The Wicked Trade

Chapter One

The two men, Yorke and Warren, were talking in comfort when they were taken, and they thought at last that they could see an end in sight. Their mission had been long and arduous, their need for secrecy a constant strain. But earlier that day, on the shores of Fareham Creek, they had met a man and made an offer, and backed it with a string of names. They were venturers, they said, and they wished to join the trade. They had information that they'd gathered in dire secrecy, and they used it as a lure. Now, feet into the fireplace, Mrs Cullen preparing them a meal, they were contented.

"He said his name was Saunders," said Charles Warren, musingly. "But it is not, it is George Felton, his home is in Cowplain. But Saunders is a name I know from Kent, one of the eastern crews. I wonder what significance there is in that?"

Charles Yorke was comfortably amused. He selected a new clay from the table rack, and began to pack it, for after dinner. Mrs Cullen had provided them with fresh tobacco, in a box, and boasted, with fetching naivety, that it was "from the trade". Whatever, it was good tobacco, lately cured.

"None at all, I doubt," he said. "A name he plucked from out the air. Although Saunders may well have been high up in his mind, if we are right about the Kentish men. Perhaps it was a test, to try us for reaction. I suppose if you had let on that you recognised it, that could have set suspicion in his head."

Charles Warren was fifty six years old. He was a stocky, quiet, sombre man, with eyes of fierce intelligence.

"No, I think the time for tests is past," he said. "I think tomorrow or the next day we will get to see the men we need. Let's hope they don't demand the stake in sovereigns, there on the table. If they make me turn my pockets out, the very fluff would cry out my true profession!"

He was a riding officer in the normal way - and if success was paid in bounties, was deserving to be rich. But his wage was tiny of itself, hardly enough to keep him in the class of horse he favoured - good horses were his only weakness, it was said. His origins were humble, also, which was why Charles Yorke, at barely twenty five, was in command of him. There were ways to get wealth while doing Customs work, but Warren shunned them vehemently. Officers who accepted gifts instead of blows could wear good cloth and ride fine horses; also stay alive. Charles Warren, it was known, would court death, rather.

Yorke, hungry but impatient, leaned into the fireplace and took out a glowing stick. It was a warm evening, almost summer still, but the smouldering logwood enhanced the parlour and gave off a pleasant smell. He felt the brand's heat on his cheek as he sucked the clay. Truth was, he'd smoke while eating, if he fancied it; he was fanatick for the weed.

"We're businessmen," he said, around the pipestem. "To make free with our money in a trade like this, unless we had an army at our back - now that would be suspicious, with brass knobs! No, we'll deal in talk and promises until we've met them, to the very top. Then the gold will hit them, like a ton of bricks. Oh Charles, we're getting close to it, I really feel we are! Today I had a premonition, a solid premonition. I think that we are coming very close!"

The men were friends, despite the social gap and protocols of service and command. For two months or more, on this occasion, they had quartered this stretch of coast not as riding officers but in the utmost secrecy, from east of Selsey to beyond Keyhaven in the west. Before that they had wormed deep into the eastern mysteries, from whence the threat was being made. Warren, too, had felt excitement mounting in the past few days. His circumspection, though, was stronger than Charles Yorke's.

"Aye, aye," he said. "At the very least I think we're closing in. This inn is good and secret, Mrs Cullen's lack of curiosity is capital indeed. However -" he cleared his throat, as if to give a shout - "However, she could be a little prompter with her suppers!"

Outside the low, dark room there were noises. Horses stamping in the yard, and voices. There was a sudden spattering at the thick window glass. Rain had been in the air all day, despite the warmth. It had arrived.

"They've timed it well for shelter," Warren said. "In Hampshire, tell me, does it always rain?"

"I am a Surrey man," Yorke chuckled. "Let it come down!"

Then the door crashed open, and four men burst in, preceded by a wave of brandy, a veritable sea of stench. Outside there were more voices, male and loud, and a brief woman's scream as Mrs Cullen rushed from her kitchen to see what might be going on. Yorke caught a glimpse of her, white kerchief at her ample bosom, white features flushed and anxious, as she was pushed behind a door unceremoniously. A large and ruddy man had pushed her, a man with whiskers and a pigtail like a seaman, although his coat was tailed and upon his head a shallow, curl-brim hat. He held a pistol in his hand, a long and wicked thing, with a semi-bell.

"My God," said Warren. "We are discovered, Mr Yorke. We are betrayed." His voice was low, filled with anxiety. But then he rapped out, in a hard and fearless tone: "Quit off from here instanter, you drunken sots! We are armed!"

The men were also armed. More pistols had appeared. A knife. Two more pushed in, one with a cutlass. Warren and Yorke - who had not produced their weapons - stood watchfully, and waited. The smell of brandy was underlaid by damp clothing, sweat, of man and horse. No fear, though. The ruffians did not smell of fear.

"You are Customs men," said one. He was small and bright-eyed. "You have come to spy on us. We have found you out."

From outside, strangely, there came a high-pitched, shaking scream. Then muffled shouting, and the screaming stopped. One of the interlopers lifted his arm, and in his hand a bottle. He raised it to his mouth and drank.

Yorke spoke. His voice was brazen. It rang in the low room like a bell.

"We have come to meet your masters, fool," he said. "We are the reverse of Customs, we are venturers from London, come to help your trade."

Desperate times need desperate remedies, thought Warren, at his side. Saying the unsayable to unknown men with guns.

They were not impressed, apparently. The body of them surged forward, and their looks were bestial. It was clear that they had been drinking for a good time, and with purpose. Now there were seven in the room, and the door was bursting with the weight outside. Yorke reached for the inner pocket of his coat, wherein he kept a pistol, always primed. It was a Cyrus Rollins, made for him especially, bespoken by his uncle and protector, with a special cover on the priming pan.

It was Warren who got his weapon out the quickest, though; his sword was cleared before the deadly little Rollins was even firmly in Yorke's grasp. Quickest, but too late. A fellow to the left of him made a movement, low and sweeping, with what Warren, before it hit him, thought was a flail. By luck or horrible facility it took the hanger blade almost at the guard and broke it neatly off. As Yorke's blunt pistol emerged into the light his chest took the full weight of two men, both of whom attacked his head with clubs. Drunk or not, a third man caught the Cyrus Rollins as, knocked from its owner's hand, it described a graceful arc over the melée. Its patent pan-guard had not been displaced.

Overwhelmed and clearly helpless, both men avoided fighting back beyond saving their faces from too-deadly hits. They were to be taken, they assumed, this party was not likely to be the instigators, there must be men behind them, the men, maybe, they'd sought. To kill them would be purposeless, surely?

But the men were wild with rage and drink. They tore Charles Warren and Charles Yorke from out the snugroom with the utmost savagery, smacking, kicking, hitting them with knobby clubs. By the time they had them in the yard, both were bloodied, the younger dazed almost to the point of disability. Warren, still compos mentis, tried to get a fix on faces, for the future satisfaction that would come from hanging them, but they came and went, and thronged and throbbed, and hallooed deafeningly as they rained down blows. It was raining, too, black and steadily, hissing from the leaves all round the yard in the windless silence of the summer night, gushing from the gutters, falling in a curtain from the thatch. He picked out the large, loud villain in the curly hat and pigtail, he noticed several times the small man with the shining, vicious eyes, he saw a ginger fellow, a country stumbler who stayed back a ways, face set and maybe showing fright. But mostly it was jumble, men in coats, some wigged, some in heavy cloaks, some in short seamen's breeches, slops. All, or almost all, consumed by anger.

There were lights still in the inn, dim through the country glass, but no further sounds, no screams from Mrs Cullen or the hare-lipped girl who helped her. No aid from travellers, either; the inn was on a road more fairly called a track, which led from nowhere great to somewhere less important, as Yorke had coined the jest some days before when they had chosen it as perfection for their purposes. Not so perfect for survival, though, as they stood and stumbled in the rain, their feet and wrists jerked free of clothing to receive their bonds. They were to have one horse between them, it would seem, a big horse, extremely strong, that Warren caught himself admiring, in spite of all, and drunk or not, the bumpkins did their knots like angels. Not angels, seamen. Not bumpkins, men of free trade. But men, it looked, of awful wickedness.

Yorke, struck in the face by a flail armed certainly with lead and truly deadly, was unconscious when they put him up. His eyes were open, now and then, but they did not see, and one bone of his cheek appeared collapsed, to fill out slowly as a great black livid swelling bloomed and blossomed. The horse stood stolid in the rain while they jerked and slid him into place, snorting only gently as a rope was fastened underneath its belly and jerked taut, a rope that held Yorke's ankles fast together. His chest, raked by spasmodic coughs, was laid along the horse's neck, his joined wrists bent underneath his belly. Warren was allowed an upended cask to step up from, and swung his leg across with some sort of dignity. He sat motionless as his ankles were lashed underneath, and tried to jerk Yorke's torso upright to save him from falling sideways when they should set off.

As the assailants mounted, Warren did a head-count, not complete. Ten at least, probably more, but as they bucked and wheeled around the blackness of the yard accuracy became guesswork, more or less. There seemed to be nobody in command, and no idea of any form of discipline, or sense. Warren assumed they were being taken off to talk to someone, otherwise why not just have killed them where they sat? But as they moved out from the inn, his confidence grew less. Some of the men had whips, one a flail, three had cudgels. Defenceless, gripping the fabric of Charles Yorke's coat to try and steady him, Charles Warren played the stoic as the blows and cuts came on to him, and he wondered at their frenzy and their hate. A whiplash split his cheek, a rough stick grazed his temple, then dislodged his wig, then raised his scalp. The head in front of him, lying on the horse's neck, received repeated blows, and one bold hero prodded at it with his swordpoint until Yorke's blood ran thickly on to the horse's hair.

In the Hampshire rain, in the noisy, drunken silence of the peaceful, violent night, Charles Warren began to doubt that they would ever see the light of day again.

Chapter Two

Miles to the north of them, not far south of London, the rain was soaking and insistent, though similarly soft and almost silent, undriven by the faintest wind. William Bentley, drenched through his cloak and coat right to the skin, was saddle-sore and weary, and sick at heart. He was on his way to join a ship in Deptford, and he had been riding there since morning. He was not alone, but almost wished he could have been.

The man beside him, tall and ungainly on his hack, was something of a prattler. Preceded by an express the night before, he had turned up at the crack of dawn, and gone about the house as if he'd been at ease. He had taken breakfast like a long-lost cousin, chattering to William and his father before formal introductions had been completed, and bowing to his mother and his sisters in a rather ill-bred way, and smiling. William was going back to sea again, he did not want to, the girls were heartbroken, and his mother had to keep her own opinions to herself. Midshipman Samuel Holt, though surely much too old to have not yet made lieutenant, was like a careless youth. He even did not fade or merge, or drift into the scenery, when the last farewells were made, and William reached down to touch his sisters' fingers one last time. Father, as a contrast, had gone about his business on the farm ten minutes previously.

At first, the weather dry and decent, the two young men had travelled side-by-side. Sam Holt had brought up many gambits, little snippets of his life and times, many opportunities for Bentley to respond, but the conversation, in the main, had been one-sided. William, aware, had explained he was not a talking sort of fellow, who spent much time alone. But he was also aware, at times, that his demeanour and expression spoke something different, of disaffection and a mild distaste. Truth was - and this he could not tell a stranger, even hint at - the idea of resuming the naval life, which had been disrupted violently for him some years before, was a form of mental anguish. So Holt, out of politeness, perhaps a desperation of his own, had talked the miles away, and had not seemed to mind Will Bentley's taciturnity. The rain, however, when it came, might have been a relief, who knew? As the road bogged and the horses tired, they could ride apart, in damp cocoons of silence, where Will, at least, could brood and ponder.

It was cash, the oldest, sharpest goad, that had resealed his fate as navy officer. He had wanted to, and tried, to leave the service, had refused all blandishments, cajolings, threats for some long time. His relations with his father - never warm - had frosted, and a dip in Bentley fortunes - never explicated - had led him to a realisation that threats of excommunication from the family and the home were not idle ones. On paper his sea-time was good, to their lordships - who knew not the half of it - his experience was excellent. He had been ill, true, a good excuse for the hiatus, but now his bronchial problems were all cleared up. Uncle Daniel Swift, roped in to take a hand in it, insisted that if he worked hard at navigation and "got in the thick" again, there was no reason in the world he should not resume his rise. William, who refused point blank to contemplate his uncle's aid, or get advancement on his back, or even consider any offer of a shipboard place with him, made his own approaches to the Office and the Admiralty, speaking in his letters more of desire to resume than bleak necessity. Truth was, he did not want to starve.

There was a war on. He had not come ashore through reasons of dishonour. But although the first responses had been prompt, it seemed to him a weary time before the process was got running. And then the job had come, the place, position, the assigning to a ship. It was a small ship, the sort of ship that no one, he could imagine, would join from choice, a tender based in London River, another weight upon his heart's unease. Bad enough to have to serve, but that was that. But how much worse to join the Impress Service, so universally reviled. Then, last evening the express, and here he was on horseback, alongside this lanky prattler – and he had a need to know.

The rain had broken through the last defences of the felted wool around his neck, and was moving in runnels down his chest and back. Below the dampness was a band of discomfort, almost pain, around his waist, and below that still a spreading, jolted ache and soreness. They had ridden solidly, changing their hacks some thirty miles back, and William assumed and hoped that they were near their destination. London was not unknown to him, and the Portsmouth road a good one in the summer months at least, but this night was darker than the Shades. He had no inkling where they precisely were, and he needed rest. It was a way to frame his question.

"Mr Holt," he said. "What is this ship like, when we get to her? We will have a place to lie and sleep, at least?"

Holt, up ahead, had given him some details of the ship before, in the early stages. A brig, quite old, quite small, but not unhandy. He swivelled in his saddle, looking back.

"Mr Bentley, yes! That is to say, the Biter has such things, cots for the officers, all comforts of the home. Yes, there will be beds for us; I hope."

"But what do you mean by 'hope', sir? Pray tell me more, and sensibly. What sort of ship is she? How run? Is it a bad ship?"

Through the rain there came a muffled laugh. Holt eased his pace, dropping back until they went side by side.

"Hereabouts," he said, "there lives a man I know. He is a rich man, a baronet, a trader in the East. His house is large, and ornate, very comfortable, the alpha and the omega. To be frank with you, the Biter, sir - is not!"

"So what is your meaning?" said Will Bentley, determinedly. "Or must I wring it from you? Should we stop again? Would this merchant welcome us, or is there an inn hereabouts for getting warm and dry? How long are we from London? How long from Deptford and the ship? You make her sound a fright. Is that true?"

"Good God man,” said Samuel, suddenly and tersely. "The Biter is my ship, Lieutenant Kaye is my commander, what should I say to you? If it were my choice, we would stop off at Dr Marigold's and get some wenches, or feather beds if Hampshire men prefer them for lying on! It's above an hour, maybe two, to London Bridge, then a wherry to the tiers at Deptford. Then you will see the Biter for yourself, for your approval or disdain!"

In silence, Will Bentley held his station, but a little chastened. Holt was right in one thing, but it gave him little comfort. If he disliked the vessel never so much, he could hardly say so to his new and fellow midshipman. Will felt he ought to make amends.

"There is necessity," he mumbled, "and speed is of the essence is the theory. We are under orders, after all, to join the ship. This Dr Marigold - he is the merchant, I suppose?"

Holt let out a hoot of joy, all animosity evaporated.

"The merchant! Marigold!? Nay, Mr Bentley, that is capital! The merchant is my... well, a kind of benefactor, a gentleman who has done me aid and kindnesses. Dr Marigold has a gay house on the way to Islington - you know, maids for hire, harlots. He is a whoremaster!"

He was laughing, so William joined in, to hide confusion. The use of whores, although he'd seen it on his uncle's ship when lying in St Helen's Roads, was a thing beyond his own experience, or even comprehension of such harsh desires.

"Lord," he said. "When next you see him - the good man, not the bad - please you don't tell him my mistake."

Holt threw a glance at him.

"Well, that's not likely, anyway," he said. "He has a sense of humour, does Sir A, but perhaps to call him whoremaster would be a shot too far. There is much he disapproves of in my life, I'm sad to say. No matter, then."

So they would not go to the great house for their comfort, nor to a gay house neither, that was settled. Will dropped his horse behind as the road became a narrow, sodden bottleneck, and tried to fathom out. Earlier his strange companion had talked too much on shallow subjects, then he'd uttered cryptically on deep, while now he did not talk at all. Under it there was embarrassment of a sort, thought Bentley, there must be. He decided the offhand manner was not perhaps innate vulgarity, but more like a social cover. Holt was above him in the navy pecking order, but not in any other, clearly. When he had breakfasted at his father's house, much at his apparent ease, Will had remarked the stains and grass stalks on his clothes, and Samuel, drinking tea, had chuckled that he'd slept in a hedge the night. Could it be he had not spoke in fun?

"Sir," he said. "Mr Holt."

"Or Samuel. Sam for short."

"Yes. Samuel. Look, you must call me Will, and do forgive me if you think I'm a grumps, but it is hard for me, you know. This is my first ship for a damn long time, and my last one was the Welfare, you have heard of her no doubt, and of my uncle who commanded her. As you've been frank with me I'll tell you frankly that I go to sea, between us two, out of necessity. The Biter is a tender for the Press. She is... it is not what..."

Holt made a harsh noise in his throat. Amusement.

"Not what you were bred to, William. No, I do well believe it! I have heard of Daniel Swift, who has not?, and know that he's your uncle, and the Biter's not his kind of ship, I'll warrant you! She is a collier, out of Sunderland I think, cut down because she's of a certain age. She's old and dirty and a little cranky, and she's on the Impress, which is a pain to other men than you and me. Nay, I am being far too open maybe, so are you, but to hell with it, we're shipmates and we'll stand or fall together so keep it up, say I! We are due on Biter by tonight on pain of God knows what, but when we get there Lieutenant Kaye won't be on board, he'll be off whoring - lord, there's frankness for you! So if you'll risk it, friend, we'll go for the young maids' bodies also, and the meat and drink - even the feather beds if that's your preference! What say you?"

As he had spoken there had been a squall of wind, warm but unexpected, to batter fresh, heavy raindrops in their faces. Then, in the dying gust, they both heard noises. Odd sounds, like a bellow and a scream. The horses heard it, lifting their heads into the falling drops, one flicking up its ears. The wind died, and the sounds died with it. The two young men glanced at each other, both quizzical. Then Holt pulled his horse round to face the northern road.

"Ah, whatever," he said, with a note as if regretting the frankness of his speaking. "She is a Press tender, men will hate us for the things we do, but we have to do our duty anyway, we must earn our meat and drink. The Biter is a fine ship, let us say, and I am proud to serve in her. So let us go and greet our lord and master."

The breeze blew, and a scream came, faint but clear. It was high and pure, a young scream, probably a girl's. Then a bellow, male and powerful, then a second screaming voice, that broke into a sob. The breeze died and they both dug heels in horses' sides. Outlined against the sky there was a dense black copse ahead. It was not far away, perhaps a quarter mile or so, and the horses, as if sensing purpose in the movement, surged and snorted. The weak light through the breaking cloud held up, and when they reached the woodland they could see an entry through the undergrowth. As they slowed to go into the trees William caught a fire's glow a hundred yards inside, and a horse snickered when it caught their own mounts' scents.

The shouting and the screams were to the purpose now, bold and definite. One woman's voice was shouting loud abuse, the other howling. Among the deeper shouts they heard blows being struck. It was a mortal struggle.

"God, Will," said Holt. "Is it a tinker camp? Let's not stick our nose in anything of that."

They reined their horses to a halt while they considered. Had it been footpads or men of the highway, they would have gone in headlong, but a family quarrel, however violent, was a different thing. In the glow from the fire both could see the outline of a cart, a covered living van. Bentley touched the hanger at his side. There might be many of them; it was his only arm.

"Do you have a gun? They..."

There came an awful scream, pain-filled and wrenched. The other voice screeched "Murderer! Murderer! Help, he's killing us!", and both men spurred, all doubts forgotten. The horses, more circumspect, responded to the goad, but cautiously, feeling the ground before they put their weight on it. They came into the clearing not on a gallop but sedately.

The scene before their eyes was wild, however. In the darkness it was a question of shapes and shadows, but there was a man, a vigorous terrier of a man, in a black cloak, scuttling between two girls or women, pulling at them, flailing with an arm that held a cudgel. For a moment the three fought and struggled, moving round in circles between van and fire, the movement punctuated by grunts, by silence, and by screams.

"Hold!" shouted Samuel. And William added, "Enough! Enough, sir! Cease!"

The shock was startling. Immediately the three figures sprang apart and all noise ceased. Only for an instant, then the man roared incoherently, while one of the maidens let out a wail, lower than her cries of earlier, full of pain and misery. Then the man, as if with great intent, rushed at their horses, arm and club raised as if to strike, eyes glaring furiously. Will's horse, of its own volition, stepped back a foot or two, before he could control it.

"Go before I kill you!" roared the man. "Private business, private! Get off from here!"

In Samuel's hand there was a heavy navy cutlass, the blade already hacked significantly. William struggled to get his out, but the horse was not for fighting, it was a master of retreat. The man ran up to Samuel's horse, then had to stop. The prattler did not move. The navy blade reached forward past his horse's ears, pointing at the waiting throat. The throat was knotted angrily, the muscles worked.

"You go," invited Samuel, almost to a friend. "I do not like to see men threaten women. You go, sir. Go now."

But the women were the ones to run. One darted to the other, whose face was covered with her hands, and clapped an arm around her and tried to drag her off. As they moved the cloaked man moved to stop them, and Samuel leapt neatly from his saddle and sent the blade over his head in a whooshing arc. At the edge of the clearing one girl fell, giving out a cry of misery, and the other stopped to help her.

Bentley was down now, sword out, trying to restrain his horse with a rein. The other horse was standing quietly, watching the old nag tethered to the cart. For a moment, there was just the sound of water dripping through the leaves. William noticed that no new rain was falling. It had stopped.

The cloaked man faced Samuel for a moment, but the wildness in his eyes was almost gone. He raised a hand, a sort of friendly gesture, or submissive, if half-hearted. Holt stepped forward, all aggression, the cutlass raised and ready.

"Drop it," he said.

"These women," the man began. "These two whores..."

Samuel stepped once more, lowering the blade, its position very deadly.

"Drop it!"

With an imprecation that was lost in passion, the man threw the club - not down but straight at Samuel's head - and turned towards the women. With a burst of movement he scuttled across the clearing and levelled a great clout to the head of the stooped one, who fell across her friend in a jumble. Then he was gone, through the undergrowth into the trees. William Bentley and Samuel Holt stared at one another.

Slowly, the two young women rose to their feet. One, enveloped in a sodden cloak with hood, appeared to look at them. Her companion, however, did not. Her face remained covered. From beneath her hands came sobs and sounds of pain. William, the rein still in his hand, took two or three steps towards them, but imperceptibly they edged back towards the clearing's edge. He stopped.

"We are not here to hurt you," he said. "We thought you might need help."

"Are you a surgeon?"

The maid's voice was odd, or struck him so. He hardly understood what she had said. There was a note like scorn.

"You're from the North," said Samuel Holt. "Who needs a surgeon?"

"He's had her teeth," the girl said. She glanced at her companion, and both men moved forward, gently. William, with a jolt, saw blood underneath the hands, blood moving on the chin, onto the neck and breast. "She's been bleeding hours."

"Her teeth?" said William.

"There's a village," Holt said. "I'll help her up on to my horse. Mr Bentley will take you."

The girl turned her head to William, and the cloak hood fell aside. Another jolt struck him as he looked close into her eyes. She was young, and lustrous, and distracted. But her eyes, though troubled, locked on his, and held them. They were brown, and deep, and speaking, beneath thick eyebrows in an oval face, and he felt somehow robbed of sense, as if a charge of heat had gone between them.

"He has gone there," was what the maiden said. "To the village, there's an alehouse, he'll get men. We ran away. They'll kill us."

Then the other maid collapsed. As she fell into a heap in the mud her hands dropped and her face was uncovered. It was white and bloodless, with violent bruises and torn, broken lips, barely parted. But as she lay her mouth fell open wider, and it was filled with blood, that dribbled down her cheek. Her gums were empty, blood rising in the ragged sockets where her teeth had been. Just three left at the back on one side, on the other four.

"I know a place," said Samuel, quietly.