A Warning he would not Ignore.
Robert broke his journey in a small village that he barely remembered. He left the stable lad in charge of the carriage and horses, with strict instructions as to what they should be allowed to eat and drink, considering that he still had two hours to go. “I will be here an hour.” He gave him a coin to be observant, and to look after his belongings.
The lad had looked at the gentleman’s carriage and horses, and his clothes. This was a military man who had seen recent combat if the missing top of an ear and recent scarring about his face said anything about him. He watched the man pick up a box of pistols to take into the Inn with him, and saw a well-used sword, more like a cutlass, left on the driver’s seat. It was engraved on the handle, the little he could see of it, though he could not read it. It said more about that gentleman than almost anything else, apart from his eyes.
“I’ll sit where I can see the yard. Guard that smaller trunk”—Penfield pointed to the one that was his own— “and that saber. I’ll not take it with me to trip anyone up, but I would not like to lose it.” He further requested that the lad should allow no one to approach his carriage, or climb into it, as wayward children might be inclined to do. He and his brother had done as much, themselves, as very young boys.
Robert told the boy that he would be seated in the window of the dining room. He pointed to a window, behind which he could see a dining room. “If anyone gives you trouble”—he smiled. “But why should anyone give you trouble?” Indeed, why.
“Yes sir, and thank you, sir. I have my own knife, for that, and there’s always two or three of us around to stop that kind of thing. If anything goes missing from anyone here, then I won’t be employed after that, and I likes what I do.” He watched as the gentleman turned his back and walked over to the Inn.
It seemed unusually busy. Robert did not like crowds of so many unfamiliar faces on all sides, though many of them fell back from him when they saw that he was undoubtedly a gentleman. But a gentleman with a look in his sharp eyes and on his wind-etched face that caused them to haul their children out of his way, and to hesitate about getting too close.
The landlord had seen him drive into the yard and had seen the man give instructions to the lad, pointing to the window. The man intended to sit in the window to keep an eye on his belongings. The landlord couldn’t blame him for that and saw that a place was empty for him.
This man would be hungry, no doubt of that if he had driven up from London. This was a navy man if he was not mistaken, and fresh ashore from the looks of his face. And that was a box of pistols under his arm.
The landlord rescued him soon after Robert had entered his establishment and steered him out of the way of his other guests, placing him in a newly vacated seat by the window so that the man might oversee the yard, though the landlord’s own son, guarding that carriage, would be attentive to what was needed.
The gentleman laid the box on the seat beside himself as the landlord bustled off to see to getting him a nice Cornish pasty; fresh out of the oven. He instructed the serving girl to see that he had a beer, and anything else he might need.
Robert settled himself, relieved to find that he was not to be seated at a common table with the others and looked out into the yard. Satisfied with what he could see, he recovered and re-read the letter that had seen him set out shortly after he had landed, and the others that he had received that had been written some weeks earlier by his brother. Those letters seemed to bring Charles back to life, and to suggest that what had recently happened was just a dream and not real. But Robert knew better. Where he was, was real, and the reason behind him being here was just as real, too. It was hard to believe that Charles was now dead, and that he was the one alive.
The general view of things had been that the younger brother, him, would die in service of King-and-Country, long before Charles. As the years dragged on, Robert seemed to live a charmed existence considering the number of battles in which he had been engaged. His survival was all the more remarkable when one learned—from admiralty reports—that Captain Penfield was usually the first to board an enemy vessel and was always caught up in heaviest fighting. In the midst of the enemy, was often the safest place to be. Snipers in the rigging of those ships picked off any man they could see on the deck of an enemy ship, or those they could not identify on their own deck, especially one in a Captain’s uniform.
Once you had boarded the other vessel, however, the snipers could not shoot, for fear of hitting their own men and became almost the sole targets themselves of the snipers on the other ship. Such action did not last long. Within ten minutes of them boarding any ship, the action was over. The decks were slippery with blood and body parts, and the dead and wounded lay all about, breathing their last. If you were alive to see that, then you might give thanks once more that you had been spared. Except, the next stop would be the surgeon. Another life-threatening ordeal.
The girl brought him a tankard of ale and a recent Gazette from the city. He had not been able to pause for long enough to do any of the things he had intended to do once he had set foot ashore. Robert had been starved of news for the last few months, and Stephenson had not had time to tell him how the war was going, though from what Robert had learned in Gibraltar, he had found out enough not to worry.
He began to read the recent news in the city. The names were mostly different from those he remembered, but there were some that he knew. He put it to one side once his food arrived. He was hungrier than he had thought. He ate a large Cornish pasty, drizzled with gravy, and drank the first good beer he’d had in months.
He looked out of the window and began to notice all the things he had not seen for far too long. He'd not realized how much he might miss seeing a simple thing like a tree, with the wind riffling its leaves, flowers, or even normal people walking about their business, or children playing hopscotch on the other side of the stable yard.
Understandably, everything that he could see, constantly pulled him back to the reason for his being here.
His brother’s death was just one of a long string of deaths that had filled his life over the years but had been the least welcome. One could not grieve for long at sea before the next battle was coming up over the horizon. But Charles had been his twin. There had been nothing impersonal about that loss, and his life was surely changed by that, even though they had not seen each other for ten years. Had he been able to sense Charles’s moment of death, as they said twins could do? And where, when one of such a pair felt some pain or suffered a loss, the other sensed it too?
What had there been notable, that he might remember about July the fifth, the day his brother had that accident? He could not easily recall where they had been on that date. His day then, as with other days, had been filled with many notable events; keeping the ship afloat when they had sprung some planking a few days out of Gibraltar and on their way back home; constantly worrying about seeing the rudder carried away; or of losing the forward mast and all of its sails in the gusty winds that had come at them out of nowhere. Bad luck had hit them almost daily for the previous few months. He would need to know what time of day the accident had been, if it was known.
He tried to relax, little as he felt like it. There had never been time to relax in the last few months. Now he could indulge himself but couldn’t. He had known each man on board his ship personally, but now he was surrounded by strangers, of whom he knew nothing. It was uncomfortable. At such times as this, rarely encountered in his life, he became a student of character; noting how people behaved with each other, deciding what their lives might be like, observing dress and habits, and the way they interacted with each other. There were enough people in the inn to allow him to do so, while observing them in such a way that they did not know that they were being closely studied or might take offense at it. He always had patience to observe his fellow man when he had the luxury of time to do so, and he had time now. His horses needed a rest, so he would be an hour anyway. He ordered some pie that the girl had recommended, and another beer.
He could see his things outside in the yard, and saw the horses; his horses now, being rubbed down and fussed over in an open-fronted shed next to the carriage.
He noticed that both his carriage and horses attracted unusual interest, but only fleetingly as a man walked across the yard, pausing briefly to look at them. They would attract attention no matter where they were.
Seeing that they were being closely attended to, the man continued and entered the inn. Nothing unusual about that, or him. Such attention was probably to be expected with such a show of prosperity. And the quality of those horses, tied just beside the carriage and obviously part of it all, could be expected to attract the attention of anyone who was a judge of horseflesh. Robert had his back to the main entrance, but there was a mirror on the far wall that allowed him to see what went on behind him; who entered; who left. That same man who had hesitated at the carriage and horses, was looking about the room. After a few seconds, that man noticed the mirror for himself, and recognized that he was being studied in turn. He turned away as he looked further around the room, and then left.
There had been too much hesitation there. A few moments later, Robert saw him riding off, from outside of the gates where he must have left his horse. What was of such interest about the late Mr. Bascombe? He began to wish that he had gone through those trunks better than he had, and that he had learned more of his benefactor. Bascombe’s belongings had told its own story of the man, as little as that had been, but they had said nothing of his troubles, or what might follow him.
Or might he have been confused with his own late brother? Unlikely. It was the carriage and horses that had attracted the man’s attention. Besides, he was still far enough away from his own estate that the family would not be so well known here. Or was it that he had been curious about the fine equipage and plotted other things with never a thought of either Bascombe or Penfield?
Stephenson had mentioned that single, well-dressed individuals in fine carriages, could expect to attract the wrong kind of attention of certain other individuals whose purpose might not be honest. Robert smiled to himself. Was this England? Had society degenerated so much that common footpads now terrorized the countryside with impunity, as Stephenson had suggested? He overheard some regulars talking about the ravages of a highwayman along the road.
‘Robbed a coach just last night and shot the driver. Two of them I heard. I wouldn’t travel that road without a bevy of guns with me, I’ll tell you. And even then, I won’t. That’s the fourth in the last week. First at the Firecross, then twenty miles away at Strensall, then after that at Owlsedge. They move around so much they’ll be hard to catch.’
Robert sighed and resolved that he had better be prepared for anything. Stephenson had been wise to warn him. In truth, there seemed little difference in the trouble that might face a man, whether upon land or upon the high seas, except there, you knew who your enemy was. He flew a flag to tell you, and you could see him bearing down upon you with obvious intent. Here? A man might be given no warning but might be shot from cover before he even knew that he was being attacked. The sea seemed the safer of the two. He would have to be ready for anything. Though he always was.
After Robert had settled his bill with the landlord he went outside and instructed the lad to hitch up his horses. He knew that he was being observed from inside and outside of the inn, but that was to be expected. For some reason he felt the hairs on the nape of his neck begin to prickle. His sense of danger had served him well in the past, though he often had hours to see it bearing down upon him. No such warning was likely here. A man might be shot down before he knew even that a shot had been fired. Why was he so nervous? It was not like him, but then his emotions were on edge, and his imagination was probably playing tricks upon him.
Perhaps that other man who had paused to look at the horses and carriage, had identified him as easy pickings. They would find more than they might bargain for if they thought to interfere with him on the highway. He smiled grimly. He would have his pistols with him anyway, on the seat beside him, but he would make sure that his saber was at hand too, just as it had been on his drive out of the city.
While the stable hands were putting the horses to, he opened up his box on the seat beside him and lifted out the two heavy pistols that it contained. They were heavy because they had a longer barrel than most, and each gun had two of them. They were deadly accurate in the right hands, and faster to reload, with a percussion cap in place of loose gunpowder that blew away in a strong wind or got damp. With two shots to each pistol, and a gun that was heavy enough to use as a club, he usually met little opposition that either they, or his saber, could not clear out of his way. They were Belgian, and one of the best sets of the newer percussion cap pistols he had ever seen. Their barrels were also rifled, and more accurate than any pistol he had ever fired, up to that point in time. He let no other man see to his guns. They had pulled him out of many a problem. Their long barrels made them sometimes difficult to hold steady without a strong wrist, but they did not misfire, and with care could take a man out of the enemy rigging before he might expect anything.
He checked them over, placed the open box down by his feet within easy reach, and laid one of the pistols on the seat beside him. If anyone thought to rob him on this road, they would not have an uncontested time of it.
It was the first time the young lad that was seeing to his horses had ever seen double-barreled pistols before, and with the new percussion cap. He knew better than to say anything. The nobs did not like to have any conversation with the likes of him.
“All set, guvnor.” He passed the reins up into Robert’s hands and received another coin in exchange. He stepped back and watched him drive off.
The man who thought to stop him and hold him up, would not live to see another day. The boy looked back to the taproom door, and saw another man leave the inn in some haste.
That man called for his horse, probably intending to set out after that carriage. If he were not careful he would be hurrying only to his own death.