Death In Dover
Smashwords Edition, copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Death by Dickens, Berkley, 2004
Dover, England, November 1775
I ventured to pull back the
flap of the coach window for a glimpse of what lay ahead and was
disappointed by the near-unrelieved darkness. The only glimmer of light
emanated from the distant gray sea, which stirred restlessly under a wind
out of the bitter north. Some of that cruel zephyr cut its sharp way round
the stuffy interior of our swaying conveyance, causing a large, red-haired,
red-faced woman to make a most indignant remonstrance against my curiosity.
"Faith, Mr. Barrett, if you've pity in your heart, spare us from your
gawping lest we all perish of cold. You'll be seeing the town soon enough.
It's been there for hundreds of years an' not like to run off now, is it?"
As a gentleman it was my lot to meet harsh speech--at least when it flowed
from female lips--with humble apology. I tied the flap back into place. "I do
beg your pardon, Miss Pross, and yours as well, Miss Manette."
By this I
acknowledged the smaller, younger lady who seemed to be her mistress. Miss
Manette had caught the attention of all the gentlemen since she first came
aboard with her forceful companion. The coach's confines were such as to
kindle interest in any member of the fair sex who happened to be there, but
her delicate blond beauty would command attention even in a great throng. In
Miss Pross, though, she had so fierce and wild a protector that none had
been able to draw her into polite conversation.
The passing of
pleasantries was difficult anyway. The most innocuous of exchanges had to be
conducted at the top of one's lungs because of the rumbling of our wheels.
The violent rocking as we tumbled over broken and muddy roads kept most of
us occupied hanging on to leather straps to avoid a degree of intimacy not
generally shared by the average English subject with his fellow countrymen.
There were seven of us crammed in rather tight: the two ladies, my good
cousin Oliver, myself, and three other gentlemen. The fellow next to Oliver
was Sir Algernon. . . something. I'd missed his whole name. He was a tall,
handsome specimen, but dolorous of aspect and dressed in the deepest
mourning. Traveling with him was his child--a boy of no more than eleven
years--also impeccably dressed for sorrow. Because of this outward
declaration of a private tragedy we left them to themselves. The man was
disinclined to speak, and the boy miraculously slept, leaning against the
third gentleman. This was M. Deveau, a Frenchman who was the boy's dancing
and sword master, the male equivalent of a governess.
He and the boy,
Master Percy, had the misfortune to share the opposite bench with the
females. I say misfortune, for the lady next to Percy was the redoubtable
Miss Pross, who acted as a bastion of protection for her delicate charge,
who was on her other side. Though it was clear by manner and dress that none
of us--for we were one and all clearly gentlemen--would presume to make
unwelcome overtures to the young lady, Miss Pross seemed to have decided we
were rascally adventurers of the worst sort. I was certain she had a pistol,
or at least a leaded cudgel, concealed in the large traveling bag she
clutched to her person, and was equally certain she would find a use for it
if she determined any of us to be the least importune in our behavior.
"Are there no lights in the town at all?" I asked. Even the most squalid
parts of London had lamps here and there.
Oliver barked a short laugh,
which roused Master Percy from his slumber. "Oh, lots, but they don't get
much use. It's a rare lamplighter who makes aught but a poor living in our
coastal hamlets on certain evenings. Haven't you something like it on your
"Smugglers, is it?" They preferred a pitch-dark night for
landing goods on shore. Any fellow with a lamp would be looked upon unkindly
by such free-traders, often to the point of violence. Indeed, it was said
that the lamplighters, unable to make a wage, were themselves in on the
smuggling. "I'm positive we do, but the family estate is set well inland, so
I've not had the opportunity to make a firsthand observation. Of course, one
hears tales, and the place has a dark history. It was a haven for Captain
Kidd, you know. They say his treasure is buried somewhere along one of the
beaches, but none have found it.
As I'd hoped, the mention of that name
caught the interest of Miss Manette (and the boy). She peeped shyly at me,
her blue eyes bright in the dimness of the coach. "Do you speak of the
infamous pirate, Mr. Barrett?"
Had there been space to do so, I would have
made her a proper bow of courtesy. A partial one from my seat had to serve,
its sincerity marred by the movement of the coach. "Indeed I do, Miss
Manette. Long Island, where I am from, was a favorite hiding place for his
"Where is this island?"
"It is part of the colony of New
York in the Americas," I replied.
"And you are then an American?"
loyal American subject of our good King George, God save him."
A murmur of
"amens" went 'round the interior.
Since coming to England to complete my
education at Cambridge, I'd learned to answer similar questions with that
phrase and thus avoid unpleasant social complications. Things were unsettled
enough between Mother England and some few of her wayward children in the
New World, and I did what I could to assure my countrymen that I was not one
of those troublemakers.
"Why are you come to England, sir?" Miss Manette
asked. "And Dover in particular?"
"Hush, my ladybird," admonished her
companion. "Vex not the gentleman" --Miss Pross emphasized that word
slightly-- "with idle questions. I'm sure he has other things to think about."
Her incivility put the devil in me, so I smiled and bowed as well as I could
to her, and in such a way that she couldn't possibly object without looking
wholly boorish. "Not at all, dear lady. I am here to read law at Cambridge.
My cousin, Mr. Marling, who is to be a doctor, and I are come to Dover to
conduct a bit of private business."
Young Percy stifled an unexpected
guffaw. I took that to mean he well understood our errand, which made him
perceptive beyond his age. The noise of the wheels grinding upon the road
served to cover his sudden expression of amusement, so the ladies quite
missed his reaction. Not so for M. Deveau, who, from the glint in his eye,
also guessed the truth of the matter.
"Will you be proceeding to the
Continent?" asked Miss Manette.
"I think not. Is that your destination?"
"I believe so, sir."
Under the hard glare of Miss Pross, I knew an inquiry
over why the ladies would hazard the Channel in this unsettled season would
be too direct. "Then I wish you a very easy and uneventful journey."
are most kind, sir, but 'uneventful'?"
"Indeed, miss. It is a gracious
fate who allows us to be free of cares when traveling. I was half bored to
death when making my crossing to England, but it was a blessing. All
travelers should be afflicted with acute boredom, for that means a safe
I was rewarded with a smile for this and might have pursued the
topic further, but for being interrupted by a change in our pace and a shout
from the coach driver. Our arrival was at hand. I burned to have another
look as we rolled into town, but Miss Pross wore a glower sufficient to
discourage a saint from praying, so I forced myself to have patience until
we came to a stop.
The head drawer for our hotel--which happened to be the
Royal George--pulled open the door, welcoming us to Dover. The ladies
gathered themselves and were the first out. Sir Algernon was next, then
followed my cousin with me straight behind. The boy had politely indicated I
should proceed him, and M. Deveau was last. I think Master Percy wished to
avoid a continuation of his proximity to Miss Pross. She was shouting in a
most challenging manner for people to make-way-make-way for her "ladybird,"
though the only ones about were the driver and the drawer, who showed no
concern for this display and went about their business of unloading the
The night air was the chill and deadly damp as only England can
make and rife with the slimy stink of dead fish. Still, it was better than
the stuffy coach. Thunder grumbled angrily in the distance, and I was
thankful we'd arrived ahead of what promised to be a wonderfully malicious
storm. I stretched my cramped cold body, feeling the strange shakiness that
inevitably follows the abrupt cessation of a long, uncomfortable ride.
Oliver seemed to be in the same sate of shock from the change.
Coz," he said, distracting me from looking about. "Let's have something hot
to restore the flow of blood, then I'd dearly like to put myself around a
joint of beef if they have one."
At this reminder I realized I was quite
hollow. As Miss Pross pointed out, Dover would not be running off. It struck
me that wandering about after dark in a strange town populated with
smugglers would be as unhealthy as the dank air.
Oliver had stayed at the
hotel on previous journeys, and after sending up our travel cases, led us to
the coffee room, which was quite large, the long, low ceiling stretching far
away into shadows. It smelled divinely of that hot, black brew, and we
availed ourselves of a curative dish each, well-laced with good French
brandy. With it, we threw off the rigors of the road, along with our cloaks
and hats, and took up a post before a sizable fireplace. The ladies and
their baggage were conducted upstairs to more private quarters for their
refreshment. Sir Algernon and Percy took themselves to a dim corner, giving
their order to a waiter, content with their own company. M. Deveau was
elsewhere, probably securing rooms for his master and young charge. The only
other occupant was an orderly-looking man of sixty or so, dressed in drab
brown, which made a sharp contrast to his shining, flax-colored wig. Another
waiter approached him respectfully.
"Miss Manette has arrived, sir," he
said. "She says she would be happy to see the gentleman from Tellson's, if
it suits your pleasure and convenience."
"So soon?" asked the man in
The waiter's response escaped my hearing, for I noticed the father
and son both looked up at the mention of Tellson's, a name I did not
recognize. The brown-clad fellow left, unaware that they marked his
"What's Tellson's?" I asked Oliver, who also noticed the
"Bankers. Very old and so fearfully respectable even my mother
has nothing to say against them."
"They must be truly formidable. Wonder
what's afoot to bring one of their people out to meet with the fair Miss
"No business of ours or so that Pross creature will inform you.
You've not a hope with the young one, dear Coz. Besides, what would the
beauteous Miss Jones say if she knew your attention had wandered from her?"
I pretended to unconcerned by that prospect. "Wandered? I was only making
conversation to pass the time. You had plenty of chance to have a try, but
you didn't, so I stepped in."
"Oh, bother, I never know what to say to
proper young ladies, especially when they are so closely chaperoned. It's
"One stray remark about the weather, a
cordial smile, and before you know it you're engaged. I've seen it happen
countless times. Those London girls are the most frightful predators you'll
find this side of any wilderness. They can't abide the sight of an unmarried
man, and from birth are set up and schooled for the sole purpose of getting
an otherwise happy fellow under wedlock-and-key."
"What's this? Has your
mother found another prospect for you?"
He shuddered. "I shall have to
engage myself in some sort of revolting tomfoolery so she won't speak to me
for the next few months. By then the wretched girl will have moved on to
stalking another victim."
"Take care what you wish for." I thought about
the delightful Miss Manette and our too-brief exchange. "I don't think she's
English-born, though. Did you not mark her accent? Very slight, but
"French, I'll warrant, considering the name. She's probably off
to Calais to meet with relatives, and the banker's here to provide her with
a bit of spending money and perhaps protection for it. Though God help any
thieves trying to get past the Pross."
The waiter came to us
in our turn, inquiring what we would like in the way of food.
while later, replete with half the contents of the kitchen inside our
bellies, we were in a wonderfully lethargic mood. The cafe noir made us
wakeful, though. Instead of going up to the room prepared for us, we idled
before the fire, content to slowly roast, smoking our pipes.
He looked at a clock on the mantel. "Not too much longer.
Word will be about. We can expect someone at any time."
"And you'll be
able to trust him?"
"Certainly not, but that's what makes it so amusing."
King of Shreds and Patches
Smashwords Edition, copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Rotten Relations, DAW, 2004
Here do I set down for posterity, a true and exact record
of the misfortunes that have lately beleaguered the court of Denmark.
Whoever finds this, I ask and pray that you hold all knowledge of it from my
beloved Queen Gertrude should I predecease her.
The death of my brother, King Hamlet, could not have come at a
worse time for Denmark.
I was in my chambers, setting to paper a detailed
recounting of all that I saw and heard in Norway while acting as his
ambassador there when the news of the calamity was brought to me.
than a soft knock from one of Elsinore's countless pages, I was startled
from my task by heavy pounding from a hasty fist. It occurred to me that my
fears of an invasion from Norway were about to be fulfilled. I threw down my
quill and, being alone, unlatched the door myself and pulled it wide,
interrupting a second assault. Old Polonius stood without.
"What is amiss,
sir?" I demanded, for obviously something of great import was wrong. His
face was as white as his beard except for two red spots high on his cheeks
from recent exertion. His breath came hoarse and hard. I'd ever known him as
a man well able to keep control of his emotions, now he was positively
tottering from inner turmoil. I took his trembling hand and led him inside.
"Is it war?"
"W-war, your lordship?" He gave me so blank a look that he
might have been struck by one of those strange convulsions that takes a
man's mind away. "There is no war."
"Then speak, what is amiss?"
lips quivered and overcome by whatever troubled him, he bowed his head and
groaned. I glanced at the open doorway, but none were with him who might
inform me of the nature of this trouble. That was odd. He usually had no
less than two pages in tow the whole of the day to run his errands. I looked
down both ends of the hall, but all was quiet in this part of the castle.
From one of my windows I ascertained the courtyard below was also peaceful.
It was the end of the hot part of the afternoon, and those who had no duties
would take rest while they could.
In a firm tone I charged Polonius to
explain himself. That seemed to break through, and he slowly raised his
head. His eyes streamed tears, and without knowing the matter, I felt a
kindred ill-omened leadening of my heart.
"Speak, sir," I whispered.
"Oh, good lord Claudius, your royal brother is dead."
Let God Himself be
my witness, I almost laughed, for it was clear the dear old man had lost his
wits and was ranting. "Impossible. I saw him take his walk upon the upper
platform this morning as always. He waved greeting to me and I to him."
But Polonius shook his head again, as though to dislodge a stubborn fly.
"Would that I were a liar, your lordship, but he is dead and gone and
nothing can change that or bring him back to us."
I still could not take
it in. "How comes this? Was it a fall?" Elsinore was full of stairs, many
"A fall? No, he was asleep in his orchard. He lies there
"What? Have you sent for a priest?" He blanched even more, and I
knew that he had not. If there was the least breath of life remaining, then
my brother must give his last confession lest his soul needlessly suffer.
Perhaps Polonius was wrong. His sight was dim now with age, and though wise
in statecraft, he was often wrong in more mundane matters--not that the death
of a king could be considered as such.
"Lord Claudius, King Hamlet is
dead. For hours, perhaps."
"And no one sent for help or told me until
"As soon as I saw for myself, I came straight from there to
you--wait, sir! There is more!"
But I was striding swiftly away. I loved
Polonius like a second father--he had taught me much of the wisdom of his
craft that I could better serve my brother and thus Denmark as
ambassador--but could not wait upon him. Impatience and fear engulfed me.
Grief, too, though I pushed that roughly from my heart. I could not and
would not believe it; Hamlet could not, must not be dead.
copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Time of the Vampires DAW 1996
"She's a witch! Burn her!"
"What if she"s not a witch?"
"Burn her anyway, it's cold!"
"Mr. Bainbridge! If you please!"
Belatedly realizing that his
enthusiasm and dark humor were out of place--for the moment--Bainbridge got
firm control of himself and presented his audience with a chagrined smile
and a respectful bow. "Your pardon, gentle sirs, but when one is doing the
Good Work, one may easily be carried away by the nobility of the task."
The audience--that is to say the men who made up the leadership of the town
of Little Evesham-on-the-Wash--made forgiving noises. Lucky for him, that.
There was a proper way of going about these things, but Bainbridge had
allowed his mind to be distracted by his pending reward, and he'd gotten
ahead of himself. The time would come for the people to indulge themselves
in a good bit of fire and riot, but one had to build them up to it first,
get them used to the idea.
Their mayor--or whatever he was in
this rustic hellhole--Mr. Percy, cleared his throat. "Indeed, Mr. Bainbridge,
but my question still stands: What if the female you have accused is not a
"Why then, she will suffer no harm, but," his gaze
swept over the lot of them in such a manner as to indicate he understood his
responsibilities perfectly well, "I know that once you are made acquainted
with the evidence, you will not hesitate to deliver her to soul-cleansing
flames and thus rid your beleaguered village of the Devil's vile influence."
Little Evesham-on-the-Wash was no more beleaguered than any other place had
been in the last few years since King Charles and Parliament had gotten down
to serious fighting. But each little hamlet Bainbridge had swept through
when he began the lucrative work of witch-finding always thought its
troubles to be unique to itself. He had but to ask if some oaf suffered
mysterious fits or if farms were plagued by sickly livestock to start it
all; there was always something wrong somewhere that he could seize upon as
evidence of devilish doings. It had been an excellent day for him when he
began to emulate the glorious work of the great Witch-Finder General,
The men conferred briefly, their voices low,
but Bainbridge knew what they'd be thinking and discussing. Upon his arrival
in town that winter's afternoon he'd made sure to get a few timid souls at
the local tavern worked up about the dangers of witchcraft, and as darkness
fell they'd carried their worries straight to their leaders.
Forced by the demand for action to hold a council meeting, those learned men
in charge of a fearful flock would be afraid themselves. If they forbade
Bainbridge's witch-finding, might that be taken to mean they were in
fellowship with the Devil as well? If, on the other hand, they hired him to
dig out the evil, they'd be short some trifling pounds from the town
treasury and no harm done except to the witches, and what were a few old men
and women more or less to them?
They reluctantly consented,
Bainbridge went to work, and promptly found a witch.
Percy looked worried, almost morose, at this turn, but some of the others
had a gleam of expectation in their eyes. Certainly the news of witch trials
taking place in nearby towns had aroused their curiosity. Now it seemed
they'd have the chance to see one at first hand.
just the start, though. Something entertaining to whet the appetite for the
blood-letting to come. Bainbridge had accurately summed up just how much he
could pocket from this little village.
Soon would come the
real work: the sorting of gossip as hidden jealousies surfaced, as old
grievances were recalled, then the searching of houses, discovery, the
triumph of good as the flames burned away the evil. Every town in England
was bursting with such opportunities, and it was a dull man who could not
turn them to his own profit. Bainbridge fully intended to give them their
"Very well," said Percy with an air of
resignation. "Have the accused brought before us."
young men standing by the council chamber's door obliged him. They returned
almost immediately with their charge; the others, seated judge-like at the
long table, leaned forward with interest.
" 'Swounds!" one of
The soft exclamation was justified. No aged
crone for tonight's event--the sweet-faced young girl that stood before them
had the figure of a temptress, with or without the help of stays. For the
present she was without, being clad only in a plain chemise of thin and
revealing weave. Her cap was gone as well, exposing an abundant crown of
dark hair that tumbled over her shoulders and down her back. The flesh of
her bared arms and a fair length of leg was a pleasing white and
"Why, it's Gweneth Skye," said another man.
Bainbridge knew her name. He knew all about her, or as much as he could pick
up from the tavern gossips. The spinster Skye made her way in the world
tending sheep like most of the others living here, but she lived alone in
her humble croft. Alone, except for a few cats. How Bainbridge loved cats,
especially when combined with a solitary female. Usually the women he picked
out for accusation were old, but this one's youth and beauty would work in
his favor just as well, if not better. There was always a contingent of
respectable harpies--goodwives, that is to say--in any town ready to think the
worst of any well-favored, unmarried, and therefore threatening female.
They'd nag their husbands into lighting the first fire. Once that milestone
was reached, the real frolic would begin.
Gweneth rubbed her
arms as though cold and glanced at the row of men gaping at her.
"See, but she's a bold and shameless wench," said Bainbridge, planting his
favorite and most fruitful seed. "Given is to the chance she'd gladly seduce
any one of you goodly souls to the service of her dark master, if she hasn't
been doing so already in the town."
Oh, but that always gave
them something to think about. Once he'd introduced the idea of her
lustfully preying on their weak physical natures, the men would have her
tied to the stake quick as spit before their wives could think to suspect
"It has yet to be proved that she is in league with the
devil, sir," Percy reminded him.
"Then I will delay no
longer." Bainbridge turned full upon the girl, thrusting his face at her.
"What is your name?" he roared.
She regarded him with calm
eyes, showing not the slightest hint of alarm. "Gweneth Skye," she answered
in a clear, church-cool voice. "What's yours?"
blinked. She should have at least flinched at such a vocal assault. "I am,--"
he announced loudly so any villagers with ears pressed to the chamber door
could hear without strain, "the Witch-Pricker Bainbridge."
She favored him with a stony face. "Meaning you run about the countryside
pricking witches when the fancy takes you? What do you do with all the brats
that come of it?"
Continued in the P.N. Elrod Omnibus