Soon they approached the outskirts of Paris. Just beyond the tollhouse on the Paris side, they came upon a row of buildings that housed several disreputable taverns. Ben noted that a straggle of Friday night revelers still celebrating out front, even at this late hour on a Saturday morning. As they drew closer, Ben thought that he recognized one of the men outside the closest saloon. The man wore a clerical robe and held a sign in large bold letters that Ben translated roughly as “Repent, ye sinners!”
“Well, well,” Ben exclaimed.
“Do you know that man?” Le Veillard asked.
“That is the Reverend Smith, an Anglican minister and . . .” Ben lowered his voice, “a spy.”
“He also seems to possess le desir de morte,” Le Veillard observed wryly.
As the two riders approached, several more drunken men spilled out of the tavern into the early morning sunlight, squinting from the brightness. However, as their eyes adjusted, they caught sight of the Reverend Smith admonishing their intemperance with his haughty pose and Biblical verse. Boisterous from a long evening of drinking, they soon surrounded the Reverend. Several women joined them, barmaids finishing their shift or barflies abandoning the chase for the night.
One man stumbling out of the tavern caught Ben’s attention. He was dressed in a more refined suit of clothing, clearly not that of a tradesman or worker, although rumpled after a long night of drinking.
“That looks like Monsieur Penet —‘The Weasel,’” Ben exclaimed.
Le Veillard looked impressed. “You know that man also?” he asked.
“Yes, both accompanied me on my trip from Nantes to Paris a few months ago. Penet rode in a coach with the Reverend. I thought that they might come to blows.”
“It seems that time may still come.”
Penet must have recognized the Reverend because he bounded toward him, yelling obscenities and waving his fists in the air.
Le Veillard smacked Diablo sharply with his crop, and the large horse bolted toward the altercation. Ben’s horse followed only a few paces behind as they pulled up among the rowdy drunks confronting the clearly frightened minister. By this time, the Reverend’s nose had been bloodied, yet he kept his hands at his sides. Penet was about to take another crack at the Reverend when Le Veillard separated the two by riding between them. He planted his right foot on Penet’s chest and sent him sprawling. A shrill whistle sounded down the street. Ben looked up to see several gendarmes running toward the fracas.
Ben dismounted at the Reverend’s side, his horse shielding them from the mob. He placed one arm around the shaking minister’s shoulders. With the other hand, Ben pulled out his handkerchief and applied pressure to the Reverend’s nose. At the same time, Penet scrambled to his feet, intent on attacking Le Veillard. But Le Veillard had anticipated this response. He held his riding crop at his side until just the instant that Penet grabbed his leg. Then he let the crop loose with a blow to the Weasel’s head so severe that blood from the wound spattered his white silk shirt. He jumped off his mount just as the gendarmes arrived. As they grabbed Penet and hauled him up from the dirt, he had a wild look in his eye as if he wanted to murder them all.
Spitting and shouting obscenities, Penet was taken into custody. The gendarmes quickly dispersed the remainder of the crowd, who went tottering off, up the street, and back to their homes. On the far sidewalk, Ben sat the Reverend down. As the street became quiet, a pretty barmaid approached Le Veillard. She placed her hand on his chest, heaving from the conflict.
“Your shirt will be ruined if you don’t get it off and into cool water,” she said. She gave him a seductive smile.
Le Veillard looked over at Ben sheepishly. “I must have my shirt attended to by this lovely young lady,” he said.
Ben nodded. “I can take care of the Reverend.”
“I’ll come by this afternoon and collect you at your lodgings, alright?”
“I’ll be waiting for you.” Ben smiled.
Le Veillard quickly tied up his horse and disappeared through a walkway leading to rooms above the tavern.
“I thank you for coming to my aid,” the Reverend said. He held Ben’s handkerchief to his face.
“My dear sir, if men are so wicked with religion, what would we be without it,” Ben said.
As the Reverend closed his eyes, he relaxed his posture. “How true,” he said. Then he added, “But we should not be seen together, Doctor Franklin.”
Ben glanced up the road in the direction of Paris. A coach was approaching them rapidly. Ben pulled his hood over his head so as not to be recognized. As the coach pulled to a halt in front of him and the Reverend, Ben confirmed the British embassy’s ambassadorial seal on the door. An armed coachman jumped down and ran over to collect the Reverend. Without saying a word, the guard assisted the clergyman into the coach. When the door opened, Ben caught a glimpse of the British ambassador, Lord Stormont, sitting stone-faced inside the coach’s shadows. The driver cracked his whip, and the coach quickly turned around, heading back toward Paris as swiftly as it had arrived.
Ben stood for a moment, watching the coach disappear. He silently hoped that the Reverend’s mission spying for the American cause was proceeding more successfully than his proselytizing. The street was empty. Ben mounted his horse and rode back to Passy alone.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx