Authors: Virginia Henley
“What cargo?” she asked casually.
“Fish!” he said very deliberately.
Her heart lifted, but she dared not let a grin escape. She finished her ale, wiped her sleeve across her mouth, and eased the chair back onto its four legs.
Her eyes slid over to Spider and as if on cue he said, “I suppose you want to unload your cargo before you run up the Channel?”
The American nodded. “Ship’ll run up the Channel a helluva lot faster with an empty hold.”
“Suppose,” said Cat, “just suppose I supplied storage space for these barrels of fish. That way you could get your ship through London customs and then find a high-paying customer for your cargo. ’Course you’d have to ship it overland, but you could pass that cost on to your buyer.”
While the American skipper was making up his mind about trusting them, Spider said innocently, “I hope your fish won’t spoil. I hope it’s well salted.”
“What do you get out of this?” the American asked bluntly.
“As soon as we stow the cargo, you take me on an overnight run up the Channel to Portsmouth.” The bargain was struck and the American went to gather his crew.
Cat said to Spider, “While I’m gone I want you to take the tobacco out of those barrels and conceal it. Take a bit of that money we’ve got and buy some cheap fish to replace it.
“Say no more.” Spider winked.
“When they come for their ‘fish,’ there won’t be a bloody thing they can do about it,” she said, her eyes sparkling with the mere idea of the sting.
When they got into the longboat with the crew to row out to the ship, Cat ran alarmed eyes over the sailors. They were a mighty rough-looking crew, no better than criminals. A shiver of fear ran up her back and she pulled her woolen hat down low and turned up her collar. When she got the opportunity to speak to Spider, she whispered, “When we get to the caverns, go upstairs and get a pair of Rancid’s pistols; one for each of us.”
He nodded quickly in full agreement. The unloading, however, went off without incident. There were only forty barrels to unload and Cat surmised they must have already smuggled most of their cargo into France. The wind changed to a strong westerly and Cat
gave Spider a brief wave. She could not afford a tender farewell in front of the American, but she did not need to put into words that she would be back as quickly as she could.
on the upper deck she made herself comfortable on a coil of rope with her back against the taffrail. Cat loved the sea. It filled her with excitement. There was nothing quite so wild—untamed—unpredictable. The sea would never allow anything or anyone to control it. It was never safe, always dangerous, and her blood sang with a feeling of “oneness” and total freedom.
In the early hours, somewhere between midnight and dawn, Randal St. Catherine roused his sister where she sat napping in the chair beside his bed.
“The doctor … said I was finished … didn’t he?” he gasped.
Lil bent close to catch his words. The candles clearly showed his dreadful gray pallor and eyes already beginning to film over. Lil reached for the glass and decanter. “Have some brandy, Randal, you were always particularly partial to good brandy.”
He grasped the decanter in a feeble hand and shook his head. “Book … papers … hidden … under seat.” He coughed and choked, then managed to say, “Summer … she’ll know … black ma …”
“Black man?” Lil puzzled. “You mean you have a book hidden under the seat in your carriage and you want me to see that your daughter Summer gets it? I’d better go and see if it’s still there.” She took one of the candles and hurried from the room. She knew the book must contain some valuable information or he wouldn’t have it concealed. At first she couldn’t find it, then to her relief her hand closed on a sealed paper and a small, leather-bound volume tucked at the back, and she pulled them out and opened up the book. She held the candle close to see what was written on the pages, but it told her nothing. She recognized the names of places in Cornwall; there were dates and names and what might be ship’s names but that was all. She hurried back upstairs with a dozen questions on her lips, but she saw immediately she would never know the answers. Randal had deliberately drained the decanter and the brandy had killed him.
Cat arrived in Portsmouth just as dawn was breaking. The gulls screamed and circled, hoping the ship was bringing in fish, and she
smiled to herself as she thought of the cargo of tobacco safely concealed beneath Roseland.
From Portsmouth she had lots of time to take the early-morning mail coach for London. The fare they asked seemed outrageous to Cat, so she haggled and finally agreed to ride outside the coach next to the driver for a cheaper rate. Each time they came to a steep incline the carriage stopped and all passengers disembarked to trudge up the hill on foot, so it wasn’t until five weary hours later that the coach pulled into Lud Lane off Gresham Street.
Cat had paid little attention to the open meadows of sheep and cows, nor had she noticed much difference in the villages which clustered on the outskirts of the city, but once she spotted the spires of hundreds of churches dominating the skyline she felt her excitement begin to well up inside her.
Soon her senses were reeling. Her ears were assaulted by the mixed cacophony of church bells, river traffic, porters, vendors, draymen, and the babble of a thousand voices. Her nose was assaulted by the unpleasant stench of open sewers, rotting vegetation, sweating horses, and unwashed humanity.
Her eyes darted about; she wanted to experience every detail of the greatest city in the world. London was walled, and after they passed over the great bridge which actually had houses and shops built on it, they passed through one of the entrance gates into the city.
To Cat it seemed overcrowded wherever she looked and she wondered what had happened to draw all the people. Gradually she realized it must always be like this. Her eyes were huge in her face as she saw magnificently dressed men and women in satins and velvet walk past filthy cripples and beggars. Some of the ladies wore black masks over their faces; others, obviously housewives and servants, were doing their shopping.
All the places of business had signs hanging outside their premises and apprentices stood in the doorways hawking their goods. Porters staggered under huge boxes of goods, others pushed handcarts over the cobbles, their loads piled so high they were in danger of toppling over.
She saw children singing for pennies, pickpockets and wig snatchers plaguing the crowds, cavaliers on horseback, and drunken fops outside taverns. The traffic slowed the coach to a crawl as they waited for hackney carriages, merchants’ wagons, and sedan chairs. Cat learned a few choice curses she’d never heard
before from the driver as he waved his whip and threatened anatomical indignities with it if they
Cat was caught up in the violent energy of the place and she instantly recognized that she would have to be constantly on her toes here if she expected to be one step ahead of anyone else.
Next to the coach station in Lud Lane was an inn called the Swan with Two Necks and she asked a young barmaid scrubbing the steps how to get to Cockspur Street.
“Oooo, ’oity-toity,” replied the wench upon hearing the fashionable address.
“Silly bitch, speak English,” said Cat, annoyed.
“Well, I never!” said the maid, picking up her bucket and throwing the dirty water over Cat’s dusty boots.
Cat grabbed a handful of her hair and said, “Tell me how to get to Cockspur Street or I’ll mop the bloody road with you.”
“Lawks! Leggo! Murder!”
“It will be murder if you don’t tell me,” Cat threatened.
“Down Fleet to the Strand … straight down the Strand nearly to the palace.”
Cat murmured under her breath, “Look out, London, here I come, ready or not.” At that moment her stomach rolled so loudly, a mangy mongrel jumped aside and she let out a peel of laughter. She bought a veal pasty from a pieman to stave off her hunger and strode off toward Fleet Street.
Every detail fascinated her. She glanced in every shop, here an apothecary offering cures for impotence, there a secondhand clothing shop offering dead men’s boots, and on each and every corner stood a tavern named after Charles II, either the King’s Head, the King’s Arms, or the Royal Oak. She saw boy chimney sweeps, soot black from head to foot, and a rat catcher with dead rats and mice hanging from his hat.
By the time she had followed the Strand around the bend in the river and located Cockspur Street she was dusty, dirty, and footsore. She noticed that in this part of town the streets were clean and the houses immaculate. She ran up the steps of number five and knocked loudly. A footman opened the door, looked down his long nose at her, and said, “Get away from this house, you varlet.”
In a flash her boot prevented him shutting the door in her face. She reached inside the jacket and pulled out a pistol. His eyes rolled up into his head and he cried, “Help! Robbers!”
A woman’s voice drawled, “James, whatever is the racket, don’t you know the house is in mourning?”
Cat looked over the sophisticated woman from head to toe, taking in the platinum curls, the painted face, the silk gown, the ivory fan, and the white Persian cat on a silver leash, and said uncertainly, “Auntie Lil?”
The small woman looked at her blankly.
“I’m Summer, but I prefer to be called Cat.” She tucked the pistol away and pulled out the letter. Lady Richwood’s mouth fell open. Recovering only slightly, her hand at her throat, she said, “How extraordinary! How did you get here?”
“How extraordinary! Come in before anyone sees you.” As Lil stood staring at the young girl who was her niece, her heart melted like snow in summer. “Oh, child, whatever has he done to you?” she cried. She had been prepared to thoroughly dislike Lady Summer St. Catherine, thinking her the spoiled and pampered heiress of Roseland, but the girl she saw before her had obviously had no advantages whatsoever. In fact, by the looks of her, she had been neglected shamefully. “Come and sit down, darling, I’m afraid I have some upsetting news for you.” She took a deep breath. “Your father died last night.”
Cat pulled off her woolen cap and her hair fell about her shoulders untidily. She felt nothing. No sorrow. No joy. “I feel numb,” she said, sitting down hard on the elegant brocade settee.
“Summer, my poor darling, you don’t need to explain things to me. He was my brother. I know what a swine he was. He isn’t in the house—the undertaker took him for burial to St. John’s-in-the-Wood. … I didn’t know if you would come.”
“There’s no money to pay for it, what will I do?” asked Cat helplessly.
“Well, I think we’ve both had experience in coping when there’s no money.” She removed the silver leash from the white Persian cat and it jumped up on the brocade settee. “First things first. You look like you haven’t eaten in a week.”
“I’ve eaten twice.”
“No … this week.”
“Oh, darling, you are droll. We need something to cheer us up. For dessert we’ll have strawberries. I’m particularly partial to
strawberries,” she drawled. “I’ll feed you and bathe you, and then we’ll do what women do best. We’ll talk, darling.”
Lil found her a snow-white nightgown beribboned and decorated with lace. It was easily the prettiest garment she had ever worn. Her freshly washed hair curled damply about her face as she sat beside the bedchamber fire to dry it.
“Now then, darling,” said Lil in her beautiful, husky drawl, “your father asked me to give you this book and these papers. Said something about a black man which made no sense.”
Cat unsealed the large parchment and slowly began to decipher the legal words. Suddenly she jumped up and sent her stool flying. “The man should burn in hell!” she cried. “He’s mortgaged Roseland to the hilt and the note is due! My God, if he wasn’t dead, I’d kill him!” She paced the room and tore open a second paper. “Oh, no! It’s a bill of sale for my horse, Ebony. Rancid old bastard! I’ve got to get home … I’ve got to get some money … but how?”
“It has always been my experience, Summer darling, that since men control all the wealth, it is only logical that a woman who needs money must get it from some man.”
“You mean marry for money?” asked Cat with loathing. “I don’t think I could ever marry, not even for money. All men are vile and selfish. If I married someone wealthy, my money problems might be solved, but my other problems would just be starting and I’d be saddled with him for the rest of my life. The last thing I want is marriage!”
“Oh, darling, it isn’t as simple as that. In London marriage, I’m afraid, is completely out of fashion. Liaisons are all the rage now, you see, but in your case even that would be almost impossible.”
“Why?” asked Cat bluntly.
Lady Richwood hesitated then decided to speak plainly. “You are out of fashion. They are mad for blondes at the moment. Black hair on a woman is considered ugly, foreign, Portuguese like the poor unfortunate Queen. Darling, let me be blunt with you. You stride about in boots like a man, swearing and saying exactly what you think. Men don’t want that. They want a painted doll who smiles sweetly, eats like a bird, dresses like an angel, has the manners of a lady, someone who is dainty, amusing, and acquiescent.”
“Acquiescent?” repeated Cat suspiciously.
“Willing to do whatever they ask in bed,” supplied Lil.
“So that’s what liaison means,” said Cat, shuddering. “Men are so disgustingly evil. In this world men do all the taking and women
do all the giving. It’s not fair! You are suggesting I sell my body for money to some lecherous old man. I’d much rather steal the money. It wouldn’t bother my conscience to steal from a man.”
“Darling,” Lil said patiently, rolling the word about her mouth until it came out like a caress, “in London men keep their wealth safely deposited with a goldsmith or banker, it’s not left lying about for thieves. I think you have the spirit to be a great adventuress. Why not turn the tables for once? Use men the way they usually use women. You have great ‘potential’ beauty, darling, and if you are the clever girl I think, you could save Roseland and live the rest of your life in luxury. By the use of flattery and promises I’d be willing to bet you could get your hands on some dear man’s fortune, and when it came time to pay the piper you could get away with actually delivering very little. That way he’d be ‘giving’ and you’d be ‘taking.’”