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The Orion might have sunk six years ago, but James Trevenen felt the hairs rise on his neck when the innkeep's wife snapped open a tablecloth on the table in a private parlor by the public room, the sound remarkably similar to the ripping hiss of coral on a ship's underbelly.
He looked around, hoping no one had noticed his sudden in-take of breath. He wondered how long the ordinary noises of life in England would startle him. The inn was crowded, and ev-eryone was too busy to bother with one average-looking fellow.
He had no problem waiting; Lord knows, he was patient. Ac-cording to the coachman, the district had suffered from heavy rains recently, which had loosened the bridge footings between Lovell and the next village. The result was an unexpected stop at an inn not used to such heavy trade.
No matter. He had listened to the complaints of others ahead of him in line, demanding this room or that convenience, serene in the knowledge that no matter how uncomfortable he was likely to be for the night, it would never be as bad as five years marooned, alone and hungry on a tropical island.
He had felt some pity for the governess with the two children who had sat across from him for hours on the mail coach. Her dickering with the innkeep sounded particularly desperate. She kept peering into her reticule, as though hoping the few coins might have reproduced since her last inspection. He suspected this sudden stop had forced the governess to rely on her own means, which were shabby, indeed, if her threadbare cloak was any indication. Her employer must be a stingy bastard, James de-cided. He wanted to pull out his own stuffed wallet and help, but he knew better.
He had signed for his own roomafter arguing the keep out of a private parlor for dinner because, of all things, he hated to be alonewhen a fop strolled into the inn and demanded lodging.
The much-tried keep had assured the man there was nothing left, that Mr. Trevenen had the last room.
The fop turned to James. "I will relieve you of it."
You're a cheeky fellow, James thought, amused. He didn't care one way or the other but, for argument's sake, had to ask. "Suppose I say no?"
The fop had buggy eyes, which popped out even more at his quiet response. Unruffled, James watched his complexion turn an unhealthy mottled hue. Not used to an argument, eh? he thought.
When the skinny fellow attempted to draw himself up, it oc-curred to James that this was probably the worst setback he had ever encountered. Will he try to bully me, or play the sympathy card? James asked himself.
It was the sympathy card. Maybe something firm in James's expression had sparked a change in tactics.
The fop whisked out a scented handkerchief and delicately touched his eyes. "You cannot imagine what this day was like," he said.
"I'm sure I cannot," James agreed, trying not to smile when an Englishman smelling of lavender chronicled his misery. You can't imagine misery, James thought.
Still, the man looked put-upon, with drooping collar points and limp lace awash over wrists as delicate as a female's. James tried not to stare at the odd lumps in the fop's pantaloons. What-ever padding he had applied to his calves to make them shapely must have broken loose from their moorings and drifted.
This is not a man who travels well, James decided, as he turned to the innkeeper.
"I have no problem relinquishing my room," he said.
"It's the last room," the keep reminded him. "I have nothing else for you, sir."
James shrugged and glanced into the public room. "I can sleep on that settle, if you can spare a blanket and pillow."
"Sir, it's, "
"Done then!" exclaimed the fop. His pleasure vanished when the keep described the room's location. "It overlooks the cattle yard and the necessary?"
The fop put his handkerchief to his nose, as though he already smelled the horses in their stalls. "I suppose nothing can be done about the view."
"Not unless we turn the building around," James said. He winked at the innkeep, who could do no more than shrug. "I can leave my luggage behind that counter."
"Certainly, sir," the keep replied, relieved and embarrassed at the same time. He would have said more, but the fop, who an-nounced himself as Sir Percival Pettibone, demanded his atten-tion with another wave of his handkerchief.
Better you than I, James thought as he put his luggage behind the counter. He took out the leather satchel containing his treatise and walked into the inn yard. I hope I was never like that. His family had land and money enough but no titles, and his mother had sent him to sea well-mannered. Since his return, James had observed many of his countrymen who would have profited from a few years' solitary confinement on his island. It had the won-drous effect of teaching survival and humility.
He sat in the inn yard until the sun started to set, doing nothing more than ruffling through the pages of his treatise, even though he knew it by heart. Indeed, after he ran out of ink on his island, and before he figured out how to make ink from an octopus, he had memorized blocks of it.
There was the Gloriosa itself on the title page. Before he had left London last year, he had asked an apothecary to blend the colors he remembered. He was no artist, but that night as he shiv-ered in the cold English summer, he painted Gloriosa to the best of his memory.
He turned several pages, relishing the story of his daily ob-servations. He had even named the crabs he came to recognize: Boney, who was a little smaller than the others but aggressive; Lord Nelson, missing one eyestalk; Marie Antoinette, whose colors, while in the mating act, glowed even brighter. They were his companions even now.
He looked up quickly, thinking of his other companion. "All right, Tim, where are you?" he asked softly. He held his breath, but he saw no familiar faces in the inn yard. It was too much to hope that Tim had finally decided to leave. Perhaps he had de-cided, in that perverse way of ghosts, to bother Sir Percival Pet-tibone for an evening's entertainment. Specters were hard to reason with, James had discovered.
Before he went inside, he stared at the night sky, out of habit expecting to see the Southern Cross. I really need to quit looking for it, he told himself.
The public room was already deserted. The innkeep had put a blanket and pillow on the settle and what looked like a bottle of beer close by on the floor.
And there was the keep, polishing the last of the glassware. He glanced overhead, and James could tell his embarrassment had not abated.
"Don't worry about Sir Percival," James said. "I really don't mind."
"You should," the man said, casting a dark glance toward the stairs this time. "I think Robespierre was right." He made a chopping motion. "Zip!"
James winced. The innkeep smiled and turned back to his work. James placed the Gloriosa on the settle, then walked through to the cattle yard behind, where he had noticed the necessary.
He had buttoned up and left the privy when he smelled smoke. Alert, he glanced along the upper row of windows. Smoke bil-lowed out of the room he thought had been appropriated by Sir Percival Pettibone. He hurried toward the building as the fop, clad in a nightshirt, darted from one open window to the next, back and forth, indecisive.
James might have resigned his commission, but nothing could ever sever him from a lifetime of training. In his best quarter-deck voice, he roared for the innkeep.
Sir Percival stuck one skinny leg out of the window. "No! Don't!" James ordered. "Save me!"
The innkeeper ran into the yard. He took one look and turned in the doorway, calling for his wife to get the guests out. Sir Percival continued to teeter on the window ledge.
James gave the drainpipe a shake, pleased it was anchored firmly to the building. Pretend it's a palm tree, he told himself. He pulled off his boots and stockings, shinnying quickly up the pipe as the yard filled with people in nightclothes.
"Pull your leg in," James demanded. "Do it now."
Despite his terror, Sir Percival made his mouth small in the expression James already knew too well.
"I don't care who you are!" James roared. "Do as I say!" The leg vanished to the sound of a high-pitched shriek. James pulled himself into the room, turning his face away from the smoke. His audience in the yard cheered.
He stayed on his hands and knees with his head low to the floor, even as Sir Percival clutched him. "For the Lord's sake, buck up a little," James muttered. "I don't even see any flames."
There weren't any; the smoke began to lift. His eyes watering, James looked around and spotted smoke coming in smaller puffs from the end of the bed. He looked closer. Someoneprobably the pitiful specimen huddled on the floor, weeping into a hand-kerchief nowhad flung a robe over the warming pan, which must have been filled with too many coals. As the smoke began to dissipate, James saw the long handle. Gingerly he picked up the smoldering robe, and tossed it out the window, following it with the smoking blanket underneath.
He leaned out of the window. "It's over. We'll just have to air out this room."
He laughed at the applause from the little group below. Clasp-ing his hands over his head, he bowed, amused at what passed for entertainment among the inn's guests. He knew he should say something to Sir Percival, who was alternately sniffing and blow-ing his nose, but the door opened and the innkeeper came in.
The sight of him seemed to revitalize Sir Percival, who pointed a bony finger at the keep. "You have dangerous warming pans!" he declared. "I will have this, this infamous heap you call an inn pulled down and, and plowed under, and sown with salt!"
James grinned. Man milliner though he was, Sir Percival seemed to have read his Roman philosophers.
The innkeeper stared at Sir Percival. "You started the fire!" He and you will live to irritate other innkeepers!"
"I hardly think the fire was that serious." James stopped. Neither man was listening to him.
Sir Percival blinked and his lower lip quivered. The innkeeper sighed. James tried not to smile. "I will get some more bedding," the keep said at last. He pointed at Sir Percival. "But I'm not bringing up another warming pan!"
"Heartless brute!" Sir Percival blew his nose, and then shrieked to see so much sooty residue on his handkerchief. He pointed to it. "I am dying, and all he can think about is his pre-cious warming pan!"
I am in the land of the barely coherent, James thought. I was safer from freaks on my South Sea island. "I believe you will live," he said, proud of the control in his voice when he wanted to laugh until he ached.
Sir Percival's eyes were still on his handkerchief. He looked up and asked what was certainly his first non-self-absorbed ques-tion of the day, possibly the year. "What is your name?"
"James Trevenen," he said. "I'm from near St. Ives, and I am, "
""Kits, cats, sacks, wives?'" Sir Percival said.
"I was asked that a lot when I was in the Navy," he said. Silly man, he thought, but there was something endearing about a fellow who could sit collapsed in the corner of a room and still maintain some sort of presence. "Let me call your valet, sir." He looked around. "Do you have one?"
Sir Percival waved his hand. "I believe he is dead drunk in the adjoining parlor."
James blinked, but Sir Percival offered no explanation. In fact, the magnitude of what had just happened seemed to pene-trate his mind. "I owe you my life," the fop declared.
James stifled a groan. For the Lord's sake, it was only a warm-ing pan and a smoldering robe! Any reasonably bright seven-year-old would have known what to do. He almost said as much, then stopped. Years ago, his fellow midshipmen had agreed he had a wicked sense of humor. He made an elaborate bow and placed his hand over his heart. "I am only too glad to have saved you from a fiery death, Sir Percival."
Such simplicity was too graphic for Sir Percival, who shud-mantic appeal of the whole adventure took over his mind. He shook his head. "My loss would have been catastrophic to the world of style and good manners," he said, as James looked away to control himself.
Sir Percival was recovering rapidly. He held up his arm to James, who understood the implied command and helped him to his feet. "That is a regrettable waistcoat you are wearing. Is there no fashion in Cornwall?"
"Precious little, I fear," James told him. "I'm only just back from five years on a deserted island in the South Pacific, so it seems unfair to cast the whole blame upon Cornwall."
He doubted a more inane sentence had ever come out of his mouth, but he couldn't resist. Besides, his casual reference to the South Pacific had the desired effect. Sir Percival's eyesalready somewhat prominentseemed to bulge from his face. "Marooned! Cast away! And what do you do but come to En-gland to save my life!"
That wasn't the total sequence, James thought with amuse-ment. Having spent his life in the company of men with little time to think of themselves, he found this monument to preening esteem before him hilarious. "I am happy to have been of ser-vice," he replied. And then he couldn't help himself. "Death by fire would have been excruciating."
Sir Percival shuddered again, but, surprise of surprises, he had another thought for someone beside himself. "Let us not discuss the matter anymore!Are you bound for London to seek your fortune?"
I don't need a fortune, James thought. "Not precisely. While on my deserted island, I wrote a treatise on crabs." He sighed in-wardly at Sir Percival's uncomprehending stare. "There wasn't much to do."
To his further amazement, Sir Percival nodded, his expression serious. "I know what it is like to spend a desolate weekend at a country estate when it is raining. Go on. I am intrigued."
James tried not to stare. "I suppose that is one way to look at it. At any rate, when I was rescued by missionaries, "
"Good Lord, that sounds even worse than a country weekend," Sir Percival murmured.
"Well, yes, I, I suppose." How can I tell you of 1,825 days of solitude, each one spent wondering how I would die the next day, or in a week, or in fifty years without seeing another face? James asked himself. Even missionaries had looked good, but someone like Sir Percival would never understand. "We eventually returned to England, and I submitted my paper to the Royal Society for the annual Copley medal. What do you know, it won," he concluded.
"The Royal Society." Sir Percival leaned closer and patted his arm. "They aren't so totally bent upon style, either, so your waistcoat probably will not offend."
He is making this difficult, James thought, amused again. "I am relieved to hear it," he managed.
"Think nothing of it." Sir Percival blew his nose again and shud-dered. "Where are you staying in town? Can you afford lodgings?"
"I have been invited by Sir Joseph Banks to stay with a cousin of his, a Lord Watchmere."
Sir Percival gasped. "Watchmere? Lord, help us! This will never do for someone who spared me from a horrible fate! Watchmere spends all his time birdwatching and has even less style than you do!" He sniffed. "I know. This is hard to imagine. You will have to trust me on the matter."
James strode to the window and leaned his head out, hoping that he turned his laugh into a successful cough. He waited until he could face Sir Percival again. "Smoke plays such merry hell with the lungs," he said, unable to look the fop in the eye.
He saw no reason to remain in the room. The smoke had dis-sipated, and the innkeep stood in the doorway with more blankets and a pillow.
"Good night, Sir Percival," James said.
"I will not forget your kindness in saving my life," Sir Percival said.
Please do, James thought, repentant already. I should never have led you to believe you were in the slightest danger. He went down the stairs slowly, smiling to see that the keep had made up his bed.
The smile left his face. Someone sat at the table, half-shrouded in darkness. "Go away, Tim," he said softly. "Don't follow me to London."