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PROLOGUE

 

Sussex, 1811

Slowly, very slowly first a mop of thick brown curls then two large brown eyes rose above the mountain peak. The eyes shone with excitement as their owner peered down the mountainside at the French army camped in the valley. A lock of hair fell across his forehead; impatiently he brushed it aside. So eager was he to prove himself in battle, he could hardly wait to begin a surprise attack on the enemy.Addy took several deep breaths, for if the attack was to be successful he must stay cool and calm; after all he was the officer who would lead it. This command and his promotion to colonel were Lord Wellington’s rewards to him for the success of his previous mission: among all the army scouts, it was he who had discovered the enemy’s hiding place. He took one last look at the French. All was as it should be in the enemy camp; the French had not reinforced their perimeter or placed extra pickets because they were not expecting an assault. Quietly he began to guide his men down the mountain’s slopes and crevices.
The French were in a sorry state. There were so few of them; and they must have been short of supplies for instead of French uniforms, they wore old British ones. Napoleon Bonaparte, himself, the Emperor of the French, the Conqueror of Europe, was in the saddest state of all: his left hand and right foot were missing, lost, of course, in a previous battle with the British.

The day was too beautiful for war. The sun shone down from a cloudless blue sky, its heat tempered by a soft breeze that wafted the scent of late summer flowers. But intent on the attack, Addy was oblivious to these delights and the accompanying calls of the wheateaters and skylarks. When a chalkhill blue butterfly fluttered past his head, instead of chasing it as he usually did, he ignored it. His only thought? Destroy the enemy! Eyes glowing, he knelt above the toy soldiers of the opposing armies. The British were new tin soldiers grandpapa had given him on his last birthday. These he carefully guided over the mounds and through the creases he had created in the blanket to make it look like a mountain. His old, worn and broken soldiers were the French — the most worn of all was ‘Boney.’

There was never any doubt about the outcome of the battle.

The British won, of course — he made sure of that.

That was the way it should be for Boney was a bad man. Bette, his gouvernante, often told him so and she must know for she was from France. If Boney and the French invaded England they would do dreadful things, Bette said. They would rob all the women of their ‘most precious possession.’ As he was not quite eight years old, he had not understood what she meant by this. When he asked her to explain, Bette threw her apron over head and sobbed, so he was left none the wiser. What bothered him most about Boney was when Bette said — as she often did when he was naughty — that the French emperor ate naughty English boys for his supper. Little boys just like him, she said, who didn’t always do their lessons, who wouldn’t go to bed at bedtime and who often wandered too far from the house — as he had done today. But Bette’s threats did not frighten him as much as she hoped for he was a daring little boy who intended to fight the French when he grew up.   And more often than not, when told of his misdeeds, grandpapa would smile affectionately and say: ‘Boys will be boys.’ To which Bette would sigh: ‘Your grandpère, he always spoil you.’

When he told grandpapa what Bette said about Bonaparte, the old man just laughed. ‘Eh, lad, Boney’s French. Those Frenchies eat frogs and snails — not little boys. Now in my day ’twere chimney sweep who took away naughty boys.’ This, coming from someone as old and wise as grandpapa, who seemed to know everything, did frighten him. So each night before he went to sleep he looked under his bed — just in case a sweep or Napoleon was hiding there ready to pounce on him.

The battle on the blanket over, the French lay where they had fallen. But, he reminded himself, you could never be too sure of those Frenchies! He stood up and looked about him. They could have reinforcements hiding in the bushes waiting to counter attack. A cavalry charge would flush them out! He would lead a charge just like the one he and grandpapa had watched at a military review. How he had loved the review: hundreds of soldiers and cavalry marching and counter-marching, cannons booming, bands playing and crowds cheering. And when the people shouted, ‘God Save the King,’ he did so, too. The king’s name was George III — grandpapa had showed him the king’s picture on a coin — and he lived in a castle, just like grandpapa and he did.

What he had most liked at the review was the soldier who rode on a big, white horse at the head of the cavalry. A colonel, grandpa said, and such a fine sight he was in a red coat with shiny gold buttons and a black hat with white feathers. There and then he decided he would be a colonel when he grew up and ride a white horse. His mamma and papa in Heaven would look down and see him and be very proud of him.

He had never known his mamma and papa and could only imagine them. He was born too early, Bette said, which was why he was small for his age. Mamma had died not long after he was born, while his papa was in a faraway place. His papa, too, had died, before he could return home, Bette said. In his childish way he had created a fantasy of a gentle, beautiful mother and a tall, brave father. But although an orphan and sometimes lonely because he had no other children to play with, grandpapa and Bette filled his small world with love and warmth. Of his two dead parents, his mother seemed more real and closer to him than his papa, even though all that remained of her was a miniature of her in his bedroom and a lock of her hair braided into the gold mourning ring grandpapa had had made as a keepsake for him when she died. The ring was too big for him to wear yet, but because it made his mother feel near to him, he wore it on a narrow chain around his neck under his clothes. Of his papa, he knew only what Bette told him in secret. That was because although grandpapa loved him and made much of him, the mere mention of his papa, even by him, made the old man very, very angry indeed, Bette said.

Perhaps his mamma and papa were watching him now from Heaven. He hoped so. He would show them just what a fine colonel he would be one day. He put on the pointed colonel’s hat he had made from one of grandpapa’s old newspapers, gathered his horse’s bridle, and leaped into the saddle. He raised an arm and pointed his sword.

‘Chaaaaaarge!’ he yelled, and with this defiant scream he set off at a gallop towards the large clump of bushes behind which, he was certain, the French were hiding.

He never reached the bushes.

Unseen hands threw a rough cloth over his head and plucked him from his horse.

  He had been wrong about the French! They had not been hiding in the bushes but in the trees behind him. And now they had captured him — a British Army colonel! Well, he would show them that a British officer did not surrender easily. With fists and legs he struck out again and again. The cloth over his head smelled of fish and sweat and he almost retched. It muffled the yells and curses with which his attackers responded to his kicks. Struggling hard to free himself, he did not notice that the ‘enemy’s’ curses were in English — not French. He gasped for air and his head swam as he felt himself hoisted high and thrown over someone’s shoulder. His body sagged. Exhausted, he could fight no longer and slowly he drifted off into oblivion.

When Bette came to look for him, she found only the aftermath of battle: toy soldiers tumbled on a rumpled blanket, a wooden sword and a hobby horse each broken in half.

***

The servants of Addy’s grandfather searched for the boy until darkness fell, but without success. Not until dawn would they resume their efforts for even though a person might carry lanterns, the downs with their chalk pits were a dangerous place for people to walk. They were glad to leave the dark and empty land to itself, the only sound the distant sssssssh of the waves upon the beach carried by the ever-present breeze.

The servants were newcomers to the area, but the locals had yet another more sinister reason not to be abroad on the downs at night. They believed the tales whispered among themselves about the restless spirit of the man who vshot himself at The Beeches, the house built like a mysterious fairytale castle. There was no place in Heaven for someone who killed himself, they said, so his spirit haunted the house. Some claimed his ghost lured unsuspecting folk to fall over the cliffs to their death on the rocks below; still others swore he aimlessly wandered the downs at night, moaning like the wind. It was only a few years since his death and fear of his ghost remained strong among the locals; so strong that day and night they avoided the house, even though recently it had acquired a new occupant.

Had anyone dared to be abroad late that particular night, they would have sworn — just before he or she fainted with fright — that the eerie light bobbing across the downs in the dark was the dead man’s ghost. There was, however, nothing supernatural about the light: just a small lamp carried by a solitary rider on a horseback. The lamp gave little light so that the rider was forced to lean over the bundle that lay across the front of his saddle to see his way ahead.

He was in no hurry. Secure in the knowledge that local superstition and darkness would keep prying eyes at bay, he had waited until after midnight to begin his journey. And, if by chance, someone did see him? He chuckled at the thought. Fear would be his ally. Anyone who encountered him would do what they always did when a smuggler like himself rode by: turn away and pray he had not seen them, for they knew smugglers dealt viciously with those who could identify them.

Although an indifferent horseman, the rider knew this part of the South Downs well; he crossed it often enough with teams of packhorses loaded with spirits, tobacco and silk. One such horse was his present mount, a docile but sure-footed beast, used to finding its way in the dark

At last the rider reached his destination: a natural fault in the land that time and weather had eroded to expose the underlying chalk for a depth of several feet. He dismounted and, for want of any trees, entwined the horse’s reins in a large clump of gorse. He lifted the bundle from the saddle, slung it over one shoulder then, with the lamp in his other hand, picked his way cautiously to the edge of the chalk pit.

The bundle was light. Hardly surprising. Scrawny little bastard! Always ill. No wonder it died. A weakling like that couldn’t be his, though the woman swore that it was. He had told her so, too, when the bitch tried to stop him from smashing the brat’s face into the wall. As if it mattered: the brat was already dead. Of course she made a fuss when he made her undress her dead son and exchange his clothes for those of the unconscious child. After he beat her, he kicked her out. There was no fear of her going to the authorities; by removing the kidnapped boy’s clothes, she had committed theft — a hanging offence.   He’d had enough of her whining. He’d been with her long enough. A woman was good for only one thing — as long as it didn’t result in brats! He could always get a woman when he wanted one — not for his good looks for he had none — but because he always had plenty of something more seductive than a handsome face: money.

He raised the lantern and peered into the chalk pit. The light was too feeble to penetrate its deepest recesses, a sure indication that it was more than deep enough for his purpose. He put the bundle on the edge of the pit, undid it and let the weight of the little body unroll the cloth as it tumbled into the pit. A rattle of loose chalk and stones marked its descent.

He rubbed his hand with satisfaction. He would make even more money than the large sum the fancy ‘swell’ was paying him to dispose of the other boy. The ‘swell’ was a passenger aboard an East India Company ship, homebound from China, one of several vessels he and his gang regularly intercepted on moonless nights in mid-Channel to trade with its crew. The ship’s cargo was tea, and the crew, like many of the company’s employees, did business with it on their own account; in this incidence, selling it to his gang much cheaper than it cost to buy on shore because of the heavy duty on it. The smugglers carried it ashore strapped to their bodies beneath their clothes, or wrapped it in oilskins and weighted it down in the sea, returning later to retrieve it in the guise of innocent fishermen trawling their nets. The ‘free traders’ — as they liked to call themselves — then sold it locally or inland at a profit but much cheaper than it cost to buy from a merchant who had paid duty on it.

Except for the stranger, who had come up on deck for air, the Indiaman’s passengers were abed. He watched the exchange between crew and smugglers, and even spoken to several of the latter. A few weeks after the Indiaman docked in London, the stranger returned to Sussex, sought him out at a local smugglers’ haunt and made him a proposition: money, and lots of it, to kidnap and kill the young boy who lived at The Beeches. Having killed more than once, he had no qualms about doing so again, and he readily accepted the offer.   But, unbeknown to his client, he unexpectedly found himself in a position to make even more money from the scheme. The sickly boy whom the woman claimed was his son took yet another fever and this time he died. Having neither paternal feelings nor moral scruples, he had no wish to saddle himself with child’s funeral costs when he might make money from its death. He would dress the body in the clothes of the boy he was supposed to kill, smash the child’s face to hide its identity and throw him into a chalk pit some way from The Beeches. The grandfather would believe his boy died in an accident, while the stranger would think he had carried out the task for which he was hired. Tomorrow, when he went to deliver tea in London, he would take with him the heavily drugged kidnapped boy, for in the city there was a ready market for the sale and purchase of children for labour — and sex

All in all a great day’s work. No wonder he felt pleased with himself. He laughed and the sound echoed eerily across the dark, empty downs. Anxious to be gone, the horse whinnied and pulled at its reins,

The smuggler remounted, and horse and rider slowly made their way back the way they had come, their passage through the darkness marked only by the lantern’s faint bobbing light.

## #

A few days later a small group of mourners dressed in black with touches of white, gathered in the shade of ancient trees, beside a newly-opened grave in the parish churchyard. The solemnity of the scene belied its cheerful surroundings. Beneath a bright sun red squirrels scampered in play among moss-covered tombstones, praying marble angels and stone crosses. In the trees birds called to each other, and one or two, no doubt attracted by their shrill voices raised in a hymn, swooped low over four fresh-faced village girls in white dresses as they lowered into the grave a small coffin attached to the white bands they held.

The mourners were not the only ones in the churchyard that day. Unseen by them, a young woman in worn clothes, her face a picture of grief, watched the interment from behind a nearby marble mausoleum.

‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…’

At the parson’s words, the chief mourner, an elderly man, with a white crepe band around his hat, bent to take up a handful of soil. Overcome by emotion, he tottered and would have fallen, had not the young gentleman beside him put out a steadying hand to help him. The earth trickled through the old man’s fingers and fell with soft thuds on the coffin. At this, oneof several servants at the graveside, a plump, middle-aged woman, burst into tears and was led away by a younger woman. For the rest of the committal service, the old man stared into the grave with unseeing eyes, tears rolling down his cheeks, his thoughts elsewhere.

With a quick, ‘The-grace-of-our-Lord-Jesus-Christ-and-the-love-of-God-and-the-fellowship-of-the-Holy-Ghost-be-with-us-all-evermore. Amen,’ the parson ended the service. But the old man continued to stare down into the grave, oblivious to all else.

The other mourners appeared unsure what they should do next. The young gentleman took charge. He took the elderly man by the arm and said gently: ‘Allow me to escort you to your carriage, sir.’

‘All gone. All gone. A judgment that’s what it is,’ the old man muttered as he allowed himself to be led away.

The young man helped him into his carriage.

‘It grieves me, sir, to leave you at such a time,’ he said, ‘having only so recently made your acquaintance. Unfortunately, urgent business — business that I can no longer put off — awaits me in London.’

The old man reached out the carriage window and grasped one of young man’s hands between his feeble ones.

‘Ee, lad, how can I ever thank ‘ee for all you’ve done for me during this sad time?

‘Twas much more than Christian duty. I’m only sorry that you and he did not meet.’

The young man made a self-deprecating motion with his hand.

He waved as the carriage drove off followed by the one carrying the old man’s servants, then walked to a waiting post chaise. Once inside the vehicle his mournful expression changed to one of triumph. He yanked the white crepe band from his hat and threw it to the floor.

‘To London!’ he shouted to the lead post boy.