.. excerpt from
A Killing Frost
-- Chapter One --
On the bank of the River Thames, just south of the tiny village of Lambeth between the Archbishop’s Palace and the Manor of Vauxhall, stood a modest property, the secret residence of Gideon Fitzsimmons, the outlawed Viscount St. Mars. Within its wooden palings nestled a neat red-brick house, a barn, a brew house and stables, and a smattering of smaller outbuildings.
This winter morning, a full three hours before dawn, with no church bells near enough to hear and only his countryman’s instincts to wake him, St. Mars’s groom, Thomas Barnes, rousted himself from his bed in the stables. He put on a pair of thick woolen breeches and a woolen waistcoat over his knee-length shirt, then a pair of leather boots, and hurried to accomplish his work.
A peek at the house across the yard assured him that Katy was stirring. She would barely have slept, as excited about today as he was. For the past few weeks, as they had gone about their duties, tending to the master’s horses and keeping his house, tales of the Frost Fair set up on the frozen Thames had tempted them. And, now, St. Mars had given them leave to go.
Tom pitched down hay for the three horses in his charge. Then he saddled Beau, once the favourite mount of St. Mars’s father, the late Earl of Hawkhurst. It was nearly a year, Tom realized, since he had taken the horse from the stable at Rotherham Abbey to rescue St. Mars from his gaolers. Today he had permission to use the big horse, which would have to be exercised in any case. In this inclement weather, with so much snow clogging the highways, he and Katy would never be able to reach London Bridge on foot.
The blacksmith in Lambeth had fashioned them two pairs of ice-creepers to help them walk upon the frozen river—flat strips of iron with spikes bent down at both ends. After bundling himself in a greatcoat and woolen scarf, Tom sat on a wooden chest to put his creepers on, sliding one beneath the instep of each boot, and buckling them on with leather straps. As soon as Beau had finished eating, Tom led him out into the bitter cold and crossed the snow-covered yard, pleased to find how well the ice-creepers gripped.
He found Katy in the kitchen, placing extra faggots on the fire. When he entered, she looked up and gave him such a radiant smile that his pulse began to pound.
Fighting a grin so big it strained the muscles in his face, he said, “Best get a move on. Mustn’t let Beau get cold.”
Katy gave an eager nod and hastened to wrap herself in a woolen cloak and mittens.
“Better wear that scarf the master gave you. We’ll be standing on the ice all day.” He handed Katy the second pair of ice-creepers and waited, impatient to be off, while she sat to fasten them on.
The master would still be asleep upstairs. Katy had arranged for a local woman to cook and serve him his meals.
Tom had faithfully served St. Mars since he was in leading strings, and had remained with him after he had been accused of a terrible crime. Now, instead of overseeing the vast stables at Hawkhurst House in Westminster and Rotherham Abbey in Kent—two of the six estates St. Mars should have inherited from his father—Tom’s duties consisted of tending to three horses, while acting as his master’s valet, footman, and steward, and carrying out whatever other jobs St. Mars might give him. So far, these jobs had ranged from purchasing a houseful of furniture at auction to helping St. Mars break into a barber-surgeon’s shop. Katy, too, had her share of work, from cooking and keeping house for them all to making the master’s disguises he wore when venturing into London. The time they had had free this past year had been scant, but now they would have a whole day to divert themselves.
Tom had promised Katy he would not let his worry over St. Mars spoil their outing, even though the master had seemed more restless of late, pacing his room like one of the great beasts in the Tower. It wasn’t natural for a young gentleman to have nothing to do, especially a man as hell-bent on action as St. Mars. With no land to oversee, no game to hunt, no friends to meet at the coffee house or the gaming table, he had nothing with which to occupy his time. All he could do was brood over the recent rebellion and the captured rebel lords awaiting trial in the Tower.
Seeing that Katy was ready, Tom put these worrisome thoughts aside, and hustled her outside where Beau was tied. Great puffs of steam issued from the big horse’s nostrils. He stood placidly while they mounted. Then, with Katy riding pillion, they took the King’s highway to Lambeth, which curved northward along the river.
Tom kept Beau to a walk, letting him pick his own way through the snow. Beneath slippery layers of snow and ice, the road was pitted with deep waggon ruts, and he had no wish to lame his horse.
In the month of November, a brutal frost had descended upon London. With no respite from the cold in fifty days, the River Thames had frozen solid. The tides that carried in ships twice daily from all parts of the world had ceased flowing. The great seaworthy vessels that usually crowded the Custom House dock had escaped to warmer ports. The waterway that bustled daily with upwards of seven thousand boats and seventeen hundred barges, ferrying Londoners from Gravesend to Windsor, had stilled. Then, the snow had come, blanketing every surface in a thick layer of white, and muffling the sounds of life that remained.
The night was black, with no moon or stars to light their way. For days, thick clouds had obscured the sky. Still, the brightness of the snow cast its own sort of glow, revealing objects as darker shades of grey. To their left loomed indistinct structures where houses should be. Rounded mounds marked locations where farmers’ carts had been abandoned in the fields. Leafless trees jabbed up like thick, ragged posts, and windmills made slow, ghostly revolutions in the air.
The village of Lambeth soon appeared, confounding their sight. Ice and snow blanketed every object from the graves in the churchyard to the rooftops of houses, which gleamed even in the dark. Mysterious shapes thrust up on both sides, things buried so deeply it would take an astrologer to divine what lay beneath the snow. The glow from the lamps hanging outside the Archbishop’s Palace and St. Mary’s Church reflected brightly off the white ground, but the light cast everything beyond its reach into deeper gloom.
Tom steered Beau to the west of the palace and let him find his way along Narrow Wall on a trail laid down by other horses. This earthen wall, built to protect the houses from floods, would take them the long way round, but by coming this way, they would avoid the treacherous ice sure to be hidden in Lambeth Marsh.
Along their left lay the small, mean houses of London’s watermen, still unlit at this hour to save on candles. With no work now for upwards of seven weeks, the Thames watermen were desperate to feed their families. Behind their houses, Tom could see vague shadows in the snow, the hulls of their overturned boats. To his right in the spring would be acres of neat market gardens with here and there a farmer’s house, but as black as the night was, he could make nothing out. The silence, where normally he would hear the snap of sails, the cries of watermen, and the clunk and swish of oars, was eerie. Then, a break appeared between two houses, and he caught his first glimpse of torches bobbing about on the Thames.
For the first time in more than thirty years, the river had frozen hard enough for Londoners to erect booths upon the ice. Vendors of all sorts had set up tents, for the Frost Fair belonged to no one—and to everyone. No royal charter had been required to set it up; no authority had the right to collect fees. Every day, as long as the ice held, revelers from London could make their way down to the river to enjoy the free treat. With river vessels grounded, only coaches and chairmen could carry passengers across the ice, but with the vast amount of snow that had fallen, few carriages were in use. For days, the streets of London had been nearly impassable. Drays and sleds pulled by horses made deliveries to the booths stretched across the ice, and any waterman lucky enough to find work would be hawking food or ale from one of the stands.
As Tom and Katy rounded the river bend, a vista opened and Katy saw what Tom had glimpsed. She gasped at the sight of the torches, twinkling like fairy fires, as vendors, holding their flames aloft, bustled about to open their tents. The dancing lights spread from Temple Stairs eastward almost as far as they could see. In her excitement, Katy gave Tom’s waist a squeeze, making him chuckle aloud. Startled by the unfamiliar noise, Beau tossed his head, so Tom composed himself before turning into the alley that led to Bull Stairs.
He had arranged to leave Beau with the proprietor of the Bull Tavern, for no livery stood within reach. At this early hour, the tavern was already humming with custom. They pulled up outside, and a boy ran out to take Beau’s reins. When they had dismounted and Tom had repeated his instructions for the horse’s care twice, Katy, who had never taken her eyes off the lights, grabbed Tom’s hand and gave it an impatient tug. Nearly jerked off his feet, he let her pull him down the river bank to the stairs.
Within a few moments, they both were standing on the ice, and Tom was grateful for the foresight that had made him purchase the creepers. Though walking was awkward, he could feel the spikes’ firm grip. Beneath his boots the surface of the ice was rough from freezing in high wind. The morning was still so dark, he could barely see to put one foot in front of the other. The vendors’ torches cast circles of light near the entrances to the tents, but everything beyond stood in black, the shadows made darker by the contrasting light.
Ahead lay the first row of tents, their pointed outlines faintly visible in the glow of lanterns hanging in front. Some vendors had hung banners from poles to announce their trade, but there was not yet light enough to read them. As Tom and Katy headed towards Temple Stairs, through the dark they saw the shadowy figures of people moving between the canvas tents. The booths had been set up in two rows, extending south from the bottom of Temple Stairs for forty or fifty yards across the ice before turning to run parallel to the opposite bank to end at London Bridge.
The winter sun might be slow to rise, but money could be exchanged even in the dark. The cries of men and women hawking clothes, plate and earthenware, oranges, meat and brandy, tobacco, and dozens of other goods came drifting to them through the bitter wintry air.
By the time Tom and Katy had reached the farthest of the stalls, the difficult walk had rendered them breathless. They paused to rest and to peer at the banners dangling out from the tents, which gave the makeshift village the look of a London street with its wooden signs. From here, the lanterns flickered across the signs, rendering them almost readable. From somewhere in front, Tom heard a voice crying, “Pancakes!” and his stomach gave a growl. He grabbed Katy’s arm and steered her firmly towards the call. But before they could reach the pancake booth, another hawker’s cry brought Tom skidding to a halt.
“Strange and bloody news! Printed right ’ere on the ice! Read ’ow the fearsome ’ighwayman Blue Satan chased a foul murderer to ’is death!”
Katy gave a startled cry. Tom hushed her with a squeeze of his hand. He drew her arm through his, before turning in the direction of the chapman’s voice.
The sky above their heads was turning grey with the coming dawn. Though the morning was still dark, Tom’s eyes had grown accustomed to the gloom. The printer’s tent stood in the front row of booths. Tom could see the man, waving sheets of paper back and forth, his cries mingling with the distant voice of an ancient ballad singer selling sheets of music. A steady thump from inside the tent told Tom that the printer was operating the press.
“How much for the chapbook?” Tom asked the old man.
“Naught but a threepenny bit. And, see ’ere, ’ow it’s marked, ‘Printed on the Thames the Year of Our Lord 1716.’ Ye’ll not find another’un like it. Thank yer, master,” he said, as Tom handed him a coin. “Could I interest yer in the Comical Life and Tragical Death of the Old Woman that was ’ang’d for Drowning ’erself in Ratcliffe ’igh-Way?”
Tom snorted in refusal, while pocketing the octavo he’d purchased. St. Mars would want to see the tale written about him. It was not yet light enough to read the chapbook, but Tom intended to read it, too. It was bad enough that St. Mars had lost all his property and his rights when accused of a crime he had not committed. Now, that people believed a highwayman by the name of Blue Satan was loose in London, terrorizing folk and chasing murderers to their deaths, a second reward had been placed on his young, reckless head.
Tom’s stomach gave a louder growl.
“Come along now.” Katy had sensed the change in his mood. “You’ll feel better once you’ve got some of those pancakes in you.”
His humour had surely not been helped by hunger, so Tom let her lead him to the pancake booth. Inside, they located a bench where they could sit and down coffee and pancakes, while listening to music issuing from another tent.
Tom ate greedily, shoveling down more than a dozen cakes, before a shriek of horror jerked him to his feet. Screams of fright broke over the ice, bringing everything to a halt.
Telling Katy to stay where she was, Tom joined the sudden rush, as people threw off their torpor to fly out of the stall. A commotion was coming from behind this row of booths, to Tom’s left near Temple Stairs. On either side, people spewed out of tents, heading for the sounds. Tom was knocked from behind as someone slipped and fell on the ice. The light was better now, the sky a paler shade of grey. The contrasting patches of light and shadow had resolved into shapes. Soon colours would be visible, but the light was bright enough for Tom to see the alarm on people’s faces.
A frightening idea gave him pause—maybe the ice had split. Someone might have fallen into the icy water. He thought of Katy left behind alone, but the river beneath his feet felt as solid as before. He took careful steps forward to see what the hubbub was about.
In the second row of tents a wooden hut been built as a kind of open shelter, in case any group of dignitaries wished to witness one of the races held upon the ice. Behind this structure, which should have stood empty last night, a cluster of onlookers stood gaping and cringing in horror at something just out of his sight.
As Tom craned his neck to see past them, a ghastly image appeared. A man’s dead body stood leaning against the wooden wall. The corpse must have been placed there after it had frozen, for it was tipped against the wall like a plank. As the glow of dawn illuminated the scene, the strong lines of the corpse’s face emerged, etched harshly in death. The light increased, faster now. The agony in the man’s expression became visible, making the onlookers gasp. Death had turned the man’s flesh blue and stretched it mercilessly over his bones, but some other, more diabolical agent had twisted the muscles of his face into a grotesque mask. Now, the outline of his body was fully revealed. His back was painfully arched like a drawn bow, his hands curled into claws. Then, as Tom stared, mesmerized, something even more alarming emerged in the dawn as the colours of his garments were revealed.
The man was dressed in a coronation suit, his twisted shoulders enveloped in a red velvet robe with a white miniver cape. A sword was belted awkwardly to his hip. His shaven head was topped by a long periwig, which sat it askew, and crowned by a baron’s coronet. A sense of horror crept down Tom’s spine. His knees began to shake before he forced his gaze away.
A cry was set up to alert the watch, but when someone would have run to fetch a watchman, it was discovered there was no legal authority on the ice. No city ward had jurisdiction over the middle of the Thames. As men huddled in confusion to debate which body to contact, the Thames River Authority or the Mayor himself, Tom turned away from the scene. He could do nothing useful, and it would not help St. Mars for his groom to be questioned about a murder. Still shivering from what he had witnessed, he made his way through the crowd to collect Katy at the pancake stall.
The pancakes he had so recently eaten churned miserably in his stomach. He was not sure he could forget the image of the corpse in the coronation suit long enough to enjoy the fair—not without a strong quart of beer, at least. Something about it, besides the bizarre appearance of the man’s clothes, had rattled him. It was a notion that something about that blue, tortured face looked familiar.
Back in his house, Tom’s master, Gideon Fitzsimmons, the outlaw Viscount St. Mars, was awakened by an unfamiliar noise inside his bedchamber. He raised himself on one elbow and peered out of the bed curtains to find a strange young woman making up his fire. Then he recalled that he had given Tom and Katy leave to be gone all day, and he suppressed a sigh. He hauled himself to a sitting position to begin what promised to be a long, empty day.
His sudden movement startled the girl. Turning abruptly, she dropped the shovel she’d been using to clean out the hearth. It hit the tiles with a clang, spilling ashes on the tiles, and a cry of dismay escaped her. She winced, then hastened to her feet to curtsy. Two frightened eyes stared back at Gideon from beneath a plain cloth cap. “Oh, pardon, sir! Mistress said as I wasn’t to wake you.”
“You didn’t.” Gideon stretched and gave a yawn. “Or if you did, it doesn’t matter. I usually rise at this hour. I won’t eat you, you know,” he added, smiling, as she stayed frozen, as if amazed he could speak.
“No, sir. ’Course not, sir.” She bobbed another curtsy. “Would you be wantin’ me to go on with yer fire?”
“Indeed I would. It’s as cold as a tomb in here. You must be half-frozen yourself.”
This won him a shy look. “Oh, no, sir! It was ever so warm in the kitchen when I come in.”
“I’m pleased to hear it. Please do go about your work, and don’t allow me to disturb you— Margaret, is it? I believe that’s what Katy said your name was. As soon as you’ve finished with the fire, I could take my morning chocolate.”
Another bob, another frightened look, perhaps in contemplation of her next task, and she turned back to the faggots she had stacked upon his hearth. A few embers still burned in the grate. Katy must have replenished the fire herself once during the night. With a few careful puffs from the bellows, the new wood soon caught fire, and a healthy flame reached up the chimney.
Within a short while—much sooner than he had expected, given the inauspicious start—Gideon was sitting up in bed, propped against his satin-covered pillows and warmed by his coverlets, sipping the chocolate Margaret had brought him. When he had finished his breakfast, he kicked off the covers, gave the fire in the grate a few good pokes, and dressed before the fresh burst of heat could ebb. He donned a clean linen shirt and drawers, a thick pair of leather breeches, and a long wool waistcoat and knee-length coat, before settling a brown tie wig on his head. In the meagre morning light he checked in his looking glass to make sure that none of his long yellow hair showed beneath. Then, pulling on a stout pair of boots, a warm felt hat, a pair of riding gloves, and a fur-lined cloak with a high collar and one shoulder cape, he walked down the stairs and outside.
The cold air stung his eyes and burned the tip of his nose. He hunched his shoulders, shuddering as the wind sliced a trail between his shoulder blades. As he set off across the yard, the deep snow crunched beneath his boots. Pausing just a moment, he glanced across the Thames, at the opposite bank. Today his view was of a white palette of snow-covered fields with Peterborough House, the home of his father’s friend, looking small in the distance. The horse ferry, which would usually be plying the river from just below the earl’s house across to Lambeth Palace, was iced in on the frozen Millbank.
Gideon had taken this house in Surrey to be near to London, but far enough from his family’s house in Piccadilly to avoid being recognized by anyone who might choose to reap the reward the Crown had placed upon his head. Here, in the country south of Lambeth, no one knew him as the Viscount St. Mars. To the neighbours he was Mr. Mavors, an eccentric gentleman who dressed in unpredictable ways. They would be shocked to discover that his disguises concealed not only an accused murderer, but also the infamous highwayman Blue Satan.
The winter sun had still not broken over the horizon when Gideon cracked the stable door and slipped inside. As he lit the lantern Tom had left hanging by the door, he was greeted by the rustling sounds of his horses. Looby, the aptly-named gelding, stretched out his long bay neck and shook it like a wet dog, while Penny, his coppery Arabian prize, emitted a series of snorts, jerking her head and stomping, as if indignant that anyone had had the effrontery to set foot inside her domain.
Gideon paused at Looby’s stall to offer him a handful of oats, which the horse ate after taking one suspicious sniff. He petted the big gelding’s neck and paid him fulsome compliments until Penny became jealous enough to reach her head over the stall door and butt him with her nose. Then, as if he had not purposely teased her, Gideon greeted her with an air of surprise and let her nuzzle at his pockets for the oats he had hidden. As she settled into a state of complaisance, he touched his forehead to hers and scratched behind her ears.
For just a moment he basked in the affection of this sensitive creature. More than anyone else she seemed to understand the perturbation that made it hard for him to sleep at night, but he knew this was just fancy on his part. Nervousness had simply been bred into her bones. It had nothing to do with the question that tormented him. What was he to do with himself now that he had no prospect of regaining his rights?
If he were in France, he could live openly on his own estate, safe from the law. As the Vicomte de St. Mars, he would be welcomed at the French court at Versailles or the Palace of Saint Germain-en-Laye, where the followers of James Stuart conspired to restore him to his throne. He could choose to spend his days hunting stag, flying his birds of prey, or overseeing his land. But the last time Gideon had crossed the Channel, he had nearly been discovered by a boarding party searching every vessel for the Pretender. It would be too dangerous to cross it again until the rebellion was over and the freedom of the seas restored. Even if he wished to risk it, no ships could sail now when every northern harbour was locked with ice. He was trapped in England, where on any day a passerby might recognize him and turn him in to claim a reward.
A gust slammed into the stable door and Penny jumped, disrupting their contact.
The morning courtesies were over.
Gideon saddled his horse and led her outdoors. Lately, he had formed the habit of riding to Lambeth Butts to read the newssheets at the tavern across from the Dutch pottery. He could always wait for Tom to fetch the papers from the King’s Head, but there was nothing else Gideon could do to break the monotony of his current existence, except exercise his horses. The longer nights of winter had been particularly tedious, except that wrapping his face against the cold made it easier to walk about without fear of being identified.
Before heading for the tavern, he rode Penny up and down the snow-covered lanes bordering the market gardens of Lambeth, taking care not to let her slip. Her high spirits made it hard to rein her in, but eventually even she grew tired of fighting the cold, and did not complain when an hour later he stabled her at the White Hart. He paid the ostlers well to see to her comfort, but they were so awed by the privilege of handling such a magnificent mare, he sometimes doubted the need to pay.
In the tavern, seated with his small beer amidst the potters and merchants smoking their long clay pipes, Gideon searched the papers for news. For a few weeks, he had believed the worst news of the rebellion in the North had already reached him. In December, he had watched as the Northumbrian rebels, some his father’s friends, had been marched in ignominy to prisons in London. They would be tried in Westminster Hall for treason. The scaffolding for the trial had already been built. Their only chance of a reprieve would be if King George showed them extraordinary mercy. Hundreds of other rebels had been captured and taken to Lancaster, where they had been packed in a room like sheep waiting for slaughter. The rebellion had seemed to be over, even if the Earl of Mar still led a band of Highlanders in Scotland.
Now, Gideon saw that the rumour he had heard and not believed was true. The newssheets reported that on Monday King George had gone before the House of Peers to state that he had grounds to believe the Pretender James Stuart had landed in Scotland.
Monday, also, was the day the rebel lords had been impeached for high treason. James Earl of Derwentwater, William Lord Widdrington, William Earl of Nithsdale, George Earl of Winton, Robert Earl of Carnwath, William Viscount Kenmure, and William Lord Nairn had been brought from the Tower to the House of Commons where the articles against them had been read. The rebellion had been characterized as an attempt to overthrow the Protestant Succession and blamed on Papacy.
Some of the accused lords were Papists, it was true, but among them, also, were devout Protestants. Their fight was not over Papacy, but about the true and lawful succession.
But no matter. They would be tried as villains. And, if James were truly come from France, King George could not afford to be merciful.
The hopes of the Jacobites would be revived, just when the best and most loyal of James’s English followers awaited trial. King George would send additional troops into Scotland to capture James. With the Swiss and Dutch soldiers he had summoned from the Continent, the Scots would stand no chance of defeating the Crown’s forces. By now, in the dead of winter, there would be nothing for the men to eat, no provisions. And little aid had arrived from France. George’s troops were well supplied from the South. The rebellion was doomed to failure, but how many more men would lose their lives before it came to an end?
For a few months Gideon’s hopes of recovering his title had rested with the Pretender’s cause, but experience had quickly taught him how misguided those hopes were.
Shaking off the gloom the news had brought him, his gaze moved quickly down the advertisements posted in the Daily Courant. Few would be of interest. It was unlikely that he would attend the theatre, or require the Infallible Cure for the Stone and Gravel, much less the Vivifying Drops for Barrenness in Women and Imbecility in Men—at least, he devoutly hoped not.
But there was one announcement he did soon expect to see.
His cousin Harrowby Fitzsimmons, whom Parliament had named Earl of Hawkhurst when declaring Gideon outlaw, was soon to be blessed with an heir. Gideon’s friend, Hester Kean, who was both cousin and lady-in-waiting to Isabella, Lady Hawkhurst, had informed him that Isabella was carrying a child. According to Mrs. Kean, the child was to be born in January, so every day Gideon expected to see the news that he had been displaced even further by the birth of a son.
The news had delivered yet another blow in a year of troubles a man born to such privilege could never have foreseen. It had pained Mrs. Kean to deliver it, too. He had tried for her sake to hide the despair it had caused him, for she was his only friend, his confidante, and he wanted to spare her any heartache on his account.
Today, he did not find the name Hawkhurst among the announcements, but his heart quickened as his eyes were caught by a cryptic message which could only be meant for him.
“If a Gentleman named Mavors, residing near the Village of Smarden, will come to the Bear Tavern, Bear Lane, near Leicester Fields, Tuesday next, at 10 in the Evening, he will learn something to his Advantage.”
Once before, Gideon had received a similar message, addressed to the alias he had used to purchase his house on the Thames. Smarden was the village in Kent where he had received mail after fleeing the authorities and finding shelter in a hedge-inn deep in the Weald.
This message could only be from the Duke of Bournemouth, a one-time adversary who, nevertheless, had been useful to him on that occasion. At one time they had been rivals for the favours of Isabella Mayfield, but since her marriage to Gideon’s cousin Harrowby, Gideon’s illusions about her had been shattered. The Duke, whose intentions had never been honourable, had already seen past her beauty to the shallowness of her soul. But, although Gideon’s yearning for her had long ago ceased, he had not forgotten the sting of the Duke’s scorn for a younger man who fancied himself in love. No encounter with his Grace of Bournemouth was likely to be pleasant, yet Gideon felt eager at the thought of a meeting. At least, he would have something to do besides waiting for the next day’s news to arrive.
With King George’s blessing, the Duke had married a German princess. He was certain to be a welcome figure at Court. Once upon a time, however, he had secretly flirted with James Stuart’s cause. Gideon was one of the only men in possession of this secret, and he had documents to prove it—a list of Jacobites his father had compiled. Gideon had kept the list in the event any of the gentlemen named there sought to excuse themselves by smearing his father’s name. The Duke had asked him to burn the papers or hand them over. Perhaps his reason for this meeting was merely to repeat that request. But with James Stuart in Scotland, and the Northumberland rebels in prison, Gideon had a feeling that something more urgent was involved.
In an eager stride he left the tavern and trudged back through the snow to the White Hart to collect his horse. Too engrossed in his thoughts to be cautious, he burst into the stables, and halted in mid-step when he saw two figures standing at the door to Penny’s stall.
At his entry, they looked up. One was the young hostler he paid to care for his horse. The other was a stranger—and by his looks, a gentleman. He had been leaning over the stall door, studying Penny, but now he straightened and looked Gideon over from head to toe.
“’Ere ’e is, sir,” the ostler said, “the gen’leman wot owns ’er.”
“Does he, indeed?” The man’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why this is a very fine piece of horseflesh you have here, sir. May I inquire where you bought her?”
Gideon cursed himself for his stupidity. He should never have left Penny in a place where a traveler might notice her and wonder how such a splendid horse had found its way into a stable at a common inn. If he had questioned the wisdom of leaving her exposed, however, he would have dismissed the concern with the thought that no one would be travelling the Hampshire road in such deep snow.
Today he had not worn much of a disguise. Fighting an urge to feel if his wig still covered his fair hair, he strove to calm a quickened pulse. Thinking fast, he said, “She was a gift from my father, sir, but if you are thinking of making me an offer for her, she is not for sale.” He tried to speak with nonchalance, but the muscles in his jaw felt stiff and his words sounded clipped.
The stranger continued to stare, his expression full of mistrust. “Oh, not I, sir. Why a horse like this must be worth several hundred pounds! I doubt many gentlemen of my acquaintance could afford her.”
Gideon judged it best not to respond to this statement, the purpose of which wasclearly to elicit more information. He nodded pleasantly, and begging the gentleman’s pardon, edged past him into Penny’s stall.
Taking the hint, the hostler hurried to saddle her, and, fortunately, she put up little resistance. Her outing this morning must have tired her, and Gideon had cut short his normal visit to the tavern. All she did, therefore, was toss her head a few times and roll her eyes so the whites showed. Gideon held the noseband of her bridle to keep her still while the boy hastened with his work.
“And do you live hereabouts?” The man was not so easily fobbed off.
Gideon turned a haughty gaze upon him, his noble instincts roused. “I often pass through, though what business that is of yours I fail to see.”
This strategy, though uncalculated, succeeded where a friendlier response might have failed. Faced with hauteur—when his suspicions, if justified, should have provoked fear or guilt—the man began to doubt the notion that had given rise to them. In his uncertain expression, Gideon could see him labouring to revise the scenario he had imagined—undoubtedly one involving a stolen horse. Now he must be wondering if Gideon could be a young nobleman on his way home, or one with a reason, salacious or otherwise, for visiting the White Hart.
Not giving him time to reconsider, Gideon led Penny past him, the hostler running ahead to open the stable door.
Out in the yard, the boy held Penny’s head while Gideon mounted. Then, after receiving his usual coin, he tipped his hat to him. Gideon did not turn to see if the stranger still watched him, but he had the unpleasant feeling that the man’s eyes were boring into his back long after he had turned out of sight of the White Hart.
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