Spyfall – Elizabeth Ellen Carter

“GET BACK HERE!” She ignored his command and ran for her life. Her jaw ached from where he’d struck her. Her arms sported bruises from where she’d been grabbed and shaken. She watched the sandy path through the marshes carefully, the ebbing twilight making it more difficult to see her way at a run. She prayed she knew the treacherous landscape better than he, but still the man gained. And she dare not stop. The town of Lydd was two-and-a-half miles away by road, but only half the distance directly through the marsh. Only by going forward would she find safety. Going back would bring her death. She knew that with a certainty deep within her bones. “Bitch! I’ll cut your throat before I let you speak against me!” The woman choked back a sob, knowing that to give voice to her terror would rob her of the air her lungs cried out for. Her running footsteps splashed up water, so she corrected her course, lest she stray too far and be dragged into the silty bog to drown. All too soon, her pursuer was in reach. He grabbed her, tearing the sleeve from her gown. She screamed and pulled away, stumbling as she went, but it was enough for him to yank her arm and throw her to the ground.

“I’ll have you then cut your heart out, slut,” he spat. He reeked of booze, as he so often did. Too often in their seven years of marriage, she’d borne his assaults soundlessly, saving her tears until he left or fell into alcohol-fueled unconsciousness. The sky had changed from a lilac hue to a deepening lavender. His face was in shadow but she did not need to see it to know his murderous intent was real this time. He had threatened to kill her before, but the color of his rage was different tonight. All the maidservants in the house fled to the kitchen. The manservants, who were little more than lads, stood by impotently, powerless to act against their brutal master. As mistress of the house, it had been up to her to try to calm him down. To no avail.

And now they were here. Made clumsy by the knife in one hand, he had only just slipped the second button of his breeches when she sprang to her feet and ran again. The square, castellated tower of All Saint’s Church stood out as a beacon against the darkening sky. The water that lay between the grasses turned silver as the remaining landscape around it became grey. And yet she ran through it, resigned to the fact this night would be her last. If she were to die, it would be better to drown while fleeing this brute she called husband, rather than have him kill her. It would be just one thing in her control, at least. With little light and few features in the landscape to guide her way, she hurried as fast as she could, letting instinct and fear drive her forward. She zigged and zagged, somehow finding a path through the wetlands. She chanced a glance back.

He was slower, lumbering, hindered by his loose breeches – she should have let him get more buttons undone! – but he eroded the distance between them. She zagged left, running as hard as she could at an angle that should take her to the road and one of the cottages where she might find protection. He swore an ever-increasing string of vile and terrible curses from behind, and cut at an angle also, intending to head her off. She heard the splashing caused by his heavy footfalls. A sudden yelp of surprise was followed by bigger splashes. Then his yells became screams. She slowed, gasping for breath, the stitch in her side now agonizing. She ventured a few feet back to where she could now see her pursuer in chest-deep water. Absently, she pushed the ruined sleeve of her gown up onto her shoulder but it fell down her arm again. “Help me!” he yelled.

“Don’t just stand there like an imbecile. Help me, you stupid bitch. Pull me out!” She started forward, her arm extended, then halted. “What are you waiting for, you idiot?” If she waded in, she might drown. If she waded in, he might kill them both. She took a step back. If she waded in, he would kill her. Seeing she would draw no closer, he growled and surged forward. Suddenly, he disappeared below the surface. She held back a scream as the water covered the top of his head.

A moment later, his face emerged and she imagined she saw through the darkness that his rage had turned to fear. There began a furious thrashing and grunting that seemed to last an eternity. She clutched her arms about herself tightly and watched, unable to move even if she had wanted to. The grunts became screams and the screams became higher in pitch. Then they became gurgles. The last of the light faded, luring the moon from its place low on the horizon. The thrashing in the water slowed to a weak, listless struggling that barely made a sound. Then it stopped, leaving only the soft cries of the water rails and the low croaks of the marsh frogs. Chapter One October 1804 St. Sennen Cornwall SUSANNAH MOORCROFT BROUGHT the wagon to a halt in front of the three-story square building and chanced a glance at the passenger beside her, waiting for the woman’s reaction to the structure.

She knew what she saw when she looked at it – an overgrown, neglected, isolated inn. No wonder it had been for sale so cheap. Had she been too hasty in signing the contracts on the dilapidated estate? “What do you think?” she asked. The housekeeper, older than her mistress by ten years or so, held on to her straw hat and looked up. Susannah watched Peggy’s sharply angled features in profile with some trepidation as her gaze seemed to fix on the metal straps shaped like the letter “x” over the grey stone. There were two of those cross shapes between the second and third stories. And she knew what they were for. They were anchors for the iron rods which ran right through the building to keep it square. Lines of rust stains running down the wall offered mute testament to how long the repair had been there. Suddenly, she couldn’t bear the silence any longer.

“This will be your home, as well as mine. I’d rather have your honest opinion than not.” Her companion offered her a game smile. “Perhaps it won’t be too bad inside.” Susannah inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. She had come to rely on Peggy’s uncommon good sense following the dark days of her marriage – and its aftermath. “Well, go take a look inside,” Susannah offered. “Then you can give me your final verdict.” Peggy held her hand out for the key, trying – and failing – to keep a skeptical expression from her face as she clambered down from the wagon. Susannah also climbed down and took hold of the horse’s bridle to bring it closer the hitching post.

She didn’t join Peggy inside the inn. Better to let her explore the place on her own without having to worry about saying nice things she did not believe just to please her mistress. When Susannah came here to look at the inn three months ago, the deceased estate seemed an answer to a prayer. It was quiet, a quarter of mile away from the main road that led into the nearest habitation, the village of St. Sennen. The inn came with a liquor license, three acres of land, a small stable block, and even a small boathouse out the back beside one of the tributaries off the River Pengellan that ran into the sea just a half a mile to the west. St. Sennen itself was only a mile and a half away in total. It was a pretty little fishing village set on the mouth of the Pengellan, the estuary protected from the Irish Sea by two large rocky headlands. It was peaceful here, silent but for the rustling of the leaves in the wind and the squeak of the inn’s naively painted sign swaying on a high whitewashed post by the corner of the building.

The sign depicted a woman in Tudor dress carrying her head under her arm. The block lettering gave the inn’s name. The Queen’s Head. Named for Anne Boleyn, executed for betraying her husband, Susannah recalled. That she should now be the owner of a place so named struck her as macabre but apt. She stepped inside the dusty, neglected building and listened to Peggy upstairs, opening and closing doors, no doubt giving the inn’s six letting rooms a thorough going over. Susannah decided to remain on the ground floor and let Peggy explore in peace. Opposite the front door was the bar. On the floor behind the bar was a hatch that led down to the cellar. Around the bar to the right, past the staircase, was the dining room.

It could seat thirty guests at a squeeze. The bar and dining room each had an entrance into the kitchen. To the left of the front door was a short wall with another door which led to two more rooms. The first served as a private parlor. Leading from that room was a bedroom. Peggy returned downstairs. Susannah listened to the squeaks and groans of the worn risers and treads while she ran an idle hand over the bar’s countertop, polished smooth by many hands over the years. “I haven’t made a ghastly mistake have I, Peg?” “Don’t be worrying yourself, Duchess,” the woman said with genuine affection. “You know, with a bit of work this place’ll come up all right.” Susannah allowed herself an audible sigh of relief.

Peggy picked up on her mistress’ expression. Grey eyes sparkled. “And, if it’s all the same to you, Duch, I’ll claim the big attic room for myself. With a clean-up and a lick of whitewash, I’ll have a cozy little nest of my own with a bird’s eye view down to the sea.” “Of course! It’s yours, anything you wish.” She couldn’t keep the gratitude from her voice. Peggy walked to the bar to join her. “Well, go on, show me the kitchen. That ought to be the first thing we set up, eh?” The two women shared a smile. One of reassurance, the other of thankfulness.

“It’s just through here.” Susannah pushed the dining room door open and they peered into the musty room together. “I’ll go see to old Sid and start unloading the cart.” Peggy’s face dropped. “You shouldn’t be doing that.” “Come now, I thought we agreed. I’m no longer the lady of the house and you’re no longer a servant. We’re equals, companions. Friends, I hope… and, as of today, business partners.” Susannah caught the open-mouthed look of surprise for a scant second before Peggy threw herself into Susannah’s arms.

“Oh, Madam! Thank you!” Susannah returned the embrace and wished her declaration was made from kind-heartedness and friendship alone. But it wasn’t. If she were to pay wages to Peggy as her housekeeper, she would be out of funds within three months and Peggy would be out of a job. But if they worked together and split the income, Susannah was sure they might manage. She squeezed Peggy once more and pulled away. “You go and set the fire. I found a trolley around the back. I think it’s for moving kegs of beer and such. I can use it to bring in the barrels and tea chests.” “Yes, Ma’am.

” Susannah’s mock stern look saw Peggy return one of her own. “Well, I can’t call you by your Christian name. That just wouldn’t be right,” she retorted. “And I can hardly be calling you Duchess, it wouldn’t be respectful.” Susannah sighed. “Well, never call me Mrs. Moorcroft, not under any circumstances.” Peggy balled her fists and placed them on her hips. “It’s been over a year now!” One year or twenty, it wouldn’t make a difference. She would never feel safe as long as she carried that name.

The sound of it said aloud still had the power to frighten her. “I can’t take any chances, you know that,” she answered softly. Peggy regarded her with great sympathy. “If we’re going to make a new life here, I’ve got to call you something,” she said. “I mean, people are going to want to know your name, like. What about your maiden name?” Susannah shook her head immediately. “That’s on the church records. It wouldn’t take too much effort for an associate of Jack’s to work out what name I went by. No, it has to be something different.” She cocked her head and thought a moment.

When was the last time she felt safe? Back home with her late father at the vicarage, in a sweet little cottage called Linwood House in Buckinghamshire. Yes, that would do. Especially since the marriage registry listed her place of birth as Essex… “I’ll use the name Linwood, originally from Buckinghamshire.” “Susannah Linwood.” Peggy’s brows furrowed, processing the name, sounding it silently, then sounding it aloud once more. She nodded her head in approval. “I think that suits you right well. Will you be a Miss or a Mrs.?” “We’ll stick close to the truth. It’s easier if our story is more-or-less true.

I am a widow who has bought The Queen’s Head and I live here with my friend and companion, Peggy Smith.” “Linwood…” Peggy pretended to mull it over a moment before offering an exaggerated shrug. “If I forget, I’ll just call you Duchess like I usually do.” Susannah laughed, leaving Peggy to attend the hearth. Duchess… Susannah shook her head. She hadn’t even known the servants had given her a nickname until after her husband was dead. She worried when she first heard it, fearing the servants thought she put on airs and graces rather than the truth, that she was just naturally reserved. However, Peggy had reassured her the name came from a place of true affection. How naïve she had been when she married Jack. He was thirty-five.

She had only just turned eighteen. She knew little about being a wife or even running a sizable household. Even now, the truth of the matter was she needed Peggy’s practical skills. She regarded their old horse and cart. Sid was only burdened with items of necessity – linens, crockery, kitchenware – everything contained in four barrels, three tea chests and two large trunks. They brought few bits of furniture and finally, their personal belongings. The Queen’s Head had been sold lock, stock, and barrel so Susannah had been able to sell furniture that she no longer needed. She was grateful for the extra coin. She led the horse across the courtyard to the separate stable building which, in turn, opened out onto a fenced paddock bounded to the north by the watercourse. Attached to the stable was an opensided lean-to.

She urged Sid along until the wagon was under its shelter. She unbuckled the grey gelding from his harness. He didn’t seem in a hurry to leave the shaft. Susannah slapped his rump to encourage him to take in his new surroundings while she did the same. The stables and paddock were large enough to agist another four horses. Across the way from the stable was enough room for a chicken coop. Then there were the boathouse and the little jetty. It was as dilapidated as the rest of the place, but not in serious disrepair. She had yet to consider how the boathouse might provide further income. There were so many possibilities here.

All she had to do was hang on until the money started coming in. Now there was a dilemma. How could she have miscalculated so badly? Her solicitor told her that taking on the liquor license from the late owner would cost no more than fifty pounds per year – which was a princely enough sum. Yet when Susannah applied to the local justice of the peace, a landholder by the name of Martin Doyle, he told her that, because she was new to the community and there was no one to stand surety for her, she would have to pay one hundred and seventy-five pounds as recognizance. A hundred and seventy-five pounds! The amount was almost all of her reserves. It left nothing to make repairs to the inn, let alone the improvements she wanted. Susannah knew as well as Mr. Doyle did that the true value of The Queen’s Head was in its license to serve alcohol. Who in their right mind would stay at an inn without at least beer or cider served with meals? Being allowed to run The Queen’s Head only as a boarding house would cut its income potential by three-quarters. So, she had paid.

There was nothing for it but to work harder still. She climbed up on the back of the wagon. She tilted, turned, and rocked one of the heavy barrels until it sat on the back edge of the tray. She clambered down and tugged at it, imagining to lift it down. Instead, it fell in a more or less controlled drop onto the ground. Crockery cushioned by straw inside the barrel rattled. She listened as she rolled it onto the trolley and felt confident nothing had broken. The damned thing was heavy! She leaned all of her weight on the trolley handles until it tilted, then shoved and willed the heavy cast iron wheels into motion. She was sweating by the time she had navigated her way along the halfovergrown path to the back door of the kitchen. “Well at least there are brushes, brooms, buckets and mops here,” said Peggy.

Her back was to the door, her attention on setting a fire. “Not that you’d suspect they’d ever been used.” “One barrel down, three to go,” Susannah puffed. Peggy turned and gave her a look. “I wish you’d let me fetch one of the boys from the village to do the heavy lifting.” “No. I must learn to do these things for myself.” “Well don’t blame me if you’re abed all day tomorrow because you’re too sore to move,” said Peggy. “You’re a lady. You weren’t brought up to do a day’s work like I was.

” Susannah heaved the barrel off the trolley and rolled it edge-on to just inside the kitchen. “If I didn’t work, then I’d truly earn the name Duchess, wouldn’t I? No, this is the new life for me – ‘in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’.” Peggy did not look impressed. “Well, I still say you’ll ruin your hands. You’re still a young woman. You could marry a nice gentleman if you had a mind to.” “No, thank you. I thought I’d married a nice gentleman the first time.” The edge to her voice blunted any comeback Peggy might have offered. Susannah dragged the trolley out and returned to the stable.

She wasn’t afraid of physical work, but Peggy was right – it was hardly the life she had been used to. As the daughter of a rector, she had been raised to manage a little household with a servant or two. When she wed Jack Moorcroft, she thought she was marrying a successful merchant with a big household. Oh, the many, many lies that man told… to her, to her father. To everyone. Susannah wrestled another barrel down and onto the trolley, then stopped to catch her breath. She looked across the quiet road that cut through the valley, the tree-studded Arthyn Hill on one side and the wind-shaped grassy Trethowan on the other, like arms embracing her, drawing her closer to the sea that she loved. There was no threat here, she told herself, not even from the officious Mr. Doyle. Perhaps Peggy was right.

Perhaps almost a year and a half was long enough to stop looking over her shoulder. She had moved across to the other side of the country for a new life, far away from the reminders of the seven years of hell she endured during her marriage to Jack. Anything she did that was different was good. It made her less frightened. It made her forget about her past. By the time Susannah brought the last of the chests inside, there was something smelling absolutely delicious bubbling away on the stove. Peggy had lit the lamps in the kitchen, making it feel like home already. She lowered herself wearily into a chair at the old and scarred kitchen table just as Peggy returned through the dining room doors. “Most of the kitchen is unpacked,” she pronounced. “And fresh linens are on your bed.

That’s the thing to help a body feel at home.” Without missing a beat, Peggy picked up a bottle of cider from one of the work benches and brought it to the table, along with two glasses and two spoons. Susannah opened the bottle and poured two glasses before taking a long draught of her own. She set down the glass with a satisfied sigh then pronounced, “You’re a miracle worker!” Peggy ladled two bowls of vegetable and barley broth into bowls and joined her at the table. When the worst of her hunger was assuaged, Susannah outlined her plans. “We should go into St. Sennen tomorrow after we’ve taken inventory of anything we need for the inn. I think it would be useful to get to know the shopkeepers of the village. There’s no quicker way to be accepted than being a regular customer. And I want to pay a call on the vicar of St.

Catherine’s Church, too.” Peggy lowered her spoon and gave her a considered look. “The sea air here really must agree with you. You never did that back in Lydd.” Susannah wrinkled her nose and took another sip of cider. “Ha! Ever since I took off my widow’s weeds, you’ve been at me to go out in public instead of locking myself away, and now I do it, you tease me!” “Well, by all means, have tea with the vicar, Duch. But I draw the line at helping you with the church bazaar.” Peggy’s voice became proud. “I have an inn to run.” Susannah raised her glass.

“To The Queen’s Head.” Peggy raised hers also. “And to women who don’t lose theirs!”

.

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