“Henry! Isak! I am truly sorry,” Jeremy exclaimed as he arrived at their rendezvous. “I pray I have not caused you worry. My father made a request of me which I could not refuse, and I have only now been able to get away. It turns out it was for the best. There is something I must discuss with–”
Jeremy paused as his friends turned toward him. They were meeting in one of their usual places, just outside of the town on the way to the Coates’ farm. The moon had broken through the clouds at last and it shown down on the small glade they occupied. Isak Poole was a large man, strong and well-muscled with his profession. When he shifted, Jeremy saw that behind his solid form there was another man.
He frowned. “What is this?”
Henry’s round face lit with delight. “Jeremy! We were just speaking of you. Come! Come and meet Professor Knighton.” He turned to the stranger. “Nicholas, this is Jeremy. The one I told you about.”
The stranger stepped forward and held out his hand. “I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Larkin.”
Nicholas Knighton was blond as he, though his hair was tousled and seemed to defy containment. A portion of it was pulled back in a tail, but several long wisps had broken free to plague his pallid cheeks. The moonlight painted him an invalid, as if he had not seen the sun in decades, but the surety with which he moved and the impish light that shown from his eyes declared him a robust man in the prime of life. Professor Knighton looked to be about thirty-five and was obviously a man of some wealth. His clothes were cut from an expensive cloth; the waistcoat that showed beneath his coat studded with pearl buttons and worked with precious silver thread. At his neck he wore a sterling stickpin with a ruby head the worth of which, most likely, could have bought any farm in Chester.
Jeremy took his hand.
It was cold.
As he opened his mouth to return Knighton’s greeting, still puzzled by the stranger’s presence among them, Jeremy experienced a sense of spiraling down – as if he were on the edge of fainting. Then someone – or some thing– caught him and held him up and began to speak softly, as a mother does when her child is on the edge of sleep.
Jeremy. You will not be afraid. You will not question who I am. You will trust me.
Jeremy shook himself and released the stranger’s hand. “Sir, I….”
Nicholas Knighton was frowning. “Mr. Larkin, is all well with you? You look a bit peaked.”
“I am fine, sir.” He ran a hand over his face. “What brings you to us?”
“This is an old friend of mine, Jeremy,” Henry jumped in. “As I said, one of my professors from Harvard. Nicholas was known there for his outspoken commitment to the Cause. In the time I have been away from Massachusetts, that commitment has grown from passion into action.” Henry drew closer and lowered his voice. “Nicholas is one of those whom this General LaCroix has hounded and tries to destroy. He is on the run.”
Nicholas nodded. “I came to the Apothecary shop last night seeking Henry. And through him, your Society. I have…knowledge about LaCroix that may aid you in saving lives.”
“Your own included?” Jeremy asked.
“What’s wrong, Jeremy?” Isak asked from the sidelines. He had been standing, listening to their conversation but saying little.
He turned to his friend. “Isak, you are not usually so trusting on the instant. What is different this time?”
The black man beamed. “There’s no reason to be afraid, or to question who Nicholas is, my friend. We can trust him. Implicitly.”
A shiver snaked down Jeremy’s spine as Henry nodded in agreement. These were the same words he had heard, just now, in his head.
What was going on?
“Permit me to explain as best I can,” Nicholas Knighton offered. “Lucien LaCroix is an old…acquaintance of mine. A mentor, in fact, though I hesitate to put that word to one so evil. A brilliant man, but one whose brilliance has compelled him to place himself among the gods. Lucien believes the common man fodder for his schemes. He abuses and uses those he thinks below him, as if they were nothing..” The elegantly dressed man paused. “I owe him much, but I will not stand by while he uses his power and influence to destroy good people and to bring this fledgling nation to ruin. I will not!”
Whatever else he might be, this Professor Knighton was passionate.
“You echo our sentiments indeed then, sir,” Jeremy said quietly.
“The professor is anxious to meet with the General,” Isak interjected. “It seems he knew Lafayette’s father.”
Jeremy’s eyes returned to the stranger. Professor Knighton had a boyish charm that made him appear much younger than his years. At most he might have been thirty-six or seven. If so, he would have been about sixteen when the young Marquis was born. It was possible.
“How, might I ask?”
“I lived in England at that time and journeyed frequently to France. I met Michel and his young wife at court. As I said, LaCroix was my teacher. He saw that I had the finest education possible. The Seven Years’ War was the blade that finally parted us.” Nicholas’s eyes grew distant with the memory. “LaCroix supported the English Cause while I chose to fight for the French and my friends.”
“But he has a French wife,” Jeremy countered.
For a moment the man seemed surprised. Then he smiled and agreed with a nod, “Jeanette is LaCroix’s companion, not his wife. She was born in France but has spent most of her life abroad. She claims no nationality. Like LaCroix,” he said, his voice tinged with regret, “Jeanette does what is best for Jeanette. May I ask how you met her?”
“At my father’s house, this night. At supper.”
Nicholas looked surprised. “Supper?”
“With two British officers and this man, Lucien LaCroix. I agree with you, sir. The man is evil.”
“Did you…speak with him?” Nicholas asked.
“More with the lady.” Jeremy shook his head but went no further.
“Yes? What is it? Tell me.”
Jeremy felt that tug – the sinking feeling again as if Knighton could somehow compel him to answer. He resisted it more easily this time. Keeping his suspicions to himself, he answered only, “A curious thing. My father was certain he had met Jeanette before in England, some forty and more years ago when he was a lad about my age.”
“You don’t say?” Nicholas smiled that smile again – disengaging and distracting. “That would make Jeanette seventy or so? A well-preserved woman for her age, would you not say?”
Jeremy sensed there was more to Henry’s professor and his one-time friends than met the eye, but he had no proof. For now, having Nicholas Knighton close at hand where he could watch him seemed the best – and only thing he could do.
Still, he hesitated at taking him to the General’s camp.
“Professor Knighton, if you would excuse us a moment.” Jeremy gestured to Henry. “I would like to speak to my companions alone.”
The elegantly dressed man nodded. “Certainly. And it is Nicholas. Please.”
“I will just avail myself of some of that coffee brewing on the fire. If that is acceptable?” he asked Isak.
The black man nodded with a grin. “We’ll join you in a moment.”
When Knighton had departed and his two friends turned toward him, Jeremy was taken aback. Both were angry.
“What do you mean questioning the Professor’s intentions?” Henry growled. “I told you he is my trusted friend.”
“You are too suspicious, Jeremy,” Isak was exasperated. “This man is here to help us and the Cause!”
“But what do you know of him, really? Henry, that was years ago. Do we have word from any of the General’s men? Did he carry a note of introduction from someone in the East? What proof have you that he is not a spy for this man, LaCroix? Tonight at dinner the woman, Jeanette, mentioned a companion named ‘Nichola’. And your professor has admitted to being this man’s pupil!”
“And General Washington fought for Braddock once upon a time! Does that place him under suspicion?” Henry countered hotly.
“Of course, not,” Jeremy replied.
“Men change, Jeremy,” Isak insisted. “You know that. If you cannot allow for it, then we must all be judged guilty and condemned outright.”
Jeremy fell silent for a moment. He looked from one to the other. Then he asked, afraid of the answer. “Just how much have you told Knighton – about us?”
“As much as he needed to know,” Henry answered, his eyes taking on the glazed look of one on the edge of sleep. “We have nothing to fear. Nicholas can be trusted.”
Jeremy’s gaze shot to the blond stranger who sat beside the fire. He should trust the professor, his friends said.
But could he trust his friends?
Sergeant Daniel Boggs stood at the entrance to his General’s tent. He hesitated to disturb him. Lafayette was sitting beside his desk with his hand laying across his lap, an open letter in that hand. The courier had arrived from the port today bearing letters to most of the men. One had come to Lafayette from his Excellency, General Washington, but another had had the postmark of Paris, France. He prayed it had not brought his general hurtful news.
Still, the business he had would not wait.
“It is odd, is it not,” Lafayette asked without looking up, ‘how the past can intrude on the present with so little warning?”
Daniel entered the tent. “The letter from home?”
“Oui.” Lafayette looked at the parchment sheet and then tossed it on his desk. “A letter from a friend of my father’s. He had read of my exploits in reaching America and felt I should know something about the soldier who begat me.” His general looked up. “They fought together in Prussia. He wanted to let me know what kind of man Michel-Louis-Christophle-Gilbert Du Motier was.”
“A good one, I am sure. Sir.”
Lafayette favored him with a shadow of his usual engaging smile. “Oui. A good one.” The young man seemed to shake himself then and rose from his seat. “Now, what news?”
“Nothing good, I fear. This man, LaCroix, is in Chester. He took his supper meal at the Larkins last night.”
The general drew a breath and let it out slowly. “Mon Dieu! Do you think he suspects Jeremy?”
“It is hard to say. It seems LaCroix is a bit of a mystery. Our men who are undercover in the town have asked about him, and one has even spoken to him. It seems he fought with the Hanoverians in Prussia during the Seven Years’ War, distinguishing himself, and was made a General when the war here in the colonies broke out. His special purpose is to ferret out rebel leaders – something I hear he is almost supernatural in his ability to do.” Boggs paused. “I fear for you as well, sir.”
“The Hanoverians? What was the battle, and who, his commander?” Lafayette asked sharply, ignoring that fear.
Daniel knew where his young charge’s thoughts were flying. “At Minden, sir. With Captain Phillips,” he admitted grudgingly.
It seemed his general’s past had truly come to haunt him. Captain William Phillips had commanded the battery that was responsible for Lafayette’s father’s death. At the Battle of Minden in 1759.
Lafayette placed his hand on the letter and fell silent for a moment, thinking. When he roused, he did not look at him but crossed to the tent door and gazed out at the night. The sky had cleared. The stars shown brightly now as did the moon, casting an argent light on an autumnal world on the verge of its seasonal death.
“Have you made contact with Jeremy?” Lafayette asked, his voice tight with unspoken grief.
“They have been laying low for a few days due to the disturbance with Masters.”
“And how is Michael?”
Michael Masters was the man seen leaving Henry Abington’s shop – the rebel leader who had ended there by chance.
“Away. Safe.” Daniel moved to the tent opening and joined him. “But it has put suspicion on Henry. And by association, Jeremy and Isak.”
“Suspicion that one of them is Captain Yankee Doodle?” his general asked, concerned.
“No. Merely that they are sympathizers. I would imagine Samuel Larkin’s invitation to the British officers to dine with him was accepted, on their part, in order to foray for information. The officers were probably checking out both the Mayor and his son. Hopefully Jeremy appeared to be his usual indolent disinterested self,” he added with a half-smile.
Lafayette nodded. “Tell Lieutenant Billings to keep up surveillance on this man, LaCroix. He is to report any new developments to Major Clark from now on.”
“To Clark?” Daniel had a sick feeling. “Not to you, sir?”
“No.” His general turned into the tent and walked to his desk and picked up the letter laying there. “You and I are going to find Jeremy and the others.” Lafayette paused and then asked quietly, “Do you know Shakespeare, Daniel?”
“A bit,” he admitted. “I’ve seen one or two of the comedies.”
“But life is most often a tragedy, my friend, is it not? Romeo once said, ‘For my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars, shall bitterly begin his fearful date with this night’s revels’. The Bard’s words, but I feel in my heart that they are true.” Lafayette turned and fixed him with his deep brown eyes. “Civilian attire, Daniel. Return here in one hour and we will set out.”
“Sir, I could go alone.”
His general shook his head. “No. I do not believe in coincidence, my friend. There is something here I need to do. For my father.” Lafayette folded the letter and placed it within his shirt, near his heart. “And may He ‘that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sails.’”
Elizabeth tapped her fork against the pewter plate that rested before her. Her Uncle John had returned in the late afternoon. Together they had completed the farm chores, including checking on their very pregnant cow, Betsy, and then sat down for supper. For some reason her uncle’s arrogant boasting and continual complaining was especially tiresome tonight. She longed to escape. Once he retired, she was going to slip out and meet with Jeremy and the others in the barn. When she had seen Jeremy in town that day he had hinted that something was up. He said if they could manage it, they would stop at the farm again and fill her in before heading for General Lafayette’s camp.
It wasn’t fair. She was as much a part of the Society as the three men, but most often she was consigned to waiting and wondering and watching for their return. There were times when she just wanted to chop off all her long brown hair and put on a pair of breeches and ride away with them, never to return!
Especially times like now.
Elizabeth picked up her plate and rose from her seat and headed for the table by the hearth where she kept the divided wooden tray filled with sand and an oiled cloth for cleaning the forks and knives. Her uncle huffed as she rose and snorted.
“You see, girl! I was right. You are paying me no mind. Elizabeth, what is the matter with you tonight?”
She sunk the tines of her fork into the sand and then turned to look at him. “Were you saying something?” she asked.
Adding, ‘of import?’ under her breath.
“I was telling you how I rendered aid to Major Spebbington today by putting him on the trail of that traitor, Michael Masters, who was seen in Chester several days ago.”
“Uncle, you said you had seen Masters on the road,” she picked up the oiled cloth. “I would hardly consider that putting someone on his ‘trail’.”
“Be silent, girl! I am loyal to the Crown,” her uncle growled. “Sometimes I wonder about you, and where your sympathies lie.”
Elizabeth paused while pulling the tines through the oiled cloth. “What do you mean?”
“Ah, now you listen. That boy,” he said rising and heading for the rack that held his pipe, “that good-for-nothing Larkin boy! Do you know what they are saying in secret of him in the town?”
She took a deep breath to fight off her mounting panic, and headed for her uncle’s plate that still rested on the table. “No. What do they say about Jeremy?”
“That he, like his brother, is sympathetic to the Rebel Cause.” Her uncle used a taper to light his pipe, puffed a few times, and then muttered almost to himself, “Though if you ask me that boy has nothing more in his head than the worry about where the coin for his next pint will come from!”
“Jeremy, a rebel?” Elizabeth laughed and then turned her back on him, hiding her concern. As she began to scrape her uncle’s plate, she asked quietly, “Is he in any danger, Uncle?”
“Not if he keeps his nose clean!” John Coates puffed on his pipe a few more times. When he spoke again, his voice trembled with genuine fear. “If you know anything, Elizabeth, it would be wise to tell me. This British general, LaCroix, who has come to seek out the rebels in our midst – you would not want to cross him.”
Elizabeth turned and looked at him. “LaCroix?”
He nodded. “LaCroix has a reputation as a butcher. Fierce in battle and fanatical in his devotion to his work. They say he has already been responsible for the capture and death of seven rebel leaders. And he is here in Chester seeking out this ‘Yankee Doodle’ whose name of late has been on everyone’s lips.” Her uncle John moved from the hearth to her side. “So I ask you again, Elizabeth – do you know anything?”
Her heart was pounding fiercely. “No,” she lied. “Nothing.”
The older man stared at her for a minute and then grunted. “Well, I am off to bed then. Are you coming?”
“I need to clean up here, and then check on Betsy. Her time is close.” Checking on the expectant cow was a plausible reason for spending some time in the barn. She only hoped Jeremy and the others were there already.
John Coates nodded. “See that you lock up when you come in.”
“I will. Goodnight, Uncle John.”
He kissed her on the hair and then turned toward the stair. “Goodnight, child.”
Elizabeth watched him go and then dropped the oiled cloth and headed for the door. Catching her cloak from where it hung on a peg by the door, she threw it about her shoulders and stepped outside –
Chewing her upper lip, Elizabeth gazed at the moonlit barn and frowned. Then she glanced back at the house. It seemed there was something she had forgotten – something important. What could it be?
As she hesitated on the flagstone path, the barn door opened and a familiar figure appeared. Elizabeth smiled and returned Jeremy’s wave. Then she hurried to his side.
He caught her about the waist and gave her a quick kiss. “Is your uncle abed?” he asked.
She nodded. “I saw him up the stairs.” As he put his arm around her, she asked him, “What is happening? Do you know anything more?”
Jeremy nodded. “Come within. There is someone you must meet.”