ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

A Death in Sheffield

Chapter 25

 

They spent the next several hours riding hard—splashing through rivers and then scrambling along shale outcroppings to obscure their tracks, as the countryside became more mountainous.

Judging from the rigid set of his shoulders, Droughm continued angry with her, and so Artemis did her penance, and kept up as best she could without complaint. Unfortunately, her muscles were stiff from all the unaccustomed riding yesterday, but—since she’d rather fall off the horse than ask for mercy—she bit her lip, and endured.  

Finally, Droughm pulled up near a stream to allow the horses to drink, and reviewed his map with his newly-acquired spectacles.  He made no comment to her, which she found harder to bear than the physical discomfort.   “Forgive me, Pen,” she begged, a thread of anxiety in her voice.

Removing his glasses, he contemplated her for a moment. “I will admit my first thought was that it was you who was playacting—pretending an interest to beguile me.  But the episode with Torville certainly wasn’t playacting. For that matter, neither was that maidenhead of yours.”

That he was making light of this miserable disaster was such a relief that she began to cry, holding her hand up to cover her eyes, and finding that she was unable to stop, even when he dismounted to pull her down into his arms.  He rested his cheek against the top of her head whilst she sobbed into his chest, feeling young, and foolish, and overwhelmed.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked softly, tightening his arms around her. “Did you think I would betray the man who stood as a father to you?”   

“I—I didn’t want anyone to know,” she whispered, trying to catch her breath in ragged gasps. “It was so—so ghastly. I was tempted to throw them down a well.” Like an anguished child, she began to cry again, so that she could barely get the words out, clutching his coat in both her fists. “He—he must have been a party to it—”

“No—I’ll not believe it,” he soothed in a steady voice. “He could not have known what was afoot.  I imagine he was only looking to make some extra pocket money.”

“All his men—” she choked, “—all his men who died for England—”

“That is why it is unimaginable that he knew.”

“Treason,” she whispered, and made a mighty effort to control herself. Counterfeiting the coin of the realm was a hanging offense, and whilst Droughm was making an admirable attempt to play it down—which she appreciated—they both knew it was very unlikely there was an innocent explanation.

His lips found her temple. “My poor Artemis. What on earth did he tell you?”

Drawing a shuddering breath, she said, “He asked me to deliver them to Uncle Thaddeus, but to let no one know I had them, for fear thieves would try to wrest them. But I seemed a very inappropriate messenger, if they were indeed the official plates. I think I suspected from the start that they were not.”

She could feel him take a breath as he thought it over. “Where did he come across them?”

“I don’t know—I didn’t even know he had them, until the day he gave them to me to hide. I think he said they were made on the Continent, because no one in England could do the work.”

“Gerard,” guessed Droughm.  “One of Napoleon’s counterfeiters.”  

“The Colonel had gambling debts.” In misery, she rubbed her face against his coat front.  “I couldn’t bear to think about it, so I hid them in the doll and pretended they were not there.”

“You need to eat something,” he said abruptly. “You haven’t eaten today.  Sit over there, and I’ll fetch the food.”

Wiping her cheeks with her palms, she walked on stiff legs to sit on a large rock by the side of the rushing stream, wondering what he would do, and feeling relieved, all in all, that he would be the one to decide—that the terrible burden was no longer hers to carry. The Fourth Terrible Thing, she thought; and definitely worse than the other three—although having to murder a madman certainly came in a close second.

He fetched their cold meal from the saddlebags, and sat beside her in silence as they ate.  When he offered her the skin of water, she lifted it high and drank, as she’d done countless times before.  The familiar action fortified her, reminding her of all that she had lived through—and of the generous, larger-than-life man who had seen to it.   I must do my best to resolve this—somehow—without bringing disgrace upon him, she thought; it is the least I can do.

Hard on this thought Droughm said, “You will not mention this to anyone, Artemis, and   I will make every effort to ensure no one knows of the Colonel’s role.”

“I think the Investigator already suspects,” she admitted. “He asked about any weaknesses the Colonel may have had.”

With a grimace, Droughm conceded, “There is little he does not know, I’m afraid.”

“Does he know about Wentworth, and Miss Valdez?”

“Almost certainly.” 

“I am not certain that I know about Wentworth and Miss Valdez,” she ventured.

“She seduced him, because he holds a position at the Treasury,” he replied in his blunt way.

Surprised, Artemis brought to mind the earnest young man at the Museum, and had trouble picturing it. “Wentworth is involved in the counterfeiting?”

“Yes—they needed someone on the inside.  The Treasury would necessarily make inspections at the refining sites, and someone had to report back that all was well.”

“ʽThey’ being the French?”

He nodded. “Yes.”

But she was having a hard time sorting out the particulars of the scheme, and knit her brow. “So—counterfeit silver coins are being minted? What has this to do with tin, and why would the French take an interest in the first place?”

“It is much worse than mere counterfeiting, I’m afraid.” He brushed off his breeches and—after considering a moment—apparently decided to tell her. “The false coins were minted in tin, with only a thin veneer of silver, to disguise this fact.  The bulk of the silver was quietly being sent to Napoleon’s supporters, to finance the next war.”

Artemis stared at him in horror for a few seconds, before disclaiming in a stammering voice, “Pen—oh my God, Pen—there is no chance that the Colonel knew of this.”

“No,” he agreed. “But it does not look well.”

This seemed an enormous understatement, and Artemis tried to comprehend the sheer audacity of such a scheme. “The French were arranging for English silver to finance Napoleon’s next war—to conquer England.”

“There can be no war without the funding for it,” he concurred grimly, “And France is out of money.”

And it also meant that Droughm’s scandal was every bit as hideous as her own—if his heir was involved in this treasonous plot.  She asked in amazement, “Wentworth knew all of this, and didn’t care? How could this be?”

Droughm ducked his chin and made a sound of impatience. “Miss Valdez fed him some tale at first, and he was so enthralled that such a woman sought his bed that he ignored the obvious, and then he was too ashamed to confess it to me.  Instead, he made an attempt to set it to rights—which only made it much worse.”

Artemis thought about it, watching the water sluice through the rocks in the stream. “He was coerced to kill someone?”

Droughm nodded. “Yes. It was a trap, of course—he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, thinking that he saved his sweetheart from disgrace, and—as an added measure—saved the Crown from counterfeiters.  But in truth, he killed an innocent man.”

“How—how despicable,” exclaimed Artemis with some heat.  “Give me honest warfare any day.”  

He glanced at her, and she belatedly recalled that he was in the same dishonest business, and so perhaps she should temper her comments on the subject. “How did you uncover this plot, if Wentworth was too ashamed to confess to you?”

“His manservant wrote to me.”

“Thank God for the servants,” she declared fervently. “They have served us well in this particular skirmish.”

He nodded in agreement. “I was in Algiers, so there was a delay before I could make an appearance, and by that time the idiotic boy practically fell on my neck with relief.  He confessed, and told me—with all sincerity, the fool—that she was pregnant, and so he had no recourse but to marry her.”

“They thought to stymie you,” Artemis observed with grudging admiration. “It was masterful, truly.”

“No one stymies me,” Droughm declared.

“I did,” teased Artemis.

“Except you,” he agreed, his gaze warm upon hers. “You are the exception to my every rule.”  He took her hand and held it in his lap, as they watched the water for a few moments.  “Did Uncle Thaddeus ask for the plates?”

“Almost immediately, upon my arrival.  He asked if the Colonel had sent along a packet for him, and so I told him my kit had been stolen whilst I was waiting for the posting coach at the docks.”

His brows drawn together, Droughm interrupted in a sharp tone, “You traveled from San Pablo to Sheffield all alone?”

Artemis laughed at him. “My kit truly wasn’t truly stolen, Pen—I made that up.” She explained as though to a child, “You can’t think I’d allow someone to steal something from me.”

But he put his head in his hands. “You have been ill-served, Artemis—what was the Colonel thinking, to allow you to travel such a distance alone?”

She shrugged.  “The Colonel was already dead.  And Uncle Thaddeus would not pay for a private coach.”

He lifted his head from his hands. “Go on.”

“After I told Uncle Thaddeus, then I had to explain to the Chief Constable of Sheffield that my kit had been stolen.  He was very unhappy about it.” Artemis paused, and added with some significance, “It seemed a little strange that he took such an interest.”

“The devil,” said Droughm slowly. “You think he was involved?”

“I would not be surprised—I suppose it is the same situation as with Wentworth; the French needed to make certain the local authorities would not be poking about, noticing anything untoward.”  She paused again. “Not to mention that the Constable saw himself in the light of a suitor—he brought me flowers, once; it was very unlike him.”

Droughm could no longer contain himself, and rose to his feet to stride back and forth in agitation. “The bloody bastard. Did he offer you insult?”

She eyed him, gauging his temper.  “No—he is what the soldiers would have called a dry stick.” She did not betray that she knew very well the “stick” to which the soldiers referred. “He was older and unmarried—spinsterish, I suppose you would say.”

“He had an eye on the mines, then?”

“I would guess—although mine uncle quarreled with him; he didn’t like to think of anyone else having an eye on his mines.”

Frowning, Droughm asked, “What is the Constable’s name?”

“Mr. Easterby.  He was very unhappy when the Stanhopes came to fetch me, but I couldn’t very well stay at my uncle’s house alone, and so he was forced to let me go.”  With an air of resignation, she asked, “Do you wish to hear of mine uncle’s untimely death?”

“Save it,” he said abruptly. “We must press on, and I fear I will do violence to someone, if I hear any more of this tale of yours.”

As she stood and brushed off her skirts, she offered with quiet sincerity, “I am truly sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, Pen.”

With a soft, strangled sound, he stopped his pacing long enough to face her. “Small wonder—what a cast of characters you’ve been saddled with, Artemis; it is nothing short of amazing you didn’t flee back to the Continent, and take your chances there.”

“I would never have met you, then.” A powerful wave of emotion rose up within her, and she struggled to put it into words. “I don’t think I’ve told you how very happy—how wonderful it is—” she was perilously close to tears again.

He laid a hand alongside her face and said quietly, “I know—I feel the same.” 

She leaned into his hand, emotionally spent; she was not one who easily confided in another, and could not be comfortable making herself so vulnerable. As though sensing this, he drew her into his arms, holding her so that she could recover her equilibrium. “We’ll head for Kendal, and stay in a farmhouse tonight—I am wary, after having been so easily traced last night.  If we stay at a private home, it will make it all the more difficult to track us.”

Raising her face to his, she offered, “You know, Pen; we can always sleep in a haystack—it’s rather comfortable, actually. And I could snare a rabbit, if you have any string.”

“You are the greatest and best thing that has ever happened to me,” he pronounced as he replaced her bonnet on her head. “Are there any more revelations to come?”

“No—except for mine uncle’s death, that is all of them.”

“Then up you go.” He kissed her so that she was assured she was forgiven, and helped her mount.