A pair of tiny overlapping circles embossed the baby's forehead, carving an edge like an embryo moon. Reddish brown, it marked her perfect skin like the scar from a branding.
The infant girl, sucking hungrily at her mother's breast, seemed completely unaware of this touch from God--if so it was.
As Hester Kean, waiting woman to her cousin Isabella, Countess of Hawkhurst, pondered the significance of the mark, she wondered what future would be in store for this infant girl. Given the meanness of her parents' house, the number of mouths they must feed, and the smallpox, which threatened rich and poor alike, she likely would not survive until the age of five, unless the sign, as people had named it, truly was proof of the Almighty's favour.
Just yesterday, the news-sheets had reported the birth of a child with the sign of the eclipse upon her forehead, barely a week after the moon had cast its ominous shadow upon the City of London. Her mother had been frightened by the event too near her time, it was said. Whatever the cause, people of all walks had flocked to this tanner's house in Grace Church Street to see the curiosity, which, if nothing else, had provided a boon to the baby's parents, for no one was admitted without an exchange of coins.
Isabella and her husband Harrowby, Lord Hawkhurst, with two of their friends, had decided to examine this miracle themselves. Sir Humphrey Cove, a short, merry gentleman with small, nervous movements, drew closer to the nursing pair. He lowered the handkerchief he'd been holding to his nose to block the stench from the tannery below and bent to examine the mark.
"Yes, I see it!" he whispered eagerly, his fingers fluttering against his chest. "It is a miracle, I am sure. A sign of something great about to dawn."
"If something were about to dawn, I should think there'd be a sun without the moon."
Lord Lovett's comment, delivered with his usual wryness, brought a smile to Hester's lips. He was a dark, handsome gentleman with thick black brows and a satirical bent. She found him vastly more entertaining than any other of her cousin's friends.
"But I assure you, my dear Adrian," Sir Humphrey went on excitedly. "Sun or moon--it truly does not matter. Why, my uncle's neck erupted with a carbuncle on the very eve of King James's departure!"
Lord Lovett gave a brief laugh. "What perfect rubbish you do spout, Cove!"
Turning to Isabella and taking her gently by the elbow, he asked, "What say you, my lady?" He addressed her with a great deal more tenderness than he had accorded his friend. "Does it indeed appear like the eclipse to you? I recollect no such shape. As I recall, all that occurred was that the sky grew dark and the light returned a few minutes later."
"I did not see it. I was not out of doors that day." Isabella stared at the baby's forehead from behind the half-mask she had worn to protect her face. "But Hester did!" With a cheerful mien, she turned her wide, beautiful eyes on her cousin. "Remember? You came into my chamber, saying something about seeing the eclipse, but I hardly attended. Does this mark look like it, indeed?"
Hester was so taken aback that she could not instantly respond. She could not imagine how Isabella could refer to that moment without even a hint of chagrin. She could not think of it, herself, without a hard tightening in her chest, for that was the day that Isabella and her mother had cheated the real Lord Hawkhurst out of his estate.
Hester had come in after witnessing a violent death to find that Isabella and Mrs. Mayfield, Hester's aunt, had conspired to hide the only piece of evidence that might have cleared Gideon Fitzsimmons, Viscount St. Mars of his father's murder. But if the evidence had cleared him, then he, and not Isabella's foolish husband, would be the Earl of Hawkhurst now.
Since St. Mars's arrest and his subsequent escape, Isabella and her mother had enjoyed the fruits of their deception without the slightest inkling of guilt. For surely to be a countess--or even the mother of a countess--was a glorious thing.
"I believe," Hester said, in answer to the question, "that the mark reflects the shape we should have seen if we had looked at the sun when the moon was covering it. But I did not look directly at it. It is dangerous to peer at the sun."
"Then, how can anyone know what it looked like?"
"Humph!" Harrowby snorted. "No one does, I'll warrant." He had been irked by the necessity of waiting below in the filthy street until the previous visitors had descended from the cramped room above. Then, being greeted by the unremarkable sight of a woman nursing her child had done nothing to decrease his annoyance. "This whole thing reeks of a humbug to me. Why anybody would believe that a tanner's brat would receive a mark from God passes all bounds. Why, I have a birthmark myself on the back of my knee, but nobody's saying that it's a sign! And if I haven't had a run of luck lately, I don't know who has." He barked a laugh.
"Indeed, my lord," Lord Lovett agreed, with a wry twist to his lips. "I had much rather have visited your chamber at Hawkhurst House to see your mark than come to this stinking hole. What a pity you did not mention it before!"
"Pooh!" Isabella pouted. "I have already seen my lord's mark an hundred times."
"One hundred already? And you married only a few weeks! I must congratulate you, my lord, on a prodigious performance--unless I err in attributing these sightings to an activity I can only reflect upon with envy."
Isabella giggled, and Harrowby guffawed, neither the least displeased to have their marital exploits admired.
Hester would have smiled, too, for Lord Lovett had delivered this quip with his usual wryness, and she was not immune to his wit, had Isabella not immediately ruined the joke.
She lowered her voice to a sultry note and, casting a flirtatious glance at Lord Lovett, said, "Shall Harry-kins tell you of any marks he's found on me?"
This drew his leering brow. "And spoil the fun of discovering them myself?" He said, "My lady, I beg you will not."
Harrowby laughed almost as hard as Isabella did at this gallantry, for having a wife that a gentleman as fashionable as Lord Lovett desired could only add to his sense of importance. And, indeed, it seemed to Hester that Harrowby felt no jealousy of the gentlemen who paid court to Isabella at her levees. She even wondered if he had not grown tired of his marital duties and would not welcome a rival to occupy his voracious wife.
Throughout this exchange, Sir Humphrey had not taken his eyes off the baby, and his eager whisper floated to Hester now, "Yes, yes! It must be a sign. This must be the moment."
No one else seemed to share this excitement. Isabella's disappointment in the mark was so complete that she had forgotten the eclipse entirely, and it would be useless for Hester to repeat the explanations she had read. A pamphlet had been published, describing the astronomers' observations, and Hester had ventured a few precious pennies to learn about the extraordinary event, for it was a day that she would never forget.
"Shall we go, my lady?" Lord Lovett offered Isabella his arm to escort her down the narrow stairs. They exited without another glance at the mother or her child.
"Well, I confess, I do not see what all the fuss has been about." Harrowby started to precede Sir Humphrey from the room, but Hester prompted him before he could escape.
"What?" Harrowby turned, and Sir Humphrey went on. Seeing Hester curtsy where she stood by the woman and her child, he grumbled, "Oh--deuce take it! ...Very well!" He reached into the pocket of his knee-length silk coat and extracted a silver coin. He did not toss it to the woman, as Hester half-expected he would, but instead dropped it into the earthenware cup, resting conspicuously on a stool near the door. "Here's something for you, then, Goody. Buy the brat a gewgaw with it, if you want. But I shouldn't set much store on that mark of hers, if I were you. Seems a stretch to my way of thinking. And it doesn't do to hoodwink peers, you know."
With the woman's grateful farewells assaulting their ears, they followed the others down the stairs.
Hester picked up her long skirts before stepping out of doors. Even the pattens she wore would not be enough to keep the deep mud in the street from soiling her hem. Out in Grace Church Street, Lord Lovett, Sir Humphrey, and Isabella stood waiting for them beside Harrowby's coach and four, with its door open to receive them.
Out here, the odour was even more unbearable, so Hester clutched her handkerchief to her nose. They had all worn masks to protect their faces in this neighbourhood, which was too near the Leadenhall market for leather not to be filled with the stench of tanneries and the waste from slaughterhouses. Dressed in their laces and silks, with Harrowby's footmen garbed in brown and gold livery, and the ornate carriage emblazoned with the Hawkhurst arms, they made an entertaining spectacle for the residents in the street. Urchins had stopped to stare. Mothers stood in doorways with their babies on their hips. Others leaned from upstairs windows to gawk at the gentlemen and ladies in their finery.
There was nothing unusual in their attention but, still, a mood of uneasiness seemed to fill the street. Lord Lovett must have sensed it, too, for his indolent features reflected an impatience to be gone that she had never seen in him before.
"We ought to make haste." He glanced at his timepiece. "We mustn't be late for the Princess's drawing room."
"No, indeed," Sir Humphrey agreed. "Gentlemen in our position cannot be too careful, can we, dear Lovett?"
Lord Lovett answered with a shade of annoyance, "I was referring to the possibility that we will find ourselves too late to be admitted, if the crowd proves to be large. But no, I should not wish to offend her Highness."
"Well, if you ask me, this whole outing has been a damned waste of time," Harrowby said.
"My lady?" Lord Lovett handed Isabella to one of the footmen, and they all climbed inside.
On their way there, it had been a squeeze for five people to ride in one vehicle, but Isabella had insisted on Hester's coming, too. Her pleasure on any occasion seemed directly related to the number of people who accompanied her. She did not care for the intimacy of a quiet evening at home. Since becoming a countess, she had taken advantage of her position as a married lady of consequence to make sure that hardly a moment went by that was not filled with some delightful scheme.
It was she who had urged the expedition after Hester had read the announcement of the baby's mark. Isabella had immediately solicited the company of their two friends--Lord Lovett, who haunted her levees even more than he did the new earl's, and Sir Humphrey Cove, who had been Harrowby's boon companion since their days at Oxford, when they had discovered a common love of gossip. Since Isabella, with Mrs. Mayfield and Hester, had moved into Hawkhurst House, hardly a day had gone by that part, at least, was not spent in the company of these two gentlemen.
On the way to Cornhill, Hester had found herself crushed between them on the rear-facing seat. Sir Humphrey's perfume had nearly overwhelmed her, and she had not looked forward to breathing it on the return ride. But the waste used in tanning was so offensive that anything was preferable to its smell. Soon it would be summer, and the city's stench would be even worse. The Court would leave town to avoid the unhealthy air. In another month the aristocracy would be impatient to leave, but no one would dare until after the King's birthday at the end of May. Already many were grumbling about the inconvenience.
They were settled in the coach when Lord Lovett made suggested that they go by way of Lombard Street. "I believe it to be faster. And we've tarried too long."
"Lombard Street?" Harrowby gave a snort. "When it is half the width? We should be stuck there for ages while my footmen cleared a path. Why, the last time I was on it, some fool of a carter was driving a waggon with five teams right up the middle!" He shook his head. "No, you'd better leave it to my coachman to decide."
Lord Lovett subsided with his customary good grace, though his shoulders betrayed a certain tension. "As you will, of course, my lord."
It could not be easy, Hester reflected, to see a gentleman who was his inferior in every way--whose prospects had been worse than his own--be suddenly elevated to such a high-ranking peerage, when he must now be deferred to in all things. Overnight their relative position had changed, and Lord Lovett now found himself waiting on a gentleman he might otherwise never have noticed. But his lordship's attendance on the new couple was more likely due to his desire for Isabella than to any need to court her husband.
If Hester's cousin, with her golden curls and carefree laugh, had attracted the gentlemen as an unmarried girl, she did so doubly now as a married lady with a fortune and an influential peer as her husband. Gentlemen flocked about her, competing for her notice, a chair at her levee, and the privilege of escorting her out in the evening. As she had happily predicted, she and Harrowby had become one of the most envied couples in town.
As the carriage rumbled around the corner into Cornhill, Isabella was the first to remove her mask. She made a great show of it, turning her back to Lord Lovett and asking him to untie the knot. Harrowby, seated next to her, could have done it more easily, but Lord Lovett obliged, leaning forward and sliding his arm about her waist to drop the mask into her lap. Isabella turned her head to thank him just as he moved forward, and her lips nearly brushed his cheek. She gave him a provocative smile and bit her lower lip. Lord Lovett seemed unsurprised, but with a warning lift of his brow, he shifted his gaze to Harrowby and moved back against his bench.
"It was a sign!" Sir Humphrey's eager interjection startled them all. "I tell you, Lovett, it must have been a sign."
Isabella's swain gave a heavy sigh, but his eyes betrayed a patient amusement. "Yes, yes, dear fellow. I am certain you must be right. The mark on that brat was surely a sign that an extraordinary catastrophe is about to befall us. But must we contemplate it today? We should be changing our habits this very minute for Court."
"No, no! You misunderstand me, my dear Lovett!" Sir Humphrey clasped his knees and leaned forward to talk around Hester. "I do not speak of a catastrophe at all, but of something glorious."
"Well, whatever it is, I wish you would--"
Lord Lovett's irritable response was cut off. Shouting and screaming came at them from somewhere up ahead. "What the--"
"Beware, my lord!" The coachman's cry reached them, just as the horses halted. Then, they started to back, the harness jingling as they tossed their heads in distress.
Hester and her companions gripped their seats. Isabella screamed as a door was thrown open and a stranger peered inside. Behind this rough-looking man, a raucous crowd had filled the street in front of the Royal Exchange. Some of their rioters had blocked their coach, while the others attacked pedestrians.
"Hey! There's gentl'men and ladies in 'ere!" The ruffian who had opened their door called out to the mob behind him. Then he reached inside to make a grab for Lord Lovett, who was closest to the door.
At first, Lord Lovett did not resist, but said in a reasoning tone, "Here, my good man! You mustn't frighten the ladies. I shall have to ask you to let us pass."
"Ye can go--" the man's breath reeked terribly of gin-- "just as soon as ye drink a toast to his Majesty's health."
"Blast you, fool!" Harrowby, who had remained cautiously silent up until this point, expressed his outrage. "Where do you think we're going? If you do not let us pass this very instant, we will be late for his Majesty's drawing room."
Lord Lovett added quickly, "Yes, I'm sure you mean very well, but we must be going. You can take our wishes for his Majesty for granted."
He had been trying to release himself from the ruffian's hold, but the man refused to release him. "It's not the Cuckold that we're drinkin' to," he sneered. "It's to our darling, him what's over the water."
From the other side of the carriage, Sir Humphrey gave a gasp. "Lovett! What have I--"
"Will you shut your mouth and let me handle this!"
Giving Sir Humphrey a vicious glance, Lord Lovett tried harder to free himself, while Harrowby sputtered, "Why, you--! I'll have you taken up for sedition! How dare you speak of his Majesty like that! Where are my footmen? Why don't they seize these ruffians?"
The footmen were nowhere in sight, but Hester heard the sound of slaps and fists on flesh, and an occasional encouraging cry from their coachman, which told her that the men were engaged in their defense.
Lord Lovett had got command of his temper again, and he cut through Harrowby's speech to say reasonably, "You see what the consequences could be? If I were you, I should run, before the militia comes to round you up."
But the man was too drunk to listen. He took up the cries, coming from farther up the street. "High Church and Ormonde! No 'wee German lairdie' for us!"
"A Stuart! A restoration!"
Through the opposite pane, Hester saw members of the mob breaking the windows of a house. The stock jobbers in the street were being attacked. She winced, as a young man was beat on the head with a rake. Others were stripped of their coats, while cries filled the streets. The mob cheered the Duke of Ormonde and King James, and cursed the Quakers, Whigs, and King George.
Today was the Duke of Ormonde's birthday, but never had there been a celebration like this. His Grace should have been honoured this morning by private visits to his house, but no birthday but a royal one should ever be celebrated publicly in the streets.
Some men from the militia tried to break up the crowd, but they were quickly surrounded and beaten, too. Whoever had the courage to support King George was running to take cover.
"Where are my footmen?" Harrowby shouted again. His voice cracked on the final word. "Here, you! Coachman! Give them a taste of your whip!"
"Yer not goin' anywhere, till ye drinks to the health of King James. Let me hear ye! Ormonde! No King George! Give us King James III!"
Lord Lovett gave a desperate shove, freed one hand, and reached for his sword.
As the man dived again and nearly dragged him into the street, Sir Humphrey shrieked, "Ormonde! No King George! King James III!"
The rioter had nearly managed to pull Lord Lovett from the coach. Hester and Isabella grabbed his coattails and struggled to hang on.
"High Church and Ormonde!" Sir Humphrey bleated again.
At last the man heard him through his drunken fog. He released Lord Lovett so suddenly that he fell backwards, landing on top of Hester, who had been pulling harder than the rest.
"That's more like!" The man gave them a great big grin. "Now let me hear ye all say it-- No, wait! I'll get ye a tankard so ye can toast his Grace and our rightful king."
He turned to stagger away, and in that moment, Lord Lovett recovered his footing. He quickly banged on the roof of the coach, slammed its door, and shouted, "Coachman, whip up the horses!"
As their driver complied, the coach gave a huge lurch forward. "High Church and Ormonde!" Lord Lovett called back out the window. Sir Humphrey had never ceased his cheering, and now he stuck his round face out the opposite window and cheered even louder. Hester joined them, waving with friendliness to the mob as their coach was allowed through.
One horrible sight after another met their eyes. One man who was brave enough--or foolish enough--to huzzah King George was dragged from his carriage box and soundly beaten. A nonconformist church was set afire.
They had no notion of what had become of their footmen and dared not stop to see if they'd been hurt. No one in the coach spoke or exchanged a glance until they had left the rioters far behind.
By the time they cleared St. Paul's, Sir Humphrey's breaths were coming in deep gasps and his eyes were wide. He started to say something, but Lord Lovett cut him off.
"It would seem--" he stared at his friend-- "that you were right and I was wrong. I owe you an apology, Cove, and I must thank you for your quick thinking, which has saved me from a beating, if nothing worse."
Sir Humphrey looked as if he might make a reply, but he was too overcome with emotion. His eyes filled with tears, and he nodded, remaining silent until they dropped him before his lodgings in Jermyn Street.
"Quick thinking, that," Harrowby agreed, once Sir Humphrey was gone. He was still holding onto Isabella, whether for his comfort or hers Hester could not say. "I only hope his Majesty never gets wind of this."
"I doubt he will." Lord Lovett's amusement seemed to indicate that he had fully recovered from the frightening ordeal. Indeed, he seemed admirably relaxed. "I doubt that anyone in that mob will be eager to report his participation in it, or even what was said. Our attempts at self-preservation are likely to go unremarked."
"The confound impudence of it!" Harrowby began to fume again. "How dare they hold up Ormonde so high? I have never heard them cheer his Grace of Marlborough in that scandalous way. Damned Jacobites! Ormonde had better be careful if he don't want trouble for himself. They shall see what comes of all this treasonous talk. Mark my words, but they will!"
Lord Lovett eased his body against the cushions. In shifting his position, he met Hester's gaze, where he must have spied a sign of his own reflections, for he gave her a secretive smile. "I am certain you will soon have them quaking in their boots, my lord."
Hester tried not to laugh, but after all the shock and the excitement, she found it nearly impossible.
Thomas Barnes, groom, valet and general man of business, had started to fret at the absense of his lord. If truth be told, he'd been anxious from the moment his master, the Viscount St. Mars, had decided to take himself off to France. They had quarreled mightily about St. Mars's going alone, Tom refusing to be parted from him, and his master insisting that Tom stay behind.
"I will not have you getting caught sneaking out of the country with me," St. Mars had said. "They would be sure to hang you. Is that what you want?" Then, with a ghost of his former humour, he added, "And, besides, I thought you did not care for the French."
Ignoring an obvious attempt to distract him, Tom retorted, "And I thought you said you wouldn't be in any danger, my lord."
St. Mars sighed. "Travelling alone, I do not expect to be, but I can hardly escape unnoticed with an army at my heels."
"I ain't no army, my lord."
"A retinue, then. Have we not established that you are my gang of one? I'm counting on you to keep up the pretense with Lade. I want him to think that I have a gang of cutthroats at my beck and call."
Lade, their landlord at the Fox and Goose, deep in the Weald of Kent, was a Newgate gaolbird, who harboured highwaymen and dealt in smuggled goods, and had to be kept in his place. Neither St. Mars nor Tom had been able to discover whether he knew the identity of the mysterious Mr. Brown and his servant who had appeared over a month ago to take up residence at his inn. Clearly, he suspected St. Mars of something, but not, perhaps, of being the viscount charged with murdering his own father. At least, he had not "squeaked beef," as he would have said, to get the reward of three hundred pounds that had been placed on St. Mars's head. Instead, he eagerly pocketed the money St. Mars doled out to rent the Fox and Goose and its servants for his private use. And St. Mars had given Lade to understand that if he ever called down the law on his wealthy guest, then he would feel free to mention his host's connections with smugglers and highwaymen.
"I need you here, Tom," St. Mars continued. "I need you to keep an eye on my belongings, and to take care of Penny--" his beloved horse-- "and to let me know at once of any reason that I should come back."
"You do mean to come back, don't you, sir? Before too long?"
Tom had not liked the way St. Mars had hesitated over his reply. The despair that sometimes showed through his careful demeanour had betrayed itself for a moment. "I shall return when I cannot bear to stay away any longer, or when I am needed. For the last, I count on you to let me know. You should open any letter that comes for me. Is that understood?"
"Yes, my lord, but--" Tom had found it difficult to shape the question he had wanted to ask, so he had ended with, "You won't leave me here too long?"
"If you find it too long, you must write to tell me. Address your letters to my steward, Monsieur Lavalle, at St. Mars. He will see that I get them."
And Tom had had to be content.
Now nearly a month had gone by, and nary a word from his master had come. Tom had thrown himself into improving St. Mars's quarters in this flea-ridden inn they'd been forced to call home. With a few discreet repairs--nothing too grand, which might have called the attention of the authorities to the house--some furniture ordered from tradesmen in Maidstone, and the hiring of a cook and laundress, he had made the place ready for St. Mars's return. These lodgings were not so bad for a man like Tom who had slept most of his life over the stables, but they were a degradation compared to Rotherham Abbey and Hawkhurst House, two of the six important properties St. Mars should have inherited upon his father's death.
If there was one thing Tom had learned in his short time as groom to an outlaw, however, it was the need for secrecy. It was secrecy that kept him close to the inn with virtually nothing to do all day. He exercised Penny and Beau--the horse he had taken for himself from Lord Hawkhurst's stables--along the footpaths and drovers' trails throughout the Weald, memorizing their turns and twists, in case he and his master had to flee the King's Messengers, and learning to think--if he only knew it--something like the highwayman's accomplice he had become. But no two horses could occupy an experienced groom all of any day, and he found himself with far too much time to think about things that he would rather ignore.
As he was doing this evening, as he brushed Penny down after a long, sweating ride. He caught himself ruminating about the woman who kept house for Lade. A pretty woman, turned harlot after going to gaol for being gulled by a thief. A warm, cheerful sort of female, skilled with a needle, who had spent hours happily working over the silks and satins they had bought for St. Mars.
Katy still had to serve Lade's customers in the taproom, where Tom took his meals now that St. Mars was gone. Tom had rejected her friendly advances. He didn't truck with whores. But he had noticed that, even though she still put on a smile for the men who came into the taproom, she never looked for their attention. If anything, since asking for the job of caring for St. Mars's clothes, and getting it, she had become adept at fending them off. She managed them with a cheerful goodwill--to avoid angering Lade, Tom suspected.
These observations had been a torment. Tom did not want to admire her. Staying away from her would be so much easier if he could only find fault. He wanted nothing at all to do with a whore, former or otherwise. His father had died of the pox, and Tom knew that there was no greater torture on earth--maybe not even in hell.
If only St. Mars had not left him here alone!
He was putting away his brushes, about to face the daily ordeal of watching her serve his dinner, when he heard the rare sound of hoof beats in the yard and a man's voice calling out for service.
Avis, the stableboy, dropped his pitchfork and ran running to take charge of the man's horse. Tom stayed out of sight. He tried to get a glimpse of the rider, but the man disappeared into the inn with hardly a word to the boy.
The Fox and Goose was a small, ramshackle inn in a hamlet, which had nothing to recommend it but a few hedgerow alehouses. Deep in the Weald, it did not lie on any important road. Nor did it receive the custom of men on horseback, unless they, like St. Mars, had something to hide.
As soon as Avis returned, leading the visitor's horse, Tom accosted him. "Who's the stranger?"
Avis answered cheerfully, "Oh, Mr. Menzies ain't no stranger. He stops every now and then. And he tips me a George, if I'm quick enough."
"What kind of rogue is he?"
"You mean, is he one of the banditti?" Avis asked, then shrugged, unconcerned. "I don't think so. But if he is, he'd be one of the gentl'men for sure."
Tom did not like the thought of any stranger staying at the Fox and Goose. The locals and drovers who came to drink posed enough of a threat to St. Mars, but a gentleman who traveled through on other business might inform the authorities in London about the mysterious Mr. Brown who resided in a place that no respectable person should ever call home.
Walking into the taproom, Tom caught a look at the man, who was dressed in a gentleman's riding wig, tall leather boots, and fashionable traveling clothes. An arrogant face and bearing, combined with an intolerant manner, did nothing to make him more appealing. Lade, however, had greeted him like a welcome guest, and Katy obviously knew him, too. No curiosity showed in her eyes, but she bustled to serve him with a sort of deference that no other customer received.
Tom seated himself at a table by the fire, near the cage where the dog was turning the spit. As the animal worked its wheel, Tom was only able to observe the stranger a few moments more before Lade conducted him into the private parlour. The parlour that was leased to St. Mars, who had paid for its use.
Katy made trips inside to carry them food and some of Lade's smuggled French wine. Each time she emerged, her brown eyes grew a little more clouded. And on more than one of these occasions, she threw Tom a glance that contained a mix of hurt and resentment. Tom couldn't imagine what right she had to be angry with him, but after several minutes of this treatment, he decided it was time he discovered what was going on.
He rose from his bench and sauntered across the tight, mean corridor to Lade's private parlour. Emboldened beyond his usual state, he did not knock before opening the door.
He was more than a little disconcerted when the gentleman, seated with Lade, leapt to his feet, scraping his bench against the floor, and pulled out his sword. Tom retreated a step, while Lade, who was a little slow to react, stood up between them and said, "That's bene, sir! That's Tom, what works for the gentry-cove I was tellin' ye about."
Tom was not pleased to hear that Lade had been wagging his tongue about St. Mars. Taking matters into his own hands, he said, "Why's this gentleman using Mr. Brown's parlour, Lade. It's been let for the time."
Menzies sneered, "I am not accustomed to having my comfort challenged--least of all by a servant."
"There's no need to make 'im brush." Lade's tone was wheedling, which meant he knew he was in the wrong. "Mr. Menzies 'ere's one of us. He's a rum 'un, 'e is."
"And you mean to charge him for a room you've been paid for. I know how your mind works, Lade."
Lade scowled. "Now there's where yer wrong, ye chub! I haven't asked 'im fer a grig. Have I, Mr. Menzies? I would never try to nip one of his Majesty's men, would I?"
The stranger ignored him. Sitting down on his bench again, he leaned back, the better to examine Tom. He raked him from head to toe, with so much insolence on his face that Tom could hear an angry pulse starting in his ears.
"I should like to meet this master of yours," Menzies said, finally. "Lade has told me some curious things about him."
"Has he?" Tom feigned an indifference he could not feel. Every hair on his back had risen in warning. He would have something to say to Lade as soon as this gentleman was gone. "My master would be happy to meet you, too, if only to find out why you and Lade here are so chatty about another gentleman's business."
Menzies responded with an angry gleam. "Oh, you mustn't blame Lade. He has been in my service these past two years. This parlour, which your master has taken, according to you, has always been placed at my disposal. I find myself wondering why a man, such as Lade has described your master to be, would bother to stop in such an out-of-the-way place?"
Tom had learned a thing or two these past few months. And he countered immediately, "I was wonderin' the same about you, Mr. Menzies. What business do you have in these parts?"
Lade gave a guffaw. "Why, the same sort of business we all have, chub! Do y'think I don't know yer Mr. Brown is gone to France? Now what sort of business would he get up to there?"
Menzies regarded Tom closely, as if searching for a sign that he understood. "Indeed, I am very sorry to miss him. I'll look forward to seeing him on my way back through, but for now--" he turned to Lade-- "I would be glad to retire to my room. Is it the same as usual, or has Mr. Brown taken it, too?"
Turning scarlet, Lade rubbed a hand across the back of his neck and squirmed. "Now ye knows I don't like to disoblige ye, but that room is sort of took. I can turn Katy out of hers for ye, though."
Menzies grimaced. "I shall want the sheets aired, but you can tell the wench to join me when I'm settled."
A knot quickly formed in the pit of Tom's stomach. Katy had been made to entertain Lade's guests in the past. But that was all supposed to be over--wasn't it? She had not been used that way since St. Mars and he had come to the Fox and Goose. St. Mars had hired her to tend his clothes, for there was no man in Pigden with the skills to do it. It had never occurred to Tom that Katy would be asked to whore again.
He found himself saying, belligerently, "Katy works for my master now. She's not Lade's servant any more."
Lade threw him a glare, but Tom drew himself up, daring either man to contradict him.
Fortunately, Menzies looked only mildly annoyed as he turned to say to Lade, "If this is the sort of welcome I am to receive in this house, you will be very fortunate if I ever stop here again. But--" he glanced at Tom, with a less than friendly look-- "perhaps your Mr. Brown will no longer be here when I return. Either that, or he will find a way to satisfy me for the inconvenience he has caused."
He picked up his tricorn and riding cloak and, with a sneer for Tom, strode past him and up the narrow stairs.
"Now why did ye go and do that?" Lade asked, as soon as he was gone. "As if yer master had ever lain wif my wench. He don't even fancy 'er to my way o' thinkin'."
Tom hedged, unable to explain. "The less that gentl'man stops here the better."
"Well, ye'd better get used to 'im. He rides back and forth from Lunnon to the coast. I sees 'im two or three times a year a least. And whenever he's been, ye always hears of somethin' goin' on. There must be somethin' brewin' up in Lunnon for sure or he wouldn't be comin' through now."
Tom, who was shaking strangely in the wake of his confrontation over Katy, didn't bother to attend. He took himself upstairs to his own room, where he tidied his things.
Later that night, when he heard Katy's light footfall on the floor of the gallery, he went out to meet her. Her look of surprise made his innards feel topsy-turvy.
"You're to sleep in my room tonight," he said roughly. "That fellow Menzies has taken yours. The master won't mind if I use his room this once." He would bed down on the floor, but she didn't need to know that.
"Oh, I wouldn't want to turn you out--" she started.
But he stopped her with a glare. "You'll do as you're told! Mr. Brown told me to watch over all his belongings, and that means you, too."
Her eyes grew round, then they relaxed into a cautious, but friendly stare.
Tom could not be certain, but he thought he detected a measure of relief in her gaze.
He knew he should say something cutting--something like, he wouldn't have her wagging her tongue about Mr. Brown to every man who stopped at the inn. He couldn't let her think he cared if she slept with Mr. Menzies or anyone else. But he couldn't bring himself to say it, not when it just wasn't fair.
St. Mars had given no sign that he regarded her as his property. But, Tom reasoned, she had always belonged to somebody or other. Better St. Mars than anyone else he could think of.
She was still staring up at him, as if wondering what had brought his anger on, when he had always been so careful not to take any notice of her.
Tom felt a hoarseness in his throat. "I just don't like this Mr. Menzies, is all."
The smile Katy gave him was rather sad. "Neither do I. So I'm glad if Mr. Brown doesn't want me to please him."
"I'm sure he don't. Not him or anyone else. You've got enough work to do, and you couldn't do a good enough job if--well, if--" His tongue felt tied.
"I understand, Mr. Barnes." She gave a lift to her shoulders. "Thank you very much for giving up your room."
Chagrinned by the stories he had made up, Tom lowered his head and mumbled a goodnight.
Then, he did not breathe again until the door to St. Mars's chamber was closed behind him and locked with a key.