Friday, July 20th, 2018
Annis wasted no time once she was on the open road. There was a glimmer of a moon, not yet full, but enough to see by. Clearly, the horse could see far more than she could and was surefooted. He did not seem to mind her on his back. He knew where he was going despite having a strange rider up, so she trusted his judgment.
She rode low on the horse to make sure of avoiding any low lying branches that might sweep her off after the heavy winds of the previous few days.
Within a half hour, she had reached the dock and could see the wharf. She was relieved to see the ship still tied up there with no obvious signs of activity on its deck and, unfortunately, no sign that Sophia might be there either, though she was undoubtedly well hidden by now. They must all still be in the inn, plotting their evening’s work.
She pulled up outside, and the boy appeared at the sound of hoof-beats on the cobbles, to hold the horse for her. She lowered her voice and spoke. “I need to speak with William Devane. It is urgent.”
“Yeh?” He looked at the rider suspiciously. Annis wondered what he was thinking. Surely he knew that any customs officers would not be here alone, so he could not possibly mistake her for one of those.
“It alus is on a night like this. I’ll get t’gaffer.” He went off to find t’gaffer. Whomever he might be. She hoped no one would recognize her as a woman and make a scene, but she was determined to speak with William. If need be, she would break into wherever they were and stand there until he recognized her.
Damn! This was not working out quite as easily as she had hoped. She didn’t want t’gaffer; she wanted William. However, apart from a strange look on the boy’s face, he said nothing more and merely told her to wait there. An older man took a fast look outside of the door to see Mr. Devane’s horse standing there with a strange person on its back and the mule close by and investigating some blades of grass at the edge of the building. He returned inside, and Annis could hear his clogs along the corridor as he went off into a back room.
Within a short space of time, William appeared and took in her appearance in a flash.
She dismounted, relieved to see him at last, and he steered her off out of the way while the boy looked after the horse. “Well. What are you doing here dressed like that? On Boney too I see, and heard. How did you manage him?”
“Then I am surprised and impressed, for he will not let just anyone ride him.”
“But then I am not just anyone. I have ridden him before, and you saw me, though you said nothing.”
“No, you rode him well then, and I am sure, just as well this time too, and dressed so well for it.” His eyes shone as he looked at her. “I never looked so good in those clothes.”
“William.” She liked the way he looked approvingly at her, despite her strange attire. “I could not ride sidesaddle and expect to get here either in time or at all. I would have attracted the wrong attention riding alone like that. So this was necessary. Charlotte helped.”
“She didn’t come as well, did she?”
“No. Of course not. But I am not here to pass the time of day. I have some urgent reason for being here.” He waited for her to speak. “You have been found out.”
“Oh my! You mean you got another letter, perhaps two, from our godmother about our recent exploits? Now how did she hear of them?” He was smiling at her.
“You may think it is funny, but it is not. I mean this.” She rummaged in her pocket and passed him his cousin’s urgent letter.
He read it quickly. “Yes. Yes. I know all of this.”
“You know of it?”
“Oh yes. I have good informants in London who are able to tell me of the movements of the various ships. I have numerous other friends too, with their eyes open for the wrong people, and anxious to have me renew my questionable habits—that one anyway. I’ll read the rest later. I can outrun any ship they might throw at us tonight, and besides that, we do not intend to return here when we are through. George cannot have known that I was aware of this, but it was protective of him to warn me, and brave of you to have considered doing so as well, and dressed like that too.” His eyes sparkled as he admired her openly. “Most becoming for some reason.” He suddenly remembered where he was. “I am sorry your trip was to no avail, Annis. We already knew. But thank you for the warning. Can you make it back the same way safely?”
“No. I cannot. Not yet. Sophia is gone, and she has smuggled herself aboard your ship.”
That got his attention. “I doubt it. How could she? I checked in the box before we left. I half expected one of you would try that, for one of you did the other night, except we did not go.”
“Yet she did, somehow. She is not at home, and her usual clothing is on her bed, and some of your smaller boyhood clothes are missing.” She stored the other about someone trying to go off with them the other night in her mind, to ask about later. “She must have dressed in your clothes again as they are gone from the closet. She knows that you check in that box before you leave now, so she would hide somewhere else. You’ll not find her if she does not want to be found, you know?”
He was deep in thought. “I know. Especially on board a ship. There are far too many hiding places for a small body to crawl into, and no one will be able to follow her. If I call for her to come out, she will be unlikely to do so if she feels I may put her ashore. She is unlikely to reveal herself to me, but she might for you.”
“I warned Charlotte that it may not be possible for Sophia and me to return tonight, but if we are not back by morning….” She looked up at him for help.
“If we do not easily find Sophia, you will certainly not be back by morning. We must make this run tonight, and we must leave soon, or the tide will shortly be too low to get out of here. We’d better find her, is all I can say.” He shook his head. “Your mother will have some choice words to say to me if you are not back home tonight.” In truth he knew she would have some choice words to say to him if she was.
In reality, her mother was excitedly awaiting confirmation that all was going as had been planned.
At that moment, William’s friends started to leave the inn and paid little attention to the ‘boy’ William was with, as his body mostly sheltered ‘him’ from their view.
Joe appeared from the direction of the ship as the rest of the crew boarded. “Five minutes, William. I told you that fifteen minutes gone. You almost left it too late you know? We need to leave before the water gets too low, or we’ll get grounded. So you’d better come now and sharpish like. We have little enough time as it is if the weather does not cooperate.”
“Then get ready to cast off and leave. I’ll be there.”
His voice dropped as he turned to Annis and held her close to him by her shoulders. “Very well, it seems that I must take you with us, but if I find Sophia before we leave, I will put you both ashore” (when pigs might fly). “If not, then you both will be coming to France with us. If that is the case, you shall stay out of sight in the cabin and be ready to follow my instructions at any time and without question.”
“I will. I promise.”
“I hope I shall not regret this. We need to find Sophia. She will be somewhere there, amidst all the clutter, but I will not have time to look, for she was poking about there when she was last here with me. Probably looking for a hideaway if she was already planning this. If we can find her before we put out then I will assuredly put you both ashore.” He had no intention of doing anything of the kind. “Wait here.”
He had a few words with the landlord, scribbled a note on a sheet of paper, folded it and gave it to the man, and then led Annis off along the dock. “He’ll see the horses and the carriage returned to Brooklands as soon as we leave if we do not find her and get you both ashore. I wrote a note for your mother telling her some of this and what might happen. It will at least save her from worrying about your absence, and I told her where we will be. I want no evidence to remain here that so many of us shipped out and are not yet returned, and hopefully, they will give up but not too soon and not before the Seamew gets in tomorrow morning.
“I thought you said you were not returning here?”
“We’re not.” He walked with her over to the ship. “We’ll ground this one in dead man’s slough, down the coast, and offload her there at our leisure. It’s well out of the way, and we’ll take the masts off so she’ll not be too visible above the shrub and undergrowth. There is another Seamew docked in France at this moment. She will be here by morning for the revenuers to board and search if they can’t catch her at sea. My new vessel. Father had her built before he died. Looks like this one too, but is on her maiden voyage. She will replace this one as this is her last voyage and shall be retired, ignominiously on a mud bank, but nonetheless retired. They won’t know the difference. It should be suitably embarrassing for them to come up empty-handed. I shall also rechristen her later. She shall be called the Annabel.”
He smeared at the hub of the carriage standing by the ship and then put a thin smudge of the dark greasy mess on Annis face and brow. She did not flinch. “A candle and a cork would have been better and easier to get off, but they are not available at this moment. This will distract from too close a look at you.” He knew it wouldn’t. “Your complexion is far too white and smooth and gentle for a boy, and your eyes too clear and distracting.” He sighed. “Too damned attractive altogether!” He looked about to make sure they were not being watched and then leaned in and kissed her suddenly. She returned his kiss without any hesitation.
“William, someone might see us!”
“No, they won’t. We don’t need you identified as a woman on this trip, so it’s good that my clothing is loose about you.” For all the good that did, he could see. “Tie your cap down under your chin. There is a tape there and it will stop it blowing off. I doubt that too many boys have quite a head of well-kept hair as you do either.” Nor those other disturbing parts that no boy ever had. “It will be a dark night and not much moon just yet. Some of the men are superstitious and might get anxious with a woman on board anyway, and there is at least one other who might recognize you—the Reverend. So we will need to stay out of his way as much as we can.”
“I thought we passed him as we were going in to the village the other day.”
“You did. Watch for the gangplank, my love. It is narrow and steep. He was getting ready for this jaunt. Yes, I know what you are thinking. I am a corrupting influence on the poor man. But even the clergy likes its small pleasures and needs a little adventure and to be distracted from hellfire and damnation from time to time. Or as others say, to get the Hell scared out of them. His bishop liked the idea of some brandy as a gift and likes the notion of free trade too, for he preaches about it, or so I hear, so we also have the indirect blessing of the church in our little adventure, my dear. Now if only he could part the waters or even calm them, for it will not be a pleasant or calm crossing tonight, but the better for it, for we are likely to avoid others.”
“Better not say the ‘my love’ or ‘my dear’ too much, William, or this mess will be for naught, and I shall not be put ashore willingly without Sophia, and perhaps not even then.”
He raised his voice for the benefit of his shipmates. “Come on, Andy, let’s get you aboard, cousin.” He slapped her on the back, almost knocking her off her feet, and put his arm over her shoulder. He spoke softly again. “You shall be my cousin along for the adventure, and there will be no questions or comments while you are close to me. Speak as little as you can, keep your soft hands out of sight. Put them in your pockets. Follow no orders but mine, and keep out of the way of the men.”
“Aye aye, sir.” She saluted, and grinned at him.
He smiled at her levity. “Some of them can be rough in their speech and behavior without ladies present and likely will be with a green lad. Do not be overly startled by what you might see or hear. Or at least don’t show it.”