Hoare and the Ffrog Prince
"Someone has been here before us, I see."
The challenged party did his best to sound casual, but his voice quavered and his belly rumbled audibly as he and his second looked down at the figure sprawled in the moonlit snow. The body's caped boat-cloak spread wide to display a peculiar naval uniform. Its hat, a gold-braided tricorne, lay beside one outflung hand.
A stout, florid merchant of Portsmouth town, the challenged party had never been out before. Now, at sight of the sword blade protruding from the dead man's massive chest and the pool of frozen blood beneath its parted lips, he felt he would rather apologize, go home to bed, sleep till noon, and forget the whole thing.
With a cheerful squeak of wheels in the snow, a chaise approached up the hill from town. Three cloaked figures alighted. "What have you gotten up to now, Golightly?" asked the shortest one. His breath smoked in the frosty air.
"You must not speak to my principal, Mr. Derrick," said the merchant's second. "Besides, when we arrived, the man was lying right here, just the way he is now. What about him, Edwards?"
The third of the trio from the chaise set down his surgeon's bag, stooped over the body, shook it. Ice crackled, and the body stirred in one piece like a fallen statue. The embedded blade vibrated slightly.
"Dead, gentlemen. Quite dead."
All five standing men removed their hats. The two seated high on the chaise followed suit; one crossed himself. "Wonder who he was."
"Looks like a Frog to me," another said. "Still wears lace to his wrists."
"Look here, Derrick," the merchant said, "I don't think it would be respectful to the dead man, whoever he is, to pursue our little disagreement any further. Will you accept my apology?"
"Of course, my dear fellow. Let us blame overindulgence in the mayor's negus for that little lapse, shall we?" While patronizing, the challenger's voice was distinctly relieved.
"Here now," he went on. "It's downhill all the way home. Climb in, all of you. We'll stir 'em up at The George and drink to our old friendship in a bowl of his punch."
"But what about the body?"
"Oh, we'll leave Farley here till the watch comes for it," Mason said airily. "He's an old seadog; he won't mind a bit of cold. Besides, a shilling will see him right. You, Farley!"
The groom climbed stiffly from his perch and watched his master's chaise disappear down the slope into Portsmouth town, leaving him to keep warm as best he might in the growing dawn. "Hell," he said softly but distinctly.
Admiral Sir George Hardcastle was as burdened as ever with the endless demands on his time as port admiral. Now, however, the demands were from the host of officers put on half pay when their ships were laid up at the signing of peace with Bonaparte at Amiens. In order to reach the admiral's private office in answer to his peremptory summons, Bartholomew Hoare must needs whisper his apologies while edging past post captains by the handful and lieutenants by the score. The poor penniless mids must shiver outside.
For once, Hoare whispered to himself, the Fates had at least been perversely merciful to him. He had cursed those damned goddesses when a musket bullet from the frigate Eole had crushed his larynx at the Glorious First of June; his curses had been even more heartfelt when he had been beached forever because he could no longer speak above a horrid rasping whisper. But now, having held down the job of general dogsbody to the port admiral since '94, he had escaped the axe and could still enjoy the full pay of a lieutenant, RN. Slender the stipend might be, but his pocket was no lighter now than that of most of the half-pay captains past whom he was dodging. Moreover, he had mercifully hoarded the prize money gained at sea so long ago instead of squandering it like most of his shipmates.
"The admiral has been awaiting you this half hour, Mr. Hoare," Patterson, the admiral's clerk, said reproachfully. "Go right in as soon as he has disposed of Captain Pottle." The clerk shook his grizzled head. "Poor Pottle, he hasn't a hope of a ship." Pottle had been a client of Earl Blake, but Blake had died, drunk and in debt, and Pottle's interest at the Board of Admiralty had died with him.
The hapless Pottle emerged, looking hangdog, and Hoare slipped his lanky, silent self past him.
"You have kept your superior officer waiting, Hoare, and not for the first time. I must remind you that any of those hungry idlers out there would leap at the chance of taking your place."
The admiral's face was neither more nor less red than usual, so Hoare concluded that the remark was a mere matter of habit. He stood fast and waited.
"The Duc de Provins is dead, Hoare. You know him, of course?"
"Know of him, sir." As a Bourbon of the French blood royal, albeit an illegitimate one, Provins' place in the world was as far above Hoare's as Hoare's was above that of a sea urchin. But Hoare knew him by sight. The two nations, he remembered, always at odds if not at actual war, were wont to harbor each other's exiled monarchs and their courts, like so much dirty laundry taken in pawn. When Louis XVI had lost his useless head and the Dauphin been left to die of neglect, the new head of the family, Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, had established his yawn-filled powerless court at Hartwell Castle. Provins had soon wearied of his gross, kindly half-brother and moved to Portsmouth. Here he had taken full advantage of his nominal rank as admiral in His Most Christian Majesty's hypothetical fleet to throw his weight about in Royal Navy circles.
Hoare had seen the duc several times in the salon d'escrime of his own instructor, the Vicomte Marc-Antoine de Chatillon de Barsac. His royal highness had visibly relished poking fun at these awkward Englishmen who thrust away so earnestly at each other with De Barsac's foils and sabres. But he had not been above taking up the occasional foil himself, and he had acquitted himself well enough.
"Well," said Sir George, "a pair of cits went up to the common this morning to settle some petty matter of honor. Found His Grace there all by himself in the snow with a sword through his heart. There'll be hell to pay at the Foreign Office.
"And hell to pay at the Admiralty, for that matter. I hope you didn't know it, Hoare, but he was in our pay, too. Kept us abreast of the politics of our opposite numbers in Napoleon's navy. Don't know how he managed to keep abreast himself, but there you are. You speak French, don't you, Hoare?"
"Yes, sir." Indeed he did. Nearly twenty years ago, when he was second in Staghound, Hoare had left his beloved, gently born French-Canadian bride Antoinette ashore in Halifax, to die in childbirth without him. He had never seen his daughter; the infant's grandparents had swept her away before he returned. He had never even learned her name.
"Well, I want you to keep a weather eye out on the matter, on the navy's behalf. I don't trust the mayor's men to get to the bottom of anything but a mug of Oh-Be-Joyful. They've taken up De Barsac. Seems our royal duke was sent to his Maker by one of the swords at the viscount's school. Can't see why they don't have barons and earls like civilized people. Anyhow, see to it, Hoare."
Hoare heard these words with dismay. Before fleeing France in '93 just ahead of the guillotine, De Barsac had been an able frigate captain and an honorable enemy. Now, besides being Hoare's instructor, he was his friend. And with a sinking of the stomach, it came back to him that the taverns had been abuzz last night with the news that His Grace and the maitre had engaged in a snarling match upon the floor of the latter's own establishment.
"They sounded like a pair of tomcats, if you ask me," Hoare's informant had said. "I half expected De Barsac to draw on the duke. There would really have been the devil to pay then, and no pitch hot."
"Aye aye, sir," he whispered to the admiral, and left.
Hands thrust into the pockets of his heavy caped surtout, Hoare trudged up the road along which his late royal highness had preceded him. The watch would surely have lugged the body back down by now. They would not have dropped it at the town's charnel house, of course; the remains of a prince of the blood, since he had been French and therefore popish, would have been taken to the local Catholic church. In any case, Hoare had judged, the corporeal evidence would keep for awhile, while he knew the evidence at the scene of the crime would last only as long as the arctic weather.
He found the spot easily enough. The pool of frozen blood glared up at him from yards away. The snow around it was overwritten by dozens of footprints; it would be far beyond Hoare's feeble tracking ability to determine how many men had been up here last night, let alone who they might have been and their business here. The marks of two sets of wheels lay not far off. The duelists' chaise explained one, of course, but how about the other?
Aha! Hoare cried exultantly to himself before he remembered that the mayor's men would have used a cart to carry away the noble body. He turned and went back down the hill. He might as well find out if the dead duc had anything to tell him.
The dead duc lay in informal state in a small chapel of Portsmouth's only popish place of worship, candles at his head and feet. The place was icy cold as Hoare saw from the state of the stoup of holy water at the chapel door. It would be too soon, of course, for the sorrowing relatives to have arrived from Hartwell; in fact, word of their loss could hardly have reached them. But Hoare was surprised at the absence of any members of the duc's local entourage. A solitary nun knelt at the tiny altar, praying, he supposed, for the soul of the departed.
Except that someone had tied up the duc's jaw and withdrawn the murder weapon, the body must look the same as it had when the duelists stood over it; arms and legs akimbo, it stared glassily toward heaven. The blood had not been fully removed from its face. Below the old fashioned cuffs of Mechlin lace, the fingers were bare. The duc had chewed his fingernails, Hoare noted with mild distaste.
The duc's hat lay on his belly just below the entry wound. It was a gold-braided, plumed admiral's hat, in the old fashioned tricorne shape affected by Lord Nelson in preference to today's fore-and-aft style. The contents of the victim's pockets lay beside their owner, with the murder weapon. The purse was all but empty as Hoare found when he inverted it over one hand; it contained only a few louis d'or. Hoare remembered that nobility seldom stooped to handling lucre, leaving that sort of thing to their underlings. There was a Breguet repeater watch-gold, of course. A fine lawn kerchief bore the duc's crest. That was all.
Something was missing. What could it be?
Hoare picked up the sword. About a third of the way toward the hilt the tip had been broken off, so there was no way he could tell if the point had been buttoned, shielded, or left with its original, lethal sharpness.
In any case, Hoare told himself, it was moot, for the remaining stub was more than sharp enough, he thought, to pierce through the layers of the duc's clothing, through his skin and on between his ribs to the heart. As if in confirmation, most of the remaining blade bore bloodstains. The mayor's men had needed no particular deductive skill to trace the source of the weapon, for the inch-wide brass guard bore De Barsac's distinctive monogram. He knew it well. Now to question the dueling cits.
Upon opening the chapel door to leave, Hoare found himself staring into a pair of huge, cold, violet eyes nearly a foot below his own. Their owner looked him up and down. An elderly, ugly maid hung at the person's heels.
"Alors, m'sieur, qu'est-ce que vous faites ici?"
"I might ask you the same, mademoiselle," Hoare whispered in the same tongue. "Permit me to present myself: Bartholomew Hoare, lieutenant de vaisseau, a votre service. I am here upon the orders of Admiral Sir George Hardcastle-" he stopped to take a breath "-to investigate the death of His Royal Highness the Duc de Provins. And you, mademoiselle?"
"Madame la comtesse, if you please, monsieur. Iphegenie, Comtesse de Montrichard. You may tell your admiral there is nothing to investigate. It is well known throughout the town that De Barsac killed him."
With that, the comtesse swept past him, followed by her dragon. She crossed herself perfunctorily before kneeling at the raised bier. He saw those violet eyes scan the objects beside the corpse as her lips moved. Her expression suggested to Hoare that she was not so much reciting prayers as conversing with the corpse.
In no time she was on her feet again. "Never mind, Jeannette," she said as she shook off the dragon's offered arm. Then she turned to Hoare. "There, you see. He does not bleed, does he? You are my witness, monsieur; how fortunate it is for me that you were here to witness."
Hoare's expression must have revealed his confusion.
"Or perhaps you English do not believe the superstition that a body bleeds again in the presence of its murderer. Eh?" She looked challengingly up into Hoare's long face.
"I fear I lack some piece of information, madame la comtesse, which you believe me to possess. Pray enlighten me."
She snorted in an aristocratic way. "You did not know, then, that in our little French coterie at least I am supposed to have been the last person to see Provins alive? A fine ferret, indeed, that your Admiral Sir Hardcastle picked out to find the one who killed him."
"And were you the last person to see him alive?"
"No," she said flatly. "The last to leave him alive, perhaps, but not the last to see him. That privilege belonged to his killer, not to me. To the Vicomte de Barsac, if your lumps of mayor's men are correct."
"Then perhaps madame la comtesse would have the kindness to tell me about her last encounter with his late royal highness," Hoare whispered.
"What, here?" she asked. "In this place, and in this frigid air? No indeed, monsieur. You may escort me to my lodgings if you will, such as they are, and interrogate me there."
"It would be an honor, madame."
She took his arm, summoned her dragon, and steered him down through the town's icy streets, to bring him up all standing before the staring guardian of The Three Suns' majestic door.
The Three Suns bore the reputation of housing only Britain's highest and their very good friends when those friends were not such as to be announced to the world. Hoare's only previous visits there had been as a message-bearer from the port admiral to these personages. But after suppressing a raised eyebrow upon sighting him, the porter flung the door open with a flourish. He greeted madame la comtesse in execrable French, and added, "Good morning, Mr. 'Oare. And a fine, frosty morning it is, Mr. 'Oare."
"Good morning, Pollard."
Pollard's eyes and ears were always open wide, and his mouth as well, at least for those who paid him to open them and for those, like Hoare, of whom he walked in dread. To Pollard and his cronies Hoare was The Whispering Ferret.
The comtesse and her abigail mounted the wide stair, leaving Hoare to follow. At the door to what must be her chambers she stood aside for the woman to unlock and open it. The salon within had been refurnished since '98 when Hoare had last seen it; chairs, sofas, and accessories, aglow in the low morning sun of winter, were all in the chaste Directoire style, fresh from Paris. The French government in exile, Hoare mused, might have its pockets to let, but its members still managed to eat cake.
The comtesse let her woman relieve her of her heavy cloak. Beneath it she stood lightly clad as if for summer, in a pale, nearly transparent figured silk, tucked demurely just beneath her breasts. Hoare handed the dragon his own cloak and cocked hat. The comtesse seated herself, semi-reclining, on a chaise longue and gestured to Hoare to take a matching chair. She began without preamble.
"As I said, I was the last person to see the late duc except for the person who killed him. You evidently did not know that, very conveniently, the Comte de Montrichard and I live apart. We do not-er- suit. Until his death, his royal highness occupied these premises. With me."
Equally evidently, Hoare thought, the comtesse wanted him to understand this relationship without any doubt at all.
"Why are you telling me these things, madame la comtesse?"
"Because you asked, monsieur. And because I find your whisper intriguing. Why do you whisper, by-the-by?"
"A French bullet, madame la comtesse," he whispered.
"Je suis desolee," she said dismissively.
"Will you tell me what took place between you and the duc yesterday evening?"
"What leads you to believe it was yesterday evening, Monsieur 'Oare?"
"I hardly know," Hoare admitted. He felt his face redden.
"It was not yesterday evening, monsieur, but yesterday noon, after the morning post came from 'Artwell. He had withdrawn into his workroom to read it. It was when he emerged that he gave me my conge."
"Tout court? Just like that?"
"No. He was gentlemanly, I admit-and gentle." The comtesse winced; she looked away.
"Tell me what he said, please," Hoare whispered.
"I… he told me that his brother had ordered him to return to his duchesse, in 'Artwell. He must obey, of course; after all, Louis is the head of the family. So… that was that, monsieur." She shrugged expressively. "He bade me adieu, kissed my hand, and left."
"No. He merely said, and I think I remember his exact words, 'You will know soon the extent of my gratitude.' "
"Do you know what he meant?"
"That was all. I intend, monsieur, to bring his murderer to justice. Provins may have given me my conge last night, but that was his good right as one of our royal family. He was kind to me and generous, and I respected him. We even took some of his long walks together."
So the duc often took walks, sometimes with his mistress, sometimes not. She would have had nowhere to go now, save to a husband whom she detested and whom she could no longer support. Rejected and desperate, she could, Hoare thought, have appealed for a last promenade in the moonlit snow and, upon receiving her final dismissal, drawn the broken sword from beneath her cloak and dispatched her royal lover.
"And then?" he repeated.
"My husband arrived in the afternoon with a lackey, to remove Guillaume's-the duc's-belongings. That was all."
Hoare was silent for a spell, then rose to take his leave. "Permit me to offer my condolences, madame la comtesse," he whispered.
"None are necessary, Monsieur 'Oare. After all, it was une affaire du cour, pas une affaire de coeur." She smiled bitterly.
By this feeble pun the comtesse told Hoare that it was an affair of the court and not of the heart. She would not meet his eyes nonetheless but stared out the window as he made his bow and departed.
Hoare went in search of the combative cits who had discovered the duc's body. It took him nearly the rest of the day to find them, their seconds, and the surgeon who had pronounced the corpse a corpse, and interrogate them. None had anything useful to tell him. Both principals were suffering from fresh hangovers; all members of the party would prefer to put the whole matter out of their minds. So, after stopping at a food shop for a piece of roast beef slapped between two slices of bread (Lord Sandwich's recent invention) Hoare proceeded to the Portsmouth bridewell. He was known here.
"Friend of yours, Mr. 'Oare, I suspects," said the port-faced bailiff on duty when Hoare asked to see De Barsac. "Decent man for a Frog, I'd say, even if 'e did do 'is lordship in. 'Ere you are, sir. Thanky, sir."
The prisoner was small, leathery, gloomy looking. He looked up as Hoare hove into sight. "You! I might have known. I did not kill him, you know." De Barsac's English was precise though heavily accented.
"I am sure you did not," Hoare whispered. "But the evidence is strong against you. After all, you and Provins-" he stopped for breath "- had words the other day, and all the world saw it. Then, sometime last night, he was killed by one of the swords you keep for your students."
"Your first point is true," De Barsac said. "We had very harsh words. As to your second point, I must believe what you say. But I was not present at the event, so I can tell you nothing of the weapon used."
"Tell me about your contretemps with the duc."
"I was surprised, 'Oare, at the news he gave me. I would have expected better of him, for he had the reputation of being a man of his word. More so at least than some others of his family."
"What was the news that surprised you so?"
"That I was not to have Vendee. She had been promised me as soon as your admiralty released her to ours. She was to go to Dominique Montrichard."
Hoare was about to ask him what Vendee might be, besides the rebellious, royalist French province, but then remembered. By some back room arrangement among the French court-in-exile, the admiralty, and the Foreign Ministry, a few old decayed vessels of the Royal Navy, instead of being laid up in ordinary or broken up, were to be sold to Louis XVIII at pence in the pound. Once again the lily banner of the ancien regime could fly at sea. For a monarchy without a country to rule, it was a matter of pride.
Hoare remembered too, ruefully, that Vendee had once been the Eole frigate from whose main top a French marine had fired the shot that broke his larynx and his career. Since his Staghound had taken her in the same action, Hoare would have been put into her as commander as a matter of course, and he would have been made instead of broken. Now the French navy was to have her back. It was bitter.
"Forgive me, my friend," Hoare said, "but the gods of our admiralty, at least, are capricious. Like your seamen, we English sailors must learn to weather that kind of blow."
"But she was to go to Montrichard. Montrichard, parbleu!" Barsac breathed scorn like fire. "Dominique Benoit Jean-Baptiste de Montrichard, who could hardly take a skiff out of La Rochelle without putting her on the rocks! Simply because the upstart is a comte and his equerry, while I, Marc-Antoine de Chatillon de Barsac, am a mere vicomte. Or because of his liaison with the lovely comtesse."
"Then why did you not kill Montrichard instead of the duc?"
"I remind you, 'Oare, I killed no one. I was angry at the duc, yes. But not a tuer, mon ami, not angry to kill. I merely protested a decision that I had not expected and did not deserve.
"Why, I had even begun conversations with Marciello, that dancing master of a man, to sell him my academy so that my wife could live decently while I was at sea in Vendee. Now, here I am, immured, without a ship, without my liberty. It is too much, 'Oare, too much. My poor wife…" De Barsac stared vacantly at the wet stone wall a mere four feet from his nose.
"Keep up your spirits, man," Hoare whispered, though he had no tangible support to offer the prisoner.
As he left the lockup, someone pulled at his cloak. The face beneath the shawl, tight-clutched against the cold, was no lady's; her complexion was too coarse. But she looked respectable, so Hoare did not pull free. She might be a lady's maid.
"Zur, zur!" she exclaimed.
"Would you be Mr. 'Oare, zur?" She blushed. Hoare was long resigned to seeing blushes on young women's faces the first time they used his name. At least they seldom snickered, as did some men who did not know that, while Bartholomew Hoare had yet to kill his man, he had yet to miss whatever part of an opponent he chose for target.
"The same," he whispered, and waited. She gave a little bob.
"I be Molly, zur, Madame de Barsac's maid." The girl spoke with a strong Dorset buzz.
"Ma'am wonders, zur, if you'd kindly step by and zee 'er for a moment or two?"
"Lead the way, Molly," Hoare said, though he needed no guide to this destination.
He followed close on her heels to a decent but shabby building. The sign at the door read:
MARC-ANTOINE DE CHATILLON DE BARSAC
Molly led him down an alley behind the school, into a rear doorway and up two flights of stairs. Here she opened an inner door and bobbed again for him to precede her.
"Mr. 'Oare, mum," she whispered, and blushed again.
Her hand outstretched, her mistress advanced to greet him. A woman-shaped woman, she would be a few years younger than her husband or Hoare.
"Madame la Vicomtesse," Hoare whispered as he made his leg and bent over the hand. Actually to kiss it would have been unduly suggestive.
"So kind of you, Mr. 'Oare," she said in French. "My husband has spoken of you often."
"I am told he has been taken up in connection with the sad death of the Duc de Provins," Hoare said.
"Which is why I told Molly to find you and beg you to wait on me. He had nothing to do with it, of course."
"Of course. But the town authorities believe otherwise, and one can hardly blame them. After all, he is known to have quarreled with the duc, and his broken sword was the murder weapon."
"Anyone, monsieur," she said, "could have filched a broken sword from our salon. Marc-Antoine collects them in a corner. I record them and then sell them to Tompkins the cutler, for we cannot afford weapons of a quality high enough to be worth repair."
"How often is a weapon broken?"
"Perhaps two a week. There are some awkward pupils who break one almost every lesson. They are hopeless, and I charge them extra for the breakage."
"Then you keep the books for your husband?"
The vicomtesse nodded.
A notion tiptoed reluctantly into Hoare's mind. "Could the Comtesse de Montrichard have acquired one of the broken swords?" he asked.
"Why yes, I suppose she could. She sometimes accompanied the duc, especially if he wanted to display his proficiency by taking up a blade himself."
"She would come with her husband, I presume?"
"Hardly, monsieur. That would have been gauche in the extreme, would it not?"
"And about yesterday's quarrel between the duc and your husband?"
"It was hardly a quarrel," she said. "Provins took Marc-Antoine aside and told him that instead of giving command of Vendee to him he must give it to Montrichard. My husband had been counting on obtaining the post; it had become a matter of honor as well as the pocketbook. He protested, too vehemently, perhaps. The duc turned on his heel and left the salon, followed, of course, by his attendant."
"Who was… "
"The comtesse." Her eyes opened wide. "Why, the comte was there as well. How louche! Yes, I remember now. Montrichard was already practicing when the duc arrived, before the mirror, of course, being the sort of person he is."
"So, madame, any of four people could have taken away the broken sword."
"Yes. The Comte de Montrichard, his comtesse, your husband… or you."
"Monsieur!" Her lip curled. For a moment Hoare feared she would order him to the door, but then she laughed. "Yes, I too, I suppose, although you are not to know I can hardly tell which end of the weapon to hold. But then you must add to your list of suspects every pupil of my husband, past or present."
Hoare shuddered at the thought and dismissed it.
"Well, madame la vicomtesse, I have now spoken with you, your husband and the Comtesse de Montrichard. It remains for me to question the comte." Having run out of breath, Hoare merely raised his eyebrows hopefully. She caught his meaning.
"He keeps chambers at The Lilies in Dover Street, I believe," she said. "I hope you will be able to establish my husband's innocence, monsieur. Strange though it may seem, our children and I love him."
"I share your hope, madame." With that Hoare prepared to take his leave, leaving unspoken his fear that powerful evidence indeed would be needed if De Barsac were to depart the Portsmouth bridewell unhanged.
"Un moment, monsieur," said the vicomtesse. She disappeared into an adjoining room, returning with a paper in her hand. "As I told you, I handle my husband's business affairs. Here is the commission Provins gave him, days ago. Perhaps you will believe me."
"It is not I who must be convinced, madame, but an English jury. May I take this with me?"
She shrugged. "It will be no use to him if he is dead, monsieur. Take it, then."
De Montrichard's "chambers" might be no more than a pair of garret rooms at The Lilies, one in a warren of similar quarters let out to titled emigre paupers, but he kept a lackey nonetheless, and he or the lackey kept Hoare pacing the low corridor outside his door for a half-hour's eternity.
The comte received him in a bare bleak chamber. It smelled of damp plaster and contained one hard chair, one desk, and a number of spanking-new seachests and boxes. Hoare had, he guessed, caught him in mid-move. Some, he saw, bore different crests. Could they, or some of them, belong to the late duc?
The comte's pale, narrow face was set in lines of sour and apparently permanent disapproval. He wore the same oddly different naval uniform that Hoare had seen on the duc's body, and like the duc's, the heavy bullion epaulettes he wore on each shoulder could never have seen salt air.
He received Hoare standing and began without greeting. "You have come here, I understand, to solicit information concerning the death of the Duc de Provins. Is that the case?" Hoare was not one to be outdone in matters of icy courtesy. He nodded assent and waited. "It should be obvious even to an Englishman," said the outwaited count at last, "that De Barsac killed him. Or perhaps you did not notice the provenance of the broken sword."
"I did, monsieur." Hoare waited again, counted fifteen of his slow pulses, and continued. "You are a member of his late grace's court, sir, I believe?"
"Your belief is in error. Until yesterday I was indeed a member of His Royal Highness's 'court,' as you are pleased to call it, though how it is any concern of yours escapes me entirely. In fact, I was his sole equerry. As for the comtesse my wife… that, now, was quite a different matter and is not one for discussion with you."
De Montrichard, Hoare said to himself, had probably been born sneering. Tucking the expression into his mental commonplace book for possible future use, he renewed the waiting game. Again he won; the count continued. "However, since yesterday I have had the honor to command His Most Christian Majesty's ship Vendee."
"Have you been read in, then?"
Montrichard visibly choked down an order for Hoare to take his questions and swallow them. Perhaps he recalled just in time that he would be at the mercy of Hoare's master for the fitting out of his new command, for he simply said, "In the French navy, monsieur, command takes effect when the officer receives his appointment, as I have." For the first time, the comte offered the honorific common between gentlemen. "Indeed, I have just returned from Admiralty House, where I presented the document in question to your admiral."
"My congratulations, then, mon capitaine," Hoare whispered. "And when do you actually board your new command?"
"As soon as arrangements for the ceremony of transfer have been completed. Tomorrow, I expect. You are, of course, welcome to be present."
To Hoare's ears the invitation lacked something of sincerity.
"I shall be overjoyed to accept," he answered as he made his farewell bow. He found himself more than curious to tread, as a guest, the quarterdeck he himself might have paced as commander. It would be a bittersweet experience, he expected.
At Admiralty House, the flag secretary, Patterson, informed him that the comte had, indeed, presented the precious document.
"It's right here," he said. He handed it over for Hoare to peruse. "Sir George is closeted with Captain Pottle again. Will that man take no for an answer? Never on your life, sir."
Except for being in French, the letter of appointment, crudely printed except for spaces where names were added in manuscript, was virtually identical to the form employed by the admiralty. A tidy signature and an ornate seal appeared at the foot of the paper.
"Made the translation myself for the poor duke last month," Patterson said with modest pride.
It had grown late. Hoare betook himself to his own quiet quarters at The Swallowed Anchor in the eastern part of the town.
The sky was was still an arctic blue the next morning when Hoare emerged into the street. Facing south, he was buffeted by a biting northerly breeze; he must needs hold onto his hat.
Hoare first returned to The Three Suns, where he asked the porter a question. Pollard demurred but upon being fixed with Hoare's glittering eye told him that no, the countess and that 'orrible maid had remained in her rooms from the time the late dook departed until she went out to view his corpse yesterday. Strike him blue if he wasn't telling God's truth.
As Hoare turned away, a worn notice struck his eye. Partially obscured by a recent playbill and partially obscuring an ancient recruiting poster, it read:
TO BE SOLD, UPON ATTRACTIVE TERMS
A RECENTLY OVERHAULED SMALL BARGE
CONVERTED FOR PLEASURE SAILING
BY A NAVAL GENTLEMAN
INQUIRE AT 14, HIGHBURY STREET, IN CARE OF MASON.
Ever since being forever barred from going to sea again as a naval officer, Hoare had itched at least to sail saltwater again. Upon the signing of peace, he had received a gratifying dividend on some of his shares in John Company. He had now questioned everyone he could think of, and he was at a loss. Perhaps a change in viewpoint would help. He shrugged and made his way to Highbury Street.
His smart rap on the door to Number 14 was answered by a squat woman with a commanding look. To Hoare she bore the insignia of "landlady" as clearly as if the word had been tattooed across her red forehead. "About the yacht, advertised for sale," he whispered.
She looked him up and down. "Wait here," she said, and closed the door in Hoare's face. He did not catch the name she roared up the stairs within.
In a moment a blaring sneeze sounded from behind the door, and a fellow lieutenant emerged, wiping his streaming nose. He was about Hoare's own size and frame but appeared ten years or so younger. Like Cassius, Hoare thought, this officer wore a lean and hungry look; a mark on his unornamented left shoulder suggested that at one time he had held commander's rank. The eyes above the inflamed nose looked anxious. "You called about the yacht, sir?"
"Yes, sir," Hoare whispered. "Hoare, Bartholomew Hoare."
"Hornblower, sir. Horatio Hornblower."
"Not Hornblower of Retribution?"
"The same, sir," said the other.
"Oh dear," Hoare said. Hornblower's ill luck was well known. He had been made commander and brought to England the sloop Retribution-Gaditana, as she had been at the time of her capture in Samana Bay. But then the commissioners had not confirmed his appointment because it had been made after peace had been signed. Now the wretch was being compelled to return, bit by precious bit, the pay he had drawn during his brief tenure in the rank.
"Would your cold prevent you from showing me your craft?"
"Not at all, sir. Happy. This way."
Hornblower did not return for an outer garment but raised the collar of his uniform coat to protect his ears, hunched his shoulders, and thrust his hands into his pockets. He sneezed.
It came out as the two betook themselves to the berth of the vessel in question that during his happy few weeks as master and commander in Retribution Hornblower had indulged himself by squandering his prize money on a small naval barge and refitting it as a yacht in which he could carry himself and a companion on short cruises about the Solent. Now, of course, keeping her was out of the question. He must put his beloved up for sale and live upon the proceeds somehow until he had paid off the rapacious clerks of the Admiralty Office.
Hoare lost his heart to Thunderer at once. She lay snug at a small floating pier below the Hard, to which the more knowledgeable captains chose to direct their coxswains. Like a lass well aware of her beauty, she glowed. She was under thirty feet in length, a seven ton craft at the most. Either of the two tall officers could reach halfway to her miniature crosstrees. Forward of her mast lay a cuddy. Sadly yet proudly Hornblower unlocked it.
"Please," he said to Hoare with a flourish. He blew his nose.
The cuddy was icy but snug. Its overhead was just high enough for them to crouch upon lockers set on either side of a table whose base extended the full length of the cuddy.
"The enclosure of one of Mr. Gunter's patent sliding keels," Hornblower explained. "I installed it so I could explore shallow waters as well as work to windward moderately well."
Hoare nodded. "I see."
"Would you like to take her out?" Hornblower's eyes were all but pleading. He blew his nose.
"If it would not trouble you."
"Not at all," Hornblower said. "I have no duties to occupy my time."
His voice carried a trace of bitterness, Hoare thought, and not without reason. It was bad enough that their Lordships of the Admiralty had seen fit to throw their seamen on the beach to starve; that they would do the same for their trained, loyal officers passed all belief.
Between them the two had Thunderer's jib and loose-footed gaff mainsail set in minutes. They cast off smartly and let her run free through the light chop of the inner harbor. With the wind astern, the cold was less painful. Nevertheless, Hornblower chose to slip below and put on an oilcloth jacket. Above it his wet blue nose protruded.
"You'll notice she gripes a bit," he observed. "I prefer that to a lee helm."
"It's a matter of choice," Hoare said.
By now they were out of the ruck of little oared harbor craft and running into the Solent. Hornblower blew his nose. "It was kind of you, Mr. Hoare, not to remark on my cold and the sound I must make in clearing my nose," he said. "Another man might well have remarked on the appropriateness of the noise and my name."
Hoare gave his silent laugh, a sound that a bluestocking lady had once compared to the sound of one hand clapping. "Given the possibilities of unseemly plays on my own name and voice," he whispered over the breeze, "I would be mad to open that subject.
"Do you often take her out single-handed?" he asked after they had dropped the peculiar sliding keel and put her close-hauled on the larboard tack.
"Very seldom," Hornblower said. "As I found during my brief sojourn among the elect, solitude is the fate of every ship's master and commander. But even though Thunderer is quite small enough to handle alone, I like companionship. Like nuns and noblemen I do not go about alone."
Hoare was about to respond with some light remark but halted, hang-jawed.
"What. Did. You. Say?" he whispered. Perplexed, the other repeated his statement.
"Why-like nuns and noblemen I do not go about alone."
"My God," Hoare said. "Look here; d'ye know where Eole lies?"
"Just off Spit Head itself." Hornblower pointed aft, over Thunderer's quarter. "You can see her there, between Hercules and Lively."
"Will you do me the great favor of taking me out to her?"
"Of course, Mr. Hoare. Anything for a fellow officer," Hornblower said as he eased the main sheet. "But why? Be so kind as to house the sliding keel, sir," he added. He let Thunderer fall off, laid her course directly for Eole, and blew his nose. "The lanyard there, by the hatch."
When Hoare had obeyed, he felt the little yacht almost surge ahead. Sitting forward, his mouth to Hornblower's ear, he explained what had transpired these last days and what he expected to ask of the other officer. He also agreed to purchase the little vessel.
As Hoare had seen the minute Thunderer rounded the frigate's stern, the port admiral's barge already bobbed at her starboard entry port and a rear-admiral's pendant snapped at the main. Sir George Hardcastle, Rear-Admiral of the Blue, had boarded the frigate with his party. One of the barge's crew handily caught the line Hoare tossed him, and the pair swarmed aboard.
Eole, soon to be Vendee, had been a crack frigate when she exchanged broadsides with Staghound, but that had been nearly ten years ago. Today, laid up in ordinary, she was a slipshod nightmare. Her main yard was cockbilled, her standing rigging slack. To use the navy's expression, she looked as if she had been swinging at anchor long enough to ground on her own beef bones. When he uncovered to greet the new arrivals, the bypassed, threadbare lieutenant commanding her showed a scanty head of gray, shoulder-length hair. Hoare shuddered. There, he knew, stood tomorrow's Bartholomew Hoare.
A fleet of dignitaries and their attendants were standing about the quarterdeck, formed into two clumps. One was composed of unfamiliar Frenchmen, one of whom was ablaze with ribbons and stars. Heading the other party was his own admiral. To this group Hoare prepared to introduce his companion.
"Mr. Hornblower needs no introduction to me," Sir George said. "You have had uncommon ill luck, sir. I shall keep you in mind in the hope of finding an occasion to remedy it."
"Thanky, sir," Hornblower answered. Hoare thought that, though sincere, his voice conveyed little hope.
"Thank God you came aboard, Hoare," the admiral said. "You know the extent of my French-'Mercy bocoo.' 'Vooly-voo cooshy?' That's about it. Patterson here tries hard, but his tongue isn't as sharp as his pen. I need you to do the honors between us and the Fro… er, the French. The fancy one's the Duc d'Angouleme," he continued in a carrying quarterdeck whisper. "King Louie's brother."
That made him the half-brother of the murdered Provins. Now that he had made the connection, Hoare saw that the duc bore a wide black band on his arm, half covering the bullion.
He made his deepest leg to the duc, bending one knee and sweeping his cocked hat well to one side in the approved manner. In doing so he sighted a familiar figure standing well to the front of the duc's attendants: the Comte de Montrichard. The two exchanged stiff nods.
"Sir," Hoare said to his admiral in his most urgent whisper, "a moment of your time if you would be so kind." He drew Sir George aside while the rest of the two parties waited, murmuring. At last Sir George nodded, looked about him, stepped to midships of the quarterdeck, withdrew a paper that fluttered in the wind.
"Order the hands to assemble," he said in a flat voice. He waited while an ancient boatswain twittered his lonely pipe. Hoare knew that with the pipe he himself carried for various communications beyond the power of his own feeble voice he could have out-twittered the poor man any day. To either side of the waist the two crews drew up, the cluster of British seamen in their winter peajackets and a shivering gang of what must pass for Frenchmen. These were, if possible, even more of a mixed bag than the British, and they were clad in a grade of junk that would make the greediest purser in the navy sneer.
At Sir George's quiet order, one of his scanty marine guard stood to the flag halyard leading to Vendee's spanker boom. A French seaman crouched at his side bearing a bundle of white in his arms, the white and gold fleur-de-lys ensign of Bourbon France. At the moment when his admiral declared the transfer of ownership, the lobster would lower the faded Union Jack forever while the Frenchman ran up the Bourbon banner. At the foot of the mainmast stood a second Frog, ready to hoist a French commission pennant to the main truck.
"Off hats," said the old lieutenant, and the admiral began, his breath steaming in the chill wind as he read.
" 'By the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral of Great Britain and Ireland, et cetera, and of all His Majesty's plantations, et cetera: By virtue of the power and authority to us given, we do hereby transfer ownership and control of His Majesty's ship Eole into the possession of his Majesty's great ally and brother monarch of France, His Most Christian Majesty Louis, the eighteenth of that name. And we do charge all officers and men to recognize her at all times upon her ways going and coming upon the seas, subject to the customs of the service.' Sound off."
Once again the feeble twitter; all hands on the quarterdeck stood to attention. Now blue with cold, the admiral doffed his own hat and bowed to the duc of Angouleme. The Union Jack came down, struggling all the way, passing the rising flag of France as it went. At last the white and gold whipped in the icy wind from off England's shore.
Angouleme now began to read his acknowledgment. The legalistic French passed Hoare's understanding and evidently that of all the other listeners as well, for the two ranks of men began to cough and shuffle. But the unintelligible recitation ended at last. The duc wound down. He turned to De Montrichard, motioning him to step forward.
"It is His Most Christian Majesty's will that command of his good ship Vendee be placed in the hands of the Comte de… "
Hoare could not expect his whisper to be heard over the duc's drone, and he feared that his boatswain's call would be misunderstood. He resorted to the ultimate. Putting two fingers into his mouth, he produced an ear-shattering whistle. The affronted Angouleme fell silent.
"Un moment, messieurs," Hoare croaked. "I accuse Monsieur the Comte de Montrichard of having murdered his master and admiral, the Duc de Provins."
The Frenchmen on the quarterdeck fell into disarray. Upon seeing that their admiral retained his composure, the Englishmen naturally conformed.
De Montrichard was the first of his countrymen to recover his aplomb. "I demand to know the meaning of this effrontery. It is outrageous. The man is not only mute; he is mad."
Hoare filled his lungs. "I have never been to France," he began, "but I have spent time among French gentry when serving in Canada." Mindful of his dead bride and stolen daughter he lost breath, choked, gestured to Hornblower in silent appeal.
"Mr. Hoare knew," Hornblower said on his behalf, "that a prince of the blood might lie, cheat, and steal at will. He might lie with the wife of his equerry and his best friend; he might cheat at cards; he might steal the honor of a decent maitre d'armes. But…"
Hoare raised his hand and resumed the story on his own.
"But there was one thing he would never do. He would never, never go into a public place like Portsmouth Common without an attendant. Failing any other, that attendant was Monsieur le Comte de Montrichard." He paused for breath. "Kindly empty your pockets, sir," Hoare rasped at the comte.
Hippolyte de Montrichard wasted no time. He spun on his heel like a dancing master, dived over Vendee's taffrail, and began swimming strongly out to sea. "Fire on that man!" Admiral Hardcastle bellowed. His marine guard sprang to obey. A family of fountains sprang to life around the fugitive, but he kept on, using a powerful overhand stroke. Then he paused in the middle of the fairway as if wondering where to go next, thrust his body half out of the water, and made a graceful surface dive. His toes, pointed skyward, were the last to be seen of him.
"Man overboard!" cried the superseded lieutenant.
"Case proved, I think," whispered Bartholomew Hoare.
"… Montrichard was desperate," Hoare gasped to his surrounding audience. The last of his whisper was giving out. Again he turned to Hornblower. "Echo me, if you will."
"With his wife out of favor," Hornblower repeated for him, "Montrichard now had no hold over her lover, Provins. Now he could no longer expect him to sign the orders placing him in command of Vendee. He saw his opportunity for advancement to honor vanishing, and he could not bear it. "In that, of course, he utterly misread his master. De Barsac's anger at Provins was, in fact, due to the duc's explanation that, in all fairness to his equerry and confidant Montrichard, he could not deprive him of his standing as husband of a royal maitresse en titre without some compensation. While wholly unofficial, the role had given Montrichard a certain cachet, and he had done nothing to warrant losing it. So Provins would grant the command of Vendee to Montrichard instead of De Barsac.
"But Montrichard could not credit Provins with being, like his ancestor Bayard, a chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. He was desperate. He would become a nothing among nothings in a nothing French court. He could not face the shame of it. So he forged his master's signature on a blank commission form, sealed it with his master's seal, and presented the document at Admiralty House."
There was a general murmur among the Frenchmen on Vendee's quarterdeck. Hoare was certain that a tear gleamed on Angouleme's powdered cheek. "But you have no proof, monsieur," said Angouleme coldly.
Hoare's answering shrug was as expressive as any Frenchman's. "The comte, by his own action just now, would appear to have provided ample proof. Beyond that, perhaps even more will surface."
"Hmph," said Admiral Sir George Hardcastle. "Well, gentlemen, are we to transfer this ship to the Marine Royale, or not? If so, who is to command her?"
"Sir," Hoare whispered, and handed Sir George the document the Vicomtesse de Barsac had entrusted to him. Even though his port admiral read no French, he would recognize the person named in it.
"Hmph," said Sir George, and passed the document to Angouleme.
"Of course," said the duc; his English reached that far. "Let us go ashore, then," he added in his own language, "and inform the Vicomte de Barsac, in his lonely cell, of his good fortune."
Left on the deck of Vendee, Hoare and Hornblower looked at each other and shrugged.
"Will you light me ashore in your new command, sir?" Hornblower asked. His expression was that of the classic Spartan boy being gnawed by a fox.
"With pleasure, Mr. Hornblower," said Bartholomew Hoare.
"I do not understand this, Mr. 'Oare." The widowed Comtesse de Montrichard had summoned Hoare to the Three Suns. Tasteful in mourning, she extended a document to Hoare. "I had thought that my husband had deposited this commission with your nice admiral."
"He did, madame. I saw it there myself."
"Why, then, do I find it in the possessions of Guillaume, which your mayor's honest minions returned to me so kindly with those of my late husband?"
Hoare inspected the document more closely. To the best of his more-than-adequate recollection, it had been prepared on the same printed form. Yes, here were the same typographical errors, made by a Portsmouth printer unfamiliar with the language he was setting. The handwritten entries named Vendee as the ship in question, De Montrichard as her master. The date was identical, as was the impression of the seal the mayor's men had found yesterday upon recovering the drowned nobleman's body. And the signature on this specimen was free, quite illegible, not the careful inscription Hoare remembered on the document Montrichard had deposited with Sir George's hands that the clerk Patterson had shown him.
Raising his head from the paper, Hoare looked into the huge, warm, violet eyes.
"This proves, madame, that as I believed, the duc had already given Vendee to his equerry when he was killed."
"Then my husband's crime was without purpose," she said.
"Precisely, madame," whispered Bartholomew Hoare.