Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lord Carabas by James Buchanan

I was then, and am now, a creature of sin.

I covet.

I lust.

I am greedy and hateful, and take pride in these things. As a boy, I would steal food from the animals and hoard it. I would tease and tempt those reverend brothers whose tastes ran to their young charges. And I would use their affections to garner simple prizes to bribe other boys into doing my work. As I grew, I seduced the village maids and matrons, and picked their husbands' pockets. In my life there have only been two things at which I excelled: farming and finding trouble. You must agree with me that dodging the lash is far more exhilarating than breaking your back pulling a plough. It is also infinitely more rewarding.

That day, my sinful self was sitting on a crate, in an alley, off the docks of Calais, my usual station at that hour. As had often happened during my life, I was on the street, hungry and with less than a Pence in my pocket. I had never been more content. Adversity made my life interesting, the peace and routine of my boyhood years had almost driven me mad. An abbey is no place for one such as me. Now, I felt, it was time to create a little disorder and see if I might find the funds for dinner, and perhaps a bed for the night.

A likely mark passed me. A clerkish sort of man, he wore the clothes of an English sailor, good enough quality to possibly be the pilot or mate. Either would be lucrative. I slipped from my perch and began to stalk. As he wound his way through the confusion of the wharf, he paid far more attention to the small book he carried than to his surroundings. Not wise, not wise at all. Apparently his position was gained by birth rather than merit.

Most cut purses work in pairs: one to distract, one to pinch. I never found anyone I cared to work with. So, I worked the docks. The marks were more streetwise, but the commotion at the wharf--what with ships docking, goods and travelers being offloaded, whores, brothels, taverns and fights--acted as my unpaid partner. I would normally have to look for an opportune distraction before I moved, but his book would divert his attention sufficiently without any effort on my part.

My fingers itched and unconsciously I massaged their tips with my thumb as I fell into the rhythm of his steps. We wound our way through the swarms of men. He bumped into several along his route and scarcely noticed ... a good sign. I was wary for a change in his steps indicating that he realized I followed or that he was nearing his destination. I had to chance both until I was ready to strike.

He stopped.

I paused, took two breaths, and moved in.

He looked up.

I stopped and glanced to see what caught his attention, whether it would help or hinder my work.

Lesser poets would describe her as a vision, a creature from a dream. But no vision, no dream, could be that painfully beautiful. If Helen of Troy could send men to war with a word, this woman could have called those ships back with a sigh. Her hair was a deep, rich sable, and she wore it as a maiden might, straight down to her waist, but with a small feathering of hair cut short to brush her lightly freckled cheeks. That, with her small widow's peak, exaggerated the heart shape of her face. She seemed made of porcelain, so fine and flawless was her skin.

I had once seen a face like that. It had been made of porcelain. A very rare and valuable treasure brought back from the crusades by an errant knight. It had come by way of the silk-road to Judea, and from there to his family estates, and thence as tithe to the Abbaye.

She wore a satin sea-green gown reaching to her feet, boned lightly and slashed with a revealing bodice. It was most becoming to her, or, perhaps, she to it. Over her frock, she wore a full cloak of heavier material to ward off the chill of early spring. At her throat, the material was clasped by a broach of bronze in the style of a small cat sejant, guardant and erect, and it pooled to form a small cape about her shoulders.

Standing alone, adrift in a small sea of baggage, I could tell from how she held her body that she was looking for someone who was long overdue. She was unaccompanied by servants, but her air and dress indicated she should have had at least one by her side. She was a lost and scared little maid. And if she were a day over eighteen then I was full-blooded human.

Then, I cursed myself. My little man had gone, disappeared into the crowd. I had let myself lose focus and he'd gotten away from me. I could be absolutely idiotic on occasion.

I licked my lips. The Lord never closes one door before he opens another. Opportunities like this were few. The porcelain maid could be far more beneficial than the quarry I'd just lost.

Removing my broad brimmed hat and holding it in my hands in front of my body, as non-threatening as I could manage, I approached her and asked quietly, "Quel ennuis, Mademoiselle?" Dressed simply, but in clothes which were fairly new and well made, I presented as lower merchant class in dress and generally upper in manners. It had taken me a time to acquire the various articles from clotheslines and drunks, but I turned out well despite the randomness of the couture. And I always wore shoes. They could be old and scuffed and broken, but only peasants went unshod. It was the one true mark of class. A young man, for I looked only slightly older than she, from a good family on hard times. It bought respect from those lower in station, and sympathy and trust from those above.

Mostly it brought anonymity.

She turned to me, "Excuse me?" Her eyes were the color of the forest, and her English, even in those two words, carried a strange musical lilt, the origins of which I couldn't place. Her gaze passed over me and as designed I met her expectations of someone who was not terribly threatening. She offered me a vague smile of dismissal.

"I asked whether you needed assistance."

Her smile became slightly more curt. "I speak French, I understood ye."

I spread my hands, hat in my left, the right empty. "Pardon, I thought you might need some help. You seemed to be distressed. Like someone was supposed to meet you here." I shrugged. "I must have been mistaken." Bowing slightly, I returned my hat to my head and began to turn away.

She looked around her, one hand raised unconsciously towards me. I was the only anchor she had in this rough sea, the only person in the clamor of foreign voices who'd reached out to her. Even if she didn't know it, she didn't want to lose me. "It's just that..." Her voice trailed off uncertain.

"Just what?" I prompted. I needed to keep her talking, talking to me.

Worry tugged at her mouth. "He is nae here."

"Who is not here?"

"My clansman, he should be here." She looked about again as though the man might appear at any moment. I nodded, making a sympathetic sound, but said nothing. "He came before me, to arrange things." Her nervousness was making her less cautious with her speech then she should have been. She looked back at me, this time there was a slightly startled cast to her gaze. "Ye speak English very well."

An interesting subject switch, but I would ride it. "Merci. It is the law. Not that it be spoken well, just that it be spoken. And my tutors were good." I smiled at her. She smiled back. Her smile was incredible, that one expression changed her entire body. I earned it as I had just proved I was educated; may I never live to regret having this hated language beaten into my stubborn hide. I cocked my head slightly and closed the distance between us. "What does your man look like, maybe I have seen him."

She described him to me: tall, near my height but bulkier, dark haired with a beard, most likely wearing a Feileadh Mor--a belted plaid. "He is a Scotsman?" I now knew why I couldn't place her accent. I'd never met anyone from that region. "You are Scots?" I earned another brilliant smile. I stepped closer yet again, my hands held from my body palm up. "A man like that should not be too hard to find, especially in France. Why do we not find someone to look after your things, and then we can see if we can find him." I held out my hand. She hesitated for a minute, then took it.

This was going to be a good day after all.

Then I heard laughter from the direction of the water. It came from a dark youth--dark hair, dark eyes, dark countenance--leaning against a mooring cleat. He was garbed as a soldier and supported a musket against one leg.

Applauding, he stood and approached us. "Well done lad, well done. Just a few moments an' yer have her eating from yer hand like a pet deer." He was not long into manhood, possibly a little older than she. He, however, had the look of one had been taught harder lessons in life. From his cracked and patched buffcoat to the brimmed, iron birnhelm harvested in an unnamed battle, every inch of his frame screamed mercenary. He carried himself with the air of one so used to fighting that even men of rank unconsciously stepped aside to allow his passing.

Pas bon, I had no doubt that he had made me as easily as I had marked her. I did not want to lose twice today. If played right, there might be more than just a meal in this prey.

She glared at him. Good, she trusted me more than him. "And what would an uncouth Irishman such as yourself know?" One has to love the nobility, so sure in their own ability to judge a man's character, and so often wrong. I would guess him hard, bitter, hungry but reasonably honest. She saw him as poor, unlettered, and thus unworthy of trust.

He leaned in over her shoulder. "I am an uncouth Irishman and that is," pointing at me, "if I ain't mistaken, a French varlet, and should yer go with himself, miss, yer can pogue yer virtue good-by."

I stole her glare and threw it at him. "I believe I should take offense to that."

"Only if it weren't God's honest truth."

"Curran," she put her hand on his chest. "Dinnae, he's only trying to help."

Pest! She was familiar enough with him to use his name and to touch him. I couldn't place him as her servant--unless my senses were truly off--but there was something there. He couldn't be her servant. She was waiting for her servant. This was not right.

She smiled at me again, it was apologetic this time. "Curran has been looking out for me on the crossing, since Mary died..."

The Irishman stopped her with a gentle touch on her hand. Suddenly I understood the relationship. I'd moved in on his territory. He had chosen her when chance presented itself, as most opportune men would, as, indeed, I had. Maybe not for the same reasons, but when you're poor a meal is a meal no matter how it's obtained. Well, what chance had given him, I was about take away.

This was my profession. I had no delusions about my life, I accepted what I was. That said, I know what played and what did not. It was time to take the ground of the poor nobility, the lesser son. I let my face fall into a proper expression of disgust. "You would push yourself on this woman and take advantage of her in such time, how dare you." My voice hinted at punishments for such trespasses as I'd implied. Stepping around her, I placed my hand on his chest and pushed him back and away from her.

She plucked at my sleeve, trying to pull me back, sensing what was about to happen. Leaving one hand on Curran's chest, I chanced looking away from him and gently seized her arm in my other. "Mademoiselle, he has insulted me I can not let that pass." The mere extension of that arm carried her backwards and created more distance between my opponent and my prize. I had to get us farther from her. I didn't want her to get in the middle of this. Returning my attention to the Irishman, I used the not-so-subtle pressure from my palm to walk us farther along the dock.

My voice was low and wouldn't carry much beyond us. "Do not interfere with my work ... boy." I left the threat hanging in my tone.

He slapped my hand away. "Yer don't know what yer doin'." Apparently, Curran wasn't going to let her go without a fight. I would have thought less of him if he had. I grabbed his wrist and twisted down; pulling us together. He was a bit taller than I, and I had to look up to meet his gaze. The hard set of his features, his blue-black eyes and hair, the hate building behind his stare, it was exciting, charged. The Irishman was a good looking boy. If there wasn't work to be done, I could have been quite distracted by him.

He saw it in my face, read it in the touch of my body against his. It threatened him in a completely unexpected way and he stiffened. Momentary terror drifted across his features. He retreated.

Laughing at his plight, I threw a punch and caught him on the jaw, knocking him back slightly. He recovered quickly, grabbed my fist as I pulled back and wrenched it down, landing a blow to my gut with his other hand. Winded, I dropped to my knees. I took a few gulping breaths, grabbed his leg, and pulled it out from under him.

He twisted as he fell, landing on all fours. Launching from his position, he caught me across my chest and sent us both sprawling across the docks. He was heavier than I, and a better brawler, but I was quicker and I rolled away.

Not quick enough. He caught my ankle and drug me back. Turning, I kicked at his face, missed and hit his shoulder. He wouldn't let go and I couldn't shake him off. Curran crawled on top of me, pinning my arms under his knees. Pressing my chin to the boards with one hand, he slammed the other fist into the side of my head. I sensed the thinly veiled retribution for the unease I'd created as he held me down, pummeling my face with repeated blows. Mon Dieu, but it hurt.

I was vaguely aware of the crowd we had attracted. He was pulled off me, and I was yanked to my feet and thrown back into the small press of onlookers. The Irishman shook off the men holding him back and came back at me. Then Curran stopped his advance--we saw why we'd been separated. I hurriedly tried to hide the blood oozing from where he had split open my cheek as the dock-master came trotting up, demanding to know what was going on; and why were we all standing about; and who started what. A low mumble of discontent rolled through the crowd--the man had interrupted a minor brawl turned into a good beating.

Curran stepped forward, spreading his hands, the classic we-weren't-doing-anything grin tearing his features. "To be sure we were just havin' a wee discussion. We'll be gettin' off yer docks as soon as we find a place to put our mistress's bags." He grabbed my hat from the boards, and began making an overt show of dusting it off before he handed it to me. His tense smile said he didn't trust me, but that he didn't want to end up in the stocks, either.

"I don't understand, are you for me or against me?" I whispered as I took it.

Sliding his look sideways, in the direction of the interfering bureaucrat, he spoke between bared teeth. "It depends, yer ever gonna touch me again?"

I thought a moment, mostly to make him uncomfortable, "What are you proposing?" I smacked the hat against my leg, smiled at the dock-master, and set it back on my head. It didn't quite sit right. It probably had been stepped on.

"The lady has naw one, her maid got away on the channel crossin', not that she wasn't sick before. And this," he made a small wave with just his fingers, just out of view of the prying official, "is not my country. I wouldn't know where to find what the lady might require."

My laugh came up as a snort. "After the beating you gave me, you want me to help you? Vous êtes aliéné!"

"To be sure scon I am. And I'll take that as aye." He turned back to the dock-master. "It's just a wee matter between lads. We didn't mean any harm."

Not mollified in the least, the minor official did what les noblesse de cloche do, he lectured us. Even as we turned away and headed back to where we'd abandoned a rather stunned jeune dame, he lectured us. Even as Mademoiselle fussed over my not as-damaged-as-I-pretended-it-was face, he lectured. Even as Curran explained to the Lady how there had been a small misunderstanding, he lectured us. The man might have lectured forever, except that the Lady pulled rank on him, informing the flustered dock-master that she would send someone to collect her things as she had business to attend to--and her tone made it clear that her most trifling business was more important then anything he would be doing that day--and walked away from him as though that settled the matter. Curran and I both shrugged and trotted after her.

When we had gone a distance in no particular direction, she turned on the both of us and began yelling, without actually yelling, in a bizarre tongue, probably whatever people spoke in Scotland; although, I was fairly certain they spoke English as a rule. I looked at Curran. He shook his head. Apparently neither one of us had a clue what she was going on about.

We stood there while she berated us. I assumed we were being berated--the tone was right, her demeanor was right. Neither one of us wanted to look at her. I considered a small rivulet of filth snaking down the middle of the rue. The Irishman developed a sudden interest in chewing on his fingernails. I'm ashamed to admit that I could not overcome the years of conditioning that she was better than I and thus it was my place to take the abuse without protest. Of course neither could he.

Finally she just stood there, sniffling--a little girl who wanted to cry but didn't want anyone to see her do it.

I looked up from under the brim of my hat. "Shouldn't we be trying to find your man?" She nodded in response but said nothing. "Do you have any idea where we might start?" Again she nodded silently. "Oui? And that is?" I coaxed, stepping in and patting her arm to comfort her.

She wiped her eyes with her fingers, then drew a small slip of paper from her purse. Robert Mark, Solicitor was written in elegant script and an address, or what sufficed in Calais for an address, was inked below it. An English attorney, it was a place to start.