Wilder Perkins: Hoare and the Portsmouth Atrocities

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Wilder Perkins Hoare and the Portsmouth Atrocities
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    Hoare and the Portsmouth Atrocities
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    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
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    Английский
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"To whom am I indebted, may I ask?"

Even standing erect, she had to tilt her head back to look up into Hoare's faded gray eyes, for she could have been little more than five feet tall. Her figure was sturdy, if not plump; she reminded Hoare of an assertive partridge. Her piercing eyes were brown. There were a few gray streaks in her coarse brown windblown hair.

Hoare reached into an inner pocket of his coat and drew out several pieces of paper. Selecting one, he handed it to the brown woman with an apologetic look and a bow. She read it just loudly enough to be heard over the soft, pulsating rumble of surf.

" 'Permit me to present myself: Bartholomew Hoare, Lieutenant, Royal Navy. My deepest respects. That I am not speaking to you is not a matter of intentional discourtesy but is due to my inability to speak above a whisper.' "

Unlike many strangers, the brown woman did not now assume that because Hoare was all but dumb he must be deaf to boot, for her next words were neither shouted nor spoken with the exaggerated care the unthinking use with infants and other incompetent persons who cannot talk back.

"I am Eleanor Graves, sir, wife of Dr. Simon Graves of Weymouth. I know he will add his thanks to mine for coming to my defense against this cowardly attack."

One of the bound bodies on the shingle, the man she had struck in the nose, had already struggled to a sitting posture. He was hunched over as far as his bonds permitted, dripping scarlet steadily onto the shingle between his leather breeches.

From Mrs. Graves's behavior, she and Hoare might have been meeting at a Bath cotillion instead of over their two victims on a cold, wet September beach.

"Now, sir, what shall we do with these rogues?" she asked.

For his answer, Hoare pulled out a set of wax tablets, of the kind the ancient Romans used, and wrote: "My boat-to Weymouth?"

"Excellent," she said. So, between the two of them, they dragged their cocooned captives across the shingle to Inconceivable, attached them to a handy-billy, and hoisted them aboard. They heaped the rogues out of the way but within sight, just aft of her companionway.

Hoare subjected the two men to a quick search. Other than a miscellany of miserable personal effects, seaman's sheath knives, two mason's hammers, and three guineas a man, Hoare found only the cudgels and a length of tough, thin line. He tossed the cudgels over the side, sequestered the hammers, the knives, and their sheaths, and appropriated the line for Inconceivable's small stores. He handed the guineas to Mrs. Graves.

Without any apparent concern about soaking her skirts, Mrs. Graves helped Hoare heave the pinnacle off the beach. She then took the hand he reached down to her, sprang aboard, and got out of his way. He trimmed the flapping sails, returned the tiller to its straps, and set a course alongshore toward Weymouth. It was not far.

His passenger sat silent in the tiny cockpit, facing him. Hoare realized she understood the futility of trying to converse with a stranger when she could not hear his replies. Unlike the few other women he knew, she seemed comfortable enough without speech passing. But as Inconceivable drew into the dock behind Weymouth's breakwater, she spoke.

"Do you know this harbor, Mr. Hoare?"

The town and the slopes behind it gave enough of a lee so that Hoare thought he could make himself heard. He cocked his head and shrugged. "Yes, but not well," he whispered. "I'll welcome local knowledge."

"If you do not choose to continue your voyage tonight- and I hope you will not-you may wish to rest at the Dish of Sprats. Over there to the left of where you are aiming now, this side of St. Ninian's Church. That's the steeple you can see."

Mrs. Graves might not know her nautical terms-she said "left" like a landsman, not "port" like a seaman-but her directions were clear all the same, and Hoare eased his helm to suit.

"Will you hold the tiller for a moment while I take off sail?" he whispered.

She heard the whisper. She hesitated for a moment, then grasped the tiller ahead of his hand, lightly at first, then with increasing assurance.

"So, so," he said. He stepped forward around the captives' surly bodies and dropped Inconceivable's jib onto its club, lashing it in place with its own sheet. He uncleated her main halliard and brought it aft with him to the helm.

"I'll take her now, ma'am," he said. "I'll be dropping the mainsail in a heap, so you should edge over to the rail."

Hoare thrust the tiller smoothly to starboard. As Inconceivable luffed up, he waited until she had just enough way left to make the harbor's sloping shore and let her tall mainsail go with a run to drop on top of the prisoners, together with the boom. He left them there for now, one muttering in a dazed voice. The little yacht's keel grated on the shingle once again, and she came to rest, listing slightly to starboard, while Hoare gave the mainsail its own rough furl and propped it in a pair of jeers.

He locked the cabin hatch and hopped ashore to offer Mrs. Graves a hand down. She took it-more out of courtesy than of necessity, Hoare thought-and leaped nimbly down in her soggy skirts to stand behind him, looking back at Inconceivable.

"We might turn our captives over to the port guard?" she said, half-inquiringly.

"Or the Chief Constable," Hoare suggested. "Whichever is less likely to be their drinking companion." While not actually acquainted with Weymouth's guardians of the law, he knew that all along Britain's beleaguered south coast the lawman and the unlawful were often as close as a virgin's thighs.

Mrs. Graves's laugh was an odd throaty gurgle. "Of course. Sir Thomas Frobisher, then. It would be… what, three o'clock?"

Hoare nodded.

"Then he will be at the Town's Club-as will Dr. Graves, in all likelihood. Come."

She took Hoare's arm and directed him to a building facing the new esplanade below St. Ninian's. It was a large house, which Hoare thought could have belonged to a leading merchant of the town.

"The Club's house once belonged to a prominent merchant of the town," she said as if reading his thoughts. "But he fell on hard times, and a cabal of other leading citizens clubbed together to buy it and make it their meeting place. To be away from their wives, you know."

Hoare laughed. The breathy little noise, according to the waspish wife of a fellow officer, sounded for all the world like an angry butterfly.

The pale, leathery steward of the Town's Club must have seen Mrs. Graves coming, for he opened the massive door himself.

"Why, Mrs. Graves!" he cried. "You must have gone wading in the sea-and in this wet weather, too! Come in to the fire in the Strangers' Room, and make yourself comfortable while I call Dr. Graves!" He bustled ahead of the brown woman and Hoare, stirred up the sea-coal fire in the grate, and was about to leave them to toast in front of it when Mrs. Graves called after him to ask if Sir Thomas was in the house. He was.

"Ask him, Smith, if he would be so kind… And perhaps, too, you would send a man to Dr. Graves' home for my maid. He should tell her to bring my olive twill gown and a cape to me here at the Club."

The fire's growing warmth was welcome.

Mrs. Graves looked up at Hoare. "If you were not present, sir, I would be hoisting these poor skirts to warm my person directly."

"If you wish, ma'am, I shall be happy to withdraw and leave you to your privacy."

"I wish no such thing," she said. "That would be poor return indeed for your services."

"What, ma'am, may I ask, took you to the beach under Portland Bill?" Hoare whispered.

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