Part Three: The Message Chapter Thirty-Six


"The printmaster's your friend, isn't hei" Chapel looked at his fingertip and found it was marred by a small darkening of ink. He wiped it on his napkin. "Do you know who brought that item to himi"

Matthew was startled as Count Dahlgren suddenly got up from his chair, walked across the room with a half-glass of white wine in his left hand, and with his other pulled a sword from the display on the right side of the fireplace. It came out with a shrieking sound.

"Tell me," Chapel said, his intense topaz gaze fixed upon Matthew. The reflection of orange candleflames on his spectacle lenses made it appear that his eyeballs were burning.

Behind Matthew, Dahlgren began to thrust and parry at a phantom opponent. Matthew dared not turn around, but could hear the sword's high whicking noise as air was cleaved left and right.

"Do you know these agency people yourself, Matthewi Have you met themi"

"I..." What a pit had been opened for him! Would that it not become a grave where he might lie rotting and filled up with roaches. He swallowed hard as Dahlgren swung his blade through a candle and the waxen stump flew over Matthew's head into the wild rice. "I have-"

He didn't know what he was going to say, but before he could say it a drunken load of woman jumped into his lap, driving the breath out of him and almost causing him to spew forth sliced melons, stewed apples, salad, mushroom-and-bacon soup, and every other foodstuff deposited in his belly-bank. This leap of wanton faith was accompanied an instant later by a tongue-of the feminine human variety-winnowing itself into his mouth like a river eel. He tried to push her off but she was stuck fast, her arms going around his neck and her fleshy red rag nearly down his throat. He had the feeling that he might strangle on it, while as if in some nightmare formed from bad codfish Count Dahlgren lunged around the room whacking candles, Evans grabbed the itching nymph to give Matthew some air and Chapel said sourly, "Well, damn it all," and beckoned the wine-boy over for another glass.

When Evans got Miss LeClaire unsealed and unseated and she began to try to get his breeches pulled down, Chapel leaned toward the hard-breathing and red-faced young nobleman and said, "Listen now, Matthew. Very important. Will you run a simple errand for me when you get back to towni"

"What..." He ducked as the upper half of a candle, its wick still smoking, sailed between them. "What is iti"

"Don't mind Count Dahlgren." Chapel waved a dismissive hand in the swordsman's direction. "This is obviously some kind of Prussian after-dinner thing. But about the errand: will you go for me to the Dock House Inn and find out if anyone named Herrald is staying therei"

"Herraldi" Matthew asked, as Dahlgren began to deliver an unintelligible chant in a strange, staccato rhythm while he swung the sword back and forth with lightning speed, the blade hardly a blur. Matthew saw him switch hands, whirl around, almost drop to the floor, and then smoothly switch hands again and strike out as if piercing an enemy's heart.

"The Herrald agency. The item. Wake up, is the wine taking you underi I want to know specifically if a Mrs. Katherine Herrald is staying there, or has lately been there. I also want to know who's gone to see her and what company she keeps." Chapel grasped Matthew's shoulder with a steely claw that reminded him of Jack One Eye the bear. "also, get what you can from the printmaster. Bring me back this information within three or four days and I'll make it worth your while."

"Worth my while, siri"

"That's right. How about a pound sterling, to start withi" Chapel waited for the sound of that immense sum to sink in. "We've got to get you away from that outhouse somehow, and this seems a good place to begin."

"all right," Matthew said, for he wished to return to New York in a single package. "I'll see what I can do."

"That's the boy! also keep your eyes and ears open about that notebook, won't youi"

"I will."

"and please, not a word to anyone. You wouldn't want old Simon in the pillory, would youi"

"No."

"Excellent! Let's have a drink on it! Jeremy, open the new bottle!"

The wine-boy uncorked a hitherto untasted vintage, poured thick red liquid into two fresh glasses, and set them before Matthew and Chapel. "To victory!" Chapel said, lifting his glass. Matthew wasn't sure what battle was in the future, but he also lifted his glass and drank.

"Now, now!" Chapel chided when Matthew started to put his drink aside. "Bottoms up, young Corbett! Bottoms up!"

Matthew saw no option but to finish the glass, knowing that at least this bizarre dinner was almost over and he could get up to bed. But then came the servers again, this time bearing a huge white-iced cake, some kind of fruit pie, and a plateful of sugared cookies. The sight of the sweets diverted Miss LeClaire from her mission of removing Evans' breeches, and with a cry of girlish delight she staggered drunkenly toward the cake, her hair hanging in her face. as the lady attacked the cake with her fingers, Evans hoisted up his breeches, Count Dahlgren chanted and fenced, and Chapel watched everything with firelit eyes and a thin-lipped smile, Matthew thought he knew the real meaning of the word bedlam.

a piece of cake the size of a brick was placed before Matthew, who had not the stomach for a pebble. Following this was a slice of pie from which red cherries oozed. He noted that the room's furious light had faded somewhat, as Dahlgren continued to chop away at candles. The smells of burnt tallow and smoke whirled about him, scorching his nostrils. at the back of his throat, now that the acidic tang of the wine had subsided, was a sulphurous taste. Whatever vintage he'd just drunk, he thought, it was not yet suited for public consumption.

He heard Miss LeClaire laugh with her mouth full and then Evans said something he picked up only as a distant rumble. Looking through the slithering smoke, he watched Dahlgren wielding a sword like a clockwork automaton, back and forth across the room. Say what you please, he told himself, the Prussian was damned good with that blade. The man moved in a blur, the sword a sharp sparkle of light as it twisted, turned, and bit. Matthew figured Dahlgren certainly knew how to keep his thumb locked down.

Matthew watched Dahlgren's shadow thrown monstrously upon the wall, emulating its master's moves. Then, quite suddenly, Matthew realized he was watching Dahlgren fencing his shadow, and the shadow was making its own moves and counter-moves. Now this is interesting, he thought happily, aware of a red haze beginning to creep around the edges of his vision.

Wait, he heard his own voice say, or perhaps it was spoken only in his mind. It sounded like an echo from the bottom of a well. He repeated it, and it came out Wayyyytttt. When Matthew blinked heavy eyelids and looked at Simon Chapel through the creeping haze he saw that his host was growing a second head to the left of the first. It was coming up like a warty mass, bulging the collar of the man's shirt. From the birthing head a single eye with a red pupil like a flare at the end of a candlewick found Matthew's face, and in the darkness below it a scarlet mouth opened in a smile to show a hundred teeth the size of needles.

Matthew's heart begin to pound and writhe. Cold sweat bloomed on his face. He wanted to look at Chapel's real face, for he knew in the recess of his mind yet untouched by whatever drug he'd ingested that the terrifying vision was false yet he could not, could not, look away. He saw a hand with seven fingers reaching for him, and a voice that stung like hot wax whispered Let go, Matthew, just let go...

He did not want to let go, but he couldn't help it, for in the next minute or second or whatever time had become he felt himself falling forward as if off a precipice and it was not the blue river beneath him but the white icing of cake. He felt his body sag off the chair, he heard a mean little peal of laughter and a sword hiss through the air, and then he was all alone and drifting in the dark.

It occurred to him in this small country of darkness that Chapel had not seemed affected by the drug. How was that so, when they'd both drunk from the same unopened bottlei It was a curious thing, he thought, as his body began to become elongated and his legs and arms splayed out until he was as thin as a kite.

He was coming down for a landing. He felt something rushing up at him, though he knew not what. He hit a soft surface, someone-a man's voice, hollow in the distance-said he's all yours but don't kill him, dear, and then a wild animal seemed to jump upon him because hot breath bathed his neck and claws dug into his shoulders.

Were his breeches being tugged offi Was his skin still on his bonesi He opened his lips to cry out and a burning mouth caught the cry and tore it up between gnashing teeth. The mouth sucked at his lips so hard he thought they were being torn away. Then the mouth moved southward along with the fingernails and when the ultimate destination was reached at midcontinent the suction lifted his buttocks up and held him suspended.

Through eyes that would not open beyond slits he saw flickering candles and a wild-haired shadow humping with the ferocity of the damned. His backbone cracked, his teeth chattered, and the brain rattled in his skull. There was a savage twist and a searing pain and he feared his manhood had been tied in a knot by the pulsing wet orifice that squeezed so mightily around the member. Then the pounding continued with no abate and no tender mercy.

In his drugged state, his mind in a stupor, and his body roused to a sweating fever, he had no doubt what was being done to him. He had been thrown to Charity LeClaire and was serving as a scratch for the nymph's itch. all he could do was be battered and beaten, tossed and trumpled, rowdied and rompled and rigidified. Up was down, down was up, and at some point the bed broke and the whole heaving world slid sideways. a mouth sucked his mouth, a hand grasped his hair, a second hand caught his beans, and eager thighs slammed down in a spine-bending maneuver both frenzied and frantic.

He was half off the bed, but which half he didn't know. Blond curls fell in his face and damp breasts squeezed against his chest. a catlike tongue darted and flicked. The hammering of the lady's pubic mound against Matthew's groin beat from him a grunting rhythm, broken when the demoniacal damsel screamed in his ear. Then after a respite that seemed as long as eight seconds, Matthew felt himself seized by the ankles and dragged along with the bedsheets upon the chamber's floor, where Miss LeClaire continued her demonstration of the lusty art. Matthew swore he felt his soul trying to float free from his body. after so many explosions of energy, probably helped along by the wicked drug, he was now only shooting forth blue air.

But the lady screamed and screamed again, and to stifle another scream chewed on his right ear as if it were a cornbread muffin. He was only vapor now, a ghost of his former self. In this half-viewed, orange-daubed debaucher's paradise he thought Miss LeClaire could teach Polly Blossom things the madam had only seen in opium dreams.

at last, at long last: a cessation of motion. The weight of a body lying across Matthew's chest, and the sensation of steam pouring forth as in hot sun after rain. His neck was kinked and his back crooked. His eyes, like cannonballs, rolled across devastated fields. He fell away into the void.

It was with an abrupt start that Matthew returned to the world of the living. He was being roughly jostled back and forth, which at first made him think the tireless nymph was again at work, but then he saw through swollen eyes the padded interior of a coach. Early morning had arrived, as the red sun was just rising to the east. He realized he was dressed, more or less, in the clothes he'd come with, and he was being returned to New York.

The seat opposite him was empty. He heard the crack of the whip and felt the vibration of the four horses hauling the vehicle southward. a rear wheel hit a particularly brutal pothole and lifted his bottom off the seat, and when he came down he landed on a sore nut and almost shouted God's name in vain. It would do to find a way to steady himself, for the sake of his bruised stones. The horses were making a quick clip and the coach was a rolling symphony of creaks, cracks, and groans. He knew the feeling.

The darkness rose up and took him once more, and when he awakened this time-again to the aches and pains of spent passions-he blinked in the stronger light, as the day had advanced by perhaps two hours. Still he was hazy and had to concentrate to keep his eyelids from sliding shut. The drugged wine, Matthew thought, had been a potent vintage. But no, no...his mind was yet working properly. He reached up and rubbed his temples, so as to move the sluggish blood.

It had not been the wine, he realized, or Chapel also would have fallen under its spell. The drug must've been smeared inside his glass. Yes. Inside the glass, so an unopened bottle might be shared by two but a victim made only of one.

Whatever that had been about, he had no idea except to guess that the other men had given him up to Charity LeClaire as a way to save their own foreskins. If she was like that every night she must nearly have put them all in a grave. Well, there could be no doubting now of his status as an ex-virgin, though this had been more assault than sex. The damnable thing was if he might start in the next few days-or after an ample time of recovery, at least-wondering about what it must be like to meet her in the bedchamber without being drugged almost immobile.

There must have been another reason to it as well, Matthew mused as he lifted up off the seat with every shudder of the suspension. He'd been drugged to keep him from roaming around at night, after his host had gone to bed. Charity LeClaire had just been the icing on the cake.

It made no sense to him. That business about the orphans being put to work as servants and vineyard workers. Of course there'd been the serving-boys in the room. But what would the Masker care about iti

Matthew remembered the boy who'd picked his pocket and he immediately felt to see if his watch and key were still there. They were. Silas has a little habit, Chapel had said. a habit indeed.

Matthew quieted his mind and tried to rest again, as his body demanded it. Soon the coach's wheels were rolling over more familiar dirt and they passed through the outskirts of town. The silver watch reported ten-thirteen. On the streets this Friday morning was the usual traffic of wagons and pedestrians, all hurrying about their business in the way that Matthew had begun to think of as "New Yorkian." The coach's team was slowed to a walk but steered toward the harbor to set its passenger off at his destination, and that was when Matthew caught in the air the sharp scent of smoke. This was no surprise, due to the number of industries that required fire, but when the air became tinted with murky yellow about a block from Grigsby's house Matthew realized something nearby was well and truly aflame. He peered out the crescent-shaped window and to his absolute horror saw smoke and a lick of flame rising from just ahead, on the printmaster's property.

His dairyhouse was burning.

He shouted, "I'm getting out here!" to the driver and whipman, popped the door open, and jumped down to the street. His knees gave way, his groin ached like a stab wound, and he staggered forward on the edge of collapse but he kept going against the pull of gravity itself. He had no doubt about it; the dairyhouse was going up, and so then were the last of his meager belongings.

But as he got onto Grigsby's property from Queen Street he saw it was not his miniature mansion aflame. The smoke and a flurry of ashes were rising from well behind the dairyhouse. Matthew walked-or rather, limped-toward the conflagration, his heart pounding, and saw the printmaster and his daughter engaged in tending a bonfire, each of them armed with rakes to herd off errant flames in the grass.

"What is thisi" Matthew asked as he neared Grigsby, and he noted that when Berry turned around she glanced first at his sallow face and then quickly at his crotch as if she knew where it had spent the night.

"Matthew, there you are!" Grigsby grinned, his face puffed by the heat. ashes clung to his little tuft of hair and a black streak lay across his nose. "Where've you beeni"

"Just away for the night," he answered, as Berry turned her back on him and raked dead a crawling fist of fire. ashes billowed from the flames and blew around them like gray snow.

"What are you burningi"

"Garbage," Grigsby said, with a twitch of his eyebrows. "On your command, sir."

"My commandi"

"But of course. anything to please the master of the house."

"Master of the-" Matthew stopped, for he'd peered into the flames and saw in that red hotpot a melded mass of shapes that might have once been a pile of old buckets, boxes, implements, and unknown items shrouded with blazing canvas. He caught sight of a well-punctured and smouldering archery target an instant before its straw-stuffed interior ignited and then exploded into a small inferno.

His first impulse was to grab Grigsby's rake and attack the fire; his second was to pick up the bucket of water he saw on the ground nearby and try to save what he knew to be hidden within the target, but the burlap was nothing but blaze now and it was too late, much too late. "What have you donei" he heard his own voice cry out, with such anguish that both Grigsbys looked at him as if he'd caught flame himself.

The printmaster's spectacles had slid down to the end of his sweating nose. He pushed them back up, the better to see Matthew's horror-struck face. "I've done what you asked!" he said. "I've cleaned the dairyhouse out for you!"

"and set everything on firei" He'd almost screamed the last word. "are you madi"

"Well, what else was I to do with all that junki I mean, the press parts and tins of ink I kept, of course, but everything else had to go. My lord, Matthew, you look ill!"

Matthew had staggered back from the heat and almost gone down on his rear, but if he busted another nut he'd have to be put in a wheelbarrow and carted to the public hospital on King Street.

"Matthew!" Berry was coming toward him, her red curls in wild disarray and black smears of ash on her chin and forehead. The deep blue eyes saw much. "What is iti"

"Gone," was all he could say.

"Gonei What's gonei"

"It was in there. The target. Inside there, where I hid it." He realized he was babbling like a brook, but he was unable to make sense. "I hid it, right in there."

"I think he's drunk!" Grigsby said, raking away a piece of blazing burlap that had escaped the furies.

"Very important," Matthew rambled on. He felt as if he were again under the effects of Chapel's drug, his vision blurring in and out of focus. "Very important I keep it, and now it's gone."

"Keep whati" Grigsby asked. "aren't you pleased I did this for youi"

Berry put aside her rake and took Matthew's hand. "Settle down," she said, in a voice like a firm slap to the jaw. He blinked and stared at her, his mouth half-open and the taste of ashes on his tongue. Berry said, "Come with me," and pulled him gently toward the printmaster's house.

"Everything's cleaned up for you!" Grigsby called after them. "I got a rug for you and a new desk! Oh, and the locksmith came this morning! Your old lock was sprung!"

In the kitchen, Berry guided Matthew into a chair at the table and poured him a cup of water. He looked at it for a few seconds, uncomprehending, until she put the cup into his hand and waited for him to press his fingers around it. "Drink it," she said, and he obeyed like a pole-axed dullard.

"What's this abouti" she asked, when he'd put the cup down.

He shook his head, unable to speak it. What might have been a vital part of this puzzle, now turned to ashes and smoke. Not knowing what secret the Masker meant him to discover was too much to bear. He realized Berry was no longer in the room with him. He sat stupidly looking at the watercup as he heard her footsteps approaching across the boards.

She stopped just behind him. Suddenly, with a small sharp smack, was laid on the table before him an object risen from death by fire.

"I helped Grandda move the junk yesterday," she said. "I needed some more straw for my mattress. That was in the second handful."

Matthew reached out to touch the gold-ornamented notebook, to make sure it was real. He swallowed, his mind still reeling, and said the first thing that came to him: "Lucky for me."

"Yes," Berry agreed, in a quiet voice. "Lucky for you." Then: "I looked through it, but I didn't show it to Grandda. I found your name in it."

Matthew nodded.

"You hid it in therei"

again a nod.

"Would you care to tell me whyi"

He was still all pins and nerves. He picked up the notebook and opened it to the cryptic page. One glance at the list of names and he saw:

Silas Oakley 7 8 8 5 Chapel 6/20

This, he presumed, very well might be the Silas with the little habit-and huge talent-of picking pockets. The date might have been when the transaction was made with ausley, but what was the meaning of the other four numbersi

"Welli" Berry prompted.

"It's an involved story." Matthew closed the notebook and put it down, but kept his hand on it. He recalled as if from a dream Grigsby saying Your old lock was sprung. Had someone come in the night to search his housei "You took the items out of there yesterdayi"

"Yes, a few hours after you'd left."

"and you found the notebook theni"

"That's right. Then we just left the stuff out behind the house until Grandda could get a city permit for an open fire."

"I see."

"I don't see." Berry came around the table and sat down facing him. Her no-nonsense stare promised him no mercy. "What's it about and why'd you hide iti" a light of realization glinted. "Oh. Does that ladybird have something to do with iti"

after a moment's deliberation he said, "Yes." It was best to continue, for he had the feeling that once Berry had seized upon a subject it was a subject under siege. "Has Marmaduke told you about the Maskeri"

"He has. I've read the broadsheets, too." Her freckled cheeks suddenly flushed and she leaned forward with urgent excitement. "It has something to do with the murdersi"

"It does." He scowled at her. "Now listen to me, and I mean it: not one word to your grandfather. Do you hear mei"

"I hear. But what does the lady have to do with iti and where did you go last nighti"

"I have no idea, is the answer to the first question. To the second, it's probably best that you don't know."

"and the notebook, theni all that scribbling about gambling and food and all the rest of iti" Berry made an unpleasant face. "Why's it so importanti"

"again, I have no idea." Matthew decided against all wisdom to give her something, as she had saved this chestnut from the fire. "I'll tell you that there are other people who want this book, and it's vital they don't find it." He ran a hand through his hair, his energy almost sapped. "I think someone may have broken into the dairyhouse last night to find it, so thank God and all the lucky stars that you found it first. Now: can you do me a great favor and keep it here somewhere, but out of Marmy's sighti"

"Me keep iti"

"That's right. I'm going to have to make a trip to Philadelphia soon, and I want that book to be here when I get back."

"To Philadelphiai What fori"

"Just never mind." He waved her questions away. "Will you keep the book for me, or noti"

It didn't take Berry long to consider. There was a note of eager excitement in her voice when she said, "I'll put it in the bottom drawer of my chest, under my crayon box. You don't think anyone will break in here, do youi"

"That I can't say. I think they suspect I've got it, but they don't know for sure."

She looked at him steadily for a few seconds, and Matthew saw her gaze drop to the front of his shirt. "You're missing three buttons."

In his state of weariness he was unable to formulate a response, so the best he could do was shrug his shoulders and offer a faint, lopsided smile.

"I'd better get back out to help Grandda, but I'll put this away first." She retrieved the notebook and stood up. "Oh...a man brought a letter for you. It's on the table in the front room."

"Thank you." He waited until she'd gone, as he feared that when he stood up some dull ache or stabbing pain might cause him to give a groan and she'd want to know what was hurting. The less said about that, the better. When Berry went back outside, Matthew eased himself up and went into the front room, where he found a white envelope sitting on the small round table next to the door. a quick inspection showed him it was sealed with red wax that bore the impressed initial H.

He opened the envelope and read: Dear Matthew, if at all possible please come today before three o'clock to Number Seven Stone Street. With all Regards, Katherine Herrald.

He refolded the letter and returned it to the envelope. Interesting, if both Mrs. Herrald and Hudson Greathouse were in town. He'd have to promptly go see what this was about, and catch some decent sleep later this afternoon. It would be a good opportunity to relate his tale of last night, as well.

an item that he'd not noticed before caught his attention. Set up near the east-facing window was an artist's easel. a chair was situated before it, turned to the side. On the easel was one of Berry's works in progress, and Matthew stood in the yellow shards of light examining her effort.

It was a rough pencil drawing of Marmaduke Grigsby, seen in profile. The tuft of hair sticking up on the bald scalp, in the moon-round face a large eye behind a spectacle lens, a heavy eyebrow ready to jump and twitch, the massive vein-shot nose, the low-hanging cleft-gouged chin, folds and wrinkles that even in stillness gave life and character to the expression: all were there. It was really very good, for Berry had captured the strange construction of her grandfather's face with neither the artificiality of emphasis nor restraint. It was therefore not a flattering portrait, but an honest one. He wondered what colors it might be when Berry finished it. Bright red for burning curiosity, and deepest purple for Earwig prosei He continued to stare at it for some time, thinking that it took real talent to be truthful. Here was not a gloomy caricature of a tight-assed fop, as Berry would put it; here was the study of a singular human being, with all flaws on display.

a real talent, Matthew thought.

The seed of an idea came to him and began to grow roots.

absent-mindedly he reached down to fasten buttons that were no longer there, and then he hurried out of the house in the direction of Stone Street.

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