Speaks The Nightbird Chapter Forty Four

aS SOON aS MaTTHEW KNOCKED on the study's door, Bid-well said, ’’Come in!’’

Matthew opened the door and saw Bidwell seated at his massive mahogany desk, with Winston sitting in a chair before it. The window's shutters were open, allowing in the warm breeze and early afternoon sun. ’’Mrs. Nettles told me you wanted to see me.’’

’’Exactly. Come in, please! Draw up a chair.’’ He motioned toward another that was in the room. Matthew sat down, not failing to notice the empty space on the wall where the map of the Florida country had been displayed.

’’We are taking account of things. Edward and I, ’’ Bidwell said. He was dressed in a cardinal-red suit with a ruffled shirt, but he had fotgone the wearing of his lavish wigs. On the desktop was a rectangular wooden box about nine inches long and seven inches wide. ’’I've been trying to locate you. Were you out for a walki’’

’’Yes. Just walking and thinking.’’

’’Well, it's a pleasant day for such.’’ Bidwell folded his hands before him and regarded Matthew with an expression of genuine concern. ’’are you all righti’’

’’I am. Or... I shall be presently.’’

’’Good. You're a young man, strong and fit. and I have to say, you have the most determined constitution of any man I've ever met. How are your injuriesi’’

’’My ribs still ache, but I can endure it. My arm is... deceased, I think. Dr. Shields says I may regain some feeling in it, but the outlook is uncertain.’’ Matthew shrugged one shoulder. ’’He says he knows a doctor in New York who is doing amazing things for damaged limbs with a new surgical technique, so... who can sayi’’

’’Yes, I hear those New York doctors are quite... um... radical. and they charge wholly radical prices, as well. What of your head woundi’’

Matthew touched the fresh dressing Shields had applied just that morning. In the course of treatment, the doctor had been appalled at the Indians'method of tobacco-leaf and herb-potion healing, but also intrigued by the positive progress. ’’My scar, unfortunately, will be a subject of discussion for the rest of my life.’’

’’That may be so.’’ Bidwell leaned back in his chair. ’’ah, but women love a dashing scar! and I daresay so will the grandchildren.’’

Matthew had to give a guarded smile at this flattery. ’’You leap ahead more years than I care to lose.’’

’’Speaking of your years ahead, ’’ Winston said, ’’what are your immediate plansi’’

’’I haven't given them much thought, ’’ Matthew had to admit. ’’Other than returning to Charles Town. The magistrate gave me the name of a colleague in Manhattan, and said I would find a position with him, but... I really haven't decided.’’

Bidwell nodded. ’’That's understandable, with so much on your mind. Tell me: do you approve of where I placed Isaac's gravei’’

’’I do, sir. as a matter of fact, I just came from there. It's a very lovely, shaded spot.’’

’’Good. and you don't think he would mind that he... uh... sleeps apart from the others in the cemeteryi’’

’’Not at all. He always enjoyed his privacy.’’

’’I shall endeavor, at some point in the future, to erect a picket fence around it and a suitable marker for his excellent service to Fount Royal.’’

Matthew was taken aback. ’’Wait, ’’ he said. ’’You mean... you're staying herei’’

’’I am. Winston will be returning to England, to work in the offices there, and I'll be going back and forth as the situation warrants, but I plan on reviving Fount Royal and making it just as grand - no, thrice as grand - as ever I'd planned before.’’

’’But... the town is dead. There's hardly twenty people here!’’

’’Twenty citizens!’’ Bidwell thumped the desktop, his eyes bright with renewed purpose. ’’Then it's not dead, is iti’’

’’Perhaps not in fact, but it seems to me that - ’’

’’If not in fact, then not at all!’’ Bidwell interrupted, displaying some of his old brusque self. He was aware of his slippage, and so immediately sought to soothe the friction burns. ’’What I mean is, I will not give up on Fount Royal. Not when I have invested so heavily in the venture, and particularly as I still fervently believe a southernmost naval station is not only practical, but essential for the future of these colonies.’’

’’How will you go about reviving the town, theni’’

’’The same as I originally began it. With having advertising placards placed in Charles Town and other cities up the seaboard. I shall also advertise in London. and I am getting to it sooner than later, as I understand I will be having competition from my own family!’’

’’Competitioni How soi’’ Matthew asked.

’’My youngest sister! Who was sick all the time, and for whom I bought medicine!’’ Bidwell scowled. ’’When Winston and I went to Charles Town to find the maskers, we also looked in on the supply situation at the harbor. Come to find out there was a whole load of supplies there those dogs had hidden from me! Luckily, Mr. Winston convinced a watchman to unlock a certain door - and imagine how I near fell to the ground to see all those crates with my name on them! anyway, we also procured a packet of mail.’’ He made a queasy face. ’’Tell him, Edward! I can't bear to think of it!’’

’’Mr. Bidwell's sister married a land speculator, ’’ Winston said. ’’In the letter she wrote, she indicated he has purchased a sizeable amount of territory between here and the Florida country, and has hopes to begin a port settlement of his own.’’

’’You don't say!’’ Matthew said.

’’Yes, it's damnably true!’’ Bidwell started to hammer his fist on the desk, and then decided it was not proper for his new age of enlightment. ’’It'll never work, of course. That swampland down there makes ours look like a manicured showpark. and do you really think the Spanish are just going to sit still and let a half-pint, weasly milksop of a land speculator threaten their Florida countryi No! He has no business sense! I told Savannah when she married that man she'd weep a tear for every pearl on her dress!’’ He stabbed a finger in the air like a rapier's thrust. ’’Mark my words, she'll regret such a folly as she's about to enter into!’’

’’Uh... shall I get you something to drinki’’ Winston asked. ’’To calm your nervesi’’ To Matthew, he confided, ’’Mr. Bidwell's sister never fails. To antagonize, I mean.’’

’’No, no! I'm all right. Just let me get my breath. Oh, my heart gallops like a wild horse.’’ Bidwell spent a moment in an exercise of slow and steady deep breathing, and gradually the red whorls that had surfaced on his cheeks faded away. ’’The point of my asking you here, Matthew, ’’ he said, ’’is to offer you a position with my company.’’

Matthew didn't respond;in truth, he was too shocked to speak.

’’a position of not small responsibility, ’’ Bidwell went on. ’’I need a good, trustworthy man in Charles Town. Someone to make sure the supplies keep flowing, and to make certain such dirtiness as has been done to me in the past is not repeated. a... uh... a private investigator, you might say. Does that sound at all of interest to youi’’

It took a little while longer for Matthew to find his voice. ’’I do appreciate your offer, sir. I do. But, to be petfectly honest, you and I would eventually come to blows and our fight might knock the earth off its tilt. Therefore I must decline, as I would hate to be responsible for the death of mankind.’’

’’ah. Yes. Well spoken, that.’’ Bidwell did appear much relieved. ’’I felt I should at least offer you a future, since my actions - -and stupidity - have so endangered your present.’’

’’I have a future, ’’ Matthew said firmly. ’’In New York, I believe. and thank you for helping me come to that conclusion.’’

’’Now! That's out of the way!’’ Bidwell heaved a sigh. ’’I wanted you to see something.’’ He pushed the wooden box across the desk toward Matthew. ’’We searched through the foul bastard's house, just as you suggested, and found all the items you said would be there. That five-bladed device was still nasty with dried blood. and we discovered the book on ancient Egypt, as well. This box was placed in the bottom of a trunk. Open it, if you please.’’

Matthew leaned forward and lifted the lid, which rose smoothly on a well-oiled hinge.

Within the box were three charcoal pencils, a writing tablet, a folded sheet of paper, a gum eraser... and...

’’What he found in the spring, ’’ Bidwell said.

Indeed. The sapphire brooch and ruby ring were there, along with a gold crucifix on a chain, seven gold doubloons, three silver coins, and a little black velvet bag.

’’You will find the bag's contents of interest, ’’ Bidwell promised.

Matthew took it out and emptied it on the desktop. In the sunlight that streamed through the window, the room was suddenly colored by the shine of four dark green emeralds, two deep purple amethysts, two pearls, and an amber stone. The jewels were raw and yet to be professionally polished, but even so were obviously of excellent quality. Matthew surmised they had been captured at sea from vessels shuttling between tropical mines and the marketplace.

’’The folded paper is also worth a glance, ’’ said Bidwell.

Matthew unfolded it. It was a drawing, in charcoal pencil, of a good-sized building. Some time had been spent in attending to the details. Present were bricks, windows, and a bell steeple.

’’It appears, ’’ Bidwell said, ’’the foul bastard... intended to build his next schoolhouse of a less flammable material.’’

’’I see.’’ Matthew gazed at the drawing - a sad sight, really - and then refolded the paper and returned it to the box.

Bidwell put the gemstones back into the bag. He removed from the box the pencils, the writing tablet, the eraser, and the drawing of the new schoolhouse.

’’I own the spring, of course, ’’ Bidwell said. ’’I own the water and the mud. By the rights of ownership - and the hell I have gone through - I also claim for myself these gems and jewelry, which came from that mud. agreedi’’

’’It makes no matter to me, ’’ Matthew answered. ’’Do with them as you please.’’

’’I shall.’’ Bidwell placed the little bag into the box, beside the coins, the brooch, the ring, and the crucifix and chain. He closed the lid.

Then he pushed the box toward Matthew. ’’It pleases me... for you to take this to the person who has suffered far more hell than I.’’

Matthew couldn't fathom what he'd just heard. ’’Pardon mei’’

’’You heard correctly. Take them to - ’’ He interrupted himself as he snapped the first charcoal pencil between his hands. ’’ - her. It is the very least I can do, and certainly it can't bring back her husband or those months spent in the gaol.’’ In spite of his good intentions, he couldn't help but regard the box with a wanton eye. ’’Go ahead. Take it’’ - the second pencil was picked up and broken - ’’before I regain my senses.’’

’’Why don't you take it to her yourself! It would mean much more.’’

’’It would mean much less, ’’ he corrected. ’’She hates me. I've tried to speak to her, tried to explain my position... but she turns away every time. Therefore you take the box.’’ Snap, died the third pencil. ’’Tell her you found it.’’

Realizing that indeed Bidwell must be half-crazed with humanity to let such wealth slip through his fingers, Matthew picked up the box and held it to his chest. ’’I will take it to her directly. Do you know where she isi’’

’’I saw her an hour ago, ’’ Winston said. ’’She was drawing water.’’ Matthew nodded;he had an idea where she might be found.

’’We must put ourselves back in business here.’’ Bidwell picked up the drawing that Johnstone had done - the bad man's dream of an Oxford of his own - and began to methodically teat it to pieces. ’’Put ourselves back in order, and consign this disgraceful... insane... blot on my town to the trash heap. I can do nothing more for the woman than what I've done today. and neither can you. Therefore, I must ask: how much longer shall you grace us with your presencei’’

’’as a matter of fact, I have decided it's time to get on with my own life. I might leave in the morning, at first light.’’

’’I'll have Green take you to Charles Town in a wagon. Will you be ready by sixi’’

’’I shall be, ’’ Matthew said. ’’But I'd prefer you give me a horse, a saddle and tack, and some food, and I'll get myself to Charles Town. I am not an invalid, and therefore I refuse to be carted about like one.’’

’’Give you a horsei’’ Bidwell glowered at him. ’’Horses cost money, aren't you aware of thati and saddles don't grow on trees, either!’’

’’You might wish for saddle-trees, sir!’’ Matthew fired back at him. ’’as that might be the only crop your farmers can grow here!’’

’’You don't concern yourself with our crops, thank you! I'll have you know I'm bringing in a botanist - the finest money can buy - to set our growing affairs straight! So stick that in your damned theory hole and - ’’

’’Excuse me, gentlemen!’’ Winston said calmly, and the wranglers fell quiet. ’’I shall be glad to pay for a horse and saddle for Mr. Corbett, though I think it unwise of you, Matthew, to travel unaccompanied. But I wish to offer my best regards and hope that you find much success in the future.’’

’’Write him a love letter while you're at it!’’ Bidwell steamed.

’’My thanks, sir, ’’ Matthew said. ’’as for travelling alone, I feel confident I won't be in any danger.’’ The demise of Shawcombe and Jack One Eye, he suspected, had made the backroads of the entire Southern colonies at least safer than Manhattan's harbor. ’’Oh. While I am thinking of it: Mr. Bidwell, there is one final rope that remains unknotted in this situation.’’

’’You mean Dr. Shieldsi’’ Bidwell crumpled the torn pieces of Johnstone's drawing in his fist. ’’I haven't decided what to do with him yet. and don't rush me!’’

’’No, not Dr. Shields. The burning of the schoolhouse, and who was responsible for the other fires as well.’’

’’Whati’’ Winston blanched.

’’Well, it wasn't Johnstone, obviously, ’’ Matthew explained. ’’Even someone so preoccupied with his own affairs as Mr. Bidwell can understand that. and, in time, I'm sure Mr. Bidwell might begin to wonder, as well he should.’’

’’You're right!’’ Bidwell agreed, his eyes narrowing. ’’What son of a bitch tried to burn down my towni’’

’’Early this morning I had a thought about this burning business, and I went to Lancaster's house. The place is still a wreck, as you're aware. Has anyone else been through iti’’

’’No one would go within a hundred yards of that damn murder house!’’

’’I thought not, though I did appreciate the fact that the corpse has been disposed of. anyway, I decided to search a little more thoroughly... and I discovered a very strange bucket in the debris. Evidently it was something Johnstone didn't bother himself with, since it simply appears to be a regular bucket. Perhaps he thought it was full of rat bait or some such.’’

’’Well, theni What was in iti’’

’’I'm not sure. It appears to be tar. It has a brimstone smell. I decided to leave it where I found it... as I didn't know if it might be flammable, or explode, or what might occur if it were jostled too severely.’’

’’Tari a brimstone smelli’’ alarmed, Bidwell looked at Winston. ’’By God. I don't like the sound of that!’’

’’I'm sure it's worth going there to get, ’’ Matthew continued. ’’Or Mr. Winston might want to go and look at it, and then... I don't know, bury it or something. Would you be able to tell what it was if you saw it, Mr. Winstoni’’

’’Possibly, ’’ Winston answered, his voice tight. ’’But I'll tell you right now... as you describe it, the stuff sounds like... possibly... infernal fire, Mr. Bidwelli’’

’’Infernal firei My God!’’ Now Bidwell did hammer his desk. ’’So that's who was burning the houses! But where was he getting the stuff fromi’’

’’He was a very capable man, ’’ Matthew said. ’’Perhaps he had sulphur for his rat baits or candles or something. Perhaps he cooked some tar and mixed it himself. I have a feeling Lancaster was trying to hurry the process of emptying the town without telling his accomplice. Who knows whyi’’ Matthew shrugged. ’’There is no honor among thieves, and even less among murderers.’’

’’I'll be damned!’’ Bidwell looked as if he'd taken a punch to his ponderous gut. ’’Was there no end to their treacheries, even against each otheri’’

’’It does appear a dangerous bucket, Mr. Winston, ’’ Matthew said. ’’Very dangerous indeed. If it were up to me, I wouldn't dare bring it back to the mansion for fear of explosion. You might just want to bring a small sample to show Mr. Bidwell. Then by all means bury it and forget where you turned the shovel.’’

’’Excellent advice.’’ Winston gave a slight bow of his head. ’’I shall attend to it this afternoon. and I am very gratified, sir, that you did not leave this particular rope unknotted.’’

’’Mr. Winston is a useful man, ’’ Matthew said to Bidwell. ’’You should be pleased to have him in your employ.’’

Bidwell puffed his cheeks and blew out. ’’Whew! Don't I know it!’’

as Matthew turned away and started out with the treasure box, the master of Fount Royal had to ask one last question: ’’Matthewi’’ he said. ’’Uh... is there any way... any possible way at all... that... the fortune might be recoveredi’’

Matthew made a display of thought. ’’as it has flowed along a river to the center of the earth, ’’ he said, ’’I would think it extremely unlikely. But how long can you hold your breathi’’

’’Ha!’’ Bidwell smiled grimly, but there was some good humor in it. ’’Just because I build ships and I'm going to station a grand navy here... does not mean I can swim. Now go along with you, and if Edward thinks he's going to convince me to give you a free horse and saddle, he is a sadly mistaken duke!’’

Matthew left the mansion and walked past the still waters of the spring on his way to the conjunction of streets. Before he reached the turn to Truth, however, he saw ahead of him the approach of a black-clad, black-tricorned, spidery, and wholly loathsome figure.

’’Ho, there!’’ Exodus Jerusalem called, lifting a hand. On this deserted street, the sound fairly echoed. Matthew was sorely tempted to run, but the preacher picked up his pace and met him. Blocked his way, actually.

’’What do you wanti’’ Matthew asked.

’’a truce, please.’’ Jerusalem showed both palms, and Matthew unconsciously held more securely to the treasure box. ’’We are packed and ready to leave, and I am on my way to give my regards to Mr. Bidwell.’’

’’art thoui’’ Matthew lifted his eyebrows. ’’Thy speech has suddenly become more common, Preacher. Why is thati’’

’’My speechi Oh... that!’’ Jerusalem grinned broadly, his face seamed with wrinkles in the sunlight. ’’It's an effort to keep that up. Too many thees and thous in one day and my lips near fall off.’’

’’It's part of your performance, you meani’’

’’No, it's real enough. My father spoke such, and his father before him. and my son - if I ever have a son - shall as well. also, however, the widow Lassiter detests it. Gently, of course. She is a very gentle, very warm, very giving woman.’’

’’The widow Lassiteri Your latest conquesti’’

’’My latest convert, ’’ he corrected. ’’There is quite a difference. ah yes, she's a wonderfully warm woman. She ought to be warm, since she weighs almost two hundred pounds. But she has a lovely face and she can surely mend a shirt!’’ He leaned in a little closer, his grin lecherous. ’’and she has quite the toll in her skirt, if you catch my meaning!’’

’’I would prefer not to, thank you.’’

’’Well, as my father always said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The one-eyed, stiff beholder, I mean.’’

’’You are a piece of work, aren't youi’’ Matthew said, amazed at such audacity. ’’Do you do all your thinking with your private partsi’’

’’Let us be friends. Brothers under the warming sun. I have heard all about your triumph. I don't fully understand how such a thing was done - the Satan play, I mean - but I am gratified to know that a righteous and innocent woman has been cleared, and that you are also found guiltless. Besides, it would be a damn sin for a looker like that to bum, ehi’’

’’Excuse me, ’’ Matthew said. ’’and farewell to you.’’

’’ah, you may say farewell, but not goodbye, young man! Perchance we'll meet again, further along life's twisting road.’’

’’We might meet again, at that. Except I might be a judge and you might be at the end of a twisting rope.’’

’’Ha, ha! an excellent joke!’’ Now, however, a serious cast came over the wizened face. ’’Your magistrate. I - honestly - am very sorry. He fought death to the end, I understand.’’

’’No, ’’ Matthew said. ’’In the end he accepted it. as I did.’’

’’Yes, of course. That, too. But he did seem a decent man. Too bad he died in a hole like this.’’

Matthew stared at the ground, a muscle working in his jaw.

’’If you like, before I leave I might go to his grave and speak a few words for his eternal soul.’’

’’Preacher, ’’ Matthew said in a strained voice, ’’all is well with his eternal soul. I suggest you go give your regards to Mr. Bidwell, get in your wagon with your witless brood, and go to - wherever you choose to go. Just leave my sight.’’ He lifted his fierce gaze to the man, and saw the preacher flinch. ’’and let me tell you that if I but see you walking in the direction of Magistrate Woodward's grave, I will forget the laws of God and man and do my damnedest to put my boot so far up your ass I will kick your teeth out from the inner side. Do you understand mei’’

Jerusalem backed away a few steps. ’’It was only a thought!’’

’’Good day, goodbye, and good riddance.’’ Matthew sidestepped him and continued on his way.

’’Ohhhhh, not goodbye!’’ Jerusalem called. ’’Farewell, perhaps! But not goodbye! I have a feeling thou shalt lay eyes on me at some future unknown date, as I travel this ungodly, debased, and corrupted land in the continual - continual, I say - battle against the foul seed of Satan! So I say to thee, brother Matthew, farewell... but never goodbye!’’

The voice - which Matthew thought could strip paint off wood if Jerusalem really let it bray - was fading behind him as he turned onto Truth Street. He dared not look back, for he didn't care to become a pillar of salt today.

He passed the gaol. He did not give the odious place a single glance, though his gut tightened as he stepped on its shadow.

and then he came to her house.

Rachel had been busy. She had pulled into the yard much of the furniture, and a washtub of soapy water stood at the ready. also brought into the cleansing sun were clothes, bedsheets, a mattress, kettles and skillets, shoes, and just about everything else a household contained.

The door was wide open, as were all the shutters. airing the place out, he thought. Intending to move in again, and make it a home. Indeed, Rachel was more like Bidwell in her tenacity - one might say foolhearted stubbornness - than ever he'd imagined. Still, if elbow grease alone could transform that rat-whiskered shack to a livable cottage again, she would have a mansion of her own.

He crossed the yard, winding between the accumulated belongings. Suddenly his progress was interrupted by a small chestnut-brown dog that sprang up from its drowsing posture beside the washtub, took a stance that threatened attack, and began to bark in a voice that surely rivalled the preacher's for sheer volume.

Rachel came to the threshold and saw who her visitor was. ’’Hush!’’ she commanded. ’’Hush!’’ She clapped her hands to get the mongrel's attention. The dog ceased its alarms and, with a quick wag of its tail and a wide-mouthed yawn, plopped itself down on the sun-warmed ground again.

’’Well!’’ Matthew said. ’’It seems you have a sentinel.’’

’’She took up with me this morning.’’ Rachel wiped her dirty hands on an equally dirty rag. ’’I gave her one of the ham biscuits Mrs. Nettles made for me, and we are suddenly sisters.’’

Matthew looked around at the furniture and other items. ’’You have your labors ahead of you, I see.’’

’’It won't be so bad, once I finish scrubbing the house.’’

’’Rachel!’’ Matthew said. ’’You don't really plan on staying here, do youi’’

’’It's my home, ’’ she answered, spearing him with those intense amber eyes. She wore a blue-printed scarf around her head, and her face was streaked with grime. The gray dress and white apron she wore were equally filthy. ’’Why should I leave iti’’

’’Because...’’ He hesitated, and showed her the box. ’’Because I have something for you. May I come ini’’

’’Yes. Mind the mess, though.’’

as Matthew approached the door, he heard a whuff of wind behind him and thought the mighty sentinel had decided to take a bite from his ankle. He turned in time to see the brown dog go tearing off across the field, where it seized one of two fleeing rats and shook the rodent between its jaws in a crushing deathgrip.

’’She does like to chase them, ’’ Rachel said.

Within the bare house, Matthew saw that Rachel had been scraping yellow lichens from the floorboards with an axeblade. The fungus and mildew that had spread across the walls had bloomed into strange purple and green hues only otherwise to be seen in fever dreams. However, Matthew saw that where the sunlight touched, the growths had turned ashen. a broom leaned against the wall, next to a pile of dust, dirt, rat pellets, and bones. Nearby was a bucket of more soapy water, in which a scrub brush was immersed.

’’You know, there are plenty of houses available, ’’ Matthew said. ’’If you really insist on staying here, you might move into one only recently abandoned and save yourself all this work. as a matter of fact, I know a very comfortable place, and the only labor involved would be clearing out a wasp's nest.’’

’’This is my home, ’’ she answered.

’’Well... yes... but still, don't you think - ’’

She turned away from him and picked up a rolling pin that lay on the floor near the broom. Then she walked to a wall and put her ear against it. Following that, she whacked the boards three times and Matthew could hear the panicked squeaking and scurrying from within.

’’Those defy me, ’’ Rachel said. ’’I've tun out most of them, but those - right there - defy me. I swear I'll clean them out. Every last one of them.’’

and at that moment Matthew understood.

Rachel, he believed, was still in a state of shock. and who could fault heri The loss of her husband, the loss of her home, the loss of her freedom. Even - for a time at least, as she prepared herself for the fires - the loss of her will to live. and now, faced with the daunting - and perhaps impossible - task of rebuilding, she must concentrate on and conquer what she perceived as the last obstacle to a return to normality.

But who, having walked through such flames, could ever erase the memory of being singedi

’’I regret I have nothing to offer you, ’’ she said, and now that he was looking for it he could see a certain burnt blankness in her eyes. ’’It will be a time before my cupboard is restocked.’’

’’Yes, ’’ Matthew said. He gave her a sad but gentle smile. ’’I'm sure. But... nonetheless, it will be restocked, won't iti’’

’’You may put faith in it, ’’ she answered, and then she pressed her ear to the wall again.

’’Let me show you what I've brought.’’ He approached her and offered the box. ’’Take it and look inside.’’ Rachel laid down the rolling pin, accepted the box, and lifted its lid.

Matthew saw no reaction on her face, as she viewed the coins and the other items. ’’The little bag. Open that too.’’ She shook the gems out into the box. again, there was no reaction.

’’Those were found in Johnstone's house.’’ He had already decided to tell her the truth. ’’Mr. Bidwell asked me to give them to you.’’

’’Mr. Bidwell, ’’ Rachel repeated, without emotion. She closed the lid and held the box out. ’’You take them. I have already received from Mr. Bidwell all the gifts that I can stand.’’

’’Listen to me. Please. I know how you must feel, but - ’’

’’No. You do not, nor can you ever.’’

’’Of course you're right.’’ He nodded. ’’But surely you must realize you're holding a true fortune. I daresay with the kind of money you could get in Charles Town from the sale of those jewels, you might live in Mr. Bidwell's style in some larger, more populous city.’’

’’I see what his style is, ’’ she countered, ’’and I detest it. Take the box.’’

’’Rachel, let me point out something to you. Bidwell did not murder your husband. Nor did he create this scheme. I don't particularly care for his... um... motivations, either, but he was reacting to a crisis that he thought would destroy Fount Royal. In that regard, ’’ Matthew said, ’’he acted properly. You know, he might have hanged you without waiting for the magistrate. I'm sure he could have somehow justified it.’’

’’So you're justifying him, is that righti’’

’’Since he now faces a guilty verdict from you in a tragedy for which he was not wholly responsible, ’’ Matthew said, ’’I am simply pleading his case.’’

Rachel stared at him in silence, still holding out the box to him. He made no move to accept it.

’’Daniel is gone, ’’ Matthew told het. ’’You know that. Gone, too, are the men who murdered him. But Fount Royal - such as it may be - is still here, and so is Bidwell. It appears he intends to do his best to rebuild the town. That is his main concern. It seems to be yours as well. Don't you think this common ground is larger than hatredi’’

’’I shall take this box, ’’ Rachel said calmly, ’’and dump it into the spring if you refuse it.’’

’’Then go ahead, ’’ he answered, ’’because I do refuse it. Oh: except for one gold piece. The one that Johnstone stole from my room. Before you throw your fortune and future away to prove your devotion to Daniel in continued poverty and suffering, I will take the one gold piece.’’ There was no response from her, though perhaps she did flinch just a little.

’’I understand Bidwell's position, ’’ Matthew said. ’’The evidence against you was overwhelming. I too might have pressed for your execution, if I believed firmly enough in witchcraft. and... if I hadn't fallen in love with you.’’

Now she did blink;her eyes, so powerful a second before, had become dazed.

’’Of course you recognized it. You didn't want me to. In fact, you asked me to - as you put it - go on about my life. You said - there in the gaol, after I'd read the magistrate's decree - that the time had come to embrace reality.’’ He disguised his melancholy with a faint smile. ’’That time has now come for both of us.’’

Rachel looked down at the floor. She had taken hold of the box with both hands, and Matthew saw an ocean's worth of conflicting tides move across her face.

He said, ’’I'm leaving in the morning. I will be in Charles Town for a few weeks. Then most likely I will be travelling to New York. at that time I can be reached through Magistrate Nathaniel Powers, if you ever have need of me.’’

She lifted her gaze to his, her eyes wet and glistening. ’’I can never repay you for my life, Matthew. How can I even begini’’

’’Oh... one gold coin will do, I think.’’

She opened the box, and he took the coin. ’’Take another, ’’ she offered. ’’Take as many as you like. and some of the jewels, too.’’

’’One gold coin, ’’ he said. ’’That's my due.’’ He put the coin into his pocket, never to be spent. He looked around the house and sighed. He had the feeling that once the rats were run out and her home was truly hers again, she might embrace the reality of moving to a better abode - further away from that wretched gaol.

Rachel took a step toward him. ’’Do you believe me... when I say I'll remember you when I'm an old, old womani’’

’’I do. and please remember me, if at that point you're seeking the excitement of a younger man.’’

She smiled, in spite of her sadness. Then she grasped his chin, leaned forward - and kissed him very softly on the forehead, below the bandage that covered what would be his grandchildren's favorite story.

Now was the moment, he realized. It was now or never.

To ask her. Had she actually entered that smoke-palled medicine lodgei Or had it been only his feverish - and wishful - fantasyi

Was he still a virgin, or noti

He made his decision, and he thought it was the right one.

’’Why are you smiling that wayi’’ Rachel asked.

’’Oh... I am remembering a dream I think I had. One more thing: you said to me once that your heart was used up.’’ Matthew looked into her dirt-streaked, determined face, forever-more locking her remarkable beauty of form and spirit in his memory vault. ’’I believe... it is a cupboard that only need be restocked.’’ He leaned forward and kissed her cheek, and then he had to go.

Had to.

as Matthew left the house, Rachel followed him to the door.

She stood there, on the threshold of her home and her own new beginning. ’’Goodbye!’’ she called, and perhaps her voice was tremulous. ’’Goodbye!’’

He glanced back. His eyes were stinging, and she was blurred to his sight. ’’Farewell!’’ he answered. and then he went on, as Rachel's sentinel sniffed his shoes and then returned to its rat-catching duties.

Matthew slept that night like a man who had rediscovered the meaning of peace.

at five-thirty, Mrs. Nettles came to awaken him as he'd asked, though the town's remaining roosters had already performed that function. Matthew shaved, washed his face, and dressed in a pair of cinnamon-colored breeches and a fresh white shirt with the left sleeve cut away. He pulled up his white stockings and slid his feet into the square-toed shoes. If Bidwell wanted back the clothes he had loaned, the man would have to rip them off himself.

Before he descended the stairs for the last time, Matthew went into the magistrate's room. No, that was wrong. The room was Bidwell's again, now. He stood there for a while, staring at the perfectly made bed. He looked at the candle stubs and the lantern. He looked at the clothes Woodward had worn, now draped over the back of a chair. all save the gold-striped waistcoat, which had gone with the magistrate to worlds unknown.

Yesterday, when he'd gone to the graveside, he'd had a difficult time until he'd realized the magistrate no longer suffered, either in body or mind. Perhaps, in some more perfect place, the just were richly rewarded for their tribulations. Perhaps, in that place, a father might find a lost son, both of them gone home to a garden.

Matthew lowered his head and wiped his eyes. Then he let his sadness go, like a nightbird. Downstairs, Mrs. Nettles had prepared him a breakfast that might have crippled the horse he was to ride. Bidwell was absent, obviously preferring to sleep late rather than share the clerk's meal. But with the final cup of tea, Mrs. Nettles brought Matthew an envelope, upon which was written Concerning the Character and abilities of Master Matthew Corbett, Esq. Matthew turned it over and saw it was sealed with a red blob of wax in which was impressed an imperial B.

’’He asked I give it to ye, ’’ Mrs. Nettles explained. ’’For your future references, he said. I'd be might pleased, for compliments from Mr. Bidwell are as rare as snowballs in Hell. ''

’’I am pleased, ’’ Matthew said. ’’Tell him I thank him very much for his kindness.’’

The breakfast done, Mrs. Nettles walked outside with Matthew. The sun was well up, the sky blue, and a few lacy clouds drifting like the sailing ships Bidwell hoped to launch from this future port. John Goode had brought an excellent-looking roan horse with a saddle that might not raise too many sores between here and Charles Town. Mrs. Nettles opened the saddlebags to show him the food she'd packed for him, as well as a leather waterflask. It occurred to Matthew that, now that his usefulness was done to the master of Fount Royal, it was up to the servants to send him off.

Matthew shook Goode's hand, and Goode thanked him for coming to take that ’’bumb’’ out of his house. Matthew returned the thanks, for giving him the opportunity to taste some absolutely wonderful turtle soup.

Mrs. Nettles only had to help him a little to climb up on the horse. Then Matthew situated himself and grasped the reins. He was ready.

’’Young siri’’ Mrs. Nettles said. ’’May I give ye a word of advicei’’

’’Of course.’’

’’Find y'self a good, strong Scottish lass.’’ He smiled. ’’I shall certainly take it under consideration.’’

’’Good luck to ye, ’’ she said. ’’and a good life.’’ Matthew guided his horse toward the gate and began his journey. He passed the spring, where a woman in a green bonnet was already drawing water for the day. He saw in a field a farmer, breaking earth with a wooden hoe. another farmer was walking amid fresh furrows, tossing seeds from one side to the other.

Good luck, Fount Roy all Matthew thought. and good life to all those who lived here, both on this day and on the day tomorrow.

at the gate, Mr. Green was waiting to lift the locking timber. ’’Goodbye, sir!’’ he called, and displayed a gap-toothed grin.

Matthew rode through. He was not very far along the sunlit road when he reined the horse in and paused to look back. The gate was closing. Slowly, slowly... then shut. Over the singing of birds in the forest, Matthew heard the sound of the locking timber slide back into place.

He had a sure destination.

New York. But not just because Magistrate Nathaniel Powers was there. It was also because the almshouse was there, and Headmaster Eben ausley. Matthew recalled what that insidious, child-brutalizing villain had said to him, five years ago: Consider that your education concerning the real world has been furthered. Be of excellent service to the magistrate, be of good cheer and good will, and live a long and happy life. and never - never - plot a war you have no hope of winning.

Well, Matthew mused, perhaps the boy of five years ago could neither plot a war nor win it. But the man of today might find a method to end ausley's reign of terror.

It was worth putting one's thoughts to, wasn't iti

Matthew stared for a moment at the closed gate, beyond which lay both an ending and a beginning. Then he turned his mount, his face, and his mind toward the century of wonders.

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