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Jane and the Poacher's Secret part i of ii

May 08, 2017 08:52PM
following Jane and the Burning Question, a long short story in which Jane and Caleb hunt down a gang of murderous poachers to help out Honoria's betrothed

“Please, Mr. Armitage, there’s a real toff come to see you, look you, and I’ve put him in the new salon,” said Mostyn.
“Very well, Mostyn, be prepared to serve tea as soon as possible, and see if Mrs. Barnard has any biscuits or cakes on hand as well,” said Caleb. “My dear?”
Jane rose and took his arm to go through to the newly decorated best salon, which was a trifle intimidating to live in, being the largest room in the house, suitable for half a dozen couples to stand up in to dance, and Jane had ordered it hung in cream with darker swags of flowers and picked out in gold. It had windows all along one side, and the curtains were of gold velvet, which had been a job lot going cheap because of a pluck mark all along the length, which did not show when draped. These were caught with blue tasselled ties, and the carpet on the floor was in blue and beige and gold, and over the mantel, Jane had placed the Rafael which had been awarded to them by the Steggall brothers for discovering who had killed their mother.
The elegant gentleman of fashion was examining this with his quizzing glass when they entered. He was dark visaged with a prominent nose and cheekbones and heavy black eyebrows, and his hair was brushed into a Caesar, tidier than the still fashionable Brutus which had declined somewhat in popularity since the fall of ‘Beau’ Brummel. He was tall and loose-limbed, and wore his clothes as though they had been painted on, both form-fitting and yet in no way seeming uncomfortable.
“My apologies,” he said with a deep bow. “I believe that may be an original.”
“Yes, so did the murderess who killed over it,” said Jane. “It gave the family a dislike for it, and they asked us to take it in lieu of a fee. It was a generous gift, but I can appreciate their sentiments. The subject matter of a girl with a kitten is sufficiently innocuous, however, to make it suitable for display, without dwelling on the unhappy associations thereof. I like it for itself, actually, rather than because it is by an Italian master, and that should be the only reason, in my opinion, for valuing pictures.”
“Had they any idea of the worth?”
“Yes, for I apprised them that it was probably equal to the worth of their house. It was a generous gift, but they were adamant. The glorious sky and the child’s dress in blue were what prompted the choices of blue in our decorating scheme. Frances, my daughter, loves it, calls the little girl ‘The Pussycat Princess’.”
He smiled, and his rather harsh, dark face lightened, and became suddenly handsome. Jane gasped.
“Oh! You are Horatia’s ‘My Felix’,” she said.
He laughed in genuine amusement.
“She has described my unfortunate features well,” he said.
“Also how when you smile your true personality is present,” said Jane. “I am forgetting my manners, Lord Wulcombe; please take a seat, my husband and I are at your disposal.”
He waited for her to seat herself beside the small table, for Jane kept some minimal furniture besides chairs in the room, and Caleb sat beside Jane.
Lord Wulcombe frowned, and Jane reflected that his curious eyebrows made him look quite fierce when he did so.
“I am afraid of putting Miss Pettiman in danger if I marry her as soon as I would like,” he said, abruptly.
“That’s a statement to raise eyebrows,” said Caleb. “Makes it sound as though you’re afraid of turning into a werewolf like that Roman fellow in the story.”
“A whimsical thought. I don’t explain myself well, I apologise. I … I am sure you are aware that Bow Street runners have been hired to infiltrate gangs of poachers?”
“Yes, it’s one of our duties, and considered a good one by most of the lads.”
“It would be profitable to the average runner, I’m sure, but now I’ve met you, I am in two minds whether to ask you about this, for you are undoubtedly a gentleman. I know Honoria, Miss Pettiman I mean, described you as such but …” he flushed.
“But you wondered if she was taken in by someone half flash?” asked Caleb.
“More or less, and I apologise,” said Wulcombe.
“No need at all, I believe I am not entirely of the common mould,” said Caleb. “I accept the jobs which need a little finesse and subtlety and the ability to be a gentleman. Which isn’t to say I’m not capable of playing a part, since recently we acted as the butler and housekeeper to a gentleman. Which was fun in its way, but main hard work!”
“I wager. I am glad you found it fun, a man who can enjoy his work is going to be better at it than one who does not. Could you be a rough son of the soil?”
“No, because I don’t know enough about farming. I could be a rough ostler though, if that would work.”
“That … might do.”
“I assume you have problems with poaching.”
Wulcombe waved a languid hand.
“If it were just poaching, I’d employ more groundsmen. But they are vicious. My under-keeper was my half-brother; my father kept a mistress after my mother died, and Basil was educated by my tutor when I left him, and I was … extremely fond of him,” he added softly. “He was just twenty years old, and eagerly learning the job to be my steward one day after working his way up. And they killed him, and strung him up on the vermin fence between crows and stoats with a board ‘Wolves are vermin too’ by him. He took the surname ‘Wolf’ as a joke on the name ‘Wulcombe’.”
“That is most unpleasant,” said Jane, frowning. “I take it that from that you make the assumption that his killing was a threat to you, and a warning not to attempt to stop the poachers?”
“I thought the inference clear enough,” said Wulcombe. “I am not, however, about to be intimidated by the contumely of such evil people. They did not have to kill the boy.”
“It will take time to win their confidence, of course,” said Caleb.
“Not if you are dismissed publicly from service and are swearing revenge,” said Jane.
“They know whom I employ,” said Wulcombe.
“They do not, however, know who your betrothed’s lady chaperone employs,” said Jane. “Honoria and I will make a visit to you, making it possible for her to spend time with you, getting to know the housekeeper better, and showing off how well I’ve been coaching her in the skills of a chatelaine of a large establishment, and I will make a big scene and fire my groom who will retire to the local public house and sound off.”
“It should work,” said Caleb.
“It means risking my betrothed, however … and your good self, of course, Mrs. Armitage!” said Wulcombe, sharply.
“Not substantially if Honoria is aware of what is going on, and does not stir out without your escort and followed by trusted retainers,” said Jane. “You must have people you trust absolutely? My husband’s man could always come too as a footman, he and my dresser are more than a match for most villains.”
“A well prepared household!”
“We have made enemies,” said Caleb, dryly. “Jem Fowler is a good man in a scrap, though you’d never think so to hear him talk. Ella has trained with a pistol until she is as good a shot as Jane, and whilst I’d not back either of them to culp a wafer at White’s, even if they were permitted in, I’d trust either of them to put a ball into an man at any reasonable range to incapacitate or kill as seems appropriate at the time, and moreover to assess which of those two outcomes is best.”
“My goodness!” Lord Wulcombe looked on Jane with increased respect. “Perhaps I should train Honoria similarly.”
“If, as she told me, you are a local magistrate, I’d say that was a good idea,” said Jane, not bothering to mention that she had started teaching Honoria. If the girl seemed to be an apt student for already knowing some basics, it would be less of a strain on their marriage.
“She’s a good girl, and she has common sense,” said Wulcombe. “Doesn’t shy at all from the idea of listening to gossip without spreading it, to help me. She admires you greatly, Mrs. Armitage.”
“I found her an intelligent and practical helpmate when we were working on the problem of the burned house,” said Jane. “I am glad that you are willing to accept her help and advice, I was afraid her enthusiasm would be dampened if you did not accept the worth of a woman.”
“I find her refreshing,” said Wulcombe. “Her help is a little like that of a puppy at the moment, and needs directing gently so her enthusiasm is not taken away, but so it is better directed. But I will not crush her, if that is what you feared. Puppies, after all, grow into good working hounds.”
“Good,” said Jane. “I like Honoria, and I would like her to be happy.”
“Then you will make a good chaperone to her, if her father will accept the idea.”
“He knows we are capable,” said Caleb. “Very well, I think my wife’s idea is workable, so as soon as Sir Randolph Pettiman is prepared to relinquish his daughter to visit her betrothed, with attendants galore we might make ready. Pity there’s not a role for Simon, my son, but he must have education at some point, and Henry wants his nose kept to the grindstone.”
“Ah, I’ve heard of the redoubtable Simon, and his dominie, who rescued Honoria.”
“Strictly speaking, that was my assistant, David Brockley; his dominie is one Henry Redmayne. David is back at Cambridge for the Michaelmas term of his final year.”
“Well, I have men I would trust with my life, my own man, and all of the grooms. Then too there is my head gamekeeper, bailiff he aspires to be though I’m not sure he’s not up to that job. A good, solid man, but not imaginative. I had been going to give the job of bailiff to Basil. Abel Sparrow did not like my intention to pass over him, which is unfortunate, but I have to do what is best for the land. He is respectful enough, genial even, but he seemed to resent Basil, I may have imagined it, but I sometimes thought he set the boy hard and unpleasant jobs, to remind him, I suppose, that he was only a worker and not a gentleman. Bas would have been a perfectly good gentleman and my father would have sent him to university and helped him enter orders or become a doctor, but he was always keen to work outside. I want whoever killed him brought to justice and that’s more to me than the stealing of the birds, as even Abel acknowledges.”
“Quite so,” said Caleb. “Ah, Mostyn! Did Mrs. Barnard oblige?” as the butler wheeled in the dumb-waiter.
“Yes, sir, which is why I took my time, for she was just about to get Naples biscuits and curled wiggs from the oven, so I waited.”
“Excellent, Mostyn,” Jane nodded, approving his decision, and the butler looked relieved. He was still feeling his way, and afraid of failing to give satisfaction, but such ability to make decisions was what Jane and Caleb prized in him.

When Mostyn had gone, Caleb asked,
“This head gamekeeper of yours, is he a hard man generally?”
“No, he is affable enough. Abel Sparrow is a man who is stern to his underlings, has his dogs trained to obey every word, but he is not harsh.”
“Then maybe he felt it was part of his duty to you that your young brother be trained even more firmly than any other? Mind, I’ll be bound he shoots first and asks questions later if there are poachers he sees.”
“It would not surprise me. I inherited relatively recently, you understand, and while he did his job I was not minded to change him. He is a perfectly adequate gamekeeper, and is as baffled as I am over how these thefts are happening.”
“No, it would be more likely to make trouble by letting any band of poachers know that you plan to hire someone harsher. Do you, er, know any poachers?”
“A delicate question! Yes, I know one, who taught me a lot of woodcraft in my youth, Nate Thickesse, an elderly man now, and he swears blind he is part of no gang, and knows nothing about them. As to the first, I believe him, and as to the second, I’d say he was afraid to voice any suspicions. Having convictions for poaching, he would make a good scapegoat if any cared to make it seem that he was the leader, and if they are well organised as they seem to be, it would not be hard to fill his outhouse with poached birds, and bury gold under his floor when he was out. I suspect one of the underkeepers may be a part of the gang, or at least a bribed contact, so having poor old Nate ‘discovered’ as the ringleader would be easy, and not a lot I could do about it.”
“No, quite. You have a large town nearby?”
“We have Norwich and Newmarket both within relatively easy reach. Yes, I am certain the meat is going through one or both of them. It might be going to London, but that is further away. Not a convenient ride as it is for you here.”
“No, quite. It is possible to ride from Newmarket to London in a few hours, but such a breakneck pace would be risky. You have set watchers to see if any of your local populace visit either?”
“Yes, but I’ve not had any caught in the act of selling birds. And they are convenient large towns that anyone might visit for their own purpose. Including betting on horses in Newmarket.”
“Indeed,” said Caleb. “And the sport of kings is beloved of high and low alike so that’s no guide. When you have one or two suspects to follow, then it is relatively easy, but essentially your suspects are the inhabitants of the village of Wulcombe Magna, possibly Wulcombe Parva, and your own tenants and estate workers. Some … what, six hundred souls all told?”
“You are well informed. Something in that region. Wulcombe Parva consists of three family and is more an adjunct to Magna than a village, the old names are somewhat obsolete.”
“Jane looked up everything she could find out about you and your lands to make sure Honoria knew what she was getting into,” said Caleb.
“A wise friend for my betrothed,” Wulcombe bowed his upper body to Jane.
“And the habit of a wife of a Bow Street Officer to assume nothing and check everything,” said Jane. “I am interested in the relative remoteness and yet practical proximity of Wulcombe Parva; knowing it consists of just three families makes it easier for them to keep secrets, because of such secrets being family matters.”
“A good point, though I have to point out that one of the families is the Sparrow family from whom my head gamekeeper comes.”
“Ah, then it would be bold villains who flouted his authority in front of his own family; less likely than it appeared on the surface.”
“I am impressed, however, with your reasoning, it is a reasonable supposition,” said Wulcombe. “The other families of that village are the Wiggetts and the Thurkills. A few other names are found, as husbands to some of the girls, but generally they move out or put up with having their children firmly embrace their mother’s maiden name. They keep themselves to themselves, do the Sparrows, Wiggetts and Thurkills. There’s even a distinct look to them from the generations of intermarriage. You’ll see it on Abel Sparrow; he’s what the locals call ‘tutmouthed’, which is to say he has a lantern jaw quite as pronounced as any of the Habsburgs, and big ears. My vicar’s mother was a Thurkill, and he lisps rather, which is an irritation, but he is a local man and owed the living. I fear the locals of Magna like to ask for readings for weddings and baptisms which contain a lot of words he can mispronounce, so bad of them,” he sighed.
“Unfortunately people can be,” said Jane. “Well, we shall see what we shall see. I fancy my role will be unwontedly passive, unless the maidservants will chat to me, as they often seem to do, and I pick up anything that way. However, I may sit and ponder any snippets Caleb passes to me, and see if any present any correlation. You will dine with us, of course, my lord?”
“I had expected to dine at a local inn, where I planned to spend the night, rather than trouble my prospective father-in-law.”
“Most certainly you will not; I do not guarantee the level of luxury for the night to which you are accustomed, but you shall have a good dinner, and the spare room which I keep prepared as a general matter is comfortable, and the sheets are properly aired. I know this fine September is unlikely to find you with damp sheets in an inn, but even so, one cannot but suspect beds prepared only with the prospect of hiring them out in mind.”
“Then I thank you for your generosity, and I will call on Sir Randolph on my way home to put to him your proposition regarding Miss Pettiman’s visit, if she will take the risk. I expect she will; she’s as game as ever stepped.”
“I have every belief in Honoria’s courage and fortitude,” said Jane.


“I don’t suppose we shall have much excitement really,” said Honoria, as they drove north.
“Be thankful for that, Honoria,” said Jane. “Being held by desperate villains is not very nice at all, especially if they decide to torture you to find out what your betrothed knows about them.”
Honoria’s eyes grew wide.
“Jane! Have you been tortured?”
“Yes, though not as extensively as I would have been had not Caleb turned up to rescue me,” said Jane.
“And she didn’t break and tell all like her wretch of a late husband,” muttered Caleb to Fowler, who was seated beside him on the driver’s seat.
“Leave Frank out of this,” said Jane, sharply.
“Your hearing is preternaturally good, my love,” sighed Caleb. “I’m happy to leave Frank out of anything.”
“There is no reason why we should ever mention him, save to explain one day to Frances and Joseph why their surname is different. And even so, I’d have you formally adopt them but for Joseph’s inheritance. He may choose to be your son and whistle the allowance away when he is older, but I will not make that choice for him now.”
“And I’d not want you to, and old man Churchill has been fair enough.”
“There are stories there,” said Honoria.
“Yes, but not all of them are fit for your ears,” said Jane, suppressing a shudder over Frank’s abusive control of her during their marriage.
Honoria blinked, but wisely asked no more.
It was a warm early autumnal day, and Jane was glad that August had been cooler than the oppressive heat of July. She was now well into the middle trimester of her pregnancy, and was aware of the baby within her, though she was wearing gowns with enough fullness to conceal her pregnancy as far as possible. At least Caleb did not attempt to trammel her in taking on this task, for he knew how Jane hated to give in to any weakness, and her sickness in the hottest part of the year had passed. They had started early so as to complete the journey in one day, and Lord Wulcombe had arranged changes of horses so that the journey could be accomplished in some five hours of travelling, which could never be managed without a fresh team every stage.
They came at last to Wulcombe Hall, and swept up the drive, the large Palladian house a focus for the gaze, but the grounds cunningly laid out to draw the eye across to a classical temple on a small rise overlooking a lake, and then back over the bridge which spanned the lake to return to the house.
The house had eight Ionic pillars to front it, very severe, with an architrave over them carved with a scene of the Judgement of Paris, whether a hint to the magistrate within to have better judgement than Paris managed, or whether purely as an excuse to depict three semi-naked goddesses, Jane preferred not to speculate. Behind the architrave rose a dome-topped clock tower, displaying the time for anyone to see who was able to see the house.
“The rose garden is at the back,” volunteered Honoria. “It has a stark beauty, doesn’t it?”
“It’s a little grand for me to feel entirely comfortable, but yes, it does,” Jane agreed.
Caleb brought the carriage smartly to a halt outside the raised entrance, and the door opened to emit several footmen ready to carry bags and baggage.
“Better start berating me, my dear,” said Caleb, softly. “Nine fart-catchers out of ten gossip more than old women, so you may as well give them something to gossip about.
“I’m going to slap you,” said Jane.
“We agreed,” said Caleb. Jane swung her hand hard enough to make a good noise, though as Caleb had shown her, she held her hand cupped, to make more noise than the strength of blow warranted. Caleb put his hand to his face, rubbing it to make it redder.
“And further more, I can smell spirits on your breath, Armitage, you have put my charge and me in jeopardy by driving when drunk! You may take the carriage to the back for the ostlers there to put it in the carriage house, and Fowler will pay you off for the month, and I never want to see you again!”
“But Mrs. Churchill, how shall I go on, so far from home?” Caleb played along. “I ain’t drunk, I had a small nip to keep me going.”
“You stink of gin,” said Jane, which was true enough because Caleb had doused himself well. “And you should have thought about the future before drinking when you were driving. Not another word! You’ve said quite enough. Fowler, the steps!”
Fowler quickly helped Jane and Honoria out, and Jane handed him her purse.
“Pay Armitage for the month,” she said. “And see that he doesn’t damage the carriage when he takes it round.”
“Madam,” said Fowler, woodenly. He and Ella would be going in the rear entrance in any case, to be shown to their quarters and those of their mistress. And if Fowler was regretful that there was relatively little for him to do, at least he could spread stories about the firing of the groom.

Jane permitted the heels of her half-boots to tap angrily on the black and white tiles of the vestibule, until she stopped to curtsey to Lord Wulcombe, who was waiting to greet his guests.
“Mrs. Churchill! I am deeply grateful to you for agreeing to chaperone my betrothed bride,” he bowed over her hand.
“It is a pleasure; Honoria is a dear girl,” said Jane, who did not need to dissemble over that. Honoria was a dear girl and was also discreet enough to go along with the whole charade, and enjoy playing her part. She would manage to fit into these grand surroundings very well. Jane was glad it was not to be her lot; the black and white marble panels on the walls, whether genuine or painted, and the marble staircase were too grand for he tastes, though they were beautiful and elegant. She glanced up at the might pendulum, swinging in the upper reaches of the vestibule.
“Does it unnerve you?” asked Wulcombe.
“Not in the slightlest, my lord, but having heard Honoria describe it, I was curious,” said Jane. “I shouldn’t like to have the cleaning of it though.”
He laughed.
“I have a specialist clockmaker in to do that.”
“Yes, it would need an expert,” said Jane. “Thank you,” as a footmen took her and Honoria’s parasols to hang in a cloakroom.
“Ma’am, Miss, will you come with me? I’m Mrs. Hudson,” the housekeeper bobbed a curtsey, and Jane followed her. Ella had gone with the footmen, to start sorting out the luggage.
Mrs. Hudson took Jane and Honoria to adjacent rooms on the second floor, and Jane stoically climbed the two flights. This was the part of being pregnant that she did not enjoy.
“I’ve put you in connecting rooms, Mrs. Churchill, Miss Pettiman,” said the housekeeper. “Then there can be no suggestion of impropriety in a bachelor household.”
“Excellent, thank you,” said Jane, forbearing to point out that if she slept deeply or was a conniving sort, impropriety could scarcely be avoided. The point was that every effort had been made to protect Honoria’s name. Ella was busy unpacking. She would sleep in Jane’s dressing room.
Jane reflected that it was as well that this investigation would probably be quite boring from her own point of view, since it would be Caleb doing most of the work; there was very little that any lady might do to investigate poaching, save by being the reason for Caleb to be in the vicinity. Which was probably why Caleb had agreed to her taking this role in the first place. Jane suppressed a sigh. She liked Caleb’s protectiveness, and did not want to do too much, but it was hard to act like some empty-headed society woman doing nothing. On the other hand it might be nice to have a pregnancy in which she did not have to do a lot; her last pregnancy had been very busy. Jane despised those women who pampered themselves from the first moment they knew that they were with child, but on the other hand, the added weight of a pregnancy was something that would slow her down.
She could hear Ella speaking sharply to someone, and presently that someone came in and bobbed a curtsey.
“Please, ma’am, I be Dolly, and I be your maid and Miss Onoraria’s for your visit,” she said adenoidally. Dolly was past the first flush of youth and apart from her cap being awry seemed smartly enough dressed.
“Her name is Honoria, and your cap is sufficiently disturbed to suggest you have been at dalliance,” said Jane. Presumably this woman had cheeked Ella, for Ella to have spoken sharply.
“’SwhatIsaid,” said Dolly, compressing a sentence into a word. “And I ain’t been at dalliance, I di’n’t hardly kill my betrothed proper like.”
“It is NOT what you said, and kissing is dalliance and you are an insolent girl,” said Jane. “To whom are you betrothed and is the master aware?”
“Oh ar, he du know. I be gwine ter marry Abel Sparrer as soon as he be bailiff, even if babby do come first, whatever Master say about marryin’ him as soon as possible. I be put in charge o’ you account o’ understanding your condition.” She tossed her head.
“You have an indulgent master,” said Jane, truly shocked by the girl’s insolence. “And I suggest that you take his strong hint to marry as soon as possible, otherwise he might lose his generosity and turn you off. If Sparrow is to be made bailiff, he will achieve that promotion at the time that seems good to his lordship, and if he is not, then you may lose a father for your baby and your position and good name as well.”
“Totty-headed piece of contumely she is, madam,” said Ella, coming in with a sniff. “No decent man would want to marry her if you ask me.”
“My Sparrer is decent!” retorted Dolly.
“Trapped, if you ask me,” said Ella.
“Fascinating as I am sure you both find your mundane and humdrum lives, I fear I find the recounting of your views tedious. Get out, Dolly; I can do without your dubious ministrations. I’ll speak with you later, Ella,” said Jane. A half smile and nod at Ella behind Dolly’s back was enough to show the austere dresser that Jane approved of her getting Dolly talking, whilst managing to sound censorious to her. Dolly retired, and Ella gave her a couple of minutes before yanking open the door to reveal that Dolly had her ear glued to the keyhole.
“You need not think I would castigate my servant in the hearing of a stranger, did you?” sneered Jane. “I will be mentioning your behaviour to his lordship, you know.” Dolly gaped, and fled.
“I fear I agree with you, regarding the entrapment of the gamekeeper, an irony if you like,” said Jane to Ella. “The woman eavesdrops and I expect she gossips, it is a good way to make sure information we want to spread gets out, for if one of the under-keepers is a traitor, he will doubtless contrive to hear her gossiping to her inamorato,”
“Yes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she has more than one lover, no better than she ought to be if you ask me,” said Ella. “When I think what a nice girl that other Dolly was, and her in an unfortunate profession through no fault of her own, it makes me angry that a woman in this situation, and she ain’t no silly girl to be flattered, manages to be a slut when all she has to do to rise is to keep her trap and her pins shut and her eyes and ears open.”
“Direct,” murmured Jane.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Jane, I’m sure, but vulgar is as vulgar does and I can’t think of any better way of putting it. And I was that riled, because I was in her position as bedroom chambermaid when you asked me to be your dresser, and she could have done the same with Miss Honoria if she’d had more than a couple of thoughts in that silly head of hers, and both of them doubtless lewd.”
“Ah, but Ella, you are exceptional, and took on the extra workload in expectation of making yourself indispensable, as indeed you have done, whereas I doubt this silly creature recognises that extra work for a while can lead to greater rewards in the long term.”
“And that’s the thing, now I don’t have to work half so hard as a bedroom chambermaid, and it’s more interesting work, though it’s the investigating I like best, I have to admit. And she doesn’t see it.”
“Ella, my dear, you mustn’t take on so, she’s not your responsibility. And don’t even start to compare her with young Dorothy, who shed being Dolly very quickly, and I had a letter from her saying that she has been taken on as a partner in the millinery shop, and has half a dozen French emigrées working under her, and she’s learned enough French to parley-vous with them well enough to keep them in order, as she put it.”
“And well deserved; a bright girl is Dorothy,” approved Ella.
“Who is Dorothy?” asked Honoria, coming into the room. “I thought Felix was going to send a girl to help?”
“I’ll come and unpack for you, Miss Honoria,” said Ella. “He did send a girl and I sent her away, being about as much use as hoisting a silk handkerchief to sail a man o’ war.”
Honoria giggled.
“It would work on a child’s toy ship,” she said.
“And the girl Dolly would be of some use perhaps in a nursery with less exacting requirements,” said Ella.
“Dorothy is a protégé of mine from a previous mystery,” Jane told Honoria. “We were remarking how different two Dorothys might be.”
“Oh, I see,” said Honoria. “Was she a maid servant too?”
“No, she was a whore, but not willingly so,” said Jane.
“Oooh, poor girl,” said Honoria. “I’m glad you are such a good person and help people, Jane.”
“I have had such good friends and so much good luck, passing it on is the least I can do,” said Jane. “This Dolly is apparently in the family way and plans to marry Amos Sparrow, but she is holding out for him being made bailiff. She eavesdrops and I suspect she gossips. She will doubtless come back to see to your clothes, and we will work out how to make her flaws spread what we want to be known.”
Honoria nodded wisely.
“Like the sacking of Mr. Armitage,” she said.
“Yes, but for goodness sake, remember to leave off the ‘Mr.’ from his name,” said Jane.
“Yes, of course, but it seemed disrespectful when talking to you,” said Honoria.
“I appreciate that, but it might be better if you just call the ostler ‘Armitage’ and forget to respect him,” said Jane. “He understands that!”


Caleb, meanwhile, had discovered the local alehouse. Calling it an inn would be to ascribe to it a degree of grandeur which would have miscalled the status of a ramshackle structure housing a brewhouse, a public room and some rooms in the thatch of the roof housing the ale-draper and his family and a couple of low-ceilinged cupboards of rooms which were for hire. These were the end rooms which sported windows, and were reached by going through the family rooms.
“And don’t expect nothin’ fancy like chamber pots, I ain’t got time to run around after guests, you can pee out of the window or you can tie a knot in it until I gets up at six and go use the jakes out back,” said mine host. He had a large jaw and ears, and Caleb had no surprise in finding that his name was Wiggett.
“I’ll be looking for work,” said Caleb, sullenly. “You need an ostler?”
“Does this look like a ruddy coaching inn?” said Wiggett, sourly. “What you doing here, looking for work?”
Caleb managed to look shifty.
“Well it ain’t my fault,” he said, sounding aggrieved. “And I weren’t drunk. A man has to get what he can, but she can’t admit to being handled familiar-like when getting her into the carriage, oh no! she might have to admit she enjoyed being handled by a real man, not that man-milliner, Churchill.” A spoon of truth in with the lie always did wonders, and Caleb would never have to dissemble about how much he loathed Jane’s first husband, even though he had never met Frank Churchill until after Frank’s murder.
“Turned off are ye? Well it’s happened to better people,” opined Wiggett. “Horse-care all you know then?”
“I know a bit of soldiering,” said Caleb. “Did some time on the Peninsula.”
“Ah, you’d know a bit about foraging then?”
“I might do. Depending on what you mean by that.”
“Oh, nothing, just that you have to be resourceful, living off the enemy’s lands.”
“I suppose so.” Caleb was not prepared to be too forthcoming; no man would be.
“You might manage as a gamekeeper?”
“Talk sense; she’ll take away my character to milord and then I’ll be lucky not to be accused of poaching, unlawful carnal knowledge of the pigs, and being Napoleon Bonaparte in disguise.”
“Well you’re too tall for the last,” said Wiggett humorously.
Caleb laughed a brief, harsh laugh.
“The more to have to feed, which didn’t make life on the peninsula easy, I can tell you,” he said.
“I figured you might know how to supplement your meagre rations with a bit of judicious liberation of meat on the paw here and there,” said Wiggett.
“And what if I did? The laws of poaching didn’t run in Spain, or if they did we were the ones enforcing it in our fashion with guns and bayonets,” said Caleb.
“You a good shot?”
“Yes, a very good shot,” said Caleb. He was a good shot and there was no point concealing that, or showing false modesty. It would be an advantage to have him as a member of the gang.
Wiggett said no more, but Caleb was moderately satisfied that all this would be passed on.
And maybe Wulcombe Parva might be of interest after all, and Amos Sparrow merely kept in the dark by his family for being, as it were, on the ‘other side’.

It was Jane’s habit to poke around new places in a most unladylike fashion, which is how she came to be in the linen closet at the right moment to see something worth noting. It was a well-appointed room, with several linen presses, and a big table for ironing on, and iron ovens beside the fire. The window looked over the kitchen garden, and as Jane glanced idly out over it, she saw the maid, Dolly, her apron discarded and her cap sliding down, stepping furtively out of the back door. Jane stepped back in case Dolly glanced up, but she did not. She headed across the kitchen garden.
“There are two reasons you might be slipping out like that, my girl,” muttered Jane to herself. “One, to meet your lover, who might or might not be the man you mean to marry; and two, to pass intelligence of our arrival. Which might be idle gossip, or it might be meaningful to the poachers to have his lordship’s betrothed within reach, to threaten if he does not leave them alone.”
It was too late to follow the maid now, but maybe Ella could twit the girl later about her habit of sloping off to meet a lover.

“The gossip at the Hall is that you are a drunkard. Are you?” the slender, sly-looking man slipped into the bar and perched on a stool beside him.
“No, I’m not. I’m an army man, and we used spirituous liquor to put on our faces after shaving, and rinse our mouths out, to hold back disease. I can take or leave the drinking of hard liquor, and personally I prefer a heavy wet.” Caleb had one of his hunches that if he was a drunkard, as they had first thought a good reason to be turned off, he might get no further. “The besom don’t understand that, not having to shave, nor never having slept in a bed of mud, sharing your quarters with all manner of miniature livestock and a man dying next to you. Yes, I’d had a nip, and only a nip. And what she objected to more was that my hand rested longer on her arse to boost her than she could cope with, being afraid to take the advances of a real man. I could show her a thing or two, I could.”
The sly man nodded.
“I wager you could. And I’ve another wager for you,” he said. “I hear you can shoot.”
“I can shoot. Any target, any wager,” said Caleb. He pulled his pistols, ignoring the shout of horror from the landlord. They were double-barrelled, and Jane had had them made by Manton for him, knowing how often a law officer might be in danger for having discharged his weapon. He looked meditatively at the four sputtering candles in the old cartwheel-chandelier. “The wicks of them candles,” he said. “What’ll you wager I do all four before you can count to ten?”
“Three guineas,” said the newcomer, without hesitation. It would take longer than that for a man to reload one pistol. Caleb thought it worth showing his hand in the matter of his pistols in order to be seen as a dangerously useful man.
He sighted, and flipped off the safety on first one and then the other barrel as he took two candles with his right hand, and the same with his left. He took a piece of candle with the fourth shot, but the wick had gone. The other customers dove for cover, coughing in the acrid smoke of burnt gunpowder in an enclosed space, and Caleb laughed jeeringly.
“Here, that’s cheating, they ain’t standard pistols,” said the aggrieved gambler.
“You could see they had two safeties each if you’d looked,” said Caleb. “But I ain’t going to dun you, matey, I’ll settle for one of them golden boys you so blithely promised, and then you can name any other target.” He accepted a guinea, given half grudgingly as he cleaned and reloaded all four barrels and stuck the guns back in his belt.
“Nice guns.”
“I picked them up off of a Frenchie officer,” said Caleb, mendaciously. “Thought they might come in handy. I carry them in case of highwaymen, but it don’t hurt to keep in practise with other targets.”
“Are you as good with a musket?”
“With a musket, I’m better,” said Caleb. “With a rifle, I can shoot through a man’s jacket buttonholes as long as I’m in range to see them.”
“Wiggett has a rifle out back; I think we’ll go outside,” said the man. “Name’s Jack Cubitt. I wager you another guinea you can’t culp the target I’ve set.”
“So long as I can have a ranging shot to get the feel of someone else’s weapon,” said Caleb. If he lost, it did not matter, so long as he was good enough to impress.
Wiggett sullenly brought out a rifle.
“Don’t you go doing that again with no warning,” he growled to Caleb. “Frightening my customers, and ruining good candles.”
“Must be the strength of your ale making me reckless,” said Caleb. “Reckless to get my hands on something that isn’t three parts water and one part tomcat piss.”
“Get him the good stuff,” said Cubitt, and grumbling, Wiggett complied. Caleb took a long pull.
“I’m ready for anything now,” he said. “Keep my drink warm for me, my man,” and he nodded to Cubitt, picking up the rifle.
Cubitt set up some bottles at a distance, and placed a long pheasant feather in each.
“Shoot the feathers out of the bottles,” he said.
Caleb nodded, and casually loaded. The first bottle was near enough to have a good chance of succeeding if the rifle was true. Caleb had enough friends who were riflemen to be familiar with the weapon, and he had trained himself to be as fast at loading as the Rifle Brigade demanded.
“Time me from the first shot,” he said.
Cubitt looked puzzled, but shrugged, and brought a steel hunter out of his pocket. Caleb lifted the rifle to his shoulder and fired. The nearest feather disintigrated; the rifle was true. Caleb was already cleaning out and reloading the weapon, and firing smoothly at the next feather, and then the same for each of the next. He nodded to Cubitt, as the last feather was lifted from the bottle in a cloud of down.
“A minute and about five-and twenty seconds,” said Crowe, awed.
“I’m out of practice,” said Caleb. “Any good rifleman can fire three aimed shots in a minute. For four, I should have it inside a minute and fifteen.”
“I’m impressed,” said Cubitt. “Your guinea.”
Caleb grinned, finding it too easy to shed the ways of a gentleman, who would only smile with a closed mouth, in simple pleasure in his own prowess. He accepted the guinea.
“That’ll help while I look for work,” he said.
“I take it you have no reference?”
“No, not on your life! I thought once I was out of the army, I’d be in what should be easy street, all she had was complaints. O’course, her old man is as nipcheese as they come, and I wager he have funny ideas about what to do in bed, but there ain’t no excuse to take it out on me.”
“So you ain’t enamoured of the upper crust right now?”
“Not exactly, no. Why? Are you a revolutionary? I had enough o’ the French revolutionaries, thank you.”
“No, no! I just believe that we common men have been done out of our rights, and have a right to take what ought to be ours by right,”
“I ain’t taking to the High Toby either, matey. For one thing, I’m too distinctive looking; there ain’t many people my size.”
“No, no, nothing so risky! Jest a bit o’ poachin’. Enough to sell on, see? Not the slim pickin’s most common poachers get. A good shot like you could do well.”
“Until I get shot by gamekeepers who would have a bigger target than I have with birds.”
Cubitt laughed.
“I’m a gamekeeper, as it happens; a good position from which to arrange such things.”
“Cripes!” said Caleb. This, then was the under-keeper whom Lord Wulcombe had suspected.
“Ar, that surprised you, didn’t it, me lad?” said Crowe.
“It did, Mr. Cubitt,” agreed Caleb, according the gamekeeper an honorific for his position, and demonstrating that he was ready to accept the other man’s leadership.
He was in the gang.

Jane and the Poacher's Secret part i of ii

Sarah WaldockMay 08, 2017 08:52PM

Re: Jane and the Poacher's Secret part i of ii

AlidaMay 09, 2017 02:52AM

Re: Jane and the Poacher's Secret part i of ii

Sarah WaldockMay 09, 2017 11:19AM


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