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ONE: The Letter

ON THE 16TH DAY OF APRIL, 1671, a man walked down Tower Street in old Port Royal and came to the Bluebell Inn. He stood in the street a while, looking up at the hanging sign. The daubed blue flowers were unmistakable, and in any case he could read the name perfectly well, having had some education. Still, he hesitated to step inside.

His name was John. To some people he was known as John James. He had been a London bricklayer's apprentice who killed a man and was sent to the West Indies as a consequence. He had been several things since then: redleg bond slave, runaway, pirate, and most lately patriotic gentleman of fortune, for he had just returned from doing his bit sacking Panama with Captain Henry Morgan.

This very morning he had gone ashore, bidding farewell to his late commander. Morgan had returned his salute with a gloomy wave, and headed straight for the nearest tavern for a stiff drink before reporting to Governor Modyford. John would have joined him, but for his new and earnest resolve to give up the life of a buccaneer.

It wasn't that the Panama expedition had been short on glory and adventure. It was that, when all had been honestly measured out afterward, John's share of the loot amounted to a mere fifty pounds; and this had decided him to turn his hand to bricklaying once more.

Moreover John had seen madness and nightmares walking in the noonday sun, and left good comrades dead in the ashes of the old Spanish city. Still, there was a responsibility to discharge before he might begin his new life.

He squinted up at the sign again. He reached inside his coat, fingered a bit of paper hidden there, and sighed. At last he squared his broad shoulders and went into the Bluebell.

When his eyes had adjusted from the sea-glare to the dimness of the common room, he saw that the Bluebell was a clean place, as taverns in Port Royal went. No whores on the prowl, at this hour of the day, and no drunks asprawl at the tables. Only a sound and smell of onions frying in the kitchen, pungent, and a landlord who emerged from a back room and looked at him expectantly.

"What d'you lack, sir?" the landlord asked him. Taking a step nearer, he sized John up and grinned. "You've come back with our Admiral from Panama, ain't you? Then welcome, sir! What you want is rum, my bully."

"Thank'ee, no," said John, narrowing his eyes. He was young, and big, and strong as an ox, with a broad simple face; but he wasn't that green. "I carry news for a lady. Have you got a Mrs. Waverly staying here?"

The landlord's expression changed, became unreadable. "We have. May I tell her your name, sir?"

"She won't know it," said John. "But it's John James. You can tell her I've brought her a letter from Panama, and a private word if she'll hear me."

The landlord ducked his head in acknowledgement and walked into the back. John heard him climbing a staircase. John looked around again, shifting his weight from foot to foot. The floor of the common room was plaster laid down over planking, rapidly crumbling away to chalky punk in Port Royal's climate. John made a note to come back, once he'd set himself up in business, and offer to put in good herringbone brick paving at a reasonable rate.

He looked up and saw that the landlord had reappeared silently, like a ghost. "Madam says please step upstairs, sir," said the landlord. "First chamber on the left."

John followed him as far as the stairs, and climbed alone. He came to the top of the stairs, meaning to knock, but the door to the first chamber on the left was wide open. A lady stood within, staring at him. Her face was deadly pale, so white John thought she might be going to faint. Her gray eyes were fixed on him; her red mouth was set and tight. She clenched a handkerchief in one hand.

"Ma'am," John said, and bowed awkwardly.

"You must be from Tom," she said. She had a sweet voice. Her accent was refined. She'd been Sir Thomas Blackstone's mistress, so John supposed she'd been at court. He wondered uneasily if she was going to scream, or faint, when she heard his news. He cleared his throat and brought out the letter, with its daub of candle wax sealed by a thumbprint.

"I'm sorry to say, ma'am—" he said.

"Oh, he's dead. He's dead. Is that what you've come to tell me?"

"Yes, ma'am. He said to tell you, he died singing."

She jerked as though he'd shot her, but her face twisted into a smile, a horrible thing to behold. "Did he?" she said. "Pray excuse me a moment." She turned on her heel, smart as a soldier, and marched to a chair. There she sat, covering her face with her hands, and wept, wracking sobs wrenched up dry from the roots of her heart.

John fidgeted, turning the letter in his big square hands. He saw again Tom Blackstone lying on the pallet in the makeshift hospital in Panama, red-faced and sweating. Before the fever had risen, Blackstone had called for pen and paper, and written out the letter in his fine hand. He'd sealed it and handed it to John.

"She won't be expecting the print of my ring," he'd told John. "She pawned it herself, long since. But do give her the letter, won't you? Mrs. Clarissa Waverly, at the Bluebell. You can remember that, can't you? And do tell her I died singing."

John had been enough of a tender-hearted booby to shed a tear and cry, "Oh, courage! You won't die!" Blackstone had given him a pitying look and called for wine. Two hours later he'd rattled out his last breath.

Too vividly John remembered the stink of Blackstone's bandages in the close foul air of the room, and the way Blackstone's voice had broken as he'd crowed out the old song:

The serving men doe sit and whine,
and thinke it long ere dinner time:
The Butler's still out of the way,
or else my Lady keeps the key,
The poor old cook, in the larder doth look,
where is no goodnesse to be found
Yet let's be content, and the times lament,
you see the world turn'd upside down.

Now his lady, having wept for him, sighed and wiped her face with her handkerchief. Some of her paint came off on it. She blew her nose, sat straight and looked up at John. John proffered Blackstone's letter.

"From him, ma'am."

Her mouth crumpled a bit at the edges, but she took the letter and broke the seal. She read swiftly, her gaze darting back and forth along the lines. At last she folded the letter closed, and tucked it into her sleeve. She regarded John thoughtfully.

"He said you were in his confidence, concerning his mission for Prince Rupert."

"I was, ma'am."

"Have you brought Prince Maurice from Panama, then?"

John reddened. "As to that, ma'am . . . we did find the lost prince. Got him without paying out any ransom money, neither. But he'd been a long time in a Spanish dungeon and he wasn't, er—"

"Tom said he'd gone mad."

"In a manner of speaking, ma'am, aye," said John, remembering Prince Maurice's gray moon face and blank dead eyes. He wondered whether Mistress Waverly had ever heard of zombis, and decided not to go into details.

"We reckoned Prince Rupert might be happier, not knowing what become of his brother after all, see. And then Tom went and died and I had errands to run for the Admiral, and I couldn't watch the prince, and some fellows let him out and . . . well, he's been lost again, ma'am. I'm sorry for it, but that's how it is."

"Then it was a fool's errand," said Mrs. Waverly. "And farewell my sweet Tom. However . . . " She was silent a moment in thought. At last she rose, giving John a brave smile. "Good man, I owe you a great deal. Pray step below and call for a bowl of punch, and we'll drink to Tom. Then you may hear something to your advantage."

John obeyed readily. He was fairly sure she wasn't the sort to make him dead drunk and rob him after he'd passed out, like Hairy Mary who worked the waterfront over by the Turtle Crawl.

When he came back up Mrs. Waverly had smoothed her hair and refreshed her paint a little. She showed him to a chair and pulled another close, sitting nearly knee-to-knee with him. She encouraged him to speak of himself, of brave Admiral Morgan and the thrilling battles John had seen at Chagres Castle and Panama.

Her interest in these matters lasted until the landlord brought up the punchbowl, and took his leave after ladling out the first two cups for them. John thought the man gave him an ironical smile as he left. But the punch smelled all right, and John resolved not to take a second cup in any case.

"To Tom Blackstone," he said, lifting his cup. "A rare brave comrade. And a clever fellow."

"To Tom Blackstone," said Mrs. Waverly, her voice catching on a little sob. "Oh, what a clever fellow he was." She drank deep and set her cup aside. "Well. My dear Mr. James, you have been such a good friend to Tom, and so kind to me; I wonder whether I might further impose on your good nature?"

"Well, er, ma'am," said John, "I'm sure I'd be happy to perform any service you might require." It occurred to him that she might construe lewd meaning in what he'd just said, and he winced. Yet his baser instincts woke and sat bolt upright, in hopeful surmise.

"I knew you would say so," said Mrs. Waverly, smiling into his eyes. "I will be frank with you, Mr. James. You know there was a ransom demanded for Prince Maurice's safe return."

"Four thousand pounds, aye," said John.

"We collected it in London, when Prince Rupert engaged our services. We brought it with us to Barbados, to treat with a certain Spaniard there, who claimed to know where Prince Maurice was being held. He merely directed us to meet another Spaniard here. We began to suspect that we were being led in a fools' dance. Therefore Tom took the money, gold in sealed bags, and hid it secure, lest we should fall amongst thieves in our search.

"As it fell out, we have no brother to send home to the prince," and here Mrs. Waverly's voice slowed, and she twisted a lock of her hair about her finger. "And I have lost a dear friend, and you have lost a valiant comrade-at-arms. Tom being dead, how shall Prince Rupert hear what became of the four thousand pounds? For all he may know, Tom paid the ransom in good faith and was treacherously slain by Spaniards. I think we are owed the money, you and I, for our pains."

John blinked at her. He got the full import of what she was proposing, but her use of you and I set his heart pounding.

"Four thousand pounds," he repeated, attempting to sound keen.

"Let us divide it, dear Mr. James," said Mrs. Waverly. "Two thousand each."

"Seems fair," said John, trying not to dribble his punch. He wondered what unlikely thing might happen next. Heavenly angels flying in through the window, bearing plum duff and sausages? Closely followed, perhaps, by Father Christmas?

"I knew you would say so," said Mrs. Waverly. "We have only to find the money."

"Don't you know where it is?" John sat straight, as the pink clouds dissipated somewhat.

"In a general way," said Mrs. Waverly, with a graceful wave of her hand. "We bespoke our rooms here and then Tom left with the money. I thought he'd taken it to meet his contact. I didn't see him again until a fortnight later, when he returned in a fine temper and told me he'd hid the money, but missed the man and would now be obliged to chase after him, perhaps as far as Chagres. We quarreled. I regret it now . . . Oh, to think I shall never see him again!"

She drooped, tears in her eyes. John was moved to take her hands in his.

"Aw, ma'am, it makes no odds. His last thought was of you, wasn't it? And him being so particular about sending you the letter and all."

Mrs. Waverly squeezed his hands. "But he was my rock, my brave steadfast hero, a very bulwark to a poor frail woman! Where shall I find another such? Shall I rely upon you?"

She leaned close and John had an excellent view down the cleft of her bosom. "Be sure you may, ma'am," he said, breathless.

"What a dear soul, what a kind soul you are, Mr. James! Did you see the letter, before Tom sealed it?"

"No, ma'am."

"Then know, Mr. James, that the letter confides where the money's hid. We have but to go to a certain place and recover it. Alas, it is not on Jamaica. Do you know the Isle Leauchaud, sir?"

"Leauchaud? Ay," said John. "Not hard to get to, at any rate."

"Then I will leave it to you to make the travel arrangements, as I am sure you know a great deal more about these things than I do," said Mrs. Waverly. "But I must beg you to pay for our passage, for in truth I have scarcely any money left."

A tear trickled from her eye as she said it. John's heart contracted. But his purse contracted too; he had calculated that his fifty pounds would just about set him up in business with a brickyard and proper tools of his own. He put the thought down as ungentlemanly, and considered too what he might do with two thousand pounds.

"I'll see to it," he said. "Never fear."


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