shall keep for another day, Sir Edward."
He stretched out a languid claw and prodded the packet with a
bloodless finger. "And your imposition is forgiven. This
Pellew was unable to decide whether he wanted most to rip open
the dispatches and read them himself; snatch them up and take
them straight to Henry Dundas, the Secretary of War; or simply
drive that elegant gold-chased letter opener Spencer now chose
to fondle in so distasteful a manner straight up one of his lordship's
Spencer intercepted his longing glance at the letter opener and
entirely misconstrued Edward's thoughts.
"It is a lovely piece, isn't it, Captain? You have an eye
for the small touches of elegance, I believe. Your quarters are,
I am told, the envy of every admiral in the Navy." This last
sentence was punctuated by a sneer of disbelief.
As Edward was entirely secure in the unshakable conviction of
his own good taste, he chose not to rise to the obvious bait,
but simply said, "Very nice indeed, my lord. A recent acquisition?"
Spencer ran a cadaverous finger down one edge of the blade, and
then held the dagger out to Pellew to view more closely, though
not to touch.
"Eighth century, but you'd scarcely credit it," he pronounced,
his pride more than evident. "It's the Hapsburg Dagger. You've
heard of it, of course?" And now his tone along with his
abrupt withdrawal of the object intimated that Pellew was an ignorant
lout who was not to be trusted in the presence of a valuable objet
d'art. Edward was possessed of sufficient intelligence to depress
any doubts about his education while still exerting enough wisdom
to refrain from vouchsafing he had already recognized what Spencer
purported the object to be and was in fact very nearly certain
it was a high-quality counterfeit. He decided to reserve that
information for a time when it might more usefully serve his purposes.
"I've heard Charlemagne believed it was cursed," Pellew
seemed to dredge the legend from memory. "And that it won't
hold a sharp enough edge to be considered--" he very nearly
said 'anything more than a glorified letter-opener' but amended
his speech in mid-flow, concluding,
"-- a really dangerous weapon."
Spencer's skeletal digits waved away such trivialities.
"Pish tosh! Poppycock, I say! The artistry, the craftsmanship
-- far superior to anything else for another 300 years. Tell you
what, Sir Edward; m'wife's giving a ball tonight. Come 'round
then, why don't you? Some friends of mine are anxious to see my
new prize. I'll show you the provenance of this dagger then. The
most amazing history, sir!"
Clearly Spencer's appetite for the admiration and envy of his
fellow man was so great that he would bend his standards to allow
even those of a lesser social standing, ordinarily not permitted
association within his elite circle, an unprecedented access solely
to feed his hunger. If this abrupt thawing of the chilly Viscount
surprised Pellew he also fully recognized from whence the sudden
invitation stemmed, and quickly pressed his case.
"I would be most honored, my lord. And perhaps the dispatches
Spencer sprang to his feet, his languid pose cast aside. "Damn
the dispatches! I'll deal with'em tomorrow."
Scooping up the packet, he turned to the wall behind his desk
and carelessly pried away a canvas depicting what appeared to
be a molding peach, a gasping hake (which Edward thought bore
some family resemblance to Spencer), and a cracked vase on a platter
painted by an artist who had not learned the method of foreshortening,
he worked open the safe behind the painting and tossed both the
packet and the dagger inside. Spencer paused, his face taking
on a rather malignant expression, and he took from the safe a
rolled canvas. Shaking the canvas in the general direction of
Edward, he chortled, "I've got another interesting work of
art here you'd be curious to see, Sir Edward. But not tonight,
I think. Come to my office at one of the clock tomorrow, and I'll
review the dispatches whilst you gaze your fill at this masterpiece."
And chuckling at some inner amusement, he crammed the canvas back
into the safe and slammed it shut. Without another glance at Pellew,
or a civil word of goodbye, or even a curt dismissal, Viscount
Spencer walked out.
In the darkened boudoir, a woman lay slumbering. She did not stir
or give any sign of disturbance when the doorknob turned quietly
and a shadowy figure slid into the room. Closing the door as softly
as he had opened it, he paused to allow his vision to adjust to
the gloom, as beyond the confines of the heavy draperies the mid-afternoon
sun glared harshly. Silently the figure eased about the room,
taking note of the silver vanity set, the Sevres vase, and the
gold-and-enamel souvenir box. He paused at the chest of drawers,
eased open one drawer after another and with one hand sifted the
contents. In the bottom drawer, buried under a quantity of silk
and lace fripperies, he discovered a small book, the size of a
diary. Shaking the frilly undergarments >from his sleeve, he
tucked the book in an inside pocket of his coat and closed the
Next he turned his attention to the sleeping woman. Now walking
purposefully, though still with feline silence, he approached
the bed. His smile flashed briefly in the gloom, then swift as
any of the great cats, he was upon her. One hand covered her mouth
roughly and he allowed the full weight of his slim body to drop
on her heavily. As he expected, she awoke in full fighting mode
and he was hard pressed to keep her mouth covered to prevent her
screams and yet not allow her thrashing limbs to unman him. The
struggle lasted scant seconds before he started to laugh softly,
a distinctive silvery sound. Immediately she ceased struggling.
Slowly he took his hand from her mouth, and she gulped air into
her lungs, her chest heaving.
"Hallo, Kitty! Nice to see you again," his smile gleamed
in the darkness.
"Ah, get off me, you great oaf!" She shoved at him,
catching him off balance as he had started to rise, and sent him
tumbling to the floor. "What if I'd slept with a pistol under
my pillow? A fine joke then, eh?"
His unmistakable silvery laugh sounded again, and as he picked
himself up from what he noted was a very nice Aubusson carpet,
he addressed her breezily in the refined accent of the haut ton.
" 'Then heaven take my soul and England keep my bones.' "
he recited carelessly. "Not pleased to see me, love? And
here I've been pining away for you these many months. I heard
you were returned from your Grand Tour and thought I'd pop in
and let you tell me all about it. How was life aboard Indefatigable?"
And with this question he plopped himself down on the bed beside
Miss Kitty Cobham, propping himself on one elbow and gazing down
at her as if he could see through the darkness to her innermost
Kitty sighed wearily. Of course he already knew about her return
on the Inde, though the ship had docked only last evening. Was
there ever a time Robin had not been several steps ahead of her
in whatever game they played? Too often for her comfort he had
seemed almost omniscient, surprising her by possessing information
about people and events not generally known to the public at large.
What was most disconcerting was how frequently he held knowledge
about herself she would have sworn he could not know. What was
frightening was how adept over the years Robin became at using
information to achieve his own desires. Well, 'twas how he'd come
by his fortune, wasn't it, which in turn had been his entree to
Society. But nowadays, well, now she had secrets not even Robin
"Have you really rushed over here from Grosvenor Square solely
to welcome me home? Now why do I doubt that?" She struggled
to a sitting position.
Robin clasped her hand and held it to his lips. "But, my
dear Kitten, I have missed you quite desperately," he protested.
"What other woman could light the fires in me you kindle
so effortlessly, my adorable nymph?"
She snatched her hand away. "Don't start flirting, please.
You know it makes me queasy when you do that. Open the curtains,
would you? Let me see what the past year has done to you."
" 'When Caesar says, 'Do this,' it is performed!' "
he said cheerily, and he sprang up to pull back the drapes with
a grandly flamboyant gesture, then turned to face her again.
She could not restrain a gasp. "My God, Robin! You look --
oh, my dear boy, what has happened to you?"
When she had said adieu to this young man before her journey to
Italy, he was the epitome of fashion. Indeed he had been elegance
personified in his finely tailored coat of royal blue silk over
a waistcoat of silver broderie anglaise, while a flawless sapphire
exactly the color of his eyes, nestled in the lace of his cravat.
He'd worn a snow-white wig with double pigeon-wing curls on either
side, and his fingers were adorned with sapphires and diamonds.
He'd been so handsome that she'd lost her breath momentarily and
resorted to ridiculing him for the butterflies clocking his stockings,
without succeeding in denting his vanity.
"But, Kitten, they are incroyable, n'est ce pas?" He
vehemently defended his stockings. " 'The soul of this man
is his clothes.' All's Well That Ends Well, act two, scene five.
I shall be all the rage, I vow! Where shall I wear my patch tonight?"
She had dissolved in laughter at his earnest self-involvement.
But where had that elegant young fop gone? Before her stood a
filthy, ragged creature. From the carelessly knotted greasy neckerchief,
to the rough leather shoes held onto his feet with frayed string,
there was no part of his attire that did not want for both cleaning
and patching. Torn gray worsted stockings disappeared into breeches
so dirty and stained the material was impossible to determine.
His checkered peasant's smock was almost as begrimed as the breeches.
Instead of scintillating jewels, his hands were partially covered
by woolen gloves with the fingers cut out. His own fingers were
grubby and the nails caked with black. Lank, bedraggled locks
of an indeterminate shade of hair straggled unevenly across his
shoulders. And as a crowning touch to this image of slovenliness,
he suddenly and earnestly scratched under one arm.
Robin grinned at her dismay. The smile was still flawless, she
noted. At least he cleaned his teeth regularly, if no other part
"Robin, please, what's happened to you?" she repeated,
shaking her head at this sadly drastic change in the young man
who had been the only person, until she had made the acquaintance
of Horatio Hornblower, in whom she felt any small measure of trust.
The eight years that separated them in age had made no difference
to her friendship with Robin. From the day she had met the uncannily
wise and sophisticated urchin of seven who had generously shared
with her his stolen porkpie, the bond between them had been unbreakable.
"I've moved," he announced proudly, "from Grosvenor
Square to Tothill Fields. A gentleman of fashion must dress accordingly."
He pirouetted to allow her the full glory of his sartorial splendor.
One hand covered her mouth in shock.
"Tothill Fields? No, no, I warned you about gambling so heavy!
You lost it all? The house? The horses? Those fabulous jewels?"
Shock upon shock was numbing her brain. How could he have lost
so much money? And more than money! His grandfather would never
acknowledge him now. Kitty had been too many years short of money
and social standing to understand how Robin could play so fast
and loose with both.
"And more, m'dear! A true gentleman would have put a period
to his life when he could not pay so much as I owed, 'but why
should I play the Roman fool, and die on mine own sword?' Macbeth,
act five, scene eight." He seemed to view his dishonor with
"To whom, Robin? Who picked your pockets so neatly?"
She was indignant on his behalf, for anyone capable of cheating
Robin, himself no mean fist with the cards, was a Captain Sharp
of the worst sort.
He came and sat beside her on the bed. Claiming her hand again,
he said gently, "Kitty, love, it's not important. It was
a part of my life that's gone now. And I don't miss it, really
I don't. 'What's done cannot be undone.' Macbeth again, I'm afraid.
No, don't weep," he lifted her chin and looked directly into
her tear-filled eyes, "things have happened -- the circumstances
-- it's difficult to explain and you'll think I'm lying but I'm
not, when I tell you I am better off for what has happened."
"But, Robin! How can this be? And -- and you're so -- dirty!"
That musical laugh spilled out of him again.
"Trust me, Kitten, I do still know how to apply soap and
water, but I am working today so I'm in full regalia. Oh, except
for m'teeth. You'll lend me some blacking before I leave, won't
you? It would never do to rove the docks with these pearly whites
to give me away."
Kitty just stared at him. "I have no idea what you're talking
about. I think you've gone mad."
"Just between us, my sweet, we're in the same line of work
now," he confided by way of explanation. "And that's
really why I'm here, much as I adore your beaux yeux and would
walk the length of Europe to worship at your tiny feet."
Yet another shiver of shock went through her. The same line of
work? Did he know?
"Be serious, Robin. Explain yourself."
"Love to, sweeting, but another time perhaps. Duty calls,
y'know. But before I go I need to have a word with you about the
dispatches. No, don't ask 'what dispatches?' as if butter wouldn't
melt behind your divine lips. Those dispatches you guarded so
zealously loÇ these many weeks. You know the ones I mean.
Pellew has them, am I right?"
Robin decided to spare her the tale of nearly being caught trying
to pick Sir Edward's pocket earlier in the day, since he had failed
so abjectly in his mission that he'd not been able to confirm
whether the Captain was even carrying the dispatches at the time.
And Pellew was too sharp-eyed to allow for being followed. He
had observed Kitty's disembarkation the night before as well,
though he had been careful she should not notice him.
"Robin," she shook her head, "I have no idea --"
"Damn it, don't play about, Kitty!" His voice was sharp,
his expression grim. "There's the devil to pay, and no pitch
hot. The Old Gentleman is mad as fire with you. Those dispatches
have got to be destroyed. You brought them here, you had better
get them back again," he demanded. "And be dashed quick
about it! If you can't retrieve them by tonight the damage will
be done and there'll be no undoing it. That's if it isn't already
The mention of the Old Gentleman shook her composure a trifle
and her voice roughened. "I don't know what game you're playing
at now, Robin, but you'd better tell me what you know about the
dispatches. If you know about my work--"
"I've always known," he interjected. "I just didn't
know it was the Old Gentleman who held the reins. Now listen,
Kitten. Those dispatches are the coup de grace in a carefully
orchestrated plan to ruin a great man. The information in those
papers is generally false but there's just enough truth scattered
within to make the whole tissue of lies appear genuine."
"Do you know who the target is?" she queried, dropping
all pretense and accepting Robin as a partner in the intelligence
He took a deep breath and released it slowly, as he met her eyes.
"I cannot be entirely certain, but I believe it is Nelson."
"Good God!" she said, her native northern accent creeping
faintly into her speech. "And I've been toting the damned
things all over Europe with me!"
She had known Robin too long to doubt his word, his sources, or
to question his loyalty to the King. He might be possessed of
a quicksilver personality, and be easily capable of adapting himself
from an aristocrat one day to a slum-rat the next depending on
the weight of his purse, but she knew Robin better than anyone
alive and had more than once encountered in him an iron core of
integrity. Her brow wrinkled in worry.
"I've got to get them back! Though I've no notion how and
it's probably too late anyway-- Sir Edward was going to put them
directly into Lord Spencer's hands. He's bound to have opened
them by now!"
"Well, you cannot simply loll about waiting for the worst
to inevitably happen, m'dear," he advised her. "Lady
Spencer's ball is tonight and you ought to be there to find out
what's to be done, if anything, to salvage the career of one of
our finest captains."
She threw back the covers and jumped up. "I cannot, I haven't
an invitation!" she moaned. She began ransacking her wardrobe
as though the last statement was no impediment.
"That's a dashed fine nightgown you've got on, Kitty,"
he murmured appreciatively, as she continued rummaging through
what little clothing had been left behind months before when she
had departed for Italy. "The sun goes right through it. May
I see the front?" he inquired guilelessly.
His melodic laugh rang once more as a satin slipper came flying
at his head.
"Out!" she ordered. "I've got to find something
to wear to a ball, and then I've got to find a way to get an invitation
at the last minute."
Robin stretched lazily and lay back amongst the pillows. From
the depths of his ragged coat he brought forth a crisp vellum
envelope. "Would you care to attend with me then?" he
inquired innocently, twirling it around his fingers. She turned
to him, a bit awestruck as she stared at the envelope.
"You are amazing!" she breathed.
"You do all right yourself," he mocked, as he openly
admired the front of her nightgown. "Give us a kiss then,
love, and we'll both get to work." He held out an arm to
catch her waist when she reached for the invitation, but she nimbly
dodged his grasp.
You're so dirty," she objected.
"Ah, you've been listening to gossip about me," he retorted,
grinning as he rose to leave. "Adieu, Kitten! 'Parting is
such sweet sorrow' but I shall bring a carriage around nine o'clock.
'The readiness is all!' Hamlet, act five, scene two." He
kissed one grimy hand to her and slid from the room as soundlessly
as he had entered.
"Robin!" She called after him, rushing to the door and
finding him about to descend the narrow stairs. "Your teeth!
The blacking--!" she reminded him urgently.
This time when he grinned, his teeth appeared rotten, crooked
"How did you -- ?" She started to ask.
He put a single dirty finger to his lips to silence her.
"Now, Kitten," he chided gently, as he proceeded down
the stairs, "have I asked you how you managed to keep hidden
a packet of dispatches when Le Reve was captured?"
"Robin!" He stopped again.
" 'I would not wish any companion in the world but you,'
" she quoted earnestly.
"The Tempest, act three, scene one. Nicely done, poppet!"
he praised, and then was gone.
Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower and Midshipman Archie Kennedy made
a strikingly handsome pair of officers, in spite of the disrepair
of their uniforms, as they strolled away from Admiralty House.
Both gentlemen were in such high spirits onlookers might have
been forgiven for thinking the two men had been indulging in another
form of spirits altogether, but in fact the Athos, the ship in
which they had taken passage, had only just arrived in London.
The two men had been thrilled upon spotting their own ship Indefatigable
at anchor in the Nore.
"Serendipity, Horatio! What else could it be, save divine
Providence? Now we shan't have to kick our heels in London waiting
on a ship to take us out to the Fleet. And this after winning
our release so soon from Don Massaredo's hospitality! We've cause
to celebrate and then some."
"It is indeed fortuitous to arrive and find the Inde here
as well," Horatio smiled. "I can just picture Mr. Bracegirdle's
face when we hail him."
Archie started laughing again. "I don't know, Horatio, you've
surprised the man so often I think he is now more like to roll
his eyes, yawn and say, 'Hornblower again?' He's probably wagered
Bowlsey you'd be back aboard within the month anyway."
Horatio stopped abruptly. "Very well, Mr. Kennedy, just where
is this inn you swore has such wonderful food? I only want one
decent meal before returning to weevily biscuits and salt pork."
Archie looked around, getting his bearings. "Up this way,
not much farther along as I recall. Oh!"
Now it was a wide-eyed Archie who halted suddenly, grabbing hold
of his companion's arm to prevent him from continuing.
"What? What is it?" Horatio was looking around wildly
to see what vision had captivated his friend.
"Horatio, look there. No, there! " He pointed.
Just inside the alleyway, but deep enough in shadow that a sharp-eyed
Kennedy had only just spotted it, a sign occupying the largest
part of a grimy window announced "Madame Minerva PALM READER
EXTRAORDINAIRE Fortunes Told, Lucky Charms, Advice to Lovers,
Elixirs and Potions, Communion with the Dead. Skeptics Welcome."
"For the love of -- Archie, you don't believe in such nonsense,
do you?" Horatio was appalled. Archie was impatient.
"I don't know how it happened that you could have been born
with absolutely no sense of how to enjoy yourself, but so it is.
Of course I don't believe in palm reading, but there's the fun
of it, don't you see?"
Clearly Horatio did not.
"It's a kind of joke," Archie tried to explain. "We
know that Madame Minerva is a charlatan, but she doesn't know
Horatio still looked blank.
"Try thinking of Madame Minerva as a French agent,"
Archie urged. "She'll want you to think she knows more about
you than she really does. We try to steer her in the wrong direction.
And this woman knows the game well or she wouldn't advertise for
Horatio pondered for a moment then conceded, "It might be
interesting at that."
Archie beamed at him. "Well, then, after you, Lieutenant
Hornblower!" And the pair sauntered into Madame's dusty little
Only a trifle more than a half-hour later, the duo emerged with
ashen faces, shocked eyes, and considerably lighter pockets.
"We have to do something," Horatio insisted. "We
cannot just go back to the Inde knowing those damnable dispatches
will ruin a good man. I should have dropped them over the side
the instant Le Reve was threatened, just as Captain Pellew ordered
"Short of stealing them back, I fail to see what we can do,"
Archie was at a loss.
Horatio's eyes widened. "That's it, Archie! You're brilliant!
We shall have to steal them back. Now exactly what did Madame
Minerva say about the location of the papers?"
The Duke of Ravenscar was exceedingly drunk. His speech was not
slurred. He yet moved with his usual predatory grace, and did
not stumble nor list to one side. Granted, he had somehow contrived
to lose the ribbon that had bound his queue, his stock was crumpled
and his waistcoat was an abomination, but Max always managed to
look unkempt within five minutes of completing his toilet, much
to the despair of his long-suffering valet, so that the utter
dishevelment of his attire must be discounted when ascertaining
his degree of sobriety. Still, Edward had taken one look at his
friend from childhood and recognized the wild light in Max's dark
eyes, the heightened flush on his cheeks, and the imperious manner
in which he tossed his head as he spoke vehemently. The vehemence,
it must be noted, was a result of Max's naturally volatile temperament
and owed nothing of its passion to the exceptionally fine brandy
he had imbibed most recently.
"Damme, Ned! It's of no use looking at me that way,"
His Grace exclaimed defensively. "I only told Bea I'd stand
no more of her nonsense and that I was sending her to live with
my mother at Briarston Manor. When I came home that night she
was gone. Went off in one of her tantrums, expecting me to be
fool enough to go haring after her! Damme if I will!"
"You have absolutely no notion where your wife may be, do
you, Max?"Ç Edward's tone was deceptively mild. He
did not always approve of Ravenscar's behavior. "What's this
Jarvis tells me about a ransom demand?"
"Now damn my butler for a gabblemonger! That's the sack for
him!" Max tossed off the last swallow of brandy and slammed
the snifter down angrily.
"And you'll hire him back again before nightfall, as you
always do. Who else could you get who would abide your ungodly
temper?" Edward asked. "Tell me honestly, Max, has Bea
"Lord, Ned, I don't know and that is the truth."
Max sat down heavily in the deep leather chair opposite Edward.
His expression turned rueful and more than a little worried.
"I had sworn I'd not chase her, but I had to be sure she
was safe at least. I've been combing London for her and there's
just no sign. I've ruffled plenty of rather oily feathers while
searching for her and I've discovered some mighty interesting
secrets and plots but I haven't found a trace of Bea. That's what
makes me think the ransom note is just her way of trying to make
me worry about her. She's deliberately hiding, punishing me for
daring to try to order her about." He rubbed one hand over
bleary eyes, and then his anger flared again. "The hell with
women! Sooner or later she'll turn up on my doorstep again, trying
to worm her way back into my good graces. Well, she needn't think
she can cut a wheedle with me! She's cut up my peace for the last
time. I'll not live with her again!"
"Max, listen to me -- " Edward began patiently.
"No, Ned! I'll not listen. And I don't wish to discuss this
further. At least, not without another brandy. Jarvis!" he
bellowed, not bothering with the bellpull.
"Jarvis! Damn your gossipy soul! Bring me another bottle!
On the instant!"
An immaculately groomed man of middle age and lugubrious expression,
dressed with natty precision in the black and silver Ravenscar
livery, appeared in the door of the salon.
"Did you ring for me, Your Grace?" he inquired politely,
looking every bit the mournful undertaker in Edward's opinion.
"No, you damnable bag of wind, I did NOT ring for you! Bring
us another bottle of brandy. And then pack your belongings. You're
fired. Prattling about my affairs to everyone who passes the house!
I suppose you've told the rag and bone man as well!" Max
vented his fury on the impervious butler.
"Certainly not, Your Grace," Jarvis replied airily.
"I" -- and he emphasized the pronoun -- "do not
associate with rag and bone merchants." And he vanished from
the doorway just before the glass Max threw went sailing over
"The bloody impudence!" Max paced the corners of the
room, finally turning to look at Edward, who was valiantly suppressing
a laugh. "Yes, I can see you find it all very amusing. Well,
Ned, I've a couple of pieces of information for your ears that'll
wipe that smirk off your face. Scouring the length and breadth
of London for m'wife has served a purpose after all. Where's that
rascally Jarvis?" he interrupted himself, roaring, ""Jarvis!
NOW, damn it!"
As if on cue the butler swept into the room, bearing an exquisite
cut-crystal decanter with matching snifters on a silver tray.
As he placed the tray on a side table, he inquired, "Shall
I pour for you, Your Grace?"
"No, you abstemious jackanapes, you shall not pour for me.
Your idea of a pouring is to barely wet the glass. Anyone would
think 'twas you who bought and paid for my brandy!"
Jarvis was imperturbable. "If I may be so bold, Your Grace,
no one of MY acquaintance would think so. I do not number smugglers
or other low persons among MY intimates." Again he stressed
"Damn and blast you for a Puritan, you old drybones! Take
your sorry carcass out of here before I do you an injury!"
Jarvis bowed just that fraction of a shade too deep, turning the
courtesy into a mockery, and departed.
"Confound it all, anyway!" Max sighed. "How's a
man to keep his servants in check when his own wife defies him
at every turn?" he questioned resignedly before his expression
"You'd never guess Jarvis is quite a lively chap when he's
in his cups, would you?" Max asked Edward, who appeared surprised
to learn that the stiffly unflappable Jarvis would allow intoxicants
to pass his lips.
"'Pon my honor, Edward! Get the man foxed and he gets quite
animated." Here he paused long enough to toss off another
glass of brandy and refill his glass before taking the chair opposite
"Now, what I wanted to tell you," he leaned confidentially
toward Edward and lowered his voice to just above a murmur, "is
that something very nasty is afoot and has to do with someone
in your line of work. I have not yet pinpointed the details, but
I do know the whole rotten plan revolves around discrediting someone
in the Royal Navy. Or maybe discrediting more than one person.
If I had to hazard a guess, just from what little my sources could
glean, I'd say the person isn't so high up in the Admiralty that
the plot would be open to question. It'll be someone who's a threat
to the Frogs militarily though; you can be damned sure of that.
So it has to be a frigate captain or higher, but not as high as
Sir John Jervis or the whole thing will be called into question.
No, they've targeted someone valuable but just low enough on the
ladder that it will be easier to remove that man from command
in order to keep the matter entirely hushed up. If that reasoning
is accurate -- and I'm damned good at these kind of games, Ned,
no matter my other faults -- there are two names which leap to
"I believe I can guess those names, thank you, Max."
Edward's thoughts were racing. "You are thinking of Captain
Nelson and me, I am sure. Have you no more substantial information
than that? By what means will this plot be made manifest?"
Max shook his head. "I don't know that, but if I choose to
try and put myself in a Frog's shoes -- hell of a vision THAT
conjures up, eh? -- and all things being equal, more or less,
in choosing one or t'other, I'd want to do as much damage as possible.
You're well enough connected, Ned, but nothing like to the names
that could be blackened for being associated with Nelson if he
should be discredited."
"You relieve my mind," Edward replied dryly. "Very
well, let us assume there is at hand a plot to discredit and remove
Nelson from service. How could it be done? I know how I would
set the wheels in motion: I would plant damaging lies and half-truths,
camouflaged by sufficient truth as to make the two indistinguishable,
and use the most official and vulnerable channel of communication
in so doing: Royal dispatches. And furthermore --"
Edward choked as realization dawned. "My God! Max! I delivered
dispatches to Spencer at his home this morning!"
Max swallowed his brandy the wrong way. When he could speak again
he said, "Well, that tears it! He'll have opened'em by now,
and if we're right then it's too late to do anything."
"But they haven't been opened. Spencer's so engrossed in
the ball he's hosting tonight as well as showing off some fake
antique he's picked up, he doesn't plan to open the dispatches
until tomorrow afternoon."
"What a paperskull," derided Max. "How did a man
like that ever rise to Lord of the Admiralty? Never mind, I know
precisely how. Some fake antique, did you say? Not by chance the
Hapsburg Dagger, is it?" he asked with a grin. "When
I heard it was up for sale I wondered what gudgeon would be idiotish
enough to lay out the blunt for it."
Edward nodded. "So it appeared to me. A nice bit of workmanship,
but a counterfeit all the same. But how to retrieve those dispatches,
"You can't be serious, Ned! How to get them indeed! As if
you wasn't a reg'lar hand at getting us into the headmaster's
rooms when we were at school. Always had a deft hand with locks,
you did," he said admiringly.
"It is hardly a practice I am proud of or have kept up since
those days," the Captain protested. "Surely among the
"low persons" Jarvis implies are numbered among your
acquaintance must be a safecracker or two who could do the job?"
"Certainly," his Grace replied promptly, "but we
only have tonight to get this done. Not only would I need a safecracker
but a good housebreaker as well -- and what good would he do me
if there's to be a ball going on there until all hours of the
night? But you could probably wangle your way past the butler
on some pretext or other, Ned. Spencer's stupidly high in the
instep about protocol but I don't think he'd turn you out. You
already know where the safe is located, I hope?"
Edward sighed. "My God," he muttered, "what am
I letting myself in for? Yes, Max, I know where the safe is, besides
which Spencer invited me to attend him tonight while he boasts
about the dagger. But I fear I am not so certain of my criminal
skills as you are. I think it would be best if I could simply
make sure the safecracker had a safe entrance and exit."
Max was already shaking his head no. "Any one I chose to
use would be far too curious about what is in the dispatches.
It'd be well-disguised, but the dispatches would have been opened
and the information would be selling in the ale-houses before
Edward weighed the situation and found himself agreeing with his
friend. "Do you, perchance, have a ready excuse for me if
I happen to be caught?"
Max shrugged. "Say it was a wager with Admiral Hood. He'll
back you up, won't he?"
"Back me up and tear strips off me afterward. He won't have
forgotten the incident over that portrait of me, you may be sure
of that! By God, I had almost rather be demoted than to have him
deliver me another one of his jaw-me-dead sermons." Edward
was rapidly becoming depressed at the prospect of the evening
"In that case," Max downed another brandy, "don't
"What was the other piece of information?" asked Edward
"What?" Max was disapprovingly eyeing the rapidly descending
level of brandy in the decanter.
"You said you had two pieces of information for me. What
is the other? And pray God it is not so bad as the first!"
A resigned Edward held out his own glass for Max to fill again.
"Ah! That!" Max poured lavishly and handed the over
full snifter back to Edward and resumed his seat. "You brought
a, er, a lady back with you aboard the Inde this trip, didn't
"The Duchess of Wharfedale, yes," he confirmed. "What
has she to say to anything?"
"What if I told you the only existing Duchess of Wharfedale
is a septuagenarian living in the Orkneys?" Max was definitely
amused by this bit of intelligence.
Edward sank lower into chair and drained his snifter, warily eyeing
his friend over the rim.
"Very well, Max," he sighed resignedly, "I can
see you are simply bursting to tell me all. But before you do,
give me another brandy. And this time don't be so cheese-paring,
Rarely had the Duchess of Ravenscar been more furious. Her wrath
boiled over until one tiny foot slammed against the ribcage of
the man lying unconscious before her. The chair leg with which
she had dimmed his lights was still clenched in one determined
"Kidnapped!" she fumed. "Held in this filthy hovel,
with scraps of food a starving dog would disdain, then have the
gall to relate how you and your traitorous henchmen have conspired
to bring down England's finest naval officer! It goes beyond the
bounds of all that is decent! You had better hope I have killed
you," she informed the insensible creature as she aimed another
kick at his torso, "because if I have not, my husband will
have you tortured in the most dreadful ways before allowing you
She dropped her erstwhile club and rolling the man over onto his
back, she searched his pockets until locating a grubby bit of
paper. Holding it to the dim light filtering between the boards
over the windows, she ascertained from the nearly illiterate scrawl
that the deceptive dispatches -- just for the inadvertent overhearing
the mention of which she had been kidnapped and held these past
three days -- were now in the hands of the Admiralty.
The minutes were ticking away much too quickly for her comfort.
By the time she could get word to Max and have him meet her, she
calculated, Edward might well be beyond salvation. Seconds counted
now. She needed to take help with her, not send for it. And then
she remembered: Edward Pellew's half-brother Wolfie was lodging
in Pettigrew Street, only a short distance from Viscount Spencer's
house in Mayfair. Wolfie would aid her, if only to spite Max who
disliked him intensely. At least, if Wolfie were at home he would
Cautiously she made her exit, and encountering none of the other
kidnappers, she ran pell-mell in the direction of Pettigrew Street,
her feet flying as fast as her thoughts.
Robin and Kitty's entrance into Lord Spencer's library went entirely
unnoticed by the other guests, although the presence of the notorious
Robert Halliwell in the company of the wealthy Duchess of Wharfedale
had caused no little stir upon admittance to the ballroom. Kitty
had been almost proud of the way Robin had coolly snubbed the
social tabbies before they could make a show of their disapproval
of him. And no matter what he might have done to earn their contempt,
every woman present had to concede Robin's handsome countenance
was unmatched in the ton, as well as his innate elegance of carriage
and impeccable attire. For all the attention his appearance provoked,
still they had encountered no difficulty in slipping away from
the ballroom and making their way undetected to the library.
By previous arrangement Kitty remained by the door, on guard for
any guest or servant who might wander near, while Robin lit a
candle and began the rapid search for a safe. Pulling away the
painting Pellew had so disliked earlier that day, Robin whispered,
" 'Here walk I in the black brow of night to find you out.'
"You've found it?" whispered Kitty.
"Found and --- opened!" Jubilant at picking the lock
so quickly, he tugged open the safe door. Looking over his shoulder
he made certain Kitty was still watching the hall before deftly
placing the little diary taken earlier from Kitty's room and now
wrapped in a small square of black velvet to the back of the safe.
"Well?" she demanded. "What of the dispatches?
Are they there?"
He fluttered an envelope bearing the seal of the Admiralty.
"I have them and 'I see thou wilt not trust the air with
secrets,' " Robin murmured. "Titus Andronicus."
"They've not been opened."
Kitty was almost offended. "Travel the length and breadth
of Europe with that packet stuck in my garter and the old gudgeon
cannot be bothered with reading what's inside!" She shook
her head and moved to Robin's side. "Well, it's for the best,
I'm sure," she took the dispatches from Robin and tucked
them in her bodice. "Anything else of interest in here?"
She gestured at the safe.
Robin shook his head. "Some jewels not worth the having,
let alone protecting. A painting. A box..." He flicked it
open. "Ah, a dagger. A family heirloom, I suppose."
"Looks like a letter opener," opined Kitty, before freezing
at a noise from the hall. "Quick! Let's get away from here."
Robin flew to the door and eased it narrowly open, eyeing the
hall. Kitty was closing the safe and swinging the painting back
in place as he returned to her side swiftly. He blew out the candle
and taking her by the hand, he urged her toward the French doors
that opened into the garden.
"I don't think they're heading our way but there's no point
in lingering. 'Delays have dangerous ends.' Henry VI."
He followed Kitty down the path leading to the far wall of the
garden. Easy enough to climb over, he reckoned, should the gate
be locked. Abruptly Kitty halted and he nearly fell over her,
"Someone's coming!" she whispered and then she was gone,
melting into the shrubbery lining the path. Robin whirled, unsure
of what direction she had taken. Suddenly the sound Kitty had
heard came to his own ears. Unquestionably the heavy breathing
was human, though on a moonless night such as this with light
scarves of fog hovering motionless above the ground an imaginative
soul might be forgiven for thinking the sound was that of a hellhound
close on one's heels.
Robin detected a scrabbling sound coming from the direction of
the wall before he, too, moved quietly off the path and hid himself
in the bushes.
Outside the garden walls, Basil Bracegirdle was attempting to
boost Henrietta to the top of the wall and over. A final mighty
heave from him and she was atop, perilously balanced on her midsection
with her limbs perpendicular to the wall. There she teetered precariously
for a few moments before gravity held sway and pulled her down
the opposite side with a rush where she landed with no small amount
of noise and greatly to the detriment of a young lilac growing
there. Basil then divided the next minutes reassuring himself
as to his wife's safety and attempting to heave his own bulk over
Reunited at last, they nervously proceeded hand-in-hand to the
French doors and entered the library. Basil took a small candle
and flint from his pocket and struck a light. Holding the candle
high, the couple peered around the room, seeking a place where
a man might choose to hide a safe. They began with the most obvious
"What a lovely painting!" whispered Henrietta, quite
taken with the gasping hake and moldy peach. Basil handed her
the candle and went to the painting, tugging it this way and that
before finding the hinges and swinging the picture away from the
"Bring the candle over here, Hetty," he ran his hands
over the front of the safe and took a slim metal tool from the
pocket of his coat. After several minutes, Basil conceded defeat.
Short of an 8-pounder he had no notion how he would ever manage
to get the safe open without a key.
"I cannot do it," he sighed. Henrietta glared at the
safe in frustration, thumped one meaty fist against the door and
yanked on the handle for all she was worth. The door almost sprang
open. Mouths agape, husband and wife stood and stared for several
seconds before simultaneously trying to look more closely into
the safe's interior. Obeying that singular law of physics that
holds that two bodies cannot occupy the same space simultaneously,
two well-padded noggins collided, accompanied by two yips of pain.
Henrietta's breathing hissed and Basil rubbed his offended pate.
"Hold that candle down a bit, Hetty," he ordered testily.
"Do you want to set fire to my head as well as break it?"
More cautiously the duo peered again into the confines of the
"I don't see any dispatches." Basil was deeply disappointed.
He could scarcely believe the number of laws he had broken tonight,
the way he was jeopardizing his career -- and for nothing? "A
painting, a dagger, a few baubles. Wait, what's this? No, just
He riffled the pages but nothing resembling Admiralty dispatches
Hetty was agonizing over the lack of dispatches, running her hands
over the ceiling and walls of the safe, searching for any object
they might have overlooked when a sound came from just beyond
the door to the hall. She froze. Basil blew out the candle, grabbed
her arm and ran toward the garden. Hetty stumbled over a chair
and both she and the chair fell over with echoing thumps. In his
fear and haste, Basil continued dragging her behind him as far
as the French doors, where he stopped and with a Herculean strength
born of sheer panic heaved her back on to her feet in one go and
thrust her out into the garden ahead of him. The pair chugged
at full speed down the path toward the spot where they had come
over the wall, only to be brought up short by the sound of voices
nearby and the creaking sound of the garden gate opening.
Hetty dived to the left and Basil to the right, hiding themselves
as best they could amid the shadows and shrubs.
Footsteps whispered against the gravel path, and one stoutly shod
foot tromped across Basil's fingers. He caught his breath and
shifted further back under the foliage, squatting under what seemed
to be a small laurel.
The much-used French doors opened and closed again, and inside
the library Archie resumed his whispered protests, which had been
ceaseless all afternoon, to Horatio as that young man opened his
dark lantern to illuminate the room.
"What do we know about safe-cracking? If we're caught, if
we're caught --" the very thought at last rendered him speechless,
a fortunate circumstance in Horatio's opinion.
"I don't think we need worry about getting the safe open,"
Horatio held up the lantern. "Someone's been here before
Archie stared at where the safe door stood ajar. "Fine,"
he determined. "We can leave now," and he turned back
toward the garden.
Horatio caught him by the scruff of his jacket. "Let's at
least have a look-see, Archie, then we'll go. I have to think
what's best to do now. Look here, there's a painting. Why would
you keep a thing like that in a safe?" he wondered. "Some
kind of diary -- no, nothing in it. Looks like a woman's -- oh,
"What? What?" Archie was so nervous, Horatio's exclamation
made his heart race even faster.
"I think this may be Lady Spencer's diary. There are some
things written here best kept under lock and key. My word, her
husband must tell her EVERYTHING!" Horatio closed the little
book and slipped it back into the safe, withdrawing his hand with
an "Ugh!" of repugnance. "There's something nasty
in there," he told Archie, pulling out his handkerchief and
wiping the goo from his hands. "I think -- " he sniffed
his fingers, then touched his tongue to them. "Oh, my word,
Archie! It's Mrs. Bracegirdle! That's who's been digging around
in here ahead of us!"
Archie shook his head. "I don't see how you can be so certain."
Horatio flashed the lantern light onto the interior walls of the
safe. "Look, there's gooseberry jam everywhere! Who else
do we know who leaves sticky pawprints everywhere she goes? I'm
surprised the entire safe didn't stick to her hands. What a mess!"
He prodded the box holding the dagger. "She's even got it
all over --." Archie and Horatio saw it at the same time.
The packet of dispatches tucked neatly under the box containing
the dagger. Horatio was all too familiar with this particular
set of dispatches, and he wasted no time in scooping them up.
Archie took his first deep breath in several hours before his
heart suddenly resumed the pace of a frightened rabbit at the
sound of light footsteps in the hall. Pushing Horatio out into
the garden, he whispered, "Dowse the lantern!" and closed
the French doors behind him once again.
The door leading from the hall to the library eased open and the
Duchess of Ravenscar peeped in.
"Wot's the 'old-up?" demanded Wolfie Smith, Edward Pellew's
half-brother. Other than a superficial facial resemblance, the
two men were as alike as chalk and cheese. Where Edward's posture
was militarily erect, his dress neat and precise, his features
carved with evidence of heavy responsibilities, Wolfie slouched,
his clothing was oddly mismatched and in disrepair, and his face
lacked any sign of either responsibility or character: He was
a good-natured blank slate waiting for someone to make an impression
"Hush!" ordered Beatrice in low tones, "I thought
I heard someone in here, but it's all clear."
Beatrice eased into the room, and Wolfie casually breezed by her.
In the dark he bumped heavily into the desk, swore cheerfully
and asked Bea for a candle.
"I haven't got one, Wolfie. I came straight from the kidnappers'
hideout to you. Where would I have got a candle?"
"Thought you might 'ave one, that's all. Tarts -- sorry,
lydies," he emphasized, "are always carrying useless
items about in those thingies, reticules you call'em."
"It may have escaped your notice, but I don't even have a
reticule. Isn't there a candle on that desk?"
Wolfie's notion of checking the desk was to sweep a fur clad arm
across its surface, shoving everything to the floor which did
not feel like a candle.
"Shh!" hissed Bea. "Stop that noise! I've found
a candlestick over here." After some fumbling she managed
to light it. A single glance around the book-lined walls and her
gaze came to rest on the open safe.
"Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no," she muttered. "This can't
be. Wolfie, see if there's any chance..."
Wolfie was already ahead of her in examining the safe's contents.
"Wot a cheap bunch of clap-trap," he said in disgust.
"I thought this Viscount was supposed to be a toff. 'E ain't
got no money or 'e wouldn't be clutching this lot of trinkets
and gimcrackery. My Shirl wouldn't 'ave this lot on a platter,
not by 'alf she wouldn't."
"What about the dispatches, Wolfie?" Bea was on tiptoes
trying to see into the safe.
"Nah," he told her, "there's a little book of some
sort, a -- what is this?" He had half unfurled the rolled
canvas. "Owmigawd, some kind of painting of a nekkid bloke.
Gawd! I didn't know Spencer was one of -- Never mind!" he
said hastily when he noticed Bea looking at him for an explanation.
"It's probably a nude," Bea told him. "They're
"I know wot a nude is," Wolfie retorted, as he rolled
the painting up again and thrust it back in place. "And that
is NOT a nude. It's a nekkid bloke. Wot else 'as 'e got in 'ere?
Some kind of pig-sticker. Nice toy," he commented, picking
up the dagger and testing its balance. "Nothing else 'ere
though. If those papers were 'ere, Bea, they're gone now."
He slid the dagger into his coat pocket. "Stands to reason,
safe was open w'en we came in: Some cull's took'em and offed."
"Put that back," Bea ordered. "We only came for
the dispatches. I don't know what to do next, Wolfie." She
watched closely as he reluctantly replaced the dagger, making
sure that no other items found their way into Wolfie's pockets.
"Could sit around waitin' for the sky to fall, but I'd not
do it if I was you. Go 'ome and tell your husband -- if 'e's sober.
Max 'as got ways and means. He'll know wots to be done."
Out of charity with Max as a result of his edict ordering her
retirement to the country, Bea was about to respond hotly when
heavy footsteps in the hall galvanized the pair into action. The
candle was snuffed and the couple vanished into the garden.
Bea drew closer to Wolfie's side as they edged along the path.
"I thought I heard something over there," she whispered.
"It's my 'eart thumpin'," Wolfie said candidly, completely
unabashed at his fear of the dark. "I can 'ear it meself."
"No, it sounds like wind shaking the trees but there's not
enough breeze for that."
She paused and cocked her head to listen, one hand tightly grasping
Wolfie's sleeve. "It almost sounds like a, I don't know.
Like a limb about to --."
A groaning and cracking sound came from overhead. Bea screamed
and leaped to one side, pressing herself tightly up against what
felt like a solid block of marble statuary. Wolfie was frozen
in place and paid a vicious price for his immobility as Henrietta
Bracegirdle and a dry limb from an ancient apple tree descended
on him with a vengeance. Henrietta had the breath knocked from
her, but Wolfie's pitiable cries started a chain reaction of movement
all around the garden.
Horatio ran toward Wolfie's voice, tripped over Henrietta and
went sprawling. Basil thought he sensed the solid presence of
his wife nearby and wrapped his arms around her, crushing her
"Thank heavens it's you, my dear," he whispered solicitously
in Archie's ear, kissing it lightly. "I think we'd best be
Archie was frozen in shock as his mind flashed back to the horrors
he'd endured aboard Justinian. Suddenly he exploded into action,
fighting like a Bedlamite to be free of Bracegirdle's embrace.
Robin felt the small figure of Bea ease by him, and believing
it to be Kitty, slipped his arms around her waist and drew her
close, performing the same intimacy with her ear as Bracegirdle
had done with Archie. "Well, Kitten?" he whispered.
"Time and past we departed, while there's chaos to distract
this crowd of lunatics. 'I will but look upon the hedge and follow
And then, like a clap of thunder, the entire garden suddenly blazed
with light. Standing at the once-again open French doors, bearing
torches and lanterns, were Lord Spencer, Captain Sir Edward Pellew,
the Duke of Ravenscar and one other man whom everyone save Wolfie
recognized as Mr. Henry Dundas, Secretary of War. Ravenscar's
face went purple with anger at seeing Bea in Robin's embrace,
and he drew his dress sword.
"Halliwell! You blackguard! Unhand my wife!"
Robin barely had time to realize the woman in his arms was not
Kitty, before Max slashed at him. He dodged nimbly and half-laughing
protested, "I swear, Your Grace, I had no notion 'twas your
lady." Max's sword pierced a handful of roses near Robin's
head, scattering petals across his shoulders.
"Close, b'gad! Have done, Ravenscar, have done!" His
melodious laugh rang out and he nimbly leaped a clump of faded
daffodils, as Max continued to press him. "It was an honest
mistake, man." Even dodging the point of a sword, Robin could
not forego his Shakespeare. " 'In a false quarrel there is
no true valour,' " he wagged a pedantic finger at the furious
Duke. Robin leaned back just as Max's weapon neatly sliced off
the fall of his lace cravat.
"That's torn it!" Robin declared, "I paid 8 guineas
for that bit of lace. That's just the sort of nastiness I'd expect
from a man who beats his wife."
Max's face went livid at this jibe. "You'd have done better
to use the money to repay your debts of honor, Halliwell. But
I remember now, you do not know the meaning of the word, do you?"
he declared, swinging the blade at his foe again. Robin's temper
finally flared, and dodging another deadly thrust by stepping
around the apple tree from which Henrietta had so recently plummeted,
he calmly drew his own smallsword and went on the immediate attack,
his small figure seeming almost to dance around the larger man,
the glittering blade whirling in and out. Not a half-minute had
passed before he had disarmed Max, sending his sword spinning
away, and deftly severing first the linen stock at Max's throat
then lightly plucking off each and every crested button on Max
coat, finishing with the point of his sword at the Duke's throat.
Poised to kill and with death in his eyes, he quoted, " 'I
have no words; my voice is in my sword.'"
Bea ran between them, facing Robin. "Please, Mr. Halliwell!"
she entreated, her face a mask of fear.
"Stand aside, Bea," ordered her husband.
"Be quiet, Max! What a lot of pother over nothing!"
she snapped, her eyes pleading with Robin to put up his weapon.
Robin took a deep breath and lowered his sword, his sense of humor
resiliently surfacing again.
" 'The fittest time to corrupt a man's wife is when she's
fallen out with her husband,' " he observed with an air of
disinterest. Max stirred angrily and Robin quickly added, "Coriolanus,
act 4, scene 3. I may have no honor in your eyes, Ravenscar,"
he continued, "but allow me some intelligence. Your jealousy
is famous: I'd not risk a dalliance with Her Grace unless I was
certain you were on another continent."
Unable to resist a last tweak of the Duke's tail, he raised one
eyebrow as if reconsidering his statement and ran an appreciative
glance over Bea's neat figure. He took her hand and bowed low
over it. "Or would I? 'There's language in her eye, her cheek,
her lip -- Nay, her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out at
every joint and motive of her body." His lips lingered against
Bea laughed at Robin but had to forcibly restrain Max. "It's
all nonsense, Max. Pay him no heed. I do not, I assure you."
Robin assumed a wounded expression.
"What I should like to know," Lord Spencer inquired
frigidly, "is what the devil all you people are doing in
my garden. Cacophony ensued as seven voices rang out as one. "Quiet!"
he cried. "Shall we all step into the library? I believe
we may then proceed in a more civilized fashion?"
Lord Spencer had unfortunately chosen to start the proceedings
by hearing the Bracegirdles' version of events. Thus his temper,
never on a long leash at the best of times, was already frayed
from attempting to make sense out of Henrietta's garbled account
while Basil remained silent for the most part, nursing the black
eye Archie had awarded him. When Hetty reached for her fifth apple
from the fruit bowl she had uncharacteristically overlooked in
her previous haste to exit the library, Spencer began to develop
a facial tic.
Next he listened to Archie and Horatio trip over each other's
tongues in relating their encounter with Madame Minerva. Seated
across from his officers, Pellew tucked one hand into the crook
of his other arm, and shaded his eyes with his other hand during
these revelations. By the time Bea and Wolfie see-sawed back and
forth between their version of events, with Max interjecting threats
to her kidnappers, Mr. Dundas had turned his back to the room
and stood gazing out the French doors into the blackness of the
garden, where a tree limb still littered the path. It would have
taken a keen observer to notice the slight shaking of his shoulders.
Pellew had buried his face in both hands and was muttering something
Once the tangled tales had been told, corrected, and re-told,
Mr. Dundas turned to face the room again. "So," he said
with an impassive countenance and only the merest hint of a twinkle
in his eye, "it is a case of 'all for one and one for all.'
You should be flattered," he nodded toward Edward, "to
be so admired and valued."
"If their confidence in our government was as deep as their
admiration for me," Edward observed dryly, "we should
not now be enduring this...this..."
"Comedy of Errors?" interjected Robin. Pellew gave a
single emphatic nod.
Mr. Dundas went on. "As for these deceptive dispatches, Mr.
Hornblower, you have them now? Shall we open them at last?"
Horatio was embarrassed. "I am afraid -- I dropped the packet
in the garden when I - I tripped over Mrs. Bracegirdle. I believe
she may have retrieved them."
All eyes turned on Henrietta. She stared right back at them defiantly.
"Well?" she demanded. "I could not simply stand
idly by and see Edward ruined, could I? While those two."
she gestured at Max and Robin, "were flaunting their idiocy,
I ate the papers."
A short silence ensued.
"I beg your pardon," Mr. Dundas looked confused. "It
sounded as though you said you ate the papers?"
"Yes," she confirmed. "I did." And punctuated
her statement with a gentle belch.
Dundas bit his lip and again turned his back to the room, his
shoulders jerking noticeably this time. Pellew's eyes had begun
to water, and he pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb
and forefinger. Max and Robin were unrestrained in their merriment,
while Bea stood behind Max and buried her face in his coat.
Viscount Spencer sharply brought them all back to sobriety.
"I'm pleased everyone finds so much humor in breaking into
my house and robbing me," he said acidly, "but the fact
is, THERE WERE NO DISPATCHES IN MY SAFE!"
All eyes turned toward Spencer. After a few moments Horatio spoke
"My lord, I am quite certain the papers I took from the safe
were the same dispatches Captain Pellew gave me in Gibraltar,"
Horatio asserted calmly. "After all these months, I know
every wrinkle in that paper like the back of my hand."
Edward cleared his throat. "I am afraid, Mr. Hornblower,
I must agree with Lord Spencer. His Grace," he gestured toward
Max, "informed me of the same conspiracy which brought all
of you here tonight. After some hard dr -- hard debate, we decided
to lay the entire matter before Mr. Dundas. Thereafter, the three
of us adjourned here earlier this afternoon and I witnessed Lord
Spencer remove the dispatches from his safe and hand them over
to Mr. Dundas, who opened and read them. He then destroyed those
dispatches. Perhaps, m'lord," Edward reasoned, "you
may have had other documents in your safe which might have been
mistaken -- ?"
"Certainly not!" The Viscount eyed Robin in distaste.
"I rather think we ought to be asking Halliwell what brings
him here. Everyone else seems to have a vested interest in protecting
your reputation, Sir Edward, but I cannot believe Halliwell came
here for any purpose not nefarious in nature. His financial circumstances
are common gossip, and his failure to meet a debt of honor speaks
volumes to his lack of character!"
Robin flushed angrily but held his temper. "I had merely
gone out to the garden for some air as I found the atmosphere
of the ballroom somewhat stuffy. I fail to see how I can be defamed
"And I suppose if I take an inventory," Spencer angrily
began pulling items >from the safe and tossing them haphazardly
on his desk, "I will find nothing missing? My Hapsburg Dagger!"
he exclaimed suddenly, with the air of a child fearful his latest
toy might have been claimed by a rival playmate. He dragged the
box from the safe and seemed bemused at finding the contents undisturbed.
"That is the box the dispatches were under," Horatio
pointed out. Robin surveyed Hornblower thoughtfully then leaned
over, peered into the box, and arched his eyebrows in inquisition.
" 'Is this a dagger, which I see before me?" he murmured,
"I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.'" He flashed
a guileless smile at Spencer. "Macbeth, act two, scene 1."
"Then some of the jewels will be missing." Spencer was
frothing like a broken bottle of champagne in his determination
to find Robin guilty of something.
Wolfie snorted again. "Oh, leave it out, guv! That bloke
'as got on a waistcoat worth more than them jewels."
Robin bowed in acknowledgment to Wolfie. "I thank you for
those observant words, sir."
Spencer persisted. "Then he MUST have been planting false
dispatches. He is a traitor!"
As if lightning had struck, the air was suddenly charged with
reaction to this accusation.
Robin paled in disbelief. The insult was not to be borne. "You
will meet me for those words, my lord." His voice was a deadly
"You have no honor to defend, sir!" Spencer contemptuously
dismissed the challenge. "Reason it out, gentlemen!"
he urged the other men. "We know there were no dispatches
in the safe. Lieutenant Bracegirdle, you and your wife found no
dispatches, did you? And did you not say, someone came into library
"That is correct," Basil began, "but --."
"And then Mr. Hornblower miraculously 'found' the dispatches,
but Her Grace and Mr. -- Mr. Smith there found nothing. Halliwell
must have entered the library after the Bracegirdles and before
Hornblower, and planted those dispatches."
"And tell me, m'lud," Robin yawned, his composure restored,
"how was I supposed to know the original dispatches had been
destroyed? Might I have consulted Mr. Hornblower's mind-reader?"
Spencer was stymied by this logic as Robin continued more forcefully.
"And have you any jewels missing? Has your precious dagger
been purloined? In fact, has anything at all been taken from your
safe? No? Then whereby do you charge me with any crime apart from
finding your party less than engaging?" he demanded angrily.
"I know you, Halliwell," hissed Spencer. "I know
your kind. You were up to some devilry here tonight! If Mrs. Bracegirdle
had not eaten those papers -- "
A gentle knock sounded at the door, and a stunningly beautiful
young woman entered, a voluptuously statuesque creature with glossy
chestnut curls and widely spaced green eyes that lent her a spurious
air of innocence.
"I beg your pardon, Amory," she said to Spencer. "I
do not like to interrupt when you are discussing business, but
the other guests have left and I wanted to make some notations
about the party in my diary. I believe I may have left it in here
earlier. Yes, there it is."
She strolled to the desk and picked up the small book. Horatio
and Archie exchanged meaningful glances, as did Max and Edward
to a less obvious extent. Spencer was oblivious.
"My wife, ladies and gentlemen," the Viscount introduced
his wife with the same kind of avaricious pride with which he
had displayed the dagger to Pellew, "Lady Julia Spencer."
He introduced each person to her, stopping abruptly at Robin.
"Oh, but I know Mr. Halliwell already," she smiled dulcetly
and offered Robin her free hand. Her voice took on a throaty quality.
"It meant SO much to see you here tonight, sir. I'm sure
I should not have enjoyed the evening half so much had you been
"In your company, Lady Julia," Robin declared passionately,
"a man cannot help but exert himself to please you. Out of
your company, he cannot help but exert himself to be IN your company."
Spencer nearly choked on a deadly combination of jealousy and
hate, as his wife's eyes devoured Robin as she allowed him to
linger over her hand.
Wolfie rolled his eyes and said sotto voce, "Ohmigawd, no
need to pour the butterboat over her."
Edward frowned at his half-brother who remained, as ever, impervious
to disapproval. Horatio and Archie watched the gentle flirtation
with eyes reminiscent of hungry children peering into a sweets
shop. Max made certain Bea was still by his side in case Halliwell
decided to turn his considerable charm in her direction again.
Mr. Dundas pursed his lips, gave a little "ahem," and
rocked back and forth on his heels during the exchange.
When at last Lady Julia said her goodnights, she left behind a
rather awkward silence. Mr. Dundas summed up the matter.
"I think, my lord, since nothing appears to be missing from
your safe, and since no one can account for the presence of some
papers which may or may not have been a second set of forged dispatches,
nor can any of us determine what intelligence such papers may
have imparted, we must not allow ourselves to be unduly prejudiced
by Mr. Halliwell's - er, misfortunes."
"I tell you he is - he is -," Spencer sputtered incoherently
with rage. "If not for his grandfather he'd never be allowed
across a civilized threshold! And yet even HE refuses to acknowledge
"Lord Spencer!" Edward's tone was as sharp and commanding
as he had ever used to upbraid any officer who had stepped out
of line. Horatio winced inwardly. He knew that tone well, from
his first meeting with Pellew. "Ladies are present, m'lord.
And regardless of anyone's personal opinion of Mr. Halliwell,
there is an extreme insufficiency of evidence to support any accusations
of theft or treason. And with all due respect, my lord, I must
urge erring on the side of caution before persisting in these
Robin noted that although Pellew spoke with great firmness in
daring to address the First Lord in such a manner, he also chose
his words very carefully. Of everyone in the room, Robin judged
Pellew to have both the sharpest eyes and wits. And he'd not been
shortchanged on pluck either, Robin thought admiringly, this captain
who stood only a little taller than himself.
" 'Oo's 'is grandfather?" Wolfie whispered to Bea. She
leaned over and breathed a name in his ear. Wolfie's eyes widened
perceptibly as his lips purse in a silent whistle. "Cor-blimey!"
he whispered, impressed in spite of himself. Bea nodded solemnly.
Spencer's eyes darted fire at Edward for his effrontery, and his
jaw worked as if he might be gnashing his teeth. When he could
no longer meet Edward's level gaze, he found himself staring at
the rolled painting laying amidst the other items he had taken
from the safe. One claw-like fist closed around the painting,
and his smile was more a grimace as he said dryly, "Caution?
Why, yes, Sir Edward. One must ALWAYS err on the side of caution,
mustn't one?" He slowly returned his possessions to the safe.
Mr. Dundas stepped forward. "Ladies and gentlemen, I think
we are done here," he announced.
Archie breathed a sigh of relief. "Well done, indeed."
Agreement rippled softly throughout the company.
The morning sun was just beginning to peep over the London housetops
when Robin eased through the garden gate, taking care not to let
it creak and catch the attention of any servant who might be stirring
about. His eyes were red-rimmed from lack of sleep, and he felt
tired right through to his bones when he thought of the tasks
which yet lay before him this day. Still he allowed himself a
few seconds to look back at Lord Spencer's house. What began as
a tight smile of revenge gradually eased and loosened into a genuine
grin of amusement. Walking away, the grin bubbled over into a
chuckle, and by the time he turned the corner into the street
hilarity had set in. It was a pity he couldn't stay to see Spencer's
reaction but Lady Julia might at least have that privilege.
When his laughter died away, he felt a creeping emptiness of spirit,
which threatened to overwhelm him. He stopped abruptly and sat
down on the curb, his face in his hands. He had yet to see Kitty
since she'd abandoned him in the garden, and he hardly knew how
to confess what he had done to her. She was everything to him,
had been for most of his life. How to face her with his unintentional
betrayal? But then if she spoke the wrong words to him, he might
very well lose control and - no. No, he wouldn't. He never could,
not to Kitty. No matter what the circumstances. But - oh, Lord!
He was sick to his soul with the entire mess.
Memories of his youth, from the first time he'd run away from
his father, danced across his mind. At seven years of age, he'd
brimmed with a self-confidence born of an almost complete ignorance
of cruelty. Almost complete. Meeting his natural father for the
first time at that age set in motion an education steeped in cruelty,
and not just physical brutality for no number of thrashings or
canings had ever cowed Robin's spirit, but such subtle mental
and spiritual cruelties were lavished upon him that even now thinking
on them too closely would end in days of black depression.
Every time he'd run away from his father's tender mercies, he'd
been found and dragged back to that great manor house. The luckiest
day of his life had been the first time he'd run off. By happenstance
he'd encountered Kitty on the streets, shortly before she'd managed
to attach herself to one of the theatre companies. Whether it
had been his generosity in sharing a stolen pie with the hungry
girl or whether it was her warm nature and empathy with his truancy,
their bond of friendship had been strong and immediate.
Ever after, whenever he fled the horrors of life under his father's
tyranny, like a homing pigeon he always managed to find his way
to Kitty through diligent searching and the great cooperation
of traveling acting troupes. His father, of course, eventually
came to realize two things: That Robin would never stop trying
to run away and that he could always be found again in the company
of thespians, failing to understand that it was Kitty's gentle
companionship to which his recalcitrant son was drawn rather than
to the theatre.
When at the age of twelve he'd once again been torn from Kitty's
side, his father had dragged him up to the attics and with more
force than was necessary when a man of his age and weight was
dealing with an undersized child, tossed him bodily into a narrow
low-ceilinged room empty of everything save a bed. White-faced
with rage at his defiant child, he'd locked Robin in and ordered
the servants not to speak to the boy under any circumstances.
Hours later, blind drunk on port wine, his father had returned
to Robin's little cell with an armload of books. One by one he
had hurled them with all his might at the small boy who stood
unflinching in the face of the barrage that bruised him both body
"Damn you!" his father had shouted. "You little
bastard! You want the theatre? You want plays? Have your fill
of these then!"
And for almost two years, Robin had been his father's prisoner.
His meals were brought to him. He was allotted one candle per
week. Clean clothing arrived only with the appearance of the candle.
Under close supervision he was allowed, or forced depending on
the weather, to walk outside one hour each day for exercise. He
was allowed no company and no one was permitted to speak to him
for any reason whatsoever. His questions and pleadings went unanswered.
He had no calendar, knew no holidays, had not one ally in his
Months had dragged slowly past with Robin never once seeing his
father, though he could always tell when the despot was in residence
by how fearful and nervous the servants became.
Some months into his imprisonment, he'd become terribly ill. When
it began to appear Robin might not recover without assistance
a physician had been summoned, and that was the sole occasion
during the entire period of his captivity on which anyone spoke
to him. He'd been almost afraid to reply to the doctor's gentle
questioning, and had wept ashamedly at the warm touch of another
human being, so long denied him.
The slender threads tying him to sanity had been the books his
father had thrown at him. They'd not been taken away from him
but his repeated requests for more books had gone unheeded. Thus
was his entire education during those miserably long months obtained
from William Shakespeare. The histories taught him politics while
the tragedies and comedies fed his soul. Benedick and Claudio
became his boon companions while Hamlet gave him intrigue and
unfolded the mysteries of the mind and spirit. Falstaff kept him
merry company on a winter's night. He learned of loyalty and deceit
from Macduff and Iago. He encountered devotion in Cymbeline, as
well as passion in Romeo and Juliet; envy in Cassio; sorcery in
Prospero; courage against odds in Henry V; treachery in Macbeth;
and guilt in Richard III. From Dogberry he acquired a taste for
nonsense; from Portia, wisdom; tactics from Petruchio; the sting
of jealousy from Othello; ambition from Antony; whimsy from Puck.
And parental failure and its consequences he recognized in King
By the time the grandfather he'd never before met unlocked his
cell for the final time in order that he might attend his father's
funeral, every line of Shakespeare's work had been indelibly inscribed
on Robin's mind.
Sent away to school afterwards, the dog-eared volumes of the bard's
work accompanied him. They had become as dear friends to him as
Kitty was, and he promised himself he would never part with them.
Never once called to his grandfather's home during school holidays,
and generally left entirely to his own devices, he remembered
and sought out the only real friend of his life, Kitty Cobham.
He knew that when he was an old, old man, if he should live to
see such a day, he would still clearly recall the unaffected delight
with which Kitty had greeted him after his long absence and how
her smiles and embraces had thawed the frozen reaches of his soul.
She became his talisman. In turn, he adored her, made himself
her protector and would readily have sacrificed his life for her.
But after today, he thought, rising dejectedly from the curb,
Kitty would no longer count him as a friend. This morning would
be the last time he would seek her out, the last time he would
gain solace in the sight of her, surcease in her touch. When all
was said and done, she might well despise the sight of him. He
swallowed with some difficulty. The very thought was more hurtful
than any abuse heaped on him by his long-dead father.
He made a conscious effort to shake off his melancholy. Time and
past for him to be away from this place. From London altogether,
in fact. He still had some business to address before seeing Kitty
though. Hailing an enterprisingly early hackney driver, Robin
ordered simply, "The docks," and climbed into the coach.
The door slammed back against the wall as Kitty rushed into her
bedroom. Tearing off her hat, she carelessly dropped it to the
floor, along with her reticule. With a worried frown, she kneeled
by the chest, completely pulling out the bottom drawer, ransacking
it in her search for a diary that was not there. Frantically she
emptied the contents onto the floor and searched again fruitlessly
before reaching for the next drawer up.
"I took the diary, Kitty."
Heart in her throat, she spun to find Robin seated in the wingback
chair tucked into the corner, watching her with a wealth of emotions
in his clear blue eyes. Exhaustion, fear, pain, and anger were
all there, and something she had not seen in his face since he
was a child: Resignation.
"Robin! What - You frighted the wits out of me!" One
hand clutched at her throat, the other was at her temple. "What
are you doing here?"
He rose lithely and came to her, pulling her abruptly into a crushing
"I've done something terrible, Kitty," he whispered
in her ear, his voice an agony. "Something you're going to
hate me for." He released her from his hold as suddenly as
he'd taken her, and turned away to resume his seat in the corner.
She stood frozen, her mind leaping ahead.
"I could never hate you, Robin," she assured him. "It
has something to do with the diary?"
He met her gaze directly, steepling his fingers as he regarded
her over the tips. He spoke slowly as though choosing his words
with great care. "I am going to tell you what I've done and
why; I'll tell you what I know you've done - though I cannot begin
to guess why - and then I am going to tell you what you are going
to have to do to live through this day." His expression and
tone had become detached, dispassionate.
Her eyes widened in shock, and a tiny frisson of fear slithered
along her spine. "Robin, what - what can you mean?"
"I stole the diary from you yesterday and returned it to
Lady Julia. No," he stopped her from interrupting, "don't
try to give me any explanations as to how it came into your hands.
Your -" he struggled with the words, "your traitorous
allies have already been placed under arrest. The Old Gentleman
has been very busy this morning, I fear. But that is not the whole
of it, Kitty. The Old Gentleman has suspected you for some little
while now, though yestermorn was the first I learned of it. When
I think how I swore you could never -- !" He cursed softly,
then regained a little of his detachment as he continued.
"He wanted me to set a trap for you. I - Kitty, I went along
willingly, thinking all the while how we'd prove him wrong, you
and I, and what a great laugh we'd have about it together. My
Kitty wouldn't betray her country. Not MY Kitten. God! I'd not
believe it even now had I not baited the trap myself." His
gaze fell away, unable to meet her shocked stare. "I'm sick
now with what I've been and done and learned. And I'm sick with
you as well."
Kitty could not seem to catch her breath; his words buried themselves
like knives in her heart.
"Robin, please don't go on. Let me -"
He shook his head. "Let me finish, poppet, else I'll never
get this out." He took a deep breath. "The dispatches
Pellew delivered to Lord Spencer were destroyed yesterday afternoon.
Only the Secretary of War saw them, and he burned them right after
reading them. He saved the cover though and gave it to the Old
Gent and bade him find the traitor. He was certain from the start
it was you, the Old Gentleman was. Foolish me. I argued with him
pretty hotly, too, but I readily agreed to his plan, so certain
I was of your innocence. So damnably certain. When I was returning
Lady Julia's diary I allowed you to think I had found the dispatches,
but it was only the cover of the original papers sealed around
some blank pages. After I gave them to you, you waited until I
turned my back and then you planted them back in the safe, tucking
them neatly under the box containing the dagger. That's where
Mr. Hornblower found them."
She almost fainted from shock. "Mr. Haitch? But he's in a
Robin shook his head. "Released, and arrived in London only
just in time to get caught up in this maze. Poor man. You duped
us all quite thoroughly. Ah, well," he sighed wearily, "at
least he is not like to be disillusioned by you. Not if I can
help it. But he recognized the dispatches, Kitty. They can only
have got there if you put them there. That's sufficient corroboration
for the Old Gentleman to come after you. But why, Kitty? What
can have induced you to betray England?" His voice shook
She ignored his question, her mind seeking an exit from the trap
Robin had so innocently laid for her, any way at all that she
might still save herself.
"But if the papers were opened and found to be blank, then
who's to know but you and me who put them there?" She came
and sat upon the arm of his chair, leaning close to him and stroking
his hair gently. "Robin, won't you support me in this one
little thing? Tell him you could not do it after all, that you
trusted me too much to plot against me. Then the Old Gentleman
may suspect anything he likes, but without any further evidence,
he can never charge me."
Robin stared aghast, not at all recognizing in this calculating
creature the woman he had adored for so long. He shook off her
hand, suddenly unable to abide her touch.
"And be your pawn still? The Old Gentleman will never be
fobbed off with such a Banbury tale! Stop it, Kitty!" he
cried as she started to argue with him. "You're asking me
to support you in a matter of treason! I love you beyond life
itself, but what can you be thinking?"
>From his pocket he drew and handed to her a simple calling
card, the edges scalloped in black, with one name hand scribed
in an elegant old-fashioned fist: Katherine Cobham.
She choked in fright, her face turning a ghostly white. Staring
in horror at the obscenely demure little card, she slid away to
a limp heap at his feet.
"Robin, please," she pleaded with him, her eyes filled
with stark horror, "you wouldn't - you wouldn't...?"
"Execute you?" His bitterness spilled over. "Damn
you for even thinking I could! Have we ever really known each
other, you and I? I'd not have thought you capable of treason
but clearly you think me capable of cold-blooded murder! Thank
you for that touching bit of faith in me. And damn you to hell
for thinking I could so easily show you that card and then carry
out its black command!"
"No, Robin, no! Don't! Don't hate me, please!" She threw
herself into his lap, wrapping her arms about his neck, her tears
melting him as words never could. He tightened his arms about
her, wishing he could thrust her from again, finding that all
his rage against her was not sufficient to outweigh the love that
urged him to forgiveness.
"Hush, Kitten, hush," he soothed her, fighting back
his own grief. "I could no more hate you than I could hate
the sun for rising in the morning. Hush, my own, please."
Her tears ebbed and she lay quietly in his arms. "What can
I do, Robin? If the Old Gentleman has sent out more of those cards
than just this one, I am indeed a dead woman."
"I know of at least one other card with your name on it.
He gave it to Collins, or so he said."
She shuddered and tightened her clutch on Robin. She knew firsthand
that Nick Collins was the most coldly efficient assassin at the
British government's beck and call. Memories of the only time
she had been assigned to work with Collins involved nightmares
she kept well and truly repressed. If he had an executioner's
card with her name on it, then he already had in motion a plan
to dispose of her.
"I have - I think I have a way out for you, Kitty. It won't
be very pleasant for you, I'm afraid. And I am not at all certain
Collins won't already be several steps ahead of us."
She turned hopeful eyes on Robin.
"I've booked a passage for you on a merchantman bound for
India. She sails with the tide. You'll go under an assumed name,
and God alone knows what awaits you when she docks again, but
I have another set of papers here for you and as much money as
I could scrape together. When you arrive, board another ship as
soon as you can, take one bound for America if you can find one,
and use the new papers. I can't keep you safe if you stay in England,
Kitty. And, no, I'll not help you get to France either or to any
of our enemies. Don't ask that of me, please."
"If I go, will we ever see each other again?" She wondered
how she had ever been so foolish as to disregard how painful might
be the consequences of her actions, and not only for herself.
"Like as not," he summoned up a tiny smile. "I
seem destined to find you no matter where you roam."
Realization dawned on her.
"Robin, if you help me to escape -- the Old Gentleman will
break you! He'll not rest until someone is made to pay."
"He'll have to catch me first. I'll be departing 'this earth,
this realm, this England' myself shortly."
"If you're leaving anyway then come with me!" she urged.
He shook his head wistfully. "No, Kitten. Best not."
Another realization struck her, this time with sad force.
"I have broken us, haven't I?" she whispered. "And
we can't be put back together again." Their eyes met, hers
looking to him for hope, his darkened with near despair. The hot
tears of her self-condemnation fell silently on his cravat. His
lips barely brushed her hair while his embrace bruised her.
And so they sat together in silent farewell until he murmured
it was time to leave.
Archie and Horatio warily eyed the visitor who had just climbed
aboard Indefatigable, then exchanged a glance with each other.
"Mr. Halliwell," Horatio tipped his hat briefly to Robin,
"Captain Pellew is expecting you. Would you step this way?"
"Is he now?" Surprise flashed across Robin's face, followed
by sudden comprehension. He made his decision swiftly. "And
I'd like very much to speak with him, but I wonder, Mr. Hornblower,
Mr. Kennedy," he bowed to each of them, "if I might
impose upon you gentlemen for a small favor."
Horatio and Archie exchanged another wary look, undecided after
last night's events what their opinion of Halliwell ought to be.
"I assure you," Robin was all charming smiles, "there
is nothing in it to cause you concern. In fact, I think -- I hope
-- you will consider this favor to be beneficial to us all."
He quickly and briefly outlined what he wanted of them.
Yet again, Horatio and Archie shared a look, this time of amusement.
"Are you certain, Mr. Halliwell?" Horatio allowed him
a chance to change his mind. "This will certainly benefit
us, but I am not so sure you will not come to regret this, and
rather quickly, too!"
"I am quite certain, Mr. Hornblower. Perhaps YOU will be
the one who regrets this action," Robin added quizzically.
Horatio surveyed him thoughtfully for a long moment. "Very
well, then, sir, if you are determned. Step this way, if you please."
Captain Pellew was seated at his desk, studying a letter delivered
to him only that morning, when Robin knocked and was admitted.
"Mr. Halliwell." Edward rose to greet him.
"Good afternoon, Captain." Whatever misery Robin still
bore from Kitty's defection and departure was buried beneath a
cheerful facade. "I am told you were expecting a visit from
me. Since I had not told anyone of my intention to come here,
I am a trifle surprised at your omniscience?" The last was
more question than statement, and Edward chose to answer it forthrightly.
"I have had a letter this day from your grandfather,"
he stated baldly.
"I hesitate to contradict you, sir, but my grandfather does
not have a grandson. Or if he has, he has not told me."
"Whatever the situation between you and his lordship,"
Pellew would not allow himself to be distracted, "he writes
quite plainly and in no uncertain terms that if you ask to enlist
I must refuse you."
Robin looked shocked. "Enlist? I wonder what can have persuaded
the Old Gentleman that I should approach you about enlistment?
No, I am here to see you on quite another matter altogether, one
which, I hope, you will be glad to have settled, Captain."
He smiled broadly as from the deep pockets of his frock coat he
drew forth a rolled canvas and handed it to Edward, whose eyebrows
rose in surprise. A faint blush crept up his neck as he partially
unrolled the canvas, and then quickly whipped it back into its
"I imagine," Edward said dryly, "you would be far
better acquainted with his reasoning than would I. And however
desperately I may need additional able-bodied crewmen, your grandfather,
if he chose to do so, could make difficulties the Admiralty would
not at all welcome at this time. I regret I cannot accept you
into service, Mr. Halliwell. Not even if you intend to use this
portrait against me."
Robin grinned as he quoted, " 'The door is open, sir, there
lies your way.' Taming of the Shrew, act three, scene two. No,
no, the painting is not meant as a device of extortion. It is
merely a gift of thanks for your words on my behalf last night.
But it is certainly just as well, isn't it, Captain, that I have
not asked you to accept me into your crew?"
The faint emphasis on "you" was immediately noted by
"What do you mean, Mr. Halliwell?" he asked grimly,
tossing the painting to the desk, his gaze seeking to pierce Robin's
"Why, Captain, I meant only that I have already asked Mr.
Hornblower if I might take the King's shilling. He was most obliging...
Sir." Robin gave an impertinent little half-salute.
Without even opening the cabin door, Pellew's roar was understood
quite clearly by the marine sentry outside.
"Pass the word for Mr. Hornblower. NOW, IF YOU PLEASE!"
Horatio and Archie were strolling the quarterdeck, watching as
Mr. Bracegirdle was rowed out from shore. On the dock, Mrs. Bracegirdle
was quite distinguishable from the other figures, having garbed
herself in a scarlet gown adorned with bright yellow flounces,
with matching parasol and a hat bearing no less than four ostrich
feathers died in shades of a fiery sunset, purchased expressly
for the occasion of her husband's leave-taking. Indefatigable
was ordered to sail on the morning tide.
"I simply cannot figure how the dispatches came to be in
Spencer's safe if Mr. Dundas destroyed them. I am positive those
were the same dispatches, Archie. I am not mistaken in this, I
know I am not. And I cannot fathom Halliwell's role in it all."
Horatio had been mulling the matter over for some little while.
"I think he was after that diary of Lady Julia's," opined
Archie. "You said yourself there were things in there Spencer
shouldn't have been confiding to her. If Halliwell was after anything
in that safe, that would make the most sense to me."
Horatio repeated," IF he was after anything in the safe."
His excitement rose. "Suppose, Archie, that Halliwell wasn't
trying to take anything from the safe? Suppose he was putting
something IN the safe?"
"The dispatches? But that makes no sense because he can't
have known the originals had been burned," Archie objected.
"No, not the dispatches." Horatio paused for dramatic
effect. "What if he were putting the diary into the safe?"
"Why?" Archie challenged, openly skeptical.
Horatio shook his head. "I don't know. Perhaps as a favor
to Lady Julia? If she had somehow lost it, or it had been stolen
from her? Someone might have been blackmailing her."
"And Halliwell was doing the discreet thing by retrieving
the diary for her, and replacing it without his lordship ever
knowing it had gone missing? He would have to be pretty close
to Lady Julia for her to confide in him on such a delicate matter."
They pondered that for a bit, then Archie breathed in awe. "Cuckolding
Spencer, do you think? Halliwell must like living dangerously!
No wonder Spencer wants his guts for garters!"
Horatio nodded but his mind was already at work on different matters.
"I wish we might have had time to pay one more visit to Madame
Minerva. I've been trying to remember what she said about my taking
command of the Sutherland."
Archie's jaw dropped in disbelief, and then he struck a pose.
"For the love of - Horatio, you don't believe in such nonsense,
Horatio was flustered at having his own words thrust back at him,
then had to smile at himself.
"You are a poor influence on my good judgment, Mr. Kennedy,"
he averred. Staring across at the docks, he murmured, "Still...the
"Mr. Hornblower, sir!"
Horatio turned to find Styles approaching.
"Beggin' your pardon, Mr. Hornblower, Cap'n wants you in
his quarters immediately. And meaning no disrespect, sir, but
I'd say he's out for blood."
Horatio was quite taken aback, not knowing what he might have
done to incur Pellew's wrath when he suddenly remembered Halliwell's
words: "Perhaps YOU will be the one who regrets this action."
Hetty Bracegirdle continued waving to her husband long after he
had disappeared onto the Indefatigable. Her spirits were sadly
dampened by his departure, as indeed they always were but more
so on this particular occasion. The excitement of the previous
night's events had brought to mind those early days before she
married Basil, the little plots and schemes she had laid and the
high times she had enjoyed. She adored Basil, of course, but rather
missed the exhilaration of those days when as an unmarried woman
she had mistakenly set her cap at Edward. Being left alone while
Basil was absent for months at a time left her with far too much
time on her hands.
Groping in her reticule for a sweetmeat and finding none to console
her, she sighed heavily. Ennui was definitely setting in, she
decided, not at all certain how she would occupy herself this
time while Basil was at sea.
"I beg your pardon. Mrs. Bracegirdle, is it not?"
Hetty found herself the object of attention from a rather attractive
young man, with dark wavy hair and dark eyes, somewhat shorter
than average height. He had the look of a poet, very romantical
and perhaps even a bit fragile. He was carrying a large parcel,
tied with gaily-colored ribbons.
"Do I know you, sir?" Hetty was not at all used to being
accosted by strange men, particularly not attractive ones.
"Please forgive my boldness in addressing you. My name is
Collins, Nicholas Collins. We have a mutual acquaintance, a Mr.
Hetty beamed. To be the subject of conversation between two young
and handsome gentlemen could only be, in her opinion, a good thing.
Collins went on. "Robin is sailing with your husband, I believe,
but he asked me to convey his regards and express his pleasure
at meeting you yester eve. He also asked me to give you this,"
and he presented the parcel to her with a flourish, "and
render his gratitude for a favor you did for him. Something to
do with some papers, I believe."
Delight rippled across her broad face. "Oh, my! Chocolates!
And my very favorites, too. How can he have known?" she gushed.
"Well, that's Robin all over. Very intuitive chap. I shall
miss him a great deal."
"Oh, dear, Mr. Collins, you sound quite melancholy. I confess
I am feeling somewhat flat myself and we cannot have that! Perhaps
you will do me the honor of taking tea with me tomorrow? And you
may tell me what favor Mr. Halliwell thinks I have done him, for
I can think of none."
"I shall be charmed, Mrs. Bracegirdle. And may I say how
delightfully that bonnet becomes you. You should always wear bright
colors. Are you leaving? Might I see you as far as your carriage?
These docks are no place for a delicate creature like yourself."
A simpering Hetty allowed herself to be led away by Mr. Collins,
assassin extraordinaire, who spared a single amused glance over
his shoulder as the merchantman bearing Mrs. Anna Forester, formerly
Miss Katherine Cobham, slowly sailed from sight, before bending
his not inconsiderable charisma upon his companion again. Behind
them the breeze fluttered and spun a small black-edged calling
card into the water.
Supper in the Ravenscar household had been somewhat somber that
evening, as His Grace reflected on Mr. Halliwell's jibe about
wife-beating. Bea had quietly watched her husband throughout the
meal, and afterwards when he had made himself comfortable on the
sofa in the yellow drawing room, she curled up next to him with
her head on his shoulder, one hand idly toying with his watch
fob. A humble Max was a curious phenomenon, she had decided. What
she had not decided was whether she preferred him that way or
Max put an arm 'round her, and played with a stray curl just behind
"Beatrice," he began, "I fear I have not always
cherished you as I ought."
"No," she agreed, "you have not."
"I'll do better in future." He was decisive and considered
the matter settled. Bea was not so certain.
"Will you flirt with me and pay me fulsome compliments, as
Mr. Halliwell does?" she teased.
"Endlessly!" he vowed.
"Will you lavish me with extravagant gifts?"
He saw no impediment to this.
"Will you escort me to balls and routs and musicales and
to the opera? And NOT disappear into the card room or the wine
"If I must," he sighed resignedly.
"And will you apologize very nicely to Jarvis and ask him
to come back again?"
"Dammit! I - Yes. Yes, I will!"
When no further demands were forthcoming from Bea, they settled
into a long, comfortable silence finally broken by her observation,
"It's nice to be quiet like this, not always screaming and
shouting and throwing things at one another."
"Nice," he nodded in agreement. "Very nice."
They were silent for a while longer, then Bea noted, "A little
"A trifle," Max acknowledged.
"Dashed dull!" she amended.
Max stood and scooped her into his arms, heading for the stairs.
"Tell me that in the morning, my darling!"
Some while later, Bea was once again curled up next to Max, his
arms loosely clasped about her as she stared sleepily at the canopy
over Max's bed.
"Bea," he said, "tell the truth. How did Halliwell
come to have you in his arms last night?"
She was too pleasantly sated to tease Max about his jealousy,
and told him, "I really think it was a simple mistake on
his part. He thought I was someone else, I'm sure. He called me
Max snorted. "He couldn't have known who he was holding then
or he would have said 'she-cat.'"
Bea smiled against his chest. "Lady Julia said he was escorting
the Duchess of Wharfedale last night, so perhaps he mistook me
for her. She wasn't anywhere in the garden though."
Max thought this over for a few seconds, then sat up abruptly,
pulling the coverlet from Bea who modestly yanked it back in place.
"That's it!" he declared, "It must be. I was blind
not to see it before..."
"What? What?" Bea was confused.
Max started laughing. "Nothing, pet, nothing at all. Only
I hope your heart was not set on having another Duchess for a
"Why ever not?"
"Because, my own, I doubt if London will be seeing much of
that particular Duchess again."
"Why not? Where would she go?" Bea was too sleepy now
to try to follow the twists and turns of Max's thinking.
He started laughing again. "I have no idea. Maybe the Orkneys."
The footman carried a candelabrum ahead of Lord Spencer into the
library, placing it on a small side table before retreating. Spencer
sauntered into the room and stopped dead, utterly appalled at
the sight before him.
Buried halfway to the hilt in the oak desktop was the Hapsburg
Dagger. It pinned a note in place, which he tore free and held
up to the light to read:
"What you have charged me with, that have I done,
And more, much more, the time will bring it out.
'Tis past and so am I."
King Lear. Act 5. Scene 3.
Spencer peered wildly around the room, as if expecting to find
someone standing just behind his shoulder. Breathing a sigh of
relief, he turned his attention to the dagger again, gently working
it loose from the wood.
Across the desktop the contents of his safe had been neatly lined
up as if being inventoried. Nothing was missing, he noted, no,
nothing except - the painting! He whirled around to the open safe.
Not there. It was gone. His entire plan to repay Pellew for the
insufferable way he'd spoken last night - vanished. Stolen by
that - that BASTARD!
Furiously, Spencer's arm raised and he plunged the dagger into
the desk again.
Where it neatly broke in two.
EPILOGUE: Kitty and Robin
If I failed as an author to leave you wondering what eventually
happened to Kitty and Robin, skip this epilogue, please. It can
hold no interest for you.
As for myself, I was plagued with curiosity about their lives.
Sadly, as they told their stories to me, I learned they never
met again. Like the kitten Robin always called her, Kitty landed
on her feet. Kitty - I beg your pardon, that's Mrs. Anna Forester
- met an elderly nabob aboard the merchantman, whom she charmed
so thoroughly that he made her his bride not long after crossing
the equator. She lived quite a life of luxury for several years,
until the death of her husband. After that time, she journeyed
to America where she married yet again, this time to a rising
politician. She became famous as a patron of the arts, particularly
the theatre. Most notably, she founded the American Shakespeare
Theatre and dedicated it to the memory of a childhood friend who
she said had been an ardent devotee of the Bard.
Robin stayed aboard the Indefatigable only until she dropped anchor
at Ushant, at which time, and due to his grandfather's enormous
power, he was returned to England aboard the Speedy. By the time
he once again set foot in Britain, his grandfather had died of
a stroke. Never formally recognizing Robin as his grandson and
heir during his lifetime, the Old Gentleman made restitution in
his will. Thus Robert Halliwell became the ninth Earl of St. James
and the possessor of a fortune so vast that even the famous Devonshire
riches paled in comparison. Briefly he resumed his affair with
Lady Julia Spencer, fought a duel with her husband (easily pinking
him in the arm and quoting three or four lines from act four,
scene two, of As You Like It), before finally encountering the
young woman who was to become his Countess and the mother of his
Oh, and as for Nick Collins and Hetty Bracegirdle, they have been
telling me stories as well. But those are for another time and