“God in heaven, the child’s….alive!
The curate stood to his toe tops in unspeakable London filth. His face turned grey. He would have fainted save for rigid shock holding him upright
He was only twenty-two, after all, and never before away from his sheep-raising village of Ayleham, Surrey
Sheep-like mildness informed his round blue eyes and the whiskers springing tenderly from his cheeks. Gusts jerked derisively at his coat, which was hopelessly old-fashioned, and tried to snatch his hat, a hand-down from the vicar. Only his cravat held firm, for Mrs. Warren had tied it herself in the predawn rush to catch his train for Victoria Station.
His business had taken only an hour to conclude, somewhat of an anti-climax. But then how his innocent heart had bounded at finding himself footloose for a day at the very core of the Empire. Widowed Queen Victoria owned a palace not a mile away.
Soldiers with sunburnt, tropical faces whistled through the streets on leave. The Thames was jammed with ships disgorging mahogany and nutmeg and aromatic chests of Ceylon tea.
Such crowds! Such a din!
Swaying hoop skirts scooped him from the kerb and the brass on a sea of hansom cabs dazzled his eyes. Vast stone porticoes yawned, guarded by doormen magnificent as pashas. Jewelled snuff boxes, ornate soup tureens, painted China mandarins winked gorgeously from shop windows. He had to tear his gaze from displays of sybaritic bonbons and lacy pantalettes.
His pulse stopped altogether when a street conjurer stepped in front of him breathing a tongue of flame at the sky.
He had been afloat, bobbing and spinning on the glorious tide of London, it’s heart-tide, the tide of the City, that ancient, unimaginably opulent square mile under the dome of St. Paul’s where the spoils of an empire had been poured into white-fronted mansions, immense public buildings and the towering splendour of the Bridge.
Then Great Ben struck noon and the curate halted, cold inside.
He’d been agog, credulous as a boy while Old Scratch laughed to see one more fool slide into the glittering trap.
“Fatuous vainglory!” the young man whispered, shaken that temptation should display itself in such tangible, mesmerizing forms just as the vicar had warned.
He mustn’t let the vicar find out how he’d squandered the morning!
God, in the form of the vicar, would grill him severely on his return.
In the familiar, moss-grown church of Ayleham, farmers and good housewives heard that life was a constant skirmish with Satan in which they might jerk from any fireside nap to battle for their souls.
The vicar lived on this drama, growing gaunt and beetle-browed. When he discovered his stumbling curate must go to London, he had reared up from behind the vestry coat rack.
“Fleshpots jingling in golden harnesses! Pits of sin blacker than the Serpent’s maw! You look and you take heed, my lad. Tis Babylon you’re going to!”
With all Ayleham breathless for the tale, the curate could hardly say he’d gorged on treacle tarts and gaped at tumblers on the Strand.
Reluctantly, he turned from the lacquered carriages, the flags streaming in the smoky golden sunshine and set out to see for himself the sores of foulness and misery gnawing the city’s underbelly.
He hurried east past the Tower and, in his innocence, hired a half-crazed hag to guide him into districts where tough sailors dared not go. At once, she brought him down sweating alleys, past broken doors breathing excrement to this, a festering garbage heap oozing toward the Thames.
“Aye, it be!” she cackled contemptuously.
She had a draggle of dirt-coloured hair, a verminous dress held together by pieces of twine and knobby bare feet hard as goat hoofs. A goaty smell permeated the air around her and she clutched the curate’s coins under a ragged shawl.
Gin for a month if she didn’t get knocked for it.
With her toe, she kicked at the lump at her feet.
A lump of naked flesh still glistening with blood and mucus.
The lump flipped over, exhibiting four limbs, frail as frog’s legs, wavering close to a blue-tinged stomach sticking with horse dung. The stomach was attached to matchstick ribs, tiny shoulders and the disproportionately large head of the newborn.
The head flopped, pinched and death-like.
Yet inside even so unpromising a dwelling, a human spirit rallied. Out belted a squall so mightily indignant the curate jumped like a horse from a firecracker.
“A…baby,” he sputtered as if he had never seen one before. “Who would leave a baby here!”
He was growing paler.
The colour drained from his lips and his neck and even from his fingers protruding from under his cuffs. He felt a whirling inside and knew the Devil had played him a horrid joke. Oh, how very far he felt from Ayleham, Surrey, where the height of depravity was knocking down gate posts on a drunken holiday night!
“Them as can’t feed it. Pah!”
The crone aimed her toe at the wretched scrap again, sending it sideways. The curate slumped to the wall, noisily, violently ill.
For some moments, it looked as though he were going to continue his slide down the bricks, bested by his first encounter with London’s brute reality.
The old woman rocked on her heels as her charge clawed about, seeking some handhold in this twisted nether universe into which he had been flung.
With a mighty effort, he forced himself erect, mild eyes blinking rapidly, hoping to banish the scene.
“It has to be…rescued! I…there must be somewhere for…surely….”
Scraps of his mission as God’s servant, hitherto unreal, fluttered through his dismay. A fearful thrill clutched him. Why here, literally, was a lost lamb abandoned to the blast.
A lamb that he must save!
Rose, daughter of Red Nell, a London crime potentate, has been placed with the Mabbins, a family of Cornish smugglers to grow up in safety. She knows nothing of her real origins. Already she is a young enchantress.
“I’m going home,” Rose told her followers. She favoured the village boys with a sidelong glance of her grey-green eyes. At eleven, Rose was already used to people trying, and failing, to divert her from her path.
“Can’t, can’t!” the boys chanted, drawn irresistibly after her.
Though they all claimed to scorn girls mightily, they cavorted like half-grown cart horses the minute one hove into sight. When Rose was in sight, they crashed into barrows and hung from oak branches and swaggered in boat-sterns in hopes of her attention. Now they meant to tease her all the way home and, if they were lucky, get a sliver of soda bread from Maeve Mabbin for their trouble. Times were so hard all up and down that coast that even boys in love could not leave off thinking of their stomachs.
“I’m going by the Nose!” she informed them suddenly, feeling the rushing thrill inside herself at this spontaneous idea.
“You’re not,” they hooted. “You’ll be hided alive if Jack finds out you’ve gone by the Nose.”
That fixed it. Rose took the fork toward the hulking cliff called the Pirate’s Nose that cut off the village from the cove. There was a path of sorts along its face, but since a rock fall had taken the middle out of it, it was now only used by stoats after gull eggs. Today, such a traverse seemed unthinkable.
Still hooting and jostling, the boys climbed the path right behind Rose, at every moment expecting her to lose her nerve and turn back.
When the cliff suddenly steepened the teasing died away though the boys kept on doggedly, determined not to be outdone. Rose stepped onto the broken part, holding on tightly with her fingers in the crevices.
“Rose, don’t be daft!”
Rose was laughing through a haze of strawberry curls blown across her cheeks.
She inched along further and looked back. The boys were bunched on the last of the wide part, stuck where they were. Rose merely regarded the boys with a look that said, either come or don’t come. It was a worse torment to them than had she taunted them all the way.
She set her jug down and reached out a hand.
“Come on, I’ll help you.”
Not even for that would the first boy budge. With a shrug, Rose hopped over a spine of rock and perched on another ledge a few feet on. Her going felt to the boys as though the warmth of a bonfire had been moved away. They became uncomfortably aware of the heaving sea out of sight just below. With admiration and vast regret, they watched Rose’s windswept figure vanish round a corner and they felt poor sorts for not keeping up with her. Rose would never look at them the same again, a major tragedy in their boyish hearts.
Rose was not as cool about the path as she appeared to the boys but she would not turn round. “Once begun, it’s all sails hoist,” Jack used to say to her, “and tell the rocks to catch you if they can!” The wind was off the water, Rose reasoned, blowing her against the cliff, so how could a person fall when the wind stuck you to the rocks like a burr to a sheep.
She came to a part where there was only a gravel slope. Inching along, she dug in her toes, and made footholds which carried her, with a gasp over to the other side.
Clinging from rock to rock, she finally scrambled down into Two Spar Cove, the chicken and the jug intact and she felt enormously pleased with herself. The tide was out. She could scamper across to where another steep thread of a path led up to the house door. Contrary to what the boys had said, Jack wouldn’t hide her if he found out. He’d grumble and bluster, then cancel it all with a vast, admiring wink. Risk was the wine of life in the boisterous house where Rose lived.
Knowing every inch, Rose nimbly dodged rocks in the sand until she banged her knees against not a rock, but a keg. From its splintered side trickled a darkly golden stream. Rose smelled it, touched it to her lips with a surge of amazement. Brandy! And not just brandy but cognac, which Jack had taught her, as he had taught all his children, to tell from all less valuable imitators no matter what sort of stamp they might be masquerading under.
Jack was a man in mourning for the great age of smuggling which had passed abruptly when the Admiralty had made the exercise too dangerous to be worth the candle
Jack was also a famous man with a yarn, so Rose’s head had been full of smuggler’s tales from the moment she could understand. According to Jack, the Mabbins had followed the trade when they could for the past two hundred years and been privateers before that. If Jack were to be believed, Excise men turned into blundering buffoons anywhere within ten miles of a Mabbin and the Duke of Cornwall himself would wear nothing else but silk breeches smuggled in through Two Spar Cove.
Jack trained his children the way he himself had been trained. By the age of eight, they not only knew cognac, but could tell Jamaica rum from Puerto Rico light and identify any other liquor that might pass across the Channel. The smoke from the best Latakia tobaccos was perfume in their noses. They could list the seals on French champagne and pick out silk by the feel in the murkiest dark.
You never knew, Jack ruminated mournfully, when the Navy might take itself off to chase the Moors and leave the folk at home to get their livings again by wit and daring.
Through holes in the mist, Rose saw another keg lying in the sand, and another. Her breath caught in her throat. Out of the mist, above her head, the bowsprit of a ship pierced the greyness. The vessel was tilted sideways, caught fast in the teeth of the rocks. It would never sail anywhere again.
The storm jib snapped in tatters and the ship vanished again. But not a dozen yards from Rose, another gap opened and in it a dark figure staggered in the sand. Other shapes loomed up, stumbling about, soaked and cursing. Men from the ship, Rose thought in a flash, knowing they’d drown like cats if they couldn’t find a way out of there before the tide rolled in.
Rose dumped the ale from her jug and refilled it from the breached brandy keg. Agile as a wraith, she scrambled up the hidden rock path to the house as fast as she could go.
“A wreck, a wreck!” she cried in a fearful state of excitement as she burst through the sturdy old door.
Her news had the same effect as a stick poked into a sleeping anthill. Jack and Dave and Mawky jumped up. Maeve spun round from the fireplace. All the little Mabbins tumbled out of the corners where they had been nesting. The Mabbins were people of action unwillingly mewed up. Rose’s words shot life into their veins and the old dancing brightness back into their eyes.
Jack tipped Rose’s jug to his lip and came away with his swarthy face alight.
“By God! If there’s enough of this we’ll never have to grub in another tin mine as long as we breathe.”
* * *
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