Authors: Virginia Henley
“Four months,” confirmed Cat.
“I wonder when the hell he’ll be back?” said Spider, not quite allowing concern to creep into his voice. “Not that I care if I ever see him again, but at least old Rancid always brings lots of food and drink and servants to do the work.”
“Lightning blast the man!” Cat muttered. “We’ll have to mend the boat. We can live on fish if we have to. After we’ve gorged ourselves on purloined poulet we’ll go down to the cellars to see if the tide’s washed up anything we can use, and you can assess the damage to the family yacht.”
The manor house was built on a rocky cliff. Its cellars had been built around natural caverns of the ocean and a secret tunnel led into a cave which flooded at high tide. At low tide the cave often contained a barrel of brandy or some other contraband lost from a smuggler’s ship. They had moored their little wooden rowboat at the mouth of the cave after it had been battered in the last storm.
Spider fell asleep at the kitchen table waiting for the food to cook. Cat’s heart was wrung as she looked down at the boy. He was only fourteen, although he always insisted he was as close to fifteen as dammit is to swearing. He was so thin and this last year he had grown like a weed, so that his wrists and ankles stuck out a mile from his shrinking, shabby clothes.
Lady Summer St. Catherine did not mingle with the townspeople but kept aloof for fear of being laughed at. A lady without money, clothes, or servants was a figure of fun and she had put up forbidding signs on the gates that warned “Keep Out! Trespassers will be shot!” She had Roseland and that was all she needed.
Spider on the other hand mingled freely with the youth of the district and was accepted as one of them. His friends were sons of farmers, fishermen, and tavern keepers, but they had no idea he was a viscount, and assumed he was a stableboy from one of the large estates.
As she prepared dinner Cat daydreamed over how her day had begun. Dawn was a special, private time for Cat. She had done the same thing this morning that she had done each day of her life until it had become a ritual. Whatever the weather, she rode Ebony for miles along the empty sands and saluted the sunrise.
This southern shore of Cornwall was semitropical with warm coves and inlets. Its low cliffs were covered with exotic wildflowers, its air soft, come rain or shine. Often the dawns were misty before the sun burned off the wisps of fog. The strong breezes which whipped her black hair about her wildly as she rode were often as not warm and seductive. This soft southern shore was in stark contrast to the north Cornish coast such a short distance away. There the weather was cruel, the craggy cliffs bare of vegetation as they towered over the storm-tossed Atlantic. This contrast of the elements seemed to account for the devils which surged in the blood of certain Cornishmen and women. At least Cat lay the blame there for the devils which surged in her own blood. How else could she explain the intoxication so close to madness which brought her each dawn to the edge of the sea?
Her mind came back to the task at hand. If she didn’t stop daydreaming, they would never eat. She sighed over life’s cruelties. Poor chickens gave eggs all their lives and ended up between someone’s knees, being plucked. Still, this was a rooster and she’d be damned if she’d waste pity on the male of the species!
heir plates, licked clean, had been pushed back on the table to make room for their feet as brother and sister lazed before the warm fire, replete for once. Spider’s eyelids kept drooping over his eyes, but he was grinning from ear to ear.
“I wonder what Lord Helford would say if he knew we’d dined on his generosity tonight?”
“Bah! He’s so rich he keeps fifty servants kicking their lazy heels, supposedly looking after an estate he never even visits. Lord Bloody Helford can rot as far as I’m concerned. I hope he has a miserable night, wherever he is,” she said, licking her fingers one last time.
Lord Helford, as it turned out, was having anything but a miserable night. He had just dined sumptuously at Arlington House with the most important men of the realm. Baron Arlington, the secretary of state, employed the most superlative French chefs and was renowned as London’s host supreme. Tonight had been neither ball nor banquet, but simply a meeting where business was discussed, and yet the food had been as lavish as the entertainment had been daring.
Madame Bennet’s Naked Dancing Girls were served up as appetizer
along with the smoked trout and the latest sensation from France called champagne. The men at table who had so wished had made their selections for postmidnight assignations, and then they dutifully attacked their food and the pressing business at hand.
King Charles II’s face had settled into moody lines of cynicism as he listened to the advice offered him.
The Duke of Buckingham weighed up the men in the room, trying to pinpoint each one’s vulnerability so he could use it to best advantage at some later date.
Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Ashley, and the outspoken Scot, Lauderdale, seemed to be arguing, while Jack Grenvile, newly created Earl of Bath, and Lord Helford both looked on with tolerant amusement.
“Gentlemen, the Dutch fleet is trying to run England off the map and I’d like to know what we’re going to do about it,” said Charles bluntly. He smarted from the humiliation of the ships Holland had captured. The British navy was his pride and joy. He knew that the only way to make his nation a great one was by her sea trade. England must rule supreme over the seas of the world or she would be poor forever.
“At the risk of becoming a repetitive bore,” drawled Buckingham, “the only answer is war.”
Charles said, “Wars cost money, George. We’re not all as flush in the pocket as you.” George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, had one of the largest private fortunes in England.
Buckingham said blandly, “What about the dowry?”
Charles rolled his dark eyes. “The three hundred thousand pounds is not yet in my coffers and my spies tell me Portugal is now offering over half of it in sugar and spices instead of gold.”
“Sugar and spice and everything nice,” said Buckingham maliciously, “that’s what you get for trusting all to Clarendon.” Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon and Chancellor of England, was conspicuous by his absence. He was hated by all but the King.
“Portugal didn’t marry me,” said Charles, “it married English sea power. That’s why they gave us their prized colonies of Bombay and Tangier. The Dutch are now making a mockery of that sea power.”
Every man in the room had made a great deal of money over the last three years, recouping all their losses of the lean years they had spent in exile. But only a fool would have been unable to make a fortune in London with its relaxed policy of free enterprise. So now
it was their responsibility to see that England prospered as she should.
“Everything always boils down to money whether you’re discussing a whore or a nation,” said Lauderdale bluntly.
Charles sighed. “I need more money for ships, more money for spies, more money for bribes.”
“We must continue to harry the Dutch fleet without actually declaring war on them,” said Arlington.
“Two years we’ve been coursing that hare and haven’t caught it yet,” said Charles cynically.
“Grant me letters-of-marque against the Dutch,” suggested Ruark Helford. He had been one of Prince Rupert’s Privateers preying on Parliament’s shipping while Cromwell ruled.
Jack Grenvile grinned. “Breathes there a Cornishman who isn’t a pirate at heart?”
Ruark quipped, “You should certainly know.”
Charles looked at Ruark. “You could be effective in Cornwall, Ruark. Smuggling is rampant. No wonder my tax coffers are bare. Every man and his mistress finds a way to get ’round paying excise tax. Everything imported here is supposed to be taxed whether it’s tobacco from America, wine from France, or Venetian glass. So what happens? Instead of sailing into London and paying the taxes, they slip it in the back door along the Cornish coast. I’ve decided to make you the magistrate and high commissioner of the whole region. Catch and punish the smugglers and we’ll see the tax money roll in.”
Helford raised his eyebrows slightly at Charles, who nodded imperceptibly in answer. Yes, there would be a great deal more involved than catching petty smugglers. A base in Cornwall was an excellent cover for international spying.
“’Od’s Fish, I don’t know why you bother us for advice when you seem to have all the answers,” drawled Buckingham.
Clifford quipped, “Well, so long as one of us uses his brains, that leaves the rest of us free to indulge our other organs.”
The meeting broke up at midnight and Lord Helford walked back to the palace with the King. They cut through the old Mulberry Gardens west of the palace.
“Never thought I’d live to see the night you went dutifully home to a wife,” said Ruark, laughing.
Charles gave him an amused look. “I’m not the only one present who needs an heir … you’re not that much younger than I.”
Helford sobered. “I could tolerate a wife if I didn’t have to see her outside the bedroom.”
“Tolerance with women isn’t your long suit, Ruark.”
The two men could have been brothers. Both had the animal strength of a six-foot physique, black hair, dark skin, and impeccable manners.
“This business of smuggling,” Charles said quietly. “The goods coming in aren’t nearly so damaging as the information that’s being smuggled out. Put a stop to leaking my navy’s secrets to the Dutch for me, Ru.”
“I’ll finish up my business in London and as soon as you sign my letters-of-marque I’ll be ready to leave.”
“Perhaps I should ask you to seek out your brother Rory and give
the letters-of-marque,” said Charles.
Ruark Helford stiffened. “Rory’s dead,” he said quietly.
“A convenient rumor the scoundrel circulates for some dark reason of his own, I have no doubt,” said Charles, unable to keep the amusement from his voice.
“Is that an order, Your Majesty?” he asked coldly.
Charles nodded his head. “I think his services will be invaluable to me.”
“Give my regards to the Queen, Your Majesty,” said Ruark Helford, bowing formally.
Charles hid a grin. He knew he had hit a sore spot mentioning the pirate Rory. “My regards to you mistress. I don’t envy you explaining why you must desert her for Cornwall.”
Ruark Helford’s brows drew together slightly. “I don’t explain myself to women, Sire.”
Charles laughed. “One day you’ll meet your match, Helford. ’Tis the fate of all libertines, my friend.”
Cat stretched her arms above her head and stood up from the kitchen table to light the lantern.
“Where are you going?” asked Spider between great yawns.
“I forgot to go down to see if the boat can be repaired.”
“We can go in the morning,” protested the boy.
“It’s low tide now. I can go alone, you go on to bed.”
“’Course you can’t go alone,” he said firmly, all sleepiness gone from his voice. “If I don’t look out for you, who will?” He asked the question with the inborn arrogance of a grown man and suddenly she felt such a pang that the boy she had looked after for
years would soon grow into a man. For one brief moment she wished he would never turn into a man, for she hated them, but then she chided herself for having such wicked, selfish thoughts about her young brother.
Cat held the lantern high as they walked through the cellars, and on into the caverns hollowed from the cliff’s rock. The salt tang of tidewrack assailed their nostrils as they bent their heads to go through the narrow passage into the cave. As she emerged from the passage and lifted the lantern, Cat was startled by a bright, flickering light from the sea. It was close in, almost in the shallows, and both of them knew in the same instant that it was a ship’s lantern which thought their own light was a signal. Quickly Cat snuffed out her lantern, and as she did so, Spider pointed out a ship. It looked like a small French frigate. Its sails had been furled, but it was now in the business of hoisting sail as fast as it could. Voices carried clearly across the water.
“Vite! Patrouille marine!”
Both of them had a smattering of French, and knew the ship had spotted a navy patrol boat. They peered out across the dark, choppy waters and saw it quite a way off, but resolutely closing the distance.
“Dans la mer!”
came an order, followed by four muffled splashes.
“They’re dumping cargo into the sea,” Cat translated. “If they are caught and searched, there’ll be no evidence unless the patrol takes time to fish it out of the drink.”
A sailor called a question,
“Planche à bouteilles?”
The answer came quickly,
“Oui, oui—embariller—sel, sel.”
“What did he say?” asked Cat low.
means packed in casks. Must be fish,” said Spider in disgust.
“No, no—he asked the captain if he should dump the
planche à bouteilles
as well. That’s a wooden crate of bottles. I know what they’ve done!” said Cat excitedly. “They’ve packed the stuff in rock salt so it’ll sink. It’ll take a few hours for the salt to melt, then around about daybreak the stuff will float up.”