A Fashionable IndulgenceBy: K. J. Charles
THE ENGLISH CHANNEL, APRIL 1808
Harry Gordon was a wanted man at twelve years old.
He stared over the side of the boat at the dark water as they lurched toward France. This wasn’t his first Channel crossing; it wasn’t even the first time he’d been hurried onto a ship in the night, his ears straining for shouts of pursuit or rapid footsteps. But it was the first time he’d understood what happened to the men they left behind when they fled, and the thought made him feel even more nauseated than the heaving motion under his feet.
Father was next to him, leaning on the rail, head down. Even stooped like that he was a foot taller than his wife. Mother was very short, plump, and round-faced too, but she reminded Harry of the Roman matrons Father had taught him about, the heroic kind who sent legions of men to war because death was less frightening than having to explain why you hadn’t done as she told you. She glared at the starry night above them as though she wanted to outstare God.
It was cold, the wind whipping and tangling Harry’s sweaty-damp hair, adding a chill to the salt spray on his skin.
Three days ago, Father—the radical demagogue Alexander Gordon—had ranted to angry London crowds about the collapse of the government. He had demanded a new rule of the people, for the people. An end to injustice and mismanagement. Peace with Bonaparte. A revolution.
They hadn’t started a revolution; they never did. They had managed to incite a riot, though. It was a patchwork in Harry’s memory, vivid images stitched together with panic. Red-coated soldiers and blue-coated policemen firing muskets into the air, roaring for order but drowned out by the howling crowd. Mud and blood and screaming. The arrest warrants had been issued that day for all three of them.
“You’ve got to leave the country,” Silas had said the next morning, as they and a few others huddled in Theobald’s Bookshop, filthy and exhausted. Silas was a big, powerful man with a resentful cast to his jaw, a few years younger than Father, who had worked with his parents since they started stirring up trouble in London. He was the angriest radical Harry knew, even angrier than Mother, and the harder the government came down on them, the angrier Silas became. But now there was a wild look to his eye that made Harry think, for the first time, that Silas was afraid. “The boy’s old enough to be charged as a man and they’ll gaol him along with you. You know it, Alex. Take the fight elsewhere.”
“They want you too,” Mother had told Silas.
“The shop’s here, my livelihood.” Silas shrugged. “Where would I go?”
In truth, Harry couldn’t imagine Silas outside London, let alone England. He was the spirit of the city: coarse, unruly, belligerent. When Mother told him about folk heroes like Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, Harry pictured Silas, clenching his fists and squaring up to authority without a care for the inevitable, bloody end.
Mother had played at Wat Tyler as a girl, dreaming of defiance. Harry told her he did too, to please her, though it wasn’t true. He’d preferred to dream of Robin Hood during the endless evenings of political talk, with Silas cast as the hulking Little John. Harry played the part of nimble, amusing Will Scarlet, inventing ingenious plans that saved the day. Robin had been a shadowy figure in his mind with a smooth, cultivated voice and graceful manners, and Will Scarlet would kneel and take his hand and pledge his passionate loyalty forever…
Then Harry had realized that he was imagining a nobleman as their leader, and he’d stopped the game, ashamed, even though nobody else would ever know.
It was all gone now. The soldiers had come for them yesterday evening, and they’d fled. That was Harry’s last clear memory of London: Silas bellowing at them to run, his muscles corded as he held the door against the blows of the redcoats on the other side, while Father dragged Harry and Mother away. Silas making his own capture inevitable to give the family a chance of escape.
Sea spume splashed over Harry’s fingers, clenched on the rough wood of the gunwale. He wiped dampness from his eyes. “What will happen to Silas, Mother? What will they do to him? Will he be gaoled?”
Mother’s jaw jutted. “Flogged first, I expect.”