Settings

Page 24


And a baiting it was.


The noise rose, hungry, at sight of the prisoners, and a hail of rocks and debris arched out of the crowd—most of it falling back onto said crowd, distance preventing the missiles from reaching their targets. Cries of pain or protest were swallowed by the immense thrum, menacing as the sound of a hornet’s nest.


He felt it in his bones, and along with it, an echo of the terror that must afflict those who were its focus.


The minister who walked behind the condemned cart was heavily splashed with mud himself, though his grim face was still visible through the smears. A final bombardment of rocks drove him back, clutching his Bible to his chest as though it might be a literal as well as spiritual shield.


“Crush the mon-sters! Crush the mon-sters!” The chant was coming from a group of gaily clad prostitutes, who had linked arms against the surge of the crowd and were throwing their bodies to and fro in unison, in rhythm to their chant. A rival group was brandishing ill-spelt placards denouncing Efemnit CUNTS! He recognized Madame Mags, resplendent in black taffeta and gold brocade, and a number of her girls. Luckily, they were all much too busy enjoying themselves to notice him.


Other chants, of much more offensive content, poked rudely through the noise of the mob. Most of the rocks, he saw, were being flung by women—not prostitutes: housewives, barmaids, servant girls, with faces made ugly by hate under their respectable caps.


The prisoners were being helped down from the cart, a few of the sheriff’s men pushing back the crowd with sticks and halberds. The men scuttled for the steps, as though the gallows was a place of sanctuary. Doubtless it was.


Now he could make out Bates, a stocky figure in the center, shoulders back, head up. The colors of the Horse Guards uniform were just visible beneath the coating of filth.


The slender youth on the right also wore uniform; that must be Otway, and the small, hunched man in ordinary clothes no doubt Jeffords. A rock struck Bates in the chest and he staggered back a step, but then caught himself and stepped firmly forward, teeth bared at the crowd in what might have been a grin or a snarl. The response was a fresh shower of dung and shouted vitriol. Some criminals came to their end at Tyburn in glory, accompanied by fiddlers and flowers; not sodomites.


Grey shoved between two ’prentices who tried to squeeze in front of him, and elbowed one of them in the side hard enough that the youth squealed and pulled away, cursing. He could see Bates’s gaze roaming over the crowd, and against his better judgment, waved his arms, shouting, “Bates!”


By a miracle, the man heard him. He saw the sharp eyes fix on him, and something like a smile beneath the mud and scratches.


He felt a stealthy hand at his pocket and grabbed at it, but it was a small hand, and the would-be pickpocket—a child of seven or eight—wriggled free of his grasp and dived into the crowd. He was barely in time to keep the child’s accomplice from making away with his dagger while he was thus distracted, and by the time he was able to place his attention on the gallows once again, the executioner was moving the men into place beneath the dangling nooses.


Otway screamed, a high, thin sound barely audible over the crowd. Nonetheless, the crowd caught it and took it up, wailing melodramatically and catcalling, as Otway struggled and kicked in terror, wild-eyed as a spooked pony.


Grey found his fists clenched hard on the hilts of sword and dagger. For God’s sake! he thought, in agonized impatience, can you not die like a man, at least?


Thin white bags were placed over the prisoners’ heads, the nooses adjusted; the minister walked slowly behind the men, reading aloud from his Bible, his words inaudible. Everything seemed to move with the horrid slowness of nightmare, and Grey suffered from the sudden illusion of having forgotten how to breathe.


Then the traps were sprung and the bodies fell, ending with a hideous jerk. Cheers and screams rose from the crowd. Otway hung limp, his neck broken clean. The other two were dancing, knees churning the air for purchase.


Grey looked wildly for the neck-breakers, the men who would—for a price—seize the legs of a half-hanged man and pull to hasten his death. He had paid for someone to perform this office for Bates, should it be necessary. But no one ran forward, and he saw the Newgate guards watching contemptuously, spitting, as Bates twirled and jerked upon his rope.


He didn’t think. He battered his way through the people before him. The guards, surprised, saw his uniform and let him pass.


One of Bates’s flailing feet struck him in the ear, the other in the chest. He jumped, clasped the frenzied, muscular thighs with his arms, and clung like death, his weight pulling him down toward the earth. The parting of Bates’s neckbones vibrated through him like the twang of a stretched rope, and he tumbled into the mud below the gallows.


Chapter 15


A Delicate Errand


At his mother’s door, he bade farewell and thanks to Captains MacNeill and MacLachlan, two officers of the Scotch Greys who had rescued him from the mob at Tyburn.


“No but what I’m sure ’twas kindly meant,” MacNeill said to him, for perhaps the fourth time. “But to risk your life to send a pederast to hell a moment faster, man? Havers!”


MacLachlan, a dour man of few words, shook his head in agreement.


“Still, I should like to get a good grup o’ yin or twa o’ the rascals,” MacNeill went on with gloomy relish. “I’d teach them to ken what they’re aboot!”


Grey was not sure which rascals MacNeill meant—whether pederasts, or the yahoos in the crowd who had tried to drown him in a puddle. It didn’t seem worth inquiring. He tried to press a bit of money upon them to drink his health, but was starchily informed that both were Presbyterians and abstainers, whereupon he thanked them once again and limped inside.


His cousin Olivia, massively pregnant, was edging down the stairs. She stopped when she saw him, and put a hand to her mouth, eyes wide with horror.


“John! What’s happened to you?”


He opened his mouth to explain, and thought better of it.


“I, er…I was run down by a coach in the street.” He pressed against the wall to let her past, realizing too late that he was leaving filthy smudges on the wallpaper. Olivia peered at him with concern, then called to the butler.


“Brunton, go and fetch a doctor!”


“No, no! I’m fine, quite all right. I’ll…I’ll just…have a bath and go to bed.” He was about to escape past her and up the stairs, when the door to the drawing room opened and Percy Wainwright came out.


His brows shot up at sight of Grey, but he said nothing, merely turned on his heel, went back into the drawing room, and reappeared almost at once with a glass of wine, which he thrust into Grey’s hand.


“I’d come to talk with you and Melton about the regiment,” Percy said, eyeing him with a concern equal to Olivia’s. “But I shall come again another day.”


Grey shook his head, mouth full of wine, and swallowed.


“No, stay,” he said hoarsely. “Hal’s coming?”


The front door opened and his brother came in, stopping dead at sight of Grey.


“Yes, I know,” Grey said wearily. “Go talk to Wainwright, will you? I’ll be down in a moment.”


Hal ignored this, and came close, frowning at him.


“What the devil happened to you?”


Read Daily Updated Light Novel Online, Web Novel, Korean Novel and Chinese Novel Online for Free - Novel19.com

“He was run down in the street by a coach!” Olivia leapt in, indignant on her cousin’s behalf. “Did they not even stop to see if you were all right, Johnny?”


“You were run down by a coach?” The countess, drawn by the hubbub, appeared at the top of the stairs, looking alarmed. “John! Are you all right?”


Grey rubbed his brow. A fine reward for his good intentions, he thought bitterly.


“I’m quite all right,” he said, speaking carefully, because his lower lip was split and his jaw swollen. The teeth on the left felt loose, but would probably be all right. “No, they didn’t stop. I doubt the driver saw me. It was a mail coach,” he added, in a moment of inspiration, and saw the lines between his mother’s brows relax a bit, though she went on looking worried.


She was by this time at the foot of the stair, examining him in detail, and while he was touched by her solicitude, he really wanted nothing more than a stiff drink and a bath, and said so.


“Yes, a bath,” the countess agreed, wrinkling her nose. “And burn those clothes!”


This sentiment was put to a popular vote and unanimously passed. Meanwhile, Brunton, who had actually been paying attention, quietly manifested himself beside Grey, removed the glass of wine from his hand and replaced it with a glass containing Scotch whisky, a liquid whose restorative qualities Grey had learnt to appreciate while at Ardsmuir. He leaned against the wall—what were a few more smudges, after all?—and inhaled a mouthful, closing his eyes in thanks.


Meanwhile, attention had shifted to Hal, who was explaining that he was not stopping, as he was summoned to a meeting at Whitehall, but had merely paused on his way there in order to deliver Percy Wainwright’s commission papers, now officially countersigned and sealed with the Royal seal. These he produced with a flourish and handed over to general applause.


Percy flushed up like a peony, to Grey’s amusement, and bowed to the company, papers held to his chest.


“I thank you, my lord,” he said to Hal. “And I’m sure I will hope to be a credit to you and to the regiment.”


“Oh, you will be,” Hal said, smiling. “If it kills you.”


There was laughter at Percy’s faint look of alarm, and his concern faded into an answering smile.


“You think I’m joking, don’t you?” Hal said, still smiling. “Ask my brother. In the meantime—congratulations, sir, and welcome to our company!” He bowed briskly, and with a wave of farewell, strode out to his waiting coach.


“You’ll track mud everywhere, John,” the countess said, returning her disapproving attention to Grey’s state. “Do step into the drawing room and take your clothes off; I’ll send Tom down to take care of you.”


“I’ll keep you company.” Percy, tucking his commission papers away in his coat, opened the door for Grey, who limped through, clutching his whisky. What with one thing and another, lust was the last thing on his mind at the moment, but he was nonetheless glad to be alone with Percy, if only for a short time.


“You know,” Percy said, closing the door and eyeing him. “I begin to be convinced that you do this on purpose, to avoid my company.”


Grey leaned against the mantelpiece with a faint groan, unable to sit down on any of the furniture.


“Believe me,” he said, “I should prefer the company of an organ-grinder’s monkey, let alone yours, to that of the persons I was obliged to consort with this afternoon.”


“Were you really run down by a coach?” Wainwright asked, peering curiously at him.


“Why do you ask?” Grey parried.


“Because I’ve seen people run down by coaches,” Percy replied bluntly. “If you’d been only knocked aside and rolled in the gutter, you’d be bruised and filthy—but you look as though you’ve been beaten within an inch of your life. If you’ll pardon my frankness.” He smiled, to indicate that no offense was meant by this, before going on.


“And if you’d actually been run over by a mail coach, you’d be dead, or close to it. You’d certainly have broken bones. To say nothing of wheel marks on your clothes.”


Grey laughed, despite himself. There was no need to shelter Percy from the truth, after all—and it was dawning on him that, in fact, there were aspects of the situation that he could share with Percy Wainwright that he couldn’t tell even his brother.


“You’re right,” he said, and proceeded to give Percy an abbreviated, but truthful, version of his afternoon’s activities. Percy listened with the greatest attention and sympathy, refilling Grey’s glass when it got low.


“So you were beaten by a mob who objected to your going to the help of a gentleman whom they thought a sodomite—who in fact wasn’t,” Wainwright observed, at the end of it. “Rather ironic, isn’t it?”


“Bates was a brave man, and he died very horribly,” Grey said shortly. “I am not inclined to find humor in the situation.”


Wainwright’s expression sobered at once.


“You are right; I do apologize. I meant no offense, either to you or to Captain Bates.”


“No, of course not.” Grey softened his tone. “And in all justice, the captain himself would doubtless have appreciated the irony. He was that sort of man.”


“You liked him,” Wainwright observed, with no hint of surprise.


“I did.” Grey hesitated. He did not yet know Wainwright very well, for all he was about to become a member of the family. And yet…“Have you ever been to Ireland?” he asked abruptly.


Wainwright blinked, surprised.


“Once. Several years ago.”


Grey considered for an instant longer—but the man could always say no, after all.


“The captain entrusted me with a particular errand, of importance and delicacy. I have promised to see it done, but—well, let me tell you.”


By the time he had finished his explanation, Wainwright’s mobile face was a study: shock, sympathy, curiosity, and—no doubt about it—a desire to laugh.


“You have the greatest talent for awkward situations,” he said, the corner of his mouth twitching. “Have you any idea why the captain should have selected you for this particular enterprise?”


Grey hesitated again, but answered honestly.


“Yes, I do. He thought I could be blackmailed.”

Loading...