Some fly to war. Others flee it. No one is safe.
Sweeping historical fiction set in Corunna (La Coruña), Galicia, Spain, in 1809.
When the British army is sent into Spain to help expel Napoleon’s invaders, nothing goes as expected. Not for London newsman Sam Kerr, hunting a story that will win him the editor’s chair, who instead nets one that could wreck his career. Not for the Wakefield family, loyalist refugees from America seeking peace among people of their faith, who find war has followed them even here. And certainly not for the British troops, whose mission of support turns into a fight for all their lives.
The Swift was late. Samuel Kerr failed to find any humor in it.
As he waited for the boat carrying correspondence from the Continent to cut through the fog, Kerr clomped the short length of the pier. Its boards rocked and creaked in protest. He forced his legs to stay still and shook his shoulders out. This night had promised the world and fulfilled not a bleeding bit of it. If only there were someone to blame. If only it were satisfying to punch the air.
The sights along the easy ride from London to Greenwich had not diverted his thoughts. Why would the dolts in government not see reason on the Spanish question—did they believe in nothing, then? Napoleon had kidnapped Spain’s royal family and declared his own brother its king, and London’s politicians merely hemmed and hawed. Did they truly believe England safe from the ravenous gaze of the Corsican? Better to go to the fight than have the fight come to them. Worse was the single-minded idiocy of true believers, pleading for aid with tears and rending of garments, failing to understand that reason took the day, not faith. He knew his positions contradicted each other, but there it was.
And, by God, this was the last bloody evening he was going to spend being schooled yet again in the moral imperative to abolish slavery. He agreed wholeheartedly with the blunderbuss that was Martin Churchson; still, he never wished to hear another word from him about it. That man’s blather could drown a fish.
How could sweet Heather have chosen Churchson over all the rest, over Kerr himself? He couldn’t see it. One would have thought a strong body and mind and flexible intellect rated more than a phlegm-hacking presumptive messiah. One would be wrong. So they didn’t think that scribbling for a newspaper was decent work? Doubly wrong.
A rotted board groaned under him, and he stopped his idiotic pacing once again. ‘Thunderer’ Churchson might sway a few hundred on Sunday with his flaming rhetoric, but Kerr’s writing in The Beacon reached tens of thousands, three times a week. People didn’t change their minds overnight, but only after the steady drip, drip, drip of impassioned pressure. If the blasted do-gooder wouldn’t help his cause by writing for the paper himself, the least he could do was not refer to it as “that rag” whenever someone brought it up.
Now more than ever, the news journals were critical. Weren’t Spain’s emissaries in London this very minute, pleading for British aid, in gold and in blood, to fight the Corsican? The Spanish had agreed to allow French troops to cross the country to harry Portugal; once in place, Napoleon then had turned on them.
The Beacon’s readers needed to hear the truth of it, along with the other tidings from the Continent, not the expurgated version that the Foreign Office fed them. Not to mention, Kerr needed a story. Big news to break, and his promotion to editor because of it, might well be coming on the Swift’s shore boat, stroking smoothly toward the dock. About time.
Watching the boat in the gloom of the half-moon did not take up even one-quarter of his thoughts. Women. What did they want? Even Heather, still nannyish in her somber clothing and sober ways, wanted her man reeking of powder and bombast. They wanted the swashbuckler, even if more times than not his swash ultimately buckled his own purpose. Heather’s husband had lost friends and allies through his greater-than-thou demeanor, but try telling her that.
What had she said? “You might try believing in something, Sam, rather than feeling your way blindly through life.” Bah. I believe in plenty.
He believed that the English should take Spain’s part. She’d said war was a poor belief. “Not war, patriotism,” he’d countered, “you do love your country, don’t you?” “Of course,” she’d said, “which is why we should not sacrifice its children.”
The children who might grow up speaking French after Napoleon gobbles down Spain and comes for us. Hadn’t thought of that line fast enough, had he? Heather had patted his knee, reverting him to infancy in a single gesture, and gone on to remind Churchson that slavery still existed in the world. The man took the floor, and that was the end of conversation.
Kerr could now make out the men rowing, and the striped cap of the usual courier sitting amidships. Wisps of fog, more dank than chill, drifted on this high summer’s eve. The river smelled almost fresh. The shush-shush of the oars echoed, as if the boat were pulling up before and behind him.
Striped Cap handed a small bundle of papers up to him. Kerr tucked them into his coat and pulled out the price-bag and the narrow bottle of good rum. Cap took both off his hands and called the men to turn about. He nodded once to Kerr, and then again, looking over Kerr’s shoulder.
“I’ll take those.”
He knew the voice. That pedant of a Custom House clerk. Of course it would be tonight that the man figured out the other packet was a decoy. Kerr pasted on a bemused look and turned to face him. “I beg your pardon.”
“All news and correspondence from abroad must first travel through His Majesty’s servants before reaching the public.”
Kerr crossed his arms, legs splayed in bully position, making full use of his sturdy frame. Did the weasel shiver? Good. “Read your regulations a mite closer, mate. Private correspondence is exactly that—private. War or no war.”
The man pursed his lips. “I saw him hand you the newspapers.”
“I saw you give him the bribe.”
“A consideration, only.”
“Come now, Mr. Kerr. I’m not blind.” The weasel oozed sympathy, but his words echoed Heather’s. They could all go to hell. “Your employer would not wish to bail you out of jail again, would he?”
True. But if Kerr gave in, government lackeys would translate the copy as suited themselves and hand it out days later, stale and slanted. And every paper would run with it; parrots, the lot of them. The Beacon’s reputation was solid news, as fast as wind and currents allowed. It certainly was not going to share the dregs of His Majesty’s Custom House.
What would a swashbuckler do? Some sleight of hand learned from a gypsy nanny, he suspected. No gentleman’s son, Kerr had never had a nanny, much less a clever gypsy nanny. He had to keep this job. He had to keep these papers. He had to take down the weasel.
Before he’d even uncrossed his arms, there was the gun, dead iron and wobbling in the smaller man’s hands. A pistol, but Weasel held it as if it were a tiny rifle. “I don’t want to shoot.”
Not like that. Kerr stepped closer, but to the side of the weapon. “You’re a good shot, are you?”
The barrel of the gun wobbled, as did the weasel’s lower lip. “Rifles mostly.”
“So it’s the constable’s sidearm?”
Got him. Kerr closed the space, even bumping the other man’s hip gently. “Right. This one,” he said as he palmed the barrel, startling the other man into loosening his grip for a moment, “needs tender ministration, she does.”
Kerr lifted the piece and took two quick steps away. He held the gun properly and sighted along the barrel across the water toward the edge of the cove. “Good looker, but a bit of an antique, no?”
“Give it over.” The man reached for the piece, but his hand stopped, seemingly afraid to touch it.
“Look. Like this.” Kerr demonstrated the basic stance. “But for you, with your tailor’s hands, it might be better to make a shelf of your free arm, like this, to rest your shooting wrist on.”
Weasel turned to face the bay and mimicked Kerr’s pose. “Less shaking,” he said, voice less of a whine. “But still accurate?”
“Better, even. Let’s see, that tree at three hundred paces?” As the man lifted a hand to his eyes, squinting to make out the tree, Kerr took the shot.
The gun flashed, its report cracking the wispy silence, parting the water near the shore. The Custom House man’s hands went to his ears.
“Quite the kick these fancy pieces have.” Kerr tilted the pistol up, inspecting the heated barrel. “Looks like you need to take your aim up about five degrees from standard.”
“You spent the shot!” Weasel pulled his hands down and jammed them on his hips. Was he starting to wheeze?
Kerr handed the piece back to the man, barrel down. “Too fancy. Best to stick with the rifle.” He left him there and headed up to the riverbank. It would take the customs dupe at least a minute to re-prime the pistol, if he even knew how.
Good choice, riding for once. It wouldn’t have done to wait on the mail coach.
Reviewers say: “Penttila shows a deft hand with complex, believable characterizations that accurately reflect the historical period.”–Publishers Weekly
“Combine Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels with Jane Austen, add a touch of Dickens and a modern sex scene, then you’ll have the flavor of Nicky Penttila’s Note of Scandal.”—Sheila, via Goodreads