On Starlit Seas – Sara Sheridan

At dawn, Maria Graham stood in the drawing room of the cottage she had lived in for the last year. Outside, the trees swayed in the unseasonable breeze as the sky lightened. The hem of her grey travelling dress trailed as she crouched on the wooden boards with her eyes on the empty grate. She had loved this room. They said it was too far from town here, for an English lady alone. But the moment she had seen the low building, its walls wreathed in flowers, she knew it was the perfect place. She had strewn her papers across the comfortable chairs and laid them in a pile beside her bed. At the dining table she had eaten as she studied a vellum map of the Chilean highlands, and from the veranda she had sat contentedly and watched the swathes of green all around, and then, of course, she had witnessed the earthquakes. With quill in hand, she inspected the damage. It had been a matter of trigonometry to notate the tremors. She knew what they said in Valparaíso. It isn’t natural. The English widow is an odd fish. But she didn’t care. The consul had troubled her with constant offers to send her home.

To keep her safe. Her aunt, the august Lady Dundas, had written repeatedly. In a tone that could only be described as testy, she demanded Maria come back to London. You are a widow now and your place is here, she insisted. A woman cannot travel by herself, Maria. We are most dreadfully embarrassed by your gallivanting. Maria set the fire. The air was thick already with the heat of the day still to come. Lighting a spill, she sat back to watch the paper burn – the twenty-two pages of her journal that were simply too private. The evidence of her mourning for Thomas.

Her eyes were still as she watched the thick paper curl and flame. Then she fed the fire with her aunt’s letters and watched them burn. The sound of a door opening echoed from the other side of the cottage. Maria poked the ashes to make sure all vestiges of the unwelcome words were gone. She stood up, brushing the rise of her skirt with the palm of her hand as if it might have creased. The maid came into the room – a young girl from the nearby village. Her skin was the colour of ginger, smooth and plump. She had kept the house well. She had cried when Maria had told her that she was leaving. Now she bobbed a curtsey, ready to face this last day.

‘The men will come later,’ Maria said, indicating with a nod the trunks and cases packed and piled high in the hallway. She removed a coin from her purse and handed it over. The maid’s dark eyes filled up as if she would weep again, but Maria didn’t wait to see. In the hallway she fixed her hat and scooped up the blousy white roses she had picked before the sun came up, the overgrown bushes the legacy of an earlier occupant of the cottage. ‘He will come for the key,’ she instructed. Maria had arrived on a cart she had hired from an ostler in Valparaíso. Two of the Doris’s young officers had driven it. She had been a mother to them for almost a year on the voyage from England, and Thomas a father too. Now she stowed the roses in one saddlebag and her precious manuscript, the History of Chile – the prize she had spent her year of mourning writing – in the other. She pulled herself onto the horse, side-saddle, and set off down the track, rough hewn out of the woodland, the maid standing on the shady veranda, watching her leave.

The girl raised a hand and Maria waved back. In moments the house was obscured and, at a steady trot, Maria’s cheeks were beaten pink by the warm spring squall that cut through the branches. The ride left her breathless. There was nothing like a journey to quicken the blood and feed the spirit. Maria was a natural traveller and today she would set out across the continent, or at least around it. The trees were a blur of green, thinning here and there into farmland, and as she came over the crest of the hill she caught a tantalising glimpse of the ocean. From here she could just make out the frantic, sweaty port with its tangle of sailors and rigging in a straggle along the shoreline. Beyond it, the sea sparkled. One of these ships would take her on the first leg of her journey, but first she had something to do. As the town drew into view, a flock of small birds took off from the wall of the fort.

They moved like a length of dark silk caught by the breeze as they headed out to sea. Behind them, the sky was the colour of forget-me-nots. The sun blazed. Maria kept to the fringes, approaching the vantage point of the bone-dry cemetery on the hill. Had it been a year? Several of the British community and the entire crew of the Doris had turned out for Thomas’s funeral. Two of the younger officers, both midshipmen, lads of eleven, had blubbed. It seemed long ago and very far away. A thin bougainvillea plant trailed across three chalky gravestones by the gate. Maria, still breathless, her heart pounding, tied up her mount and took out the wild mountain roses. The gate creaked as she pushed it aside.

Captain Thomas Graham it said on her husband’s gravestone. It still seemed strange that he was gone. Many years before, when her father had passed away in Bombay, she had been thousands of miles off and the news had arrived in a letter weeks later. ‘Maria, you are a strange, solitary creature,’ her aunt had scolded, as if it was selfish of the girl to lock herself in her room to mourn him. ‘We are all upset,’ Aunt Dundas had sniffed, although Maria recalled dinner had proceeded and the main portion of her aunt’s grief appeared to revolve around the organisation of appropriate, black-silk attire. For her part, Maria had never forgiven herself for not being in Bombay when it happened. This time she had held Thomas’s hand as he jolted out of this life into the next. She preferred to be present and play her part. When her husband lay still at last, she had crouched beside the berth with the ship creaking around her and sat with his body for an hour in contemplation before she informed the second in command. This death was hers to grieve and now she had done so.

She laid the flowers on the yellow earth and stood for a moment. It was unlikely she would revisit Valparaíso. ‘Goodbye,’ she said stoutly, turning to leave him behind. In town, Maria visited her only friend, Mrs Campbell, a Spanish woman who had married one of Valparaíso’s Scottish merchants. Woman to woman, Rosa Campbell had understood Maria’s grief. She had hosted Thomas’s wake. She had not asked Maria when she might be leaving Chile. Slowly, as the Englishwoman recovered, Mrs Campbell had visited. ‘You are so very kind to me.’ Maria had smiled.

‘I’m an admirer,’ Mrs Campbell admitted. ‘I have read all of your books. Such wonderful adventures, one almost feels as if one has travelled with you.’ Today, the maid led Maria inside where it was cool. The Campbells had planted honeysuckle in the garden. The scent of an English summer wafted into the shady house. Maria hovered by a satinwood desk, glad to be out of the heat. She shifted on the tiled floor and lifted a goose-feather quill from Mrs Campbell’s inkpot. The desk was used for preparing the household accounts. Maria had never run a household for Thomas or anyone else.

Most naval wives stayed at home, but she had always travelled, either with her husband or independently. He had seen to British interests and she had written about everywhere they had visited. Rosa Campbell came into the room, her satin shoes clicking as she crossed the tiles. ‘Mrs Graham.’ Rosa put her arms around her friend. ‘Today?’ she asked. Maria nodded. The women sat down. ‘Tea,’ Rosa said, as if it were a matter of plain fact rather than an offer. She had adopted the ways of her husband’s country.

The maid had scarcely been sent to fetch a pot when the sound of knocking disturbed the women and the girl returned to the room with the card of the British consul. Maria sighed audibly. Rosa shrugged. Valparaíso was a small town. The consul was smug as he entered. He had wanted Maria to leave for months on end and now he would have his way. The man bowed. ‘Will you do me the honour, madam, of allowing me to organise your passage home at last?’ Straight to business. Rosa curtseyed, but Maria only inclined her head. She feigned shock.

‘Why, sir, what made you think I was going home? To London, you mean?’ The consul blustered. ‘But you have given up your property, Mrs Graham. You have packed your things.’ News travelled so fast here. The maid returned with a tray of tea. The porcelain cups tinkled as she set it down. ‘Today is the anniversary of my husband’s death,’ Maria announced. It was a dramatic statement, but the occasion seemed to demand it. ‘And I am going to leave,’ she assured him. ‘Though not for London.

’ Rosa picked up the teapot and began to pour. She was enjoying this tremendously, but she didn’t show it. The consul was out of his depth and Maria, in her opinion, magnificent. ‘Pray, where will you direct yourself next, Mrs Graham? It is not safe or seemly for a woman—’ the man started. Maria raised a gloved hand. ‘Brazil, sir. Mr Murray has commissioned me to write a book about Brazil.’ This was not entirely true. Maria had suggested it to John Murray. She was not ready to go home yet.

The consul appeared unsure of how to take this news. Mrs Graham had been a thorn in his side. A British woman alone was his responsibility. In Brazil she would at least be out of his jurisdiction. ‘Have you visited Brazil? Do you know it?’ ‘Why, not at all, sir. I have plans, though. My maps. That is the pleasure of it, don’t you see?’ ‘I shall write a letter of introduction,’ he announced. Maria inclined her head once more. John Murray had already furnished her with several such letters, but it would be churlish to refuse.

‘Thank you,’ she said. The consul eyed the tea tray and got to his feet. ‘Matters to attend,’ he announced. ‘I wanted to see you safely off, Mrs Graham.’ ‘So kind.’ As the door closed behind him, the women waited a moment before a wave of laughter overtook them. ‘Pompous fool,’ Rosa declared with unaccustomed boldness. Maria took her teacup and sipped. ‘They cannot help it, I suppose,’ she said, more kindly than she felt. It was good to have dispatched him.

And she hadn’t lied. Murray, after all, was expecting her manuscript. 1 Far further east, London The Old Street Bridge Club kept two sombre rooms on the first floor of the little house opposite the Rose Tavern. These were cleaned and provisioned by Betty Wylie, the landlady at the Rose. A fine piece of Regency mutton dressed as English lamb, Mrs Wylie left a monthly account folded carefully on the slate mantelpiece, which was paid promptly in cash. The club emanated an air of permanence and authority. The rooms boasted panelled walls, leather chairs and a lush baize card table. The air was heavy with the stale smoke of late-night cigars over which the illustrious members lingered during the last rubbers of the evening. A bucket of oyster shells lay shucked and discarded, and the occasional carelessly abandoned leather glove or gentleman’s silk scarf spoke of another area of town, to the west, where life was more generous and the quality left tips. Mrs Wylie hoped one day to live there, or at least closer.

The club was discreet in its habits and its existence was not generally known. From outside it looked like lots of other buildings in the run-down laneways off the main road. There was no nameplate on the shabby door to announce this den of gentlemen to the world. The shutters to the three filthy windows were kept resolutely shut, secured by iron bars. Some days when Mrs Wylie crossed the filthy walkway and used her key, it was evident that the place had lain deserted all night. Other times there was a riot of abandoned cards and drained port bottles. The members were not predictable in their habits. However, they never brought women to their premises – not a single tatty painted street girl from nearby Shoreditch or even one of the better-looking whores that foraged a meagre living on the fringes of the Mile End Road. Nor was there brawling, apart from once a smashed chair. ‘Money for jam,’ Mrs Wylie often observed to herself, for she never spoke of the Old Street Bridge Club to another soul.

Her husband’s mother, Old Mrs Wylie, had instructed her most particularly in that matter. The old woman had retired to a coastal resort in Kent and left the running of the Rose to her son and his family. Before she went, Old Mrs Wylie neglected to impart how long the Old Street Bridge Club had been in operation, but it seemed an almost ancient institution – one that was simply there, like Hampton Court up the river or the grand palace at Whitehall. What the present Mrs Wylie and indeed her forebears had neglected to ask was why. It was a brisk spring afternoon, and too early for the gentlemen to be taking their places round the table, when a tall fellow no more than five and twenty cut off the busy highway. Will Simmons had travelled a long way – catching an overladen coach from Falmouth and riding thirty-six hours alongside the jostling baggage on the roof. Once he made London, he walked the last few miles. He passed a spate of newspaper boys, shouting their wares, but didn’t pay any attention to the headlines of the sudden uprising thousands of miles away in Brazil. Will had never learned to read and as far as he was concerned foreign affairs were unimportant. Oblivious, he continued towards Mallow Street.

As he came to the door of the Bridge Club, the boy felt for his knife. Then, drawing a key from inside his hat, he disappeared inside. Shards of daylight filched through the keyhole as he mounted the dingy stairs to the room that ran the length of the building on the first floor. Inside, the candles flickered as he fell upon the bread and cheese on the oak table as if he hadn’t eaten for a week. He drained a glass of port and poured himself another, this time methodically taking in the bouquet of the Douro. The sound of the door to the street prompted him to jerk upright with his knife in hand. Steps hammered upwards as the amber flames danced in the grate, peppering the room with low light. Simmons took a deep breath and then relaxed as the dim shadow of a smaller, plumper and older man appeared in the doorway. He had a Scottish accent. ‘Jesus.

Are you all right, Will?’ Simmons nodded. ‘Filthy is all.’ He smiled. His voice was low, his accent dense as the marshy ground where he had been brought up by his mother’s people – an Essex lad. ‘Do you have it?’ the gentleman asked. Will reached into his inside pocket and brought out a block the size of a large brick, wrapped in linen. He was not an inquisitive fellow. In his business, those who pried stood a good chance of ending up dead. Still, he had taken a peek and had decided on balance that he’d best not speculate on why a block of chocolate was worth all this fuss. If the gentlemen wanted to ship the stuff over from the Americas and pay him to transport it by hand to London, then that was their prerogative.

The quality knew how to mind their business; he need not mind it for them. He laid the parcel on the table next to the cheese. ‘Here it is.’ With deliberation, the man set a hardy ebony cane by one of the chairs. It was topped with a small silver fox’s head, discreet but distinctive. He picked up the brick and turned it over. His eyes gleamed. ‘Excellent. Well done, boy.’ ‘I’m afraid there’s bad news, sir.

’ ‘Was there much of a fight?’ the man asked with a sigh. Will shook his head and pulled out his knife, the sight of which answered the question – the blade was stained with a smear of dried blood. ‘He was for thieving it. Fucking thief.’ ‘Why do they do it? We pay them well enough.’ Will didn’t reply. There was no need. He had no scruples about killing the captains employed by the Old Street Bridge Club if they did not keep their bargain. So far, two had become too greedy – one last year and the other only a few days before. Will had stabbed both men to death without compunction.

‘What we want is someone reliable.’ The gentleman paused. ‘Scum we can trust.’ ‘Like me, you mean?’ Will chortled. The gentleman smiled. The corners of his pale-blue eyes crinkled. It was not for nothing he was known as Charming Charlie Grant. He lit a candle, illuminating his immaculately chosen suit and the swathe of freckles that he was sure kept him looking young despite the sprinkling of grey overtaking his pale ginger hair. ‘My dear boy . ’ His voice trailed.

‘We cannot keep replacing captain after captain.’ ‘London isn’t short of a captain or two. I’ll ask around,’ Will said breezily. Charlie Grant shook his head. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘that’s where we’ve been going wrong. You’re very efficient at disposing of our problems, but it’s no use trying the same thing over and over and having the same trouble. We need to change.’ Before Grant could elaborate, the conversation was interrupted by the thump of the main door. The men’s eyes met and Will reached for his knife. Grant stood up, cane in hand, seeming nonchalant but poised in case he had to fight.

He placed himself in front of the table so that its contents couldn’t be seen from the door. The gentlemen who entered were dapper. ‘Fisher.’ Grant nodded, relaxing. ‘Hayward. You’re early.’ ‘Later than you,’ Fisher pointed out. Hayward took a light from the fire, puffing on a thick cigar. ‘Mr Simmons,’ he said. ‘You brought our parcel?’ Simmons nodded.

‘Good,’ Hayward continued smoothly as he settled into his chair. ‘Drink?’ he offered, his voice crisp with upper-class authority. ‘I’m fine, thank you.’ Grant assumed a position in the centre. ‘So, Will’s view is that we are in need of a new captain. There has been a recurrence of the old trouble.’ ‘Yes, sir. I’ll make some enquiries at Greenwich.’ The men moved, and Will sensed a ripple folding beneath the surface of the room. He realised that they had discussed this.

‘The thing is, Simmons, you’re a good man.’ Hayward handed Will a glass, though he had declined. ‘We liked your father,’ Fisher continued seamlessly, ‘and we like you.’ Simmons shifted. He hesitated before drinking. In general, the Old Street Bridge Club was a practical organisation and Will was wary of praise. He knew from experience, if you plan to kill a man it’s easier if he isn’t expecting it. Charlie Grant laid his hand on Simmons’ss shoulder. He laughed. ‘We’re not after you, man.

God, no. In fact,’ he continued, ‘we have a proposition. A promotion, you might say.’ Simmons hoped they weren’t going to send him north. He’d never been to Scotland, but he knew the gentlemen had business there. The coastal towns of the East Neuk were as famous as those of Cornwall for assisting the representatives of gentlemen such as the Old Street Bridge Club to avoid His Majesty’s Customs and Excise. God knew how many of these schemes the men had running. He’d heard rumours of Italian wine and treasures from India. For an English gentleman of both vision and means, the wide world lay open-handed. ‘Where do you want me to go?’ the boy asked.

‘We’re expanding,’ Fisher replied. ‘Why should we let these captains know, as we previously have done, that these small packages are so valuable? There’s no need to alert anyone to the matter of our . ’ Here he hesitated. Even in their own company, the members of the Old Street Bridge Club were habitually circumspect. ‘Little treasures. It only makes the captains wary. Naturally they wonder, and wondering makes a chap greedy. The source of our recent troubles – all that wondering. We are only additional income there for the taking, or so they think. So we’ve decided to finance the whole trip.

It’ll make the fellows less suspicious.’ Simmons’ss mind boggled. They had been bringing over a block every six months – how were they going to find enough of the stuff to justify an entire vessel, and what made the chocolate so damn special, anyway? Charlie Grant was evidently enjoying reading the boy’s expression.

.

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