The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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Into Davy Jones's locker with him.

They both listened to the characteristic sounds of straining rope and raised voices, as several of the ships waiting in the Pool prepared to depart on the outflowing current of the falling tide, assisted by a weak wind out of the west. It would be slow at first, then would be assisted by the push of the outflowing river, which had been backed up for some time now by the high tide. It would also carry its own evil-smelling debris of drowned dogs, cats, and offal, along with the rest of the discards of civilization from all of the noisy and filthy industries catering to the comfort of man and located on the river front so that the river would remove what might not otherwise be easily disposed of. The loud squealing of pigs, abruptly terminated or rising more loudly, and the shouts of humans—’Ho’d him still you great daft bugger so I can cut ’is throat’—attested to the grisly business carried on behind some of those facades.

When the tide turned, it went fast. The river was in partial flood after all of the recent heavy rains, with two feet of water backed up over the pilings to the bridge and clearing the human excrement from the piers. In another hour or two, those who lived on the bridge could risk dangling their buckets into the water for their own use without fear of hauling any evil-smelling brew out of it that had been taken upriver earlier by the incoming tide.

There were the raised voices: the shouted orders, the inevitable curses over someone slacking, the noise of pulleys, the flapping of unfurling sails, and the squeal of a windlass—much like that of the butchered pig—as anchors were lifted. “Tide’s turned. I can hear sails being raised too. They’re anxious to get out of the river, and who might blame ’em, sitting in the midst of this cesspool.” He put his hand on Henry’s shoulder. “He’ll be too late to save his son. Thank you, lad. That took courage that not too many lads your age would have had. It was cutting it fine. You freed me just in time, else I would soon be dead like that one will be soon enough. Unpleasant lad and not deserving of becoming a man, though he would have made but a poor imitation of one. I am in your debt and not sure how I might repay you. Basil Grundy at your service, sir.” They shook hands where they had not earlier, as the man repeated his name. “No one knows the dock area like I do. I keep a log of all ships in and out each day when I can. I know them all and a few of their crews too, and others who come down here for their business. They bring me things from time to time.”

They paused as they heard the twanging sound of a stretching rope nearby—the sudden release as it tore free, with all of its grisly ramifications and sudden, short pain for that other lad, and then a distinct splash of a heavy body being hauled over the side, behind them.” The older man winced and shivered. He closed his eyes in relief as he uttered a silent prayer. “Thank you Lord. Better him than me!” That might have been his living body hauled over the side to be towed slowly off down the riverbed.

Henry had not liked what had happened either, but knew that he had no choice about helping the older man, and saving his life. Henry was uncertain what to do now, never having witnessed anything like that before, but the older gentleman knew what must happen. “Cheer up, lad. It could as easily have been one of us, you or me, or both, except they had me in hand first. I heard what went on between you two and with the father. I’ve watched that pair for some time, and no doubt they saw me too. I doubt he’ll meet his son in this life, but he will think that it is my feet that he is freeing even now to leave on the deck for others to find, and for some devious reason known only to him and his late son.”

They stood out of sight and listened. They heard the father impatiently calling his son’s name and then cursing him for not being prepared to leave with him and putting all of their plans in danger. His voice raised, “I’m leaving, lad. If you don’t come now you’ll miss the tide and will be staying here, but I dare not stay now.”

The two listeners heard more cursing at his son’s carelessness, and then watched as Henry’s uncle took to his boat once more and lay heavily on the oars to catch up to the ships departing slowly downriver. He was fuming over his son’s carelessness in missing the tide. From what the father was cursing about in a loud voice, as he lay on the oars, it was likely that some woman had likely smiled enticingly at William from the dock and caught his eye and his fancy, and he had been unable to control himself any longer.

Mr. Grundy turned to Henry. “I don’t rightly understand any of it. Neither of them knew me to speak to, nor I, them, and yet they would have quite happily murdered me for some reason.” He shook his head in wonderment. “We live our lives as best we can and mistake ourselves into thinking we are masters of our own fate. It takes a thing such as this to bring us all back to sober reality. At least for a while.” He had learned something about his fellow man that would cause him discomfort for some few days, before he recovered the thread of his former existence, but he would never see things in quite the same way again and would never be quite so relaxed in his strolling about the docks.

They watched, out of sight, as the older Stavely headed out into the river. He had delayed for long enough looking around for his son that he had almost left it too late. He put more effort into it, with fast powerful strokes of the oars to pick up the lighter rope that he could see, being dragged off at the surface, downriver behind the other ship. The heavier rope, with its grisly burden, would be dragging along the mud at the bottom of the river. That ship, the Perry, was under only light sail but was already making good headway under a favorable breeze.

“It’s nice to be alive after feeling that my last minutes had come and almost gone.” He breathed a sigh of relief and shivered. “Maybe there is a god looking out for me after all, as my sister keeps telling me. Perhaps he might be inclined to let me get my fambles around that other’s neck one of these days.” He had dropped back, just for a moment into the language of other of his friends at the dock. “Strangle him,” he explained. Then he noticed that his young benefactor was shivering from his soaking. “Do you live close, young sir? You’ll need to get out of those wet clothes of yours. The stink from that river would turn any man against you, but not me after what you did for me. I probably live closer, so you can come home with me, and we’ll get you washed up and more presentable and better smelling for your family, who might ask questions you’d rather not answer. I wouldn’t.

“However, we’ll have to get you out of your clothes in the alley before we go into the house, or she’ll kick up a fuss—my wife, and who could blame her? I’ll try to keep the women folk away while you do that, if I can. After that, when you’ve been doused down a bit and wrapped up, we can go inside and perhaps exchange our tales if you don’t object, while others wash your clothes out, and this coat too, before we can do anything else with ’em.” He carried William’s coat carefully so that none of its offensive stink from his soaking in the river might get onto his own. “I have no need to tell you that nothing of this should ever be told to anyone? Not your father, your mother, nor anyone else until we see what might unfold from all of that.” The youth beside him agreed. “Good. The less anyone knows of this for the moment, the better. Safer too. There’s too many others like that pair in this place.”

As they walked away, a small dog crept warily out the shadows and greeted the man, with its excited affection well returned. Mr. Grundy dropped to his knees with a cry of delight and words of affection and hugged the dog close to him. “He’s glad to see me, almost as much as I am to see him. Poor lad’s hungry and not at all sure he would ever see me again, nor me, him. I don’t hold with murder myself, but when it is planned for me, and considering what they did to little Toby here, I am quite happy to see the tables turned. There is a place reserved in hell for them as is cruel to a small dog. The only shame is that one of ’em escaped that fate. God must have some other plan for him, though more like it’s the devil must have other villainous work for him to do before he’s brought to book. It will have to be at someone else’s hands, more’s the pity. There is murder enough in my heart to do for him, damn his soul, considering what he and his son intended for me, and hurting my dog as they did when they kicked him away. Happen there’ll come a time.” He clapped his young companion on the back, heedless of the stink or that the lad was still sodden wet. “So, Master Henry Stavely, let us leave this cursed place. I doubt I shall walk at the docks in the early morning again for some time after that little adventure without a weapon with me, but I shall have a lot to think about.”

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