***** on Amazon
Octavia Gray's radical parents give little attention to their eighth child. Her best friend Julia's parents are all too keen to see her wed a wealthy and respectable gentleman. So when Julia falls for a wild-haired radical acquaintance of Octavia and is whisked away to an isolated 15th century fortified manor in Cornwall, she begs Octavia to come and keep her company.
Then the fun begins, as both Julia's suitors turn up, along with a dashing smuggler and a horde of Revenue officers out to catch him--or anyone who lands in their net...
Beyond the shadow of the quay the moon shone bright on Plymouth Sound, silvering the ripples and whitening the swirling wake as the sailing barge took the breeze. The Barbican, the Citadel, and the Hoe loomed as dark masses and the opposite shore of the estuary was a black line between sea and sky.
Seated on a neat coil of rope, Octavia leaned back against her trunk and wondered if she was dreaming. The creak of the wheel, manned by the silhouette of Captain Pilway; the slap of bare feet on wood as Joey and Tom moved to adjust the square sails; the rush of water against the hull: all these were as foreign to her as the salty tang of the air blowing in her face.
“Warrum enow, miss?” queried Tom, materialising beside her.
She pulled her cloak closer about her and nodded; then, not sure if he had seen, said, “Yes, thank you. How long will it take to Cotehele?”
“Ah,” he said, and slipped away again like a shadow.
To judge by the gleaming path of the setting moon, they were headed south of west. Octavia thought back to her geography lessons. Surely the Tamar flowed into the Channel from the north? For a moment she was alarmed: had she fallen among white slavers, or ruffians of some other ilk? But Lieutenant Cardin would not have handed her over so calmly had he anticipated danger, and Captain Pilway had been perfectly polite.
There must be all sorts of navigational hazards to be avoided, she realised with relief. The island they were passing on their right, for instance, was probably surrounded by rocky reefs. The Eddystone Lighthouse was somewhere near Plymouth, she thought, and the coast of Cornwall was noted for shipwrecks.
As they rounded the island, she saw a larger ship rocking on the water a few hundred feet off, its single mast bare. The barge approached it, slowing as the sails were furled. A dinghy put off from the stern of the sloop.
“Ahoy there, River Queen!” came a low hail.
“Ahoy, Seamew!” Captain Pilway called back, his deep voice hushed.
The dinghy drew alongside, the rowers shipping their oars; a giant of a man stood up in it and gripped the rail of the barge. Captain Pilway went to him and they held a whispered consultation. Octavia thought he turned his face in her direction for a moment, but in the moonlight she could be sure of nothing.
The giant said something to his men, passed up several small packages to the captain, and then heaved himself aboard. He dwarfed Captain Pilway, himself by no means a small man. The two retired to the stern to talk, while the rowers lifted several barrels over the side into the barge. Joey and Tom rolled them aft, and Joey started lashing them together with rope.
“Right, boys!” called the big man. The dinghy cast off and headed back towards the sloop.
Sails raised, the River Queen turned north.
The new passenger made his way forward and stopped beside Octavia. Squatting down so that his face was nearer her level, he saluted her.
“How do you do, ma’am,” he said in an educated voice, removing his cap and running his fingers through his thick hair. “Captain Day’s the name, Red Jack Day. You’re bound for Cotehele, I hear.”
“Yes,” stammered Octavia. “I—I am going to stay there with friends.”
“I’m heading that way myself. You’re no Edgcumbe, though, are you?”
“No. My friends are related to the Edgcumbes. Are—are you a smuggler, sir?”
“Best not ask, little lady,” he said grinning, his teeth white in the moonlight. “Those who don’t know, can’t tell. You’ve seen some interesting goings-on tonight, eh?” His tone was friendly, not in the least threatening.
“Are you not afraid I shall tell someone?” Octavia ventured.
“There’s nothing the Revenuers can do unless they catch us with the goods and by the time you found someone to tell, those’ll be long gone. Suspicions don’t hurt us; there’s not a captain nor a ship doesn’t run goods now and then. Were you planning on turning us in?”
“No, I suppose not. My father says the duty and excise tax laws make very little sense.”
“Then your father is a sensible man. You’re not from these parts?”
“No, from London.”
“Ah.” He settled back more comfortably on his haunches, swaying slightly with the roll of the boat. “Then allow me to point out the sights. Sun’ll be up soon."
The eastern sky paled over Plymouth even as the moon set behind rolling hills in the west. On the slope overlooking the Sound stood a mansion, barely visible in the near darkness. That was Mount Edgcumbe, said Red Jack Day, seat of the second Earl of Mount Edgcumbe and home of the Edgcumbe family since the house was completed in 1553. There was an odd pride in his voice, as if he shared in the reflected dignity of the ancient line.
On the other side was St Nicholas’s Island, sometimes known as Drake’s Island. As they cleared it and the light grew, Octavia saw a bewildering swarm of shipping, from dinghies to men-o’-war, sailing in various directions or anchored in the maze of inlets which led off the sound. Red Jack pointed to a particularly busy area: Devonport, the Royal Navy docks.
Somehow Captain Pilway chose among the various waterways, and soon the river narrowed. There were low hills on either side, a patchwork of fields and woods, with occasional villages and quays. The sun rose in a sky streaked with pink and crimson clouds, turning the water the colour of blood. They passed Spanish Steps, then the river divided again and narrowed still further.
Steep, wooded cliffs alternated with wide beds of reeds, yellow tipped with green, as they followed the twisting Tamar upstream, the rising tide fighting and overcoming the opposing current.
“Nothing much to see till we reach Halton Quay,” grunted Captain Day. He rose to his feet and stretched. His hair caught the sun’s low rays and Octavia saw that it was flame-red, fading to straw at the temples. “I’ll try for a couple of hours of sleep before we arrive."
Warm in the sun, Octavia drowsed.
She was roused by a shout. There was a tiny chapel on the left bank, a few cottages, and some extraordinary stone structures, square and solid-looking, with huge half arches at the base.
Tom was pointing at a washing line hung with clothes. It looked quite unremarkable except, perhaps, for a scarlet petticoat at one end.
Red Jack yawned, rubbed his eyes, and sat up. He made his way forward and sat down beside Octavia.
“Halton Quay,” he said. “That spectacular garment is a sign. According to whereabouts on the line it hangs, it even tells who is watching and where. That’s a Riding Officer, I believe, at Cotehele Quay. I don’t work this way myself, so I’m not certain of the code."
“A Riding Officer?” she asked.
“That is what the Customs call their inland excisemen.”
“So the petticoat is a warning! What are those extraordinary arches?”
“Limekilns. We’re carrying limestone now, in the hold there.” In the well amidships huge baskets of broken rock were neatly stacked. “Throw limestone and coal in the kiln, fire it, and out comes quicklime. It’s used as a fertiliser. Excuse me, ma’am, I’d best go lend a hand.”
The crew of the River Queen had pulled a pile of sails off the mysterious barrels from the Seamew. With Red Jack’s assistance, they slung them from the bulwarks then, at a sign from Captain Pilway, pulled on a couple of knots and let the whole string of a dozen or more slide into the river.
Brandy, thought Octavia. They must be sorry to lose so much.
Captain Day returned to her side, grinning.
“They’ll pull ‘em up with grapples some day when the red flag’s not flying,” he explained. “The rest of the stuff’s small enough to hide where no Riding Officer will find it. But I’ve a little something here for a pretty young lady, if you’ve somewhere about yourself to conceal it.”
She blushed as he handed her a small, flat package, wrapped in oilcloth.
“There is an inside pocket in my cloak,” she said. “Will that do?”
“Aye, they’ll not search a guest of the Edgcumbes. Another bend or two of this confounded snaky river and we’ll be there. Give me the open sea any day.”
He lent her a huge paw as she struggled to stand. Stiff from her awkward position, she still ached in every joint after four jolting days on the stage. She stowed the package in her pocket, and felt for the comb she kept there.
It was gone. It had probably fallen out when Captain Pilway had lifted her aboard, but at least her heavy purse was still there. Tiredly she pushed a few loose curls behind her ears. She would not have been able to do much without a mirror anyway.
Red Jack was standing in the bow, gazing upstream. She picked her way forward to join him. They were passing a tributary stream on the left, half hidden in reeds. Beyond it, dead ahead as the river curved right, was a flat stretch of bank with three stone quays and a number of buildings, including more huge limekilns with smoke rising from their tops.
“Cotehele!” announced the smuggler with satisfaction as the barge swung wide to head directly into the small dock. “Will there be someone to meet you, miss?”
‘‘No. They have no idea when to expect me."
“It’s not far up to the house but it’s a steep walk. If you care to wait below I can send someone to fetch you.”
“If you are walking up to the house, I shall go with you. It will be good to stretch my legs. Will you think me impertinent if I ask what business a smuggler has at Cotehele?
Red Jack flushed. “I’m courting the housekeeper,” he muttered, suddenly shy. “Ever since she was parlour maid at Mount Edgcumbe. She won’t have me till I change my profession and I won’t quit free-trading till I’ve a fortune to support her with. It’s been a long time, but it won’t be much longer.”
“I beg your pardon, I was impertinent!” cried Octavia penitently. “It was none of my business."
“The whole world knows,” he said wryly. “Well, here we are. Let me help you ashore.”
Several men had appeared from one of the buildings, an inn bearing the sign of the Edgcumbe Arms. There was much shouting and bustle as the River Queen was tied up and they prepared to unload with the aid of a hand winch on board and a derrick on the quay.
Suddenly a tall, thin, elderly man in uniform pushed through the crowd, followed by a pair of beefy troopers.
“In the King’s name!” he shouted in a high, rather squeaky voice. “Every basket is to be inspected as it comes ashore. Slowly, now.”
“I’ve a cargo of fruit on the Lower Quay that’s waited for in Plymouth,” said Captain Pilway angrily. “Ye may inspect what ye please when ‘tis all off my ship.”
They stood face to face, arguing loudly. Red Jack quietly directed a couple of men to carry off Octavia’s trunk, and swung her lightly over the side, following her onto the quay.
“The Riding Officer,” he explained. “he’ll have a hard time inspecting tons of limestone. We’ll be off.”
He waved to the men with the trunk to come after them, and they edged round the jeering crowd. They were a few feet beyond it when the Riding Officer noticed them.
“Halt, in the King’s name!” he cried. “I know you, Red Jack Day, and I’ll see the contents of that trunk, if you please.
The men parted to let him through and he came strutting forward to face Octavia. She drew herself up, her chin raised.
“The trunk is mine,” she said icily. “I am Miss Octavia Gray, a guest of the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe.”
He looked somewhat disconcerted, but a glance at her appearance revived his officiousness. “You expect me to believe that?” he said with scorn. “Unlock the chest at once!”
“You may apply to his lordship for my credentials.” Octavia quaked inside. “I do not think my lord will be best pleased if you strew my undergarments about in public. Come, Captain Day.”
The crowd roared with laughter as she stalked off, Red Jack at her heels. The two men picked up the trunk and followed, leaving the Riding Officer purple-faced and gaping like a fish.
“Well done, ma’am,” said Red Jack. “You could not have carried that off more coolly had the box actually been filled with contraband.”
“Do you know,” confessed Octavia, “for the moment I was quite convinced that it was!”
They passed a grey stone lodge and started up the hill. Long before they reached the top Octavia was glad to lean on the captain’s arm. She walked in a blur of fatigue, unable to appreciate her surroundings in the least, aware only of the effort to be made to put one foot in front of the next again and again and again.
The ground levelled off at last, and Octavia revived enough to notice a horseman coming towards them.
“Jack Day!” the rider hailed her companion from a little distance, in a vaguely familiar voice. “Come to visit the fair Martha, are you? Who is this you have brought with you?”
“It’s Miss Gray, sir. She’s a guest here. I ought to have left her below though, to wait for the carriage. The poor lass is worn to the bone, I fear me."
“Miss Gray? Good God, so it is! You look fagged to death, ma’am, and in no fit state to walk farther. Jack, raise her up to me and I’ll carry her in.”
Too tired to protest, Octavia allowed herself to be lifted into Sir Tristram Deanbridge’s arms and sank back against his shoulder.