Sharpe frowned. ‘But Lawford promised ...’
‘Lawford promised nothing!’ She said it sharply. ‘He’s a politician, Major. He’d like to give you what you want, but not at his own expense.’
‘How do you know all this?’ Sharpe was astonished by her. He presumed she was like the Marquesa; a subtle, pretty woman fascinated by the ways of power.
Lady Camoynes leaned back in her uncomfortable iron chair. Behind her, in the restaurant, a string quartet played. She stared at the Rifleman, and she resented the fact that he was so handsome and so base-born. ‘I just know.’
She would not reply. She wanted to tell him, because she liked him, but the truth was too hurtful. The truth had given her hatred, a hatred that had brought her here.
She would have liked to tell this Rifleman about the monstrous debt her husband’s death had left owing to Lord Fenner, a debt she paid in Fenner’s bed, a debt of humiliation. She had listened this night at the library door, listened shamelessly, for she was a woman who knew that all knowledge is power. She would hurt Lord Fenner if she could, and if to hurt him she must keep from Sharpe the knowledge that he was to be offered promotion and a Battalion of Green Jackets, then she would do it. She would destroy Fenner, and with him the debt, so that her small son, who had inherited the Earldom of Camoynes, would not inherit the great debt too.
She would have liked to tell Sharpe all this, but her habits of secrecy were too strong and her fear of his pity too great, so instead she stared defiantly at him. ‘I know it all, Major. I know about Foulness, about Sir Henry, about Girdfilth or whatever he’s called. I met him once, grovelling in Fenner’s house. He’s going to marry Simmerson’s niece, which seems very suitable. She can’t be much of a catch, though I suppose she’ll inherit his money.’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘Have I said something?’
‘No, Ma’am.‘ Sharpe had blushed at the mention of Jane. He stared at the table top. ’No.‘
She still looked curiously at him, then shrugged. ‘Let us just say, Major, that I am here because I wish to destroy Lord Fenner. I want him clawed into little fragments and you, alley cat, can do it for me.’
‘How?’ He was thinking of Jane Gibbons and her soft, lively beauty bedded with Girdwood.
She gestured at the champagne and he poured more into her glass. He had hardly touched his own. She smiled. ‘You want your men?’
‘I want the auctions stopped. I want Girdwood punished.’
‘Then I’ll do it for you. With pleasure. But you have to bring me one thing, Major, and soon.’ He looked at her, saying nothing, and her green eyes stared into his. ‘There must be proof, Major. Accounts, letters, anything on paper. Bring them to me.’
He was about to say that he did not know where to find them, but the words sounded feeble in his head so he checked them. Lawford had also wanted proof, yet now Lord Fenner was alerted and doubtless would be taking precautions against the discovery of any such proof.
She leaned closer to him. To the people who walked past the small embowered restaurant garden it seemed as if they were a pair of handsome lovers; an officer and his lady. ‘I will promise you, Major, that I will give you what you want.’
‘I don’t even know who you are.’
‘I’m called Lady Camoynes. The Dowager Countess Camoynes.’ She seemed to offer the name as a token of her trustworthiness. ‘Bring me that proof, and you can ask for anything you want of the Horse Guards. They’ll give you an army to keep you quiet. You want a Rifle Battalion of your own? They’ll give it to you.’
He smiled at the thought. ‘Where do I find you?’
‘You don’t. Take the proof to the Rose. I’ll send a servant every day to see if you have it.’
He would have to go back to Foulness, and swiftly. If proof existed, it was there. He shrugged. ‘You know about it, I do, isn’t our word enough?’
She closed her eyes as if in exasperation. ‘I am a woman, and you’re no one, alley-cat, no one.’ She opened her eyes. ‘They are politicians and men of standing.’ She said it mockingly. ‘Whom will they believe?’
‘Won’t they already have destroyed the proof?’
‘Not yet. Lord Fenner will do nothing until he’s met Sir William again. You have one day, when they think you’re doing nothing. After tomorrow night?’ She shrugged. ‘They’ll destroy the proof, Major, and in three days time there’ll be no men at Foulness. They’ll march them away, they’ll scatter them in a hundred depots and garrisons! It will never have happened, and if you claim that it did they’ll call you a fool and strip your commission away.’
She leaned back and sipped her champagne. Sharpe said nothing. He had thought it would all be so simple, that he would reveal what he had discovered and that an outraged army would thank him, give him what he wanted, and then, before going back in triumph to Spain, he would visit the big brick house on the marshes and demand to see Jane Gibbons. Instead, everything he had discovered would be hidden and denied, and he would be treated as an embarrassment and a fool.
She finished her champagne, stood up and the waiter scuttled through the tables as she laced the mask back onto her face. Sharpe paid the man and followed Lady Camoynes back into the Gardens.
She walked towards the central pavilion, stalking, imperious and beautiful, in the centre of one of the walkways. ‘You will have to do what is necessary swiftly, Major.’
‘Indeed, my Lady.’
‘You’ll leave tonight?’
‘In the morning.’ He was planning already, knowing that he must remove more than just paperwork from Foulness.
‘Good.’ She steered him by the arm towards a dark gap in the box hedges. ‘These are not pleasure gardens for nothing, alley-cat, and tonight, for reasons that are none of your business, I need a real man. Find us somewhere private.’
He smiled, and led her into the tangle of box where, long ago, he had learned his earliest lessons of fieldcraft. Tonight he would lie with her beneath the leaves, and in the morning, as a full Major of His Britannic Majesty’s army, he would return to Foulness. He had thought, by escaping over the marshes, that his task had been completed, but this woman, who clawed at him and loved him as though this was her last night on earth, had told him that the fight had just begun.
‘Property of a widow, sir.’ The owner of the livery stables wiped his palms on his leather apron, spat tobacco juice at a cat that sunned itself on his cobbles, then ran a hand along the springs of the carriage. ‘I grant you it ain’t clean, Major, but in very nice trim! New axles! New splinter-bar I put on myself. Take you anywhere!’ He slapped one of the iron-rimmed wheels. ‘Tell you the truth, Major, I was thinking of using it for myself.’
‘I need it for a week.’
‘And groom and driver.’
The owner, a portly, bald man with knowing eyes, looked again at Sharpe’s new uniform, as if gauging what it cost, then shook his head as though what he was about to say pained him greatly. ‘Of course I can give you a special price, Major, always like to help the military, I do, but it ain’t cheap! I mean hiring a four-horse carriage, Major? It ain’t a sedan chair!’
‘And horses! You’ll have to change, of course, or are you staying in town?’
‘We’ll be changing horses.’
‘There’s the return fee on them, deposit on the vehicle, on the horses, then there’s their feed, wages of the men if I can find a couple for you, their feed, hire of the carriage, deposit on the harness. Adds up, Major.’
‘Drivers need to sleep somewhere, Major.’ He was eyeing Sharpe’s weapons, wondering how much he dared ask. ‘You ain’t going abroad, Major? Just my little joke, sir.’ He sniffed. ‘Still, seeing as you’re the army and as how our lads are beating Boneypart, Major, I think I can do it for thirty guineas, plus the deposit and return fees, of course. All payable today, Major. Cash.’
The stable owner stared at Sharpe in amazement, then gave a short laugh to demonstrate that the soldier must have misheard. ‘This is a quality vehicle, Major! It’s not your tradesman’s cart! There’s nobility who’d like this one, Major!’
They settled on twenty-five guineas, which still gave Sharpe the disquieting sense that he had been cheated, and he was forced to leave a bond for a further two hundred guineas against the loss of the carriage, then he was forced to wait while the owner found a coachman and a groom who were willing to be hired for the week. Travelling by carriage was far faster than by saddle horse, which was one reason Sharpe had chosen to hire a vehicle, the other being that he could use it to remove the mounds of paperwork he expected to find at Foulness, but as he waited for the problems to be solved there were moments when he thought he would have preferred to walk. d‘Alembord, Price, and Harper, on the other hand, were in high spirits because of what the day promised.
Sergeant Harper, delighted to be back in uniform, was equally delighted with the carriage. He had never travelled in one before, and he stared fixedly through the window for the sheer pleasure of watching a landscape beyond glass. ‘This is grand, sir! This is just grand!’
‘Cost me a bloody ear-ring.’
‘You’ll just have to marry a one-eared woman, eh?’
Lieutenant Price groaned. ‘I forgot your Irish wit, Sergeant.’
Sharpe had told all three that they need not come with him, and all three, as he had hoped, had refused to abandon him. d‘Alembord, sitting opposite Sharpe, looked out at the dull marshes over which the road led, level and monotonous, towards West Ham. ’You think Lord Fenner’s already sent a message to this Girdwood?‘
‘Maybe.’ But if the Lady Camoynes was right, then Sharpe had this one day at least. She had been licking his face, spreading the blood over his skin from the wounds that she had re-opened with her teeth. ‘They think you’re asleep, alley-cat. So don’t wait. Don’t talk to Lawford. Just go.’ Sharpe had obeyed her, driven into precipitate action by her assurance that Sir William Lawford, by going to Fenner, would betray the men at Pasajes.
They changed horses at Stifford, and again at Hadleigh, and the driver and groom, both promised a bounty by Sharpe if they completed the journey before sundown, worked fast. At Hadleigh, their last stop, where the old castle stood above the Thames estuary, Sharpe bought saddle horses. He had been that morning to St Alban’s Street to find, to his pleasure, that the first money from the sale of the diamonds had arrived, then, to make his plans possible, he had withdrawn a great draft of the cash. This week, he knew, the money he had stolen from the French would be put to work for the British.
They were close now. Sharpe, as the ostler backed the fresh horses into the harness, called Harper and the two officers to his side. ‘Remember why we’re here. We need their record books, and we have to take the men away from Foulness so Fenner can’t hide them again. That’s all. We’re not going to punish anyone.’ They nodded. It was the twentieth time he had told them, but he was nervous. He planned to find the proof which he was sure existed, proof that he could send to the green-eyed lady who wanted her vengeance on Fenner, then he would march the men to Chelmsford and there formally enlist them into the First Battalion and protect them while the proof worked its magic in London. ‘Remember. We’re not punishing anyone.’
‘I’m still looking forward to it.’ Harper laughed. ‘By God, I am!’
Sharpe smiled. ‘There is a vengeful streak in you, Sergeant Harper.’
‘By God, sir, and you’re right.’ Harper grinned, and they went on to Foulness.
At six o‘clock, as always, Lieutenant Colonel Bartholomew Girdwood sat in his office and wrote, in his small, neat hand, the progress reports of his Companies. ’Number four’s ready for musket training?‘
‘Yes, sir.’ Captain Smith sat stiffly in front of the desk.
‘Good, good!’ Girdwood made a mark on his chart. From the parade ground came the bellow of orders. He tapped his newly-tarred moustache with the shaft of his pen, making a sharp, rapping noise. ‘How many men did Havercamp bring today?’
Girdwood grunted. ‘Getting near harvest. Always a bad time. Is he leaving tomorrow?’
‘Issue him with funds.’ He frowned. ‘Is that a coach?’
‘Sounds like it, sir.“
Lieutenant Colonel Girdwood presumed Sir Henry had come, as he often did of an early evening, to inspect the camp. He would find nothing amiss, except, of course, the burned-out stables. The memory of the fire, and the thought of the two deserters, hurt him. One of them, the Irishman, had dared to fire at him! ‘I suppose it would be expecting too much to have any news from the militia?’
‘Nothing as yet, sir.’
‘My God! Real soldiers would have found those bastards days ago. They’ve gone, Smith!’ Girdwood shook his head sadly. ‘We won’t see them again!’
Hooves sounded outside. The noise, coupled with the jangling of the coach’s trace chains, remined Girdwood that Sir Henry was planning to stay in London until after the Prince Regent’s victory parade, and he glanced stiffly towards the door. ‘See who it is, Smith.’ No one, in Girdwood’s view, had any business coming here, no one. The vicar of Great Wakering had arrived once, having talked his way past the bridge guard to offer spiritual solace to the camp, but Girdwood had ordered the man away and told him never to come back. He wondered if this was the vicar returning and he shouted through the open door after the Captain. ‘And see the filth off, Smith! Smartly!’
‘Sir!’ The shout was a despairing one, cut off almost as soon as it was begun, then the door was snatched open and Girdwood, gripping the table’s edge, saw a tall man silhouetted in the doorway. Instantly a pang of guilt stabbed through him, for the man wore uniform and a sword, and the moment that Girdwood had feared despite all Sir Henry’s reassurances seemed to have come. An officer had come to arrest him!