Home > The Queen of Bedlam (Matthew Corbett #2)

The Queen of Bedlam (Matthew Corbett #2)
Author: Robert McCammon

Part One: The Masker

Chapter One

'Twas said better to light a candle than to curse the dark, but in the town of New York in the summer of 1702 one might do both, for the candles were small and the dark was large. True, there were the town-appointed constables and watchmen. Yet often between Dock Street and the Broad Way these heroes of the nocturne lost their courage to a flask of John Barleycorn and the other temptations that beckoned so flagrantly on the midsummer breeze, be it the sound of merriment from the harbor taverns or the intoxicating scent of perfume from the rose-colored house of Polly Blossom.

The nightlife was, in a word, lively. Though the town awakened before sunrise to the industrious bells of mercantile and farming labors, there were still many who preferred to apply their sleeping hours to the avocations of drinking, gambling, and what mischief might follow those troublesome twins. The sun would certainly rise on the morrow, but tonight was always a temptation. Why else would this brash and eager, Dutch-groomed and now English-dressed town boast more than a dozen taverns, if not for the joy of intemperate companionshipi

But the young man who sat alone at a table in the back room of the Old admiral was not there to seek companions, be they of humankind or brewer's yeast. He did have before him a tankard of strong dark ale, which he sipped at every so often, but this was a prop to blend into the scene. One watching him would see how he winced and frowned at the drinking, for it took a true hardgut to down the Old admiral's keel-cleaner. This was not his usual haunt. In fact he was well-known at the Trot Then Gallop, up on Crown Street, but here he was within a coin's throw of the Great Dock on the East River, where the masted ships whispered and groaned on the night currents and the flambeaux from fishermen's skiffs burned red against the eddies. Here in the Old admiral the blue smoke of clay pipes whirled through the lamplight as men bellowed for more ale or wine and the crack of dice hitting tables sounded like the pistols of little wars. That noise never failed to remind Matthew Corbett of the pistol shot that had blown out the brains of...well, it had been three years ago, it was best not to linger on such a foregone picture.

He was only twenty-three years old, but something about him was elder than his span. Perhaps it was his grave seriousness, his austere demeanor, or the fact that he could always forecast rain from the aching in his bones like those of a toothless senior muttering in his pudding. Or, to be more correct, the ache of ribs below his heart and left arm at the shoulder, bones broken courtesy of a bear known as Jack One Eye. The bear had also left Matthew with a crescent scar that began just above his right eyebrow and curved into the hairline. a doctor in the Carolina colony had once said to him that ladies liked a young man with a dashing scar, but this one seemed to warn the ladies that he'd come close to a cropper with Death, and perhaps the chill of the mausoleum lingered in his soul. His left arm had been almost without life for over a year after that incident. He'd expected to live on the starboard for the rest of his days but a good and rather unorthodox doctor here in New York had given him arm exercises-self-inflicted torture involving an iron bar to which horseshoes were chained on either end-to do daily, along with hot compresses and stretching. at last came the miracle morning when he could rotate his shoulder all the way around, and with further treatment nearly all his strength had returned. Thus passed away one of the last acts of Jack One Eye upon the earth, gone now but surely never forgotten.

Matthew's cool gray eyes, flecked with dark blue like smoke at twilight, were aimed toward a certain table on the other side of the room. He was careful, though, not to stare too pointedly, but only to graze and jab and look into his ale, shift his shoulders, and graze and jab again. No matter, really; the object of his interest would have to be blind and dumb not to know he was there, and true evil was neither. No, true evil just continued to talk and grin and sip with puckered lips at a greasy glass of wine, puff a smoke ring from a black clay pipe, and then talk and grin some more, all while the gaming went on with its hollerings and dice-shots and shadowy men yelling as if to scare the dawn from ever happening.

But Matthew knew it was more than the humor and drinking and gaming of a tavern in a young town with the sea at its chest and wilderness to its back that brought out this festivity. It was the Thing That No One Spoke Of. The Incident. The Unfortunate Happenstance.

It was the Masker, is what it was.

So drink up wine from those fresh casks and blow your smoke to the moon, Matthew thought. Howl like wolves and grin like thieves. We've all got to walk a dark street home tonight.

and the Masker could be any one of them, he mused. Or the Masker could be gone the way he'd come, never to pass this way again. Who could knowi Certainly not the idiots who these days called themselves constables and were empowered by the town council to patrol the streets. He reasoned they were probably all indoors somewhere as well, though the weather be warm and the moon half on the hang; they were stupid, yes, but not foolish.

Matthew took another drink of his ale and flicked his gaze again toward that far table. The pipesmoke hung in blue layers, shifting with the wind of motion or exhalation. at the table sat three men. One elder, fat and bloated, two younger with the look of ruffians. But to be sure, this was a rumpot of ruffians, so that in itself was not surprising. Matthew hadn't seen either of the men with the fat bloatarian before. They were dressed in rustic style, both with well-used leather waistcoats over white shirts and one with leather patches on the knees of his breeches. Who were theyi he wondered. and what business did they have with Eben ausleyi

Only very seldom and just for a quick flash did Matthew catch the glint of ausley's small black eyes aimed at him, but just as swiftly the man angled his white-wigged head away and continued the conversation with his two juniors. anyone looking on would not realize that the young Corbett-with his lean long-jawed face, his unruly thatch of fine black hair, and his pale candlelit countenance-was a crusader whose quest had slowly, night upon night, turned to obsession. In his brown boots, gray breeches, and simple white shirt, frayed at the collar and cuffs but scrupulously laundered, he appeared to be no more than his occupation of magistrate's clerk demanded. Certainly Magistrate Powers wouldn't approve of these nightly travels, but travel Matthew must, for the deepest desire of his heart was to see Eben ausley hanged from the town gallows.

Now ausley put down his pipe and drew the table's lamp nearer. The companion on his left-a dark-haired, sunken-eyed man perhaps nine or ten years elder than Matthew-was speaking quietly and seriously. ausley, a heavy-jowled pig in his mid-fifties, listened intently. at length Matthew saw him nod and reach into the coat of his vulgar wine-purple suit, the frills on his shirt quivering with the belly-strain. The white wig on ausley's head was adorned with elaborate curls, which perhaps in London was the fashion of the moment but here in New York was only a fop's topping. ausley brought from within his coat a string-wrapped lead pencil and a palm-sized black notebook that Matthew had seen him produce a score of times. There was some kind of gold-leaf ornamentation on the cover. Matthew had already mused upon the thought that ausley was as addicted to his note-taking as to his games of Ombre and Ticktack, both of which seemed to have a hold on the man's mind and wallet. He could imagine with a faint smile the notes scribbled down on those pages: Dropped a loaf this morning...a fig or two into the bucket...dear me, only a nugget today... ausley touched the pencil to his tongue and began to write. Three or four lines were set down, or so it appeared to Matthew. Then the notebook was closed and put away and finally the pencil as well. ausley spoke again to the dark-haired young man, while the other one-sandy-haired and thick-set, with a slow oxen-like blinking of his heavy eyelids-appraised the noisy game of Bone-ace going on over in the corner. ausley grinned; the yellow lamplight fairly leaped off his teeth. a group of drinkers stumbled past between Matthew and his objects of interest. Just that fast ausley and the other two men were standing up, reaching for their hats on the wallhooks. ausley's tricorn displayed a dyed crimson feather, while the dark-haired man with the leather-patched breeches wore a wide-brimmed leather hat and the third gent a common short-billed cap. The group strolled to the tavern-keeper at the bar to settle their bills.

Matthew waited. When the coins were down in the money-box and the three men going out onto Dock Street, Matthew put on his own brown linen cap and stood up. He was a little light-headed. The strong ale, currents of smoke, and raucous noise had unhinged his senses. He quickly paid his due and walked into the night.

ah, what a relief out here! a warm breeze in the face was cool compared to the heated confines of a crowded tavern. The Old admiral always had such an effect on him. He'd tracked ausley here on many earlier occasions so he ought to be immune to such, but his idea of an excellent evening was a drink of polite wine and a quiet game of chess with the regulars at the Gallop. He smelled on the breeze the pungence of harbor tarbuckets and dead fish. But there on the very same breeze, wafting past, was quite another scent Matthew had expected: Eben ausley wore a heavy cologne that smelled of cloves. He nearly bathed in the stuff. The man might as well have carried a torch with him, to illuminate his comings and goings; it certainly helped to follow ausley by on these nights. But tonight, it seemed, ausley and his companions were in no hurry, for there they were strolling up ahead. They walked past the glow of a lantern that hung from a wooden post to mark the intersection of Dock Street and Broad Street, and Matthew saw their intent was to go west onto Bridge Street. Well, he thought, this was a new path. Usually ausley headed directly back the six blocks north to the orphanage on King Street. Better keep back a bit more, Matthew decided. Better just walk quietly and keep watch.

Matthew followed, crossing the cobblestoned street. He was tall and thin but not frail, and he walked with a long stride that he had to restrain lest he get up the back of his bull's-eye. The smells of the Great Dock faded, to be replaced by the heady aromas of hay and livestock. In this section of town were several stables and fenced enclosures for pigs and cows. Warehouses held maritime and animal supplies in stacks of crates and barrels. Occasionally Matthew caught a glimpse of candlelight through a shutter, as someone moved about inside a countinghouse or stable. Never let it be said that all the residents of New York gamboled or slept at night, as some might rather labor clock-round if physical strength would allow.

a horse clopped past, its rider wearing polished boots. Matthew saw ausley and the two others turn right at the next corner, onto the Broad Way near the Governor's House. He made the turn at a cautious pace. His quarry walked a block ahead, still just ambling. Matthew took note of candlelight in several upper windows of the white-bricked governor's abode beyond the walls of Fort William Henry. The new man, Lord Cornbury, had arrived from England only a few days ago. Matthew hadn't yet seen him, nor had anyone else of his acquaintance, but the notices plastered up announced a meeting in the town hall tomorrow afternoon so he expected to soon have a look at the gent who'd been awarded the reins of New York by Queen anne. It would be good to have someone in charge of things, since the constables were in such disarray and the town's mayor, Thomas Hood, had died in June.

Matthew saw that the red-feathered cockatoo and his companions were approaching another tavern, the Thorn Bush. That nasty little place was even gamier than the admiral, in all senses of the word. Matthew had been witness in there last November when ausley had lost what must have been a small fortune on the game of Bankafalet. Matthew decided he wasn't up to any more tavern-sitting tonight. Let them go in and drink themselves blue, if they liked. It was time to go home and abed.

But ausley and the two men kept walking past the Thorn Bush, not even pausing to look in the door. as Matthew neared the place, a drunk young man-andrew Kippering, Matthew saw in the bloom of lamplight-and a dark-haired girl with a heavily painted face staggered out into the street, laughing at some shared amusement. They brushed past Matthew and went on in the direction of the harbor. Kippering was an attorney of some renown and could be a serious sort, but was not unknown to tip the bottle and frequent Madam Blossom's household.

ausley and the others turned right onto Beaver Street and crossed Broad Street once again, heading east toward the riverfront. Here and there lanterns burned on cornerposts, and every seventh dwelling was required by law to show a light. a dog barked fiercely behind a white picket fence and another echoed off in the distance. a man wearing a gold-trimmed tricorn and carrying a walking-stick suddenly turned a corner in front of Matthew and almost scared him witless, but with a quick nod the man was striding away, the stick tap-tapping on the brick sidewalk.

Matthew picked up his pace to keep ausley in sight, but making certain to step carefully lest he mar his boots with any of the animal dung that often littered both bricks and cobbles. a horse-cart trundled past with a single figure hunched over the reins. Matthew walked on a narrow street between two walls of white stone. ahead, by the illumination of a dying post-lamp, ausley and the others turned right onto Sloat Lane. a fire had broken out here at the first of the summer and consumed several houses. The odor of ashes and flame-wrack still lingered in the air, commingled with rotten cloves and the smell of a pig that needed to be roasted. Matthew stopped and carefully peered around the corner. His quarry had slipped out of sight, between darkened wooden houses and squat little red brick buildings. Some of the houses farther on were blackened ruins. The lantern on the cornerpost ahead flickered, about to give up its ghost. a little prickling of the skin on the back of Matthew's neck made him look around the way he'd come. Standing a distance behind him was a figure in dark clothes and hat, washed by the candlelight on the cornerpost he'd just passed. This was not his area of habitation, and it struck him suddenly that he was very far from home.

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