The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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A rescue.

Henry was a resolute boy, not given to either irrational fear or too much caution in most circumstances, and twitched back the sailcloth with the pistol leveled, ready for further trouble, but expecting to see only a rat. He was surprised to see a slight man, bound tightly and gagged. His hair was disheveled, and there was an angry bruise on his forehead. Henry had seen the man before, wandering the dock in the early morning and evening with his little dog. They had even spoken briefly in passing. There was a look of terror in his wide eyes as he looked up at Henry. That look changed to one of pleading when he saw that other individual, William, whom he recognized, lying senseless on the deck. He had obviously heard everything that had transpired but had been unable to say anything. What attracted Henry’s curiosity and attention. was that the man had shoes on his feet, similar to those of his uncle and cousin, with a large buckle in the shape of a letter S, yet the man was entirely unrelated to either of them. He knew every Stavely in London, and this man was not a Stavely, even though he did not know his name. He looked respectable, not like others about the dock; and he was scared, caught up in a situation that no one should be in, and in some plot or other of his uncle. They must be his uncle’s shoes.

Henry was not a slow boy, in either deed or thought, and the situation seemed urgent. The man posed no threat to him. He took off the man’s gag and undid his hands and arms.

“Thankee, lad.” The man then quickly saw to untying his own feet. There was also a rope, lighter and thinner, pulled tight about the man’s calves and leading through the rails and overboard into the water, with another about the man’s neck but over the railing. From the direction that they went, they seemed to be attached to the railing at the stern of the farther ship. Henry undid that rope too and took the other off his neck, but did not let either of them fall into the water with a splash to alert his uncle, who had paused his rowing to light his pipe as a means of masking the sickening stench from the river. He held them both and loosely tied the one to the other, trapping them on the rail, as the man freed himself further.

“Henry, isn’t it?” he spoke quietly as he looked up at the lad. The youth nodded, somewhat surprised that the man knew his name. He did know the older man by sight, for he had seen him walking the docks during the day. “Basil Grundy. I’ve seen you down here before, just as you’ve seen me.” The man rubbed at his legs to bring the circulation back from that tight rope. “We passed the time of day a few times. We’re well met at this time.” As he spoke, he did not waste any time but began to see how this could now move forward in a different way. “They knocked me out early this morning while I was walking the dock with my dog, as I have done every morning and afternoon for the last ten years. From what I heard, they intend to murder me in this devilish way when the tide turns—soon now”—he looked at the slack high state of the water—“him and his father, and leave my legs here, perhaps my body too, after my head was ripped off. They have something going on, those two, and I was to be a pawn in their game, whatever it was. Better if we are not here when he comes back.” He looked over at William. He was still not stirring from where he had fallen. He was knocked out or dead. Mr. Grundy would lose no sleep over that, considering what had been intended for him.

“That lad took great pleasure in describing all that would happen to me in such detail—the great nattering oaf. Pity! No lad turns out that bad so early in life without an early start on it and a good teacher. That ship over there was to amputate my feet against this rail when she sets out, and that part of me that wasn’t left here on the deck was to be dragged overboard by that other rope about my neck and sunk somewhere farther out in the river channel.” Henry noticed that the man’s pockets were heavy and bulging, as though weighted with rocks or metal. Even as he was speaking, the man was getting rid of his coat and, staying low so as not to be seen, had dragged William over to where he had been tied up. “From what I heard, he intended you no good either”—he saw the sodden state of Henry’s clothes—“to drown you or even to kill you too, but that talk of your father knowing you were here saved you from a worse fate than a ducking.”

He began to drag the prostrate youth over to where he had been tied up. “Here, help me with him, young sir, if you can, afore that other blackguard comes back. Unless you have qualms about this.” Henry had no love for his cousin—the resentment ran deep, and he set too to help the older man. “We’ll give him my coat. He shall take my place and suffer the fate intended for me. He or his father deserves no less, and we should be gone from here before the father returns and finds what we did.” His eyes had quickly taken in what was happening close by. “That is, if he gets back before the tide picks up.” Even then they could see ships out in the channel beginning to prepare to leave, as they slowly swung at their anchors.

The two of them—Henry, still smarting from the cuff about the head and angry from his ducking, and the older man feeling that he had been reprieved by the actions of the lad—struggled to dress William in that same heavy coat that had been on Mr. Grundy. It was too small, but they buttoned it up tight about him as best they could, and then tied and gagged him, just as the slight man had been, but even more securely. They retrieved the other ropes and placed the noose snugly about William’s neck and secured his feet exactly as the other man’s feet had been tied and secured to the rail, but with his own shoes on his feet: they were like the others, which the older man still wore—his own likely having been tossed overboard. William still showed no signs of recovering. He was then hidden under the sailcloth as the two of them picked up all evidence from the deck as to what they had done—William’s wet coat, his satchel containing Mr. Grundy’s watch and other personal belongings taken from him, as well as a small bundle of papers, and Henry’s book and drawing pencils.

They climbed down into the small boat, pulling themselves around under the bow and out of sight of the returning man, to row quickly across to the dock, some hundred feet away. “Well, I lost a threadbare coat and got a better and newer one in its place, and with some gold in the pocket”—he chinked the coins in his hand—“and I like these shoes better than I liked my own, wherever they might be at this time, and I’m still alive, if the worse for wear, thanks to you, younker.”

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