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Authors: Diana Norman

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BOOK: Taking Liberties
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‘Send for them then,' Beasley said. ‘Get Ginny to bring them down for a holiday. They'd like Babbs Cove.'
It seemed a solution. In any case, to stay on at the Prince George without a male escort would expose her and Philippa to unwanted attention. Its landlord was protective and friendly enough, though he was now visibly and vocally curious about their extended stay. Nevertheless, they had to pass through the taproom on entering and leaving, which, if they were unattended, brought remarks and even solicitation from some of its more forward male customers—an embarrassment compounded by the presence of Dell whose hips had swayed suggestively too long for her to walk like a respectable woman. As the Irishwoman became easier with her position in Makepeace's entourage, she had become less insistent that she be addressed by her given, grander name of Dervorgilla. In any case Makepeace, not being able to pronounce it, didn't try. Even Philippa used her friend's diminutive, so Dell she remained.
Sanders, too, was due a reunion with his family. Once he had driven them and their luggage to Babbs Cove, he would take Beasley to London and then drive on up North for a vacation.
Makepeace's packing was interrupted by an excited serving girl. ‘Real lady to see you, Missus. Countess of somewhere.'
‘Show her up.'
‘Real lady.'
Well, she's not so real now.
Quickly, Makepeace tidied the room, kicking the half-packed valises under the bed.
The Dowager looked poorly, thin rather than slim, with dark smudges under her eyes. Her impassivity, however, remained impenetrable.
‘We parted on bad terms, Mrs Hedley, yet I assumed you would be glad to know how your friend progresses. Mr Burke is by no means out of the woods, the doctor thinks a bullet may have nicked one of his lungs. Since he has survived so far, however, it is to be hoped he will improve. I hope you will take my assurance that everything is being done to ensure that he does.'
This was from the horse's mouth and carried a weight that Beasley's information had not. Makepeace sank down on her bed. ‘Thank God, oh, thank God.'
‘Indeed.' The Dowager was silent for a moment, then she said: ‘There is another matter I should like to discuss with you.'
Here it comes. Makepeace prepared to enjoy herself. But it was not what she'd been expecting.
‘I am dissatisfied with the standard of nursing at the hospital,' the Dowager said. ‘To put it mildly, the orderlies are slipshod. One has petitioned the commander of the prison for better but the navy is short of men and improvement may take a little while. As a makeshift I have gained Captain Luscombe's permission to bring in women. I fear they will be regarded as menials, nevertheless one trusts the female capacity to keep an eye on things rather than the . . .' Diana's nose sniffed for the
mot juste
and couldn't find it. ‘. . . the gentlemen at present employed to do it.'
Makepeace saw a great light. ‘Me? You'd let me work at the hospital?'
‘You and others, if they may be found. Each only a day or two a week, to fetch and carry for the orderlies, empty the slops . . . not pleasant work. As I say, menial.'
‘Ma'am,' said Makepeace, heartily, ‘you wouldn't credit how menial I can be.'
The Dowager allowed herself a thin smile. ‘I think I would.'
She made a joke. She actually made a joke. Makepeace leaned over and shook the woman's hand. ‘Countess, you can rely on me.'
‘I hope I can.' The Dowager disengaged her hand in order to hold it up as a warning. ‘There must be the utmost discretion, Mrs Hedley. I do not know your politics nor do I wish to. I have come to you because, despite our differences, you seem intelligent. However, any woman working in the hospital will be on very thin ice. Very thin. The prison authorities must not be alarmed by impudence or quarrels or personal entanglements, and especially not by unweening sympathy for the American cause. Your Mr Burke has attempted one escape and paid for it—he must be dissuaded from another. Should the hospital become a place of disturbance it may well be reduced once more to the state in which I found it.'
‘Bad was it?'
The Dowager nodded. ‘Ghastly.'
‘Count on me.'
‘Very well.' She got up. ‘Your main task and that of the other women we may employ is to be on hand should any of the patients relapse. The hospital doctor is unsuitable, mostly absent, and a practitioner from town must be fetched for cases that are
in extremis
. The one I called in for Mr Burke seemed very capable.'
‘You called in another doctor for Josh?'
‘Your friend was in a bad way, I could not allow him to die.' There was a pause. ‘You did not tell me he was a black man.'
‘What difference would it make?'
‘In the event, none. Well, good-bye. We can make arrangements tomorrow perhaps.' She paused in reaching for her parasol. ‘Is this a good residential inn?'
‘Yes. Why? You thinking of staying here?'
‘Perhaps. T'Gallants is sold.' She added, casually: ‘It was always intended that it should be.'
Oh no, it wasn't. Not by you.
Spettigue had told Makepeace: ‘The Earl's selling over his mother's head. Don't know why. Pompous fellow. No sense of style.'
She said: ‘Do you know who's bought it?'
‘No. I leave details like that to my son.'
She don't know, Makepeace thought; she truly don't. She didn't come here to plead or bribe. She wasn't good to Josh out of anything
but
goodness. Blow me down. The Dowager's manner and her ownership of a slave had accorded so completely with Makepeace's prejudice against aristocratic women that it had not occurred to her they might conceal a recognizable heart.
She said: ‘But you're sorry to leave T'Gallants, ain't you?'
‘One has certain regrets,' the Dowager said with indifference. ‘It has been in one's family a long time. However, it is too large for one's needs.'
It had felt like a death blow; she would never get over its loss, nor that Robert had inflicted it. To sit at the wreckers' window, the freedom of the sea before her, watching for the return of the black ship, to share a history with that of the village . . . deprivation of these things was like the withdrawal of light.
‘You can stay there on a lease if you want to,' Makepeace said. ‘I wouldn't live in it for all the tea in China. I'm taking over the Pomeroy Arms.' She smiled. ‘More fitting for a menial.'
Slowly, the Dowager returned to her chair. ‘Do I gather that you are the owner of T'Gallants, Mrs Hedley?'
‘I am. Signed the agreement yesterday. Pretty penny your boy wanted for it an' all.'
‘Why?
Why
did you buy it?'
‘Let's say it was an investment.'
‘And you are prepared to lease it to me? Why?'
‘You got in a doctor to save a black man's life.'
 
Mrs Hallewell and her children moved out of the Pomeroy Arms and back to her cottage in the village on the understanding that she would return each day to cook and clean.
It was an arrangement that suited both sides. There were eight bedrooms at the Pomeroy. Now its paying guests would have room a-plenty as well as privacy. In any case, none of them was of the sort that demanded to be attended day and night; if they needed a glass of water in the early hours, they would fetch it themselves.
Mrs Hallewell had scrubbed and polished the place for their arrival so that strong ceiling beams and good elm floorboards had emerged from under the coating of dirt which had accrued during her father's illness.
Makepeace had liked it on sight. The taproom's lath and plaster walls, bulging between oak stanchions, formed a long rectangle, almost identical in shape to that of the Roaring Meg's. The smell of a good inn, a mixture of wine and beer, tobacco and food, had not entirely deserted the Pomeroy Arms and a whiff of it reawakened old memories.
So Makepeace, Philippa and Dell—to whom Makepeace was becoming resigned as destined, like the poor, to be always with her—moved in.
Beasley and Sanders went off in the coach, taking the Dowager's Joan with them to be delivered to the Torbay flyer at Exeter.
Had Makepeace, however, been expecting the taproom to become a parlour where she and the others could sit quietly in the evenings, she was mistaken. The Pomeroy Arms was still an inn, Mrs Hallewell having taken over the licence. And now that the abstinence imposed by a Methodist landlord had been lifted from it, Babbs Cove expected it to
be
an inn.
This was not as wearing as it might have been. The men of the fishing fleet were frequently absent and the village women had other things to do with their time. In effect, there were only two regular evening customers: Mrs Hallewell's uncles Zack and Simeon, neither of whom talked to the other. What falling-out had caused the rift between the two brothers was too far in the past for anyone, including probably them, to remember, but at six o'clock sharp Zack would scuttle into the inn, sit himself in the corner settle like a spider returning to a favourite web, to be followed five minutes later by the slower-moving Simeon aiming for his bench by the window. Zack chattered almost constantly; Simeon said barely a word; both ignored the other.
Tobias, who was another evening regular when the Dowager could spare him, had to choose to converse with one or the other, but not both. Makepeace was amused to see that he was rigorously fair and would sit one night with Zack, the other with Simeon.
‘No good you tryin' to get them two together,' Mrs Hallewell told Makepeace after an abortive attempt at conciliation. ‘I gave that up years since.'
In fact, Makepeace rather liked the oddity. It was part of the warp and woof of any community and that the two old men exposed her to it threaded her into the village. Zack, particularly, made her welcome by acting towards her exactly as he did to everyone else. At first he'd reminded her unpleasantly of the elderly sailor who had tried her patience so hard on the night they'd found Philippa. But Zack, adviser, teller of tales, inquisitor, possessed a charm and goodwill that the other had not. Perhaps, unlike ‘the old bastard on the bollard', as Makepeace still thought of him, Zack wasn't lonely. Babbs Cove looked after its own.
Had Makepeace and her entourage lit on a village in the interior of Devon or Cornwall, or in any of those places to be found in isolated areas of England that still believed foreigners had monkeys' tails, their absorption into it would have taken generations. But Babbs Cove had been ‘free trading' with the outside world for a long time. In the past vessels from France, Flanders and Holland had anchored outside the cove to receive illegal consignments of much-prized English wool, just as Babbs Cove vessels had anchored off ports such as Roscoff, Cherbourg, Ostend and Antwerp to come away heavily laden with tobacco, tea, lace and liquor.
As a result the villagers were more open to strangers and new ideas than those in insular enclaves. Thanks to their friend, Guillaume de Vaubon, they knew more about Normandy than they did about neighbouring Somerset. There were illiterate men, and one or two women, in Babbs Cove who spoke French with a fluency that would have surprised their betters.
Spaniards, now, were a different matter. Memories were long in Babbs Cove and Spain hadn't yet been forgiven for sending the Armada. But America? Americans spoke Babbs Cove's language in more ways than one. Americans weren't trying to invade England—if they had they'd have been resisted to the last drop of blood; didn't hold with invasion, didn't Babbs Cove—they were merely fighting for the right not to be taxed by the bloody government, something the Babbs Cove population of 150 souls understood with warm fellow-feeling.
Minutes after she'd consulted Jan Gurney on the subject, nearly every villager had been aware that Makepeace Hedley wanted to smuggle an American out of England under the nose of the authorities, and would pay for the service. Well, authority's nose poked too often into decent people's business; ducking under it put her on their side of the law.
If Mrs Hallewell was busy elsewhere and Zack or Simeon or Tobias shouted for drink, it was Makepeace, answering a call that echoed in her blood, who poured it. Within a week, Philippa and Dell were helping while Makepeace had virtually usurped the position as landlady and begun grumbling—as she was expected to.
‘You lot go on supping brandy you'll drink the well dry. When's free trading start again?'
Most of the contraband de Vaubon's men had stacked in the cellar that led out of the inn's well had already been loaded onto Ralph Gurney's ponies and started on its night-time journeying to its many customers. At the time, Mrs Hallewell had been too bothered and too poor to reserve much for an inn that she didn't want in the first place.
But it went against Makepeace's grain to see the Pomeroy purchase legal brandy at the duty-paid price of eight shillings per gallon when free-trade brandy could be bought for five.
‘Have to wait, won't ee?' Zack told her. ‘ 'Twon't be yet.
Lark
and
Three Cousins
won't venture out 'til winter weather sets in. Blame that bugger Nicholls. We never had no trouble 'til he took over. Got a bellyful o' salamanders, I reckon, so hot he be to catch free traders. Trawls this patch o' coast like a bloody shark, he do. Can't be bribed, can't be frit, ye'd think it was personal with 'un, like us had insulted his bloody mother. Catched Cawsand's
Susan
last year. Fired on her 'til her had to strike her colours, then sold her crew to the navy, so he did. Be a long time 'til those poor lads see their famblies again—ifsoever they do.'
BOOK: Taking Liberties
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