Relaxing in the deepest, most comfortable armchair in the upstairs salon, Jocelyn sewed at a shirt, a present for her youngest cousin's thirteenth birthday. Every so often she looked up from her work and sighed happily. Outside the open window the day was bright, clear spring, the first of the season, with neither rain nor bluster. A lively little breeze flirted with the white muslin drapes, bringing with it the smell of growing things. Best of all, the priory was completely quiet. Her aunt and uncle were in the library, working on their presentation for the London Preservation Society. The two boys who still lived at home had taken advantage of the weather to go away.
On the floor below, a door slammed with a startlingly loud report. Jocelyn jumped in surprise, then hurriedly bundled the shirt into her workbasket to hide it from Arnold. A drumbeat of excited footsteps came up the stairs. Jocelyn wondered if it would be mud, or rabbit's blood, or syrup she would have to remove from the hall carpet this time. Their most recent housekeeper flatly refused to clean up after Arnold any more. Though only the Luckems' niece, Jocelyn played a daughter's pan in looking after her two cousins.
Rather than passing the salon door, the footsteps paused. Jocelyn stood up, bracing herself. It opened.
"Granville!" she exclaimed, having expected not him but Arnold. "What has happened?"
Her sixteen-year-old cousin was never seen without the most extreme attention having been rendered to his toilet.
Now he stood before her, a sweating, dust-smeared disaster. His cravat, pride of his life, had evidently been used to wipe a streaming brow, and his coat hung as if half-torn from his back. The boy gulped. "I ... uh ... nothing whatever, cousin."
"Come now," she said as she poured him a tumbler of water from the carafe on the table. "Drink this, and tell me what is wrong."
Gratefully he drank but hesitated before fulfilling her second request. "Do you promise not to tell Father or Mother?"
"I can't do that."
"Oh, please. Their speech to the society must be finished before tomorrow, and they've lost so much time already this week thanks to that hubble-bubble brother of mine. Curse him! Why couldn't my parents have stopped breeding with me?"
"Now, Granville," Jocelyn said mechanically, though to herself she admitted he had a point. "What has Arnold done this time?"
"Why, nothing in the world except commit a hanging offense!" He sank into her armchair.
"He was fishing in Lord Netherham's lower stream. Again! In plain daylight with Handsome Foyle. Constable Regin came along with his big feet, and they never heard him until he clapped hands on Arnold. Foyle avoided capture and found me at Winston's."
"Dear heavens! We must tell your parents this. At once!"
"No!" Granville clutched at her arm. "Arnold didn't give his right name, thank the Lord, and Regin's new enough that he doesn't know my dear brother's face as yet. If we can get Arnold back. Mother and Father will never have to know."
"How can we do that? I can't walk into Libermore gaol and ask the constable to release Arnold without bringing the family into it. Regin is not Constable Phillips. Perhaps if Phillips had been firm with him, Arnold would have stopped getting into these ridiculous scrapes years ago."
"He's not the only one who has fallen into a bumble broth before now." Granville looked at his cousin slyly. "Do you remember stealing Mr. Nicholson's peaches?"
"Oh, no," she said, her gray eyes widening in alarm. "No, Granville, absolutely not!"
"Oh, come on, Jocelyn. It's not much of a sacrifice. Any way, we've no choice. It's either you help me or I ask Mr. Quigg. And his rheumatism has been kicking up since you told him to dig the garden. He'd be no good if we have to run. Somehow, I'm sure we'll have to run. It's the only thing to do when Arnold gets into trouble."
Seeing that she still hesitated, he pleaded, "Come on! We can't let Arnold be hanged."
"They don't hang twelve-year-old boys anymore," Jocelyn said, attempting to sound confident, although she wasn't entirely certain of her facts.
"Then he'll be transported. They'll do that sure as a gun. His age or Father's status won't matter in a poaching case. And I'd have to go with him, and bang! go my chances at Oxford. You must do it, Jocelyn. You must!"
"I'm not even sure where any of those clothes are. Or if they'd fit. I was seventeen then. I've grown."
With a glance at her figure Granville said, "You could still pass for a boy."
"Thank you so much." She shook her head. "Absolutely not. I won't do it."
Granville tightened his grip upon her sleeve. "We're wasting time! We've got to get there before Regin takes Arnold to gaol. Once he's there, we'd never be able to rescue him."
The very real agony in Granville's voice decided her. Although she felt a good fright would do wonders for Arnold, she could not allow him to be entangled in the law's merciless web without raising a hand to help him. "Oh, very well," she said, stamping her foot with frustration. "Look in Tom's room for the clothes. I'll go change."
Within half an hour two youths could be seen racing toward the riverside town of Libermore. One ran rather awkwardly, as if unused to the freedom of trousers. And such trousers! The boy looked as if he'd dressed in the dark, with a ragbag for an armoire.
The faded blue coat had been retrieved from her eldest cousin Tom's wardrobe and still smelled of the stables, though Tom had been away at Oxford for two years. Her inexpressibles were Granville's patched and thus disdained property.
Her waistcoat, once gloriously embroidered with whitework, now threadbare, had been caged from a former housekeeper's quilting bag. The grubby shirt belonged to Arnold, as did the shoes. The disreputable hat that Jocelyn anxiously held clamped over her short and curling hair had been found by Arnold last spring on a riverbank.
The gaol in Libermore was in the oldest part of town, near the river. Jocelyn kept her eyes on Granville's back as he moved confidently through the teeming streets. He seemed to know his way, and Jocelyn was glad not to be alone. She'd never been down there before. It was not a place for a respectable girl. At least she could be certain no one who knew her would see her in her eccentric costume.
Granville paused on the pretext of inspecting a fruiterer's barrow. "Just ahead," he said out of the corner of his mouth, like a naughty schoolboy. "Do you see them?"
A strangely assorted pair came toward them. The parish constable was as massive as a castle tower. He scarcely picked up his enormous feet as he lumbered forward. His dark head was the shape of a pistol ball, with about as much expression. The contrast to the youngster beside him could not have been greater. Arnold Luckem was small and thin with a sunny blond head. Despite the rope around both wrists, he bounced along the street as if out for an afternoon's pleasure. He paused frequently, smiling at people in the street and looking with interest at wares displayed for sale, until, with a jerk at the rope, the constable towed him along once more.
All Jocelyn's anger at her heedless cousin was transferred to his captor. Obviously, the constable possessed no tact whatsoever. Tying Arnold up like an animal and parading him through the busy streets? A more decent man would have brought the miscreant to Mr. Luckem and likely received a tip for his trouble. In disgust Jocelyn looked away. Her eye fell upon a vegetable marrow on the cart before her. Though exposed for sale, the gourd was far from ripe. Curving her fingers around it, the heaviest pan of the bulb stuck up like a club. She looked down the street at Regin, a troubled furrow between her dark brows.
Granville took his lucky half crown from his pocket. "Crown, you grab Arnold and I trip Regin. Spade, I take my brother." The coin spun. "Spade. Damn. Two of three."
Jocelyn reached across and took the coin from him, handing it with a smile to the fruiterer. Granville protested wordlessly.
His cousin said, "It's not much of a sacrifice." She took the vegetable marrow. It was hard as stone when she tested it against her palm. "Spade it is. Let's go."
Pausing only to collect his change, Granville went after Jocelyn. They waited about forty feet from the town's lockup. Granville whistled shrilly. Beside Regin, Arnold turned his head as he searched the crowd. Spotting his brother, he merrily waved both hands.
"What's you lookin' at?" Constable Regin growled.
Jocelyn stepped forward. Taking a deep breath, she raised the vegetable high. As though she'd practiced for years, she brought the hard gourd down on the parish officer's pate. At the instant of impact, Granville grabbed his brother, lifted him bodily off the ground, and ran like the devil, Arnold shouting something over his rescuer's shoulder.
Dearly as she would have liked to, Jocelyn could not follow at once. Regin turned his eyes upon her with a questioning frown. Jocelyn looked at the remaining half-gourd as if uncertain how the thing could have thus grown to her hand. It slipped to the ground as she smiled sheepishly.
Even as the massive parish constable reached out his large hand to arrest her, his eyes rolled up in his head. He rocked backward and fell with a noise like a hundredweight of brick falling onto cobbles.
Guiltily Jocelyn looked around. She met no eyes. It was almost like a conspiracy to ignore what happened to the constable. She wondered how many of these street merchants, living hand to mouth, suffered from Regin's strict enforcement of parish regulations and fines. Jocelyn walked away. Little by little her pace increased until she ran toward where Granville and Arnold had disappeared. They were nowhere to be seen. And she, looking about her, found that she was lost.
Scooting rapidly out of the path of a hustling drover with a sheep on his shoulder, Jocelyn ran full tilt against a man who suddenly emerged from a shadowed doorway. Looking past him, she murmured an apology and continued on her way, only to find her arm seized in the enormous hand of an army officer in a coat nearly as scarlet as his face.
"I beg your pardon, sir," she stammered. She tried to wriggle loose as the man clapped his other hand to his uniform pocket.
Hoarsely the officer demanded, "Stealin' my purse, is it, or my kerchief? Ye're fer the Newgate, my lad! Here!" the man cried lustily, attracting the attention of passersby. "Call me the watch. I've been robbed!" Her captor tightened his grip.
"No, indeed, sir," Jocelyn protested, fear rising in her throat. Regin would soon be back in the running. Who knew how long so hard a head would remain unconscious? Looking back the way she'd come, Jocelyn said, "I'm not a thief!"
"A liar, too, by hell! Give me my purse, or I'll thrash ye!"
"Come now," said a stranger, pausing as he walked by, good humor quirking his black brows. "Let the boy go. This isn't London, my good sir, where every chance encounter may lead to unpleasant end."
Pleadingly, Jocelyn looked at the stranger. She thought his open face and clear gaze were those of an innocent curate or clerk, though he was perhaps thirty-five, older than such men usually were. His shoulders, too, were perhaps rather straight for him to belong to either crouching profession.
A curate might feel it his duty to stop to aid someone falsely accused. Certainly, no one else seemed interested enough even to stare. "You're no thief, are you, my lad?" the man in black asked cheerfully, fixing her with his deep brown gaze.
"No, sir, I'm not. I swear I'm not," she said, her voice quavering up and down an octave.
"There, you see, sir?" Jocelyn's friend said, smiling with great charm at her accuser, giving him the opportunity to admit his mistake. "An honest lad, if ever I've seen one. Besides, not even the meanest thief would in these days steal from one of England's gallant defenders. Congratulations on Wellington's elevation to a dukedom. Tell me, were you at Pampeluna, or perhaps San Sebastian?"
Something in this pleasant speech enraged the officer. His face grew purple with rage, and his thick neck overflowed its stock. "I have it now," he said, spatulate fingers nearly meeting in Jocelyn's arm as he shook her as a dog shakes a bone. Her hat fell off.
"I have it now! Ye're in league, the pair of ye. A fiddle-stringer and his pup, I'll be bound. Have ye both run in." As the man swelled his lungs to shout again, a silver-headed cane whistled down with a crack across the man's forearm. He roared out in pain, his fingers opening, no longer obeying his will.
Jocelyn found her arm grasped anew as "Run!" was shouted in her ear. She was towed along behind this unusual clerk as he ran. The rising ruckus behind her lent her feet unaccustomed speed, her hat remaining, a sorry prize, at the feet of the officer in the scarlet coat.
An alley opened to the right, and she followed the bobbing back of her rescuer. She splashed through a muddy puddle. Jocelyn's heart beat thunderously in her throat, and she could hardly catch a breath. She seemed to have been running for years, forever chased. They dodged down many dark and stinking ways until all sound of pursuit was lost.
Behind a shed of rotten planks, the gentleman's arm pressed across her, Jocelyn waited until he decided all was clear. Her rescuer was taller than she had first thought, so that she had to lift her head to see his face. He smelled clean, something she would not have expected from a man whose clothes were so obviously old. Muscles moved in the arm around her, and Jocelyn realized she might have misjudged his place in life. His breath in her ear was labored and rasped faintly when he inhaled.
When he let her go, she started to thank him. He stopped her with a sharp, "Nonsense! I was watching you. You've never committed a crime in your life. But you'd never have made him believe it. Officers are selected for their stupidity, it seems." The man laughed shortly. "I should not have teased him with the glorious defeat of Soult. Quartermasters don't fight."
"I ... I wouldn't know, sir," she said. "I do thank you for your assistance. It would have been terrible to be taken up for stealing."
Too late Jocelyn remembered her voice. She coughed and said, much more deeply, "My mother wouldn't have liked it."
A gleam of sunlight from overhead caught the man's face, and she saw a slight smile come and go on his lips, though the brim of his hat shaded his eyes. She glimpsed only a liquid gleam throwing back the sunlight.
"I'll be off then, sir," she said, unnerved by the unseen eyes.
"No, I think not," he said. "Such men very rarely let an offense pass so easily. He'll probably report you to the constabulary. You'd better lie low for a bit."
He paused, while the silver head of his cane, no poor man's, massaged the jaw of his lean face. She could feel his hidden eyes studying her, and a blush leapt into her cheeks. She noticed that he kept his other hand hidden inside his coat against his left side, like in the engravings she'd seen of Napoleon before his exile to Elba. The stranger expelled his breath in a long sigh. "Have I done you a good turn, do you think?"
"Yes, sir. I'm very grateful."
"I wonder if I could ask you to return it so soon. I think I have a use for a likely lad, such as yourself."
Was there or was there not the slightest hesitation in his voice as he claimed her as a male? Jocelyn could not quite tell but knew it was best to be wary. His eyes seemed to take in more than those of ordinary men. Perhaps he might be some sort of criminal.
No matter what his station, it would be basest ingratitude to refuse to do him some small favor. He had, after all, extricated her from a charge of theft that would have led to a worse charge. Her hand still tingled from the vegetable marrow's contact with the constable's head. It would have been impossible to free herself from gaol without calling in her aunt and uncle and revealing her shameful costume and behavior. Her reputation would be worthless if word of today's escapade got out. The stranger had saved her from all these consequences.
Jocelyn said manfully, "I'll do whatever I can for you, sir, of course."
His long fingers rested on her shoulder for an instant, as if gauging her moral strength. "Good," he said, nodding as if he approved of what he found. "Come with me."
As they emerged into a wider street with more light, Jocelyn inspected him still more closely. Despite the elegant touch of the beautiful ebony and silver cane, Jocelyn now noticed that his coat was so old it no longer looked black, but rusty brown. He wore knee breeches quite out of style and baggy at the knees. The points of his collar drooped above a ragged cravat.
He noticed the unfavorable impression his clothing made and smiled with cheerful unconcern, revealing white, well-formed teeth. "We seem to make a matched pair, you and I. Neither of us can be said to be in the first stare of fashion. By the by, do you know where we are?"
Jocelyn looked from the stranger to their surroundings. They'd emerged into a wide pleasant street that looked familiar, yet Jocelyn did not think she'd ever been in it before. Fewer people walked here than down by the river. They dressed more elegantly and strolled with pleasure as their aim, not bustling along in the interests of commerce.
Jocelyn and the man went on a few steps, and then, as she looked down another avenue, she cried out in recognition, "Yes! There's the chemist and just beyond that is Mr. Yalter's shop. That big gray building is the Groat and Groom."
"That, I take it, is some sort of inn."
"Is it popular?"
"Yes, sir. Many people visit it of an evening."
"Then it is not what I want. Can't you take me someplace . . ."He looked around and then finished his sentence. "Someplace quieter?"
Now that her feet were on a road she knew, Jocelyn almost felt as if she were in her proper clothes, thinking her usual thoughts. She knew it wasn't right for her to be alone with a strange man, although she sometimes went in mixed panics on longer walks than this. But on those excursions girls remained with girls, and the young men congregated even more closely. Then, too, on those occasions she had always been decorously dressed. Jocelyn said, "Well, sir, if I knew why--"
"If I wanted you. to know why, I would have told you already!" he snapped. At once he seemed to regret his bad temper and said more gently, "Now, please, a quiet inn where a man might rest the night undisturbed."
Looking past him toward the top of the street, Jocelyn saw someone she knew, but she did not go to him for help. Grim Cocker, the vicar's new manservant, seemed to be searching among the passersby, his ugly face tense. His reptilian eyes passed over her and her companion, passed over and returned. He began to come toward them. Two ladies with open parasols blocked the pavement.
Jocelyn turned casually to walk away from Cocker, the man in the old coat following her. Jocelyn shivered as though with cold. Ever since she walked home alone from church three Sundays before, her two cousins being confined at home with the grippe, Jocelyn had done her best to avoid Cocker. His bold comments on that occasion might well be repeated if she were glimpsed in a tight pair of breeches and a boy's coat, doing the best it could to hide the feminine contours of her figure.
The stranger said, "Do you know that man?"
"What man, sir?" she said, keeping her voice low. "I'm taking you to that inn you asked for."
She could not help looking behind her. Cocker was not yet at the opening to the alley. She knew the man she led noticed her anxiety, but he asked no more questions. Jocelyn thought that was fair of him, as he would answer none.
Jocelyn led him down Stone Alley, through Vetter Lane, and into Spenser Court. A hostelry stood there that her oldest cousin Tom and his friends condemned as "too dull." She'd never been there, knowing only its general location. Jocelyn felt both surprise and pleasure at finding it so easily. Perhaps, she thought, I know Libermore better than I believed.
The inn was a small wooden building squeezed into a dark corner. Dilapidated balconies hung in front of the second-story windows. The buildings on either side of the alley were also old and seemed to lean over them, cutting out the sky and all save a little light. The sun seemed dimmer, and a thin wind blew down the cracks between the buildings.
"There, sir. Is this all right?"
He surveyed the inn carefully before approaching any closer. "Yes, it may serve." He gasped suddenly and lurched as his feet slipped in the mud. When he brought out the hand that he had held to his side, Jocelyn was horrified to see a stain on the handkerchief he held between his fingers. There was too little light in the narrow alley to see the color, but Jocelyn's eyes grew wide as she guessed what the stain was.
"Go along, boy. And thank you," he said in a faint, gasping voice that Jocelyn did not like the sound of at all.
Though it was growing late and she felt she really ought to find her cousins and return home, Jocelyn could not make herself turn away and leave him in this dark and lonely place. "Sir? Let me help you." She stepped nearer to him and put her white hand on his arm.
The man's breath was more labored now than it had been after their frantic run. He nodded, accepting her help with reluctant gratitude or, she thought, as if he lacked the strength to force her to leave.
He leaned against the rough brick of the wall, saying, "If you would, go in and ask them to give me a room. It must be on the second floor, one . . . one that faces this way. Can you do that?"
She found it difficult to understand him, for now every sentence was accompanied by long sighing breaths, and the ugly rasp in his voice increased from moment to moment. Jocelyn said, "Yes, sir. Gladly."
"Go on, then." He slowly drew a soft wallet from his breast pocket and handed her two or three coins. "Pay my lodging for ... a week. Yes, a week."
She took the coins and half-turned away, hesitant to leave him. Full of questions, she wetted her lips and said, "Sir . . . ?"
His clean hand darted out with the same speed that had taken the officer by surprise. He gripped her by the arm, his fingers biting with terrible strength. His dark eyes burned into hers as he whispered, "No questions."
Jocelyn could do nothing but nod. He seemed to take her response as a promise and let go. She looked back once to where he leaned against the wall, hunched over, his eyes closed.
The landlord looked at her suspiciously and scratched at his unshaved chin as Jocelyn tried hard to imitate the brusque manners of the street boys who picked up pennies by running messages. It wasn't easy to answer the man's natural questions, and she wondered what lies she could tell if her stranger faltered before safely in his room. Jocelyn knew that the landlord would pitilessly turn the man out if there was the slightest chance of his dying while in the inn. At last the landlord agreed to accept the money, and Jocelyn turned to bring the man back. She regretted leaving him so long. What if he had fainted--or worse?
As she went out, Jocelyn was pushed aside by the gentleman, who swaggered in, rapped his stick on the dirty table, and loudly said, "Coming to get me, lad? Knew you were a good boy!"
She blinked to see him come in through the inn's door as if he were a lord when ten minutes before he had been hunched over, hoarding every bit of his strength. Even his coat seemed smarter when the back that bore it was so arrogantly straight and his old hat seemed more an affectation than the possession of a man who owned no better. But Jocelyn noticed the light sweat shining on his forehead and thin cheeks and understood the effort behind this masquerade of perfect health.
He turned to the landlord, who now nodded and smiled, all his worries at an end, and said, "A glass of ale, my man. And will you join me? Can't be sure of good drink unless the landlord drinks with me, what?" He downed the golden liquid in three long swallows and then rubbed the empty tankard between his hands with a satisfied sigh.
"That's what I wanted. No, thank you, one's enough for now." His eye fell on Jocelyn. "Are you thirsty, boy?"
"No, sir. Thank you."
"No?" She could see his surprise at this refusal of a street boy to drink free ale. "Then a meal perhaps. You're too thin for your height. Isn't he, landlord?"
The landlord obviously had never before considered the question of a ragamuffin's stomach. However, he saw that the gentleman was willing to pay for a meal, so he agreed heartily.
"No, truthfully, sir," Jocelyn protested. "I'm not the least bit hungry." He couldn't be a criminal, she reasoned. Why should a bad man care for another's hunger? For that matter, why would he have helped her in the first place? Surely a wicked man would be happy to see an innocent person suffering.
The gentleman shrugged and only Jocelyn saw the look of pain cross his face. He said, "Thank you for your help, boy." He put his thumb and forefinger into his breast pocket and brought out a half crown, weighing it with a glance at Jocelyn.
With a change of mind he said, "No, I may need you again." He spun it in the air, a golden glitter in the dark taproom, caught it, and restored it to his pocket in what seemed a single motion. He smiled at the landlord. "Show me up, if you please."
Jocelyn and the landlord followed him as he bounded up the narrow stairs two at a time. She watched while he poked vigorously into all the corners of the small chamber and peered out the thick glass in the heavily leaded windows. A streamer of late-afternoon sun struggling to enter was the only light in the room.
"Perfection, my dear sir. I could not ask for a more salubrious site!" He thumped the landlord heartily on his broad back and told him a wicked story. Jocelyn sniggered at it obligingly, after a glance from her stranger, though she did not really understand it.
However, when the landlord had gone, rejoicing that God at last had sent a generous man to his inn, the laughing face and overwhelming manner faded. The gentleman felt behind him for the bed, misjudging the distance. Only a hasty grab at the solid bedpost saved him from sliding to the floor.
He swore in a jagged whisper. "Damn Frenchies," Jocelyn heard him mutter. "Never do clean their knives." She saw his eyelids flutter and remembered the time she saw her cousin Tom's arm broken by a kick from the pregnant mare.
Jocelyn was just in time to catch the stranger as he slumped over, his silver cane tumbling. She staggered on the uneven floor. He was heavier than he looked. Her arms seemed to lengthen from the effort of supporting him. However, she managed to maneuver him so he lay more or less on the bed, though his arm insisted on flopping over the edge. She walked around the bed and covered him with the half of the blanket he did not lie on. Only the rising and falling of his chest reassured her that he lived.
The muddy soles of his boots peeked out, but Jocelyn decided against removing them. She thought, I've done all I think I need to. I'd better go. The boys will be wondering where I am. In truth, Arnold was probably so angry at being tricked out of a journey to Australia that Granville had not yet had time from defending himself to think of her.
Jocelyn looked at the man on the bed. His thin, brown face looked younger, relaxed, and unaware. She noticed the deep, bruise-colored circles beneath his eyes and the way his nose seemed sharp as a peak above the hollows of his cheeks. It came to her suddenly that this man had not eaten very well of late. Without knowing why she did it, Jocelyn reached out to brush the lank black hair off his damp forehead.
Blood. Blood on her hand. She stared at it for what seemed a long time while her mind raced with panic. She had often comforted the small wounds of her cousins' childhood. However, when she saw the rich red smear on her palm, she felt shaken, sick, and stupid. The blood seemed to burn like a cinder on her skin. It was all she could think about.
Careful to avoid getting the blood on the lining of her coat, she stripped it off and laid it across the end of the bed. Lifting the water jug, she mechanically noted that it was empty and went out to fill it, not caring if anyone saw her clad in shirt and waistcoat. She wanted to wash the blood away, from her hand and coat sleeve, and she wanted to do it now.
Used though he was to sleeping in strange places, it had been a long time since he lay on a bed with a sheet that smelled of ... The man had a sudden vision of his father's house. Not as he last saw it, with the storm clouds overhead echoing the storms within, but shining, the cream-colored towers rising at the foot of hills, his family's as long as time itself.
To him, his father's house stood for the England he fought for, even when barred from the company of Englishmen. He supposed the chateaux he'd seen during the last ten years stood for France to the sons of the families that held them, yet those ancestral seats had been destroyed, trampled under the galloping feet of the steeds of war. He thought of Gray-croft with shattered walls and smoking fields, the people he still considered his lying dead among the ruins.
The thought stabbed hint, and he sat up, ignoring the sickening swirling of the room around him. He opened the strings of his shirt under his cravat and reached inside. His fingers closed around a piece of heavy paper while his dark eyes searched the room for a safe hiding place.
The boy's coat lay near at hand. Nothing closer suggested itself, and he felt somehow that he did not have sufficient strength to get out of the bed. His heart pounded painfully just from the effort of sitting up. He reached for the coat, and a loose thread on its shalloon lining caught his eye. Slowly he pulled the thread. It came free, unstitching itself. Hearing the boy's footsteps on the stairs, he thrust the paper between the lining and the blue wool.
When Jocelyn came back with the jug, he lay in the same position as when she left, but his eyes were open. "What's your name?" he asked dully.
She began to say her own name, bit it off, and said, "Joss."
"I'm Hammond. It must have frightened you, my going off like that. I'm sorry." His breath still came in long sighs, but his voice seemed steadier if not strong. She did not like his color. Jocelyn saw his hand move beneath the blanket and a grimace contort his tired face.
"Well, Joss," he said with a sigh that seemed less involuntary and more like that of a man prepared to face a painful ordeal. "This looks pretty rum, eh?"
"Oh, no, sir," Jocelyn said brightly and then felt like a fool. "I mean, I suppose so."
"Do you turn sick at the sight of blood?"
She looked at her coat lying on the edge of the bed and shook her head with her eyes shut. "Not very."
"I only ask because I need your help. You can see I've been hurt. I don't think it's too bad. I can't bandage it myself, though, and . . .I'd rather not have a doctor."
Despite his evident exhaustion, Jocelyn realized Hammond was trying to encourage her. His voice was bright and bracing, though not very loud. Lifting his arm with an obvious effort, he threw off the blanket.
Although she wanted to run away, Jocelyn fought down her fear and approached the man on the bed. Surprised by the steadiness of her hands, she set the jug of water on the floor. Tenderly she helped him remove his old coat. His simple woolen waistcoat came off easily. Underneath, a wide rusty stain on the left was plain as only blood can be, fresh red glimmering in the center of the stain. His shin stuck to the long wound under his chest, and Jocelyn thought she'd never find sufficient courage to pull the material away.
"Do it quick," Hammond said before setting his teeth, but he could not stop a cry of pain as she tugged. Jocelyn thought he should have cursed her for being such a clumsy idiot. Her head spun, and she sat heavily on the bare floor.
When she looked up, Hammond was peering down the length of his body at the sluggishly bleeding wound. "That's not bad at all. Just sliced along a rib. If it went in as far, I'd be waking with the angels by now. As it is, I'll never know it happened in a day or two."
He looked at Jocelyn and smiled with a sweetness she did not expect. Her own lips curved in answer. "That's the worst over, my boy. Now if I can ask for the loan of the bottom of your shirt . . ."
Jocelyn knew her face was hot and hoped it might be passed off with her dizzy spell. "I would be glad to give it to you, sir, but it's my only one." She was amazed by how quickly she learned to lie, never having practiced.
"Well, then, we'll have to sacrifice the bottom of the bed-sheet. I'll pay the landlord for the loan, if he ever discovers it." The linen at the inn appeared to have been recently washed, a thing Hammond said he'd scarcely expected.
"Is there anything of my shirt that isn't such an unbecoming shade of red? No, don't tear anything higher than the middle; I still have to wear the upper half in public. Tear off a piece. Dip it in the water and give it to me."
He demonstrated cleaning his wound, and when Jocelyn took the makeshift sponge, Hammond lay back and stared at the wall. Though she went as slowly and carefully as she could, once Jocelyn thought she felt him shudder, and she whispered an apology. He shook his head and continued to stare at nothing.
"Good lad," he said when she finished and put down the pinkish cloth. "I'm afraid this isn't very easy for you."
"No, sir," she confessed.
"We're nearly done. Rip the bedsheet." Jocelyn turned back the bottom of the blanket and tried to pull a seam on the sheets. The landlord's wife was too good a seamstress and her stitches defeated Jocelyn.
"I can't get it started, sir."
"There's a knife in my left boot. Use that."
Timidly Jocelyn took the knife from the dark leather against his shin. The knife was long and thin with a dangerously sharp edge. It looked more like a wicked weapon from some melodrama than a knife a gentleman might use for slicing fruit. Jocelyn half-expected to see some dark stain on the blade and relaxed when she saw no such mark. Somehow ripping the coarse linen into strips made her feel better about her squeamishness.
"Good," Hammond said when a small pile of bandages lay on the bed. "Make some of that into a pad, and then I'll show you how to bandage such an unwieldy thing as the human torso. It'll be useful to you, no doubt, should you ever join the Army."
Jocelyn thought that the bandaging went fairly well. At least, Hammond's face wasn't set into rigid lines, and he didn't seem to sigh as much as before. She tried to touch him lightly. Although she'd often seen her cousins without their shirts, she felt the considerable difference between their thin, unformed chests and the smooth muscularity of the stranger's body. She had to look at him to bandage him, but she tried not to let her eyes wander away from her work.
When she finished, she asked, "Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. Hammond?"
"It isn't mister. Just Hammond." He grasped the blanket and settled himself beneath its itchy warmth. He sighed again, but with contentment not pain. "Do me one more favor before you go, Joss. I'm sure your mother must be growing anxious."
"Yes, sir, I'll do what I can."
"Look out into the street. No, not that way, you ass! Cross to the wall, lift the curtain out slowly from the side, and then, showing none of your body, look out."
"There's nobody, sir."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," Jocelyn said, looking a moment longer, just the same. The alley's darkness had deepened since they were in it an hour or so before. Now the lengthening shadows obscured all but a small square in the middle. "There might be . . . no, it's only a stray cat."
"That's all right, then. Take that coin out of my pocket. You've more than earned it." Hammond shut his eyes.
Jocelyn came over and picked up her coat from the bed, noticing the blood still upon the sleeve. After what she had been called upon to do, a small smear like that hardly seemed worth noting, and she felt ashamed of her earlier foolishness.
Looking down at him, she thought he slept, but he said, "Joss?"
His eyes opened slightly, like a child awakened in the night. His voice was softened by approaching sleep. "Don't. . . don't say anything to anybody, will you? I can trust you, yes?"
"I won't say anything," Jocelyn promised.
A frown passed over his brow, slowly vanishing as if he could not concentrate on his worry. "I'll come see you, when I'm better. Meet your mother and reward you properly. Where do you live?" She almost missed the last word.
"Um . . ." What had become of the facility she boasted of in learning to lie quickly? She could think of no falsehood, so she settled for half a truth. "We live on the Luckems' property. Anyone can tell you where that is, sir. You rest now. And thank you again for saving me from that officer."
Hammond did not speak. She didn't know if he even heard her. Jocelyn stood by the door for a long minute, her hand on the latch, watching the rise and fall of his breathing. She didn't want to remember about her cousins or the duty owed her aunt and uncle. She wanted, with an intensity that surprised her, to be there when Hammond awoke, to be able to reveal herself as a girl. Perhaps he would be glad of it. Jocelyn remembered and went down the stairs.