The splash of cold brackish water startled Spencer awake. He lay still for some minutes orienting himself to the sounds around him. Lifting his head from the gunnel, he squinted to hear. Yes, they were lowering the dinghy; they must have reached the French coast.
Disguised as a rough and ready smuggler, Spencer had left England a fortnight after Juliana had taken the sunshine with her to the country. Not that London had proved to be any rainier than usual but somehow even bright sunny days seemed gray without her. He knew it to be due more to his mental state than an actuality, but he found Town exceedingly dull without Juliana’s effervescent presence.
Fortunately, Spencer had had diversions aplenty—those of a most serious nature. Treason, traitors and disloyalty. Hart had taken the bait. Hart the younger, for it soon became apparent that Lord Hart was not party to his son’s faithless escapades. It made the passing of false information more difficult to achieve but in the end, Bibury came through with an elementary scheme that involved a grand performance of coughing and switching papers.
A meticulous but imaginative list of troop numbers, locations and intentions was now in the hands of the French messenger. A lanky man with a thatch of black curls who waited—twitchy and watchful—not ten feet away from Spencer’s outstretched legs. The French man was not recumbent as Spencer was, but leaned in an overly casual manner across the rail, staring into the dark.
Spencer rose slowly and joined him at the rail. He fashion a grin but the man ignored his presence. “Good night for a run,” Spencer said in French jerking his head toward the weak light of the half-moon. There was no reply.
Bibury, looking even more disheveled than Spencer, placed himself on the other side of the messenger. “Mon Dieu, it will be good to get back. Well worth it though, eh?”
They were supposed to be French smugglers returning from a lucrative delivery of brandy in Devon…St. Ives Head—with the messenger tagging along. But, in fact, the small ship and now the dinghy was crewed by agents from both the War and Home office. The true smugglers were languishing in an Exeter jail, whisked away from Lambhurst before word could reach Ryton Manor. Lady Pyebald herself had accompanied the messenger to the cliffs and watched his descent to the ship. Winfrith was going to pay her a visit in the morning.
The plan called for Spencer and Bibury to befriend the messenger and stay with him until the false communiqué was delivered into the hands of the French army. So far, the man was proving to be the frosty type—not a surprise considering the price he would pay if caught.
A whispered word wafted up from below and they were over the rail in a trice, stepping down into the waiting dinghy. Only the dipping and dripping of the oars made any noise as they crossed the final expanse. The solid bump of a rock warned Spencer that they were coming aground and he grabbed the side of the boat. He jumped into the frigid water as soon as the momentum pushed the small boat up onto the beach. Crouching, he paused for a moment to get his bearings and then, made for the tall reeds edging the shoreline. Bibury and the messenger joined him, hunkered and listening.
Once the dinghy disappeared out on the water, the three men stood up. They nodded to one another and shrugged as if it was all in a day’s work. Even the messenger permitted a modicum of relaxation to change his expression—his frown eased slightly; his brow was no longer as deeply furrowed.
Letting out a ragged breath, as if his nervousness was gone, Bibury slapped Spencer on the back and draped his arm around the messenger’s shoulder in a display of male comradery. “I think we deserve a drink after such a long night, non?” He gestured toward the flickering lights in the distance.
“Absolument. To our success.” Spencer adopted the same position on the other side of the messenger. “On me, eh? Let’s drink.” They started toward what Spencer hoped was the main road and a tavern of some sort, propelling the messenger between them. Within a few steps, the man no longer resisted but instead steered the trio toward the east side of the village.
Due to the lateness of the hour, Spencer was pleased to find that they were approaching an open, and active inn, complete with a noisy public room. They found themselves a spot near a drafty window and, fortunately, excited little curiosity, merely a shrug or two in their direction.
However, providence was not entirely on their side. Before their first beers were less than a quarter gone, the door burst open with a loud crash as it hit the wall behind it. The jovial chatter went silent.
Two French soldiers entered and pushed the patrons back further into the room, allowing an imposing officer to enter unimpeded. He wore a white uniform with red epaulettes, and had placed his impressive gold and red helmet under his arm—a carabinier-a-cheval. Standing on the threshold long enough for everyone to take in his costume, the officer exuded importance and authority before he had so much as opened his mouth. Stepping forward, he slowly scanned the patrons… until locking eyes with the messenger. Gulping audibly, the French man rose.
Spencer dropped his hand from the table into his pocket. The pistol he had prepared on the ship waited in the ready. He prayed the dampness of their voyage had not ruined the wick or the powder.
“You have it?” The officer’s voice was deep and deceptively mellow, cutting easily to the far reaches of the room.
“Oui, oui, but of course.” The messenger shook and swallowed convulsively.
Looking down his nose and curling his lip ever so slightly, the officer glanced at the partially filled beer mug sitting in front of the messenger. “Did you want to finish your drink before we leave? I wouldn’t wish to inconvenience you.” His snide tone told one and all that it was exactly what he wished to do.
Scrambling around the table, the messenger knocked Spencer’s mug flying in his haste. The thud of its descent to the straw strewn floor was ignored, as was the spray of foamy liquid. “Non, non, I wish to go immediately.” And to prove his words the messenger hurried out the door without a backward glance. The soldiers followed.
The officer, however, stayed and so did the silence and air of menace. Glancing at the mess created by such a hasty and plebeian exit, the officer pursed his lips and then met Spencer’s stare. A frown flashed across his face but it was quickly replaced with a smile that was in no way benevolent. “My apologies, monsieur, I will replace your… beer.” He reached into a pouch hanging at his waist but continued to watch Spencer with a speculative eye.
Spencer knew he was treading on very thin ice. There was something in his stance or appearance that had caught the attention of this observant officer. Perhaps it was his hand hidden in his pocket. Spencer elected to nod, with some deference, rather than speak in case something in his accent gave him away. They were too close to seeing this job done. Too close to returning home unscathed. He held his breath, and then, caught a coin as it came sailing through the air towards him; he used the hand that had been in his pocket—leaving the pistol behind.
The officer continued to stare at Spencer, as if unconvinced.
And so Spencer shrugged; he only used one shoulder and made it short, casual and loose.
Rather than acknowledge the gesture, the officer shook his head in disgust turned on his heels and left. At once, the room burst into a cacophony of nervous laughter and loud conversation. Nothing was said about the intimidating carabinier as if to do so would call him back.
Bibury shifted down the bench, and signaled for another mug of beer. “Well, monsieur,” he said retaining his French persona. “That would be that then. Record time. Got two days to while away before the return. Any ideas of what we should do?”
Spencer thought of Juliana and smiled. “Oui, most certainly.”
* * *