A gust of wind combed up the grassy knoll and fluttered the women's shawls and dresses. A quick hand preserved Arabella's hat, and she stepped behind the small windbreak afforded by Arthur Darley and his friend. She took Lord Arthur's arm as she settled into his lee.
They had not been up on Plymouth Hoe a quarter of an hour before a charter member of Darley's vast acquaintance found them. This gentleman, a captain in His Majesty's navy, bent his head toward her, the wrinkles about his eyes suggesting a smile.
"Permit me to observe, madam, that your dress is luffing. I think you've sailed too close to the wind."
Arabella smiled in spite of herself. The cheek of the man! Would he have said the same to Arthur's wife? It was a lucky thing the man possessed considerable charm. Arabella had wounded bigger men without need of pistol or second.
She remembered her rather unfamiliar duties, suddenly, and set her gaze scurrying amongst the crowd. And there she found Lucy, in a lather of unselfconscious delight, chasing an escaped lapdog. Before Arabella could decide if this was an acceptable activity for a young lady (for she knew little of that particular species), a movement and murmur spread down the hoe like the gasp of an audience as, on the stage, a character is murdered.
"Well, there," said Captain Colgan, lifting a hand to point, as did so many others that afternoon. "Maitland arrives at last."
"The Billy Ruffian!" called a young man to some of his friends nearby, and Arabella could feel the excitement of the crowd.
Still holding her hat, she ventured out of Arthur's lee and into the full force of the wind. A ship of the line rounded the eastern headland, little ant men aloft taking in sail. It was not an uncommon sight here in Plymouth Sound.
"Well, there is a bit of living history," Arthur said. "Where is Lucy? She cannot miss this."
"But what is it, pray?" Arabella asked sweetly.
"H.M.S. Bellerophon," Captain Colgan explained. "And aboard her the deposed Emperor of the French--or as the Admiralty has ordered he be addressed, General Napoleon Bonaparte."
"But was he not luxuriating happily in Tor Bay?"
"I don't know how happily, but yes." The captain took off his hat a moment and combed a hand through his thinning hair--an unconscious gesture. The hat returned to its perch. "It is not widely known," he said quietly, "but they thought he'd slipped off the Bellerophon a few days ago. Did you hear, Darley?"
"Just a rumour. Was he not asleep, after all?"
"Yes. Asleep in his cabin. But Maitland did not quite believe the general's followers, and rather than send someone into the great man's cabin, he had one of the topmen shinny out to the end of the spanker boom to peer in through the stern gallery. Astonishing! It got the Admiralty thinking that Tor Bay was rather an open anchorage and that Bonaparte still had numbers of supporters at large, even in the French navy. They might try to rescue him from seaward."
Some part of the crowd had begun to make their way hurriedly toward the paths leading down to the quayside.
"Or he might slip ashore," Darley said, "and avail himself of English law."
Captain Colgan made a snorting sound--as disgusting as it was disgusted. "What fools we are made of by our own laws! Bonaparte is not an Englishman. He is our enemy, perhaps the greatest enemy we have ever known. Shoot him, say I." He glanced over at Arabella and smiled sheepishly. "Do excuse--" But he did not finish. The general movement down toward the bay suddenly became a rush, the way orderly retreats turned of an instant into routs.
Arabella was suddenly aware of an absence.
"Lucy!" Arabella called. "Lu-cy!" She was jostled just then and grabbed Arthur's arm to balance. Her hat was torn free of her amber curls and thrown up into the sky, lost in an instant among the wind and clouds and forlornly crying gulls.
The boat reeked of fish. The two men who handled it did not smell much better. Arabella sat on a thwart, holding tightly to Lucy, as though she must keep her safe in case of calamity.
"Can you swim, Mrs. M.?" Lucy asked.
"Not a stroke. And you?"
"Less than that." Lucy clung a little more tightly to Arabella's hand, all the same.
"You needn't worry yourself, miss," said the older of the two watermen. "This crabber was built in Sennen Cove by men who knew their business. She'll keep the sea when more tender boats have all run for home. There not be another one like her round these parts, and a great deal of envy she causes as a result."
Arabella couldn't believe that this battered and stinking little boat caused any envy anywhere--not even in Sennen Cove, wherever that was. She looked about the harbour. Boats of every shape and size were putting out into the sound, all drawn in one direction like leaves on a running river. She shifted on the hard plank that made her seat.
Darley's largesse and Arabella's celebrity had secured them a place in a boat, for the demand to be taken out to see the Bellerophon--or rather the prisoner who waited aboard--was enormous, as were the fares being asked. They were loaded in like the fisherman's greatest catch, leaving just enough room for the two watermen to work the oars.
"There are rather a lot of boats setting out, aren't there?" Arabella said, trying not to sound too apprehensive.
"Oh, aye, ma'am. They've been coming here ever since the rumour spread that Bonaparte would be carried to Plymouth." He sat up a little and looked about. "Punts and dredgers and gigs. There be draggers and drivers and luggers. You know that the trade is rich when luggers have gone over to it."
This caught Darley's interest. "And why is that?"
The leather-faced little man looked suddenly down at his hands on the oars. "Well, your grace, their trade is usually found . . . elsewhere."
"They're smugglers, he means," said someone else aboard, and laughed.
"Well, I expect they'll need another trade," another man said, "now that the French ports have opened again."
This caused the waterman to smile. "Oh, I think there'll always be port duties, and governments in need of such revenue. Smugglers will have employment yet."
Darley reached over and patted Lucy on the shoulder. "Don't look so frightened, child," he said warmly. "We might catch a glimpse of the Corsican, if we are lucky. You can tell your grandchildren that!"
Arabella thought Lucy was looking a little pale and at that moment cared not a fig for what she might tell her grandchildren. The ways of adults, Arabella realised, must seem a strange, unfathomable mystery to her.
As the growing fleet made its way out into the greater sound, the waves began to lift the boat, dropping it down heavily into the trough after each green crest passed. The watermen strained at their oars, the tendons in their forearms bulging, their human catch as heavy as any they had known--though far more lucrative! A wave slapped the topsides and sprayed the occupants, scaring Lucy even more. Arabella put an arm about her, but the boat surged and rolled a little, throwing them to one side.
"The breakwater will do away with this slop," the older waterman managed. "I'll be glad when 'tis built."
"Wind's going light," his young partner offered. "Be calm by dark."
But it was not calm at the moment, or dry.
"I wish Mr. Morton were here," Lucy said.
"Yes, wouldn't he love to see this?"
"I'm sure he told me that he could swim," Lucy said, and both Arabella and Darley laughed.
Arabella tried to concentrate on the scene, to paint it into her memory. There were a good number of ships in the harbour: a few large three-deckers like the Bellerophon and many smaller craft--frigates and schooners and sloops, she guessed. There seemed to be a constant coming and going of small craft to the ships, but now even their boatmen forgot their business and slowed to watch.
Arabella could not believe the number of boats that had gathered about the Bellerophon in so short a time. The old warship looked like a great castle rising above the clutter of its dependant village.
As each wave passed, the throng of bobbing vessels seemed to undulate like a rope being snapped ever so slowly, and Arabella could hear them banging and thumping together and the watermen cursing and calling out for room. A pair of navy cutters circled the Bellerophon, trying to enforce a circle of clear water around the ship.
As the hired crabber made its way into the pack of boats, Arabella grabbed the gunwale.
"Oh, don't do that, ma'am!" the waterman said, dropping an oar to reach for her hand. She pulled it in herself. "You could lose a finger should we thump against one of these others."
He took up his oar again, looking anxiously over his shoulder. They came up between two other boats, one larger and the other about the same size as their own. As more and more boats began to crowd around the ship, the smaller boats were forced together where they ground and thudded dully against one another. The watermen were busy trying to keep their sturdy craft from ruin, and Arabella was so unsettled, she barely remembered to look at the ship.
"Tide turned some while ago," the waterman said. "That'll make the difference. Wind against tide's the cause of this."
And then, as though he'd said some magic words, the sea did begin to calm and in the span of half an hour grew almost placid. People began to call out then, impatient, impolite.
After a time, however, a sailor came up from a hatch amidships and held aloft a hand-printed sign. Arabella saw Lucy scan it eagerly--the hunger for words was elemental in her. The sign read:
dining with captain maitland
A murmur of interest and approbation ran through the watchers. After an interval the sailor turned the sign over.
beefsteak. peas. madeira.
Heads nodded amongst the throng, and there were sounds of satisfaction. The sailor lowered his sign, made a brief bow, and went over to the other side to perform the same service for the people there.
"Do French people also drink tea?" Lucy wondered aloud.
"French people with no choice do," Darley answered.
A big lugger arrived from shore with some musicians in it, and they began to strike up, behind and to the left of where Arabella and Lucy's boat lay in the bobbing host. It was a small band, admittedly, and none too tuneful, but a band nonetheless. There was a fife, a fiddle, a cornet, and a snare drum. The players stood in their boat to perform--rather precariously, Arabella thought--and bowed after each of their ragged efforts. They were applauded. Coins were tossed, some of which were fumbled and fell into the sea.
Arabella imagined them drifting slowly down, down, among the fishes, as she would herself if this damnable boat overtipped.
At the end of each piece, all eyes turned to the decks of the Bellerophon, high above. But nothing stirred there. The sailors listened impassively. Then presently the cutter rounded beneath the jib boom, and the officer in the bow started shouting in a high, angry voice, calling for them to draw back, stand away. With a clumsy splashing and thumping of wood on wood, the closest boats attempted to comply but were hemmed in too tightly to move far. The rest of the watermen simply ignored the orders.
"Ho, there!" Someone in the next boat called over to the players. "Here's Mrs. Malibrant, of Drury Lane! Ask her to sing a song."
There was a general murmur in the nearby boats, heads turning, people shifting so that boats rolled precariously. There was even a bit of clapping, and the musicians swivelled in their own boat, and in Arabella's direction. Along the Bellerophon's rail the sailors also languidly turned to look.
Inwardly, Arabella sighed, but she knew that the celebrated Mrs. Malibrant had not achieved her eminence by playing too coy. She gave her most brilliant smile and acknowledged her public with a small regal wave of one gloved hand. Voices began importuning her now from many quarters.
"An air, ma'am!"
"A song, Mrs. M.! He'll not be able to resist you!"
Arabella glanced down at Darley and made a face as if to say, Do you see? My fame pursues me even here.
"Give him a tune of the sort he'll like!" a young man suggested, which struck Arabella.
She let the demands mount just to the point she judged they might begin to falter and then, at that peak, put her shawl aside with a decisive movement and rose in her place. Cheers burst out from all sides, then settled quickly in expectation.
She did not immediately begin to sing, however. She arranged her pose with care, one foot forward in the bottom of the boat: an imposing figure, all in white silks. She raised one arm slightly in a dramatic gesture, though not too dramatic. The musicians likewise lifted their instruments, leaning forward in anticipation. She did not tell them what she would sing, not wanting to spoil the effect.
The famous melody announced itself, her rich, carrying contralto suddenly rising over the hushed audience.
"Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrive!"
"La Marseillaise!" someone realised.
"This is England!" a solitary voice shouted. "We'll not have their bloody anthem here!" But this voice of passion was ignored.
The ragtag band took up the tune uncertainly, and she waved her hand to encourage them and give them the proper beat.
"Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras!
Egorger vos fils, vos compagnes!"
Arabella cast back in her memory for an English translation, and her voice rose in stirring fashion for the chorus.
"Citizens! To arms!
March on, march on!
Let their impure blood
Nourish our sacred ground!"
Whether it was the undeniable power of her performance or some other reason, now suddenly there was a flurry of activity high up on deck of the man-of-war. Then the sailors fore and aft all at once began taking their hats off.
"He's coming up! That means he's coming up!" cried a voice from one of the boats.
Arabella Malibrant turned toward the ship, even as she continued to sing. She lowered her arm and let her voice subside a little into the thumping of the band. There were times, after all, when one allowed oneself to be upstaged. Lucy, too, rose to stand on the thwart beside her. All around people were getting to their feet, craning their heads and shading their eyes against the afternoon sun, while some of the boats started making convulsive efforts to get closer, causing the whole mass to buckle and heave.
Excerpted from The Emperor's Assassin by T.F. Banks. Copyright © 2003 by T.F. Banks. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.