Sunday, November 9, 2014

Chapter 3 of the Mysterious Mr. Willis


Strangers.

True to his word, and accompanied by both Michael and Millie, Mr. Willis knocked on the rectory door early that afternoon. Millie had changed back into clothes suitable for her status as a bar-maid, while Michael and Mr. Willis were dressed for a walk in the country. Somehow Mr. Willis' simple, neat clothing gave him an air of elegance that belied his wild swept-back hair and perpetually surprised-looking visage. Mr. Willis asked after Miss Milton. Her brother replied, “She is not available.”
His wife interrupted him, saying “What do you mean, Henry? Of course my sister is available.”
“Mrs. Milton,” Henry said, “I’d rather she not walk with this Mr. Willis.”
“Why not? I know you two didn’t like each other at university, but he seems a personable enough young man, and she will be well chaperoned.”
“Major Hogan is arriving this evening.”
“Major Hogan, Major Hogan, Major Hogan. Is that all you can think about? Suppose he and she don’t like each other? What then.”
“He’s rich and well-connected. It would be an ideal match. She would be foolish to throw her lot in with anyone else.”
“Fine. Why don’t you wait for him? Mr. Willis, may I accompany your party?”
Mr. Willis said, “If you feel up to the walk, I see no reason why not.”
Marianne overheard this discussion as she descended from her room. “Ruth, did you want to come? That would be first rate.”
“Just let me get my hat.”
They headed out onto Tidmarsh Road, then Mr. Willis asked, “Where would you like to explore, Miss Milton?”
“Ruth? I'm partial to trying upstream along the Thames again.”
“Wherever.”
Mr. Willis frowned, and then said, “Miss Milton, there won't be anything to see there. I came that way this morning.”
“No barriers or warnings?”
“What warnings? If we're to be back this evening, might I suggest we walk to Upper Basildon? It's a pleasant stroll.”
Marianne searched Mr. Willis' face and seeing no hint of a joke, said, “I suppose your lot at the park aren't blowing anything up today.”
“My lot? Whatever can you mean. I suggested Upper Basildon as it will give Mrs. Milton a chance to tour her husband's parish. We can stop at the Red Lion for refreshments and then return in plenty of time for you to greet your Major George Hogan.”
“How did you know his first name, we didn't tell it to you.”
“Is there another Major Hogan? The Major Hogan I know is recruiting for the 62nd. It's a step above the militia, but still a line regiment.”
The walk to Upper Basildon was simple enough. They followed a lane up a gentle incline for a couple of miles until they reached a small village.
Once they arrived, Mr. Willis said, “Hot thirsty work, that. Shall I see about refreshments in the Red Lion?”
Much to Marianne's chagrin Millie added, “Oh, do let me come with you. I'm ever so good at carrying trays.” Michael just nodded his assent to the idea. They entered the inn together.
A minute later, Mr. Willis came out in a hurry. “I'm sorry Miss and Mrs. Milton, but we must go, and now.”
“Why?”
“Michael, would you discuss arrangements with Miss Ellis?” Michael nodded and entered the inn.
Mrs. Milton demanded, “What is going on, Mr. Willis? Surely we can refresh ourselves here.” Marianne noticed that Mr. Willis' face was more drawn and he looked far more anxious than normal. He kept glancing along the lane. She said, “Mr. Willis, perhaps it is best if we join Mr. Morgan and Miss Ellis inside?”
“Ah, yes. That's a good idea. Sorry if it's a bit low company for you, but if you would.”
When she entered, Marianne saw Michael and Millie in deep discussion with the inn-keeper. The expected mugs and ale were nowhere to be seen. She started to say, “Millie?” when Mr. Willis quieted her. Mr. Willis walked over and listened to the mummer of conversation. Then he clearly said, “Michael, you should go the back way, down Blandy's lane and alert the park. Bring someone back.” Michael stiffened and almost saluted him, then quickly left the inn, only pausing to give the two Milton's a quick bow. Manners were important, even in what was evidently an emergency. Mr. Willis turned and loudly asked “Mrs. Milton and Miss Milton, what would you have? Miss Ellis has placed her order, and I'll have a pint of your best bitter.”
Marianne asked for a half pint of cider, as did Ruth. Then Marianne quickly walked over to Millie and whispered, “What's going on? We saw nothing amiss on the way here.”
Millie paused, trying to find a non-informative but believable answer when two rough-looking men walked into the pub. They looked, and smelt, like “Navy's”, the itinerant workers who dug canals or “Macadamized” roads. However, what they were doing this far from any work gang was something of a puzzle. Their wide-brimmed hats and muddy brown outer clothes were in marked contrast to Mr. Willis' neat clothing. The larger of the two swaggered up to the bar and asked in a voice that had a slight touch of an Irish accent, “Two pints barkeep and don't be tardy man.”
“Yes, sir”
The smaller of the pair tugged on the others' sleeve and he looked around at the Mr. Willis' party. “What are you looking at?”
Marianne noticed Millie put her hand into her reticle and heard what sounded like a click. At the same time she saw Mr. Willis shift his grip on his cane. Mr. Willis calmly said, “Nothing. We were just enjoying some refreshments after a walk from Pangbourne. May I ask what brings you gentlemen to Upper Basildon?”
The larger man gave Mr. Willis a belligerent stare and said, “You may, but we mayn't answer.”
The smaller man tugged on the larger one's sleeve again and whispered something in his ear. Marianne thought she could hear a small amount of French. The larger man relaxed, then smiled and said, “We're not looking for a fight if that's what you mean. We just got tired of digging canals – looking for farmwork now.”
“I wouldn't know about that, but I wish you luck.” Mr. Willis touched his left eyebrow with his right hand, which was the recognition sign for General Ludd's men. They did not raise the countersign.
“We tried at that Basildon farm but they told us to shove off.”
“Not surprised, they're a picky bunch. If you're good with horses you might have better luck towards Newbury.”
“Aye that we might. Then again we mightn't.”
The two men retired in silence to one side of the tap room while Mr. Willis and his party sat on the other. While Millie kept one eye on the two men, Mr. Willis asked Ruth, “Mrs. Milton what do you think of the countryside around Pangbourne?”
“The countryside is beautiful. Now if something could stop those awful explosions.” At the word 'explosions', the two men sat alert, straining to hear what was being said.
“You know, a few days ago in the afternoon and if Marianne is to be believed the day before.”
“Oh, those. That's just quarrying for Mapleduram house. They're blasting rocks.”
Marianne said, “Really? I've heard quarrying before, and it was never that loud.”
“The rock is much harder around here. They use more powder. That's all.”
“I suppose you're right.”
The larger of the two men stood and then swaggered over to them. He said to Mr. Willis, “You seem to know something about the blasts. Who are you?”
Marianne listened in amazement as Mr. Willis lied to him, “Dr. James, the apothecary from Pangbourne, and you?”
“That 'ud be telling, wouldn't it?”
“That's why I asked. I'd like to know. Just in case I have to treat you sometime. Things happen, you know.”
The smaller man sprang up and dashed over. Marianne could hear his distinctive French accent as he said to the larger one, “Let them go. They're just locals out for a walk.”
“I'm not sure. This one looks like that Willis chap we're after.”
“Let them go.”
Seizing the initiative, Mr. Willis rose and ushered his friends out. As they left, Marianne noticed that Millie intently studied the two men and that her hand was holding something hidden within her reticle.
Once they were aways down the road, Marianne asked both Mr. Willis and Millie, “What was that about?”
“What?”
“Those men. Why did you lie to them and why were they looking for you?”
“I'm sorry, but I can't tell you.” He turned to Millie and said, “Neither can you Miss Ellis.”
Marianne continued, “But?”
“There are things it is better that you not know about. Those men are some of them.”
Ruth asked, “What about Mr. Morgan? Will he be joining us again?”
“He'll be back tonight. Before he was my valet he enjoyed no little prominence in the ring.”
The smaller of the two men from the inn ran down the road towards them. He shouted, “Mr. Willis, Mr. Willis!” as he approached. Mr. Willis did something with his cane as he turned to face him. Marianne noticed that Millie reached into her reticule again, with the same tell-tale click that she heard in the inn.
The man stopped, panting, and said in his correct but French-accented English, “Mr. Willis please save me. We have corresponded in the past.”
“Who are you?”
“Mr. Fournier,” he panted, “Paris, thermodynamics, high pressure gases.” There was a long pause as Mr. Willis thought. The man continued, “When they catch me they'll shoot me, like that clumsy oaf Sean.”
Mr. Willis finally said,“Mr. Fournier, I am so glad to meet you at last. What are you doing here?”
“Can't you guess?”
“Oh. That. Yes I see your problem. I'll do what I can.” He bowed to Miss Milton and her sister-in-law and then said as an explanation, “I'm sorry, but Miss Ellis and I will have to leave you now. Pangbourne is just a short distance down this road.” Miss Ellis and Mr. Willis escorted Mr. Fournier back up the road towards his uncertain fate.
Marianne stared at them as they walked away, then she said to her sister-in-law Ruth, “Well of all the nerve. To leave us here alone. And then to go off with that Ellis girl and that navy. What can have gotten in to him?”
Ruth pondered for a short time, then replied, “Marianne, there's more to this than meets the eye. What with the French threat, there are strange things afoot.”
“But Ruth?”
“We'd best hurry if we're to be home before Major Hogan arrives. You know how badly Henry wants you to meet him.”
“I suppose so.”
“I'm sure that Mr. Willis had good reasons for what he did. Let's see if you and the Major like each other.”
“How was he?”
“Personable enough. Definitely good looking. Rich, but not one to flaunt it. He set all the maiden's hearts aflutter at the Basingstoke assembly.”
“So in other words a good catch.”
“That's what your brother thinks, but it's your decision in the end.”
Major Hogan and Henry were waiting for them in the parlor when they finally arrived back at the rectory. They stood when the women entered. Major Hogan took Marianne's breath away. He was everything that Mr. Willis wasn't. He was tall, handsome, well-built, and dressed in a splendid red uniform. He projected an air of confidence and self-assurance when he bowed to Ruth and Marianne.
Henry asked, “Where are your escorts? I thought that Mr. Willis was taking you for a walk.”
Marianne replied, “He was, but then.”
Ruth continued, “We met a pair of ruffians. An Irishman and a Frenchman. The Frenchman, a Mr. Fournier or Fourier, something like that asked Mr. Willis for help. So he and Miss Ellis left us to find our own way home.”
Marianne said, “I thought it was most rude.”
Major Hogan asked, “Did they say anything about where they were taking Mr. Fournier?”
“Just that he would try to help him.”
The Major continued in the same vein, “He didn't say anything about 'the park' or something like that?”
“No. But Mr. Fournier, was it? He said that they would shoot someone called Sean.”
“Pity, but he knew the risks.”
“What?”
“I'm sorry, my mind was wandering. So Henry, is this your sister Marianne? I must say she is much better looking in person than you described.”
Marianne blushed and gave a nervous laugh. In the distance a faint drum roll could be heard. It was followed by the sound of a volley of Brown Bess's.”