The following evening, as dusk fell, Esther was helping her ma peel potatoes when Lucky came by singing ‘Oh Betty, Betty, when thou go’st to brew, consider well what you’re about to do…’
The song was about ‘Peggy’ but Lucky always said ‘Betty’.
‘Ooh, don’t you look dashing,’ her ma said, drying her hands on her apron. He did strike a handsome figure in his buff trousers, a green cut-away coat and matching cravat. He took off his hat and bowed low at the doorway. ‘Good evening ladies,’ he said.
With Lucky looking so grand, Esther felt unusually shy and hung back behind her ma.
‘Are you off to London?’ Betty smiled.
‘Local business, Dillon’s just saddling up Nelson for me.’
‘You must have spent hours polishing them boots.’
He winked then looked round Betty to see Esther. ‘Is that my shipmate hiding in the shadows?’
Esther came forward. ‘You’re dressed fancy.’
‘You have to dress fine to be treated fine in this world,’ said Lucky.
That’s true enough,’ said her ma.
Nelson’s hooves could be heard clomping on the cobbles and Betty followed Lucky into the yard. Esther stepped outside and saw Dillon in the saddle. He swung his leg over the horse’s hindquarters and jumped neatly to the ground. ‘Evening,’ he said.
Esther scowled at him. He got all the good jobs. She got potato peelings. She used to ride Nelson in the field when she was younger and no one seemed to mind, but apparently it wasn’t lady-like now.
Lucky mounted the black horse and tightened the girth. They made a gallant pair. ‘One day, Betty, I’ll have enough money to be a proper gentleman.’
He held his hand out for hers, then bent down to kiss it, looking into her eyes. ‘Lady Betty.’ He smiled.
Esther’s heart leapt. She wished they’d get married and be done with it.
‘Go on with you.’ Her ma laughed. ‘Are you coming by later this evening.’
Lucky urged Nelson on. ‘Aye, I’ll be in before closing.’
With her arm around Esther, her ma chuckled as they went back inside. ‘Lady Betty,’ she scoffed. ‘Can you imagine?’
Esther could swear that her mother was blushing, although it was difficult to see in the firelight.
Later that evening, Tolly was taking advantage of Lucky’s absence and telling a tale, his jaw slack with drink, about how he’d got the better of a Frenchman. He couldn’t tell a story like Lucky, who could command the attention of the whole room and have you on the edge of your seat with fear or excitement, or rolling about with laughter. But Esther listened, all the same, because not many others were. She also had half an ear on the conversation behind her. Apparently a ganger had been prowling the estuary. Press gangs at sea usually preyed on merchant ships, forcing many of the crew to join the navy. But they weren’t above taking fishermen.
Esther didn’t hear the man come in but the candles flickered in the draft and the fire crackled back to life. The conversation behind her stopped mid-sentence and everyone fell silent until even Tolly realised something was wrong. She turned and saw a heavy-set figure in the doorway, wearing an old-fashioned tricorne hat.
‘Evening,’ the figure growled, removing his hat as he stepped out of the shadows. He moved softly for a stocky man. His greying fair hair was drawn back in a pony tail and he had high cheekbones that gave him the look of a hungry wolf. But Esther couldn’t stop looking at his ears – they were like jug handles. People stared into their ale. ‘Telling tales, Tolly?’
Tolly said nothing. Nor did anyone else.
‘I’m looking for Lucky.’
Fear clutched at Esther’s stomach. She didn’t know who jug handles was, but she didn’t like him. Lucky would be back any minute.
‘Who wants him?’ said Tolly, his voice brittle. Esther hoped there wouldn’t be a fight, not without Lucky there to break it up. Mr Osborne was getting on in years to be wading into fights.
‘I think you knows who I am,’ said jug handles, stepping in closer with a blackened leer that revealed a hole where his two front teeth should have been.
Esther slipped her arm through Tolly’s.
‘Earnest Malone. Ears, they call me,’ he announced to the alehouse. Esther tried to suppress a nervous snigger.
‘You think that’s funny do you, my pretty?’
The chuckle froze in her throat as Esther found herself staring into the gap in his rotten teeth. His breath smelt like rancid meat and she tried not to wrinkle her nose as she shook her head.
‘I have large ears, it’s true,’ he said, standing upright again. ‘And I’ve always got one to the ground. So I hear everything what’s going on. Now I need to talk to Lucky on a matter of business.’
‘Lucky’s not here,’ said Tolly. Esther was still hanging onto his arm. His muscles were tensed, ready to spring into action.
‘Well, when you see him, tell him Ears wants a word. Good evening to you.’ He gave a slight bow, put his hat back on and sloped out.
A murmur went round the taproom like the wind getting up before a storm. The muscles in Tolly’s arm relaxed and he patted Esther’s hand. She simmered with questions. ‘Who was that, Tolly? What does he want with Lucky? Lucky’s not in trouble is he?’
‘There’s nothing for you to worry about,’ he slurred. ‘Like the man said, he just wants to talk business.’ But Tolly looked concerned. What was it about grown-ups that made them think you felt safer if you were kept in the dark?
‘But who is he?’
Tolly was staring vacantly into space, jaw slack, his mind elsewhere, so she looked to Big Jim.
‘He’s in the trade, Esther. The Paglesham smuggler. You don’t want to be getting on the wrong side of Ears Malone.’
Paglesham was a village a few miles to the north of Leigh. So Ears was probably some sort of rival of Lucky’s, thought Esther. ‘Has Lucky got on the wrong side of him?’
‘No. Don’t you be fretting about old Ears. Go on with you.’ Big Jim gently cuffed her round the back of her head and went off towards the bar.
Tolly stood up, swaying on his feet. ‘Think I’d best be getting home to my good lady wife,’ he said, to anyone who was listening. He meandered out, knocking into a table as he went.
Esther went and stood by the fire, feeling like she ought to do something. Lucky had said he’d come by the Peter Boat when he got back but maybe he’d gone straight home. Whatever business Ears had with Lucky, it wasn’t good and she wanted to warn him.
Seeing her ma in worried conversation with Big Jim, Esther took the chance to dart out the back, overhearing someone say: ‘He killed a man once.’ With a shiver, she wrapped a shawl round her and crossed the brewery yard to the stable yard beyond. Nelson was in but hadn’t been for long. He was pulling hay out of a net that Lucky had left for him. So Lucky must have gone home.
What if Ears were waiting for him? She would assess the situation; perhaps create a diversion to give Lucky a chance to hit him over the head. She walked quickly, her bare feet cold on the cobbles. She had some leather boots that Lucky had bought for her, but she saved them for best.
She hurried along the narrow passage towards Lucky’s house, the timber buildings closing in. A rat scuttled past. On Alley Dock, she could hear the water slapping but couldn’t see the river for fog. Then, a grunt and a thump, close by. Esther stopped and listened. Gutteral threats, the words indistinct. She crept closer, edging along by the cockle sheds, till she could see the shape of two men in the mist. One had the other against a shed. Something clattered to the floor. A knife?
‘I run things round here. Try that again and I’ll cut your ears off. Then I’ll have your balls.’
It was Lucky’s voice, each word like the chop of an axe. She wasn’t sure if she was awed or afraid. Everyone seemed scared of Ears and yet, here was Lucky, threatening to slice off more than his jug handles. She held her breath, wanting to run back to the safety of the Peter Boat. As Lucky muttered an oath and shoved him against the wall, Esther slipped soundlessly away.
As soon as she was out of hearing, she broke into a run, fear and relief choking her. Lucky was all right but what had he got himself involved in? You don’t want to be getting on the wrong side of Ears Malone. She slowed as she got back to the brewery yard.
Just as she was walking through the back door of the inn, she heard: ‘Ahoy there, Shrimp-mate.’ Though his voice had returned to its usual warm tone, it made her jump. He must have taken the tunnel that came up into the brewery from Alley Dock. Smuggled goods were often stored down there. And once, a Frenchman, escaped from a prison hulk on the Thames.
‘Lucky,’ she said, an edge of fear in her voice.
‘What? Are you not pleased to see me? No hug?’ He put his arm round her. He didn’t look himself in those fine clothes. ‘What are you doing out here in the cold?’
‘It was smoky in there. Came out for some air.’ They walked in the back door to the pantry and Lucky swung something up onto the table. It landed with a thud and, for a second, Esther imagined it was Ears Malone’s head.
‘Goose for Christmas. How about that then?’
Esther realised she was holding her breath and let it out. ‘Lovely.’ Her mouth watered at the thought. But there were urgent matters to discuss. ‘Someone called Ears Malone were looking for you, not five minutes ago.’
‘Was he, now?’ In the flickering glow from the taproom door, Lucky looked thoughtful but not overly worried; tired but not like he’d just chopped someone’s ears off.
‘He didn’t look friendly.’
‘No.’ Lucky chuckled as they went through to the taproom. ‘I don’t suppose he did.’ To those in the taproom he called out: ‘Evening.’
They usual round of greeting went up, accompanied by wolf-whistles at his attire.
‘Aren’t you the dandy?’
Lucky bowed low, flourishing his hand as though he were greeting the King. ‘Gentlemen.’
‘Ears were just in,’ said Big Jim. ‘Wants a word with you, he says. Business.’
‘So I hear.’ The men went back to their drinks. ‘Betty, my beauty.’
In a low voice, her ma said: ‘What was that Paglesham rogue… Esther, get in girl… doing in these parts?
‘Don’t you be worrying about Ears Malone.’ He kissed her cheek. ‘I think these honourable gentlemen would like a drink.’
A cheer went up and, with Lucky back, everything seemed all right again.
In bed that night, Esther snuggled up to her ma for warmth, pulling the blanket up so it almost covered her head. It was the time of year when ice formed on the inside of the small window in their room. Every time she closed her eyes she saw the black-toothed, gappy leer of Ears Malone. He killed a man once. What had he wanted with Lucky? What happened in Alley Dock?
She awoke with her stomach plummeting. What sound had torn into her sleep? She listened, a ticklish heat creeping over her. There it was again: a knocking at the inn door. A demanding, thumping fist on the wood. Her ma tossed in her sleep.
Esther stole out of bed. Who would wake everyone at this time of night? Not Ears. He’d be the kind to creep up and cut your throat. She slipped out of the room, feeling her way downstairs in the dark. Was there a fire? She could detect nothing but the sweet-sour smell of alcohol and sawdust along with stale wood smoke from the hearth. They would wake up Mr Osborne any minute and he would not be pleased. She wished they would as, once downstairs, she didn’t know what to do.
‘Open up in the name of the King,’ boomed a big bass drum of a voice, reverberating with authority.
She froze, staring at the door ahead. That could only mean trouble. Restless hooves were shifting outside and there was a low murmur of voices. Moonlight filtered through cracks in the wooden window shutters.
She felt a prickling on the back of her neck, then a rough hand clamped across her mouth. She grabbed the wrist and struggled and twisted until she recognised the familiar form of Lucky. He released his grip and put a finger to his lips. She nodded.
Pulling an oilskin pouch from under his shirt, he pressed it into her hands. ‘Keep this safe,’ he said, close to her ear. The latch rattled on the door with the next round of thumping. ‘Wear it at all times and don’t let anyone have sight of it. If they catch me with it, they’ll string me up. They won’t search you.’ Lucky had the look of a horse about to bolt, his eyes darting between her and the inn door. ‘If they get me, I’ll send word what to do.’
‘What’s happening?’ Esther whispered.
‘Give my love to your ma.’ Lucky kissed her forehead. ‘Tie that round your waist, quick now.’
‘Break the door down, lads,’ said the drum voice.
As Lucky ran, vaulting over the bar and making for the brewery yard, the sound of shutters crashing open came from the room above. ‘What the blazes is going on?’ Mr Osborne gargled angrily. ‘Are you trying to wake the whole village?’
Esther didn’t hear the reply. Her mind was reeling, buffeted in the storm going on around her. With trembling fingers, she tied the oilskin under her gown and glared at the door, poised like a cat about to see off a dog.
Above, the shutters closed with a bang. Esther followed Mr Osborne’s footsteps across the ceiling. The shutters opened again and Mrs Osborne squawked: ‘I’ll have you know, I keep a good house, sir.’
Esther expected she was speaking for the benefit of the neighbours.
‘Get on with you. Waking my customers with your bawling.’
Then Esther heard her ma exchange a few indistinct words with Mr Osborne on the landing, before the glow of candlelight appeared on the wall at the top of the stairs, casting a shadow much more fearsome than the man that clattered down. Mr Osborne looked comical in his nightgown and boots. ‘There you are,’ he said. ‘Your ma was worried about where you’d got to. Best go upstairs, lass.’
But Esther had no intention of missing the action. There was more insistent banging on the door.
‘I’m coming, I’m coming. Lord almighty, what is all this noise about?’ Mr Osborne opened the door and three soldiers bundled in.
‘Captain Cormorant. To what do I owe the pleasure.’ Mr Osborne raised his hand in a half-hearted salute.
Esther presumed Captain Cormorant had the voice like a drum because he looked like one. The brass buttons on his uniform were straining round his middle. Stickler slid in after them. Esther crossed her arms instinctively to hide the pouch beneath her gown, her heart banging like it was trying to escape her ribcage. She felt sure they knew.
‘See now, are you proud of yourselves? Frighting a young girl with your bellowing.’
‘Beg pardon, miss,’ oozed Stickler, with a sickly smile in her direction which slipped off his face as he recognised her. Turning back to Mr Osborne, he went on: ‘I have a warrant to search the premises for contraband and to arrest one John Lovett, also known as Lucky, on suspicion of smuggling. We’ve come to inform him that his luck has run out.’ Stickler paused to savour his own joke.
Esther stared stonily at him and Mr Osborne indicated the free run of the inn with a sweep of his hand. ‘By all means.’
Esther judged that Lucky would be through the hidden cellar and in the tunnel to Alley Dock.
‘Captain, this way,’ came a voice from the brewery yard. ‘We heard him run this way.’ Esther’s heart dropped like a lead line.
Her ma was calling her upstairs but she ran after Stickler and Captain Cormorant with Mr Osborne.
‘Take three men and cut him off at Alley Dock, Cormorant said to one of the dragoons.
‘The entrance is here in the brewery,’ said Stickler. They knew about the tunnel! Esther darted off while the dragoons were organising themselves. Her chest felt tight and her throat hurt with cold air and fear. She raced out of the yard and down the alley to the dock. Lucky was rolling barrels out of the cockle shed, where the tunnel came out, across the dock and into the water.
‘They’re coming,’ she panted. ‘Run.’
‘Last one.’ The barrel rumbled over the stone paving. ‘Don’t want to get Mr Osborne in trouble.’
Esther jigged up and down. ‘Please, Lucky. You have to go now.’
The last barrel dropped into the water. Lucky looked towards the sound of clanking swords and clomping boots then took to his heels in the opposite direction, but the dragoons were already on the dock. Esther stuck her leg out and tripped one of them up. He fell in a clattering heap and cursed. Esther hid by the cockle shed for fear of feeling the sharp end of his cutlass. He got to his feet. ‘Try that again and I’ll cut you in two,’ he barked before rushing after the others.
As Esther ventured out, BANG. She jumped and let out a cry. In the flash, she saw Lucky’s silhouette duck and realised that he’d been cut off at the other end of the dock. She chased towards him, praying that he hadn’t been hit. When she got closer, she saw him, trapped, his hands being tied behind his back.
Acting instinctively and in the grip of rage, she barged through the dragoons and threw herself on the one who was binding Lucky’s wrists. She grappled with him, thumping, biting, scratching. She heard Lucky yelling her name. A yowling and snarling filled the night air and it wasn’t until the dragoon threw her off and she crashed to the ground that the sound stopped and she realised it had been coming from her. She struggled for breath.
‘Blast your eyes, man, she’s a chit of a girl. There was no need for that. Let me go to her. Esther.’
‘She fights like a cat. The devil take her.’
Esther’s ribcage felt like it was in a vice. She fought for breath that came in rasps as she tried to sit up. Then Lucky was on his knees next to her. ‘Esther, it’s all right. Lie back down and try to take slow, deep breaths.’ His hands were tied behind him but he hushed and soothed in a tone similar to that she’d heard him use with his horse.
‘We haven’t got time for this, Mr Lovett. The girl’s fine. On your feet.’ The dragoon poked him in the back with his pistol.
Lucky ignored him. ‘You’re winded is all. That’s right. Nice and steady.’ The dragoons had circled them, weapons drawn.
‘I’m going to go with these gentlemen. When you’ve got your breath back I want you to go on home to your ma.’
Esther nodded, tears streaming. Her breathing was becoming easier but there was another pain gripping her heart. Lucky leant forward and kissed her forehead. ‘Don’t fret, Shrimp, he whispered. ‘I’m feeling lucky.’ It was the phrase that had given him his nickname but she knew he was just trying to make her feel better.
‘Esther? What the devil?’ It was Mr Osborne’s voice.
‘She’s had the wind knocked out of her, said Lucky, who was being hauled to his feet. ‘Take her home.’
Esther struggled up as he was led away and gave a strangled cry. ‘No. Leave him alone.’ It turned into a scream as Mr Osborne held her fast. ‘Lucky!’
This post (c) Lisa Bratby 2010. All rights reserved.