Authors: Sisters Traherne (Lady Meriel's Duty; Lord Lyford's Secret)
Eliza flushed to the roots of her hair, and Meriel said quickly, “You cannot have thought carefully before you spoke, dear. Only think of how strongly the English believe in fair play. Surely you must realize that to spy, even upon one’s enemy in wartime, simply is not done.”
“Not by decent persons, surely,” agreed a masculine voice from the doorway, and the ladies all turned quickly to discover that Uxbridge was leading the gentlemen in from the dining room. He chuckled, glancing over his shoulder to ascertain just how many of the others had overheard Meriel’s comment. “Our womenfolk seem to be discussing a distressingly unfeminine subject, gentlemen.”
His wife laughed. “Peace is certainly a feminine notion rather than a masculine one, sir, and that, I will have you know, is what we were discussing.”
He moved to stand behind her chair. “And what, pray tell, does spying have to do with peace, Caroline, my dear?”
“Just what we were wondering ourselves,” she informed him. “I was merely speaking of Mama’s letter, the one where she mentioned the latest French spy, and young Lady Eliza wished to know if his English counterpart existed in France. I was happy to tell her he does not.”
“Certainly not his counterpart,” said Sir Antony, letting his gaze drift from one lady to another. “We have not had anyone since Sir Francis Walsingham during Elizabeth’s reign, who has managed to create an information-gathering network equal to that of Joseph Fouché’s. As you have noted, we are still discovering the remnants of Fouché’s vast organization. However, ma’am, I hope no one is so foolish as to think that the English do not engage in any form of intelligence gathering, which is, after all, what spying is all about.”
“Here now, man,” protested the baroness’s husband, “surely you won’t have it that we stoop to such depths as those damned Frenchies—begging your pardon, ladies, but ’tis more than a man may stomach to hear such an accusation.”
Sir Antony regarded him calmly. “’Tis scarcely foolish to wish one’s army to be prepared for what lies ahead, sir, when all it takes to accomplish the deed is a scout or two sent on ahead to look over the landscape and draw a map or two.”
“Oh, that. Well, of course, we do that. Damned foolish not to, as you say. But those scouts are scarcely spies, sir. Brave soldiers, every one of them, wearing their uniforms as they ought to do. And when they’re caught, by gad, as they too often are, they’re civilly treated as prisoners of war, just as we treat theirs—when they turn up in uniform. When they don’t, we hang ’em. Fair enough, I say. And not at all the same as a man’s pretending to be what he ain’t.”
There was a small silence, after which a gentleman whose name Meriel did not know suggested that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea as all that to send a spy or two to Paris to try what they could to discover what Bonaparte was about at the moment. “For, peace or no peace, if he ain’t got designs for some new enterprise in the Levant, you may call me a Dutchman.”
“Well, even if he has,” said the baron, “surely you wouldn’t ask an Englishman to poke and pry through the man’s secret papers to find out? Dammit, man, it just ain’t done.”
“Even if it meant saving a regiment?” inquired Sir Antony gently.
Meriel turned with several others to stare at him, but his expression was enigmatic, and she could not tell for certain whether he was serious or merely trying to stir up a hornet’s nest. Several gentlemen began then to speak at once, their voices increasing in volume until Uxbridge interrupted them with a laugh.
“My friends, we cannot determine Bonaparte’s intentions by shouting about them in my wife’s drawing room, I assure you. We must simply trust that our hard-won peace will continue and leave the details to such persons as Prime Minister Addington and his aides. Perhaps Miss Claversham,” he added, nodding toward a blushing young lady in a white muslin dress, “will indulge us now by playing for a time upon the pianoforte.”
Although Meriel saw one or two backs stiffen at the mention of the prime minister, giving her to believe that Mr. Addington was thought of no more highly here in Barmouth than Lady Cadogan had said he was in London, no one debated Uxbridge’s right to put an end to such an improper discussion. Miss Claversham proved to be an accomplished pianist and had the good sense to begin with a soothing minuet, followed by several cheerful folk songs, so the mood of the company rapidly settled into one more appropriate to the occasion. Not another word was said about Napoleon Bonaparte or the Peace of Amiens, and Meriel’s own thoughts soon turned to her sister Eliza, who, having quickly recovered from her embarrassment, was now responding in a quite unacceptable manner to the flirtations of a young sprig of fashion.
“Oh, pooh,” that young lady said later in the coach when Meriel took her to task, “he was a perfectly harmless young man.”
Tucking into her reticule the passport, several letters, and the comforting bundle of French money that Uxbridge had presented to her before their departure, Meriel said quietly, “I daresay you do not even know that young man’s name.”
“No, but it does not signify, for he said he would call upon us at the inn. Is he not the handsomest young man you ever laid your eyes upon, Meriel?”
“I quite thought Gwilym Dewsall was the handsomest young man of your acquaintance.”
Eliza shrugged, glancing out at the street as the carriage drew up at the inn. “I daresay he was,” she said casually.
ATURDAY’S CHILL, DAMP DAWN
found the Trahernes at quayside ready to board the
, a coastal packet that would carry Meriel to Swansea and the others on to Bristol. A light fog covered Cardigan Bay, muffling the sounds of movement aboard as the gear for the twenty-three passengers boarding at Barmouth was quickly stowed.
“It looks like a ghost ship,” said Gwenyth with a happy sigh as she watched Mr. Glendower and Marwyn giving rapid orders for the accommodation of their great pile of luggage.
“Don’t be nonsensical,” snapped Eliza, never at her best in the early morning. She shivered, drawing her heavy woolen cape closer about her shoulders. “It is a very small boat, is it not, Meri?”
“Pooh,” said Davy. “Two masts and a jib is not small. You are just afraid it will sink, Eliza, but it will not. The
is a good stout English-built ship, Mr. Glower says.”
“English?” Gwenyth looked at the vessel more disapprovingly. “Why can we not sail upon a Welsh ship, Meri?”
“Because this is the ship that sails to Bristol,” Meriel said matter-of-factly before turning to her brother and adding in a sterner tone, “and you’d best not let Mr. Glendower hear you referring to him so disrespectfully, young man.” Giving him no opportunity to compound his error, she tucked the heavy leather reticule containing her precious documents and a small but serviceable pistol more firmly under her arm, tugged her dark gray woolen cloak more snugly over her green traveling dress, and shifted her attention to Lady Cadogan. “Are you warm enough, ma’am? ’Tis a dreadful, damp chill in the air.”
“Oh, don’t trouble your head about me,” said that lady cheerfully. “I shall do tolerably well just knowing we are leaving the winds of Wales behind us, not to mention all the cold and fury of a Welsh winter, which no one thought to remind me about before I decided to spend an entire year with you.”
“Well, you might have remembered from your own youth, after all,” Meriel said with a smile as they moved forward to follow the chaplain, Marwyn, and the stout young men who carried their gear up the gangplank.
“Indeed, I suppose ’twas not so long ago as that, but one does tend to forget how isolated Plas Tallyn is. Why, I had not heard the half of the London news we gleaned in Barmouth. Their being on the coast makes a great difference, does it not?”
Meriel agreed, looking over her shoulder to assure herself that Enid Broadman, who was Lady Cadogan’s dresser, and Gladys Peat, her own maidservant, were following close upon their heels. They were indeed among the group of persons just behind their mistresses; however, it had not the sight of the two women that stopped Meriel in her tracks but that of a tall, broad-shouldered man emerging from a carriage a short distance from the foot of the gangplank.
“Gracious,” said Lady Cadogan, following her astonished gaze, “is that not Sir Antony Davies, whom we met Thursday evening?”
“I wonder why he did not mention that he would be sailing with us,” Meriel said before an impatient sound from a man just behind them on the gangplank recalled her to her senses. Apologizing briefly, she took Lady Cadogan gently by the elbow and urged her forward, quickly forgetting Sir Antony in the need to see to their belongings.
Mr. Glendower, having hurried on ahead, met them at the entrance to their tiny cabin, situated just below the afterdeck. His long, thin, rabbitlike face creased with a broad smile. “I trust,” he said, turning the smile directly upon Meriel, “that your ladyship will find the accommodations perfectly comfortable. Everything is neat as wax ma’am. Only look at how cunningly the young ladies’ cots are built right into the inside wall, with doors that shut them off from the rest of the world.”
“Into the bulkhead,” corrected Lady Cadogan absently as she peered about the tiny cabin. “Ships’ walls are called bulkheads, Mr. Glendower. Surely you know that.” Ignoring his assurance that he did indeed know and had merely said “wall” in order that he would be understood by all his listeners, she gave a small sigh. “One always hopes one’s accommodations will be larger. Ships have so little space.”
Meriel could only agree with her. Though Mr. Glendower had referred to the small built-in bunks as accommodations for Eliza and Gwenyth, she realized gratefully that there were three such cubbyholes, built one atop the other. For although the larger bed, framed, curtained, and attached to the outer bulkhead beneath the tiny porthole, had been advertised as a double bed, she could see that it was no such thing. At best it was a foot wider than the closetlike bunks. She could not for a moment imagine getting any sleep if she had to share that bed with Lady Cadogan.
Mr. Glendower hovered expectantly, and she turned to him at last, saying, “This will do nicely, sir. I hope that you and Davy will be as comfortable.”
“As to that, ma’am, it is doubtful. The great cabin does not provide much privacy, you know, but I did arrange for us each to have a separate bunk. I daresay I’d not sleep a wink with this young wriggler occupying the same bed.”
Davy, whose interest had been claimed immediately by the little sleeping spaces that would be occupied by his sisters, turned at this moment to demand to know if his bed would also have doors upon it.
Mr. Glendower frowned at him. “You interrupt, sir. I was speaking to your sister.”
“Yes, but you were talking about our beds. I wish to know will mine have doors like these, so that I can pretend I am in my own cave at night.”
“Oh, Davy,” said Eliza, chuckling, “one does not close the door at night. Only see how they may be hooked back against the wall. One would suffocate if they were closed.”
“Our bunks have curtains upon them, however,” Mr. Glendower said, “for some privacy is naturally required. And there will be hooks upon which you might hang your clothes, Davy, and a ladder to climb to reach your bunk, so I daresay it will be entirely to your liking. And of course the great cabin is, thankfully, reserved for gentlemen. You would not wish to be sleeping with the great unwashed, I’m thinking.”
Meriel refrained from pointing out that the great unwashed generally chose other, less-expensive means of travel. Instead she tousled her little brother’s hair and suggested that he go see for himself what his bed looked like.
“Yes, indeed,” agreed Mr. Glendower with an arch look at her, “for I am persuaded your sisters and her ladyship must be wishing to examine their quarters without a pair of gentlemen looking over their shoulders. Come along with me, young man.”
The small, stuffy cabin soon proving to be entirely too confining for four persons who wished to enjoy comfortable conversation, the ladies repaired above to the slightly larger ladies’ saloon on the afterdeck, which had proper windows from which they could observe their departure. When they entered the room, they discovered two other women present, who nodded civilly and then returned to their conversation. A small stove, cold now, sat in the right-rear corner of the room. The only other furnishings were a deal table, a pair of chairs, and several banquettes under the windows, which began halfway back on each side and continued around the end, giving a view to the stern. This line of windows was interrupted midway by a second door that led to the railed aftergallery.
As Meriel moved to take her seat upon one of the banquettes, her thoughts turned briefly to Marwyn, Gladys Peat, and Enid Broadman as she wondered what the servants’ quarters might be like. The advertisement had said merely that they were clean. Would they have bunks, or hammocks like the crew members were said to have? She had little time to ponder the question, however, for as the ship caught the breeze in the bay and began to move more rapidly and with greater rocking motion away from the shore, Gwenyth turned suddenly from her position at the window and sank down upon the bench beneath it, one hand at her mouth, the other at her stomach. Her complexion was ashen.
Alarmed, Meriel moved quickly to her side. “Gwen?”
Eliza, turning toward them, regarded their younger sister with widening eyes. “I think she needs a basin, Meri. Oh, hurry!”
Looking rapidly around the saloon, Meriel saw nothing at first that would answer the purpose, but a moment later she strode to the black stove, snatched up and emptied the coal bucket beside it, and returned at once to her sister’s side.
“Here, Gwen,” she said. “It isn’t Sèvres china, but it will do the trick.”
Her gentle, teasing comment went unnoticed, for Gwenyth lurched gratefully toward the bucket and was violently sick. It was not long before Meriel realized that they could not stay where they were. Lady Cadogan had stepped out onto the aft gallery as soon as she recognized Gwenyth’s distress, but the two other ladies who had been present when they entered the saloon had merely turned discreetly away. By the time Gwenyth pushed the bucket away and slumped miserably back upon the bench, both women were showing visible signs of distress themselves, and Meriel could scarcely blame them. She, too, felt rather sick.