Part One: The Masker Chapter Twelve


Matthew was urged by Hudson Greathouse through the drizzling rain toward the brown stone carriage-house, where illumination showed at the windows. He doubted he'd been allowed to slumber for more than two hours, and he was dog-tired and heavy-limbed. He walked before the light of Greathouse's lantern through the open doorway, finding himself standing on a dirt floor with eight more lanterns set about in a large circle.

Greathouse closed the door and, to Matthew's unease, dropped the bolt across it. There was no carriage in the place, but a set of steps led up to a second level and what must have been Greathouse's living area. Greathouse set the lamp he was carrying on a wallhook, and it was then that Matthew saw the glint of yellow light on the grips and handguards of four swords in scabbards also resting horizontally on hooks. That wasn't all of the man's arsenal. On display along with the swords were two pistols, three daggers, and-of all things-an oversized slingshot.

"Mrs. Herrald tells me you know nothing about swords or pistols. Correcti"

"Yes sir. I mean...correct." Matthew had been about to yawn before he'd seen the weapons, but now he was as fully awake as a healthy jolt of fear could make a person.

"You've never held a sword, theni"

"No. Well..." He had briefly picked up a sword in a gaol cell in Fount Royal, but it was more to get rid of it than use it and so he didn't think that incident counted for much. "When I was a boy...I mean, a very young boy...I was running with a gang at the harbor. Not a real gang, I mean. But just...you know...boys. Orphans, like I was."

"There's a point to thisi"

"Yes sir. We used to fight each other with sticks and pretend they were swords. You know. Mock wars."

"Ever kill anyone with a pretend swordi" Greathouse approached him, looming over Matthew like a giant and getting larger still, if just in Matthew's sensibility, as his shadow was thrown across the wall.

"No sir."

"Ever kill anyone with anythingi"

"No sir."

"Can you fighti Use your fistsi"

"I'm...sure I remember fighting with the gang. But it was a long time ago, and I really was a different person. I've changed since then."

"You should have kept that part of yourself." Greathouse stopped before him and sized him up from toe to head as if for the first time. Washed with lanternlight, the man's face was haughty and dismissive. It occurred to Matthew that either Greathouse had tremendous recuperative abilities over the effects of alcohol or he could simply drink a keg down and keep going.

"You're spindly," Greathouse said, and began to walk in a circle around him. "You look weak as water and pale as a moonbeam. Don't you ever get outside in the daylight and worki"

"My work is...predominantly mental, sir."

"That's the trouble with young people these days. They sit on their mental and call it work. Well, you think you're so smart, don't youi So clever at chess. I think you've let yourself go to rot. You're more a ghost than a man. How'd you get that scar on your headi Fall down and hit it on a damned chessboardi"

"No sir," Matthew said. "I...got it in a fight with a bear."

Greathouse stopped his circling.

"If I may ask," Matthew ventured, "how did you get your scari"

Greathouse paused. Then at last he said, "Broken teacup. Thrown by my third wife."

"Oh."

"You don't ask the questions," the man snarled. "I ask the questions, do you understandi"

"Yes sir."

Greathouse continued his circling, around and around. Then he stopped directly in front of Matthew. "If you want to see a scar, take a gander at this." He unbuttoned his ruffled shirt and displayed a truly ugly brown scar that began just beneath the left collarbone and crossed to the center of the chest. "Dagger strike, fifth of March, 1677. He was going for my heart, but I caught his wrist in time. an assassin, dressed in monk's robes. and here." He pulled the shirt off his right shoulder to show a dark purple crater. "Musket ball, twenty-second of June, 1684. Knocked my arm out of the socket. I was lucky there, no bones broken. The ball went through the woman who was standing in front of me at the time. Look here, then." He angled his body so Matthew could see a third gruesome scar across the ribs on the right side. "Ninth of October, 1686. That's what a rapier can do to you, even when it doesn't bear a cutting edge. The bastard swung instead of lunged. I did suffer two ribs broken on that one. Spent a month laid up, almost lost my mind but for the dear Contessa." He touched the injury gently, as if in reverence. "I can foretell rain by three days." He shrugged his shirt back into place and buttoned it once more, his expression now more pleased than petulant.

Matthew had to ask, "Is that what I have to look forward toi"

Instantly Greathouse pressed a finger against Matthew's chest so hard Matthew thought he was about to receive his first battle-mark. "Not," Greathouse said, "if you're smart. Not if you're lucky. and not if you let me teach you how to defend yourself."

Matthew said nothing, but Greathouse seemingly read his mind. "I will tell you," said the swordsman, "that I was fighting four men when one got his rapier swing past my guard, so yes I can be a competent instructor. anyway, he had no rhythm and he was all herky-jerky panic. It was good luck for him and bad luck for me. Until I got my breath back and spilled his puddings all over the alley floor. I gave another one a cut to the face that went through one cheek and out the other and then they all ran for their lives."

"Did you spare themi"

Greathouse examined his gnarled knuckles, which Matthew noted also were marked with numerous small scars. "I followed the blood and tracked the wounded one down. a thrust to the throat and he was finished. It was a dark night, though. Only that saved the other two, though I suppose my own blood and broken ribs also might have slowed me a step." abruptly he walked to the armory and chose two swords. He unsheathed both, turned one, and offered Matthew the grip. "Take it. Thrust at me."

"Siri"

"Take the rapier and thrust at me."

Matthew accepted the sword. It was a damned heavy thing. Unbalanced, it felt to him. an unnatural way to get yourself killed, trying to move this sluggish piece of steel through the air. He wagged the sword back and forth, watching the light glint and jump from its surface. It seemed to him that the business point was too slow by far to get where he intended it.

"You're holding it like a baby with a rattle," Greathouse said. "Take a man's grip and lock that thumb down. all right now, just thrust at me."

"How do I standi"

"Don't worry about the stance yet. Come on, do as I say."

"I don't feel comfortable with this. Do you have one that's not so heavyi" already Matthew could feel the muscles of his forearm protesting. a swordsman he was not meant to be.

"That's the lightest of the bunch, moonbeam. Just hold the sword out, then. Bend your elbow a little. all right. Tight grip. Tighter. Drop your shoulder. Not your arm, your shoulder. Right there, stay still." Greathouse brought his sword around and hit Matthew's flat-to-flat with a ringing sound and, though not with much power, the vibration coursed up Matthew's arm right to the skull. "Just get a feel for it," Greathouse said, as he brought his sword around on the other side and struck again. He continued from one side to the other. The carriage-house sounded like a belfry. "The rapier has two parts, the blade and the hilt. Of the hilt there is the pommel-that little ball at the end of the hilt-the grip, and the guard. The parts of the blade are the strong-the forte near the grip-and the weak, which would be the feeble near the point." The two swords continued to sound out their steel music. "always block-or parry-a strike or thrust at the forte, you see as I'm allowing here. If you try to parry a blow at the feeble, you likely will either lose your weapon or have it broken. Or you'll be run through. The rapier is not fashioned for cutting strikes, though of course you've seen it can cut with enough force behind it. It's meant for lunging strikes, using the sharp tip to drive through your target. You're weakening your grip, hold it steady. Now we shall get you accustomed to the feel of the weapon, and then we'll move to the fundamentals of quarte, terce, approach, lunge stretch, distance measure, break measure, the feint, the riposte, beating, binding, time and-"

"I think I have this under control," Matthew interrupted, though his forearm ached like a bad tooth.

"I'm glad you think so," said Greathouse, who instantly brought his rapier around with a little more power and at a different angle and suddenly Matthew's fingers shot open as if his hand had been hornet-stung and the sword flew away like one of Increase Mather's comets.

"I'm sorry, I lost my grip," Matthew said, as he tried to shake the sting out of his hand.

"You never had a grip. I told you to keep that thumb locked down. Go get the sword and come back right where you stand."

Matthew obeyed. Greathouse said, "Make your body thin. as if it isn't thin enough, but at least that's to your advantage. Show only your right side. Keep your feet in line with me. Not so far apart. Now they're too close. You want to have optimum power when you thrust, but keep your feet not too close or your balance will be unsteady. all right, that's much better." He walked in a slow circle just beyond the lanterns. "Keep your sword pointed outward, don't let it slope down unless your opponent is three inches tall. Very well, sink down as if you're about to sit. a little more. Left arm behind you, like a rudder." He stopped in front of Matthew again. "Sword tip pointed. Slightly higher than the hilt. all right, that's good. Now you're going to stretch forth your right arm and step forward with your right foot as far as you can, keeping left arm, body, and sword in line. Thrust at me. Do it!"

Matthew pushed himself forward. Long before his sword broke the circle, it was knocked aside by Greathouse's blade.

"again," Greathouse said. "Keep your body in line. Don't lift your left foot or let it drag. and when I say thrust, I don't mean jerk like a sun-addled mule. I'm looking for economy of motion; speed will come later."

Once more Matthew thrust, once more his sword was nearly knocked from his hand.

"I held it!" he said proudly. "Did you seei"

"Yes, my mistake." Greathouse took a single step forward, his blade came in with a quick twist, and again Matthew's hand spasmed open and the sword stabbed dirt ten feet away.

"The next time you lift that thumb up," Greathouse glowered, "you shall need only nine-fingered gloves. Go get it and return to your position."

Matthew again obeyed. His forearm was killing him, but he gritted his teeth and was determined to make at least a show of fortitude.

"Take the quarte. That's the position I just showed you. Now I want you to just move the sword. Cut to the right, return to position, thrust in the center, return to position, cut to the left, thrust in the center. Keep your back firm. Bend your knees a little more. More still, you won't fall. Keep moving the sword until I say to stop."

Bastard, Matthew thought. He didn't know how much more of this his arm could take, but damned if he'd give up.

"You're losing your form," said Greathouse as he walked the circle again. "You have no power in your arm, do youi Keep going. Don't lift that left foot. are you deafi I said to keep your body in line!"

Sweat glistened on Matthew's face as he continued to cut and thrust. The rapier now felt as if it weighed near an anvil and his forearm was just nerveless meat. His shoulder, however, was screaming bloody murder.

after what seemed at least fifteen minutes, Greathouse said, "Stop."

Matthew lowered the weapon and tried to rub the life back into his arm. He was breathing hard. It amazed him how much strength and energy was demanded just to handle the damned sword, much less use it in a combat situation. "How long will it take me to become proficienti" he asked, in between breaths.

Greathouse had sheathed his rapier and hung it by a leather strap across his shoulder. Now he produced a short-stemmed clay pipe from his breeches pocket, lit it with a match from a small tinderbox, and blew out a plume of gray smoke that floated past Matthew's head. "Ten years," he answered. "Give or take." He tucked the tinderbox away.

"Ten yearsi"

"You're starting a little late. I began lessons when I was eight years old."

"Well, maybe I should begin with a sword fit for a child, then."

"I don't think I could teach while convulsed with laughter. anyway, I don't believe in using wooden blunts for adults. You have to strengthen your hand and forearm and keep your body in line. Blunts only give you a false sense of progress."

"I'm not sure this is anything I can ever progress at, blunts or not."

Greathouse took Matthew's sword, indicating their night's training was at an end. "Maybe not, and certainly not all men are suited to using a rapier or any other kind of sword. I know there's a lot to remember."

"It's much more complicated than I thought," Matthew said.

"Unfortunately, the surface of that complication has barely been nicked." Greathouse returned the weapons to their places on the wall. He reached down to the floor and picked up a small brown bottle, which he uncorked and gave to Matthew. "Take a sip of this."

Matthew smelled the liquor long before it got near his nose, but he had a good long drink of it anyway. His eyes were watering when he returned the brandy. "Thank you."

Greathouse drank, corked the bottle again, and then returned the pipe to his mouth. "Chess is complicated, too, isn't iti"

"It is. I mean, at first. Before you can comprehend the pieces and their patterns of movement."

"So it is with the use of a sword, but instead of trying to checkmate a king and defend yourself from check, you're trying to kill a man and defend from being killed. Think about swordplay as being akin to chess in this way: both are concerned with taking and defending space. Equally important are approach and retirement, which would be the offense and defense in chess. You are always thinking ahead to the next move, the next parry, the next feint. You are building toward a completion, and you must take dominance of the action from your opponent." Greathouse let a little thread of smoke spill out over his lower lip. "Let me ask this: how long has it taken you to become so proficient at chessi"

"I suppose...many years. I still make too many mistakes for my liking, but I've learned how to recover."

"The same as in swordplay," said Greathouse with a lift of his chin. "I don't expect you to ever become an expert, but I do expect you to learn enough to recognize a mistake and recover from it. That may keep you alive long enough to pull out a pistol and shoot your opponent."

It took a few seconds for Matthew to realize Greathouse was jesting, though the man's expression remained dead serious.

"I want you here at nine o'clock on Saturday morning," Greathouse said. "You'll spend the day here. Literally, in this carriage-house. We'll continue the rapier lessons and also add loading and use of the pistol, and use of the fists at close quarters as well."

That sounded like a grand way to spend a Saturday, Matthew thought. "What's the slingshot fori"

"Squirrels," Greathouse said. "I roast them with potatoes and peppers." He took another pull from his pipe, puffed the smoke, and then knocked the dottle out with the heel of his hand. "Your training is not only to include physical exertion. I want to know how well you can read and follow maps, for instance. Or draw a map yourself, from a verbal description of a place. I want to know how well you can recall the description of a person, and I want to see you handle a horse with a bit more spirit than that old slogger in the barn." He did smile just a hint now, at Matthew's pained expression. "as Mrs. Herrald said, you'll never be given anything you can't handle. and you might take comfort in the fact that you're just the first recruit we've chosen. There'll be others, over time. We're looking at one in Boston and two more in New York right now."

"Reallyi Whoi"

"If I told you it wouldn't be a secret, and for now Mrs. Herrald wishes to keep it so."

"all right," Matthew said, but his imagination was already at work wondering who the others might be. One thing more he felt he had to ask: "What about Mrs. Herraldi"

"What about her, exactlyi"

"Her story. She told me her husband founded the agency. What happened to himi"

Greathouse started to reply, but he seemed to check himself. "That can wait," he decided. "Dawn breaks in four hours. I think you'd best get some sleep."

Matthew didn't have to ponder very long to agree. However much sleep he got for the remainder of the night, it was going to be a long day. He wasn't sure his right arm was going to be worth much, either, and he did have some work to do for Magistrate Powers. "Goodnight," he said to Greathouse, who replied with, "Make sure you wipe your boots. Mrs. Herrald hates mud on her floor."

Matthew walked back to the house in what had become a drifting mist, obliged the madam of the house by wiping his boots clean on the iron bootscrape at the door, and within ten minutes had abandoned all thoughts of swordplay, chess, and roasted squirrels and fell into a deep and solid slumber.

a polite bell rung outside his door awakened Matthew to a gray dawn. He washed his face, dressed, forsook shaving as there was no razor offered, and also decided he could hold his bladder long enough until he got on the road as he did not wish to yellow the chamberpot. On leaving his room he found a hearty breakfast of eggs, ham, and biscuits along with a pot of strong dark tea awaiting him at the dining-table. Set next to his plate was his wallet and the silver watch.

Mrs. Herrald joined him but Greathouse didn't make an appearance, though Matthew assumed he had made the breakfast since he seemed to be the cook of the house.

"Take this to Mr. Grigsby, if you please." Mrs. Herrald handed him an envelope that was again secured with her red wax seal. "I assume he'll want payment in advance to publish the notice, so you'll find some additional coins in your wallet. By my calculations those should well satisfy both Mr. Grigsby and the livery stable. I understand you're due back to meet with Mr. Greathouse at nine o'clock Saturday morning." It was a statement, plainly stated. "Please take care to arrive on time."

"Yes, madam."

"Eat up, then. The rain's stopped, and I have letters to write."

Suvie had already been brought around from the barn and was standing at the hitching-post as Matthew walked out of the house. He put his wallet and the watch into his saddlebag and rode away as a few weak rays of sun pierced the clouds. In another moment he found Greathouse standing at the open gate.

"Good day to you," Greathouse said. "Oh. You might want to rub liniment on that forearm and shoulder when you get to town. By tonight you'll be in some pain."

"Thank you," Matthew answered, not without a jab of sarcasm. He rode through the gate, heard it swing shut behind him, and settled himself in the saddle for the journey home. Within half-an-hour the last of the clouds wisped away, the sky became bright blue and brighter still, the sun shone in full golden force, and Matthew slept with his chin resting on his chest as Suvie plodded the road to town.

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