If I needed someone to slit a throat or steal a purse, Eaton thought, I would come here to find him.
William Eaton had arrived early for that evening’s rendezvous with the British agent, Burton Grey. Grey had picked a bad place for their meeting—the Sedum Tavern—in a bad part of Valletta harbor. In the daytime, the square was a fish market. At night, other things were bought and sold.
The lengthening shadows cast by a fading sun played across the centuries-old weathered stone buildings fronted by awning-covered stalls. Eaton stood, unnoticed, in a boarded-up doorway, his cloak pulled tight against the damp cold rolling in from the harbor. With the approach of twilight, merchants were shuttering their shops and their customers were fleeing the square. Eaton watched as patrons entered the tavern: sailors from the ships of twelve nations crowding Valletta’s harbor, dock workers, pick pockets, thugs, cutthroats, and whores. A bright-eyed rat looked up from his supper of fish scraps on the shop table next to Eaton. Eaton nodded a greeting: paying a visit to your two-legged cousins, I suppose? Above the doorway, rust stains like dried blood streaked downward over the stone from a crude iron hook in the wall. I wonder what has hung on that hook, Eaton thought. Fish—or men?
Eaton looked at his watch, then eased quietly from his hiding place into the tavern and stood in darkness near the door. He pulled back his cloak to free his pistol, his eyes passing carefully over those patrons he could see in the candle-lit gloom. A few moments later, his aide Eugene Leitensdorfer came through the door, spotted Eaton, and joined him by the entrance.
Before they could begin speaking, an angry quarrel broke out at a nearby table. A British navy captain jumped to his feet and cried out to his companions, “I say, if you stand for this you ought to be damned. You may as well hang a purser’s shirt from the rigging to let all know you are no better than lubberly merchant captains begging assistance from true men of war! I move that all of you that are true Englishman shall rise with me from the table and throw these brazen Yankees into the street with the vermin and dogs where they belong!” He gestured at a group of noisy American sailors at the far end of the table.
Expecting the room to erupt into a fight, Eaton and Leitensdorfer retreated further into the shadows. Before the first blow could be struck, another British officer interceded. “Gentlemen,” he cried, “We make too much of an inconsequential trifle. If a gentleman is insulted by one of his own kind, he must seek satisfaction. But here,” he said, pointing to the Americans, “where the offenders are worthless, the abuse is innocent. I pray you,” he said, gently guiding his drunken fellow officer back into his seat, “pay them no mind.” His words had the desired effect. The Americans resumed their own conversation and the crisis passed. The noise inside the tavern returned to a subdued murmur of voices.
“That would have been an inauspicious start to our evening here,” said Eaton. “But who would have imagined a sensible British officer in a place like this?”
“He may just have counted the number of Americans they would be fighting and didn’t like the odds,” Leitensdorfer replied. “The Englishman Burton Grey should be here shortly. Let’s hope he is more agreeable. Come, I’ve arranged for a place where we won’t be disturbed.” He led Eaton through the crowded tavern to a small private room to the right of the bar. They settled in behind the deeply scarred, stained wooden table. “We can talk in confidence here, but with the doors open, watch whoever enters,” Leitensdorfer said. Eaton nodded, then left the table to go to the bar, returning with four wine glasses.
As he sat down, their English contact arrived at the tavern. Leitensdorfer went to him, spoke briefly and led him back to their table. Without waiting to be introduced, the Englishman greeted Eaton with a brief, diffident nod. “Mr. Leitensdorfer and I share an acquaintance, sir. But you would, I assume, be William Eaton?”
“Your servant, sir,” said Eaton, coolly matching the Englishman’s neutral tone. “Mr. Grey, I believe we may call you?” As Eaton rose to greet Grey, he noticed their disparity in size. He looks like a terrier, Eaton thought—or a ferret. I will need to handle him carefully.
“Grey will do quite admirably for our purposes; my real name obviously does not concern you,” said the Englishman, sitting down wearily. “Is there anything drinkable in this hovel?”
“I would be surprised if there were,” said Eaton. “So I took the precaution of bringing a bottle with me: a 1783 Leacock and Spence Madeira. I trust you will find it acceptable,” he said, knowing that it was, in fact, superb. Gesturing at the table, he continued, “We have paid for glasses. May I pour you one?” Grey picked up the bottle, inspected the label, and then nodded.
Their glasses filled, Grey began. “As I will disclose to you shortly, the French have wind of what you are proposing and seek to frustrate your intentions. But we still lack one member of our group, the gentleman whom you seek as a—what is the word you Americans might use—as a scout who is quite familiar with the desert terrain of Tripoli. By all reports, he is a man of considerable parts, quite gifted in the languages of this region. My contacts in London recommend him with the greatest of confidence and are sure of his discretion. Some mention was made, as well, of his accomplishments in the military line as a leader of Arab cavalry and irregular forces. But I must confess I do not know the man. You will need to make your own assessment.”
Almost as the words left Grey’s mouth, a tall man approached their table. Leitensdorfer sprang to his feet. “Why gentlemen, upon my word! This is the very scout Mr. Grey‘s good services have procured for us. May I name Henry Doyle to you?” As he nodded to their new arrival, Eaton realized that he could not swear exactly when the man had entered the tavern. It was possible that he had been there all along, observing them in silence.
“As-salaam ahlakum, Eugene,” Doyle said in Arabic, embracing Leitensdorfer.
“Wa ahlakum as-salaam,” Leitensdorfer replied. “And peace be with you.”
Doyle turned to the others at the table. “Good evening, gentlemen. Mr. Leitensdorfer I know. Mr. Grey and I have not had the pleasure of an acquaintance, but I know who you are, sir.” Eaton caught the slight edge in Doyle’s voice behind the formal politeness. As Doyle sat down, they could see his face more clearly now in the flickering light of the candle, his strong features marred only by a scar across his left cheek running under his ear but missing his neck. Doyle noticed Eaton’s scrutiny of his wound, caught Eaton’s eyes and nodded.
“Yes, it was a close shave. Some unpleasantness serving with Tippu Sultan in India, back in ‘85. So you are William Eaton, I presume?” Doyle asked. “If you will forgive such familiarity in a stranger, sir, I would take the liberty of mentioning we have a mutual acquaintance of an academic sort. I believe, if I am not mistaken, we are both graduates of the Wheelock’s fine school in New Hampshire, although you, I would guess, had the pleasure of studying with the son. My tutor was that godly old man, his father Eleazer.” He smiled at the look of recognition that crossed Eaton’s face. “We seem, neither of us, to have traveled too far from vox clamantis in deserto.”
“You are surprisingly well informed, sir,” said Eaton.
“An affectation, to be sure,” Doyle replied. “A foolish matter of pride. I humor myself in thinking good information may have kept me alive all these years. But if I am not being overly bold, I believe we have business to discuss?”
“If you will forgive some boldness on my part,” said Eaton, “It seems you are an English agent who fought in India, speaks Arabic, and went to Dartmouth College before the war, when most students were Indians. And you have studied my background. Mr. Grey promised us a very capable resource; I would say he has kept his word. But if I may ask, are we secure here?”
“We are alone,” Doyle said. “I followed you from your lodgings. You were, of course, careful, and knowing your destination, I could lag behind and notice anyone attempting to trail you. Then I waited, undiscovered, for the good Mr. Grey here to join us. No one followed you either, sir.”
Grey bristled, “I make it my business, sir, never to be followed if I choose not to be.”
Doyle responded with a smile, this time somewhat less warm. “Since I make it my business never to be seen when I follow someone, it would appear that our gifts have complemented each other’s.”
“I have no wish to quarrel,” said Grey, holding Doyle’s gaze steadily, “at least in this place at this time.” He paused, then added, “At another time, you might find me more accommodating.” Doyle gave him the slightest of nods in acknowledgement. “But permit me to say, sir,” Grey continued, “I wonder at your confidence. Some men might call it presumption.”
“Indeed they have, sir,” Doyle answered, “but not a second time.”
God help us, Eaton thought. These two may be at each other’s throats in a minute. He looked at Grey again. The Englishman’s narrow face had become even more pinched with anger. Eaton exchanged a quick glance with Leitensdorfer. He sees it too, Eaton thought.
“Gentlemen.” Eaton intervened in a strong, commanding voice. “Gentlemen. I pray we may turn to the matters before us.” When he had Grey and Doyle’s attention, he continued, as if their tense exchange had never happened. “The enterprise we are about involves Hamet Karamanli, brother of the current Pasha Jusef Karamanli, who usurped Hamet—the same Pasha who also holds Captain Bainbridge and the crew of the unfortunate Philadelphia as hostages. My government has authorized me to find Hamet, lead an expedition to restore him to the throne, and free not only the American hostages but all Christian slaves.”
“And the fine thing that would be,” said Doyle, then turning to Grey, “May I ask the Crown’s interest in this American gallantry?”
“My role here is merely to make introductions then disappear from the scene,” Grey said to Eaton, ignoring Doyle. “I have letters with me to our consul Sir Samuel Briggs and his aide Dr. Francisco Mendrici in Alexandria. They are wholly in favor of the plan, and will provide whatever assistance their means make possible, particularly in locating Hamet, of whose whereabouts we have now only rumors. We hope the success of this venture will be annoying to the French. Despite Bonaparte’s disgraceful abandoning of his army in Egypt, they still have power in this part of the world and are capable of considerable harm to my country’s interests.”
“I had the pleasure of knowing Dr. Mendrici from his days as the chief physician of the Bey of Tunis,” Eaton said, “when I was the American consul there. Both of us departed rather precipitously at the same time. In my case, it was from a lack of congeniality with the Bey; in Dr. Mendrici’s case, as it was reported, from too much congeniality with one of the Bey’s wives. But I am certain he is an excellent gentleman for all of that.” Eaton beamed at the Englishman. “May I say, Mr. Grey, how grateful the United States is to receive such support from Great Britain against a country and dictator who has shown himself to be no friend of either of our nations?”
Grey acknowledged the compliment with the slightest of nods, his lips lifting up in a narrow smile that was taken back almost as soon as it had been offered.
“To return to our purposes, gentlemen,” Eaton continued, ignoring Grey’s response, “Mr. Leitensdorfer will travel with the army as my chief of staff, since he knows the country and its people and speaks the languages.” He turned to Doyle. “We need, as well, a group of scouts to guide us across the desert. It was suggested that you, sir, might provide such an advance force.”
“My Tuaregs will serve the purpose splendidly,” said Doyle. “The Bedouins fear them and let them pass in peace wherever they go. For my involvement, the traditional face veil worn by Tuaregs serves admirably in the way of disguise. The only way you remove a Tuareg’s veil is by taking it off his corpse.” He suddenly rose to his feet, “I apologize for the interruption, gentlemen, but I seem to be caught short. Quite likely some bad mussels I ate. Perhaps you will excuse me for a moment?” He slipped away from the table and melted into the gloom of the tavern.
Grey refilled his glass and disappeared into his own thoughts. Even in the candlelight, Eaton could see the barely restrained anger in Grey’s fingers gripping the glass. If he’s not careful, he’ll break the damn thing, he thought. For all he notices us, we might as well not be here.
Some minutes later, Doyle reappeared at the table and sat down again. “If I may continue, gentlemen,” Doyle began, “we will need of course, Mr. Eaton, to review your plans in detail. But there is one other matter we should discuss. I am pleased, honored, in fact, to be part of a mission so motivated by the highest of ideals, but sadly, my purposes require that I be compensated for my services. A low, crass thing, to be sure, but there it is,” he added, with no sign of embarrassment.
“For my own person, sir,” cried Eaton, “I believe that there is more pleasure in being generous than rich. Man wants but little, and that little not long. But here we make war, and war calls for money and men. Whoever wishes to make war must spend without thought and take no account of the money. We will find a way to compensate you appropriately, sir!”
“You are very good, I’m sure,” replied Doyle, “but it may be others are prepared to help in this matter as well.” Turning to Grey, he asked, “May I assume the usual relationship with London will be honored in this affair, with the same arrangements made with my bankers in Leghorn, the Baccris?”
“You have my word for it,” Grey snapped. “That should be enough.”
“Then I am your man,” Doyle said to Eaton.
“So we are settled,” Eaton replied. “We will be in Alexandria in two weeks’ time, weather permitting. I wonder if we might rendezvous there, perhaps at Mr. Briggs’ residence?”
“Alexandria it is, gentleman, with the blessing. But do not expect to see me as I am here,” Doyle said. “Once I set foot in Egypt, I too become a Muslim. Do not look for me; I will find you. Now, forgive me for what could easily appear to be an insult,” he looked at Grey, the insult quite clear in his tone, “but as I did when you came, I will linger behind to make sure you are not followed. Please take it merely as a matter of my staying in practice, no more than that. Since we have been here, two men have entered and made a great deal of pretending not to notice us. And they have been speaking French. They might be innocent, or they might not. I believe I should engage them in conversation to ease my own mind of its suspicions. So farewell, gentlemen. Good hunting to us all. Ma’a salama,” he added with nod at Leitensdorfer. Wrapping his black cloak about him, he moved into the darkness of the tavern, then disappeared.
“A man of some considerable parts, indeed, Grey,” Eaton said. “Your London contact could not have chosen better for us.” He gave Grey a friendly smile. “I should think a man would be careful in crossing him.”
“I personally am not recommending him, you understand,” Grey said. “He was suggested by Whitehall based on prior service to the Crown. I must tell you, however, that he now works as a hired spy—or assassin. We still purchase his services when we need them—but so do many others. Whether he is reliable, or just a self-serving adventurer, is a decision you will need to make. But you Americans are making a lot of noise in the Mediterranean these days—coming it quite high as a world power, I might say. I trust you will have the wisdom to make your own decision.”
He trusts us to make asses of ourselves, Eaton thought, but continued looking at Grey with a warm, open smile. “Once again, Mr. Grey,” Eaton said, “you are far too generous in your compliments—too kind, indeed. But we thank you nonetheless. As a young nation, we have fought but one war against a major power,” Eaton paused for a moment, “which we had the good fortune, happily, to win.” Grey grimaced as if he had just bitten down on a rotten fig. If anything, Eaton’s smile was even more engaging. “For all that, I do not question that we have more to learn. Perhaps you might tutor us.”
“I know Henry Doyle,” Leitensdorfer interjected. “I will tell you, Aphra Behn could not have written a stranger history for him. I boast, I will admit it, of my own adventures, but Doyle puts me to shame. While he works always for whom he chooses, for his own reasons, he is utterly, absolutely reliable. In a word, I would trust him with my life—and have.”
“And so you will have to,” said Grey, rising from the table. “I have done my part. What you make of Doyle or he makes of you is your business. I bid you good evening.” With that he left them, shouldered his way through the crowded tables to the door, and stepped into the darkness outside the tavern.
“He might at least have thanked me for the Madeira,” said Eaton, looking at the remains of the wine in the candlelight. “He drank enough of it.”