Authors: Virginia Henley
Spider said in wonder, “Isn’t it amazing how somebody’s misfortune is somebody else’s gain? The world has a kind of balance to it, y’know?”
“But we’ve got to be quick and cunning.” Cat laughed. “We’ll go up to the kitchen and get a couple of hours’ sleep by the fire. Tide will be rising by then.”
* * *
Sunrise was still a good hour away and they had accomplished everything they’d hoped for. The sea had thrown up four large casks of brandy and five cases marked
vin de champagne,
holding fifty bottles in all. Cat had never heard of champagne, but
was wine and the tide had done almost all the work for them. For the small price of a thorough wetting they had secured the contraband, lined it up in the cave in front of the entrance to the passage, and they now stood in the cavernous cellar waiting for high tide and the indraft to float it all “home.”
Later that morning, as always, Cat, mounted on Ebony, greeted the golden dawn. Today, however, she expected to have company on the lonely stretch of sand. She sat alert, watching the distance, then as two tiny figures became visible around the far headland she urged the black horse faster and faster until the blood of both surged recklessly. The tide was still high enough to cover the horse up to its hocks and she deliberately splashed the two men who were obviously looking for something.
“G’day, m’lady,” they muttered, abashed to be caught there so blatantly.
She nodded aloofly and waited. One of the men finally spoke. “Did ye see aught up the beach, m’lady?”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re not wreckers, are you?” she asked boldly, allowing a hint of loathing to sound in her voice.
Quickly they denied it vehemently. “Nay, nay, lady. Engaged in a spot of honest smuggling, that’s all, I swear it.”
“If I thought you were connected to wreckers, I’d turn you over to the militia instantly!” she warned again.
“Nay, nay,” said the younger man, “my dad here’s the tavern keeper at Mawnan. We were expectin’ a delivery o’ brandy.”
“I’ve ridden for miles this morning; the beach is empty, I’m afraid.” She smiled. “Well, you can’t trust the French, y’know.”
“No, m’lady,” they muttered, and knew she lied.
She touched her heel to her horse’s side, then as if she had second thoughts stopped and said, “If you’ve the money, I could let you have four kegs of brandy and say, fifty bottles of French wine from my father’s cellars.”
They looked at each other shrewdly, wondering how St. Catherine’s wench had managed to locate and secure the stuff before they
had. They shrugged. There was nothing they could do, for she’d have the militia on them as soon as look at them.
“Bring a wagon to Roseland this afternoon and I’ll have one of the servants fetch it up from the cellars,” she said airily as she turned the black Barbary and took off like the wind.
ord Randal St. Catherine could smell his own sweat for the first time in his life and it smelled of fear! His luck had been all bad lately until he was reduced to one elegant satin suit and his well-sprung coach. He knew that tomorrow he would have to leave for Roseland. Then his luck seemed to change and it turned out to be a fateful night for him. It went by many names, but luck, fate, or destiny chose to stand at his shoulder this night as he sat at a gaming table at the Groom Porter’s Lodge.
Early in the evening he had begun by dealing from the bottom whenever it was his turn, but as the night wore on he found he need not slur and knap to win, for the right cards seemed to be falling into his hands by divine power. It was as if he had made a pact with the devil. Whatever cards he needed to win, he turned up.
When his winnings reached four thousand pounds, he had enough sense to quit the table. He ordered a double brandy, giving silent thanks that he’d not had enough money in his pocket to buy it before he’d begun to play as he usually did.
As he stepped out onto the cobblestone street he found it unusually deserted. Stripped bare of humanity, the buildings looked ugly and decayed. Centuries of rottenness, overcrowding, and greed
made London a stinking cesspool of corruption and he knew he was as much a part of it as the open sewage kennels which ran along the sides of the streets.
The upper stories of the houses and buildings overhung one another, shutting out the light and the air and cloaking the night with a sinister pall.
“A pox on all coachmen!” he muttered as his eyes darted up and down the street, trying to decide in which pub he would find his man. He walked to the corner and glanced through the diamond-paned windows of the Rose and Crown, then turned the corner and spat an obscenity as a dark cat slunk across his path.
He saw his coach down a dirty side alley across from the Cock and Bull and knew he’d found his quarry. He glanced to left and right furtively before going into the alley, for London streets were unsafe for beggars, not to mention those with a fortune in their pockets. He heard a muffled step, glanced behind him, and saw only a well-dressed figure, a wide-brimmed cavalier’s hat pulled low across the face.
He quickened his steps toward his coach. Inside was an iron bar used to lever the wheels from mud. His hand reached out to open the door as he heard the unmistakable sound of a sword stick being drawn from its sheath. It was then he smelled the fear on himself. He turned to look into the face of death and took the steel. It slipped between his ribs as if he’d been a rack of lamb skewered by a French chef.
As the strange metallic taste came into his mouth he knew at his heart root this was no random robbery, but a deliberate and calculated assault by a gentleman he had had the bad judgment to cheat. Someone as ruthlessly cold-blooded as himself. By the time his coachman found him he was lying in the gutter where he belonged, yet he still clung to life by a thread.
“Lil,” he whispered, “Lady Rich wood …”
His driver, afraid to make a run for it, lifted him into the coach and just barely made out the grating words, “Cockspur … Street … Number 5 …” He climbed on top and whipped up the horses. He could make no time on the twisting streets until he reached the Strand, then he let the horses have their heads until they were past the bend in the River Thames, and it took all his strength to steer them round the corner into the short Cockspur Street.
He lifted St. Catherine from the coach and struggled up the steps
at the fashionable little house which was number five. A liveried footman answered the door, but the burly coachman brushed him aside and pushed into the reception hall on the first floor. The coachman tried to set St. Catherine on his feet, but knew if he let go of him altogether, he would collapse.
A very attractive woman perhaps in her late thirties appeared after a few minutes and stood staring in disbelief. Finally, St. Catherine gasped, “Lil … I’m dying!”
“So I see,” she drawled in a beautiful, provocative voice. She was never at a loss for words and tonight was no exception. “Randal, darling, I wonder why it is when life deals a man a low blow and the world decides to turn its callous back upon him, the first person he turns to is his closest female relative?” She paused dramatically, yet did not seem to take a breath as she continued, “No matter how shabbily or dishonorably he has treated that female in the past?” She paused again, smoothing the folds of her elegant silk gown. “Shall I tell you the answer, darling? It is because a woman, no matter how harshly she has been treated, will not shut the door in the face of a brother, even though that brother be an enemy.”
“Lil …” he gasped, his face whiter than death, “send … for … my … daughter.”
“Oh, I shall, Randal, never fear.” She motioned her hand for the coachman to take him upstairs. “You always were the most inconsiderate brute alive. Even in extremis you had to bleed all over my new carpet,” she drawled. Over her shoulder she casually bade the footman, “Secure the coach and horses in the carriage house, James—I’m sure he won’t have a crown to his name.”
Lil dismissed an upstairs maid and led the way into a small, luxurious bedroom. “Disrobe him,” she ordered his man as he laid him on the bed. She glanced at the wound dispassionately. It frothed and bubbled bright red blood with each shallow breath he drew. Without a word she whipped a sheet from the bed, tore off a long strip, and bound it tightly about his ribs.
“Doctor …” It came out in a rattle.
“Doctor?” Lil gave a droll little laugh. “Surely, darling, you mean undertaker.”
“You’re … hard … Lil!” he rasped bitterly.
“Yes, Randal, hard. Shall I tell you why?” she drawled. “You shoved me out of Roseland on my arse when I was fifteen, and because I was particularly partial to eating every day, I soon learned to live by my wits. To save myself I had to marry an old
man. Didn’t expect that, did you, Randal? Didn’t expect I’d become Lady Richwood? Then when you thought he might be of some use to you, you latched onto my husband until you bled him dry. Well, he may have died penniless but Lord Richwood was my means of being presented at Court and that, Randal darling, is the only way I’ve survived. Now I’m particularly partial to servants, silk gowns, and security.”
“Whoremonger!” he said, sneering.
She made a small moue with her lips. “Introductions, Randal. Discreet liaisons between young women of breeding and gentlemen of His Majesty’s Court. Someone as coarse as you would naturally call it flesh peddling and that, darling, is what has made me hard.”
She swept from the room, taking the coachman with her. “Come, I’ll pay you what wages he owes you,” she said, speaking briskly for the first time.
“Shall I come round tomorrow?” he asked uncertainly.
“If I were you, I’d cut my losses. Let’s face it, if he were rich as Buckingham, he still couldn’t bribe the Grim Reaper to overlook him for more than another day or two.”
The driver touched his forelock and departed thinking she was a crafy bitch to secure the coach and horses. Still, it was a bleeding miracle she’d given him his wages!
Lil dispatched a footman for a doctor and sat down at her desk to pen a hurried note. She stroked her chin reflectively for a moment with the goose-feather quill, then in an elegant scrawl wrote:
Lady Summer St. Catherine:
Your father has suffered a critical accident. Come immediately.
She addressed it to Lady Summer St. Catherine of Roseland and gave orders that it was to be put on the mail coach for Plymouth immediately. Then she stared out the long window into the night-darkened streets. “Well, Lady Summer, you’ve had all the advantages of the fine upbringing I was denied. Let’s see how you cope with this fine mess. The pain and the expense can be yours; I want none of it!”
She walked slowly through the house, picked up a decanter of brandy, and thought, Funny, but I’m not really hard at all. She
brushed away a tear and carried the brandy up to her brother. She knew she was in for a long vigil.
“Death and damnation!” swore Cat as she read the note from her aunt. “Wouldn’t you just know it? The first money we’ve ever had and now I have to waste it traveling up to London. It’s just so damned typical of him!”
“Did something happen to Rancid?” asked Spider.
“This letter is from Auntie Lil—his sister. Apparently he’s had an accident and wants me immediately.”
“He’s most likely been wounded in a duel by an outraged husband he’s been clapping horns on.”
“What woman would look at him? He’s never sober these days. More likely he’s been caught cheating at cards. Now that he needs a bloody nurse, I’m the candidate.”
“It’s over two hundred miles to London. How long will it take to ride that far?” he asked doubtfully.
“I hate the thought of ruining Ebony on such a journey. Hell and fury, Rancid isn’t worth it. Why don’t we go down into Falmouth and see if someone’s sailing to Portsmouth today? I can take the London coach from there.”
Cat was worried to death to leave Spider on his own, but did not dare to mention it. Her brother wondered wildly how he could let Cat go to such a far-off, wicked city but knew better than to suggest she needed an escort.
Knowing how bitter cold it could be aboard ship, she donned a wool pea jacket and pulled a knitted cap over her tightly braided hair, and they set off at a brisk pace for Falmouth. A casual observer would have taken them for brothers.
It was only a mile and a half to Falmouth’s waterfront taverns, and Cat strolled in as nonchalantly as Spider did and struck up a conversation with the seamen drinking there. She paid for two half-pints of ale and began to make casual inquiries. There were quite a few vessels anchored just beyond the seawall, and by asking the right questions and being observant, they soon learned one was captained by an American. Cat joined him at his table and leaned back until her chair was balanced on its two back legs.
“Carolinas?” she asked lazily.
“Virginia,” answered the blond giant.
“I expect you’ve blown off course.”
“Could be,” he answered noncommittally.
“I expect you’re headed for Portsmouth or London.”
“Could be,” he repeated.