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Respectable families usually confine their skeletons to a closet. Lord Exholme found his own closet too close for comfort and packed his younger brother, Lord Edwin Horton, off to the next county.
Horton Hall, on the marshy coast of Kent, was a crumbling heap owned by an uncle. There was no doing anything with such a small property, and there was no doing anything with Lord Eddie. He had failed at university. He had failed to catch the boat arranged to take him to India to make his fortune. He had made a shambles of his sojourn at the Admiralty and topped this illustrious career not only by marrying a penniless woman but adopting the woman's niece when her own parents died. Generosity was considered quite another vice by Lord Exholme, who refused to have anything to do with either his brother or the young girl. This arrangement suited all three right down to their toes.
It was the middle of the night when Lord Edwin was awakened from a deep sleep by the gentle drip, drip of rain coming through the ceiling. He opened a bleary eye and cursed. Why did roofs have to go leaking on a man's head? A lead roof was supposed to last for a hundred years. Just his luck that the century since the last reroofing of Horton Hall should fail during his tenure. Let it rain!
He pulled the blanket over his head and tried in vain to recapture oblivion. A shower in his bedchamber meant the attics were awash. As if to confirm this lugubrious thought, the patter of mice's feet above told him his unwanted tenants were scampering for high ground.
He stuck his head beneath the pillow. There, that was a little better. No sooner did he begin to feel the gentle lassitude of sleep creep over himthan there was a racket at his door and Fitch came pelting in.
"Here, Lord Eddie!" his servant rasped. "A lugger's run aground right in your bay."
Lord Edwin pulled his head from beneath the pillow and sat up. "Go away, Fitch!" he said, in what he imagined to be a stern way. His querulous, whining voice was incapable of sternness. It grated on the sensitive ear like a slate pencil. "It's the middle of the night. How is a man supposed to get any sleep, between torrents of rain and herds of mice and footmen hollering at the top of their lungs!"
"I ain't a footman!'' Fitch reminded his employer. "You promoted me to butler when you couldn't afford to pay my wages last quarter." Fitch frequently received promotions in lieu of salary. At his present rate of ascent, he'd soon be master of the Hall.
"So I did. So I did. Sorry, Fitch, but please go away."
Lord Edwin lay back down and pulled the pillow over his head. Fitch was wise in the ways of his master and stood waiting. In about sixty seconds the grizzled head rose again from the bed. "A lugger, you say?"
"Aye, sitting aground, just waiting to be relieved of her cargo."
Lord Edwin jumped out of bed and stood grinning. Had he been visible in the dark, he would have been a comical sight. A pair of dark blue eyes, too close together for beauty, were dancing with delight. He wore a handkerchief knotted over his head and a flannelette nightshirt down to his knobby knees. Below this, a pair of spindly white legs stood, bowed to a nearly perfect circle.
Fitch struck a flint and lit a tallow candle. Every economy was practiced at Horton Hall, unless a luxury could be purchased on tick. The stores in the village had become rather testy about supplying more beeswax candles until the last three years' worth had been paid for. Neither man took any notice of the disheveled room that sprang into view. There are some things best ignored, and the state of Horton Hall was one of those things.
"You think they might give us a barrel if we let them store it here?" Lord Edwin asked hopefully. "The customs men will be after them before morning."
"They've left the ship," Fitch told him.
"Left the ship? Then they've already unloaded," he said, and sat down with a sigh. He could almost taste the brandy. Excellent strong stuff they got here on the coast, before it was hauled off to London and destroyed with water and caramel sugar.
"Nay," Fitch assured him with a gurgle of pure joy. "They hadn't time. They went astray in the storm and landed here in your way instead of at Vulch's dredged dock. With the excisemen hot on their tails, they leapt overboard and ran for cover to avoid capture."
"Egad! Then we have a parcel of vicious Frenchies hiding nearby. The doors. Fitch! Secure the doors!"
"The devil with the doors! Get into your trousers, and we'll have a barrel off the lugger before they come back.''
Lord Edwin sat rubbing his chin nervously. He would like a barrel of that brandy--yet did he want it enough to risk the wrath of the French smugglers?
"They wouldn't have stayed this close to the boat," Fitch said. "They'd canter along toward Vulch's place. He'd be sure to hide 'em and get them back safely to France."
It was no secret in the community that Mr. Adrian Vulch was the gentleman in charge of smuggling at the English end. This in no way detracted from his excellent reputation as the chief man of business in Dymchurch. Quite the contrary. He was a large employer and paid better than an honest man could afford. He was a Member of Parliament and held several other prestigious positions, including warden of the church.
The knotted handkerchief bobbed in decision. "We'll go for it, Fitch," Lord Edwin decided, and began scrambling into his buckskins. "Prepare the ship."
"Mind you hurry down and give me a hand, and don't go nodding off again," Fitch said, and loped out the door.
It was not only a lack of wages that caused the "butler" to take such a high hand with his master. Fitch had come to Lord Edwin ten years before on the understanding that he was to be trained up as a bruiser. Even at fifteen years, Fitch had had the build of an ox. "A cross between a bull and Adonis" was the housekeeper's description of him, for Fitch was handsome as well as big and strong. Of course, the promise was yet to be kept.
The vessel used to reach the grounded lugger was no ship but Fitch's flat-bottomed fishing boat. When Fitch wasn't busy being the groom, butler, and sole footman at Horton Hall, he was the cook's helper. His help usually consisted of catching seafood for dinner.
When Lord Edwin had dressed and gone to the shore, Fitch took up the oars and began plying them. With his massive shoulders and arms like legs, he skimmed the heavy boat through the reeds as easily as he breathed.
Lord Edwin sat huddled in a blanket while Fitch rowed them in the rain across the black water to the lugger. Once they had reached the ship, Fitch clambered aboard and had to lift Lord Edwin up, for that ineffectual gentleman hadn't a notion of how to climb. They soon stood on deck, looking into dark corners for their prize.
"There are no barrels here, Fitch," Lord Edwin pointed out. "You've brought me on a fool's errand. Brandy, indeed!"
"She'd be below deck," Fitch told him.
"Below deck, eh? And how would a fellow get below deck? I don't see a staircase."
"There'd be a hole and a ladder," Fitch said.
"That sounds very inconvenient. Holes and ladders. Just what you'd expect of the French."
"Here it is," Fitch said, and disappeared below.
Lord Edwin went down after him, grumbling, "We need a light, Fitch. But I'll tell you something; there's no brandy here. I can't smell it."
Fitch felt around and found a flint box. He lit a rush lamp and held it high. "You're right," he said. "There's no brandy."
"My throat craves brandy. The sweet sting of it, the needles on the tongue. Why did you get me all excited, Fitch? That's a cruel stunt to play on an old man who's just made you his butler."
Fitch looked at the strange bales piled in the hold and began ripping at the papers of one.
"You're wasting your time. It ain't brandy," his master said. "Brandy comes in barrels." After a moment he was curious enough to go and see just what it was that occupied Fitch. "It's cloth," he said.
"Aye, silk," Fitch agreed.
He unrolled the end of one bolt and held up a length of shimmering golden silk. "Very fine silk," he said in a meaningful way. He continued unrolling till he had measured one piece. "About ten ells, it looks like. There must be a hundred bales here."
"What good is silk? You can't drink it."
"You can sell it," Fitch said, and waited for light to penetrate the murky corners of his master's mind.
"Sell it? But it's not ours. Oh, you mean ... Yes, I see." When he was occupied in larcenous thought, Lord Edwin's fingers played along his cheek, tapping nervously. He nodded his head. His close-set eyes gleamed with greed, giving him something of the air of a hungry ferret. "A fair bit of it here, Fitch."
"Easier to steal and hide than brandy," Fitch pointed out.
"Well, let us get on with it."
The "us" was rhetorical. Lord Edwin's contribution was to hold the rush lamp while Fitch struggled up the ladder with the bales and placed them one by one in his boat. He had to make two trips to shore, but after a while, one hundred bolts of finest silk, each containing ten ells, sat on the shore, and not a soul knew it but Fitch and Lord Edwin. The next problem was where to store it. The excisemen would be out scouring the coast for it by morning. More dangerous, the Frenchies would be after it, and possibly Vulch's men as well.
Fitch was gasping from his exertions, but he knew he couldn't leave the silk there. "Where do you want it?" he asked.
"Put it some place safe, Fitch. I'm for bed. It's hard work, moving all those bales." He stretched and imagined an ache in his unused muscles.
"Attic--ho, you're mad, my good man. The attics are awash. Any corner that isn't flooded is overrun with hungry mice."
"The cellars, then?"
"That's the first place they'll look. No, I don't want it in the house. We'll leave it outdoors, but well hidden. If it's found, they'll never be able to prove we took it. But hide it well, Fitch. It would be a pity to lose it after all my work."
"But where?" Fitch persisted.
"Good grief, do I have to do everything? Hide it in the hay wain.''
As he spoke, Lord Edwin nodded at a derelict hay wagon that had stood for decades, listing to the left where one wheel was lost. What it had ever been doing so close to shore was a mystery to him. Some misguided soul must have had a picnic here. Wretched things, with sand in your food and the stench of seaweed. People had some very peculiar ideas of entertainment.
His duty done, Lord Edwin straggled back to the Hall and sat waiting for Fitch. He took the clever idea of not having any lamps on, in case the Frenchies were snooping around outside, and nearly frightened Fitch out of his boots when he came in an hour later.
"It took you long enough!" he griped.
Fitch was panting. "I had to take the hay out of the wagon and put the bales inside, then cover them up again, making sure to get dry hay on the bottom. I put the extra hay under the wagon. That old wain's been there forever. No one will think of looking there for the silk."
"It was a good idea. My idea," he reminded his helper. "I've been doing some ciphering, Fitch. I figure I made something in the neighborhood of a thousand pounds tonight. One hundred bales, at ten ells a bale. That's a thousand ells. And Bertie tells me I have no head for figures. Ha! It would sell for somewhere in the neighborhood of a pound or guinea an ell, I believe. Don't think I don't appreciate your help. I'll manage a little something toward your back wages out of this haul." Fitch smiled to hear it.
"What's that you've got there?" Lord Edwin asked, as he spotted something in his servant's hands.
"It's a shawl," Fitch said. "It was in one of the bales. I thought I might give it to Miss Judson for her birthday tomorrow."
"Is it Mary Anne's birthday again tomorrow?" Lord Edwin asked peevishly. Bother! That meant he should buy her a present. He rather thought he'd forgotten to the last few years. A young girl should get a present for her birthday. "Bring it up to my room and let's get a look at it."
They went upstairs, and Lord Edwin laid the shawl on his counterpane. It was a gold triangle of silk, with three ends heavily embroidered in various hues. "This is beautiful," he said. "All worked by hand. Look at that pattern--flowers and birds and bees. A trifle risqué, that. But Mary Anne is too young to be aware of such carrying-on."
Fitch started to hear a young lady of twenty-four was too young for anything. "Nay, Lord Eddie. She's getting on."
"Is she, by God? Yes, I suppose she is. Tempus fugit, Fitch. That's Latin. Old fugitive time. A nice fringe," he said, fingering the threads. "Mary Anne will love it. Thank you, Fitch."
Fitch blinked. "You're welcome."
"Were there any more of these embroidered pieces?"
"Not in the bales I opened. It was all just straight material."
"Odd they should put one finished piece in. I expect it's a sample, to show what can be done. Yes, very nice."
"When will we be moving the silk?" Fitch asked.
"The sooner we get rid of it, the better. I can't unload it in Dymchurch. I'll have to ride over to Folkestone. I'll stop at a few drapery shops there tomorrow and see what kind of deal I can arrange. It will be best not to actually move it till things settle down here in a day or so. You must keep an eye on the hay wain, Fitch. Don't let anyone near it. And you'd best go up to the attic tomorrow and mop up the flood, too."
"How can I guard the hay wain, then?"
"You'll think of something. I daresay you can see it from the attic and go rushing down if anyone comes around. Now, I'm for bed. I wish it had been brandy," he said sadly, and sat down to allow Fitch to remove his boots.
Sleep didn't come immediately. Lord Edwin still maintained some vestige of a conscience, but it was fear of yet another dismal failure that kept him awake. His past was littered with failures, every one of them Bertie, his older brother, was only too eager to throw in his face. "You must start at the bottom, Eddie," he always said. How the deuce should the son of an earl, born at the top of a hill, know what folks did "at the bottom"? Perhaps this was it--they stole. There couldn't be anything much lower than stealing. Yet, outwitting the Frenchies was hardly stealing. No, no, it was an Englishman's duty. Success was his duty, too, but Lord Edwin was prey to a dreadful foreboding that success would once again elude him.