Unlikely Heroes – Carla Kelly

Captain Angus Ogilvie – widower, notorious and generally feared thug, and Trinity House Elder Brother – spoke horribly accented French and worse Spanish. Despite that, here he was in the port of Cádiz, where his relentless tracking of Claude Pascal had finally landed the two of them. What a wretched man was Claude Pascal. The spy had insinuated himself aboard one of the prison hulks in Portsmouth’s harbor, ruining far too many lives in his attempt to foul the Royal Navy’s valuable factories producing war materiel. Captain Rose, warden of Trinity House, had allowed Pascal to escape, then assigned Ogilvie to track the man and see what he planned next. The Baltic States seemed to be full of intriguers. Ogilvie blended in perfectly well and knew enough German to get by. Thank God the Danes and Swedes spoke enough English to make life endurable. Following an agile fellow like Claude Pascal had shaken a good stone and more off Ogilvie’s stoutish frame. In the Baltics, Ogilvie managed to quietly murder a handful of French agents – amazing what silent damage a wire could do, especially if the man wielding it had no particular problem with death. The damage continued into the German states, where two more spies met their maker after Claude Pascal, still blithely unaware, left messages – some encrypted, some not – that went into Ogilvie’s pocket, once their brief ownership in German hands was contested by a Scot of no mean ability. Pursued and pursuer continued down the coast of western Europe. Ogilvie had no problem understanding the idioms of France and Spain. The difficulty lay in convincing his less-agile tongue to speak the words and not have them sound like they were native to Fort William, Scotland, where he was born and reared until he went to sea. He managed well enough.

A discreet card in French or Spanish, stating that the bearer was unable to speak due to an unfortunate injury had convinced enough innkeepers, especially when he displayed the coins in his purse. If anyone appeared skeptical, all he had to do was loosen his neckcloth and exhibit an impressive scar. That it was the result of a youthful fall from a tree and looked gruesome even now, was no one’s business but his. Long practice at skulking had trained him to never stay more than one night in one place. He got by. Past Belgium, Ogilvie headed for the coast of France, ordered there by Captain Rose to pop into northern France at Dunkerque, Calais, Ambleteuse and Boulogne to see with his own eyes if there was truth to rumors of smaller vessels under construction, the sort used to ferry soldiers across a short stretch of water like the Dover Strait. Angus Ogilvie followed orders because Claude Pascal seemed to be headed that way, too. What he saw at Ambleteuse suggested to Angus that the French had miles to go before attacking England from the water. True, ships with masts but no rigging do look predictably disconsolate in a rainstorm. An evening’s amble down to the dock provided more information.

He never had trouble blending in with the local citoyennes, as long as he wore a cockade in his hat and didn’t shave or bathe often. “You, sir, are a nondescript sort of fellow,” the Prime Minister himself had told him once, intending it as a compliment. “The perfect spy.” Perfect spy was no title to be proud of. There was no acclaim involved, only silence and dirty deeds. Besides, Angus suspected he was growing soft, or perhaps merely tired. Why else would he find himself, during lonely evenings, thinking so often of Portsmouth and people there who mattered to him? Invariably his thoughts circled around to Captain Sir Belvedere St. Anthony, elegant fellow done in at the Battle of the Nile by the loss of a leg. How Sir B still managed to attract and win the heart and hand of Grace Croker, gentlewoman and spinster, baffled someone as realistic as Angus Ogilvie, especially since he had his eye on Grace, too. In one dingy inn or another as he tracked Claude Pascal, Angus had too much time to reflect upon the workings of fate, never in his favor or so it seemed.

Usually his rigorous Presbyterian upbringing still managed to poke through and remind Angus that he should feel more pity for Sir B, who was not healthy and who knew he was dwindling. How much pain can a man take, after all? Sailing Master Able Six, unspeakably brilliant teacher at St. Brendan the Navigator School, had confided to Angus before this journey began that Lady Grace St. Anthony was with child. “I wonder if Sir B will live long enough to see his son or daughter,” Able had commented on Angus Ogilvie’s last night in Portsmouth before he began his European skulk. “I hope he does.” Angus was not so certain he felt the same way. That small-minded consideration generally ended the rattles in his head, at least for the evening, because Angus Ogilvie did have a conscience – not a huge one, but a conscience nonetheless. He reminded himself then of the business at hand, following Clause Pascal. At Ambleteuse, Angus saw twenty bateux cannoniers, low-sided and fitted out with sweeps for rowing across the English Channel.

What folly. He stopped long enough to estimate that each bateux might seat some one hundred soldiers, all of them likely to puke when they hit that channel chop. I fear you will not prosper, he thought, as he strolled past. Ogilvie knew better than to look back and keep counting, the mark of an amateur spy, which he was not. He changed his mind at Boulogne, another coastal village which he had always known as an indifferent harbor. France could boast of few good harbors, and Boulogne was no exception, except that Ogilvie knew dredging scoops and shovels when he saw them. The rumors were true. Napoleon was dredging a deeper harbor at Boulogne, and look, it was being widened, as well. He probably stared longer than he should have. Maybe it was the sight of all those workers that startled him.

They swarmed like ants against the slopes, hauling dirt. At the harbor’s mouth, he saw capable masons slapping mortar on trowels to build a fortress guarding the entrance. He faced seaward, noting the lengthy sandbank which kept frigates of the Royal Navy at bay. Yes, Boulogne was becoming a good port from which to launch an invasion fleet. He could imagine it filled with small craft by 1805. The idea irritated him, so Captain Angus Ogilvie set fire to two drydocks before he left the city, giving himself great satisfaction. So did a wire necklace for Claude Pascal’s Boulogne connection, who thought he might withhold information about Pascal’s next port of call and still live. “Cádiz, is it? Merci, citoyen,” he told the corpse. “I like Cádiz.” And here was Cádiz, a place the captain had enjoyed in years past, when active duty took his ships into the excellent harbor, not then under Napoleon Bonaparte’s greedy thumb.

Cádiz, home of superior sea food and sultry women. Either times had changed or he had changed. He settled for a humble bowl of fish soup in a taberna overlooking the harbor, and ignored a woman making eyes at him. She looked unclean, and Captain Ogilvie did have standards. What was this? A harbor full of Spanish ships, to be sure, but French ones, too, ships large and small, all bottled there by the Royal Navy blockade. Ogilvie had expected this, of course, but the proximity to so much fighting sail, all bent on England’s destruction, fair took away his breath. Looking up now and then from his newspaper, he counted them, from the biggest – the Santísima Trinidad, largest ship in both fleets – to the smallest pinnace. As he admired the lovely lines of the Trinidad, he mourned the men who would die aboard her when the Combined Fleet came out and Admiral Horatio Nelson waited, ready to pounce. He didn’t mourn long. He leaned back in his chair and thought about Able Six, that curly-haired, complicated fellow with the lovely wife, who had said they were in for another ten years of war, at least.

He marveled at the ambition of Napoleon Bonaparte, a petty enough fellow to begin with, but enhanced by the revolution and allowed to strut upon a larger stage. Ogilvie grudgingly admitted to himself that the Corsican upstart had some talent. Enough was enough, however. “You won’t take your war onto English soil,” he said under his breath. “Not while I can skulk and murder.” Speaking of which, he looked across the taberna to a table in the even more dimly lit corner, where sat Claude Pascal with another of his informants. The two men leaned close together, then the informant leaned back in surprise and looked around, almost as if he wanted to be anywhere than with Claude Pascal. Ogilvie could appreciate that. As he looked closer, Ogilvie squinted to make sure he was right. Well blow me down, he thought, startled to see a familiar English face.

He turned toward the wall, nearly certain he hadn’t been noticed, as all manner of ideas ran through his tired brain. One idea connected with another until he forgot his fear and his surroundings. He knew that man. Sir Clive Mortimer played a small role in the workings of the Admiralty. What was it? Something about first secretary over victualling and procurement, where his task was to review the ledgers and logs sent over from the Navy Board and give them his official stamp of approval. By the time the papers reached Sir Clive’s desk, the kegs of beef and pork, eggs nestled in salt, cheese, and hardtack were long on their way, voyaging the world. Never mind all that; bureaucracy, that mistress of the unimaginative, still required an official stamp before the papers were filed God knows where. Sir Clive’s servant, a foxy-faced fellow name of Hébert, always seemed to be hanging about. And here Hébert, decidedly uncomfortable, sat with Claude Pascal. Sir Clive had casually mentioned once to Angus that Patrice Hébert came from an old Huguenot family long in England.

Maybe not so long, eh? Ogilvie watched them, thinking of Sir Clive’s easy access to all the offices in the Admiralty. If memory served him, Clive’s office was on the same floor as the Lords of the Admiralty. Imagine what an inquisitive fellow could learn, just hanging about. Why would you do this, Sir Clive? Ogilvie asked himself, as he felt cold reason settle over him. Too many debts? One too many expensive horses? A greedy mistress? It’s time your career ended at Admiralty House. How low of you to make a servant do your work, because he must be retired, too. He nursed his flagon of rum and watched as a scrap of paper changed hands and ended in a pouch around Hébert’s neck. Ogilvie made note of that repository, knowing the pouch had to go before the steel cord could do its best work. He left the taberna ahead of the two spies, content to wait in the shadows outside where the air was better. He didn’t have to wait long.

The conspirators left the taberna, chatted quietly, heads together, then walked away in opposite directions. Ogilvie followed Hébert, keeping well back, until he started up one of the many labyrinthian streets that twisted and wound up from the harbor. When Hébert paused in front of a door and took out a key, Ogilvie sidled up behind him. “Paddy Hébert, fancy seeing you in Cádiz. Did Sir Clive send you on holiday?” Hébert whirled around, his eyes wide. He clutched the pouch around his neck and managed a weak smile. “Captain Ogilvie, is it?” An even weaker laugh followed the smile. “Why, yes, I have many friends in Cádiz.” “And my mother is a donkey,” Ogilvie said. Giving Hébert no time to react, Angus slit the pouch from the spy’s neck, shoving it down his own shirt front.

He banged Hébert’s head against the door and clamped his hand over the terrified man’s mouth. “Here you are, trading secrets to a nasty man from a nasty man,” he hissed. “Shame on you, and more shame on Sir Clive. Have you anything to say to me that would prevent me from ending your life this minute? I’ll wait.” He lifted his hand from Hébert’s mouth, but not far. “He said if I didn’t help, he would kill my whole family,” Hébert managed to gasp. “My stars and garters, that’s the wrong answer!” Ogilvie said cheerfully. “I know you’re an orphan.” By then Ogilvie had his hand around the wire silencer he carried in his waistcoat. Moving faster now, he yanked on the servant’s hair until he reached the precise angle to slip the wire around his neck and tighten it.

Two jerks, then a third for good measure and Patrice Hébert collapsed at his feet. Oops. Too much zeal this time. The wire had cut nearly through the unfortunate man’s neck. Blood pounded out, then pulsated more slowly as the life drained away. Ogilvie wiped his useful wire on the dead man’s jacket then slipped it back into his waistcoat, ready for a new adventure. What adventure? He thought he could convince Captain Rose and the Admiralty, through Prime Minister William Pitt, to let Sir Clive continue his free roaming, but to watch him closely and see who else might be a traitor in high places. It shouldn’t be too hard to insert an honest man – for the sake of argument, call him a spy – onto Clive’s staff, once Hébert was presumed dead. This spy could report Sir Clive’s business and do England no harm. Ogilvie made his way casually, slowly, back to the harbor, the trail of blood following him.

Someone would raise an alarm eventually, but that was the beauty of Spain. People were reserved and disinclined to intrude, even during such questionable times as these, or maybe because of such times. Still, one couldn’t overlook a stream of blood, even as night settled on Cádiz. Angus Ogilvie squeezed through an alley barely wide enough for skinny cats and came out into a different street. Tired, so tired of following Pascal, Ogilvie walked to the dock and stared at the Santísima Trinidad riding on her anchors in the harbor. He admired the fine lines, convinced that while the French made the best fighting ships – the Royal Navy had copied them shamelessly for years – the Spanish created the most beautiful ones. As he stood in the shadows – Christ, how much of his life had been spent in shadow lately – he noticed two men walking together, one of them in uniform and the other well-dressed and with a flair that some tried to duplicate, but only the Spanish managed to carry off. Ogilvie was too tired to listen to their conversation, so that wasn’t what made him pay closer attention. It was the Spaniard in the handsome frilled uniform that made Captain Ogilvie’s mouth open in surprise, that same jaded and world-weary Captain Ogilvie who was never surprised by anything. He could have sworn Sailing Master Able Six, that dratted genius, stood there.

Chapter Two Six Months Later, 1805, Portsmouth That night in Sir B’s sickroom, Master Able Six thought the end would come during the Middle Watch, when wounded and dying men laid down their defenses and surrendered to death. On several occasions when he was forced to act in lieu of a ship’s surgeon, he had sat beside men as they let out that last pre-dawn breath. Even Davey Ten, now serving his apprenticeship as assistant pharmacist mate, had commented on the propensity of men to die in the wee hours. “Why, sir?” he had asked Able only last week over Sunday roast beef at the Sixes’ home when he was granted leave from Portsmouth’s Haslar Hospital. “I don’t know,” Able had told him, a statement that hardly ever crossed his lips because he usually did know. Apparently even Euclid and Able’s other unseen cranial friends were not privy to some secrets. People died when God dictated. Even a man of science understood that. Able knew the end was close when he said goodnight to Sir B, and left the St. Anthonys’ bedchamber arm in arm with his wife.

He had watched his wife Meridee droop and wilt through the evening, partly from sorrow, and partly from her slow recovery after last month’s miscarriage. She had offered no objection when Lady St. Anthony – better known still as Grace Croker – had quietly summoned the family carriage for the ride back to their house across from St. Brendan’s School. In the carriage, Meridee had gone right into his arms, or perhaps he had gone into hers, because the loss of someone so dear couldn’t be borne alone. Thank God, yet again, that he was married. At the moment, Able couldn’t fathom enduring such a death by himself. The loss of their much-wanted baby had been difficult enough, but Sir B had winkled out Able’s great mystery, and set him on a true course that had taken him to Portsmouth, St. Brendan’s, and this life. “This is hard,” he whispered to Meri, realizing how inadequate that puny phrase sounded.

She held him closer. “I wanted our baby, oh my word, I did, but as much as that, I…I know we will have more children. There is only one Sir B.” It was a brave admission from the best woman he knew, and the best mother to both their little boy Ben, and to the Gunwharf Rats of St. Brendan the Navigator School she also mothered. The workhouse lads had earned their title of Gunwharf Rats, the result of finding the sorry carcass of a rattus norvegicus and prevailing upon squeamish Meri to help them boil the bones and then see them mounted on a plaque. Who knew how things like that took on a life of their own, and a meaning that went beyond a rat on a plaque? Because the rat belonged at St. Brendan’s now, so did they, who had never belonged anywhere before. Simple. There was never any question that Meri Six had enough mother in her heart to add the Rats to her special stewardship.

She had told him once, as if he might think her a low-achieving failure, that all she wanted was to be a good wife and mother, and there was no way she could match or even fathom his brain. He had been happy to assure her that her practical, grounded nature, plus her bounteous love and fine looks, were precisely what a man with a too-busy brain craved. He thought she believed him, but he was never precisely certain. After one domestic disaster, she had wisely but firmly forbidden him from ever handling the simple arithmetic from butchers or tradesmen. Theirs was a fortunate marriage, because the easy stuff eluded him. She was right; there was only one Sir B, Captain Sir Belvedere St. Anthony, who, along with Captain Benjamin Hallowell, had grasped the enormity of Durable Six’s amazing brain and put it to good use. Sir B had commanded him in two oceans and on two seas, had seen to his mentorship as a sailing master, and landed him at St. Brendan School for Navigators to teach boys much like himself, bastard workhouse children with untapped promise. Now Sir B lay dying, the result of seven years of pain from wounds earned the hard way at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

The loss of his leg had led to additional complications, over which physicians had no power. No physician knew enough. When his wife Grace, a fellow St. Brendan instructor, had walked the Sixes to the door, her arms around both of them, she had told them her dear man had survived long enough for the birth of his son George Belvedere Routledge St. Anthony. “Georgie kept him alive,” Grace said, as they stood together, waiting for the St. Anthony carriage. “I could wish for more, but Able, he is so weary of pain.” “We know that,” Able said. “Grace, should we…” “No,” she said softly.

“Get Meridee home. She’s drooping but she’ll never admit it. Get her to bed. If something happens tonight, I believe you will know.” “I believe I will.” After getting Meri home and into her nightgown, she insisted on their nightly ritual of another look at Ben before she agreed to crawl into bed. They stood a moment, arm in arm, looking down at a sleeping boy, arms and legs stretched out so confidently: Benjamin Belvedere Six, seventeen months old, and ruler of all he surveyed. “I hope he and George St. Anthony will be great friends,” Meri whispered. She tucked his blanket a little higher.

“They will be,” he agreed. “C’mon, Meri. You’re about to drop.” “Am not,” she insisted as her eyes closed. He picked her up and carried her to their bed, scene of much General Merrymaking, as his lover liked to call it. She was asleep before she even stretched out. He watched her a moment, deeply satisfied and still a little amazed at so wonderful a creature in his bed, he who had come into this world with less than nothing, except for a prodigious brain often more curse than blessing. Now, in descending order of importance, he was a husband, father, respected instructor, Younger Brother at Trinity House, friend of Billy Pitt, England’s First Minister, and almost-father to Nick Bonfort who slept down the corridor, a Gunwharf Rat at St. Brendan’s. Last and often least, Able was a reluctant member of a group of genius dead men who gave him good advice upon occasion and ignored him if they felt like it.

Meri was always first, and their son a close second, Ben who would grow up knowing who his father was. Alas, poor Ben. Only last week, Able had sat Meri down in the dining room for the bad news. The conversation – remembered in its entirety, of course – made Able smile even now, when he was at his lowest. “Meri, I have made a most unfortunate discovery.” “How bad can it be? You’re holding our son and reading dear Euclid to him .” She gave him her brightest smile. “Ben looks so happy. You two are such a pair.” “Brace yourself, Meri-deelicious.

I have been reading with my finger under each word. Bless me if our little scamp didn’t push my finger aside because I wasn’t reading fast enough. Meri? Meri? Are we still friends?” “Dear sir, I am digesting this news. He’s reading? Tell me the worst: Is it the English translation or the original Greek?” “I hate to admit it.” He kissed his son’s head. “The Greek.”

.

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