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The Charade (Anglais) Poche – 1 mars 2000


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Chapter One

Boston, February 1775

At dawn, North Square was seething with activity. Women with baskets stood amid the flimsy stalls of the marketplace, haggling with farmers or their agents over the high prices. Their voices mingled with the crowing of live turkeys for sale, the beckoning calls of merchants, and the rattle of carts that rolled through the square carrying precious firewood, apples, and onions from the country.

Preoccupied with their own business, no one noticed the man who stood in the doorway of an inn on the edge of the square. Perhaps it was because the winter morning was bleak, and his long black hair and black cloak blended into the dark shadows of the doorway. Or perhaps it was because he stood utterly motionless, little more than a shadow himself.

His position commanded an excellent view of the square, and in the dim light of early morning, his gray eyes restlessly scanned the area. He was looking for one man, and that man would tell him that his call for a meeting had been heeded.

Ethan Harding's acquaintances would have been astonished to see him skulking about in doorways in the wee small hours of the morning, since it was common knowledge that he never rose before noon. But then, they would not see him here, for they were fast asleep in their beds themselves, and it was unlikely they would have recognized him in any case. The dark clothing he wore was so unlike his customary wardrobe of colorful silks and lace, and his hair was not concealed by a powdered wig. The wealthy dandy of the Tory drawing rooms was completely unrecognizable in the serious man swathed in black who stood in the doorway of a second-rate inn on North Square. And that suited Ethan perfectly well.

A fishmonger's cart rolled into his line of vision and came to a stop. Ethan let out his breath in a slow sigh of relief at the sight of the driver, a big, bald Scotsman who jumped down from the cart, crying, "Fresh clams today! Fresh clams!"

Colin Macleod's fish were often wrapped in seditious newspapers. Ethan smiled to himself, knowing perfectly well that Samuel Adams didn't mind if his fiery prose smelled of cod or haddock, as long as the public was kept informed of every single transgression committed by the British government.

Ethan started toward Colin, but matrons and housekeepers eager for fresh clams swarmed around the cart, and he stepped back into the shadows, waiting for the women to depart. While he waited, he continued to observe his surroundings, a habit gained from long experience.

The baker, Matthew Hobbs, had a stall beside Colin's cart and seemed to be doing a brisk business. A pity, since the man was a staunch Tory. Ah, well, not everyone wanted liberty from England. What they didn't realize was that it was inevitable.

A young woman of perhaps nineteen or twenty paused beside the baker's stall, less than a dozen feet from Ethan's place in the shadows. Her clothes were rags, too tattered to make her the servant of even the meanest master. Against the chill of the Boston winter, she wore no hat. Her hair, the golden brown color of honey, was cropped short, and Ethan guessed she had probably sold the rest of it to buy food or lodgings. She stood in profile to him, and although the long cloak she wore hid the lines of her body, Ethan could see hunger in the hollow of her cheek and the line of her throat. She was clearly a beggar, a common street waif a man would seldom notice, unless it was with a wary eye and a hand on his purse. But when she turned his way, Ethan drew a deep breath of surprise and revised his opinion. There was nothing common about this girl. She had the face of an angel.

Ethan was not a man to be impressed by a woman's beauty. In truth, he seldom noticed women at all these days, which he considered rather a shame when he took the time to think of it. There had been a point in his life when women had been one of his major preoccupations, but suspicion was his only mistress now, and he knew all too well that treachery could hide easily behind a woman's charms. Ten years as a spy had taught him that. Nonetheless, he could not help staring.

Her wide eyes were the azure blue of a summer sky, with all the innocence of a child. Yet her thick, dark lashes and soft, generous lips had all the seductiveness of a courtesan. Her features were delicate, her flawless skin the color of cream. But it was her smile that fascinated Ethan. It was a smile that could make a man abandon his ideals, forget his honor, sell his soul. It was a smile that enslaved. It was magic.

He wondered what had brought that smile to her lips, but from this vantage point, he could not tell. She returned her attention to the baker, who, like Colin, was preoccupied with a crowd of customers. Because he was observing her so closely, Ethan did not miss the apparently casual glance she gave her surroundings or the two meat pies that slipped from the baker's table into the folds of her cloak.

Well done, he approved, watching in amusement. Anyone who stole from a Tory deserved high praise indeed. She moved out of Ethan's line of vision, and he leaned forward so that he could continue to watch her, but she disappeared into the crowd.

He leaned back in the comfortable shadows of the doorway to wait for Colin to be free of customers. Even though the two men would speak in seemingly trivial terms, Ethan did not want to run the risk of having anyone overhear their conversation. It was always best to be cautious.

A boy of about twelve stood near Ethan's doorway selling newspapers. Tory newspapers, no doubt, since it was almost impossible for a boy to sell Whig newspapers in the marketplace these days. The soldiers harassed the Whig newspaper sellers so mercilessly that such an occupation was hazardous for a boy. Ethan set his jaw grimly. Soon, boys would be able to sell newspapers with any opinions under the sun without fear of reprisal from the bored and unruly troops of a tyrannical king.

A man paused beside the boy to buy a newspaper, a man who was obviously wealthy. His shoe buckles were cast of silver, his cane was made of gold and ivory, and his wig was of the finest quality. Ethan could not see his face, but the fashionable cut of his clothes, the vivid peacock-blue color of his coat, and the lavish lace at his cuffs proclaimed him an even more dandified Tory than Ethan pretended to be.

"Thief! Thief!"

The sudden cry rose above the noise of the crowd, and Ethan once again leaned forward in the doorway, curious to see what was going on. To his surprise, he saw the angel girl again, but this time, she was in the grip of a prosperous merchant.

"I am no thief!" she said indignantly, trying to wrench her wrist free of her captor's grasp. "Unhand me!"

"You took my pocket watch. I know you did." Keeping a firm hold on her wrist, the man looked around for a constable. Ethan watched as she shoved and struggled against her captor, and he caught the glint of silver as she slipped the man's watch into his pocket.

Clever girl. Ethan grinned, knowing no one would be able to prove theft against her now. Unaware that his property had been returned, the merchant continued to shout for a constable, but the only person who came to assist was a young redcoat officer. "What is going on here?" he demanded as he stepped forward out of the gathering crowd.

"This girl stole my watch," the merchant accused, twisting the girl's wrist with enough force to make her cry out.

"I did not! It's a lie!" She looked up at the officer, her gorgeous eyes wide and pleading. She lifted her free hand in a helpless gesture. "A ghastly mistake has been made," she said in a voice that would have melted stone. "This man thinks I have stolen something from him, and I am unable to convince him of my innocence. Oh, Major, you seem such an able and intelligent gentleman. Please help me."

The officer, who was only a lieutenant, puffed up like an arrogant peacock at her flattery. He smiled and patted her arm. "I'm sure everything will be fine," he said soothingly, and turned to the merchant. "When did you lose your watch, sir?"

"I didn't lose it," the other man said angrily, scowling at the officer. "She stole it."

"Have you proof of this?"

"Proof? She'll have it on her, and that's all the proof you'll need."

The girl's expression was one of such martyred innocence that Ethan nearly laughed aloud. "By all means, search me if you must," she said with injured dignity. "I will gladly submit if it will convince you I am innocent. But, if you please, sir, ask this gentleman to search his own pockets as well, for I am sure he is mistaken."

The lieutenant would not have been human if he had not responded to such a plea. He turned to the merchant. "Sir, are you certain your watch is not on your person?"

"Of course I'm certain. Any fool can see she stole it."

Being called a fool did not sit well with the lieutenant. He frowned. "Would you mind verifying that the watch is missing?"

"Of all the ridiculous..." The merchant let go of the girl and patted his pockets, muttering impatiently to himself and scowling, but his irritated expression changed to astonishment as he pulled the heavy silver watch out of his coat pocket.

"It appears that you have falsely accused this young lady," the lieutenant said.

"I must have misplaced it," the other man murmured, and Ethan choked back his laughter only with a great deal of effort. Red-faced, the merchant bowed stiffly and walked away without another word.

The girl turned to the officer, her face shining with gratitude. "Oh, Major, I don't know how to thank you."

Now that the excitement had passed, the crowd that had gathered around them dissipated. The dandy with the peacock-blue coat walked on with his newspaper, and matrons returned their attention to Colin's clams.

Ethan, however, continued to watch the girl. After such a close call, he expected her to beat a hasty retreat, but he found he had underestimated her. Instead of counting her blessings and going on her way, she lingered beside the officer, talking with him. One or two more flattering comments, a few moments of rapt, wide-eyed attention, and the lieutenant was completely captivated. He smirked and swaggered, too besotted by his bewitching companion to notice when one of her small, delicate hands slid into his pocket.

Tongue in cheek, Ethan watched her remove the officer's money purse quicker than the blink of an eye and slip it into her cloak. By the devil, he thought in admiration, this girl could get through heaven's gates by stealing the keys.

Impressed by her audacity, Ethan watched, certain that the officer would come to his senses and realize what had happened. But such was not the case. She touched the redcoat's cheek in a lingering caress of farewell and turned away, leaving the dazed young officer staring after her with an expression on his face similar to that of a bewildered sheep. Giving him one last glance over her shoulder that held all the promise a man could want, she melted into the crowd and disappeared from sight.

Still grinning, Ethan watched her go, feeling a hint of regret. He couldn't recall witnessing anything recently that had given him more pleasure than the past few moments. That girl was one in a thousand.

A movement out of the corner of his eye brought his attention back to the business at hand, and the pretty thief vanished from his mind.

Colin was finally free of customers. Ethan stepped out of the doorway and approached the cart. The gazes of the two men met, but neither expressed recognition. No one watching them would ever be able to discern that they knew each other well.

"No fresh oysters this morning?" Ethan asked.

"No, sir, but we've a good supply of clams."

Ethan waved away clams with disinterest. "I wanted oysters."

The fishmonger made a sound of disbelief. "Fresh oysters? Clams I can dig from shore, but with the harbor closed and the Port Bill in effect, how do you think I'd get hold of oysters, my good man?"

"Is there nowhere hereabouts a man can find fresh oysters?"

Colin heaved a heavy sigh and said grudgingly, "I'm told the White Swan sometimes serves 'em raw for breakfast, provided you've the money to pay. Although where they get 'em from, I'm sure I don't know. Must bring 'em in overland during the night from Portsmouth."

The White Swan was a good choice for a meeting. At this hour, it was unlikely anyone would be there, despite Colin's words about oysters for breakfast. Ethan nodded, tipped his hat in farewell, and left the marketplace. He made his way through the maze of North Boston's twisting, narrow streets at a brisk pace. His worn and somber clothing of black broadcloth allowed him to blend easily into the crowd around him. He looked like an ordinary merchant, one of many who crowded the streets on early-morning business. He had chosen his clothing this morning for just that purpose. If any of Governor Gage's spies were following him, they would find it difficult to keep him separate from every other man in the crowd. He doubted he was being followed, but one could never be too careful.

Ethan always chose whatever clothing was appropriate to the mission of the moment, but no matter what role he played, there was one thing he always wore: the silver medal concealed beneath his shirt that proclaimed him a Son of Liberty. Wearing the Liberty medal was dangerous, but it was a badge of honor, and Ethan, like all his comrades, never took it off.

The White Swan was known by most people in Boston as a Tory pub, but most people never knew about the politics that were discussed in the attic. When Ethan entered the place, the only people there were the owner, Joshua Macalvey, and his younger sister, Dorothy. Joshua stood behind the bar, and Dorothy, a plump and pretty brunette of twenty-two, was clearing tables of the tankards and trenchers left from the night before.

Neither of them spoke to him, but Dorothy smiled a greeting, and Joshua jerked his head toward the kitchen. Ethan headed in the direction Joshua had indicated, going through the kitchen and up the back stairs to the attic. His knock on the door was answered immediately, and the door swung inward to reveal that the other two men with whom he had arranged this meeting had arrived before him.

Ethan nodded to the man who had opened the door. "Andrew," he murmured in greeting, stepped past his oldest boyhood friend, and entered the room.

Andrew Fraser, with his melancholy face and deep voice, seemed more like an undertaker than a wine merchant. He was worried, but then, Andrew was always worried. Their mischievous pranks at school and notorious escapades with women during their days together at Harvard had long since given way to the hanging offenses of rebellion and sedition, but the seriousness of the situation could never be gauged by Andrew's demeanor. Whether it was putting salt in a tutor's tea, visiting the brothels at Mt. Whoredom, or plotting against the government, Andrew always looked as if doom had come upon them.

"We're taking grave risks by meeting in broad daylight, Ethan," Andrew reminded him.

"Don't waste time telling me things I already know, my friend."

Andrew shook his head in disapproval. "Couldn't this wait for our usual Friday-night rendezvous at the Mermaid?"

"I'm afraid not." Ethan turned to the other man, whom he recognized as Joseph Bramley, one of Samuel Adams's messengers. He knew Bramley only by sight, but Samuel trusted his messenger implicitly, and that was good enough for Ethan.

"I'll make this quick, gentlemen. The less we linger here, the better." Without bothering to remove his hat, he sat down at the table in the center of the room. The others followed suit, and Ethan came directly to the point. "Governor Gage is sending two officers into the country tomorrow morning on a secret mission."

"For what purpose?" Andrew asked.

"To map the countryside from Boston to Worcester. One Captain John Brown and one Ensign Henry De Berniere are to walk on foot to Worcester dressed as countrymen and posing as surveyors. Their mission is to determine the condition of the roads, paying specific attention to possible sites where troops might be ambushed."

The other two men received this news in silence, thinking out its implications. Finally, it was Andrew who spoke. "Gage may be pompous, but as a governor, he is not the tyrant Hutchinson was. Nor is he a fool. It seems clear that he wants to determine the safest, most discreet route by which he can send troops on the march."

"And those troops will be marching straight for our powder stores in Worcester," Ethan added. He leaned forward in his chair and spoke his mind. "Gentlemen, we have to send a courier to Worcester and warn the town."

"So they can move our powder and ammunition to a new hiding place before troops arrive to take it?" Joseph guessed.

"Exactly. My sources tell me Gage knows we have more than fifteen tons of powder and thirteen cannon stored there. We cannot allow that large a cache of weaponry to fall into Gage's hands. A few months from now, we will need all the powder and cannon we can get."

Both men leaned back in their chairs, and a long silence followed. Finally, Joseph cleared his throat and spoke again. "You think it will come to war, then?"

"I do. War became the only possible course when that damned Port Bill was passed." The Boston Port Bill had closed the harbor eight months previously, a move intended to starve Boston into submission. Thanks to the generosity of the other colonies, which sent food and supplies into the city over land by Boston Neck, the marketplaces still managed to conduct business. Boston citizens were still able to eat, despite Crown Law, but it was now nearing the end of a long, hard winter, and food prices were high. As food supplies decreased, hatred increased, and war became more likely with each passing day.

Ethan went on, "How long can colonials live under what amounts to martial law? How long before all our freedom is taken away? It is now impossible for any colonial to get a fair trial in Boston, or speak his mind publicly, or even have a mind of his own. We can't even hold a town meeting anymore without being harassed. Three years ago, we could freely discuss our political opinions. Now, four Whigs can't have a pint of ale together without being suspected of sedition. This situation cannot continue." Ethan took a deep breath and looked at the other two. "Let us be blunt, gentlemen. What we are really coming to is complete independence from England."

Joseph's eyes met his across the table. "Our friends agree with you. I hate to think of it, but I believe it is unavoidable."

Ethan nodded slowly, glad of the reassurance that other Sons of Liberty saw the situation as he did. He had often wished he could communicate directly with men such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere, but his public position as a loyal Tory made such a convenience far too risky.

Andrew spoke again. "Let us return to the situation of Worcester. Two officers will not take the powder but will simply report back to Gage on its location and recommend the best route to take for marching there, is that not so?"

"Exactly," Ethan answered. "My sources tell me Gage intends to accelerate his attempts to take our powder, and in the coming months, reconnaissance missions such as this will become commonplace. Despite the failure at Portsmouth two months ago, Gage is convinced he can avoid war simply by relieving us of our gunpowder one storehouse at a time."

"A shrewd maneuver," Joseph commented. "He is absolutely correct. Our lack of weaponry is our greatest weakness if it comes to war." He met Ethan's eyes across the table. "Are you certain this information is accurate? How did you come by it?"

"As Andrew will tell you, my sources are reliable. And confidential."

Joseph appeared satisfied by that. "I'll deliver this news to Paul Revere. He'll want to ride to Worcester tonight and get word to the militia there."

"Tell Paul to have the militia leave the powder where it is until Gage's two officers have passed through. Then move it to a new hiding place."

Joseph nodded. "That way, if the troops do march on the town a few days from now, they'll come up empty-handed."

Andrew also rose to his feet. "I'll pass this information on to the Boston and Charlestown militia so we can be ready for the repercussions. If troops march and find nothing for the trouble, God knows what Governor Gage will do." He glanced at Ethan. "Why on earth did you take the risk of coming out at this hour to bring us this news? Skulking about in patriot taverns at night posing as a dock worker named John Smith is one thing, Ethan, but during the day you could be recognized much more easily."

"I know, but it was necessary," Ethan answered, and rose from the table. "I can usually tell when a Gage spy is following me. I don't believe I was followed."

"If you are wrong, if you are being watched, Gage will eventually learn who you really are. You could be arrested, even hanged, for sedition."

"We all face that risk, if it comes to that," Ethan answered. "But Gage isn't arresting anyone yet. He is a fair man, despite all Samuel's attempts to paint him otherwise in the Whig newspapers."

"I feel compelled to point out that arrest is not the only risk involved here," Joseph interjected. "As Ethan Harding, you have access to many friends of the governor. If Gage discovers that Ethan Harding and John Smith are the same person, we will lose you as our most valuable source of information."

"Gage wouldn't charge me with sedition without better proof than the word of an informant," Ethan answered. "As I said, he is scrupulously fair. And, given my social position and connections, he will be especially careful to obtain irrefutable proof before arresting me."

Andrew came around the table and laid a hand on his arm. "Proof can be fabricated. I'd hate to see you swing on the gallows, my friend. Watch your step."

"Andrew is right," Joseph said. "Be careful."

Ethan smiled grimly. "I am always careful."

Copyright © 2000 by Laura Lee Guhrke

Présentation de l'éditeur

Honor, freedom, liberty...those were mere words to Katie Armstrong, a savvy thief and indentured servant on the run in colonial Boston. For the sake of survival, she agreed to a British lord's bribe: unmask the identity of the patriot known as John Smith, or be returned to her brutal master. But soon the cagey John Smith was making the same threat -- unless she spied for him. Katie planned to play both men against each other...until, masquerading as Smith's mistress, she lost her heart to the seductive stranger she had set out to undo.
Ethan Harding's steely heart was ready to risk anything to end British tyranny -- even if it meant taking on the false identity of John Smith, putting his own life in jeopardy, or blackmailing a beautiful and terrified young woman. And if that woman's angelic face made other men spill their secrets, so much the better. But now, Katie Armstrong's charms were about to betray his heart and his cause -- and his desire for the elusive temptress would turn the tables on everyone and everything he had pledged to protect.

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