The men of the Peter Boat Inn gathered round the fireside to hear Esther’s tale. ‘Up by the castle ruins. A fancy hat with plumes on it and all,’ she said, trying to sound scared. At a nearby table, her ma put some mugs of ale down too firmly and gave Esther one of her looks. Betty didn’t hold with story-telling. But Esther carried on. ‘And I thinks to myself, it’s a shame to lose such a fine hat, so I goes and picks it up and what do you think I finds beneath it?’ Faces leaned in with expectant eyes. ‘A pile of ash.’
Someone gasped. Others muttered and shook their heads. Tolly, one of the younger fishermen, rubbed his beard to hide a smile. Esther wriggled her toes in the sawdust on the floor. She was beginning to enjoy herself. Funny how the White Lady always put in an appearance when the smugglers were on their way in.
‘Broad daylight it were, though I don’t know how long the gentleman had been sat there in a pile like that. Anyways, it only seemed right and proper to put the hat back over him. Poor soul.’
It wasn’t so long ago that she’d been taken in by such tales. Many of the villagers still were, she could see it in their eyes. But even those who suspected the truth behind the stories would keep away from Hadleigh Castle for a while.
‘I probably should have said a prayer for him or something,’ said Esther. ‘But I were that shaken, I took to my heels.’
Tolly gave her a barely perceptible wink and slipped away, his mug in his hand as though going to refill it. She’d bet a farthing he’d been given the nudge and was off to meet the boat. Eyes darted among the Leigh fishermen. A couple of others were leaving too. Lucky was coming home!
Esther redoubled her efforts. ‘I ran as fast as I could because I could feel a kind of chill at my back, like shivery fingers were plucking at me. I daren’t look, of course. Not after seeing what happened to the last fellow. Then I heard it.’ She paused, an ear cocked to the shuttered window, as though everyone would hear it, if only they’d listen closely enough. ‘A wraith-like shriek, echoing round the hills.’ She had intended to give her best ghostly cry at this point but decided it would be too much. Besides, she sensed she was losing the attention of the room.
Through the veil of tobacco smoke, she saw why and shrank against the hearth. Mr Starks, the riding officer, had slithered in, his presence pervading the room like a sly fart. ‘Stickler,’ the whisper went round.
‘So the White Lady walks again, does she?’ said Stickler, his small eyes roaming the alehouse.
He was greeted with silence. Shadows danced on the timber walls in the candlelight, like men at the gallows.
‘Has no one told you it’s a sin to lie, girl?’
The Leigh men bristled around her and she felt safe.
‘I’m not lying, sir,’ said Esther, her fingers crossed behind her back. Telling ghost stories wasn’t the same as lying about something important. And lying to the riding officer didn’t count.
Stickler ignored her. ‘But what can you expect, growing up in a rat’s nest.’ His voice was like water receding over shingle.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Esther’s mother said, indignantly.
‘We’re all decent people here, Mr Starks,’ added Mr Osborne, the landlord.
‘You must think I’m stupid,’ said the riding officer.
Esther would have liked to agree.
‘Well I know what’s going on and I know that ghost is no lady.’ His tongue darted nervously in the corner of his mouth and bony fingers hovered about the hilt of his sword, for he was alone and the Leigh men were many. ‘Smuggling is akin to treason.’
That were a bit strong, thought Esther, as Stickler let the word hang in the air. She could see no treason in cheap brandy, baccy and tea. She looked around the men for some indication that the riding officer was all talk. You could hang from the never-green tree for treason.
‘You can tell that villain Lucky his days are numbered.’
Esther’s hand flew to her mouth to stifle a gasp.
Some of the Leigh men rose slowly to their feet. They’d had enough. Smuggling wasn’t a word to be said out loud in a public place. Free-trading was the preferred phrase. Stickler was threatening a way of life. How else were poor fisherman expected to make ends meet? Many were involved in one way or another and practically everyone in the village benefited.
With a nervous smirk and a dart of his tongue, the riding officer hissed: ‘The dragoons are on their way.’ He hurriedly bid the men good evening and backed out of the alehouse.
The men grumbled and cursed and Esther gave a shudder. Someone had to warn Lucky that Stickler was after him. But Tolly had already left. The land party would be waiting for the boat to come in, but she wasn’t sure where Lucky would moor.
A rustle of skirts alerted Esther to her ma at the next table. ‘I told you no good would come of story telling.’ she scolded, putting down some empty mugs to re-pin red tresses that had worked loose. They both had hair the colour of autumn leaves.
Esther folded her arms and leant back against the stone hearth. ‘But Tolly said it would be a help.’ She wasn’t allowed to go on the smuggling runs because the sea’s no place for a scrap of girl, as Lucky always said. Being a scrap had nothing to do with it. She was fourteen and Dillon had been going since he was nine. Being a girl, that was the problem. But surely she could have some part to play.
‘Well, I’ll be having a word with Tolly,’ her ma said.
Esther would have pouted but there was Stickler to worry about. She put her frustrations aside and got up to help. ‘Someone should tell Lucky,’ Esther said in a low voice, collecting empty mugs.
‘I’m sure someone will. I expect we’ll see him tomorrow, we can tell him then.’
‘But that might be too late.’
Betty sighed. ‘It’s nothing new for the revenue men to be after Lucky. He’ll be all right,’ she said with green, faraway eyes. Then, blinking the worry from them and focusing on Esther, she added: ‘He can handle Stickler.’
‘He knows the risks, Esther,’ her ma said in a no-nonsense tone. ‘Besides, that skinny snake-in-the-grass may be a stickler for the law but he’s got cork for brains. Lucky could outwit him any day.’
It was past midnight when Esther crept out of the Peter Boat Inn, leaving her ma gently snoring in their attic room. Esther took a deep breath, smelling the sea on the chill December air. She couldn’t sleep for fretting about Lucky. He was the closest she had to a father since her pa died at sea. Leaving it till the morrow, she’d decided, could mean gaol or worse for Lucky, if Stickler was true to his word and the militia were on their way. She needed to go to Hadleigh Castle to warn him.
She made her way out of the village with its huddle of clapboard houses, through Belton Hill Farm and onto open pasture. The grass was coated in a crunchy frost that melted beneath her bare feet as she walked. Above, a smattering of stars timidly winked. Esther’s teeth chattered.
It wasn’t the first time she’d been out at night. Three summers ago, as a dare, she’d gone ghost-hunting with Georgie, one of the dockside boys. They’d scared themselves silly. That was before she knew the free-traders were inventing sightings and spreading stories, embellishing the legend of the White Lady to keep people away from the ruins when they stored their haul there.
The air was keen in Esther’s lungs but she warmed up as she climbed towards the castle. The lone turret was a patch of black more solid than the night around it. She could hear her own breathing and her feet moving through the grass. Something cold and feathery brushed her face. Shivery fingers. No, it was just a cobweb, she told herself firmly, and walked on. Excitement and fear tingled on her skin and, with the freezing mist wafting over her, she could believe in phantoms.
The legend of the White Lady had passed down the generations: centuries before, a woman had been killed at the hands of her husband so he could take another wife. Ever since, she had been wreaking revenge and those that looked into her eyes were turned to cinders. Maybe the ghost did haunt the castle? And if such like existed… she tried to remember her pa’s face. But she could only picture the shape of him – tall and thin with raggedy hair like straw. She was a small child when he’d gone to war. He died a naval hero.
Unbidden, a bedraggled spirit appeared in her mind’s eye, trailing seaweed. Esther shook the image from her head but other ghosts crowded in. Battle-mangled warriors, medieval knights on horseback, struck through with jousting lances. She stopped as a hooded skull stared down on her. A shriek split the night air. Esther cried out and fell to the ground, before recognising the white, blunt-faced shape of a barn owl as it flew from the tree. The frosty ground cooled the heat of her panic and she lay there, waiting for her heart to stop banging. The vicar said there was no such thing as ghosts, only heaven and hell. And he knew about these things.
Pushing her fears aside, she pictured Lucky’s sun-drenched face and his dark dancing eyes. Life didn’t feel quite whole when he was away. Esther sat up and hugged her knees. Ahead, the turret loomed, a mean scythe of moon slicing above it. She hoped Lucky would be there and that she didn’t have to wait too long with only the ghosts in her head for company. She began to hum to make herself brave. Although ghosts, imaginary or otherwise, would be preferable to finding Stickler lying in wait.
She stopped humming and got to her feet. Would she be able to hear the smugglers from here, she wondered. She listened. Nothing but the wind in the trees.
A sixth sense, a feeling that someone or something was looking at her, made her stare into the night. She was imagining things, surely. But no, she could feel vibrations through the earth. Galloping hooves. Then she saw movement, a shadow coming towards her from the castle. A phantom horseman?
The gorse plucked at her sackcloth dress and tore at her legs as she hurtled blindly into the night. Cold air seized her throat. Fear squeezed her lungs. Gulping for breath, she tried to move her legs faster but it seemed that lead was pumping through her veins. The hooves beat louder, harder, closer, the horse snorting rhythmically; an oilskin cape snapped and flapped by her ear and, as her knees gave way, a hand grabbed her by the back of her dress and hauled her up so her feet were swinging in midair.
‘Got you, you…’ The voice was like a blunt axe.
‘What the devil?’ The rider pulled the horse up.
Esther kicked and twisted and lashed out with her arms as the black beast slowed down, rolling wild eyes in alarm. This was no ghost. And he was too big and strong to be Stickler. She must have disturbed a highwayman going through his stash, or a murderer burying a victim or… ‘Lemme go,’ she yelled.
‘You’re just a girl.’ The voice seemed confused and it sounded like… ‘Lord ‘ave mercy. Esther? Stop wriggling dammit, I’ll drop you.’
‘Lucky?’ she said, a sob catching in her throat. He let her down and her legs gave way as her feet met the ground. She fell in a heap. ‘I thought,’ she stammered, shaking. ‘I thought…’
Lucky jumped down. Tearing the kerchief from his face, he moved toward her like a powerful black jungle cat, muscles bunched in readiness to pounce, eyes glaring, teeth bared. He pulled Esther roughly to her feet. He could break her in two with his bare hands if he had a mind to, she thought.
‘What the devil are you doing out here in the middle of the night?’
The horse, which Esther recognised as Nelson, shied away, spooked by the shouting. Esther wanted to do the same. ‘Nothing.’ She could no longer contain her tears. She’d never seen Lucky so furious. His scar, usually a pale and vulnerable centipede on his tanned face, looked sinister in what little moonlight there was.
‘Snooping were you? Blackening your nose?’ He shook her like a dog with a rabbit.
‘Nothing. I weren’t doing nothing,’ she choked. A slap stung her cheek and her tears dried in shock. He’d hardly ever raised his voice to her before, let alone his hand. This wasn’t the man she knew. Why wasn’t he comforting her? His eyes, like coals, sparked with anger. Whatever she’d done wrong, it didn’t deserve the justice he was meting out.
‘Taking the air are you?’ He made an expansive gesture with his arm.
Backing away from him, she stumbled and fell.
‘I’m going to ask you again. What are you doing out here?’ A pause. ‘If you say nothing, one more time, I’ll beat you black and blue. You’re not too old for a good hiding.’ He towered above her.
‘I were coming to warn you.’
‘Warn me?’ Surprise registered in his voice.
‘Stickler came in earlier. Said he knew all about the White Lady and that she were no lady and that smuggling were a bad business. Treason, he called it.’ A sob caught in her throat. ‘Said your days were numbered.’
Lucky looked down at her, taking in the news. He exhaled and raked his hands through his black hair.
Esther continued: ‘It sounded like he knew where the goods were hid and that he were after you. I thought you might be in danger.’
‘And it’s not dangerous for you to be out wandering the country in the middle of the night?’
‘Stickler’s after you not me,’ she said hesitantly, because she knew she was supposed to admit she was in the wrong and say sorry.
‘Christ on a cross, Esther.’
Exasperated, he blew air out of his mouth, muttered another oath, and went to retrieve Nelson, who was standing a short way off. Lucky led him back, speaking in low, soothing tones. Nelson twitched his ears as he listened.
‘It won’t do, Esther,’ said Lucky, putting his boot in the stirrup. ‘First, you go out, knowing the free-traders are about their business.’ He swung himself into the saddle. ‘The men are jumpy because of Stickler. It takes one itchy finger on a trigger, Esther, that’s all.’
They carried guns?
‘Secondly, you’re a fourteen-year-old girl. There’s men that… You could get yourself in trouble. Do you understand?’
She was thankful it was too dark for him to see her embarrassment. If she wasn’t mistaken, he was talking about men taking advantage. But she hardly thought that likely. Who would be interested in a ragamuffin like her? There were far prettier girls. And she certainly couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do such a thing. She’d caught the smithy once, rutting the grocer’s daughter. All that pumping up and down and heavy-breathing. A funny business altogether.
Lucky reached down. ‘Come on. Let’s get you home.’ He pulled Esther up behind him.
She held on to his cloak rather than him. She didn’t like him anymore. To think she’d been looking forward to him coming home, that she’d trekked all the way to Hadleigh Castle because she was worried for him. And all he’d done was yell at her. Her cheek burned, no doubt branded with his hand mark.
Lucky dug his heels into Nelson’s flanks and the great horse took off. Esther took comfort from the heat of the horse against her cold legs and the animal’s smell, sweet with hay and sweat.
At the Peter Boat, Lucky lowered her to the ground. She snatched her arm back from his grip and scowled up at him.
‘Get back to bed. And don’t think I’m done with you, my girl,’ he growled as he rode off, towards the castle.
It wasn’t until she was creeping back to bed that she remembered. The dragoons. She hadn’t told him about the dragoons.
This post (c) Lisa Bratby 2010. All rights reserved.