Chapter Twenty-six

Wherein, Jake chats with Sir Black Clay, and ends the hideous torturing of his companion van Clynne.

Even the most astute follower of the Revolution will be excused if General Bacon’s name is not immediately familiar beyond the brief mention a few pages earlier. General Sir Henry Clay Bacon — “Black Clay” is a nickname affixed only by his enemies — plays a crucial role as an adviser for General Howe, yet he has always managed to stay carefully in the background. His official responsibility as director of intelligence for General Howe’s army naturally encourages a low profile.

Bacon is also the continent’s ranking member of the Secret Department, and as such, answerable directly to the king — not to civilian authorities, not even to Howe himself. The general is as discreet about this half of his identity as the department itself, and unlike other British officers, does not make a habit of bragging about the smallest of his achievements.

He also possesses an innate shyness, proceeding from the circumstances of his birth. For the general is said to be an illegitimate son of King George II, produced in his dotage during a liaison with a courtesan. There are wild rumors of his being stolen from his mother as a young boy and raised by another family whose last name was adopted, but we have not time to go into such stories with Jake standing momentarily tongue-tied on the threshold across from Bacon.

One other factor of his birth and indeed a major contributor to his most prominent physical feature, should be mentioned briefly before returning to our tale. The general was born with the caul or birthing sheath upon his face. While in many circumstances this is seen as a sign of good fortune, it was the opposite in Bacon, for it imparted a strange congenital disease. The general’s face had been slowly eroding since birth. Starting from a slight red mark on his forehead, fully one-third of his face now appeared consumed by a deep, corrosive disease — the black clay of his nickname.

Jake saw the mark and immediately knew whom he was facing. But before he could retreat, a strong arm clamped him around his shoulder. He was dragged forward into the room, much in the manner a bear might invite a friend for dinner.

“ Well, if it isn’t our good friend Dr. Jake, the only man in all of the colonies whose headache powders can actually effect a cure,” said the bear, known to his friends as Major Elmore Harris. “Come in and sit down, my good man. Gentlemen make room. General, I’d like to present a good Royalist and possibly the best doctor the colonies have produced, Jake Gibbs.

The sincerity of Major Harris’s praise was exceeded only by the amount of rum on his breath. Jake had given the major a bottle of headache powders the last time they met. He had also managed to steal some papers relating to the disposition of British troops on the island and the neighboring Jerseys. The circumstances under which the papers were taken should have left little doubt as to who their purloiner was, but the major’s manner as yet betrayed no ill will. Jake could only play along, letting himself be dragged to the table, smiling and bowing as he was introduced all around.

General Bacon sat at the end, with a proper border of space around him, befitting his rank. He acknowledged the introduction with the slightest nod of his head.

Did these officers suspect Jake’s true profession? If so, they gave no indication as the conversation progressed. After the unedited praise of his headache cure, the major went on to other matters, such as what Jake had been doing with himself these past few months.

“ Searching for new cures,” he answered, trying to think of the reply whose details were least likely to be challenged. “I have spent some time among the voodoo people on the Caribbean islands. You’ve heard of them?”

The response was unanimously negative.

“ They come from Africa and have a curious approach to nature,” Jake said, sensing the coast was clear. “I have lately traveled north into the wilderness in search of some of their ingredients. My ambition is for an oil that will speed the mending time of bones.”

“ But doctor, why would you want that?” asked one of the officers. “Then you would have less time to try your medicines, and receive considerably less profit by selling them.”

They had a good laugh at the general practice of apothecaries, which they understood Jake to be despite his using the title of doctor. In England there was a strict difference between the two, and a good deal of snobbery existed against druggists — provided, of course, you weren’t sick at the moment.

“ I have attended the University of Edinburgh,” Jake said stilly, seeing a chance to escape gracefully by naming the world’s most advanced medical college. “I resent the implication.”

He rose.

“ Don’t be too sensitive, my good fellow,” said Major Harris. “It was only a joke.”

“ Thank you, but I have other business here.”

“ I had a question for you,” said Harris, whose grip on his arm suddenly tightened.

“ We can discuss it another time, in different company.”

“ The doctor is right to be insulted,” said Bacon. At is first word, even the people at the far end of the room stopped speaking. “There is much to be gained from studying other peoples/ I myself am interested in the voodoos.”

“ That’s gratifying to hear, General,” replied Jake. The two men’s eyes met in the grim light of the tavern. Each instantly had a sense of the other — though Jake hoped the general’s was not as deep as his own.

“ I would be interested in discussing them with you,” continued Bacon. “Unlike some of our other officers, I have better ways to spend my days than whoring among the rabble.”

His men looked down at the table.

“ I would like very much to talk with you sometime,” said Jake, bowing — and in the process loosening Harris’s grip. “But it will have to be another time. I was on my way to see a patient here.”

“ In the tavern?” asked Harris.

“ There are benefits to consulting in such a place,” said Jake, taking a step back. “The patient tends to be more at ease.”

“ I would like to ask you about certain papers,” whispered the major, “what are no longer in my possession.”

“ What type of papers?” asked Jake in a loud voice.

Harris’s face suddenly turned red. He could not say in front of this company, certainly not in front of the general, without volunteering himself for a court-martial. But the matter being opened, it needed a satisfactory closing.

“ Oh, the copies of the Gazette,” said the patriot. “But I thought you wouldn’t mind. They had that excellent article making fun of Washington — I’ve already sent them to my father and sister. Those are the papers you mean, aren’t they?” Jake added. The look of innocent puzzlement he expressed would have fooled the king.

“ It took only a half look around the table to convince the major that, yes, that was precisely what he was talking about.

“ You will call for dinner Sunday,” Bacon commanded. “Promptly at one.”

“ Thank you, sir; I will be there.” Jake gave a little salute with his head — a bit too much flourish, but such gestures were never wasted on knights. “In the meantime, gentlemen, let me warn you that an epidemic of a newly discovered strain of the flue, “Greene Disease,” we doctors call it, is expected this spring. I should recommend a good dose of mercury to get your systems in order before it strikes.”

Having prescribed poison for them all, Jake effected an escape, ducking from the front room into the hallway. AS he reached the threshold, a loud screech emanated from upstairs.

A cow being harpooned made a more harmonious sound. Jake’s first reaction was to cover his ears; his second was to listen more carefully. It did not sound like it came from van Clynne, but in truth it did not sound like it came from any human being.

Had Jake stumbled onto one of Bacon’s notorious torture chambers?

Any consideration for his own safety vanished as he leaped up the stairs, determined to rescue his friend. By the time he reached the top of the first flight, the cries had become low moans of pain. He realized they were coming from a closed closet on the next floor up, just off the railed landing. Two leaps and he made the top of the steps. Another strike and he was halfway to the middle of the threshold to confront the damnable British.

One of whom had passed out at the table, the other of whom was producing those hideous sounds by moaning loudly into a large bowl filled with beer.

“ It’s about time you showed up,” said van Clynne, rising from the table. “I was beginning to think I was going to have to find you myself.”

“ What happened here?”

“ The English simply cannot hold their liquor.” Van Clynne reached back and took a last gulp from his tankard.

It took several blocks for van Clynne to detail his encounter with the sergeant. Night had now progressed far on her path; the stars twinkled above the dusty glow of the streetlamps and the moon attempted to peek through the clouds.

“ It seems General Howe is not content with amusing himself with the mistress Sultana,” van Clynne said, relating what the soldiers had told him once they’d started drinking. The reference was to one of Mrs. Loring’s less vulgar nicknames. “He went out to the ship for a rendezvous with a certain Miss Elva Pierce this evening, and awaits a Miss Melanie Pinkleton tomorrow. Apparently, he can’t decide if he likes blondes or redheads.”

How did van Clynne know the hair color of Mrs. Loring’s new rivals?

“ Because, sir, I know both families. The Pierces are of no account, being English, but Pinkleton — I daresay the girl bounced on my knee once or twice as a child. Her father was a good Dutchman, God rest his soul, but you see what comes from marrying a Scots woman.

“ Red hair?”

“ And much worse.”

“ Would she recognize you?”

“ Claus van Clynne is not a man easily forgotten.”

“ The guards expect you in the morning to deliver the bullet?” Jake said.

“ I’ll not go on the ocean if my life depends on it,” said van Clynne. “Not this evening, not in the morning, not ever. We’re better off trying our luck at Roelff’s. I know a handy way from King’s Bridge.”

Jake weighed the options. Howe being aboard ship would make escape a difficult contingency, especially since the mistress would complicate things. And the Dutchman’s remarkable cunning in disposing of his two guards this evening might not be so well received among the British as it was with Jake.

“ Are you sure the officers will stay in the inn, and not in the camp?”

“ It is all they ever do. I don’t understand the attraction myself, but apparently they are enamored of Roelff’s daughter.”

“ All right. Assuming Roelff has convinced them to stay, you’ll arrange with him to be placed in the same room as Herstraw. You go in ahead of him so he can’t block the door against us. After he falls asleep, you let me in and I’ll exchange the bullets.”

“ Why must I take the harder assignment? Why don’t you?”

“ We’ll take our horses near the opposite shore,” said Jake, ignoring the question. “I know a place we can tie them north of the British armory, and get a rowboat besides.”

“ A rowboat!”

“ We can’t risk going back by King’s Bridge. It’s too far north, and besides, they’ll be suspicious of any night traveler, especially if word has gotten out about the sham battle we fought this afternoon.”

“ I would rather reconsider this entire operation from the point of view of dry land,” said van Clynne.