The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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Two Months Later: From The Dead!

There are times when it is safer to be thought dead, and remain out of sight, than to be alive and to arouse painful memories and reignite simmering desires.

“Buy a man a drink, sir? Wilfred, sir. Bless ’ee. Warm up the cockles of me ’art, it would.” The man addressed looked up to see the beggar that had stopped by his table in the darkest area of the ill-lit room and seemed to be speaking to him. He did not like to be seen or recognized in the midst of this den of evil, but he had few other places he might go without being recognized. He was about to utter a scathingly suitable reply, when he paused. How had he known his name? There had been something in the man’s voice that was familiar.

His legs suddenly felt weak, and he must look as though he had seen a ghost, for he had. The speaker had the appearance of an old man with sunburned, cracked skin, unkempt long hair, and bad teeth, as though he had a habit of chewing something which discolored them. He smelled of strong drink, but his eyes were sharp, and he was younger than he looked. He also hobbled about on a pair of crutches, presenting a pathetic appearance.

The man spoken to, stared closely at the man as he sat down at his table, not sure he could believe his eyes or his ears, with the cant talk he was using. He felt an uneasy premonition settle into his bones. He knew the smell of trouble, and even though it already permeated the atmosphere of that place, it had suddenly been augmented. “Stavely!” He said but the one word. “But you’re dead!”

“Whisht! Don’t use that name again.” The man spoke in a low voice that was unlikely to carry far. He now spoke with more education in his subdued voice than he had. “Aye, dead indeed. I was given up for dead more than once, and I was wished dead many times too, and there was times when I was wishing if for myself, but I ain’t dead, no more than you are. Howsomever, it’s nice to know that you recognized me after all that I’ve been through.” He impatiently waved the serving wench away from him.

That was the rumor that went about when your shipmates returned, five years ago now.”

“Shipmates! They were no shipmates of mine!” His eyes darted angrily about the room. “Murderous scum, the lot of ’em. Dead was what I intended might be believed then so that I could live a while longer.” He laid his crutches against the table. One leg seemed to have been lost close the ankle and was supported and provided the proper length for walking on it, by a piece of wood strapped to the outside of his lower leg. The other was also injured in some way.

Wilfred Matchett looked nervously around the room. “What the hell are you doing back in this country? There are those who would pay good money to know your whereabouts so that they might hunt you down. There was a time when I would have been one of them.” His listener did not believe him. Matchett had no backbone for violence. “The word was put out years ago. You cost many a family their fortune and their future—mine too, the way things worked out.” He looked him over. “If they knew you were this close . . .” He soon discarded the foolish thought that he had briefly entertained. “What madness brought you back?” Stavely’s eyes flashed in anger. He resented being called mad.

“Bad luck is what did it, or I would be relaxing in South America by now and with all of me intact, as I intended, and with a far better class of women than I see here in this lighthouse. It is low tide with me again, but I’ll come about.”

Matchett felt no sympathy. “Dreams are cheap! This is the life we both got from what we did. It’s been low tide for all of us who were in that plot with you. That nephew of yours is like a bloodhound on the scent.”

He wouldn’t know me any more than you did. I am a mere shell of what I was.”

I recognized you, though not easily.”

“I intended you to know me, think on, or you would not have known me from Adam. I’ve watched you most evenings as I scrounged around, but you never even noticed me, so others won’t if I don’t want ’em to.” He smiled knowingly. “I doubt you’ll say anything. You’ve got too much to lose even at this late stage, and so do I. You may plead that you have nothing left from that business of ours, but I know better. I followed you home twice now. Tidy little place you have, and a wife and pretty daughter too. More than I have. Yes, you certainly have a lot more to lose than I do. I made you rich once, along with others who once acknowledged me as friend, and I can do it again. Now, I want some of it back, as I have been rendered to the bones, and I have nothing.” That was not entirely true, but he preferred to say nothing of other sources of funding that he had access to, and other lodgings, along with better clothing.

The other man sat back and scowled at him. “Want away then. I am on my last legs now and am deeper in debt than ever I intended to be, thanks to you. You’re more like to get blood out of a stone than gelt out of me. My being in this thieves’ den is ample confirmation of that.” He knew better than to tell this man anything of himself now, though he seemed to know too much already. What he said of his own financial state had more than a ring of truth to it, as could be seen from the neglected state of his garb. “I never thought I’d spend my evenings here rather than in Almacks or one of the other clubs where I was once welcome, but this is what I’ve been reduced to—thanks to that damned nephew of yours and his father, your brother. Aye, and no half measures about it when he discovers another one of your partners in crime. You were wrong about his father and him then, and you will be found wrong about him now.”

“We’ll see. I intend to find out what he knows, and what he plans to do.”

“Good luck to you then. You’ll need it, if you think to put one over on either of ’em. The horse has already bolted. You’d be wiser to keep clear of him and his father. You probably will not have heard about the Sinclair brothers, those two from Edinburgh, or your nephew’s other brushes with our former acquaintances who are getting as scarce as hen’s teeth around here.”

“The Sinclairs? What of them?”

“Both dead! Murdered, only recently too, after all these years, and the daughter brought to ruin, no doubt to the same end, and by the same man—that vengeful nephew of yours! They thought to turn that butler of theirs, Bull Griffin, on him when he found out that those two ships they bought from you were back in Edinburgh, and laid claim to them. Except Griffin was the one who wound up dead, with his head smashed in.” He shook his head, still not understanding what might have happened there. “I would have put my money on Griffin, and not that other one surviving any encounter between them. Not until now. After that, it was open season on anything to do with those brothers, including the daughter, like I said. She disappeared the following day, and was gone for a full week, with no one knowing where, or willing to say. Rumor has it, she was kept well out of the way, entertaining him as a knight of the pork sword, until those two recanted and regained their senses about those two ships, and her. Too late for her by then. I have a daughter of my own to worry about. I have nothing to interest him anymore, thank God, but I still remain out of the way. He does not ask questions gently, from what I heard. A man might be wise to leave London after hearing of that, but I cannot, so I hide here, in this den of thieves, whores, and cutthroats, and live in constant dread of being found.” He would certainly change his habits after this meeting too. All of the Stavelys, not just master Henry, seemed to carry the stink of death with them and were a threat to him now that he had been found again.

“Those ships the Sinclairs had are now back here, in London, and in the company again, or they were, and it don’t take no brains to see how that came about, and with enough dead men left behind to point the way. That’s why I’m here—out of sight, but not out of his mind. They couldn’t leave well enough alone. They thought they could get the advantage of him and recover those ships. They paid the price for that, just as I fear I might, and as you probably will too if you persist. The brothers were butchered, throats cut from ear to ear, in a hostelry near the border. He did it right enough, same as he did for the daughter, but no one knows for sure.”

Stavely looked about to make sure no one was taking an interest in their conversation. “Time for me to step back in and see what I might make of it all, while pleading that I was but a victim of a bigger conspiracy and innocent of all charges, though it may not be easy with Henry ruling the roost now and uncovering too many secrets. I hid my own tracks quite well, I thought, but couldn’t outrun the rumors. I shall return home—test the waters, learn what I can, as I said, and reclaim what I may of it.” His reception would be no worse than he already faced, wherever he went. It would put them off guard if he showed up unexpectedly, as though he were innocent of all charges, which is what he would plead. He might persuade them for long enough to enable him to do what he needed to do.

The other man was looking at him incredulously. “You’ll need more than luck, if you think to do that.”

“You never used to be so chicken hearted.” Matchett did not like to be criticized either, but knew enough to remain silent. “I fully intend to survive and to recoup what I can. What I did once, I can do again. My brother and nephew are all that stand in my way of getting my name back and my business too. You’ll hear from me again now that I know where I can find you, and where you live.”

Mr. Matchett had an alarmed and flushed look on his face, but he held back saying what he wanted to say: Not this side of hell! He regretted telling him anything now. This was the last time he would be frequenting this establishment, and he and his family would leave town in the morning. “You’d be a wise man to give up that ambition. He didn’t get to me yet, and I hope he never does, but I don’t sleep well either, waiting from him to sniff me out as he did most of those others. I have nothing now, thanks to you, and nothing that would interest him or attract his attention. I was bled dry, keeping the others away from me. They stripped me of all that I had gained, and even more. I gave it up, rather than face what happened to Bainbridge. They fished him out of the Thames two years ago. Who would have thought that anyone might believe that there could be anything to recover after all this time, and work so hard to do so as that nephew of yours did? He gets closer by the day, or that’s the feeling I get in my gut, especially after seeing you.” His glance flickered about the room uneasily. “You should not have shown your face in England and certainly not in London so easily after what happened. Memories about such things are too long.” He downed the remainder of his beer and fished a small bone from the bottom of it out of his mouth. Perhaps it was time to move off to Plymouth and out of the way of all of the Stavelys. The one side of the family was just as dangerous and threatening as the other, to Wilfred Matchett’s health, but there was another way he might still survive.

Stavely’s hand fell onto his arm to hold him from rushing off. “Not yet. What news was there after I had gone? What was said? What was believed?” Matchett had been too long already in this man’s company, but he could not easily escape just yet.

“There was uproar, of course, from your partners—those who had not been part of the plot, clamoring for your head. Them and their men-of-law were after everything you had left behind, but you made sure there was little of that, that was not encumbered with debt.”

“No word of an accident on board that ship left at dockside—the Bellerophon?

“Not that I heard about.”

Stavely tapped his fingers on the table. He had hoped at least that it might be believed that he had been forcefully taken, and even seriously injured. His own injuries now would have lent credence to that story. “What of my son? Have you heard of him in London? Although he would lie low after that.”

“Your son left with you, didn’t he? That’s what we all assumed. There’s been neither hide nor hair seen or heard of him for seven years, just as with you.” Stavely had not liked to hear that.

“Damn! The boy must have dug himself in someplace out of the way. Then I shall certainly have to find some way back into my old home. I know where everything is tucked safely away, and I have enough hidden away there to see me well enough settled. They haven’t sold the place out yet or been able to do anything else with it, other than nibbling at the edges, or I’d have heard.” He shut up, realizing that he might have said too much, even to Matchett.

“You’d be wise to keep clear of your past life unless you have a hankering to be found by the resurrection men, like those others who tried anything clever.” He looked about and took note of others who might be interesting in what they were saying. “But we are attracting attention that I would rather not have—not in this place.” He quickly stood up before Stavely could stop him again, and left the inn, vowing never to return and to leave London as he should have done before now. It would be a busy night. He might not come out of this as badly as he had feared. He also had a letter to write. Stavelys might feel grateful for what he knew and could tell them about that little conversation, and what Matthew Stavely seemed to be planning. It would bring the name, Matchett to their attention, if they didn’t already know it, but it would also be the saving of him.

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