This Duchess of Mine Page 55


“That’s the whole point! We need to make a lesson out of this uprising. We can’t just let it pass: the king’s own yacht was violated by dirty, criminal hands. The king’s noble subjects were fired upon. But that was not the worst.”

Elijah frowned. “What was the worst?”

“The Duchess of Cosway was on that yacht! She was caught by those criminals, manhandled, perhaps violated—”

Cheever-Chittlesford interrupted. “They held her briefly; she was rescued by her husband.”

“They pushed the Duke of Cosway into the water!” Stibblestich said, his voice rising even higher. “The duke and duchess had to swim to shore.”

“Dear me,” Elijah said, wondering if his wife knew that her friend Isidore had taken an impromptu bath in the Thames.

“We’ve had uprisings on the hulks in the past,” Stibblestich said, “but as I’ve told you before, this time they’ve gone too far! We must make an example of them! They touched—nay, they assaulted—a peer. Two peers!”

Cheever-Chittlesford cleared his throat again. “Of course, the duke and duchess do appear to be unharmed.”

“By the grace of God, who looks out for the just and innocent,” Stibblestich said. His breath smelled like brandy and pickled eggs, and Elijah’s stomach lurched.

“And also because the Duke of Cosway was able to knock those holding his wife to the ground,” Cheever-Chittlesford added.

“If we don’t make an example of this,” Stibblestich said, “there’ll be no end to it. People will be free to assault the highest in the country, to molest those of the highest blood. We cannot allow such an abomination!”

“The argument is that firing the one boat involved in the uprising would serve as a warning to other prisoners,” Cheever-Chittlesford said, rocking back on his heels.

He wasn’t a bad man. But he was a pragmatic man, and Elijah surmised that he was facing considerable pressure. Nothing else could explain Cheever-Chittlesford’s appearance at his house. Nothing other than the fact that Elijah had served as something of a conscience for Pitt, the one man who wasn’t motivated enough by money or power to lay aside all sense of principle.

“It is wrong to burn those men inside the boat,” Elijah stated. There, the decent truth of it was on the table. “It’s against God’s law and ours.”

“The Parliament makes the laws,” Stibblestich argued. “Together with the king. And sometimes the harshest remedies must be chosen for the good of all. Of course, each man would be allowed to make his last confession. We are not barbarians.”

But of course they were barbarians. The appeal to decency had to be made, as Elijah saw it. Cheever-Chittlesford knew. He knew it was wrong. But that wasn’t the argument that would sway them.

“You intend to burn the ship with the men manacled inside,” Elijah said. “There, in the presence of all London. Will you advertise this fact?”

“Certainly,” Stibblestich said promptly. “How else can we ensure that the criminal element understands the serious consequences of laying hands on a peer? Of rebelling against the punishment meted out to them by a thoughtful and understanding judiciary? It will serve as a lesson to all restless criminal minds who plan such riots.”

“Most of those prisoners, as you know, served in the Royal Navy,” Elijah said. He let that comment hang in the air for a moment. “There are former sailors in the hulks who stole as little as a loaf of bread because they were starving.”

Even Stibblestich knew that returning soldiers were a vast problem in England. “Their home counties should care for them,” he said lamely. But the counties from which these men came could not afford to feed and clothe a man on crutches, or a man with only one eye and one hand.

“Let’s just imagine,” Elijah said, “what the citizens of London will think and feel as they watch the boat burn.”

Stibblestich seized that, of course. “Londoners love a good execution! We’ve had hundreds watching around Tyburn when a murderer is being hanged—or better yet, drawn and quartered.”

“These are not murderers, of course,” Elijah said.

“The murderers have already been hanged, with their cheerful audiences. Murderers do not find themselves in the hulks. These prisoners are the poor, those who stole.”

“Robbers,” Stibblestich said, the word exploding off his tongue. “They beat and they rob. Generally the elderly. They will rob an old woman as soon as look at her!”

“Londoners will watch from the shores, no doubt,” Elijah continued. “They will hear the screams.”

Cheever-Chittlesford’s eyes flared, just slightly.

“The men will be trapped below, as the smoke begins to creep down. I imagine it will be something like the burning of witches, that happened back in uncivilized times…say in the realm of Queen Mary, she who is now nicknamed Bloody Mary. I’m afraid that history does tend to dwell on this sort of event.”

Stibblestich said, “I doubt—”

But Elijah spoke straight over him. “The men will begin to scream. The flames will lick onward. And every person on the shore will know someone who knows someone on that boat. The mothers will likely try to throw themselves into the water at this point. They will begin to shriek.”

Cheever-Chittlesford’s mouth was a thin line.

“Oh yes, they’ll scream,” Elijah said, folding his arms over his chest. “I expect that the ship burning will be the one event that marks the entire reign of King George III. No one will ever forget it. No one on that shore, who watches that wholesale slaughter, will ever stop talking of it, not in his or her lifetime.” He turned sharply on Cheever-Chittlesford. “Does the king realize that he stands to create his legacy by this single act?”

The question of Pitt’s legacy hung in the air, not to mention Cheever-Chittlesford’s.

“I doubt it,” he replied.

“Well, I doubt it would be anything near as dramatic!” Stibblestich blustered. “You’ll have us all in tears, talking of mothers and such. But the reality is that Londoners like a good hanging!”

“That they do. A man who’s been fairly caught and confessed—for they always appear to have written their confessions, even the ones who can’t sign their own names—London does enjoy a good hanging of that nature. But men chained to the walls, forced to die slowly, in terror and excruciating agony, for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread?”

Cheever-Chittlesford cleared his throat. “I am sure another solution will present itself.”

Elijah knew better than to show the slightest sign of satisfaction. He’d lost arguments, after winning them, by exhibiting pleasure in the outcome.

Cheever-Chittlesford’s eyes looked like old metal coins, dull and impenetrable. But Elijah knew he had him. Cheever-Chittlesford would not allow the firing of the hulks. Elijah looked deliberately at Stibblestich, and then back at Cheever-Chittlesford. “Statesmen are likely to be judged by those they have around them. Men of the highest integrity are a bulwark against depraved decisions.”

“Nothing depraved about it!” Stibblestich said. His voice was quieter now that he’d lost. He looked disappointed. He, for one, would have enjoyed standing on the riverbank and watching the ship burn.

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