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The night was inky black and the wind, coming off the German Ocean, was biting into Pippa's bones, numbing fingers and toes and making her huddle into her cloak and wish herself back home and in the warm. The summer, coming on top of the worst winter anyone could remember when the rivers and even the sea froze, was wet and cold. It was a foolish idea to come out. The sea was rough; huge breakers were rolling up to the sandbanks just off the shore, so perhaps they would not land, or she might have been mistaken in thinking that there was going to be a delivery in Narbeach this night. The signs had all been there earlier in the day: everyone whispering and hurrying home after evensong; no one showing any lights; dogs chained up, stable doors left unlocked and a ship hove to half a mile out to sea. It was a beautiful vessel, long and sleek, rigged fore and aft with a long bowsprit to take a jib sail, intended to outrun the revenue cutters. Now the sails were furled and it was simply a dark outline against the horizon.
She wanted to witness a landing, to watch the cargo being brought ashore, to find out where they hid it and how many men were involved. What could she learn that reading the reports of smuggling trials in the news sheets would not tell her? she asked herself. The atmosphere of the landing, she supposed, which dry-as-dust accounts could not give: the drama and tension, the sheer volume of goods piled up on the beach, the essence of danger, which she had to feel in order to convey it in writing. But if she were seen
She pulled her dark hood over her head and huddled even farther into her cloak, crouching down behind a sand dune, as much to shelter from the wind as to hide herself. If she were seen and accosted, they would not hesitate to kill her. They had too much at stake to let her live.
As she watched she heard the jingle of harness and the rumble of wheels on the lane behind her and threw herself down into the sand and prayed they would pass by without noticing the dark heap almost at their feet. She dare not look up and expose her pale complexion, which would easily be seen even on so dark a night. From beneath her shadowing arm, she could just see their feet as they passed, leading horses and carts down onto the beach. There were dozens of them, silently tramping past the spot where she lay. No one spoke, not even a whisper.
At last they were gone and she risked lifting her head. The beach, which a few minutes before had been empty, was swarming with men, pack mules, horses and carts. It seemed as if the whole male population of the village was there. Someone struck a flint and lit a lantern and swung it to and fro. It was answered in similar fashion from the darkened ship. Now everyone was facing seawards and Pippa dared to stand up and watch. Two boats were lowered and two men scrambled down into each to receive and stow the goods being slung down to them in nets. She could not see what the cargo was, but when the boats were riding low in the water the oarsmen began pulling for the shore.
When the boats were within wading distance, those on the beach went to help haul them out. Almost before they grounded, the unloading began. Soon the sand was littered with kegs, barrels, boxes and bundles and the boats went back for a second load. The carts were filled and some of the kegs were roped in pairs and slung, fore and aft, on the shoulders of the strongest men. Stooping under their weight, they made their way inland past Pippa. It was time to fling herself down on the sand again.
The boats returned from the ship and more contraband was deposited on the beach, put in carts or slung on backs. They had unloaded each boat three times when a single warning shot rang out. The men on the beach had been working quickly before, but now there was desperation in their movements. The rowers set off back to their ship, leaving the land party to salvage what they could and make themselves scarce. Some of them carried what they could inland, or on to the marshes to the east of the village, others whipped up the horses and left with carts only half-loaded. There were still a few men on the beach when a party of dragoons, led by a Captain and a Customs Officer, appeared on the lane and began firing on the stragglers, who fired back. Pippa, her heart in her mouth, watched the skirmish, her frozen toes forgotten. She dare not move.
Some were injured and were hauled away by their mates, others ran, dodging the bullets. One of the dragoons was winged, resulting in a more frenzied attack of retribution. It was too much for the remaining smugglers and they threw down their weapons. As Pippa watched they were roped together none too gently by their captors. There were six of them and a boy. Some of the dragoons stayed to guard what contraband had been left behind, others marched the prisoners off the beach, prodding them with their riding crops to hurry them along. It was then Pippa recognised her cousin, Benjamin, dressed in a dark belted tunic and breeches, his face smeared with dirt. Fifteen years old and he had been caught smuggling! Her first impulse was to rush out and try to reason with his guards, but common sense prevailed. She would not save him that way and might very well be taken up herself. She watched them go, unable to move until the coast was clear. Then she ran.
Hampered by her skirts, she raced up the lane and along the coastal path to Windward House, which stood on a slight promontory at the north-eastern edge of the village. She must find Nat. Her brother would know what to do. He would find out where the prisoners were being taken and speak for Ben, who was only a boy looking for adventure and hadn't realised the seriousness of what he was doing. There was no one abroad in the village, either on foot or driving horses and carts. The houses, cottages and hovels were dark, their occupants seemingly abed. The land party had arrived and disappeared like ghosts. The captured seven would pay for the crimes of fifty. Out at sea the smugglers' cutter had sailed off and was disappearing over the horizon.
Philippa Kingslake, twenty-six years old, unmarried and, in her Aunt Augusta's eyes, unmarriageable on account of the life she led, was also known in the literary world as Philip King, whose adventurous stories were avidly read by all and sundry, especially by young lads like Benjamin, who had no idea their author was a woman. Had she inadvertently led him into danger, writing tales with heroes he might aspire to emulate? Aunt Augusta would almost certainly think so.
The lane from the village to the house dwindled into a track as she began the uphill climb to the house, arriving so breathless she had to stop and lean against the stable wall to recover before going indoors. The horses were restless; she could hear them snorting and pawing the ground. Had they been startled by the shots which must have been heard clearly by everyone in the village? She went into the stable where her own mount and Nat's, together with two carriage horses, were housed. Going over to stroke and calm them, she realised they were sweating. They had been out recently and there was only one place for them to have gone. The sheer impudence of the smugglers astounded her. Where was Joe, the coachman, who had quarters above the stables? Had he been sleeping so soundly his charges had been led out under his nose? Or was he involved? Was he even in his bed? Torn between finding out and reporting Ben's arrest to Nat, she chose the latter and hurried indoors and up to her brother's room.
And then she was in for another shock. He was not in his bed, had never been to bed by the look of it. Had he also been out with the smugglers? She had not seen him, but then she had not dared show her facerecognising anyone would have been impossible. He had certainly not been one of the seven who had been arrested and herded so close to where she was hidden. Now she was in a quandary. Should she wait until Nat came home or alert her aunt?
She went back to the stables and climbed the ladder to Joe Sadler's quarters, banging on his door loudly enough to rouse him. After a few minutes he opened the door. He was wearing a hastily donned nightshirt over his breeches, his hair was ruffled and he was pretending to yawn as if woken from sleep. She was not deceived; the bottoms of his trousers were wet. 'Miss Kingslake!' he exclaimed, genuinely surprised. 'What are you doing up in the middle of the night?'
'Never mind what I am doing. Do you know where my brother is?'
'No, ma'am. Is he not in his bed?'
'No. Was he on the beach with you?'
'On the beach?' he queried, feigning ignorance. 'What do you mean?'
'I am not stupid, Joe. I know what has been going on. I saw you all down there, unloading cargo.'
'You should have stayed indoors, ma'am.'
'Then I would not have known what had happened to
Ben, would I?'
'Ben? Master Whitehouse?'
'Please do not be obtuse, Joe, you know whom I mean. He was taken by the dragoons along with six others. I need to rescue him and I cannot find Nat. Am I right in thinking he was one of the land party and he sanctioned the use of the horses?'
'Oh, Miss Kingslake, you was never supposed to know about any of it. Someone tipped off the Customs and we had to scatter. Mr Kingslake will be home d'rectly.'
'I hope so,' she said. 'In the meantime, you had better rub down the horses and settle them before the Customs come searching for goods and see they have been out.' She paused as a new thought struck her. 'You are not hiding any of the contraband here, are you?'
'No, Miss Kingslake.'
She was not sure whether to believe him or not, but went back into the house. It was beginning to get light and Mrs Sadler, Joe's mother, was busy in the kitchen, raking out the fire, ready to cook breakfast.
'Lord a-mercy, Miss Pippa,' she said as Pippa entered from the yard. 'Whatever are you doing up so early?'
'I went out to watch the boats come in.'
'You never did! Whatever next! Don't you know no one goes out on landing nights unless they have business with the free traders? They'd as soon kill you as let you go.'
'The revenue men and dragoons came upon them with half the cargo still on the beach. Seven of the landing party were arrested.'
The plump woman, whose apple-red cheeks came from constantly working over a kitchen fire, turned pale.
'He is home. I've just seen him.' She let out a long breath. 'Thank God for that.' 'But my brother is out and my cousin has been arrested.'
'No?' She crossed herself. 'Oh, Lord have mercy, for the justices won't.'
'We will have to get him out somehow. I was hoping Nat would be back by now. I wish I knew what had happened to him. I cannot believe he would leave Ben to his fate.'
'He would not, Miss Pippa, you can be sure of that. Something prevented him.'
It was that which was worrying Pippa as she climbed the stairs to her aunt's room to break the news to her. Where was Nat? Was he holed up somewhere safe, waiting for the furore to die down before coming home, or was he lying bleeding, perhaps dying, in one of the numerous channels across the marshes, unable to move? She dreaded the confrontation with her aunt, who would undoubtedly blame Pippa and Nat for the arrest of her beloved son.
The widowed Mrs Augusta Whitehouse had come to live at Windward House six months after Pippa's parents had died leaving a seventeen-year-old Philippa and thirteen-year-old Nathaniel orphans. Aunt Augusta did not like Windward House; it was exposed to every wind that blew down from the Arctic, as she so often pointed out. It invaded every nook and cranny of the building and she never felt warm in spite of huge fires in every room, but nothing and no one would persuade her to leave her niece and nephew to their own devices, even though Pippa had said she was well able to manage with the servants they had.
'Leave a seventeen-year-old not yet out in society to manage a household and her brother who seems not to know the meaning of discipline is not to be thought of,' she had declared. 'I would be failing in my duty if I did not take you both under my wing.' And so she had shut up her own house and come to Narbeach, bringing her six-year-old son with her. Benjamin, unlike his mother, loved Windward House and was soon into mischief with the village children and doting on his cousin Nat.
And look what it had led to, Pippa mused, as she rapped on her aunt's bedchamber door and, bidden to enter, went in to find her aunt sitting up in bed, her long grey hair on her shoulders over which she had draped a thick shawl. The room was lit by the embers of the fire of the night before.
'Philippa, what in heaven's name are you doing up and about? It is the middle of the night. Has something happened?'
'It is almost dawn,' Pippa said. 'And, yes, something has happened or I would not have wakened you. There was a landing last night.'
'Everyone knows that. I keep my head under the blankets when I know the free traders are about. It has nothing to do with me.'
In spite of her concern, Pippa smiled. 'Have you never drunk untaxed tea or taken a nip of illicit spirits, Aunt?'
'Everyone does that. I ask no questions.'
'Then ask yourself what Ben does when the gentlemen are about.'
'Ben? I should think he sleeps, as I do.'
'Not last night. I saw him arrested and taken away by the dragoons.'
'Never.' Augusta scrambled out of bed in one swift movement. She flung a dressing gown over her nightrail and dashed from the room, along the corridor to her son's bedchamber. His bed had not been slept in. Then she rushed to Nat's room, though Pippa could have told her he was not there.