Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #Regency Romane
THE MOONLESS NIGHT
Bolt Hall sat perched on the rock cliffs of southern England overlooking the gray Atlantic, somewhat resembling a toad preparing to take a plunge into a pond. So it had sat, not greatly changed since the late fifteenth century. With its squat solid body, gray and ugly, further disfigured by an awkward combination of round and square towers, its only beauty was its dramatic location. Below it the rock fell away sheer to the sea. On the west side of the promontory a sheep or a nimble-footed person could find sufficient foothold to descend down the scarp to a dock below. There was a bay here, with a river debouching into the sea. Several yachts danced at anchor at the dock, lending a holiday liveliness to the scene. The brisk breezes caught the sails of one that was preparing to take a run westward to Plymouth.
There was considerable running down to Plymouth in this July of 1815. By boat, carriage, horse, or shank’s mare, the whole countryside was bent on reaching Plymouth, where Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned aboard the British frigate
, not more than a mile from shore, after surrendering himself to the British. The neighborhood pastime of late was endeavoring to get a glimpse of this monster before he was hauled off into oblivion. But the yacht of Sir Henry Boltwood, the proud owner of Bolt Hall, was not so frivolously occupied. It was, to the chagrin of Sir Henry’s son David, being overhauled for the much more important task of capturing Boney when he tried to escape.
“If that ain’t just like Papa, to be having the keel scraped and painted when I might any moment have to go dashing to Captain Maitland’s aid,” David lamented to his sister, who stood with him on the cliff that was their front lawn.
Marie smiled in commiseration. “There are any number of other ships you can use in that case, Dave,” she comforted him. “You must see there are seven yachts at the wharf, ready to form a flotilla and go after General Bonaparte should he manage to flee Captain Maitland.”
“Yes, but I won’t be the captain if it’s Sinclair’s yacht takes the lead. Besides, ours is the best in the neighborhood. You know Papa must always be first in everything. The
could beat them all in a race. How I’d love to have a crack at Boney,” he said wistfully.
A college boy still, he had not been permitted to have the more formal crack that joining the army would have allowed. No, what must he do while Wellington chased Bonaparte across Europe but have his nose stuck into a book of Greek poetry, learning useless stuff at Oxford. That the nose was more likely to have been stuck into a tankard of ale was no consolation either. His life had been wasted, and now the last chance for glory was being similarly thrown away because Papa had decided to have the keel scraped and painted.
In his mind’s eye he stood at the helm of a frigate, wearing an admiral’s uniform, one eye covered by a black patch like Nelson, and possibly an arm in a sling, if it wouldn’t impede his activities too much. There was an heroic gleam in his brown eyes, a noble expression on his youthful countenance, and a hard candy stuck into his cheek to ruin the whole of his pose as he stood looking out to sea.
“I don’t suppose he’ll really try to escape,” Marie mentioned. She was young too, but not so young as David, and not so much given to heroism. Twenty last birthday, she considered herself a lady now, and tried to behave like one. From having roamed the rocks, the roads and the sea with her brother for as long as she could remember, she occasionally lapsed into behaving like a gentleman. She was aided in her efforts by two very high sticklers, however, her father and his sister, Biddy Boltwood, who was her chaperone.
“What, not try to escape and Plymouth full of cutthroat Frenchies come for no other reason than to give him a hand? I swear the place is overrun with them. I don’t know what Liverpool is about, to be letting them run loose at a time like this. They ought to be every one locked up till Napoleon is packed off somewhere safe.”
Marie recognized the echo of her father in this speech, and asked, “Who would rescue him in that case?”
“He’d rescue himself,” was the unhesitating answer. “He is up to anything. You can’t think a mere shipful of British sailors a match for the Emperor?”
“I don’t suppose a thing more exciting will happen than that he will be transferred to a different ship, and taken away in a week or so. I wonder where they’ll take him.”
David bridled at this down-to-earth suggestion, but as he happened to have overheard his father discuss this point with Mr. Sinclair, he answered. “There is talk of Saint Helena. It’s an island out in the middle of the ocean somewhere—Africa, I think, is the closest land to it.”
“Pity,” she said, shaking her head sadly, as she looked down at the yachts ready for, and their owners all craving, a little excitement.
David did not share her pessimism. He felt in his bones he would do battle with Boney yet, and to be prepared, he scampered down the rocks to harry the painters into getting the keel of
finished up. In a pinch, he could ride to sea in a boat with wet paint.
Marie took one last hopeful look out to sea, where the
was well beyond her view, but to know it was out there, off Plymouth, with Napoleon Bonaparte in a cabin lent a new charm to the same waves she had been viewing all her life. Like David, she had a feeling something should come of the Emperor’s proximity. With her, it was not a chase or a rescue that figured so prominently as a vague feeling of romance. Napoleon was surely a magnet that would draw famous, interesting and eligible persons to Plymouth, where she could meet them. Of all the hordes who were there and still swarming in every day, there must be
amongst them willing to fall in love with her.
Deprived of her brother’s company, she turned and went into the Hall, to find her father sprawled out on a chaise lounge, his left arm exposed with three leeches, their oblong bodies engrossed, clinging to it. Biddy was bleeding him again. “Say what you will, these speckled leeches are not so effective as a good Hungarian green leech,” she was saying, for perhaps the sixth time that afternoon, and the sixtieth at least that month. “Here, I believe this fellow is ready to come off,” she added, lifting the largest by the tail.
“He’s still in,” Sir Henry informed her with a wince.
“So he is,” she agreed, and settled back to wait, too wise in the way of leeches to remove one by force, and risk leaving its teeth in the arm to cause mischief.
“Mr. Hennessy wants some of our leeches, Henry,” she went on. Biddy kept a leech reservoir, and had accomplished what was beyond so many of her fellow quacks, had coerced her leeches into propagating. She raised the best leeches in England, she allowed modestly. The south of Europe of course gave a better leech, but during the Napoleonic wars, she had been the main source of clean leeches in the country, and was as proud of it as if it were thoroughbred horses she raised. She guaranteed half an ounce at a draw if the flesh were well cleaned before applying. and if the leech had been aired, and if, of course, you didn’t skim by trying to use the same leech before the requisite four months were up between applications.
Her appearance was plain in the extreme—a tall, gaunt, thin-faced lady of perhaps fifty years. Her fortune was small and her accomplishments few, but she had created for herself an amusing oasis in the desert of life with her leeches. The oasis was gradually enlarging to include other branches of medicine as well. An embrocation, a posset or a pill was not beyond her, and while she had not yet got into the setting of bones, she was beginning to tamper with internal disorders.
“Where is David?” Sir Henry asked, looking up from under his beetle brows, his lips assuming their customary sullen line. It was the remark he most often addressed to his daughter. He had a housekeeper and nurse in Biddy, a son and heir in David, and an unnecessary nuisance in Marie, though he did not by any means dislike her. Merely he had been so grievously disappointed when his wife’s first pledge of her love had been a female that he could never quite forgive either of them.
“Out at the dock hurrying the painters on, Papa,” she told him, knowing he would be pleased at his son’s interest in the preparations for Boney’s capture.
“I’m surprised he isn’t gone into Plymouth to rub elbows with every hedgebird and commoner in the place, and come home with a cold,” Biddy adjured, keeping a sharp eye on her leeches. One fell off, and she hefted it with a professional hand, informing her patient it was not less than half an ounce.
“I have to go into town myself,” Sir Henry displeased his strict sister by saying.
“Henry, you must rest an hour after leeching,” she warned him. “Your blood will be thinned. You must have a lie-down and a cup of posset.” Henry was her older brother and the owner of Bolt Hall—a more important person altogether than Miss Boltwood, but she had a strong personality and the power of her cures to add to her authority. She was seldom talked down by Henry.
“Yes, yes, I’ll have my posset, but I must go into Plymouth before dinner. David will want to come along.” David and Sir Henry got on famously. It was no idle boast that David would like to go along. He idolized his father nearly as much as the father idolized himself.
“Parish board business,” Sir Henry announced importantly. This conveyed to the intimates that Sir Henry was about to pester the directors of this unimportant body into yet another meeting to discuss “the situation.” The area had many matters demanding attention—schools, hospitals, the roads—all were in need of improvement, but Sir Henry’s pet hobbyhorse was none of these. The indelicate “situation,” never put into words before Marie, dealt with the problem of bastard children fathered outside the parish being foisted on the rate-payers of Plymouth for care and maintenance. There had been an alarming increase in this nefarious business of late. An increase of one hundred percent, in fact, from one child to two.
Marie heaved a weary sigh at the sameness and dullness of life, when she had so hoped that Napoleon’s coming amongst them might make things livelier. But nothing was changed for them. Oh, the neighbors had their yachts docked at Bolt Hall, and came more often to discuss with her father plans for stopping any escape; she went every day with David to Plymouth to rub shoulders with the commoners and hedgebirds, but she had expected more. It seemed every house in the neighborhood but their own was bursting at the joints with visitors. With the half of London run down to Plymouth to get a look at Boney, it seemed a pity no one had come to them. But between her father’s poor health and irritable nerves, he did not encourage company. She had envisioned parties and routs, too, but they hadn’t been asked to one. The thing was, each large home had so many guests that they made up their own party in the evenings, and the Boltwoods were out of it. How she longed for company—some interesting gentlemen, preferably; though even a lady would have been a welcome addition.
“What are you in the hips about?” Biddy asked sharply, examining her niece’s face in hopes of discovering another patient.
“You look peaky to me.”
“I’m fine, Auntie.”
“I'll mix you up a paregoric draught,” Biddy declared, scanning her store of provisions—oil of cinnamon, a drop of linseed oil, aloes…
This threat had the immediate effect of getting Miss Boltwood to her feet and out the door.
David was just returning from the dock when she reached the cliff. “I’ve just had a capital idea,” he said, excitement lending a brilliant hue to his rosy cheeks.
“Father wants you to wait till he’s had his posset and go to Plymouth with him,” she answered, having a fair notion his capital idea was another jaunt into the city.
“That ain’t it. I’m going to put up a telescope at Bolt Point,” he informed her.
of course. The point is half a mile closer to Plymouth than the Hall. It juts a good quarter of a mile into the ocean, and is a mile high,” he exaggerated wildly. “It will give us a dandy view of the ship, much better than we can get from the cliff here, where you can’t see a thing if it’s the least bit hazy, and it always is. What an excellent thing it will be for the watchmen.”
This sounded a great and unnecessary extravagance to Miss Boltwood, but she thought David just might talk their father into it. No trouble was too great for the owner of Bolt Hall. He took his duty seriously. For several centuries the Hall had stood on guard against invaders, and on occasion had spewed out invaders of its own. The siege of Calais had had men and ships supplied from Bolt Hall. Here the Royalist garrison had camped and eventually fallen during the Civil War; it had been active during the Spanish Secession wars, and more recently when Bonaparte had his flotilla readying at Boulogne to attack, one hundred ships, ninety-five of them fairly useless, had stood at the ready to repulse him. And now again, with the menace of one deposed general floating at their doorstep, Sir Henry was readying his private forces to defend England. Oh yes, he would agree to the telescope.