Death and Decorum

First Pages

PREFACE

The Highwaymen

At dusk they grow bold, leaving flagons of warm beer and cooking fires, trotting toward nearby roads on cracked leather soles or spavined geldings. They favor moonlight, lanterns being tricky things and more likely to deceive than illume. Whether afoot or mounted, they conceal themselves in copses or ditches, behind stone fences or within dark shadows. Then they wait, muttering prayers or curses, enduring cold or heat, slinking away when the rains come on to turn roads to swamp and discourage all but the most intrepid of travelers.

Otherwise, highwaymen wait, eyes and ears alert to the approach of small unarmed parties or individual riders. The better among them know to wait. The younger, the less experienced, the desperate throw themselves on first comers, hoping for the best. Success, however, seldom rewards their efforts—a fact amply demonstrated by the number of bodies swinging from gibbets meant to deter.

The failures stare down through empty sockets on passers-by who once promised a livelihood. Jackdaws. Rooks. Ravens. Vultures sit companionably upon them tearing strips of flesh from bone, feeling no necessity to squabble except over a few choice bits—an eye, a liver, a warm heart. Experience tells them not to fear hunger. Tomorrow will bring another hanging, another meal.

Tomorrow will bring another night to provide cover for the survivors and the successful. Patience and careful selection offer rewards for the few.

One second. Or two. Or three. Such is the measure between death for some or the jingle of coins in pockets for others.

These are the possibilities before capture and hanging.

1

Hunters

White, tan, and black heads bayed and barked. Legs flashed into and out of sight. The riders came behind sweeping down the long hill in full cry. “Halloo. Halloo. For George and England!” A stone wall barred the way, but none paused, the hounds flowing over, momentarily appearing to blanket the obstacle—a carelessly thrown coverlet quickly removed. For the horses were upon them, the first sailing high with rider’s arms flung upwards, legs akimbo, seat a foot above the saddle as the horse began his downward trajectory.

The next animal pecked and went down, tumbling to the far side, his rider thrown clear.

“For George and England,” one named Gresham shouted, spurring his horse to leap both wall and fallen animal. “Hougoumont! Hougoumont!” This hill was as alike the Hougoumont escarpment as a peaceful English countryside can resemble a Belgian battlefield. Waterloo. A day like this. A long downhill gallop on soggy grass into fire it had been, to a wall sheltering a line of canons. Men and horses going down. A din of noise, of screams and crashes and a leap over all, then a turn with saber swinging. The smell of cordite mingled with blood and sweat, with the stench of guts, with the taste of fear and glory.

“Hougoumont! For George and England!” Akton took up the cry, his horse passing Gresham’s in the air, landing in a full gallop. Both riders spurring then, riding crops cutting the air, charging toward the lane below.

Another obstacle barred the way, an overgrown hedge, the lane on the other side, and a bank beyond.

“Up the lane,” Akton shouted. They had passed the hounds, but he had caught sight of the fox. “Up the lane.”

Before the last word left his lips, the two men were again airborne, Gresham only feet behind Akton which was their accustomed order with Gresham but a captain to Akton’s rank as major; moreover with Gresham but a ‘right honorable’ and Akton a lord of the realm with as noble a lineage as the horse he rode.

That animal landed fetlock deep in muck, and Akton stopped him there rather than risk a bowed tendon or worse.

Both men wore broad smiles above hard breathing chests. On the hill above the huntsman called his dogs with his wailing horn, turning them to the east. He, too, had seen the fox and wisely took the hunt on an angle to their prey’s trajectory, avoiding the muddy lane.

“By God, much to be preferred without the guns—” Akton began.

“Hello! Hello!”

The hail came from their left … to the west. A man in a broad hat sat some distance along, perched high above the lane on the seat of a gig drawn by a single horse.

“Hello,” the man waved. “Hello. Is that not you, Gresham? I have need of your services, man. Approach.”

“I make him out as Sir Gerald’s tame weasel.” Akton had lost his high spirits.

“Ride on,” Gresham said. “I will catch you up later.”

“Nonsense. Let us see what he is about. A dock rat away from his docks is a phenomenon worth exploring.”

Turning words to action, the marquess set his horse to slopping through the muck. Some fifty feet along, drainage for the lane improved, and their horses stepped out on a mildly rutted surface. The Right Honorable Frederick Mathis, fifth son of the Viscount Biglander and personal assistant to Sir Gerald Storry, Director of the East India Company, waited with visible impatience, his mouth alternately pursing and flattening, acne-pocked cheeks flexing and bending, red splotches and black dots alive with movement on each contraction.

“Not your most beautiful specimen,” Akton said loud enough for Mathis to hear.

“I need not your shallow praise, Akton,” Mathis snapped.

“Lord Akton to you.” The marquess had reined in alongside the gig’s front right wheel. “And what is it you carry here? Rags?” He used his riding stick to poke at a bundle of clothing behind the driver’s seat.

“Gresham,” Mathis said. “Quickly now. Ride along this lane to the point where it runs into the London high road. As you will observe, my way is barred by the slough ahead.”

“And is there some purpose to this diversion? You must well note that we hunt.”

“A lady in distress.” Mathis turned his head to Akton, whose stick was still poking about. “Such should appeal to you, Akton. And leave off your damned prying. What I transport is not of your concern.”

“We are in a temper,” Akton said, his own good humor quite restored.

“A lady?” Gresham prompted.

“I observed her from a distance back where the lane mounts a promontory and provides a lengthy view. Her mount shied at some object and threw her to the ground. Thereafter she did not move having struck her head or some such. My intention was to to go to her assistance but that would be ill-served were I to pass the afternoon attempting to extract this vehicle from mire.”

“A lady alone?” Gresham.

“Scarcely a lady if alone,” Akton.

“But in distress.” Gresham.

“Quite,” Akton. “Perhaps a short detour. The hunt does incline that direction, and I find myself somewhat curious.”

“Then,” Mathis said, “if you gentlemen would remove yourselves and your horses, I will turn this animal and be about my own affairs.”

Reminded, Akton said, “And what might those be? Finding you at such a remove from London as this boggles thought. It seems rather akin to catching sight of a weasel taking the waters at Bath.”

“Remind me to try that one day, my lord.” Mathis hauled his horse around, forcing Akton to ride forward or risk having his horse injured by the gig.

“Hut-up,” Mathis flicked his long whip, barely missing the marquess, and trotted back the way he had come.

“Weasel,” Gresham laughed. “I have often heard him called such, but a weasel taking the waters? As you say, the mind boggles. And what were you rummaging among in the back of that gig.”

“Nothing. Shall we see about the … ah, lady?”

2

Assault

She would remember yellow as the color of the blow with road, men, horses, and trees blurring as she staggered, straightened, began to turn, long skirts brushing through a patch of late-blooming daisies. Then came the smash against her head and she went down, momentum sending her forward, body parts tangled in fabrics—--gabardine, dimity, lace. Until, groping, she lifted her head to see a forest of horse legs, feathered and mud-caked fetlocks going around and around to a storm of sound, a discordant organ in an echoing vault. Men shouting. Hamilton … Hamilton … She was on a carousel, painted creatures passing in swooping circles, a face with gristle and bone where the nose should be above her, peering close.

Nauseous, bile rising, her eyelids sagged; vision compressed to a bubble … vanished.

A splatter of raindrops.

She moaned and turned her head a degree to ease the hurt.

No relief.

She blinked, saw mud, saw a soupy, rutted track liberally painted with weeds and splashed with scarlet and rust. Bushes there were, some pocked with flowers and flecked in red. Beyond her feet, beyond a puddle of yellow flowers rose a high stony bank. And then? The tops of low hills poked above broken rock, piled one on another, wavering, shades of green blending and merging, the milky hue of an overcast sky blurred and uncertain rising from the horizon.

The road was empty. No men with missing noses or fish-belly skin and rotten teeth. No cavernous, gaping mouths. The blurring, shimmering hills staggered—a theater set managed by drunken stage hands.

A huge nostril nudged her, blew green-scented breath on her cheek. Riddle. From somewhere to her right came the baying of hounds, the insistence of a horn. Gone away. Gone away.

Riddle’s nose brushed her cheek again. Behind the big chestnut horse head with its large, staring eye, a man shimmered, his hair like sunlight, his boots planted in a sea of blood.

“Papa?”

Leather leggings, anthracite shiny, appeared where buckled shoes had been. “No.” A deep voice. “My name is Gresham.” A bare hand eased Riddle’s head aside, and a body folded down to squat alongside her.

“Blood,” she said.

Thighs covered in canary britches rose above the leggings to a waistcoat, to a well-tied cravat and smooth-shaven chin.

“Is there an inch of her not covered in mud?” Another male voice. “Not a prayer of putting her up behind either of us or remounting her on that brute. But given she yet lives, best move her out of the road.”

“Miss Hamilton!” A woman pushed into her vision, displacing the man. “Oh, my dear. But what has happened? Can you rise? Have you injured yourself? Oh, I feared this mare would be the death of you.”

Cass squinted up through dirt-encrusted eyes, hearing the woman, recognizing her as Miss Austen. The author was talking now to the mare, saying, “You may leave her, Riddle. Come with me.”

Gresham had unwrapped his cravat. Miss Austen returned and took it, knelt, and began wiping Cass’s face clean. “Is anything broken? Do all your parts move?”

“Only my head,” she muttered, tasting the road in her mouth, stirring. She raised herself on one arm, now seeing Gresham standing back behind Miss Austen. The man on the horse remained on his horse, cutting out half her sky.

Cass managed a sitting position, her dress soaked and caked with mud, Miss Austen’s silver-gray skirts in like condition.

Cass opened and closed her mouth several times and put a hand to the back of her head, “Miss Austen. I believe I saw murder … blood. So much blood and the world turned yellow.”

“Sit there a moment longer, dear Miss Hamilton. Do not try to stand, for you have suffered a bad fall, one witnessed from afar by a passer-by who sent Mr. Gresham and Lord Akton to provide assistance if needed. And, can you believe? The two passed by where you left me chatting with the Smith-Bartons. And, there I had lingered.”

“Your horse?”

“Mr. Gresham being an old friend … . But that is another tale for another day. As it was, when I learned of their mission, I feared you might be the lady in question and came on with them.

Miss Austen wore a bonnet sporting a cluster of violets. It was fringed with smoky curls and framed large, hazelnut eyes and paper-thin skin. In shape the face was a pleasant oval descending to a slightly pointed chin, the lower lip inclined to mimic the line of jaw and chin while supporting cupid’s bow lips.

“Her eyes appear shocked—” Gresham’s voice.

“Check her head then!” The words, brooking no argument, descended as though from heaven. “You there, Miss … . You, the author. Miss Austen. Did you say her name is Hamilton? I believe I recall the mention of a Hamilton … an American … coming into the county. Some tales—”

“Miss Austen has excellent connections, my lord, being the granddaughter of Sir Reginald Masters and—”

Akton grunted. Hamilton, yes, “What I recall were in official correspondence and concerned a Miss Hamilton … perhaps this one’s aunt or other relation.”

Yes. Clerks in the Foreign Office had passed around a dispatch from Lord Hohenlohe, the Austrian legate in Washington City, concerning a Bostonian lady who had found the means to finance the purchase, outfitting, and crewing of a few schooners. By itself this had not attracted much attention. The sniggers and fascination at the FO derived from Hohenlohe’s story about how she had sailed her little flock, loaded with munitions, up the Potomac and through the massed British fleet—the last to do so before the burning of Washington. “Right under Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane’s nose,” they laughed, never sad to see the Navy taken down a notch. “A mouse playing with a cat, and her a woman.”

Miss Austen was speaking, saying “… could tend to Miss Hamilton but you, Mr. Gresham, or you, my lord, by virtue of your long familiarity and experience with wounds in the war should … . You will note blood mixed in with the filth there … at the back of her head.”

“Yes. Yes.” Akton said, “Check her head, Gresham, and be quick.”

“I will do what can be done,” Gresham said.

“I am able to stand.” The world had assumed definition and seemed likely to remain stable if a bit dislocated.

“Hold onto me,” Gresham.

“Take Mr. Gresham’s arm,” Austen.

“Ow.” She managed to stand on her own and walked to a grassy verge alongside the dense, bright yellow florets of the daisy patch and her now grazing mount. There she eased back to the ground, one hand among the spoon-shaped lower leaves. Yellow.

“Steady, now,” Gresham had moved with her, a hand ready should she fall.

“I will do this.” Miss Austen removed the pins that secured Cass’s cap and held it out to Gresham. He examined it, then handed it to Akton.

“It seems she has a serious head injury under all that hair,” Akton passed the badly soiled cap back and pointed at blood encrusting a pattern of crossed braids wrapped into a long twist down the back of Cass’s head.

Gresham was already probing her braids. “Strange. Blood but no wound.”

Cass winced away from his fingers. “You are causing pain, Sir.”

He removed his hand. “She certainly suffered a blow but without breaking the skin.” He walked into the road, peering at the ground where they had found her, careful not to twist an ankle on the ruts, boots slurping in the sludge. “A pool of blood here … notice how it tinges the muck. In fact I would say we have a trail of blood, as if something had been dragged along.”

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