All for One
by Fubsycations

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 me everything."

She gulped her sherry, then began, "There are some dispatches, Basil..."

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 involved.

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 House."

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 time."

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 well-chiseled nostrils.

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 drawer again.

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 secrets.

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 could share.

"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 of himself.

"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 detached amusement.

"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 too late."

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 game.

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 and crumbling.

"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 we 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 non-believers."

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 shop.

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 me."

"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 been kidnapped?"

"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 threshold.

"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 the pronouns.

"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 brightened.

"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 Edward.

"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 mind."

"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, Max?"

"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 dawn."

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 to come.

"In that case," Max downed another brandy, "don't get caught."

"What was the other piece of information?" asked Edward abruptly

"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 you?"

"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, Your Grace!"

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 fist.

"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 to die!"

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 aid her...

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, exclaiming softly.

"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 the wall.

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 choice.

"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 wall.

"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 safe.

"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 a diary."

He riffled the pages but nothing resembling Admiralty dispatches was dislodged.

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 us."

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, Lord!"

"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 on him.

"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 not uncommon."

"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 to him.

"Thank heavens it's you, my dear," he whispered solicitously in Archie's ear, kissing it lightly. "I think we'd best be gone now."

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 you.'"

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 her fingers.

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 about despair.

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 up.

"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 for that."

"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 whisper.

"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 after you?"

"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 absent."

"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 the bas-"

"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 charges."

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 and spirit.

"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 father's household.

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 Lear.

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 embrace.

"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 Spanish prison!"

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 a little.

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 rolled shape.

"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 Pellew.

"What do you mean, Mr. Halliwell?" he asked grimly, tossing the painting to the desk, his gaze seeking to pierce Robin's bland expression.

"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, surely!"

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 Sutherland..."

"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. Robert Halliwell."

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 not.

Max put an arm 'round her, and played with a stray curl just behind her ear.

"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?"


"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 cellar?"

"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 dull, perhaps."

"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 Kitten."

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 bosom-bow."

"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 four children.

Oh, and as for Nick Collins and Hetty Bracegirdle, they have been telling me stories as well. But those are for another time and page.


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