Hoare and the missing Mids
"So, Hoare. You decided to obey the admiral's call after all, eh?" Francis Delancey's voice was supercilious. There was no love lost between him and Bartholomew Hoare; Hoare attributed this to the frequency of the port admiral's summonses. He counted himself lucky to hold a post as general dogsbody to Admiral Sir George Hardcastle. Perhaps Delancey felt the same. Maybe he believed that Hoare was plotting to supersede him as flag secretary.
For his part, Hoare cared nothing for Delancey's opinion of him. As long as the man avoided out-and-out affront, he could talk as toplofty as he pleased.
"Yes," Delancey went on. "Now, let me see. What was it this time? Devil take me." He shuffled the papers on his little desk as if in search of some document that would tell him why the admiral had commanded Hoare to appear at Admiralty House, Portsmouth, upon no notice at all.
"There it is, Delancey," Hoare whispered, "right under that minute on cordage consumption you were just handling." Mute he might almost be, but the bullet that had silenced his once-powerful voice ten years ago, on the Glorious First of June, and set him on the beach forever had left his eyes as sharp as ever.
"Oh. Of course," Delancey whispered in reply, then pretended to catch himself.
"Sorry, I'm sure," he said in a normal voice. "It's so easy to fall into imitation, don't you find?"
Hoare offered no reply but flipped his coattails into place, seated himself, and waited.
"Ah yes," Delancey said at last. "Here we are. Young Harcourt's gone adrift, that's what it is. He wants you to rout him out and get him back aboard his ship before she sails." Delancey made it sound as though he were the Almighty-which, of course, Admiral Sir George Hardcastle was, as far as the two lieutenants were concerned.
"What's so important about a missing midshipman, pray?"
"He's an Honourable, that's what," Delancey said. "The Honourable Gerald Love Percival Timothy Hardcourt, son and heir of Theobald Love Percival Harcourt, Earl Barncastle."
Delancey smirked. "Which makes him the grandson of the Duke of Cheshire. His Grace is highly displeased with our admiral that we have misplaced the boy. As of course is the lad's father, the earl. You're to find him forthwith.
"Sir George told me to tell you," the flag secretary added in haste, to forestall Hoare's demand to see the admiral himself.
"I shall take your word for it-for now," Hoare whispered. "Where was he last seen, and by whom?"
"How should I know?"
Hoare sighed. It would take the threat of keel-hauling, he saw, to get Delancey to cooperate, and Hoare doubted his keel-hauling rights over the admiral's pet lamb.
"Well then, what ship does the young gentleman belong to?" he asked.
"Ah… Hebe, 32. She's under orders to the East Indies station."
Hoare envied the missing mid; Hebe, a light frigate, had spent her last cruise snapping up stray Frenchmen, and her people had been cock-of-the-walk in the waterside taverns and brothels ever since she made fast to her designated mooring in the Solent.
"And then there are the other two mids-gone adrift, too," Delancey added casually.
"And that's the total of missing young gentlemen?"
"Are you quite sure, Francis?" Hoare's whisper took on an ominous tone. Levity in the course of professional rivalry was all very well, but every so often the flag secretary must be reminded, however subtly, that Bartholomew Hoare was a dangerous man to meet on the field of honor.
"Very good. Be so kind, then, as to inform the admiral that I am taking on the investigation forthwith. I shall report my progress, if any, to him. Good day, Francis."
"Sloop ahoy, there!"
The hail came from Hebe's entry port. At least the frigate's anchor watch was alert, Bartholomew Hoare said to himself. He eased his little sloop Devastation into the wind and let her run up to Hebe's landing stage.
He raised one finger to show that there was an officer aboard-himself, since he was Devastation's sole occupant. While she was coasting up to the stage, slowly losing headway, he busied himself by collecting her flapping, clubbed leg-o'-mutton mainsail and giving it a hasty furl, using the main sheet in lieu of reef points. Then he tossed a coil of dock line to the attendant seaman and cleated his own end of it.
"Let her fall back till she lies astern of the frigate," Hoare ordered in his loudest whisper.
Hoare was used to this. He beckoned the startled hand closer and leaned forward to repeat his whisper.
"Aye aye, sir," the other bellowed. "Can ye make it up the boardin' ladder yerself, sir, or shall I hail the deck fer a chair to be lowered for ye?"
Hoare was used to this reaction, too. All too often strangers assumed that because he was nearly mute he was deaf as well, and enfeebled. Others, like Delancey, whispered in imitation-unconscious or all too conscious-of Hoare himself. In this case the hand's bellow was perfectly innocent. Hoare merely gave him an insulted stare and swung himself lightly up Hebe's boarding ladder. His purchase of Devastation from a poverty-stricken fellow lieutenant had taken place only a few weeks ago, but he was already feeling the result in an improved physical condition.
The officer of the watch awaited him, telescope under his arm. Hoare raised his hat to the quarterdeck; the other touched his own hat in response.
"And you would be…" he asked.
Hoare had ready one of the explanatory printed slips of paper he used for such occasions.
"Bartholomew Hoare," it read, "Lieutenant, Royal Navy. That I am not speaking to you is not a matter of intentional discourtesy but is due to my inability to speak above a whisper."
"On the matter of your frigate's midshipmen," Hoare whispered.
"Oh yes. I'm Satterly, second lieutenant. Welcome aboard."
The two men shook hands.
"Mr. Steptoe!" Mr. Satterly sang out.
"Sir?" To Hoare's surprise the child who presented himself at his lieutenant's elbow was a midshipman.
"Escort Mr. Hoare here to Captain Davison."
"I had thought," Hoare whispered, "that Hebe's mids had all gone adrift. That's why I'm here, after all."
"Mr. Steptoe is by far the youngest in her cockpit," Mr. Satterly said. "Considering what his seniors were likely to get up to during their run ashore, Mr. Edwardes-that's our first lieutenant, you knowthought it best to make him duty mid the other night. Now, Mr. Hoare, unless you work a miracle on our behalf, he'll be duty mid for the rest of this commission."
At this, Mr. Steptoe looked ready to drown in a sea of dismay. Hoare made what he hoped was a reassuring noise.
"This way, if you please, sir," Mr. Steptoe squeaked. At least, Hoare thought, he can squeak. That was more than Hoare could manage.
Hoare could have found his way aft himself; as he had known immediately by her vestigial poop deck, Hebe was built to the standard lines of the 1791 series of frigates, and he'd shipped in one of her sisters himself. But he followed his guide obediently, ducked through the low door below the quarterdeck into officers' country, and brought to at the door to the captain's cabin. It was guarded by a red-coated marine, of course.
Upon sighting an officer, the lobster came to the "present." Mr. Steptoe opened the door and stood aside.
"Mr. Hoare, sir, from the port admiral," he said.
"Oh yes. Thankee, Mr. Steptoe. Come in, Mr. Hoare."
Captain Virgil Davison laid his pen down and rose to receive his guest. He looked relieved by the interruption. Hoare had hardly ever seen a captain in port who looked less than harried-burdened with accumulated ship's paperwork from ashore, and with the disciplinary problems that sprang up like mushrooms whenever a vessel dropped her hook for more than a casual hour or two. This captain was no exception. His graying black hair was tousled as though he had been running his fingers through it steadily ever since he sat down at his desk this morning. He was in his shirtsleeves, the right cuff of which was turned back to prevent ink-stains.
"You may go, Barkis," he told the anxious-looking, pouchy man at his side. The man, liberally sprinkled with snuff, had the earmarks of a purser, and Captain Davison appeared to have been raking him over the coals for some dereliction. For all Hoare knew, every purser afloat was derelict in one way or another-skimping on the slops, adulterating supplies, general petty cheating if no more. When this one had slunk off, Davison extended his hand.
"Welcome aboard, Mr. Hoare. Forgive the informality, do. Sorry it can't be a more pleasant occasion."
Davison was Hoare's height, which meant that both men had to stoop to clear Hebe's low overhead. The two were about of an age. The captain's brown eyes looked keenly into Hoare's faded gray ones.
His uniform coat hung from a hook fixed to a nearby bulkhead. Hoare noted that it bore an epaulet on each shoulder, signifying that its wearer had more than three years' seniority as post captain. With his entire being Hoare envied him. He, Bartholomew Hoare, would never carry the weight of even a single epaulet, on either shoulder.
"Take a chair, won't you?" Davison gestured toward a corner on the starboard side of the great stern window; through the sparkling panes Hoare could see his own Devastation lying at the end of her dock line, well clear of Hebe's stern so that neither vessel could damage the other. The hand at the landing stage was well trained, then; high marks for Edwardes, her first.
Davison called to his servant for port and biscuits. While they were awaiting them, Davison inquired about Hoare's little craft.
"How have you named her?"
"Well, sir, she's Devastation-today, that is."
"Today?" Davison's eyebrows lifted in inquiry.
"Yes. You see, after I purchased her I received so many suggestions for names from friends whom I did not wish to offend that I decided I would make her something of a movable feast…" (here Hoare had to pause to take breath) "… like Easter in the church calendar, you know. So I adopted them all. I keep a variety of trail boards below in her bilges, their inscriptions facedown, where they can serve double duty as floorboards. I change them as the mood strikes me, or when we set forth on a new adventure together. I've only owned her for six weeks, and Devastation is the third name she's carried."
Captain Davison roared with laughter.
"First good laugh I've had since my mids disappeared," he said. "Your good health, sir, and may you and your ship have good luck."
"I seldom trust in luck, sir," Hoare whispered, "so I've been arming her in readiness for whatever hazard may come her way."
"Indeed? Tell me about it."
"Well, sir, if you look sharply at her bows, you'll see a pair of odd-looking sockets."
Davison rose and peered out his cabin window at the little vessel. Devastation looked smug, Hoare thought, as if she knew she was being inspected by an expert.
"Yes. I see them," Davison said. "What are they for?"
"The sockets are for mounting a one-pounder swivel or jingal, sir, from a hulk that was being broken up. It had been part of miscellaneous ballast, it seems… and from its looks it was cast somewhere in the Levant. It might have been fired at Lepanto. But I found it to be sound, so I furbished it up, procured a garland of shot for it, and stowed the whole thing in her bilges."
"Beneath her spare names, I imagine," Davison said. "What else?"
"At last count, sir, she also carried five grenades, a cavalry saber, a Kentucky rifle that is my pride and joy… and a crossbow with a sheaf of quarrels."
"A dangerous craft indeed, Mr. Hoare. I shall make sure not to run athwart your hawse.
"Now. You'll want to know about the event that caused me to request your services of Sir George."
"Do you want to question me, sir," Davison asked, "or shall I recount the history?"
"The latter, if you please, sir. It's easier on my voice… or rather, on my lack of one. I'll interrupt you at need, if I may."
"Very good," Davison said. "Well, then:
"You know, I'm sure, that Hebe is under orders for the East Indies. I'd much rather we joined Nelson, of course, but their lordships in London chose otherwise. Out of kindness to my three elder midshipmen, I granted them twenty-four hours' shore leave, beginning four nights ago. They're a decent group of lads-no bashfulness, no bullyin', no buggery-and in Edwardes' opinion they deserved a last fling ashore. I agreed.
"Besides, all of 'em have interest at the admiralty. Young Harcourt's the Duke of Cheshire's grandson. Young Dacres is a nephew of Dacres of Guerriere; Buchanan-well, his people have owned half of Scotland since James III. Why, even little Steptoe's mother is in-waiting to Queen Charlotte. Only decent-looking woman at court in my opinion. So you can see it's in my own interest to keep the lads as happy and as healthy as the Service permits while we train 'em up to be good officers and good sailors. They are shapin' well if I do say so. Or at least they were.
"In any case, off they went in a body, merry as grigs, leavin' little Steptoe behind lookin' ready to weep his heart out at bein' kept aboard. Millar, cox of the liberty boat, saw 'em troop off into the town, on their way to drink, dissipation, and worse, I suppose. That was the last any one of us has seen of 'em."
"Did anyone make inquiries, sir?" Hoare inquired. "Were they seen by others?"
"Yes to your first question, Hoare, no to your second." Captain Davison's desk might be a hurrah's-nest, Hoare observed, but his mind was shipshape enough.
"I put Mr. Galloway ashore-he commands our marines-with his sergeant and half his men, ordered to inquire at all the drinking spots and other gathering places. They drew a complete blank. No one had seen any stray midshipmen, none at all."
In Hoare's opinion Captain Davison's choice of sleuth-hounds was a poor one. Since the marines' duties included those of a kind of seagoing police, the maritime world tended to look on them with a mixture of contempt and fear. The innkeeper or whore ready to answer a lobster's questions would be hard to find. However, Hoare kept that opinion behind his teeth.
"My story's not quite ended, Mr. Hoare," Davison said. "The night before last, after securin' the liberty boat for the night, Millar asked permission to see me. This is what he handed me."
He rose from his place beside Hoare and crossed the cabin to his cluttered desk. After leafing through the piles of papers and muttering, he returned triumphantly with a paper that he handed his guest.
The paper was severely crumpled and caked with dried mud. This made for hard reading, so Hoare laid it flat on the little table between their two elegant chairs and smoothed out the creases. Even then he found it hard to decipher the penciled handwriting and must hold it up to the fading light. A passing shower had hidden the afternoon sun.
We have your three Mids in our keping. At this writting they are in good helth and spirits but how long they shall continue in this state, depends on the maner of your redem-ing them. In the folowing fashon:
For the Duke's lad, TБ1000 in gold. For young Buchanan, TБ750 in gold. For the Dacers boy only TБ500 in honnor of his galant Uncel. For the entire Lot, TБ2000 sterling in Gold. Warranted Unharmed.
You will set the sum afloat in a unmaned skiff off Bembrige, on the next ebb tide after your receipt of further instructions from us. When we have the Gold in our posesin we will Reese those Mids you have Paid For.
If not you an their grieving Parents can say a long Goodby to thiere Pride and Joys.
For now, Hoare decided, he would withhold his opinion of this demand note. It had some odd properties, and he wanted to think about them. If only he had a handwriting specialist on hand. Not for the first time, in fact, he wished he had access to a team of experts in forensic matters-lay as well as criminal. He could pen them up somewhere, in a ship perhaps, where they would be on call at all times.
But, he realized, Captain Davison was looking at him expectantly.
"Well, sir," Hoare said, "'Robin Hood' is explicit enough about what he wants for his captives. I don't suppose you've had word from the boys' families. There won't have been time."
Davison shook his head. "Naturally, as soon as I read the message you are holding, I sent off letters to the families posthaste, as well-of course-as the signal I sent to Sir George. The one that brought you here."
"Yes, sir," Hoare said. "And there is something strange there. Sir George's flag secretary gave me the impression that Cheshire already knew of Harcourt's abduction."
"Impossible," Davison declared. "Why, I only sent word to the boys' families night before last, as I said. My letters can hardly have reached any of them yet."
"As you say, sir. In any case, will you permit me to question some of your people? Mr. Steptoe, for example, and Millar, the coxswain? Mr. Galloway, the lieutenant of marines, too, if it's not too much trouble."
"Of course. I'll have Edwardes put all three of 'em at your disposal."
Davison raised his voice.
"Pass the word for Mr. Edwardes! Ask him to be so kind as to attend me for a moment!"
There, Hoare told himself bitterly, is an example of why he was debarred eternally from command at sea. He had no voice to raise.
Mr. Edwardes, a spry, white-haired man clearly double Captain Davison's age, appeared within moments. The captain introduced the two lieutenants and explained Hoare's needs.
"Perhaps, Mr. Edwardes, you would make space available for Mr. Hoare in the wardroom so that he can hold his interviews in private."
"Easily, sir. It still wants three hours before we dine. That would give you an hour for each interview, Mr. Hoare. Will that suffice?"
"It should be ample, sir," Hoare whispered.
With that and Davison's firmly expressed wishes for his mids' early, safe return, the two officers took their leave. As Hoare departed, he clearly heard Davison sigh and return to his paper slavery.
"You are welcome to dine with Hebe's officers, Mr. Hoare," Edwardes said.
"Thank you, sir," Hoare replied, "but another time perhaps. After your mids are home again, do you think? For now, there is not a moment to lose."
Mr. Galloway was at liberty just then, so he was the first to appear before Hoare. Hoare was enthroned at the end of the long wardroom table in the mess president's armchair. Galloway was a standard marine officer, his red face clashing with the scarlet of his coatee and the crimson of his officer's sash. As usual among marines, he had a rather stupid look.
"Seen you before, sir, I think," Galloway said.
"Yes. In Barsack's fencing shop."
By this the lobster meant the salon d'escrime of Hoare's good friend and instructor the Vicomte Marc-Antoine de Chatillon de Barsac, emigre aristocrat. For his own part, Hoare could not have distinguished Mr. Galloway from any of the other lobsters who thronged the salon, but he smiled politely just the same.
"Of course," he whispered. "I remember you well. The saber's your weapon, as I recall." A safe bet; like cavalrymen, marines were notorious slashers.
Mr. Galloway preened, and his face turned a deeper red with pleasure. "Tell me how I can serve you, sir," he said.
Hoare now asked him to recount the search he and his men had made for their missing shipmates.
The narrative lacked both surprise and interest.
"The lads have disappeared from the face of the earth," Mr. Galloway concluded. "If they were still to be found, you may be sure my good men would have found 'em."
"I'm sure your confidence is justified," Hoare whispered smoothly, and released the marine to go about his normal affairs.
Millar, the coxswain, was-as far as Hoare could tell at present-the last to have seen the missing midshipmen. He had nothing to add to the simple tale he had told before. The lads had tumbled ashore from the liberty boat, larking and pushing each other about as usual, and shoved off directly into the town. "Merry as grigs, like I told the capting, sir." When queried about the bringer of the message, all Millar could tell Hoare was that it was a boy, a mudlark judging from his filthy state. He had darted up to the coxswain, thrust the note into his hand without a word, and disappeared. Millar thought it had been in the same direction the mids had taken, but he could not be sure.
Was it important? he asked anxiously. Since Hoare was sure it was not, he so informed Millar and let him go. To follow that trail would be futile, he suspected, but he must try.
Hoare had greater hopes of getting some enlightenment from the frigate's sole remaining young gentleman. Perhaps, he thought, little Steptoe had overheard his seniors laying their plans for their foul adolescent foray into the fleshpots of Portsmouth. Maybe more than that.
Having been a boy himself once, long long ago, Hoare could easily imagine that the three, being as thin in the pocket as mids always seemed to be-and most commissioned officers, too, he reminded himselfhad connived in a false kidnaping scheme. They would collect the ransoms themselves and, when they had squandered the gold on drinking and drabbing, would turn up on the Hard, waiting to be received by their anxious families and their outraged captain. Their misbegotten capers would have left them looking most distressed, a condition they would naturally attribute to their captors' mistreatment.
Hoare had no hard evidence of this sort of mischief, he admitted to himself. However, two points supported the notion. The first was the unusual pattern of misspelling that the message had displayed. While no expert, he felt confident that no scribe so illiterate as to write "uncel" and "posesin" would be able to master the far more complex words "receipt' and "instructions." He had trouble with "receipt" himself.
Second, he was even more confident that a professional kidnapper would have demanded far more than two thousand two hundred fifty pounds for three well-connected young aristocrats-two thousand for the job lot. The ransom note smelled false. It could, in fact, have been concocted by a clever midshipman. In any case, as soon as he was through in Hebe for the time being, he must follow up this lead.
He summoned little Steptoe and sat him down beside him at the wardroom table.
Normally, Hoare thought, Steptoe would be a confident lad, as up to any challenge as the next and not over-impressed by authority. Today, however, he looked uneasy. Under Hoare's grave scrutiny, he twisted about in his seat, his eyes looking for anywhere to rest except the face of his interlocutor. In short, Steptoe looked guilty.
But of what? The conscience of every midshipman Hoare had ever known, including a certain Midshipman Bartholomew Hoare, had to be very accommodating if it were to handle its owner's manifold sins and wickednesses without distending until it burst, perished, and rotted in the young gentleman's soul, or wherever else mids stowed their consciences.
So Hoare played Mr. Steptoe as if he were a timid trout and Bartholomew Hoare a hungry poacher, first by inquiring about his present berth in Hebe and then about his family.
Hebe was the boy's first ship, so he was immensely proud of her. From his account, her hands were hearts of oak to a man, her captain one of Nature's noblemen, her officers gallant yet kind, his fellow-midshipmen good fellows all, up to all kinds of larks. As to his brief previous life, it had been unexceptional. He was the next-to-last of the large brood of Steptoes, his father an impecunious baronet and his mother a lady-in-waiting at Windsor. He missed his baby sister and his goat. But as a younger son many times over, "I've my way to make in the world," as he put it with a wisdom beyond his years.
Hoare returned the conversation to the matter of "larks." He was disappointed, though not surprised, to find that these were the ordinary sort of merry prank common on shipboard-greasing the soles of Harcourt's ("Lovey's") shoes so that on donning them the first thing he did was slip and fall on his arse; the time, when Steptoe had newly reported aboard, when he was sent hither and yon in search of the key to the keelson; other tricks old as Neptune but forever new. Not so much as a hint of a cabal to raise illicit money from the mids' elders. In desperation Hoare asked the question direct, only to see his victim first look shocked, then burst into a fit of the giggles.
"That would have been a lark!" Steptoe said when he had regained control of himself.
"Keep the idea to yourself, lad," Hoare said upon dismissing him to his duties. Himself, he had nothing more to do aboard Hebe just now, so he paid his respects to the quarterdeck and boarded Devastation for the short, hard beat in the teeth of the breeze into the Inner Camber where he kept her.
Immediately upon landing and securing his yacht, he returned to Admiralty House. Here he ran hard aground, into pandemonium.
Not only Delancey but Patterson as well, the admiral's private clerk, awaited him. Patterson was literally wringing his hands; Hoare was certain that, had not Delancey's pride precluded it, his hands too would have been wringing.
"There you are, Hoare!" Delancey's cry of accusation carried more than a hint of relief. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Right where you told me the admiral wanted me to go," Hoare whispered. "Aboard Hebe. Now, pray excuse me."
He left the others to wring their hands into rags if they so chose and dodged past them and up the stairs to the admiral's sanctum. It was here that he found the real pandemonium.
Sir George's marine sentry stood impassive, his bayoneted musket at the charge, his face flat and eyes to the front, under siege by several important-looking civilians. All were clad in the latest Bond Street fashion, all were shouting at the imperturbable lobster. Two of the noisy gentlemen were flourishing pieces of paper in the sentry's unblinking face. These personages, Hoare guessed immediately, were the missing mids' anxious friends and relations, come to demand their scions' immediate rescue.
Hoare eeled his way through the crowd, which after all numbered only three or four, and slipped into his admiral's private quarters.
"There you are, Hoare!"
Sir George's outcry was identical with the one his subordinate had uttered below. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Aboard Hebe, sir," Hoare whispered, glad for once that he could give only the soft answer that turneth away wrath. "I brought the ransom note back with me."
"Like hell you did, sir. The ransom notes are right here-and there are at least three of them, sir, I'll have you know, not just one. They're outside this very office being waved in the face of my poor marine. I'll tell you this, sir: if this hullabaloo isn't brought to a stop forthwith, I'll summon the guard detachment and have the whole bunch of 'em thrown into irons, Members of Parliament, peers of the realm, and all."
Under his thick shock of white, Brutus-cut hair, Sir George's face was as red as his lobster's coat. Rear Admiral Sir George Hardcastle had the reputation of being a hard and a merciless man, and he gloried in it. But now was not the time for rough behavior toward his visitors if they were as exalted as they seemed to be and if the admiral wished to avoid being thrown aback himself.
Hoare must calm the waters, he saw.
"Not yet, sir, I beg," he whispered. "First let me see what I can do."
He returned to the doorway, set the sentry gently to one side, and surveyed the noisy little mob. Seeing that Patterson and Delancey had returned and were hovering on the outskirts, he signaled them and instructed Delancey in his usual whisper to take himself to The Three Suns inn, where he was to have accommodation set aside that would be suitable to members of the ton. Patterson was to follow, escorting the friends and relations. When Delancey began to protest his ignominious assignment, Hoare faced him down.
"Now, sir! Go!"
Thereupon Hoare put fingers to his mouth and produced a piercingly shrill whistle. It was the first really loud noise he had learned to emit, soon after being made mute, and invariably everyone within earshot of it froze in astonishment. So it was now. The hubbub ceased.
Hoare knew that the silence would be brief. Important persons like these would not be cowed by a mere noise-even a really loud one — for more than a few startled seconds. He used the time to pass his explanatory cards to the assemblage.
These were two middle-aged bucks dressed to the nines, whom he took to be the relatives of Harcourt and Buchanan and who appeared as interested in each other's attire as they were in the business that had brought them here; a purple man, portly as a pudding, who could only be the nabob Lord Many-mead; some family Mend; and a firm-looking man with the air of a former naval person, who was surely Dacres, brother of Captain Dacres, RN, of Guerriere.
Hoare cleared his throat-almost the only natural sound that the marksman in Eole had left to him.
"Ha-h'm. If I may have your attention, gentlemen: I understand that you are all come to Portsmouth in connection with the disappearance of Hebe's three midshipmen. I am the officer charged with obtaining their return, as safe and unharmed as circumstances permit."
The hubbub renewed itself. Hoare grasped only snatches of the visitors' remarks. They were all in the sharp-voiced tones of persons who were used to instant compliance with their slightest whims.
"… Outrageous… unconscionable negligence… Parliament
"Mr. Patterson here will escort you all to The Three Sims, where most of you have undoubtedly put up. There are rooms there that are more suitable for our meeting than this one, and they offer a very fine port. Or brandy if you prefer spirits. I shall join you in a few minutes' time.
"Meanwhile, I take it that each of you received the same message. If you, sir, would be so kind as to leave your copy in my hands, I would be greatly obliged."
He looked pointedly at the man he presumed to be Dacres, since as a likely former naval person he would at least have obeyed orders from time to time in the past. Prom their looks, the others had probably never even heard an order since they were three, let alone obeyed one.
Dacres, if it were he, complied.
"It is like the others?" Hoare inquired.
"Identical, sir," was the answer.
"If you will permit me to lead the way, gentlemen," Patterson said, and started down the stairs, looking over his shoulder at them as he went. The move was almost fatal, for he saved himself from falling down the flight only by catching the upper newel post. He recovered his balance and his equanimity instantly, however, and the troop followed him like a brood of gorgeously feathered ducklings.
Left to himself, Hoare hastened to peruse the new ransom note.
He remembered quite vividly the note Captain Davison had received. This one was totally different. In the first place, it was written in a literate, even clerkly hand, almost a copperplate. Second, it employed a style that Dean Swift of Gulliver fame would have found difficult to equal.
The letter bore neither date nor — as was only natural under the circumstances-place of origin.
Sir (Hoare read):
The organization I have the honor to represent has taken your son, and two other young gentlemen of like lineage, into protective custody.
We are as aware as you must be yourself of the legislation which is about to be brought up in Parliament, namely a Home Rule Bill under the terms of which the oppressed people of Ireland will be granted home rule. To wit: self-government under the Crown; full independence, that is, with respect to all matters of faith and law, excepting only issues of foreign relations.
Knowing and respecting your prominence as a leader of your nation (although not of ours), and your reputation as a man of honor, we demand that you bring your influence to bear, indirectly as well as directly, to accomplish not only the passage of the Home Rule Bill but the Royal Assent to its being declared law, and the autonomous Commonwealth of Ireland brought into its long-awaited being.
Upon proclamation of this new state of affairs on the steps of Dublin Castle (or another venue of equal or greater prominence), your son will be returned, unharmed, to the arms of his loving family. Failing such proclamation within the next forty-five days, you will never again see your son alive.
We anticipate an early and mutually satisfactory resolution of this affair, and wish you well.
For the Committee for Home Rule in Erin,
Erin go Bragh!!
Unlike the other demand, this document rang true. How had it reached its recipients so quickly? The nearest relative must have been in Bath, the others in London or on their estates. The Committee for Home Rule in Erin must have had a member waiting near every one of them ready to deliver the messages, all of them at once.
Hoare was now ready to stake his career-such as it was-that the earlier demand was spurious. It might be the product of a conspirator in search of a few pounds on the side; Hoare would not put such a step past the kind of two-faced Paddy who would be a companion of "Brian Boru" on the Committee for Home Rule in Erin.
He was tempted to appeal to Admiral Hardcastle for a full-dress search party. He resisted the temptation. Where would he have them look? "Somewhere within a two-day journey by guarded coach or wagon" left an area of suspicion that was far too large to manage.
Moreover, as likely as not, someone on the admiral's staff would be working secretly for the Irishmen and blow the gaff. Finally, and selfishly, another man would lead the rescue expedition, were it to be formed under Admiral Hardcastle's auspices. The admiral might have some respect for Hoare but not enough respect to put him, a voiceless man, in command of what would have to be a regiment. The credit would not accrue to Bartholomew Hoare.
No, he must find a way of narrowing the area of search before he unleashed the resources at the admiral's disposal-or devised another, less cumbersome means of rescuing the missing mids. Which reminded him; the earlier ransom note still existed, and there was a chance-however faint-that its writer could be found. If so, he might be a lead to the Committee.
He must settle that matter once and for all. As soon as he had appeased the band of notables who would be awaiting him, teeth gnashing, at The Three Suns, he must call on Jom York.
Jom York generally occupied an upper room of The Bunch of Grapes, the favorite haunt in Portsmouth of the more successful folk who lived on the other side of the law. In its peaceful, more or less tidy pub-he bar, one might find a middleaged highwayman, an upstairs man of standing, and an experienced bawd gathered round the same table doing business, or simply exchanging priceless gossip. Mr. Greenleaf, the proprietor, welcomed very few members of the "bowmon cheat"-the honest citizens of this world; Hoare was one of them.
York was king of the mudlarks, those myriad children of both sexes who gained a precarious though slimy living by screening likely parts of Portsmouth harbor's tidal mud. Their findings ranged from beef bones (which were sold for soup) to dead dogs and rats (which, rumor claimed, went to the same destination) to bits of ironmongery, an occasional coin or other valuable, and, once in a while, human corpses in various states of disrepair.
York was also an old friend of Hoare's and an occasional ally, the same as the more upright members of the smuggling community on England's southern coast. As long as such gentry did not imperil the safety of the realm, Hoare reasoned, they had a right to earn a more or less respectable living without his interference.
Hoare's purpose tonight was to find out which of Jom York's minions had delivered the note to Millar, the coxswain. York would know, he was sure, but what he, Hoare, could expect from the knowledge remained uncertain.
York promised to grill his minions-in-chief and assured Hoare that he would have the mudlark in question brought before Hoare within twenty-four hours.
"Now, Mr. 'Oare," he said ingratiatingly, "I 'ave summat I fink will be of int'rest to ye. Wait a bit, if ye will, an' 'ave a spot of Blue Ruin while ye waits."
He wiped off the glass Hoare had been using, filled it brim full with a dreadful gin, and waddled back in to the dank darkness of his den. Before Hoare had summoned the courage to take more than another ceremonial sip of the biting stuff, York returned, breathing heavily and bearing an object wrapped in a reeking piece of filthy cloth.
" 'Ere ye be, yer worship," he said. He unwrapped the thing and let it drop on the rough deal table between them.
"Wot d'ye fink of that, now?" he wheezed proudly.
Hoare recognized it instantly. Encased in stinking mud it might be, but it was unmistakably a midshipman's dirk.
"A brush, if you should happen to have one by," he whispered.
Brush in hand, Hoare began to scrub, scratch, and wrench until at last the dirk came free of its scabbard. The engraving on the blade was sharp as the knife itself, and clear: "To G.L.P.T.H. FROM FATHER. BEAR IT HONORABLY." The knobbed hilt bore an escutcheon: three broken hearts (Hoare could not bring to mind the correct heraldic term; something "courant, argent, erminy," perhaps) and the motto
"SUCH IS MY LOVE."
"Where did your little friend find this, Mr. York?"
Jom York said not a word but stuck out a black-nailed paw. Hoare was accustomed to this; he crossed the palm with silver as if York were a gypsy fortuneteller. The silver disappeared into one of York's dingy pockets.
"Not in Portsmouth 'arbor, yer honor," York said.
Out came the palm again and would not withdraw until it held five pieces of silver.
"The 'Amble," yer honor," York said. The Hamble, Hoare knew, was an estuary leading into Southampton Water, some miles to the west of Portsmouth. He had already explored it in Devastation, found it unremarkable except for mud, some hungry-looking fishing smacks, and the derelict hulk of a long-outdated fifty-gun battleship, and left it alone thereafter.
"I hadn't realized your reach extended that far, Mr. York," Hoare whispered.
"It's a broad reach I'm on, yer worship," the other chuckled. "Mi-key Pollock, 'e's the one as found it. Mikey's a fisherman's orphing and went into the trade on 'is own, like. Now I coulden 'ave that, could I now, so I takes 'im under me wing, like. Promisin' tyke, Mikey is. 'E'll go far, if 'e lives long enough."
The life of a mudlark, Hoare had been told, was nasty, brutish, and short.
"And where in the Hamble did young Mikey find the item?"
Out came the black hand. Into it went the coins-clink, clink, clink.
"H.M.S. Devastation, yer honor, that's where."
"What! You're gammoning me, York. You know perfectly well that's what I'm calling my own little yacht these days. You've got your thirty pieces of silver; now be on the square with me."
"I am bein' on the square wif ye, yer honor," York said with an aggrieved look. "Never been nuffin' else wif ye. Devastation I said, and be 'er, a-layin' derelict 'alfway up the 'Amble. She lays 'igh an' dry of a spring tide, she do, an' Mikey, 'e said 'e found that there shiv under 'er counter t'other night."
"I'll be damned to breakfast," Hoare breathed. "Get me this Mikey. Now."
What with Hoare's gentle grilling, a whole sovereign, and the promise of more to follow, Mikey the mudlark furnished far more information than he had given even Jom York. Had the latter Known All, in fact, he would have demanded at least double his thirty pieces of silver.
Mikey Pollock's accent was even heavier than Jom York's; Hoare was hard put to it to understand him. And he would tell his story in his own way.
Well, sir, Mikey admitted, he had not actually found the dirk in the mud; he had been wading painfully around the old Devastation hulk looking for castaway treasures. He had noticed signs of life aboard her lately, and three or four times, usually at night, a shore boat had delivered people or picked them up. So, for an alert mudlark like Mikey, the ooze surrounding Devastation might be an untapped lode.
He was scraping away with his rake when a "psst!" above him made him jump. Someone was watching him from the hulk. "They wuz a nole cut into 'er side, w'ere no 'ole orta be," Mikey said. "And they wuz a nead stickin' outa that theer 'ole.
"'Boy,' sez that theer 'ead. "Would ye liketa make yeself rich?"
"O'course I do, master, right? So I sez aye right off. So 'e tells me as 'ow 'e an' some shipmates bin caught up, like, an' 'e wants me to tell 'is capting.
"Wull, ain't no way a lad like me 'ull get to see no capting, so I ups an' tells the 'ead to gimme sumpin' to show I ain't hon. An' 'e t'rows down that shiv you showed me. An' Jom York took it off me, an' 'e sold it to you, and w'ere be Mikey Pollock but left out inna col' oncet agin." Mikey sniffled and wiped his nose with a filthy, ragged sleeve.
A plan took instant shape in Hoare's mind.
"Can you draw me a picture of where the hole is, Mikey?" he asked.
"Here, then." Hoare handed him a piece of paper-the back of one of his printed message slips, actually — and a pencil.
"Won't." Mikey's lower lip stuck out stubbornly.
"I'll go wit' yez, though."
More quickly than he'd believed possible, due to the mudlark's handiness, Hoare had his own Devastation under way, back to Hebe. Once aboard the frigate again, he explained his plan to her captain. like most frigate captains, Davison was always ready for a good venture; the prospect of getting his mids back aboard and the wrathful dignitaries out of the admiral's hair made him all the happier to help.
"My armorer has some smoke bombs," he offered. "You're welcome to 'em. Now as to your boarders…"
"I must remind you, sir, that Serene has little space aboard, so…"
"Serene?" Captain Davison sounded puzzled, so Hoare hastened to explain.
"There can hardly be two Devastations in this action, sir, especially not on opposing sides. So I took advantage of the short trip to switch my Devastation's trail boards. She's now Serene, if you have no objection."
"None at all, sir," Davison said. "How convenient. An even more legitimate ruse de guerre, I suppose, than flying a neutral nation's colors until your enemy is under your guns. And we all do that."
When word spread of Hoare's plan, he was besieged by three times more volunteers than Serene could carry.
Mr. Steptoe, the sole remaining mid, vowed that unless he were taken along he would swim in chase until he drowned, so he had to come. Besides, he was small and lithe. Hoare felt he would need those qualities before the night was over.
Millar the coxswain felt a degree of guilt for letting the mids go adrift, so he too had a claim.
Finally, Hoare picked Galloway the marine and two of his toughest men. Lobsters might be stupid, but hard fighting was their business.
With Hoare himself and the mudlark Mikey, they were seven- enough, with their personal weapons, to make Hoare anxious. Carrying a weight like that, Serene would roll her cockpit under in any kind of sea at all, and that would be the end of her.
A list, however, would be all to the good, and a general logy quality, so that in the dark she would appear to be abandoned.
To catch the flood tide in the mouth of the Hamble, they must move smartly. Hoare let his men waste no time in farewells but loaded them aboard and bundled all but himself and Millar below, where he packed them in, head to tail, like sardines. He made sure that the yacht's two sweeps were ready to ship and assigned Millar and the less lubberly marine to man them in case of need. Hoare must make the mouth of the Hamble while the tide was still flooding so his expedition could drift casually up to the hulk.
Almost as far as the entrance to Southampton Water the beam wind favored them. Then they had to resort to the sweeps. Hoare used the time to detail his plan with the help of the mudlark-who, after all, was the only member of the party with any real local knowledge.
The tide, bless it, was still on the flood when they struck the Hamble's mouth. There was no moon, so Serene, her sails furled except for a handkerchief of trysail to give her steerage way and her bare mast barely visible even to her crew, slipped invisibly up the estuary.
"There she be," Mikey whispered at last. Sure enough, the hulk loomed in the murk, not a cable off. There were lights in her cabin. As they drew closer, a loud conversation carried across the water. A meeting of the Committee, perhaps.
Now they were under the hulk's tumble-home, and now just under her high-pitched quarterdeck. The cabin lights were bright, the conversation louder. Yes, it was surely an Irish meeting. There was an Irish pennant handy, too, a line dangling sloppily from the hulk's deck; Millar caught it and let it slip through his great paws until Serene brought to alongside the hulk's weed-covered rudder, under its cabin windows and adjoining a ship's boat lying astern.
The two boys tiptoed up from below. Each took in hand a grapnel attached to a sufficient length of land line knotted at intervals for easy climbing, even by lobsters.
Swinging the grapnels to make ready, they eyed Hoare, waiting for his signal.
Galloway and his marines appeared, each with his bayoneted musket slung across his back and carrying a lit smoke bomb that sputtered softly in the blackness.
Millar poised a sweep. Every man wore a black kerchief across his face.
To begin the ball, Hoare gave his heart-stopping whistle; the party swung into action like a single man. Within the same seconds, Millar shattered the hulk's stern windows; the boys hurled their grapnels; the lobsters threw their bombs and swarmed up the land lines, roaring, followed by Hoare himself and Millar, cutlasses in their teeth like a pirate crew.
In the smoke-filled cabin of the Devastation hulk, chaos reigned. "Fire!" someone shouted. The three lobsters ran amok through the choking smoke, jab-jab-jabbing with bayonets and sword at any figure without a black kerchief. Hoare and Millar wrestled their way through the ruck, bringing up at the cabin door, where they took their stand in the wreaths of reek, ready to repel any fugitive.
Right on time two small figures appeared, edged weapons drawn.
"Leave the killing to us, lads," Hoare grated as loudly as he could. "Go find your mates, Steptoe; show him the way, Mikey."
Despite the battle roar, the boys must have understood him, for they disappeared through the cabin door at a dead run.
From outside the shattered cabin window came a splash; one of the marines groped through the fog, leaned across the broken sash, leveled his musket, and fired. He'd never in the world hit his target, Hoare told himself, but it would be enough to keep other Committee members from trying to follow suit out the window.
As the smoke of battle finally cleared away, the boy boarders returned, exultant, followed by the three missing mids. Hoare counted five prisoners.
"How many Irish were aboard here?" Hoare asked the oldest of the mids.
"Seven, I think, sir."
There came a view-halloo from the other two ex-captive mids, who grabbed another man just as he was slipping out the cabin door and dragged him bodily across the deck. A scrawny man in a black suit, he glared at his captors in utter contempt. This would be the author of the real ransom note, Hoare concluded-"Brian Boru." Well, they'd see what his real name was soon enough, before he hanged.
Brian Boru made six prisoners. With the man who had dived away, that made seven. A clean sweep-down fore and aft, Hoare said to himself.
"Come along, men," he whispered. "Back to the yacht with you. Bring our prisoners. Let's be off on the ebb." He hoped the escapee had not managed to make away with that other boat; he could use it as a prison ship and tow it back to Portsmouth.
"Oh, and Mr. Harcourt!" he whispered as loudly as he could.
"Sir?" said one of the missing mids, a mischievous-looking, slender boy with lank blond hair.
"You're out of uniform, sir," Hoare said.
Silently Hoare handed him the tell-tale dirk.
The celebration in Hebe's wardroom that night was understandably uproarious. Hoare had dropped the freed captives and the six Irishmen off in Portsmouth, but the boys, having met their relatives and reassured them that they were unharmed, had chosen to rejoin their ship for the occasion. Instead of dining alone in his cabin, Captain Davison too had accepted the wardroom's invitation to the impromptu banquet.
All the naval participants were present except Millar and the two anonymous lobsters, whom Mr. Edwardes had made sure were being properly feasted by their mates up forrard. The boy Mikey had flatly refused to enlist as a ship's boy.
"I be fisherman born, I be," he had said, "an' I'll be fisherman all me days, please yer honor."
Hoare had had no trouble taking up a collection adequate to buy a friendless mudlark an apprenticeship aboard the best-run fishing smack between Plymouth and Dover, and Mikey Pollock was away. He bore with him young Harcourt's dirk.
"He deserves it if anyone does," the mid had explained. "The pater will replace it instanter."
So the subject of the hardships of a fisherman's life had naturally come up during the meal.
"Your speaking of 'hardships,' Mr. Edwardes," Hoare whispered, "reminds me of something I saw happen back in '90 when I was second in Staghound. We were making a passage from Plymouth to Jamaica and had aboard a maiden lady, a relative of the admiral on that station-an auntie, or something of the sort."
He paused for breath, and for effect. After waiting until he felt satisfied with his companions' urging to proceed, he did so.
"She'd never been to sea before, but she was a game'un, and she was never sick a single day. In fact she was on deck taking the air when the wind began to pipe up of a sudden as we all know it can in those waters."
There were nods of agreement all around while Hoare drew breath once again. "Well," he went on, "the officer of the watch called the watch on deck to take in royals and to'-gallants, and up they went. Now, we had a main-topman, Grobble was his name-Abel Grobble. A good seaman he was, handy aloft and tough enough to chew treenails for breakfast.
"Something must have come over him, taken with a bad herring for breakfast or something, for he lost his footing and down he came, sixty feet if it was an inch, and landed on Staghound's deck, like this-"
Bam! went Hoare's fist on the table. Every officer jumped, and their glasses with them. Hoare took breath.
"— right at the old lady's feet. Up he jumps, and he's about to swarm back up the ratlines when she stops him. "'Wait, young man!' she says. 'Aren't you hurt?'
"'Who, me, ma'am?' says Grobble. 'No, ma'am. I'm a sailor, ma'am; us sailors be used to hard ships!'"
There was a pause. Then Mr. Edwardes burst into laughter.
"I twig, Hoare! 'Hard ships,' by Jove… hardships! Har har har!"
The laughter grew and spread. Galloway saw fit to slap Hoare on the back; then, when his victim's face went white, realized what he had done and apologized in haste.
"Carried away, you know. "Hardships,' indeed!"
The cheers died down at last, to be succeeded by Mr. Satterly's wellworn tale about two boatswain's mates in the old Savage. Under cover of Satterly's drone, Hoare leaned across the table to where the missing mids sat in a row, looking as innocent as the famous three monkeys.
They had gloried in telling the story of their incarceration and were generous in telling of their rescue but singularly reticent about their abduction in the first place. Hoare suspected they had been served gin laced with knock-out drops and, in a reversal of the usual process of impressment while drugged, hauled off while unconscious to the Devastation hulk. It would not be a tale that reflected well on any of them.
"D'ye know," Hoare whispered to them, "a most unsettling notion passed through my head during my investigation. It occurred to me that you young gentlemen might have contrived the whole thing, just to extract some more time at liberty at the expense of your anxious families." Hoare gave a false laugh; that laugh had been described by an unnerved young lady as "the least breath of scandal."
The laugh did not unnerve the midshipmen, however, not for long. They looked at one another, first in dismay and then in genuine amusement. Harcourt's bark of laughter was both genuine and hearty, and was followed by his companions'. These three young men, Hoare observed, were not easily upset.
"The idea passed through our own heads, sir, as a matter of fact," Harcourt said.
Behind his hang-dog look and inside his narrow, beak-nosed head, as any perceptive former boy could have seen, lay considerable, genuine pride.
"We werena aboot to hauld our Ancients up for more than a hundrred golden boys, though, sir," said Buchanan. His breaking voice still held a heavy trace of the Highlands that had given him birth.
"But we decided the game wasn't worth the candle, sir," he added.
"Why not?" Hoare's curiosity was innocent now, but genuine nonetheless.
"It would have made too good a stray to keep to ourselves, sir," Dacres said. "I'm the only one of us from a naval family, and I know.
Sooner or later one of us would have peached. And that would've meant our careers."
"Not to speak of three very, very sore bottoms," Hoare whispered.
"That, too, of course, sir," Harcourt declared. "But after all, we mids are used to hard-ships of that kind, you know."