1805, North Riding, Yorkshire
Willoughby Rossington gulped the much needed ale down his dry throat, sighed with relief and placed the pewter tankard on the upturned barrel, which doubled as a table. It had been a difficult mission and a hard ride, but Willoughby had managed to flush out his prey, a highwayman, and after a chase across exposed moorland had relieved the country of one more specimen of murdering vermin. Now, he leaned patiently back on the settle, which lined the alcove next to the rear door of the inn, watching for the York coach to arrive.
Discreetly, Willoughby checked the shallow cut on his wrist. It had not been deep enough to sever the vein. Taking a clean strip of linen from a side pocket of his case, he tied it around his wrist as best as he could, using his free hand and teeth. This was not the first time he had been wounded. A pistol shot had caught him as he was chased across a French beach the previous summer. Fortunately, he had not been on his own and was tossed into the bottom of a fishing boat waiting to return him to England. His uncle had called it his initiation — a rite of passage. The slight scar above his left ear would apparently serve to remind him to take greater care. He slipped his wrist inside his cuff and smiled — no more scars, he thought.
A flurry of activity broke out in the yard.
“York coach!” A horn was heard as the vehicle approached.
Willoughby drained the tankard, ran a hand through his fair hair before replacing his hat, picked up his bag and headed out. He was anxious to be on his way again. The coach had made good time and was busy. A family with two young girls filled most of the inside, so it was with some relief that Willoughby found himself climbing on top. He settled as comfortably as he could, holding on firmly as the horses pulled their burden back out onto the open road, increasing in speed and momentum. Willoughby felt the invitation to attend his uncle, Lord Nathaniel Rossington, in his pocket and relaxed into the journey. The rush of air on his face made him smile. He anticipated his uncle’s next set of orders and relished the prospect of serving his country further.
The coach sped between the open moors and fields, slowing as it approached the ancient city of York. Willoughby was aware of the noise emanating from the lunatic asylum as they passed by. He swallowed, feeling pity for the poor souls trapped inside. That would be hell on earth to him, to be trapped like a caged animal, or worse, chained like a bear, perpetually baited.
The vehicle entered through the ancient stone archway and slowed to navigate the heavily soiled mire, making the going heavy as it passed through one of the ancient crumbling Barrs, ready to traverse the narrow lanes inside the old walls, where a mixture of wooden medieval homes with their jutted fronts gave way to the fashionable new stone buildings.
Willoughby looked on in wonder at the might of The Minster, the magnificent cathedral that dominated the cobbled together collections of buildings around it. No matter how often he saw it, he was always impressed. York was a place which confused and delighted his senses by turn. Contrasts were everywhere: putrid stench mingled with the more pleasant aromas of the market, rich living alongside the impoverished.
The coach came to a lumbering halt in front of an old inn. A sign swung dubiously above the door of a phoenix rising from the ashes. It was a sorry depiction of what should have been a lovely image, buffeted by the wind and heavy rain.
The innkeeper rushed around the corner and greeted his new arrivals, despite the pouring rain. All was a hive of activity. A small step was brought for the passengers to climb down onto. Willoughby knew that Lord Rossington would have been informed that the coach was in. He would be expected to report shortly but he was tempted to go inside and warm and dry himself.
Beth heard the excitement as word reached the inn that the coach was approaching. She had been preparing food in the back in readiness. In her dreams, she would get on the coach, dressed smartly in a travelling coat and be taken to some grand house where her husband or, more likely, her lover, would be awaiting her return. She put down her bread knife at the side of the stone sink, brushed her hands against her coarse skirts and glanced anxiously around her. Dotty, the cook, had gone into the back yard and Irwin Wilkes had left earlier on ‘business’. He would normally greet his guests and then return inside — to her. She grabbed her old shawl and pulled it around her shoulders, thinking that he must have been delayed.
Beth knew if she was caught shirking, she would be in for trouble, yet the yearning inside her made her desperate to see who the coach had brought in. The longing to escape the inn, her hellhole, was growing daily. She had nothing of her own and no one to go to, but the coaches came and went and each time her heart desired to go too. She was the bird lost in the ashes and she would take flight, unlike the bird that was trapped on a piece of wood swinging above the doorway.
She ran her fingers through her rich auburn hair, its fiery colour subdued by the need of a wash, though she kept it in relatively good order as she hated the knots. Beth peeped through the serving hatch just to make sure that Irwin Wilkes had not become distracted by his friends and was sitting on his favourite settle. No, he was hovering somewhere outside in his coat. He owned the inn and, although it hurt Beth to think it, he also owned her. Two seasons ago she had been bought by coin from the orphanage where she had grown up as a young woman to serve drinks at the inn. She had no say in the matter, no rights, and was told to be grateful her fate was not a worse one. It was go with Wilkes or live on the filthy streets.
Peering through the musty, smoke-filled tap room she could see the passengers alight from the coach. One man stood alone and slightly to the side. Beth watched him. He did not look as if he intended to enter, she noted with disappointment, but stood surveying the city. He was tall and from what she could see of his features, between high collar and tall hat, handsome. He looked to the inn, but despite the soaking he had had, he decided to move off.
He must be lost, Beth reasoned, so she straightened her shoulders and stepped forward, ready to cross the room and welcome the guests and offer the stranger her help before he decided to leave — if she could. There was something about him that drew her to him. He would fit the image of the man in her daydream well enough. Even though he was clearly a gentleman, she thought, a girl can dream, can’t she?
She froze. Wilkes’s footsteps neared as his boots sounded upon the flagstone floor behind her. The weather must have dampened his enthusiasm for being a good host.
“Where d’you think you are off to, my girl?”
She could smell his musk. He spun her around, whipping the worn fabric from her shoulders. The word ‘my’ resonated in her head as the usual feelings of disgust stirred within her belly. He threw his coat onto a stool.
“Nowhere, Mr Wilkes. I was just a bit cold and I heard all the noise.” She tried to keep her voice calm as getting flustered only provoked his temper further. Her eyes were downcast; he took it as a sign of submission. She used it to shield the hatred that burned within them.
“Cold, eh,” he repeated, and chuckled. “Go on up to me room. I’ll be there shortly.” He slapped her rump as she stepped away.
Beth tried not to show him fear or her anger. She picked up her shawl; moth-bitten it may be, but it was hers, and then climbed the wooden steps to his room above, cursing her stupidity and dreading his idea of giving her warmth.
Willoughby stretched to his full height. He was tired, his wrist was sore, but he needed to see his uncle — then he could think about resting before setting off again on his next mission. He was in the north; he was so near to where his father had been murdered. Willoughby’s heart desired one mission more than any other: to investigate that ‘accident’. No one had been brought to justice. Five years later and he had proved to his uncle he could wheedle out vermin and be trusted, so why not now avenge his father’s death?
He approached the grand façade of the elegant terraced house. Willoughby had to stay level-headed; displays of emotion were not appreciated — ‘anger was to be challenged into action, not allowed to burn and destroy internally’. His uncle was full of such pearls of wisdom.
He lifted the brass knocker, then crashed it against the door and waited until a liveried servant opened it to him.
“Is my uncle at home?” Willoughby asked.
“Your uncle? May I have your card, sir?” The man spoke stiffly and held out a gloved hand.
Willoughby wondered if he was one of his uncle’s agents or just a household servant; either way, he acted like a pompous fool. Willoughby pulled the invitation from his pocket, returning it to its sender. It was his pass to a very different world — one in which he thrived. The man responded with a cursory look up and down as rain dripped off Willoughby’s greatcoat and onto the doorstep of the elegant house.
Willoughby met the man’s stare in challenge and made to step forward. It had been an uncomfortable journey and his patience was becoming worn. The servant closed the door on him, disappearing with the letter. Willoughby balled his fist and looked across the sodden road, waiting patiently, albeit reluctantly, to be allowed entry. A few minutes later the door reopened.
“My apologies, sir.” The man bowed low as he stepped back, allowing Willoughby to pass by him, whilst taking his hat and coat. “This way, if you please, sir.”
Willoughby followed him across a chequered floor and down a narrow corridor to a set of doors towards the back of the house. Beyond them was his uncle’s study. Immediately Willoughby entered, the doors were shut securely behind him, not one, but two sets separated by a good thick curved wall. This was a necessity, as his uncle could not afford to have his private discussions overheard by anyone.
Willoughby was surprised that the normally officious man was not sitting and looking imposingly at him from behind the large mahogany desk as was his habit. Instead, he stood silently gazing at a painting that adorned the wall above the marble fireplace. Immaculately dressed in a perfectly fitted black coat which accentuated his straight and noble posture, he held his hands clasped behind his back. “Do you know what this is, Willoughby?”
Willoughby sighed. Never a warm word of welcome, but he knew how to respond. “It is a seascape, Uncle.” Willoughby stared at it emotionless, almost mimicking his uncle’s dour manner until he saw a flash of annoyance showing in the older man’s eyes. “A stormy sea and a rescue boat being hauled into the water by the local villagers.” Willoughby admired the movement and energy within the painting. One could almost feel the tempest raging and the desperation of the people to launch the life-saving boat into the water.
“What else can you see? Where do you think it is set?” his uncle persisted, staring at him, waiting for Willoughby to look beyond the obvious. It was like a game, a grooming, which both his uncle and his father had played with him since he had been a child.
Willoughby stepped forward, relaxing his pose. He looked at every feature of the painting: the group of people at the water’s edge, the windmill behind a row of small fishermen’s houses, the firm flat sands, the high rugged headland in the distance and the menacing sea. “By the attire of the people and the geographical features of the land, I would say this is a fishing village on the remote north-east coast.” Willoughby glanced at his uncle, waiting for acknowledgement or approval.
“And what reasoning is behind this decision, Willoughby? Have you proof of a logical nature or is this just a wild guess — no more than a lucky whim?”
“No, Uncle, it is not a guess. The boats in the background are the cobles of the Yorkshire design. They land on the flat sandy beaches, cutting through the breakers. The sea is treacherously turbulent and that area is infamous for its wrecks. To the right are the ancient marshlands and dunes, whilst to the left, the steep jutting headland forms a dramatic feature. The boat is one of the new designs of ‘lifeboat’, which I believe has to be pulled manually down to the beach by the villagers in order to launch it successfully.”
His uncle released his hands, relaxing his stance and patted Willoughby firmly on his shoulder. “Excellent observations, Willoughby; you show some intelligence. I’m glad your time at Cambridge was not wasted; you have at least learnt to deduce. So tell me, why am I showing you this merciless place?” Nathaniel Rossington flicked the tails of his coat up into the air and rested against his desk.
“You wish me to go there, no doubt still wearing the robes of a priest and save the poor from the endless toil of their lives and their mortal souls from hell itself, Uncle?” Willoughby raised a cynical brow, as he knew Nathaniel was a sceptical man, a non-believer, a fact he kept very much to the closest family members to avoid unnecessary problems within the society with which he mixed.
“I would say they are beyond salvation and, personally, I should let them rot away within their own grimy existence.”
Willoughby was not surprised by the man’s sentiment, he had his sights set on saving a nation, apparently forgetting at times that the word represented common men eking out a ‘grimy existence’ and not just the land itself.
“However, I would also remind you that this is not a game anymore, Willoughby. It is as serious as life and death … yours included.” Nathaniel looked at Willoughby, whose gaze did not waver despite his uncle’s powerful withering stare. However, Willoughby did note the fleeting glint of amusement in the man’s eyes — a rare sight.
“There are treacherous men earning a lot of money in the region — corruption throughout and within the villages which has spread to the normally decent social strata. I need you in there.” He pointed to the painting, his manner intense. “Yes, don your priest’s garb and start preaching and listening to as many confessions as you can…”
“Uncle, I am not a priest. I have chosen a very different path now.” Willoughby spoke out defiantly, then instantly wished he had controlled his tongue. “Surely, I have proven to you that I would have been wasted in such a role when I refused to follow the path which was laid out for me by Uncle Jeremiah, God rest his soul. I would be better serving as a soldier — please, sir, allow me to hunt down Father’s murderers or obtain me a commission so that I may serve, with your blessing.”
“I am fully aware of what you are and what you are not. Unless you wish me to return you to ‘your initial path’ and insist that you are to be permanently planted in a respectable parish with a fat wife and several noisy brats to feed, you would do well to remember how much I do know about you, Willoughby James Rossington!” Nathaniel’s words were harsh, but as always, controlled. “You serve best where I place you. Your brother serves the King, you fight a very different battle and I need you here to do it!”
Willoughby nodded, annoyed that this man who had acted as a father to him when his own died prematurely always placed his duty first. More disastrous news had followed the next year when his elder uncle, Jeremiah, had perished in a riding accident. Nathaniel was totally devoted towards his King and country. He buried his pain deeply, though, Willoughby realised. Willoughby had been sent to many a dark place concerning his clandestine role. It had shown him a world very different from the old clubs of St James Street in London and the halls of Cambridge. Nathaniel was a man who demanded and expected nothing less than total obedience from those who served him, whether relative or not, and that had earned him Willoughby’s absolute respect.
Willoughby did not want to don the garb of the priesthood. He had his own faith, but preaching was something he found no comfort in. It irked him that he had been made to hide within the role in order to be of some use to his uncle. He should have been the soldier — Charles wanted to stay on the estate, but the uncles had insisted he fought for the family honour, leaving Willoughby’s path clear for the priesthood.
“You will win the hearts of one or two of the local people. Use your stealth, wit and common sense, but, Willoughby, remember this is no fool’s errand. We have reason to believe that the rot that has set in this area is deep and complex. Every one living there is as guilty as their neighbour of plying the trade. They will not break their ungodly ranks and speak out… Strangers are like foreigners to them, they live in greed and ignorance. Only last month, a riding officer nearly had what brains he possessed spilt from a broken skull after he came across a group of ‘fishermen’ moving a catch. It was not crabs they had plucked from the sea. The fool shouted warning before shooting!” Nathaniel shook his head. “You have two names to keep in your mind, and I demand that you make your initial contact with them as a priest, someone people will pass by, seeing the uniform and not the man, yet, hopefully, show respect and trust.”
Willoughby was surprised by the severity of the tone in his uncle’s orders.
“Go to Major Walter Husk, who has a temporary barracks in Whitby. He will brief you on the known smuggling activity along the coast north of Whitby, and then to Reverend Artemis Burdon of St Aidan’s at Ebton. He will take you in and give you a base from which to work. I do not want you to use the name ‘Rossington’. Our family name will be kept out of this. You travel as Reverend Mr Willoughby James. Make sure you conjure up a credible past-life, which does not link you back to the family or me. You are working incognito. Only Husk and Burdon will know the truth. Both are loyal to the Crown and…”
“My father’s murderers…” Willoughby’s face was instantly animated. It was on Ebton beach that the body of his father, Joshua, had been washed up. “Is it possible that Father’s murderers still walk free after nearly six years?” Each time Willoughby had requested to investigate it he had been turned away with other missions to attend to, keeping him far away from this part of the country. It was always with the promise that when the time was right, his turn would come. Now he needed to know if that time was here. Willoughby clenched his fists at his side as the years of frustration and training mixed with his eagerness to set off on his own personal quest grew.
“Of course it is possible, Willoughby!” Nathaniel stood tall and looked into Willoughby’s deep brown eyes as if analysing his private thoughts. “You need to put all personal issues aside. We both do. We are working for our country, for the very survival of our nation.” Nathaniel swallowed as if struggling to keep his composure. “We are at war with the French. The trade forgets its loyalties and anything is sold for the right price. If, and I mean if, there is a link between my brother’s early demise and the current tenuous situation, then I expect you to discover it and act accordingly. They went to ground, but have now risen stronger than ever. But remember this: King and country first, revenge last! Do I make myself clear?” Nathaniel raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, and one more thing to remember: the harbinger of evil can be both male or female. Your father was engaging in an affair as well as his ‘work’. It may have been the cause of his downfall.”
Willoughby’s attention had wandered to the painting, straining at the menacing sea and the headland beyond. He swallowed, for it must have been a cold and lonely death to die in those waters alone. At the mention of an affair, so calmly announced, Willoughby’s head shot back around to look at his uncle.
“Affair? With who?”
“I do not know who. You will not fall into the same trap, will you, my young priest?”
Willoughby was taken aback. He had never thought it possible that his father had had an affair, for his mother had died of a broken heart four years since.
Nathaniel patted him on the back firmly.
“Here is a purse. The sooner you go and pay your respects to your aunt, the sooner I shall have peace from her on this matter. I swear the woman can hear through the walls of a fortress. May your God be with you, and I hope you come back to us safely from this vipers’ nest, Willoughby.”