Thursday, August 2nd, 2018
The wind had grown even stronger, and had veered slightly to the east of North, by the time they had cleared the small harbor. As the channel was almost north-south, the wind was against them getting out cleanly without some clever seamanship. They had been at sea again for at least two hours when Sophia noticed something off in the darkness ahead of them. “What is that light over there, William?” Sophia pointed.
He sighted along her arm and saw the end of a trail of sparks. “You’ve got sharper eyes than the lot of us. Someone tapping his pipe out on a rail.”
He gestured with some urgency to the helmsman that there was another vessel close by and to change course to avoid being seen, but the helmsman had already taken sharp action to avoid the other vessel and to pass astern of it, for he had also seen Sophia pointing. Neither of the ships had running lights.
“Better get below and hide the light from that lantern in the cabin. They may not see us the way they are heeled over, and we are running quiet, and it’s noisy enough out here with the wind anyway.”
It seemed that everyone was aware of the other ship. It was also too close for comfort, and they might be hard-pressed to avoid a collision. The approaching vessel was under full sail, heading northeast, with its starboard rails almost under water, which was why they might not be seen as their sails obscured everything to the immediate starboard. They passed with no more than two hundred feet between them, ghostly shapes passing silently in the night. Their helmsman must have been watching other things, fighting to avoid losing a mast or worse, for he seemed not to notice them.
“Are you all right?” He saw Annis and Sophia re-appear from below. Annis seemed scared and hung onto his arm for a moment.
“You mean apart from walking first on one wall of the cabin and then on the other, and seeing water pouring in through the planking. Yes, I think so. That was quite frightening.”
“Yes, it was. We needed to lay her over to miss them by as much as we could and to avoid being seen. They were not watching for us just yet and didn’t hear us, or with any luck, they had an earlier glimpse of the sails of the other Seamew and were intent only upon that. There are only two kinds of vessels that go without running lights on a night like this—smugglers and revenuers. That was a revenue ship. Two masted and sloop rigged. Like this one but heavier. Ten guns, I would say. Taking a contingent up the coast to be sure to meet us at sea, almost as if they knew exactly where we would be. They almost ran us down. The other Seamew will be arriving there just after dawn in another two hours, so she will remain some miles offshore to attract their attention. They were cramming it. I think they did not expect to see us for another hour or so. They think we are to put in either at our regular dock, or if not, then twenty miles up the coast from that.”
Joe came over. “We’re running behind our schedule, William, after that near miss. I don’t see any blaze on the land yet to show where we are to head for, but I can see a few breakers.”
“They’ll have the fires going from about two hours before high tide and then into the early hours or until they see us. We’ll see them. They should be lit by now. Until then, we heave-too, if necessary.”
“No need. There.” He pointed. “I see it. I can see the smaller one too, and maybe another.”
“Yes. The small one is exactly four hundred yards due south of the larger blaze. Lets us see how far out we are. Difficult to judge how far offshore we are,in the dark and with no lights, but those two will guide us and give us approximate position and distance, where one would not.” He took a bearing to each fire and then thought for a second or two. “Looks about right. I can’t see the third fire, so it must be directly behind the larger one, as it should be. We are close to three miles out from shore. Aim for about a mile south of the leftmost blaze. You will need a bearing of 260 degrees, but watch the wind. It’ll be daylight soon anyway. I scouted it well in the last few days from the land side. There should be at least one long boat with a lantern to mark the midpoint of the entrance, and we’ll follow it in.”
He turned to his two passengers. “The channel we are aiming for is no more than two hundred feet wide and easily missed, but it’s a deep channel that goes inland about a mile. We need the tide and wind to carry us in, or we’ll not easily make it against the outflowing river and the mud banks. We’ll get some help as the wind is now with us, coming more out of the East.”
“We’ll come up against their rope when we get where we need to be at four fathom hole, four fathoms deep at low tide, and then after that we tie on and let them pull us up that side branch to the south, with a couple of teams of horses, and beach us on a mud bank. After that we’ll winch it the rest of the way in as the tide lifts us a bit. I hope the water is high enough, or it will be quite a job to get in high enough to get the cargo off without floundering in deep mud. The customs officers will not think of looking for us in there, or believing that we deliberately grounded her once they find the other Seamew.”
Annis and Sophia stayed well out of the way. Once they were at four fathom hole and had tied onto the rope across the channel there, they felt a sudden gentle surge as the horses, somewhere out of sight pulled them into the side channel, as quickly as they could, and hauled them until they stuck fast on the mud bank. With no likelihood of getting any further at that moment, there was some urgency to get the masts off or they would be seen from quite a distance once it became fully light, but that process had started even as they entered the channel. The foremast was cut down to lie into the bank, followed by the aft mast to lie nearby, beside it. They were now not so visible to anybody from either the land or the sea. Annis watched as they pulled the two masts closer together and put planking from the freshly opened hatches across them to create a wide ramp to assist with the offloading.
“Where are we, William? Everything is gloomy and unrecognizable in here, and I can see only trees.”
“Deadman’s Slough, my love.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“No, I expect not. It’s not well known, and it’s hard to get to. Sophia and I were here to see it a few days ago. We have a track cut now to it to get the cargo out. As we are lifted higher—if we are—and as we lighten, we will get pulled in more, but we are already nicely positioned. Pity we don’t have a fog roll in to hide us even better now that we are here, but the wind is still too brisk for that.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be some time my dears, probably the better part of the day, so make yourselves comfortable in the cabin, and we can get a small fire going in the stove for you to keep warm if we don’t kick out too much smoke. At least Planchon made sure we had plenty of food and drink, so we will eat well.”
There were low sounds of activity from all around them now, and reverberating through the ship.
“We’ll be leaving a few men on board until all of the cargo is off-loaded. They will be dismantling the ship while they are here. First thing to go is the name. We can’t risk anyone finding one Seamew here with another docked thirty miles up the coast. We’ll take the sails and other hardware up to the new ship when it is clear to do so. We have a day’s hard work ahead of us here, and we cannot leave until it is done. We had a long night and rough crossing, so you can rest on that cot in the cabin or the hammock and get some sleep if you can. There are a few books on the shelf above the cot, and there will be food brought in from the nearby village if Planchon did not provide us enough, though I believe he did.”
William saw to the men stripping off the superstructures and everything else that would lighten their weight. They would try to get her further ahead if they could, but if not, then there was another high tide for the next night to take advantage of. Most of the men stripped off and set too with pry bars, to dismantle the superstructure as they might, while others labored to get the cargo off and onto the narrow strip of dry land beside them. They began to offload the more perishable and easily damaged part of the cargo first, to be sent into the nearby village to be hidden away. More and more men arrived with additional horses and helped haul the ship in even further and then set to work on further dismantling, and to move cargo. Others removed the sails and planking and railings to get those out of the way too. That which was salvageable and sound would be used on other boats.
Annis and Sophia watched for a while in the strengthening morning light. William joined them to slake his thirst. “They can get a half dozen cartloads off each night, if not more with that arrangement we built. We’re getting more of the heavier cargo off now from the forward part of the ship so that will lighten her a bit more. Come back here in another week or two, you’d never know there was ever a ship here. What wood they cannot use again, they will recover to burn.” He went off to help once more.
After an hour or so, the rigors of an extended sleepless night began to catch up with them, and Annis and Sophia retired to the small cot in the cabin and tried to sleep in each others’ arms.
Annis awoke as William sat down heavily on the cot by her. She could see that it was now barely daylight outside and was obviously late in the day. He was grubby and had clearly been working very hard, helping dismantle the vessel and to offload cargo.
“Did you get any sleep over all of that noise beside and above you?”
“Sophia did, and then I soon followed her.” She yawned.
“I doubt we will be seen from either land or sea now. But it’s getting late. Come on, we can go ourselves now before it gets too dark again. We did more than I expected to. There is still a lot of the heavier stuff aboard, aft, but we were able to winch her in further as she was lightened, as the wind kept the water high for us for a while.”
He picked Sophia up and led Annis off with him through the clutter and open decking. The only part of the ship not drastically torn apart seemed to be the cabin they had been in.
“Good night, ladies.” Joe spoke laughingly to them.
Annis was startled. “William?”
“I know. I had to tell them there would be…were two ladies aboard and get their help to see to your safety, or they would have put me overboard for deceiving them.”
Once they set foot on land, he put Sophia down and walked with them up the busy track.
“When did you tell them?” She began to suspect many things.
He avoided her glance. “Later, my dear, later. Too many things to do now.”
Sophia took her hand and pulled her down to whisper in her ear. “He told them before you got to the dock. We were all waiting for you, but you were late.” Annis was not sure what she was hearing.
Sophia was swung up and put up onto a cart waiting for them at the top of the bank, and then she was assisted up after that, before she might ask for a better explanation of what still seemed to be confusing to her.
“We’ll take this cart. It has a full load, and we can at least see it started on its way.”
Annis looked closely at the cart and thought she recognized it. William climbed up onto the seat beside her, with Sophia between them.
“I do not know where we are. Where are we to stay?”
“You’ll see, my dear.”
Sophia listened to everything, perched as she was between William and Annis, and holding onto them both. She seemed to be fighting away her tiredness but could not stifle a yawn or two. “We are going to stay at home, silly.”
“How do you know that? Surely we are miles from there.”
“William told me.”
Annis looked attentively into the evening gloom. “But surely this is not the village we are passing through? Though now that you mention it, I think I recognize some of the buildings in the faint light and even the church belfry up there. I do not often come quite this far in this particular direction.”
The wind had dropped from the previous night, and there was now a mist drifting inland, and swirling over toward them through the woods. It would provide additional cover for their efforts.
“It is indeed. We are no more than a couple of miles from Underby. The reverend is seeing to hiding most of the contraband in the church and distribution from there each Sunday, or on other special occasions. It has a large cellar and spacious back rooms, and there are plenty of other hideaways in the area.”
William pulled the horses in a little. They were keen to be heading home, but he needed to keep the noise down. “He also visits his parishioners from time to time, so we could not have a more ideal courier. A coffin in the back of his cart can hide so much, and not invite close inspection. Especially when there is a grieving widow beside him.”
“I once heard you described as devious. I now see it is true.”
“The elder Thackeray probably. I am afraid you do not know the half of it just yet, my love.”
“But surely the masons and carpenters cannot be finished already? It sounded like they had a lot to do, and you brought us on a visit here only last week.”
“They finished the rebuilding two days ago. Most of the clean-up should be done by about now. You have a new home.”
Sophia spoke up in excitement and pulled at her arm. “Look there are lights on. We are expected.”
Thomas walked out of the shadows and held the horses as William dismounted from the seat. “You know where to hide this, Thomas. We got some of it offloaded, four loads so far when it was dark enough, but there is a lot left to do. You might get two more loads tonight if you can, before it gets daylight. Rare busy down there, but it’s now going faster than it was.” He lifted Sophia down to stand by him and then helped Annis down by picking her up at the waist and lifting her down to stand beside him.
“Everything’s been ready for ages, sir. Been waiting for you for the past few hours, and was getting worried this morning too, until I heard you had beached as intended. Nasty little storm. I hope it was not too rough of a crossing, for the wind blew hard here for a while.”
“No. Mostly uneventful.”
Sophia squeezed his hand at such a whisker.
“Did the riders we expect pass on the turnpike as we thought?”
“Aye, about twenty of them late last night and making a devil of a racket, so the lad told me. They took the bait right enough. Pity it was all for nothing, especially as two of their men died for the folly of it.”
“What was that?” William sounded shocked to hear that.
“You wouldn’t have heard, sir, but there was a revenue ship—the Falstaff—broke up early this morning near the point.”
“That must have been the one we saw and that we nearly ran into. Full sail and heeling over hard. Fool of a captain to cram it that hard.”
“Name of Maxton I heard, sir. Came out of retirement for some reason.”
“Revenge on me. I was right. Too juicy a temptation to let pass, and here I thought he and his ship were both laid up.”
“I heard that too, sir. I heard she should never have been put to sea with the condition she was in. He was lost with only one of his men. The other Seamew managed to get the rest out of the sea and got them ashore pretty fast, so there were some lucky men there, I would say, and some good sailing to get to ’em. It could have been a lot worse.
“Quite a reception waiting for them on shore after that too, as expected, when the Seamew docked, though the outcome of it all wasn’t entirely as they’d anticipated I am sure—to be met by their own bedraggled men, and no contraband to be found.”
William shook his head. “A shame anyone had to die, even a Maxton. Another chapter closed, and a new one opened. I hope the Maxton daughters are not as vengefully inclined as their parent and brothers.”
“Is Captain Cat alright, Thomas?”
“Why now, is that our Sophia dressed like a lad?” He looked closely at William’s two companions, but he already knew who they were. “So it is. Hard to see in the dark. Miss Annis too, dressed the same way? Well I never. Captain missed you all something wicked he did. He’s been waiting for you to arrive now for the last few hours too.”
Annis seemed puzzled. “It seems like we were all expected, William. How could that be? Surely no one knew that Sophia or I would be coming with you. I am sure everyone expected us back at Brooklands.” She turned to him, only to find that he was still talking in an undertone to Thomas and had apparently not heard her. But then she recollected that men had been back and forth most of the day from the wreck while they had been resting, and they could have spread the word. But that was unlikely.
“The item I requested, Thomas. Is it here?”
“Yes, sir. He brought it some time ago before he left to join you. It’s on the table.”
“Is my room ready, Thomas?”
“That it is, Miss Sophia. That was the second one we finished off as soon as we knew you was coming today. I think the Captain might be on your bed waiting for you.”
“How did you know she was com—?” Annis was asking too many questions.
Sophia interrupted her. “Good. I’m tired. It’s exciting being a smugg…, being on board a ship, and in a storm too. I wasn’t sick once. France was very strange. I didn’t understand much of what they said, but I learned some other interesting words, and it was ever so busy on that dock, despite it being nighttime. We almost rammed another ship if I hadn’t seen it. The new Seamew is beautiful and graceful, and I will be going out in it soon. Won’t I, William?” She had hardly paused to draw breath.
“Yes, my dear, you will.”
“Will Joe be on board?”
“He’ll be captain.”
“Good. He has some of the best sea stories I ever heard, and he was telling me some of them before Ann….” Her voice trailed off. “Later. I wasn’t supposed to say that, was I?”
William was smiling at her. “No, young lady. Not just yet, but it doesn’t matter now. There have been a lot of things you weren’t supposed to say, but I expect the excitement of the occasion is more than you can bear.”
“You should go inside sir, and I’ll see to this. Molly has a dinner waiting for you and Miss Annis, and probably has some for Sophia too if she can keep her eyes open to eat despite all of that going through her head, but there’ll be plenty of hot water for a bath first.”
“Good. I’m famished.” Sophia rushed off, muttering some newly learned French words that sounded interesting, and that she might never be allowed to say in polite company.
They strolled over to the house. William had taken Annis’s arm and threaded it into his own.
“What is going on, William? How were we so well expected? Why is everything prepared for us? What stories was ‘Joe’ telling to Sophia, and when did he have time? She was with me the entire time after we discovered her, and she had been hidden well away before then. If she was.” She began to suspect that all was not as she had been led to believe.
“Yes, my dear. Joe is full of stories. I expect it was on her last visit, and she was on board one other time too, you know, and Joe tells all of the children stories, and he had two of his own on board that time as we were not going anywhere.”
“I am confused.”
“Yes, my dear. So is Sophia. You are also tired. We all missed a good night’s sleep. Later, I will explain it all to you.”
“Yes, I think an explanation is required.”
“But you need to bathe and change for dinner first, and so do I. We’ve all been in our clothes far too long. Youth’s clothing is becoming on you, but the fewer who see you dressed that way, the better. There is clothing laid out for you upstairs along with hot water for a bath, which is where Sophia is now, if my ears did not deceive me, and you will need to wash a few remaining smudges of that dark streaking off your face.” He touched her cheek and brow to show where they might still be before he leaned in to kiss her. “I have some things to do here with Thomas, and then I will join you two to eat.”
Forty minutes later, both Annis and Sophia joined him in the parlor after they had helped each other bathe and dress.
“Well now, that is a big improvement.” He watched as they both entered the parlor and welcomed them both.
“You changed, yourself.” She looked at him strangely.
“Yes. I felt grubby, and I needed to wash the salt off my skin and out of my hair. I bathed and changed in the wash-house.”
“Thomas was mistaken, William. My room was not made up but was entirely empty and my clothing was laid out on Mama’s bed in the larger bedroom. That seems to be the only room with furniture, apart from Sophia’s. Sophia tells me that Mama and Charlotte, and even Elizabeth will be arriving sometime early tomorrow morning. Is that true?”
“No. My dear. They will arrive no earlier than midday, and possibly, hopefully, much later.”
“How did she know we would be here?”
“I confirmed it in my note to your mother, from the dock.”
She looked puzzled again. “Confirmed what?”
Sophia leapt in. Annis seemed to be remarkably slow to understand what had happened. “That we would all be here and that we were being kidnapped, silly. She did not approve at first. Then William told us all some things we did not know. Well, we did, really know, when he told us, but before that, we didn’t. She thought it ever so…I don’t know the word, but then she cried. But it was a happy cry for a change.”
“It will make sense eventually. Will it?” Annis looked inquiringly at William.
“Yes, my dear, it certainly will. But let us eat. I have not eaten a suitable meal to sit down to since France, and neither have you, and that was far too many hours ago.”
They sat down and helped themselves to the dishes. There were still many questions nagging at Annis. “But why were we both kidnapped? For what purpose? Surely we have nothing that would make us the target of such a scheme. I am beginning to suspect that you were part of this plot too somehow, weren’t you, Sophia?”
“Of course I was. But you were the only one kidnapped. I helped do it. I tried to do what I could, to make sure that William stayed with us as part of our family, but you were not being very helpful. I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen at first. But this one was mostly William’s idea, except Charlotte and Mama and Elizabeth helped, and I added a few details that seemed to work ever so well to get you on board. It would not have been possible without me, except Cousin George did lend a hand.”
“I am still confused. What did Cousin George—whoever he is—have to do with this? Although that was the letter that came after you had gone. So why are we being kidnapped?”
“That was the wrong word, my dear. You were not kidnapped. You were abducted, although the better word might be ‘deceived.’”
“I was not kidnapped or abducted, but I am beginning to believe that I may have been misled. No matter. I was determined to come. I had to.”
“I am relieved that you do not believe that you were abducted, but you certainly were.”
“This is all too complicated.”
“Yes, it must seem that way, but it isn’t really. It will all soon be clear to you. I have a particularly good wine I brought back with us—contraband wine always tastes better than any other—and we should discuss the situation over a glass of that. But later. Sophia will, of course, now go to bed as she is almost asleep at the table.”
“I’m not sleepy.” She yawned, putting the lie to that, as she propped her head up on her hand at the table and struggled to stay awake to listen to more of their conversation, but her eyes refused to do her bidding as her eyelids drooped even as Annis and William watched in amusement, and her head slipped off her hand.
“Oh, yes you are. Come on.” He scooped her out of her seat. “You have eaten your fill, so I will carry you up and see you into your nightdress and tucked in, and Annis will help too, won’t you, my love? You can dream of smugglers and pirates while Captain cat will play your crew, and keep you company if he decides to join you.”