Part Three: The Message Chapter Thirty-Five


When the doorbell rang, Matthew was just finishing his shave before the oval mirror. He rinsed the blade off in the washbasin, wiped the remainder of soap from his face with the damp washcloth, and then combed his hair. Regarding his reflection in the polished glass, he knew he had come a long way from the orphanage to this moment. He was looking at a gentleman who had in his eyes not only the bright spark of curiosity but also the steely glint of determination. He was no longer who he once had been, and though he was not yet suited to a sword he doubted he would be fully suited to a pen ever again.

Time to go downstairs and meet the man in ausley's notebook.

He breathed deeply a few times to clear his head, and then he walked out of the room.

Lawrence Evans had been aghast this afternoon when he'd answered Matthew's knock at the front door, which had obviously been key-latched to keep the guest from straying. Oh sir, how did you get out therei You shouldn't have gone out the front, sir. It's not wise to go roaming, as there are wild hogs on the property.

"Yes," Matthew had replied. "I did meet a pig on the road."

You'll keep this to yourself, won't you, siri If Mr. Chapel found out I let you roam around, he'd be most displeased.

"I won't tell him," Matthew had said, though he'd wondered if word would get back to the estate's master through the road-pig.

Now, as Matthew came down the staircase and turned along the corridor, he heard voices from the dining-room. They were hushed, almost like whispers of wind. Matthew braced himself for the moment, squared his shoulders, and walked with as much confidence as he could muster into the candle-flamed room of eighteen swords.

"ah, here's our young nobleman!" said the man who sat at the head of the table, as he scraped his chair back and stood up to greet their guest. He walked toward Matthew with a large hand offered in friendship, his boots clumping thunderously on the planks. "Simon Chapel, sir! Very pleased to meet you!"

Matthew took the hand, which nearly crushed his own into a lifeless cuttlefish. The man was huge, standing at least six-foot-three and as solidly built as a brickwagon. He had a sturdy jaw and grinned with a set of peglike teeth that might bite a bulldog in half. His eyes, a shade approaching topaz, were large and luminous under spectacles with square frames. In contest to his physical magnitude, his nose was a small English heirloom turned up at the tip as if smelling spoiled violets. above it the forehead was a slab of blue-veined marble, his hair a scatter of sparkling gray sand upon a skull slightly pointed at the crest as if suited for a battering-ram. His mouth twisted and twitched with some explosive remarks still being formed. He wore a royal-blue suit with a cream-colored waistcoat, a white shirt, and a blue silk cravat with small red and cream squares upon it.

He was a picture to behold, yet Matthew didn't know quite what he was looking at.

"Sit!" Chapel said. "Right there!" He clapped Matthew on the shoulder with his right hand and with the left pointed to a place set for him on the other side of the table next to the chair he'd so energetically vacated.

Matthew took stock of the three other members of the dinner party. at the long table, which gleamed with silver trays, bowls, utensils, dishes, and cups under the fury of orange candlelight, sat Charity LeClaire, positioned directly to the right of Matthew's waiting chair. across from her, and also standing to greet Matthew, was Lawrence Evans, whose presence here indicated he was several leagues above being a mere servant.

It was the other man at the table, the man who had chosen not to stand, who riveted Matthew's attention. He was eating an apple that had been cut into slices on a small silver fruit tray about the size of an open hand. He was a slim dandy, perhaps thirty years old or thereabouts, with hair so pale blond it was almost white. The hair was pulled back into a queue and tied with a beige ribbon. His eyes were piercing green, yet lifeless as they examined Matthew. The face was both handsome for its regal gentility and fearsome for its utter lack of expression. He wore a light brown suit and waistcoat, and flowing waves of European lace spilled from the front of his crisp white shirt and cuffs.

Matthew had last seen this man at night, walking around the corner of King Street near the almshouse, and had first seen him firing apples into the face of Ebenezer Grooder at the pillory before City Hall.

The pitiless grenadier, Matthew thought. He nodded at the man, who watched him but did not return the gesture.

"allow me to introduce Count anton Mannerheim Dahlgren," said Chapel, as he steered Matthew toward the head of the table. The blond-haired man now gave the slightest nod, but his relaxed and almost somnolent posture said he was not interested in introductions. He continued eating an apple slice with small birdlike pecks and staring at Matthew as Matthew took the seat across from him.

Chapel sat down again, the grin fixed in place. "I fear Count Dahlgren doesn't speak much English. He's come over from Prussia and he's very...well...Prussian, if you know what I mean. Yesi" That last word was directed to Dahlgren.

"Yas," came the quiet reply in an accent as thick as the Black Forest, with a brief show of gray teeth. "Var' Prussian."

Chapel picked up a little silver bell next to his platter and rang it. "Let's eat, shall wei Matthew, I hope you're hungryi"

"I am, sir." If he could get anything into his stomach, which was so tense amid this crew that it felt squeezed by iron bands.

Presently through a door at the right side of the room came the first wave of this feast: a procession of bowls, platters, and trays filled with sliced melons, stewed apples, honeyed strawberries, green salads, and other enticements brought in by three boys about fourteen or fifteen years of age, dressed in white shirts and black breeches, and two older women wearing kitchen aprons. Wine red and white was poured into glasses and Chapel proposed a toast with his glass lifted high: "To new friends and new prosperity!" Everyone drank. The glasses were immediately filled again by one of the boys, a wiry youth with shoulder-length brown hair that looked to have been brushed back from his face with bee's-wax pomade. His purpose seemed to be standing nearby over a cartful of wine bottles, ready to pour when a glass showed its bottom.

The meal progressed, as candlelight flashed off the fine silver and was reflected upon the walls like streaking comets. Matthew was aware of the swords at his back while he carried on a conversation about the weather with Miss LeClaire, Chapel offered some observations about the size and shape of clouds, Evans borrowed a remark or two and reworked it so it sounded as if he'd come up with it on his own, and Count Dahlgren drank a glass of white wine and watched Matthew over the brim. The conversation then turned to the beauty of Chapel's silverware, and when he stated between sips of wine that his father had impressed upon him the idea that no gentleman was a true gentleman without fine silver on the dinner table Miss LeClaire clapped her hands as if he'd made a pronouncement of discovering a medical cure for dropsy.

Then came the second wave, this one a flotilla of bowls bearing soups and chowders: mushroom and bacon, oyster and corn, she-crab and cream. Chapel took pinches of pepper from a mound in a silver bowl and threw them with gusto into his food, so much so that the lady had a fit of sneezing that a napkin could hardly contain. Evans went the salt route, while Dahlgren ignored his spoon and drank directly but delicately from the bowl in what Matthew thought must be the Prussian way.

Matthew was waiting for the first sound of a blade sliding out of its sheath, and twenty minutes into the feast Chapel cleared his throat with a peppery rumble.

Evans and Miss LeClaire had been chattering about the value of oysters to a healthy diet. Both of them suddenly went mute.

Chapel reached into his coat, brought out an object, and laid it on the table in front of Matthew, after which he returned to his pepperpot.

It was ausley's notebook. Matthew's heart twisted on its root. He feared the book might have been the one in his possession, and stolen from the dairyhouse even as he'd been brought here today. But no...compose yourself, he thought. He could see there was no dried blood on it. This was one of ausley's less recent books, but identical in every way to the one Matthew had.

"You know what this is, I presumei" Chapel asked. There was a little ting as Dahlgren tapped the rim of his wineglass with a fingernail.

Matthew had had his fill of mushroom-and-bacon soup. He pushed the bowl aside. "I do." Careful! he cautioned himself. "I've seen ausley writing in it."

"Not this particular one, maybe. He had a box full of them, under the bed in his room. a strange bastard, wasn't hei Scribbled notes on everything under God's sun. You know, I once knew of a lunatic in London who made balls of dust. Hundreds of them. Kept them in his attic. It was in the Gazette, wasn't it, Lawrencei"

"Yes sir."

Chapel nodded his conical head with satisfaction that his memory had been served. "I think ausley was one notebook away from dust balls. all that about his gambling debts and his bowel habits...ridiculous. Of course you suspect by now that dear Charity here is not in any way related to ausley, unless you consider nymph's itch as a kind of lunacy." He showed his peg-teeth to the lady, who looked straight ahead and continued drinking her white wine with no sign of perturbance except for a metallic glint of the eyes. "We found the box of notebooks when we searched his room," Chapel went on, speaking to Matthew again, "but as he was known to always carry one on his person, there was-and remains-the notebook missing from his personal belongings." He smiled faintly. "Do you have any idea where it might be, Matthewi"

"No sir," came the steady reply.

"I'm sorry to hear that, for it would have made things so much easier. Now we have to go about searching for it. and where to begini With his murdereri Do you think his murderer might have taken the notebook, Matthewi"

"I have no idea."

"Oh, but you must have an idea! an opinion, at least. Why would his murderer have taken the notebook but left his walleti Ehi"

Matthew knew Chapel was waiting for a response, so one must be given. "I suspect ausley's killer wished to read it."

"Exactly!" Chapel lifted a thick forefinger. He was grinning as if all this was the most wonderful merriment, but the topaz eyes were stone-hard. "So this was someone who killed ausley for a purpose, just as he's killed Dr. Godwin and Mr. Deverick. Their wallets were likewise left undisturbedi Lawrence, the sheet please." He held out a hand. Evans reached into his own coat with an eagerness that bordered on the frantic; from an inside pocket he brought out a many-times-folded sheet of paper that Matthew already knew was the Earwig. Evans unfolded it, smoothed it out, and slid it past Matthew and Count Dahlgren to the smiling host.

"a long way to go, to match the Gazette," Chapel said as he looked over the article on Deverick's murder. "But a good beginning, I'd say. I suppose there'll be another sheet out soon with an article about ausleyi Or is he old news by nowi"

"I'm sure there'll be another sheet out within a few days. Mr. Grigsby has to gather enough news to fit first."

"Of course. Economy must be observed, and why would ausley rate a sheet all to himselfi You know, we found your name in several of those notebooks. He had a very interesting combination of respect for your intellect and hatred for your principles. I think actually he was afraid of you. In any event, he was glad to be rid of you to that Magistrate Woodward."

Matthew was shocked. "He was keeping notebooks that long agoi"

"Indeed. Only he didn't write as much in them or go through them as quickly as later, when he went off the pier's end with his gambling and personal lecheries. But as I say, he was afraid of you." Chapel returned to his soup and dabbed a little she-crab from his chin with a white napkin. "He feared you were going to get another boy as witness to tell everything to Magistrate Powers and then the church might step in. also, you made him nervous just following him around like that, night after night. He made a convincing argument for my help, so that's why I let him use Carver and Bromfield, my hunters. I think you saw Bromfield this afternooni"

Matthew glanced quickly at Evans but said nothing.

"Oh, don't mind what Lawrence told you. It's no matter. I would've been highly disappointed in you if you hadn't gotten out and exploring. You did take a risk, though. Bromfield has a nasty streak. are we ready for the main course, friendsi Let's be at it, then!" He rang the little silver bell again, as Count Dahlgren held out his wineglass to be refilled.

More platters and trays were brought to the table. This time the offerings were substantial: grilled lamb with dill pickles, sweetbreads in mustard sauce, a hunk of red meat that Matthew thought must be a calf's tongue, and thickly sliced ham with a burnt sugar glaze. accompanying these stomach-busters was wild rice, creamed corn, and a pile of biscuits. Matthew looked in vain for the hares. Who had Bromfield been hunting fori

But it was all Matthew could do to keep his mind about him, for this scene of feast coupled to the strange conversation with Simon Chapel was more like a dream than reality. He was full already, and the serving boys were loading up another plate for him. Then, quite suddenly, one of the boys spilled wild rice over the front of Matthew's breeches and cried out, "Pardon, sir! Pardon, sir!" as he wiped the offending food away with a napkin. Matthew stood up from the table as the boy's hand rapidly darted here and there to clean off the debris and Matthew finally said, "It's all right. Really. I'm fine." He brushed the last bits off himself and returned to his seat, while the boy-a small-boned lad with a mass of curly brown hair and the fast movements of a weasel-wadded up the napkin in his fist and started toward the door that presumably led to the kitchen.

"Silas, Silas, Silas!" Chapel said, with an air of exasperation. "Stop where you are, please!"

The boy obeyed and, turning around toward the master, had a crooked grin on his red-cheeked face.

"Give it up," Chapel instructed. "Whatever it is."

"Give it up, Silas!" jeered the young wine-guardian.

"Now." Chapel's voice had begun to lose its humor.

The boy's grin faded. "I was jus' practisin'," he said. "Gonna put 'em back later."

"Return them to Mr. Corbett. This moment, or you and I will have some difficulties."

"awwww," Silas said, in the manner of any boy caught redhanded at a mischief. He approached Matthew, opened the napkin, and deposited from it both the silver watch and the dairyhouse key onto the table next to Matthew's plate. Instinctively and with abject amazement Matthew checked his pockets, which had been picked so quick and cleanly he'd had no sensation of looting fingers.

"Go about your business, Silas," Chapel instructed, as he began to slice the calf's tongue. "No more nonsense, now."

"No more nonsense," smirked the wine-boy, who flinched as Silas balled up a fist and made a threat of striking him, but then Silas thought better of it and went out through the door to the kitchen.

"Silas has a little habit." Chapel pushed the tongue platter toward Matthew. "We indulge him sometimes, as he does no harm. He is quick, isn't hei" His gaze locked on the watch. "Very fine, that is. How come you to have such an expensive time instrumenti"

"It was a gift," Matthew answered, aware he was again edging on shaky ground. "From..." His wits failed him.

"Oh, it's not Mr. Deverick's watch, is iti" Chapel made a wide-eyed expression of mock horror that was almost comical. "You're not the Masker, are youi"

"No." His mind started up again, like Sassafras running on the treadmill at Micah Reynaud's barbershop. "It was a gift from the man who founded the town of Fount Royal, in the Carolina colony. Given for clearing up an important matter."

"The witchcraft thingi Yes, ausley told me. I might mention that my Carolina source says Fount Royal dried up and blew away last summer, so sad to relate. But life goes on, and so does time. ah, what's thisi" Chapel plucked up the dairyhouse key even as his mouth was gobbling tongue.

Matthew, who felt as if Dr. Godwin's breeches were already about to burst at the belly, had passed the tongue on down to Miss LeClaire, who stabbed herself a piece. Evans was intent on his small portion of ham and across from Matthew, Count Dahlgren put a fork to the grilled lamb and chewed steadily while watching Chapel inspect the key.

"This is an antique," Chapel remarked once his mouth was clear. "Charity tells me you live in an outhouse."

"a dairyhouse," Matthew corrected.

He shrugged his massive shoulders. "Outhouse, dairyhouse..."

"Whorehouse," the lady sniggered, with a shiny look that skimmed past Matthew. One of her blond curls had come unpinned and was hanging down over a chocolate eye. Her wineglass was empty. The wine-boy poured another.

"Here, mind she doesn't get too much!" Chapel told the boy. "She'll have us all on the table devouring us like Sunday sausages!" He returned his attention to Matthew. "Why does a young man of your aptitude live in an outhousei"

"My aptitude, siri"

"Your brains. Your gumption. You're not lazy, I know. also I know you have curiosity and you're not afraid to strike out on your own. Why an outhouse, theni Do you have no ambitioni"

"I have ambition. I am where I am, for right now."

"Where you are right now," Chapel said as he set the key down beside Matthew's silver plate, "is here. It's where you're going tomorrow morning that I think shameful."

"Siri"

"Back to that noxious town. Full of those cretins and clodfoots. Pigs in the streets and horse manure...well, need I mention that to youi I think you have such potential, Matthew! Such a mind as yours should not be put to waste..." He paused and took a sip of wine.

"To waste, siri" Matthew asked.

"Doing menial labor," came the reply. "Isn't that right, Lawrencei"

"Yes sir." The s was perhaps a shade slurred.

"Listen to him, for Lawrence was once a legal clerk himself. Drowning in ink and debts. But look at him now, Matthew. Dressed in such finery and performing tasks more suited to his skills. and with a great future yet ahead of him!"

Matthew was watching Dahlgren, who watched Matthew. "Does the Count also work for youi"

"In a sense. He's a guest, but he's also my fencing instructor. I'm a bit late in taking it up, I fear, but I'm trying to learn. It's damned hard, though."

"Hardi" Miss LeClaire stirred and seemed to be rocking back and forth in her chair, her eyes flicking from one man to another. Her voice was thick. "Who's hardi"

"Hush," Chapel said. "I meant to say difficult, Matthew. One must take care around Miss LeClaire, lest her condition leap out and romp us to death."

Matthew finished his glass of wine and put a finger to the rim, allowing no more, when the boy rushed forward to pour again. Sense had to be made of this strange cornucopia, and he knew of only one way in the situation to start finding some answers. The frontal assault. "Mr. Chapel," he said, and at once the man was listening attentively, "may I ask exactly why ausley's notebooks are so important to youi"

"Of course. They hold, amid his ravings and chamber-pot tribulations, the names of the orphan boys he's sold to me."

"Sold to youi"

"Well, I suppose rented is a better word. You know. To work here, as grounds and house staff and in the vineyard. Good help is so difficult to find. We clean them up, of course. Educate them and give them a trial period. If they fit in, they stay. If they don't, they return to the orphanage." Chapel continued eating. "a simple solution to my needs. I suppose I could have bought slaves, but I don't wish black hands on the grapes."

"Black hands," Miss LeClaire slurred, both eyes now obscured by fallen curls. "On the grapes." and then she snorted a laugh that made clear threads of snot shoot out of both nostrils.

"Dear Lord! Lawrence, do something about her, will youi Mind your stones, she's got a claw of iron. Where were wei Oh, the orphans! Well, this arrangement's been going on since I-Lawrence in my stead, I mean-approached him...oh, back in 1696, I suppose. and when did you leave the orphanagei 1694, wasn't iti"

"Yes." Matthew tried not to look as Evans cleaned the lady's nose and tried to make her stop rubbing herself back and forth on the chair's seat. The nymph's itch, indeed.

"We just missed you. It works well for us, and well for ausley...until he was murdered, I mean. Now we've got all the books but the last one, and we really must find it."

"Whyi" Matthew asked. "What's so important about the namesi"

"actually, there's only one name I care about in the books. My own." Chapel offered an apologetic smile and a tilt of the battering-ram. "You see, ausley was not removing the names of his charges from the rolls after they were sent to me. Therefore he could continue to get the same amount of money from the charities and the churches because his numbers stayed the same. I suppose I paid for much of his gambling adventures, plus he took the extra charitable funds. Now that the poor wretched bastard is dead, I'd think someone in a position of responsibility will be going over the official ledgers and records of placement. The notebooks, you understand, are highly unofficial."

Chapel leaned toward Matthew in an attitude of sharing a secret. "I told him, through Lawrence, not to write my name down anywhere. I wanted there to be no trail of paper leading to me. Hate those. Well, what do we find when we get the notebooks from under his bedi Yes, there it was, all right! My name, in glorious scribble! I had a suspicion, after Bromfield and Carver told me they got a glimpse of one of those damned books the night they hired out to him, that my name was in them somewhere. Now it may have been true that just my family name is there and possibly no one would ever have connected me to the scheme, but still...care saves trouble, as my father used to say. I have not advanced to my present situation by lack of planning, I promise you."

Matthew nodded. This information didn't surprise him in the least. But what of the numbersi The code ausley had written downi Of course he couldn't ask, though he nearly had to lock his teeth together.

"I'm not a monster," Chapel continued. He knifed butter from a silver tray and bathed a biscuit with it. "The boys here are all volunteers. No one has to stay if they don't like it. How many are here presently, Lawrencei"

"Nineteen, sir." Evans was trying to free himself from the hands that were earnestly working at the buttons of his breeches front.

"Many various ages, from twelve on up," Chapel said. "They live in a very comfortable building at the vineyard. When they reach the age of eighteen, they are free to go out into the world on their own if they choose. I had a ready source of labor, ausley got his money, and all was right with Simon Chapel's little world." His visage darkened. "Until this Masker came along. and who the devil is he, anywayi Why these three men, Matthewi Does anyone have any ideasi" His gray eyebrows went up. "Do youi"

It wasn't right, Matthew thought as he pushed his plate aside and folded his hands on the table. Something...was...not...right. Why should the Masker be interested in ausley's scheme with Chapeli He remembered that before Dippen Nack had scared the Masker away, there'd been a whispered Eben ausley was...

What was the finish of that declaration to bei

Eben ausley was selling orphans as vineyard workersi as household and grounds staffi

Why in the world should the Masker have a care for what ausley did with the orphansi

It wasn't right, Matthew thought. No.

"Tell me about this, then," said Chapel, as he slid the Earwig toward Matthew. His index finger tapped a small item. Matthew saw the broadsheet had been turned to its second page, and Chapel's finger was on the lines of print that read The Herrald agency. Problem-Solving. Letters of Inquiry to go to the Dock House Inn.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***