Tony thought that this was, quite possibly, the maddest thing he had ever done. He should be at home, managing the land he had only a few months ago inherited from his mother, and making arrangements for his younger siblings' schooling in the coming year. Or, if he wished to take life less seriously, he should be attending the opera and flirting his way to invitations to all his best balls. (Not that he had ever been particularly good at flirting.) In no wise should he be standing on board a ship bound for the current most dangerous place in Europe, listening to one of his closest friends talk about disguises and maps and gate passes.
But here he was, on Percy Blakeney's yacht, hoping that Percy wasn't as mad as some people said he was. A few days ago, back in Percy's drawing room, everything had seemed so obvious as Percy explained it. They would just sail over there, ride to Paris, rescue a few people, and be heroes, as simple as that. But the closer they got to France, the less any of those steps seemed simple.
"Hastings, Stowmarries, and Ffoulkes, you'll ride directly to Paris by the fastest route," Percy was saying. "I'll send a man to arrange horses as soon as we make landfall. Dewhurst, you'll ride with me, and we'll follow on behind. Ffoulkes, when you reach Paris, go to the Rue Sainte-Anne and look for a blue house. If you mention my name and pay him appropriately, the man there should let you a room where you'll be undisturbed. Unless the situation has changed since I last had word, the Countess and her children have not yet been arrested, but the house where they are staying is being watched. The night after you arrive, go to the back of her house..."
It seemed that all of Percy's instructions were for the others. At least Tony was to ride with him, though was that an honor or not? Did it mean that Percy trusted him enough that he was his first choice of companion—or so little that he didn't think he could handle a task unsupervised? Tony sighed, and stared off at the horizon. Dieppe was visible there, slowly growing larger as the wind pushed them forward. He hoped Percy knew what he was doing. If he didn't, a lot of people were going to end up hurt.
Percy didn't seem to be at all in a hurry. There had been quite the hustle-bustle at first, when they had docked and immediately obtained horses, such that Ffoulkes, Hastings, and Stowmarries had departed for Paris less than fifteen minutes after the Day Dream had tied up at the dock. But since then, Percy had wandered aimlessly about the port, making desultory conversation with what seemed every single fisherman, pilot, and day laborer in the city, while Tony followed in his wake. He tried to join in the conversations when he could, but it seemed that as often as he turned the conversation in a more productive direction—have you ever been to Paris? what do you think of all the goings-on there now?—Percy would ignore his gambits, and continue to ask about how the fish had been this winter, and did they think it was going to be a warm spring, and where was the best place to eat around here.
By noon, Tony had begun to wonder if he should plan on eating lunch at the port. (At least they had plenty of recommendations, though many had been contradictory. Some said the Lapin Romain was the best place to get a decent meal in all of Dieppe, while others said they wouldn't eat something its owner cooked if it were a choice between that and starving.) Finally, Percy darted into the Poisson Brillant and asked the innkeeper to pack them up some sandwiches for their ride. The gold piece he held up was no doubt overpayment, but the sandwiches were ready within minutes. Percy darted out of the inn as fast as he had gone in, and then off they rode.
They kept a brisk pace on the road: slow enough not to hurt the horses, but fast enough that there were no opportunities for conversation. Tony had hoped that Percy's leisurely manner in Dieppe had presaged a leisurely ride, in which he could get a few questions answered (if he could only figure out what questions he wanted to ask). But Percy seemed lost in his thoughts, and disinclined to draw rein any time soon. So Tony continued to follow at Percy's tail, as it were—wondering desperately whether Percy knew what he was doing, but hoping that there was method in his madness.
They stopped twice at streams to let the horses drink—and themselves as well—but other than that, they rode without stopping, even eating their sandwiches in the saddle. Tony was just starting to convince himself that Percy must be in a real hurry now, and perhaps they were going to ride all the way to Paris without halting anywhere—when Percy reined in at a village, no more than forty miles out from Dieppe. "We'll stay here tonight," he announced, giving no explanation.
Andrew and the others must be halfway to Paris, Tony thought. "You're not in much of a hurry," he commented, as he followed Percy in dismounting outside the village's only inn: a ramshackle sort of place that had seen much better days.
"There won't be anything to do immediately in Paris, as Ffoulkes and the lot need time to retrieve the de Courcys," Percy said quietly. "Might as well use the time here as there. Now remember, we're rich Englishmen traveling because we have nothing better to do with our time, and—Ah, my good man! Er...bonhomme!" This louder, to a man who approached, reaching out for their horses' reins. "Ah, bonjour! S'il vous plait traiter nos chevaux bien." He held out a coin—once again too much for the activity at hand—and relinquished the horses. Once the man was out of earshot, he continued: "And we know nothing of any disturbances in Paris or elsewhere. We're just here to have a good time."
"And to speak French with atrocious English accents, I take it," Tony commented.
"That too," Percy said, and led the way into the inn.
The hour was not yet late, but there were several people already in the taproom. Presumably, all were townsfolk; and if any were travelers, they did not stand out from the others in the way that Percy and Tony did. Percy sat down at the bar in the corner and ordered a beer, while handing over a coin that was, yet again, more than strictly necessary. Tony wondered vaguely whether any of Percy's massive fortune would remain until the end of the Revolution at this rate, then sat down next to Percy.
"I'll have the same as him," Tony said in French, and handed over a coin of equal measure. It wouldn't do to let Percy do all the spending when he had plenty of money himself—would not multiple fortunes directed towards the saving of lives be better than a single fortune put to that purpose? He supposed he ought to discuss the financial aspects of Percy's plans with him at some point—though knowing the man's stubbornness, even if he didn't have enough money to last him, he wouldn't admit it until he actually ran out of funds.
"This is the best beer I've ever tasted," Percy said, also in French, as he sipped at the glass he had been handed. "Tony, don't you think so? It's very sharp and full-bodied, with...hmm...a bit of an earthy tone to ground it. Delicious!"
The first descriptive word that came to Tony's mind was "sour", but he didn't say so. He was beginning to suspect that Percy's main goal on this journey was to gain goodwill, and he didn't want to do anything to undermine him. "It's quite something," he said, draining his glass.
"Let me buy you another," Percy said. "In fact, I'll buy a round for everyone in the inn." A cheer went up at this, and people from all over the room gathered round as Percy handed over the largest coin yet, and the innkeeper poured beer for all and sundry. Tony leaned back in his chair and watched as Percy got to work. He made conversation about everything and anything: the crops, the roads, their children's health, their old grand-mère's health, even the troubles in Paris, about which he affected complete ignorance. More gold coins bought a meaty dinner for the two of them, and two rooms, and a couple more rounds for everyone in the inn, which had filled quite a bit as the day grew later.
Tony kept up his portion of the conversation as well as he could—expressing concern and well-wishes for the health of sons, daughters, and grandmothers alike, agreeing about the atrocious state of the roads, and feigning shock at the news of unrest in Paris. But eventually, he couldn't stop yawning, and betook himself to one of the best rooms in the inn, which Percy's lavishness had procured for them. By the time he nodded off, Percy's merriest laughter was still to be heard from downstairs.
For someone who couldn't have gotten more than six hours of sleep, Percy seemed in fine spirits at breakfast. Of course, it was scarcely the first time he'd been up that late, what with all the all-night balls and other entertainments back at home. Tony felt plenty groggy himself, but he clung to the threads of conversation as best he could, as Percy embarked on the second round of conversation with the village's denizens.
Finally, they were finished eating, and had drunk coffee, and been handed sandwiches for the ride, and asked for their horses to be brought round, and promised to drop in again on their return journey if they possibly could. The young man from the previous afternoon brought the horses to the front of the inn, and Percy handed him a coin just as large as he had the day before. A quick heave into the stirrups for both of them, and they were off at a canter for Paris.
It was once again too fast of a pace for talking, but Tony pushed for conversation anyway. "Do you think it's safe to bring the Countess and her family through here when we return?" he asked Percy.
"Well, we won't mention that she's a countess, and we'll take her and the children right up to their room and give out that they're sick, but yes, I think it will be safe."
"They certainly seem to like you well enough."
"That's the goal, my friend," Percy said. He gazed off into the distance. "The more friends we make along the way, the easier a time we'll have of it."
They ate lunch in the saddle, once again, and once again Percy seemed inclined to stop early, even though Tony thought they might have had a chance of reaching Paris before night had fully fallen if they kept on. "Hoping to make more friends tonight?" Tony asked, as they rode up to a village no bigger than the one from the previous night.
"I hope so," Percy said.
"You're already thinking about the long term, aren't you?" Tony said. "Next time we go to Paris, we'll ride this way again."
"Yes," Percy said, "but not just in the long term. We'll be returning by this route."
"And the carriage travels slower than we can ride," Tony said in sudden realization. "That's why you've left so late and stopped so early."
"Well, it also allows more time for socializing, but that's right," Percy said. "It's not a foolproof plan. If one of the inns doesn't pan out, we'll either have to take the countess to an untested inn, or sleep in the woods."
"I met the Countess de Courcy a couple of years ago," Tony said, "and she didn't strike me as the sort of woman who would be up to sleeping in the woods."
"I agree," Percy said. "We'll just have to hope this inn is as amenable to profligate Englishmen as the last one was."
Reaching the inn, they followed the same process as before: hand off the horses, ask for a room, order beer and a meal, and pay exorbitantly at all points. The atmosphere here was chillier, though. The denizens of the inn still accepted the beer that Percy bought for all and sundry, but they were chary of further interaction. Among themselves, they spoke quietly of the political situation, but they seemed uninterested in conversation with the two outsiders.
"We're closer to Paris than we were last night," Tony murmured in English. "There's more uncertainty here."
Percy nodded. "Perhaps they'll come around," he murmured back. "It certainly can't hurt to keep trying." He raised his voice again. "Une autre tournée, bonhomme!" The innkeeper brought another round of drinks. Percy clinked his mug boisterously with Tony's, then stood up and walked around the room, clinking his mug with the various villagers, and making the sort of inane chatter that had made him the toast of England's ballrooms and card rooms—except this time he was speaking French. The people thanked him for the beer and answered his questions curtly, but Percy remained the only person in the room who actually seemed interested in conversation.
Tony wondered if he ought to make the rounds, too. Two were better than one, but perhaps they would look more suspicious if they were both obviously desperate for conversation? Perhaps it was better that he was just sitting here; it would make Percy look more the crazy Englishman with a longsuffering friend, and less the English spy come to spy on the poor French people who were already scared enough of spies from Paris. He sat back and tried his best to put a bemused longsuffering smile on his face. What did a longsuffering smile look like, anyway? He recalled a couple of expressions his mother had borne on his summers home from school, when his school friends had come for a visit and they had all gotten in trouble, and tried to imitate the way he remembered her looking then. Come to think of it, Percy had been involved on most of those occasions, too.
There were sudden yells from outside. One of the people near the door jumped up and rushed out, followed by quite a few others. Now that the door was open, the sound of snarling animals could also be heard. From across the room, Percy raised an eyebrow at Tony and tipped his head towards the door. Obliging, Tony drained his beer, clanked the mug down on the counter, and followed the crowd out the door. Almost everyone seemed interested to find out what was going on outside; even the innkeeper had left his post and followed the crowd.
There were two mangy-looking dogs fighting in the middle of the road. It was impossible to tell whether they were working farm dogs or feral strays, but they certainly weren't glossy and pampered like the lap dogs and hunting dogs Tony had known growing up. Poor beasts. Tony saw money changing hands nearby, and supposed they were betting on which dog would win. Frankly, he hoped the dogs would get bored and break it off before either won. They didn't deserve to get hurt, any more than anyone else in this godforsaken country. A few of the people around him were averting their eyes as well, but others were watching intently. It was probably the most interesting thing that had happened all week.
"Copain!" a young boy shouted, running down the road. "Arrête! Arrête ça maintenant!" Before anyone could stop him, he darted into the midst of the dogs.
Several people started forward immediately, Tony among them. Back on the porch of the inn, the innkeeper called for the stable boy to bring him a cudgel.
"Marceau!" one man yelled as he ran. Tony wondered from the fear in his tone if he was the boy's father. The man was too short and slim to break up a dog fight on his own, but if everyone worked together, hopefully—
Percy had outdistanced them all. Tony had not even noticed that he had exited the inn, yet there he was, in the midst of the fight before anyone else had covered half the distance. He had no weapons, but he had his height and his wits. Grabbing little Marceau under the armpits, he hauled him straight up out of the fight. The dogs remained focused on each other and paid as little heed to the boy's departure as they had to his arrival.
As the others who had run forward reached the scene, Percy tossed the boy to the man who had yelled for him, and reached for the hindquarters of one of the dogs. "Grab the other one!" he shouted over the snarling, and Tony did so. A few others in the crowd grabbed on as well, and together, they pulled the animals apart.
"Do you know whose dogs these are?" Percy asked of the crowd generally.
"The brown one is a stray," one man said. "I think he's been hanging around by Pierre's barn."
"I've been putting out a few scraps for him, now and again," said another man, apparently Pierre. "I'd hoped he might make a good guard dog. I'll take him back with me now."
"And this other one must be Marceau's Copain," Percy said. He turned to the man who was still hugging the crying boy.
The man nodded. "Thank you for saving my son, Monsieur. Copain helps us with the sheep, and my son is very fond of him."
"Copain is a nice dog, he didn't mean to get in a fight," the boy sobbed.
"I'm sure he didn't," Percy said, patting the boy on the head. "I'm glad I was able to help," he told the boy's father. "Anybody would have done the same, I just happened to run a bit faster. Those years of footraces in school, what?"
The man smiled slightly. "You will allow me to buy you a drink, Monsieur?"
Percy clapped him on the shoulder. "If you insist, I'd be delighted!"
All parties adjourned back inside the inn. Marceau's father bought Percy the promised drink, and then Percy bought another round for the inn. The innkeeper fetched some bandages from upstairs and insisted on bandaging a small scratch on Percy's leg, for which Percy thanked him extensively. Everyone was much more welcoming now that Percy was not a mere overloud intruder in their midst, but had actually made himself useful. They still didn't include him or Tony in conversations about the situation in Paris, but they were quite willing to discuss the weather, their flocks and crops, and other such innocuous topics. As more rounds of beer were drunk (mostly bought by Percy once again, but Marceau's father insisted on buying a round as well, once he returned from taking his son and Copain home), the conversation grew friendlier and friendlier. Tony eventually broke out some old stories about when he and Percy and Andrew were schoolboys, which the crowd seemed to enjoy. Percy retaliated with the one about Tony, the frozen lake, and the chicken, which frankly Tony ought to have expected. But if it would make this place safer to return to, he supposed the embarrassment was all in a good cause.
They both retired late and rose early, as Percy wanted to be in Paris early enough to leave the same day. Despite the early hour, the innkeeper was waiting for them with breakfast and a packed lunch. The latter, he explained, had been sent over by Marceau's mother, in further thanks for Percy's assistance yesterday. When Percy opened the hamper, a delicious odor wafted up that made them both smile. "Please pass on my thanks to Madame," Percy said. "If it's all right, we'll return the hamper on our return journey very soon."
"We'll be very glad to have you grace our village with your presence once again," the innkeeper said, bowing and accepting one last coin from Percy. Percy bowed back, and Tony followed suit.
This last day's journey was the shortest, and even though they actually stopped properly for lunch this time—it seemed a pity to waste such a scrumptious meal on hurried bites half-distracted by their horses and the road—they reached Paris in the early afternoon. They proceeded directly to the Rue Sainte-Anne, and were glad to find that Andrew had indeed taken lodgings there as instructed. Percy went into the sitting room to speak to the de Courcys, while Tony joined Andrew in the small kitchen for a drink.
For someone who had been heading up the entire rescue to this point, Andrew didn't seem very happy. "Back in London, this all seemed so simple," he said, taking a gulp of wine. "Yes, we've succeeded so far, but the de Courcys weren't even under arrest, just surveillance. Now we've got to move four people more than a hundred miles across hostile territory, and I don't know how we're going to do it. The Countess is in ill health; she can't rough it in the woods like Hastings and Stowmarries and I did on the ride here. I know Percy seems like he knows what he's doing, but has he really considered everything that needs to be done? It's quite mad, really, coming all the way over here and thinking we can do whatever we want. There's so many things that could go wrong."
Tony clapped him on the shoulder. "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't," he said. "I think Percy's thought of more things than you and I have combined. You should have seen him at the inns we stopped at on our way here. Once he got through throwing his money around and befriending everyone he could, there was nobody there who wasn't hoping he would pay another visit to their inn."
"You got to sleep in inns?" Andrew asked wistfully.
"And so shall you, on our return journey," Tony said. "And more importantly, so shall the Countess de Courcy and her family. Percy solved the problem before you or I even realized it would be a problem."
"You seem even more sure of this course of action than you did in England," Andrew said. "Percy's been that impressive, has he?"
"I tell you, there's no one better to lead us into danger," Tony said. "I thought I trusted him when we left England, but now that I've seen him in action, I trust him even more."
"I'm glad of it," Andrew said. "I look forward to seeing him in action myself."
There was a footstep on the stair, and Percy poked his head into the kitchen. "The Countess professes herself and the children ready to leave whenever we wish," he said. "Are you ready to go?"
"Ready when you are, Percy," Andrew said.
"I'm ready," Tony said. He felt much more ready than he had in Dieppe. At this moment, he felt he could and would follow Percy anywhere.
"That's good, because we have a hamper to return," Percy said. "By the bye, Andrew, we were given such a marvelous lunch that we couldn't even finish it. There's a couple of pastries in the hamper if you'd like them."
"And here I've been limiting myself to sour wine," Andrew said, reaching for the hamper.
"Bring the carriage round while you eat," Percy said. "I'll help the de Courcys with their wraps."
He darted back out of the kitchen, and Andrew and Tony watched him go. "Method in the madness, you say?" Andrew said, taking a bite of one of the pastries.
"More method than we could ever know, I think," Tony said, and went to fetch the horses.