He told them all, “That, to the men of the mountains of Scotland, is one of their weapons most sacred. A weapon of honor.” He stopped at the side of the man with the pistol, not blocking the other man’s aim but not hiding behind it. He challenged MacPherson, “Do you have this honor?” His tone was a gauntlet thrown down by a man who, beneath all his charm, was yet dangerous. “Or are you a…how do you call them in your country? Broken men, isn’t it? One of those broken men, who live beyond the law.”
Coldly, MacPherson said, “I am no broken man.”
“Then you may keep all your weapons, if you swear an oath on your dagger that they’ll not be used against me or my men.”
“I’d first have your word ye’ll harm neither my wife nor our servants.”
This seemed to amuse him. “And what shall I swear by?”
“Your word as a Spaniard will do.”
Thomson made an incredulous sound like a snort. “Come now.”
“Given,” the Spaniard replied, as with interest and something approaching respect he looked on while MacPherson drew the sharp dirk from his belt and raised it level to his lips to kiss the blade and seal the oath. And then the captain gave a nod and turning told his men, “Stand down. And give him back his weapons.”
Coming forward with a swagger in his step that nearly matched MacPherson’s, he said, “May I see your papers?” With the papers in his hand he sorted through them. Glanced at Thomson. “So then you are Mr. Jarvis, yes? And this is Mrs. Grant.” He showed some sympathy for Effie, who between the motion of the ship and this upsetting incident was looking ill. “Oh, Mrs. Grant, you are not well. I’ll send Emiliana to look after you. She is good at looking after people.” He studied MacPherson’s hard features, and in a dry tone said, “Your name is not Symonds, I think, Mr. Symonds.”
“It is while I’m on board your ship.”
“Fair enough. And your wife, this is truly your wife? She is lovely. And look, she has brought me some dinner.” He grinned both at Frisque and at Mary’s expression. “I’m not being serious. See how she looks at me now? You and your dog are both safe, Mrs. Symonds, I promise.” Returning the papers to Mr. MacPherson, he swept off his hat. “I am Marcos María del Rio Cuerda,” he said, “at your service.”
He bowed, Mary thought, with the grace of a gentleman. But in his eyes shone the devil’s own mischief.
“Now,” he said, clapping a hand on MacPherson’s back as though they’d long been friends, “let’s get your wife and your servants below, and we’ll go have a drink.”
* * *
Mary wasn’t convinced that the captain, del Rio, was someone to trust.
He had kept his word, taking them safely below where he’d shown Mr. Thomson and Effie to two little cabins tucked into the prow of the ship, which while cramped were at least clean and private; and as he had promised, he’d called a young woman to come sit with Effie and make her more comfortable. Then he had given MacPherson and Mary a much larger cabin beneath his own, set in the stern down a half flight of steps.
She’d barely had time to adjust to the fact that she would now be sharing this room with MacPherson, alone, without Effie, when Captain del Rio had ordered MacPherson again to come drink with him. Mary had not been sure which prospect she’d dreaded most—being left with MacPherson, or left on her own. But before he had left her, the Scotsman had taken one silver-edged pistol and folded her hand round it, telling her low, “Keep that aimed at the door and if anyone enters but me, shoot them.”
Not the most comforting manner, thought Mary, in which to be left.
But she’d known from his tone and his words he was doing the best that he could to protect her, and so she had nodded and made no complaint when he’d gone with the captain.
That had seemed like a lifetime ago.
She’d been left with three candles, all cheerily burning; a narrow berth set in the wall, with a curtain to close out the rest of the room, and a table with two chairs nailed fast to the floor. For a while she had sat in one chair holding Frisque, till he’d fallen asleep and she’d shifted him onto the berth where he would be more comfortable. Then she’d been free to move restlessly round the confining space, hearing the tramping of feet and the voices of men while she listened as hard as she could for MacPherson’s. It struck her she might not be able to pick his voice out from the others so easily if he were speaking in Spanish. Or French.
He spoke French.
That discovery rushed back on her with its full weight of embarrassments and implications, and Mary could feel her cheeks flushing although there was nobody else in the cabin. She cast her mind miserably back to the times she had spoken when she had been sure he would not understand her. She thought of the things she had said. And she tried to feel angry with him for deceiving her, only he hadn’t—he’d never once actually told her he didn’t speak French. She’d assumed it, and if he had then played along with it she could not fault him for that, since had she been a man sent to guard a collection of strangers, she might have, like him, sought to keep that advantage. It was in many ways like her own choice to not reveal it when she’d had carte blanche while playing cards at Fontainebleau—because it would have laid her own hand bare to her opponent. Mary, too, had kept her secrets. But she wished she had not told the frilly sisters, in her teasing way, that he was sentimental and wrote poetry. And that, like Madame d’Aulnoy’s Russian prince, he’d suffered through a tragic romance.