Authors: Margaret Bennett
Tags: #Nov. Rom
English Channel, April 1813
he full moon disappeared behind storm clouds as the two masts lugger manned by seasoned watermen fought to stay afloat. Toward the stern, the Honorable Rosalind Wensley sat undisturbed by the pitching and rolling of the small craft as it rode the huge swells. Like the other men, she was dressed in corded work breeches stuffed in old riding boots and a black woolen jacket buttoned against the biting cold. She’d tucked her long, light brown hair under a knitted black cap, wore a black woolen muffler around her neck, and kept her hands in the jacket’s deep pockets.
Ahead of them lay the beach, invisible in the wet darkness. She could barely make out the hulking outline of Tolly, their burly, oversized leader, standing
by the rudder. He possessed the instincts of a dolphin and would hone in to the exact spot where they were to land for the rendezvous. But due to the storm, they were over an hour behind schedule. She prayed her old friend Jacques guessed their problem when they’d missed the appointed time.
She worried about Jacque
s. Up and down England’s southern coast, rumors abounded of an imminent attack by the French. And of late, rumors told of Napoleon’s soldiers frequently harassing their own citizenry as troops scoured the Normandy countryside for English spies. More than once, the old Frenchman’s cottage had been a target of their searches.
Rosalind’s eyes picked out the faint glow of a
light blinking three times. In the next instant, it disappeared. She strained her eyes, peering into the darkness. A mistake, maybe. No there it was again. She sighed with relief when Tolly ordered the men to bring down the sail and put their backs to the oars. As the lugger turned into the choppy surf, another man answered the signal with a lantern kept in the bow of the boat.
Within minutes, the deafening roar of
the surf surrounded them. Rosalind felt the boat lifted out of the water as the men jumped over the sides and, in unison, heaved the lugger up to the sandy beach. Scrambling over the seats to the bow, she lowered herself down upon the wet, hard-packed, pebbly sand. Tolly was at her side instantly. As clouds slowly parted, the moon illuminated the shallow beach.
“Be better if those clouds stayed put,” Tolly mumbled. “Least while we’re stranded.”
Used to his grumbling, Rosalind paid him no mind. Together, the two of them hurried up the rocky beach to the dunes. They had not progressed far before someone called out to them.
“Over here, quickly,” the man
said in French.
the stooped figure with gray hair spiking out from under a beret and a large nose. “Oh, Jacques, you did wait,” she returned in fluent French. “I was afraid something might have happened to you because we were so late.”
Mais non, ma petite
angel. You forget I am an old man who has learned caution the hard way. When the wind came up, I told our friends here we must be patient, for the sea is most unkind when it’s angry.”
alind looked to her right as two young men came out from the rocks to join them. They appeared hesitant, turning their heads back and forth from the old man to Tolly’s massive frame and the line of men that suddenly appeared over the dunes and stretched from the rocks to the boat. The men formed a relay passing illegal contraband, kegs of French brandy, from a cachet behind the rocks to the small sea craft.
Tolly waved for the soldiers to com
e closer. “Come on, lads. Ain’t safe here. Best be heading back before them Frogs stumble upon us.”
“You’re English?” one man said incredulously.
“Aye, now come along,” Tolly commanded. He reached out to support the other soldier limping.
“Careful with that one,” Jacques said. “He’s got some broken ribs and a ball in his leg.”
“We will see that he gets the proper care.” Rosalind reached up to put her arms around the old man for a brief hug. “Take care, Jacques. You must not let them catch you.”
t worry so,
angel. Now be off. My old bones are crying for their warm featherbed.”
Racing down the beach, she didn’t look back. She knew from past experience her friend was already hidden in the shadows, watching to confirm they got away without detection.
When they reached the surf, Rosalind stood aside as the others climbed into the boat. The bowed sides stood over four feet above the water. Unfortunately, she’d never learned to get into the lugger on her own. It didn’t matter though. Tolly effortlessly picked her up and placed her in the bow. Once Tolly and the men shoved the boat into the surf, they clambered aboard. As the men took up the oars, Tolly manned the rudder and expertly guided the lugger through the rough waves.
Swaying to compensate for the boat
’s rocky movements, Rosalind traversed a narrow aisle, stepping over seats. She found it difficult avoiding the heavy ropes, fishermen’s legs, and brandy kegs. In the bow of the boat, she eased down onto the floor and faced the two soldiers on a bench seat. Though the moonlight was now weak, she noted their scared expressions, tattered clothes, and pathetically thin frames. “What are your Christian names?” She kept her tone low to sound like a youth.
Henry, ma’am,” the older of the two answered, then gestured to his young friend. “And this here is John.”
looked at the younger man. He’d wrapped one arm protectively about his ribcage. The other hand clasped his thigh where dried blood stained his ripped gray trousers. “We are not many hours from England, John,” Rosalind said. “All I can do is give you something to ease the pain.”
“No laudanum,” he answered sharply before quickly adding in a more contrite tone, “please.”
“No, no drug. I understand you need to keep your wits about you.” She gave both men a shy smile. “Perhaps some brandy?”
Tentatively, they returned her smile before agreeing that brandy would be most welcome. Reaching underneath the
bow seat behind her, she drew out a leather encased flask and offered it to the injured man first. Rosalind felt his dry, hot touch when his hand wrapped around hers to grasp the bottle. “Have you eaten?”
“The old Frenchman gave us some bread and cheese. That’s been a while now,
” Henry replied.
I have some bread and slices of mutton to go with it if you are hungry.” When both nodded, Rosalind busied herself in a knapsack and produced a half loaf of bread and mutton wrapped in a large linen napkin. She broke the bread in two, giving each man his share. She then laid the mutton on the napkin and spread it out on the seat between the two soldiers.
“We have a long journey ahead,” Rosalind said, watching the two men greedily devour the food. “You might try to make yourselves comfortable and get some sleep if you can.”
“Don’t know how we can ever repay you,” Henry sputtered after taking a long pull on the brandy flask.
“You saved our hides,” John added.
“You can pay us back by keeping mum your dubbers,” came Tolly’s gruff rejoinder as he came up from the rear of the boat. “If you’re asked, you ain’t ever seen a one of us. Got it?”
“Aye, aye, Captain!” Henry called out, giving the
huge, burly leader a smart salute.
John nodded his head. “You got our word.”
London, May 1813
“Seems the smugglers have an accomplice in France, an old man known simply as Jacques,” the Marquess of Roeburn said. An older man of medium build with white hair, he was impeccably dressed in a black coat, pale blue brocade waistcoat, and intricately tied cravat. He leaned back in his chair and absently swung a pince-nez on a black cord about his hand.
Martin Phillip Carlyle, seventh Earl of Melvyrn, leaned back in his chair, observing his superior with narrowed eyes. Melvyrn was not unknown to the hallow halls of Whitehall, location of His Majesty’s
War Office. In fact, he’d been expecting this summons for some time now. But this briefing shed little light on the odd reports the War Office had received on a group of smugglers operating around Folkestone. “What about a description or a general location of the house?”
“Yet by all accounts, close to a dozen men have been rescued. Strange how none can remember who helped them or pinpoint where they were.”
“And when pressed, each relates a different version of some mercy rescue by a band of smugglers.
In fact, a couple soldiers received long term care in someone’s home in Folkestone. Something havey-cavey has been going on down there, Melvyrn. Unfortunately, considering what we have to work with,” Roeburn said, tapping his pince-nez on a stack of papers in front of him, “this report’s put together piecemeal.” He shook his head disgustedly. “To the last man, they’re all guilty of withholding information, no doubt in the misguided sentiment that they owe those smugglers their lives.”
Melvyrn watched as the
Marquess angrily shoved the stack of papers to one side of the carved oak desk, rose from his chair and crossed over to a side door of the office. Opening it, Roeburn gestured with one hand to someone in the outer room, then returned to his seat. Within moments, two soldiers entered, the younger one walking with a painful limp.
Roeburn made the introductions. “May I present the Earl of Melvyrn to you, gentlemen.” To Melvyrn, he said, “
Corporals Henry Bute and John Thale are lately from Wellington’s Light Infantry on the Peninsula. Both were on a reconnaissance mission, got cut off from their regiment, and found themselves trapped behind French lines. I’ll let them tell the rest,” he said, directing a pointed look at the two men.
Bute exchanged a guarded glance with Thale. “It’s as the Marquess was saying. We wasn’t all that far from the coast. So we stuck close by it. Kept heading north mostly. We hid out all day and traveled when it was dark. But we was forced inland and ended up near Paris. We figured we weren’t so far from the north coast and could maybe find a boat to take us home. Got lucky, we did, and hooked up with some English ‘Gentlemen,’ if you takes my meaning.” Bute cast his eyes toward the red Aubusson carpet. He coughed, then looked up. “That’s how we got ‘cross the channel.” Finished, Bute wet his lips and traded another glance with his comrade.
Melvyrn focused his attention on Bute until the soldier met
his eyes. “Were you aided by anyone while in France?”
“Yes, milord,” Bute answered,
again studying the carpet’s pattern.
Bute and Thale exchanged looks, then stood rigidly at attention but remained silent.
Melvyrn leaned across the arm of the chair, pinning both soldiers with his narrowed eyes. He had little patience for this sort of game. “Who was he?”
Bute cleared his throat. “An old man, milord. We can’t give you his name or tell you where he lives. Can’t tell you nothing about them smugglers either. We mean no disrespect, milord.”
“Gave our word, we did,” Thale spoke for the first time.
“You’ve fellow soldiers--friends--dying this very moment on the Peninsula, yet you’re willing to protect these traitors?”
“They ain’t traitors,” Thale blurted out, for once meeting Melvyrn’s eyes.
“How do you know that?” Melvyrn watched as the two exchanged uneasy looks.
Thale squared his shoulders. “We wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for them
Melvyrn leaned back in the chair and crossed one highly polished Hessian over the other knee. He saw the one lad shift, trying to favor his injured
leg. Finally, he nodded to Roeburn who, in turn, dismissed the men.
“You heard them, Melvyrn,” Roeburn said after the side door had closed. “They’re no
different than the others. We don’t know exactly how many of our troops the old Frenchman and the so called ‘Gentlemen’ or ‘mercy smugglers’ are responsible for saving. While it’s not unheard of smugglers helping our men get back, this is not one of the usual routes. And what’s got the War Office worried is that it could be a front to throw our men off while a crafty spy network goes undetected under our very noses. It’s imperative we find out what’s going on.”