Chapter 1 - The Master’s Mate’s Stratagem by A.J. Hall
Argosy of Ragusa, crew (as usual) arguing
Lumbering to leeward in the wind-whipped Med
With a cargo of seed corn,
Salt pork, cabbages,
Brandywine and small beer and passengers in bed
Trad. arr caulkhead
“So, you think he’s going to marry you, this Gondalian Lord?”
The angry flush which spread across the younger woman’s face – like the fire at the heart of a dark tulip – fascinated Carolyn. A blackguard with women, Rupert Lestrade, so the rumour ran down the wharfsides and through the stews and castles alike of the three kingdoms. But, again according to rumour, a man of exquisite taste in bed-partners. Hitherto, Carolyn had had no difficulty in believing the first. It was only now she had met the Moorish merchant’s daughter for whom, apparently, he was prepared to risk the wintry wrath of the straits of Otranto that she appreciated the second might also bear serious consideration.
Sally Donovan’s lip curled. “He promised to marry me. Once we reach Gondal.”
“Oh, I see. He promised.” Carolyn gave the word the emphasis she thought it deserved. “Well, that settles it. Mind you, talk’s cheap. If I tried to count all the men who’ve promised to marry me over the years, I’d have to take my boots off. Only two of them actually got as far as the altar, though.”
“You’ve had two husbands?”
“Yup.” Carolyn squinted at the dregs in the wine-flask, ordered by Sally to seal their bargain, and decided against ordering another. “I married the first for love and the second for money.”
“And which was better?”
“Hard to say. Didn’t get either. In either case.”
“Oh.” Sally shrugged. “Still, neither of them was Rupert Lestrade.”
“No. That’s one thing you can be sure of about men. Whatever’s wrong with your generation, the younger crop will produce something even worse.” At Sally Donovan’s expression Carolyn realised she had crossed a line, and the charter hung by a thread. She continued, smoothly, “Though, of course, there’s no telling what an aristocratic young rake might do, only given the love of a good woman.”
Though, in her long experience, what they mostly did was turn into aristocratic old rakes, leaving a trail of disillusioned women in their wake.
Sally Donovan could prove the exception, though. Overwhelmed with passion she might be, but evidently not bereft of common-sense. She had, for instance, come down to the waterfront herself to haggle with the ship-masters and, eventually, to purchase passage for herself and her lover aboard the Santa Gertrude with an antique gold ring set with a great flawed emerald carved with a dolphin. A girl who was prepared at the age of seventeen to entrust the treasures of her body to Rupert Lestrade, but who still kept a tight hold on her jewellery case was, Carolyn thought, a girl who deserved to go far.
And, speaking both of jewellery cases and journeys –
“This will be your first voyage, won’t it?”
“Ah. Well. A word to the wise. I have, of course, a crew who are of the highest calibre, both in terms of competence and integrity. Nevertheless, however great the care one takes in crew selection, one cannot rule out the risk – on some dark watch of the night, perhaps – that some weak-willed person, faced with a sudden temptation –”
“Mrs Shappey,” Sally interrupted. “I said I hadn’t been to sea before. Not that I was wet behind the ears. My father has extensive business interests all across the Kingdom of Naples. Practically the first words I recall hearing were ‘warehouse shrinkage’. My belongings will be secure, trust me. And please don’t take it personally if I say that’s the most information you’re getting about how. Now, I understand we leave at eight tomorrow morning, so since this is the last time for some time I’ll sleep in a proper bed, I’ll be going upstairs. See you on board, Mrs Shappey. Me and Lord Lestrade.”
As Carolyn re-entered the public dining room of the tavern, the little group – her shipmaster, the mate and her son – looked up from the remains of supper.
“The girl came through with the charter fee?” The hint of surprise in Douglas’ voice might have been intended to sting or, indirectly, to flatter.
“In splendid style.” She patted the pocket of her jerkin; the ring was not, in fact there, but in the specially designed pouch at the top of her left sea-boot, but there was no harm in a little misdirection. Especially when it came to Douglas.
“We sail at eight tomorrow. So kindly ensure all remaining crew members are extracted from whatever foetid boltholes they may currently be infesting. Sober, I realise, is strictly optional but on board is a must. If you can’t find our original crew, feel free to lay hands on anything with approximately the right number of limbs by way of substitute. But I’m not leaving late. Quite apart from anything else, our charter is balanced on a knife edge between knowledge and ignorance. A scruple on the side of enlightenment would cause it to collapse in ruin.”
“Er, Mama?” Arthur enquired.
“She means,” Douglas translated, “that it’s only a matter of time before either Miss Donovan’s family realises where she is or she finds Lord Lestrade in bed with the chambermaid. The flame-haired temptress, not the giggly one. Hence the order to ship out tomorrow if we can physically make it out of harbour, even if it’s blowing old boots.”
Her shipmaster creased his brows in a familiar worried expression. “About the weather, Carolyn, I’ve been down the mole and spoken to the harbour-master, and I really don’t like the way the cloud formations are –”
“Martin, your likes and dislikes when it comes to weather are a matter of sublime indifference to me. We have a contract to fulfil, and the Santa Gertrude will leave harbour on time. There’s nothing I like better than transporting passengers at this time of year.”
Arthur looked up.
“But Mama, you’ve said before now passengers just make the boat untidy.”
“True, my angel. But one never knows what may happen. It’s so nice to have a cargo I won’t feel sentimental about, if I have to tip it overboard to keep the old girl trimmed in a blow.”
He stole up behind her on the quarter-deck, his footfall almost silent in those absurd, narrow-toed, courtier’s shoes, so she could, plausibly, make believe to be startled when he spoke.
“Santa Gertrude. An interesting choice of name.”
Carolyn turned to eye her passenger, taking the opportunity as she did so to look down at the controlled chaos in the cockpit. Martin was making a half-decent fist of conning the vessel out past the mole, given the sea-state (confused) and the weather (already decidedly adverse, and rapidly becoming more determined on the point). Still, no point in pushing their collective luck. Better to keep their noble guest in conversation – out of the way – until either the tricky part was over or they had passed the point of no return. At least the girl had retired below.
“A saint with a particular antipathy to sea-monsters, rats and mice. Most suitable for a coastal trading vessel, I’d have thought.”
Lord Lestrade’s sensuous lips parted in amused surprise. Had she been thirty years younger or – better – had he been thirty years older it might almost have had its intended effect. He had, she thought, the kind of face that would mature well; the tempering of the years would add distinction to those almost too-pretty features. Not that he was likely to live long enough to achieve grey hairs. A duellist’s well-placed blade, a change in his king’s favour or the pox; those were the fates that awaited the Rupert Lestrades of this world. Though, if he felt the breath of mortality on his neck, he wore that knowledge very lightly.
“Ah! St Gertrude of Nivelles. I can’t think why, but for some reason I’d imagined the boat to be under the patronage of the other St Gertrude, St Gertrude the Great, the famous – Abbess.”
Carolyn shrugged. “And why not both? I owe a specific devotion to the latter lady; indeed, I may tell you that had my petition to her been rejected I’d hardly have been able to buy the boat out from under my husband’s creditors on his death.”
Lord Lestrade’s smile widened. “I’ve tried various ways to fend off my creditors, but I’d never thought of a direct appeal to the saints. Presumably the Bank of Heaven – unlike the alternatives – is prohibited from charging the usual usurious interest rates?”
A new voice cut in. “Quite so. A positively saintly one-and-a-half percent, quarterly in arrears, in fact.”
“Douglas! What have I said to you before about skulking?”
“Ma’am, I hardly think it’s fair to describe my actions as ‘skulking’. I was merely awaiting the appropriate moment to inform our passenger that Arthur has finished his machinations in the galley and dinner is about to be served.”
“Dinner! A little early, isn’t it?”
“Looking at the state of the sky, sir, whatever understandable reluctance you may have to tackling the fruits of Arthur’s culinary experimentation now, I can guarantee you’ll be feeling worse about it later.”
Lord Lestrade allowed himself to be escorted below. Carolyn stood on the quarter-deck, wrapped in her woollen cloak against the piercing wind, watching Italy drop out of sight behind her. Her bones were old and infinitely knowledgeable; they told her that the Santa Gertrude was in for a rocky trip. They remained, however, frustratingly enigmatic on how, precisely, things were destined to go wrong this time.
“I wouldn’t go below deck just at the moment if I were you. The cargo appears to have shifted.”
“Douglas, they’re not cargo, they’re passengers!”
“As I said. The cargo was tidily stowed, and now it’s all rolled around all over the place and ended up in a big untidy heap.”
Arthur popped his head up through the hatchway. “Douglas? Can I ask you something?”
“I have the ability to stop you? Surely the issue is not whether you can raise a question but whether I can manage to summon the intestinal fortitude to give you the answer.”
“Douglas! Look, Arthur, if there’s anything you need to know, I’m the master of this vessel and you should ask me. Whatever it is.”
“Sir. I’m in command, on board and on passage. Sir is the proper form of address.”
“In that case, I draw to sir’s magisterial attention a point which in the giddiness of command he may have overlooked. This is Arthur we’re dealing with. I repeat, Arthur. And Arthur is currently engaged in the act of emerging from below – from below. And, if I may remind sir of my recent comments anent the stowage of cargo -?”
“I see sir has taken my point with sir’s customary acuity. So, Arthur, unleash the wild dogs of your curiosity and bid them feast upon our skipper’s overstocked larders of knowledge.”
“On second thoughts, Douglas –”
“No; far be it from me to trespass upon an area which sir has clearly stated to be the skipper’s prerogative. Your call.”
“Tell you what, chaps; I’ll ask the question, and whichever of you gets the answer first can tell me.”
“Ah! Arthur, as ever, cuts the Gordian knot. So, don’t keep us in suspense any longer. What is it you wish to know?”
“Well, you know those really, really important heavy dangly things that people sometimes put casings over for protection?”
There was, for a moment, a horrified silence on the quarter-deck; at least, as silent as anything aboard an elderly wooden sailing vessel in a rising gale could be. Arthur took it as an invitation to continue.
“Well, what would you do if – say for example – you went down to see everything was all right in the passengers’ cabins and discovered that the ship’s cat was lying on –for the sake of argument – Lord Lestrade’s bunk and she was chewing the ribbons on the dangly thing’s casing and before you could stop her she’d ripped it right off and taken it down to play with in the bilges?”
“Normally, Arthur, this is the moment when I would draw to your attention the inherent ambiguity of your use of the pronoun ‘it’ in that sentence and request further clarification,” Douglas breathed. “But in the current case I’m not sure my constitution is capable of coping with the answer.”
“Arthur, where’s Lord Lestrade now?” Despite the rising wind, the note of panic in the skipper’s voice was unmistakeable.
Arthur looked puzzled. “Well, in Miss Donovan’s cabin, where he’s been all along.” His expression changed. “I say, do you think I ought to go and offer to help? From the way she was moaning, it sounds as though she must be feeling really, really seasick. And one of the sailors was telling me about this brilliant cure for seasickness. You get some twine and a piece of salt-pork –”
“Arthur!” Martin appeared to be holding onto his sanity by his fingernails. “I don’t think we need worry about that at this moment.”
“Indeed we don’t; Lord Lestrade would appear to have that aspect well in hand. As it were. And quite possibly using a variant on that very technique, come to think of it. But leaving that consideration aside, Arthur, would you care to be a little more specific about the precise nature of the object whose casing’s ribbons were – strictly hypothetically, we understand – being chewed by the ship’s cat?”
He opened his hand to reveal a broken shard of blood-red wax, perhaps half the size of the palm of his hand. When unbroken, it would have been a disc, double that size and about as thick as a man’s little finger. But it was the arms embossed on the wax fragment that caused both Douglas and Martin to catch their breath.
Even partial, even bearing all too evident signs of the cat’s late attentions, a pair of crossed keys surmounted by a tiara could mean only one thing.
Douglas kept his voice steady with a supreme effort. “Arthur. Suppose you tell me what you are doing with a Vatican seal?”
Arthur looked at the fragment of wax. “What’s a –”
“Named in commemoration of Pope Benedict the Naturalist,” Douglas said rapidly. “He prayed to make the Vatican’s aquaria the glory of Christendom, and so was granted a special miracle to allow his hunters to transform the dolphins, otters, flamingos, water-horses and so forth which they captured in the wild into compressed wax discs for ease of transport.”
“Brilliant! But –”
“A valid question, Arthur. The creatures miraculously returned to life in their original shapes once they touched the sacred ponds of the Holy City. But enough of theological by-ways. The question is, what are we going to do?”
“About the document to which that – object – was previously attached. A document which started the voyage validated under the Vatican’s seal and is now, I presume, validated by a chewed end of ribbon liberally bedewed with cat-spittle.”
“She didn’t swallow very much – we can stitch the ends together and –” Arthur looked down at the fragment of wax in his hand, and, visibly, faltered. “I’m sure if we can’t get the case and the rest of it back out of the bilges and put it back together, everyone will still know what it was supposed to be, so that’ll be all right, won’t it? After all, the cat didn’t mean any harm. It was only curiosity, after all.”
“As Galileo said to the Inquisition.” Douglas caught Arthur’s baffled glance and sighed. “Whatever this was attached to – which we, of course, have no means of knowing – I somehow doubt it was an informal little billet-doux inviting Lord Lestrade to drop in for a drink the next time he happens to be passing St Peter’s.”
“What do you mean, ‘have no means of knowing’?” Martin demanded. “Arthur, the cat hasn’t managed to drag the whole document off to the bilges, just the seal, yes?”
“No – I mean, yes. It’s still there. On Lord Lestrade’s bunk, I mean. He must have been searching for something in his sea-chest and got interrupted.”
“And – ah – last time you heard, Lord Lestrade was – um – in Miss Donovan’s cabin, looking after her – ah – sea-sickness, yes?”
“Well, then. Let’s find out how deep in the bilges we in fact are.”
“Martin. Can I draw to your attention one salient fact? The document from which this seal was torn was authorised by the Vatican. Who are not noted for expressing themselves in the vernacular. Unless you are proposing to tell me that somehow you’ve acquired fluency in church Latin we haven’t a hope of –”
“Stop right there. Yes, Douglas. I know you’re going to scoff, and somehow I’m going to end up losing but –”
“You can read Latin?”
“You act like it’s a big surprise –”
“Too bloody right, Martin. Frankly, I registered ‘mildly disconcerted’ once the sentence got as far as ‘read’ but as for the rest –”
“Yes, Douglas, I fully understand. Well, perhaps you should start getting used to this. I can read Latin. Before I ran away to sea, my family wanted me to be a priest. In fact, they were pretty insistent. Learning Latin was only the start.”
“Brilliant! At least, not brilliant for us, because you couldn’t have become our skipper if you’d been a priest – at least, it’d have been jolly difficult, though of course it’d be really useful if we started sinking because then you’d be able to give us all the last rites.”
“A scenario I can envisage all too clearly,” Douglas observed.
“Of course, on the other hand if you had become a priest you’d have had to take vows of whatsit.”
“In Martin’s case, the only effect a vow of celibacy would have on his amorous chances would be to improve them. The unattainable has a charm all its own; that’s the real secret of the confessional. Well, Martin, get cracking, before our lovebirds’ stamina wears out or that seam above Miss Donovan’s cabin starts leaking again.”
The interval, once Martin had vanished below, dragged on interminably. Douglas was considering going below himself, when the skipper stumbled up the companionway and almost collapsed onto the quarterdeck, sitting on the edge of the hatchway with his head in his hands.
“How many duels has Lord Lestrade fought?”
Douglas put his head on one side. “Reputedly, twenty-five. Call it eight, to be on the safe side. Why?”
“Because I don’t think he’s going to let any of us off this vessel alive, when he finds out we’ve damaged his parchment.”
“Why? What is it?”
Martin shuddered. “An opinion on canon law. And, frankly, we’d be safer if he’d brought a burning tar barrel on board and insisted on installing it in the powder magazine.”
“Erm, I don’t think that’d be a very good idea, skipper.”
“Yes, Arthur, I think Martin has grasped that point. So what’s this incendiary document an opinion on?”
“De Matrimonii Effectibus.”
“If sir could consider lowering himself to use the vernacular for the benefit of us lesser beings?”
“It’s about presumption of paternity in canon law. Specifically, when a child apparently born in wedlock can be declared a bastard.”
“Proof of absence or impotence on the husband’s part. Nothing else. Overwrought and drunken confessions from the lady in question don’t count, thank all the saints.”
“I’ll not enquire how you know that, shall I, Douglas?”
“Sir is too kind.”
“Anyway, that’s what we may have thought, but not any more. According to that document, the absence or impotence things are just exempla. It’s the strength of the evidence that matters, not its nature.”
“The cardinal who wrote it seems to have been obsessed about bastards sneaking honours and rewards away from legitimate children.”
“Ah? Passed over for promotion in favour of some papal ‘nephew’, was he?”
Arthur coughed. “Sorry, chaps, but I don’t understand. Why would Lord Lestrade be interested in legitimacy? He’s not even married yet.”
“I don’t think, Arthur, Martin thinks Lord Lestrade is worried about legitimacy on his own account. Well, that explains what he was doing crossing the Straits at this time of year.”
“But that’s obvious. He’s eloping with Miss Donovan.”
“Arthur, that’s what he’s doing on the return journey. Doesn’t explain what brought him to Italy in the first place. Anyway, Martin’s right.”
“Yes. Much as it pains me to admit it. I imagine the opinions of cardinals – even ones with bees in their skull-caps – don’t come cheap. Also, the likes of Lord Lestrade wouldn’t ship aboard the Santa Gertrude at any time, let alone winter, unless they were really worried about being spotted. So, a secret, risky and no-expense-spared mission aimed at proving someone’s bastardy. And whose might that be?”
“Oh, shit,” Martin groaned. “We’re all completely fucked.”
“Succinct, accurate and to the point. So, it’s time to do some fast thinking. Martin, stay on deck. Send one crew member to put extra caulking into the deck seams above Miss Donovan’s cabin. Quietly. Oh, and at the same time have them open the seams above Lord Lestrade’s. Arthur and I are going to track the cat into the depth of the bilges. And, Martin?”
“Whatever you do, on no account tack until I say so.”
He turned, hunched in his sea-cloak, the wildly rocking lantern which illuminated the quarter-deck showing guilt in every line of his body, and she knew she had him.
“Carolyn? I didn’t – um – see you there.”
She cleared her throat. “Venice. The jewel of the oceans, the Queen of the seas, the cradle of civilisation, the fulcrum between East and West. But not, as it happens, our intended destination.” She took two strides closer. “Martin, why is the prow of this boat aiming at Venice? You should have tacked two and a half turns ago.”
Martin muttered something incoherent, from which she managed, despite the wind’s interference, to make out the words “passengers” and “disturb”. Her frown deepened.
“Martin, even if I cared about the passengers’ comfort – which I emphatically don’t – I’ve found that they are in general a great deal happier to arrive where they paid us to go, rather than at the other end of the Adriatic, even if it may be a trifle less pleasant getting to their actual destination. So, I repeat: what is going on?”
This time the mumble definitely sounded like, “Douglas.”
Carolyn gritted her teeth. “Martin. You are the skipper, I am the owner and whatever scheme Douglas may have dreamt up, we are not going to Venice. Also, where is Douglas? And, for that matter, Arthur?”
“Bilges,” he muttered unhappily.
“Bilges? You continue to make no sense whatsoever.”
“What Martin means, Carolyn, is that Arthur and I have been below, trying to retrieve a situation that could easily slip from disastrous to fatal.” Douglas put his head up through the hatchway and blinked as a great wave broke over the quarter-deck rail and hit him full in the face. He wiped salt water out of his eyes with his sleeve. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to surrender your cabin to Lord Lestrade and his unofficial lady.”
“What? Douglas, what, what?”
He eased himself fully up on deck. “I couldn’t help hearing ma’am’s cogent observations on the need for us to put in a tack sooner rather than later. At which point Miss Donovan’s leeward bunk will become a windward bunk and hence acutely uncomfortable to sleep or, indeed, do anything else in. It doesn’t require an astrologer to predict that at that moment she and Lord Lestrade may wish to decamp to Lord Lestrade’s cabin, where they will discover that the deck seam has been leaking and the bunk is soaked.”
“But the leaky deck seam is above Miss Donovan’s cabin, that’s why I put her there. She may be the one paying, but it’s Lord Lestrade who can make our lives a misery if he’s not comfortable.”
“Being completely freed from the restraints of chivalry must open up so many more options. Anyway, I’m afraid that once again the old girl has proved that she has a few tricks up her sleeve. Notwithstanding prior experience, the larboard side is currently bearing up splendidly, whereas – regrettably – starboard is leaking like nobody’s business.”
“No, Douglas. Leaks on Gertie are very much my business. Especially if there is any likelihood they may force me to sacrifice my personal comfort. However, I surmise the mysterious opening and closing seams are the least of it. Douglas, you and I are going to have a private little chat below.”
“Carolyn, I –”
“Below, Douglas, now. I need you to tell me precisely what’s going on. But quickly. Martin, stay on this heading until we’ve finished.”
Douglas’ muttered few words to her in the galley had the effect of a sharp blow to the midriff. Perils of wind, wave, rascally charterers, rapacious creditors, tyrannical port officers – these were the challenges of ordinary existence which she met without flinching, often, indeed, with a kind of exhilaration that she had, so far, remained afloat against all odds. Court politics, though – they were more lethal than a submerged reef, and harder to navigate than an estuary in fog. Douglas’ scheme, hare-brained as it sounded, offered their only hope of safety.
She gave Douglas a few minutes to make final preparations and then passed the word to Martin to tack, to put the most responsible of the hands on the helm when he had done so and then join them below.
As anticipated, the tack produced the thud of two bodies hitting the cabin sole as the lower side of the boat became the higher. Lord Lestrade irrupted from the cabin in a towering fit of anger, wrapped in nothing more than a sheet.
“What the devil do you mean by –”
“My lord, I do very sincerely apologise that your lordship’s choice of a destination which requires us to beat to windward has chosen to conflict with your lordship’s equally reasonable desire to get a good night’s sleep. Could we have prevented such an inauspicious conjunction of events, we would undoubtedly have done so. However, prayers, imprecations and the sacrifice by the more superstitious element of the ship’s complement of the sickliest of the ship’s fowl have, alike, proved unavailing.”
“Stop flannelling, woman. How long do you propose to remain on this heading?”
Sally, peeping out from behind her lord, looked imploringly at her, as if Carolyn could miraculously summon an immediate landfall by sheer force of will.
“Assuming no radical windshift in the foreseeable future, attack by sea-serpent or the sudden eruption of a volcanic island between us and our destination? At least another five turns of the glass, possibly longer.”
“In that case, Miss Donovan and I will move to my cabin.”
“That won’t be possible, I’m afraid.”
“Well, it’s very unfortunate, but the deck seam above your cabin appears to have worked open with the vessel’s motion. All the blankets and sheets on your bunk are quite soaked. We managed to get a tarpaulin over your lordship’s personal belongings, but I strongly advise we don’t move anything until we’ve got daylight to help us see what we’re doing. After all, as your lordship will appreciate, we don’t want to go blundering in there in the dark and risk making matters worse. Accordingly, if your lordship and your lordship’s ladyship would care to make your respective ways down the ship, I will put my own after cabin at your fullest disposal.”
“My master’s mate assures me that hot spiced wine awaits you there, and you should find the accommodations more than ample. And, I might add, once the bunk’s lee cloths are drawn tight, you’ll not know which tack we’re on. Even if we tack again. And again. And, for good measure, once more. Which, especially aboard the Santa Gertrude, can never be entirely ruled out.”
Lord Lestrade might have been inclined to argue but Sally Donovan’s inexperienced sea-legs were, apparently, not up to the task of keeping her comfortably vertical for any length of time, at least not below. She caught his wrist and virtually dragged him away to Carolyn’s cabin. The door swung to behind them.
“Now,” Carolyn said, “to the master’s quarters, where I expect you all to enlighten me as to what is behind this elaborate farce.”
Once there, Douglas reached inside his jerkin and dropped a round leather case onto the table, beneath the pool of light shed by the hanging lamp. The case was about the size of a man’s palm, badly stained with damp. A short, disreputable end of ribbon protruded from it. With some care he laid something that looked like the shoulder bone of a joint of mutton next to it. Then a parchment, covered in an elegant script – Latin, she presumed. And, finally, two substantial shards of red wax, bearing parts of a seal that –
The boat was, by now, rocking wildly; the Santa Gertrude had always been a pig to steer in anything of a blow. That, though, was not the reason Carolyn’s knees abruptly gave way beneath her. Only Douglas’ adroitness in manoeuvring her to a bench stopped her from tumbling to the deck.
“Dear God,” she breathed, when she was a little more collected. “Somehow you’ve managed, between you, to destroy the validation on a church document issued to one of the most notoriously hot-tempered courtiers in the three kingdoms. What are we to do?”
“Oh, don’t worry, Mama. Douglas is going to fix everything.”
“Is saying nothing more than the exact truth.” Douglas reached out his hand and, with an air of ceremony she was sure was entirely conscious, turned over the mutton bone, to reveal that the reverse side had been precision-carved with the crossed keys and tiara device in deep intaglio.
“Dear sweet holy Mary, you’re not proposing to forge the Pope’s seal?”
“Actually, that’s just the Vatican seal, His Holiness’ personal seal looks more like –”
“Martin, shut up. I realise with the benefit of several years’ trying I still haven’t managed to batter the concept of ‘distinction without a difference’ into your remarkably resistant skull, but doubtless the Holy Office has tools at its disposal the like of which I can merely dream about.”
“I – ah – “
“Don’t worry, Carolyn. The situation is entirely under control.”
“Under control? Lord Lestrade or Miss Donovan may come out at any minute.”
“A possible but highly unlikely scenario. One of the reasons for insisting on spiced wine – “
“Apart from your apparent desire to bankrupt me, yes?”
“Was not merely because of the known carminative properties of ginger in cases of seasickness – always a danger with an inexperienced sailor, particularly on a breezy night like this – but that it makes it much simpler to mask the flavour of – ah – other carminative substances, such as, in this precise case, tincture of opium.”
Martin’s head snapped up. “Douglas! You never told me you were planning to drug the passengers!”
Carolyn exhaled. “For once, Douglas, you appear to be displaying almost the brilliance my son repeatedly claims you possess. So, we have until at least dawn – at least, if the old girl can manage to stay afloat until then. Let us get to it, then. We’re shipping haberdashers’ supplies, so we ought to be able to match the ribbon – a minor case of breaking bulk will hardly add a featherweight to the total sum of our transgressions – but –”
She glanced down in sudden doubt at the wax shards resting within the dancing circle of lamplight. Douglas tracked the motion of her head.
“Ah, yes. Even though Arthur boldly penetrated into regions of the bilges where even the most intrepid ship’s rat would hesitate to roam, we were unable to retrieve the final third of the seal. We are, therefore, somewhat short of sealing wax of the right shade. We shall have to make do.”
She thought he reached inside his jerkin for the final time with genuine reluctance. “With this, I suppose.”
He laid a disc of lead – scored by lines into twelve wedges, like a pie ready for serving – onto the cabin table. A number of the wedges bore a curious stamp, a monogram G superimposed on a scallop shell.
Carolyn had not seen that symbol in years. There was no possibility that she would not recognise it. From the small relaxation at the corners of Douglas’ mouth she knew he had seen her recognition and known it for what it was. She got her retaliation in first.
“Generous of you to sacrifice it. I understand they pass better than coin half-way round the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Martin, as she had half-expected, was looking baffled. Her son, though, got in first.
“Mama, what is it?”
She saw Douglas’ eyes glittering with malice and summoned every minim of dignity into her voice.
“It’s a record of – um – devotions. Paid at a particular shrine. Each visit, the guardians of the shrine stamp another wedge so as to record it. Once every wedge has been stamped, it entitles the holder to receive – ah – a plenary indulgence.”
“Wow, Douglas, you must have been really, really devout. Over half of these wedges have been stamped!”
“As Carolyn remarks, Arthur, these things do change hands from time to time. For quite considerable sums, when nearly complete, I gather. Not that that’s important right now. For the time being, let’s just assume that if we build the new seal around it, it’s the right shape and weight to make up for the missing wax, and get to work, shall we?”
The red-tiled roofs of the little port shone in the late winter sunshine. The sea – dark blue and sparkling, only the tiniest flecks of white marring its smooth surface – appeared a completely different beast from the heaving monster of the night.
Lord Lestrade watched the last of his baggage being carried down the gangplank and turned to Carolyn.
“Well, I’d considered myself an experienced sailor, but travelling aboard the Santa Gertrude has opened my eyes to hitherto undreamt of possibilities. Dinner yesterday, for example. Arthur’s Cabbage Surprise is a memory I may well take to my grave.”
“My son aims to please.”
“And you, presumably, take care to stand well back behind the firing position.”
Carolyn inclined her head. “As ever, I do what safety dictates. For my vessel, my crew and my passengers. And here we are, at the right destination, alive and only somewhat damp. A successful voyage, in short, my lord.”
Lord Lestrade’s eyebrows rose. “You equate survival with success?”
“As a courtier, my lord, would you challenge that definition?” Prudently she turned aside before he could respond. “And Miss Donovan! How are you feeling this fine day?”
“If I ever set foot on another boat it’ll be too soon.”
“Ah! Well, then it’s been a unique privilege to travel with you. And the very best wishes for your future happiness.”
She noted with care the direction they took on descending to the quayside and watched them out of sight. The cabin-boy (whom she suspected of having taken private skulking lessons from Douglas) watched them rather further; on his return to the boat he reported that they had gone up to a substantial villa set amid luxuriant gardens and olive groves above the town and there been welcomed as honoured and expected guests. Once she’d wrung him dry of information she despatched him with a commission to one of her contacts in the lower part of the town. Then she went in search of her son.
“Douglas and Martin have gone to see the port captain, Mama,” he said as she hove into view.
“And doubtless that will be a delightful experience for all three of them. But it isn’t Douglas or Martin I wish to speak to, my angel, it is you.”
“Oh, dear. What have I forgotten to do this time?”
“I have not the slightest idea, nor do I care. All I care is that on their return from their sojourn with the port captain, should they start enquiring after my whereabouts, you let them know that they should not expect to see me for some days. Accordingly, they are not to take on any charter commencing before Sunday week. There are plenty of maintenance jobs the old girl needs before then; the deck seams are only a fraction of it.”
“But Mama –?”
“We have been delivered from great peril on the thundering deep. I propose, accordingly, to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of our patron saint. There is my horse and escort now. That, Arthur, is my last word on the topic. Don’t sink the Santa Gertrude while I’m away, don’t play games of chance with anyone you don’t know – or Douglas – and never eat cheese just before bedtime, you know it gives you nightmares. Goodbye!”