Matters of State The Escape Banner

Kent, England

Autumn, 1634

 

Harry Vane and his friend Benjamin Verney sat by the fire in the drawing room, well-fed and relaxed, with brandy to finish the evening. Harry had not been to London since the spring, and had not often been there since returning from the Continent a year earlier, so there was a lot to catch up about. Verney, besides being a classmate at Oxford, had been a colleague in the Secretary of State’s office.

“So, Harry. Have you finished rusticating? Fairlawne is a beautiful house, but even so, I would have expected you to be up in town more often.”

“And what should I be doing there that I cannot do here? I tend to my own affairs, I write and study, and I do go up once in a while. London is not what it was.” He did not need to say why.

“Come back, Harry.” Benjamin leaned forward. “Truly, you must come back. We need you. We still use that cipher you invented, by the way.”

“I did not invent it. A German monk named Trimethius invented it, and an Italian named Belaso improved it. All I did was refine the key to make the pattern less obvious. Besides, the up-timers have improved it even further.”

“Well, it was good enough to baffle the Spaniards. We had a courier turn up dead in Milan, and they got nothing useful from his pouch. Anstruther still speaks highly of you and your work in Vienna, too.”

“Well, aside from that lapse, Sir Robert is a very wise man. How is he? Or rather, where is he?”

“He had returned to Copenhagen briefly, but is back in London. He suggested that you might like to go to Magdeburg.”

“If I were to return to His Majesty’s service, Magdeburg would be a fine place. My father was sent to Gustavus Adolphus, you know. Not with any results, to speak of, but no harm done, either. But I am not convinced that I should return. You know what happened in the up-timers’ history. This time, I am being given a chance to keep my head where the good Lord put it. Matters of state seem too dangerous for me.”

“Give it some thought, Harry. Please.”

“I will, of course, but my inclination is against it. Give me a fortnight to think it over, but if I am still against it, please accept that decision as final.”

“That is all I can ask. Thank you, Harry.”

At length, Ben said, “Meaning no slight to the excellent dinner and this very nice brandy, but that claret you had was superb. Where do you get it?”

Harry smiled. “You have touched upon a mystery. My father arranges for its delivery. He buys it a pipe at a time, and has a vintner put it up in bottles. Neither he nor any of the servants have anything to say on its origins, so I suspect the worst.”

“Well, if you ever pierce that veil, please let me know where to get it.”

“Take some with you tomorrow. I’ll have a dozen packed up.”

“No, Harry, I couldn’t.”

“Please, I insist. We have plenty more.”

“No, Harry, truly I cannot carry them. I came here on horseback, not in a wagon. But I thank you all the same.”

“Then take a half dozen. No? What then, could your noble steed manage the weight of a single bottle? Good. I’ll see about getting you more some other time.”

****

The Next Week

Harry Vane was at dinner. His mother, brothers, and sister had eaten some time before, while he had been meeting with the estate overseer in his father’s absence. He had been trying to arrange importation of a Spanish breed of sheep that he had heard about. English wool was considered the best, but this new breed had sounded like a serious rival, and he wanted to see if he could improve the breed. Cold roast beef with fresh bread, claret, and good cheese was no hardship, and he could read at the table without being rude.

“Sir, a messenger wishes to see you.”

“A messenger? From whom?”

“He says he does not know, sir, but that he was engaged by a gentleman he does not know. Please, sir, he begs leave to tell you that the gentleman says that the claret is excellent, and that the gentleman prays that you will give the messenger a shilling.”

Harry started. “Send him in immediately.”

The messenger, all muddy and wet, entered and handed Harry a sealed document. The wax seal was plain, with no signet. Harry opened it. There was no signature, but he recognized the handwriting. It read: Harry, a warrant from the Star Chamber for your arrest will be issued tomorrow. C may not wait for it. Leave at once. Harry read it through again, then dropped it into the fireplace.

“Did the man who sent you have further instructions?”

“No, sir.”

“Here is something for your services. Do you have any other business?”

“No, sir. I am at liberty, at the moment, this having been my only message.”

“It’s late. I am sorry not to put you up here, but the Ivy Inn at Sevenoaks is only six miles northwest of here. Here, take this for expenses as well. Please do not mention my name.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

MoS-TE-mnThat should keep the messenger out of the pursuers’ way for the time being. He threw smallclothes and stockings into a sack, put on his heavy belt, buckled on his sword, and called for the groom to saddle his horse. His emergency purse had 100 pounds in gold and small coins. He took his Grantville revolvers, powder, shot, caps, a spare cylinder, cartridge papers, and some made-up cartridges. The Lord’s help and ready money would have to take care of the rest. He would ride by what little moonlight there was.

He stopped and composed himself. He could not leave without speaking to his mother, and he could not speak to her until he had himself under control. He had to tell her enough to convey the urgency, but not the danger, and he could not lie to her.

In the parlor, his mother and his sister Frances sat embroidering while Margaret practiced at the virginal. “Mother, I am afraid I must leave immediately. I must go over to the continent, and time is of the essence. I cannot tell you more. I am sorry, Mother.”

She asked, “Is this something to do with matters of state? Will you be going to your father? I won’t ask any more than that.”

He replied, “Yes, Mother. It is an official matter. I may meet with Father before I return. It depends upon things in which I have no say.”

“Well, this was what we expected, when we felt you were meant for office. Just be safe, and come back as soon as you can.”

Margaret leapt up from the bench, scattering her sheet music, and flung herself into Harry’s arms. “You were gone so long the last time, much longer than you’ve been home. When are you coming back, Harry? I’ll miss you terribly.”

“I’m sorry, Meg. It’s not for me to say. But I will write, and send you more books from Grantville.”

“Not those foolish romance novels, Harry,” said his mother with a smile. “They are not at all conducive to the proper raising of a young lady.”

“I cannot promise that, Mother, but I will send instructive and elevating books as well. A fair bargain? Then I must be off.”

“Tonight? It’s already dark, Harry, the horse will stumble and throw you.”

“Tonight, dearest Mother. I dare not delay.” He pulled her aside, away from his sisters. “Mother, the Earl of Cork is sending someone to arrest me. You know I was in the Grantville history books, and how it all ended. It seems that they are going through the books again. Clearly, I was no regicide in that other world. I had nothing to do with the king’s death and argued against it. Nevertheless, the courtiers around the king feel they can flatter him with their zeal in persecuting his enemies, real or imaginary.”

“Oh no! Harry, are you sure?”

“A good friend took a deadly risk to warn me, Mother. I must go. Here, kiss me and let me go.”

****

            The clouds came in, covering and uncovering the half-moon. He could barely see the road at a walk. At Maidstone, he took a room for the rest of the night at the inn. “Young Master Vane, welcome! How is your father?” said the landlord. Harry mumbled that he was fine, thank you, but sore and tired. How did this man know his family? It was too close to their house for his father to have stayed there. He left that mystery for the morning.

MoS-TE-strsHe rose at dawn, washed, and dressed. He was still tired, having barely slept. At the top of the stairs, he paused. There was an argument going on downstairs. The landlord shouted, “You can’t just go wherever you please, pulling honest folks from their beds . . .” He heard blows, then groans. Another voice shouted, “And there’s more where that came from, if you want it. Come, lads.” He dashed back to his room and opened the shutters. There was a soldier standing guard below and the groom’s boy holding the search party’s horses.

As quietly as he could, he climbed onto the windowsill and pulled himself onto the thatched roof. He looked around. There was one old fellow watching him from across the street. The man laid a finger alongside his nose and Harry returned the gesture with a grin. The authorities were not regarded with affection here, evidently. He pulled himself up and over the peak, then climbed part-way down the back of the roof, trying not to crush the thatch and make a sound. He peered over the eaves until he saw part of a hat below, then pulled back. The alley was too narrow for the guard to see the roof. There was nothing to do but wait.

After the soldiers had finished their search, they rode off to the southeast, toward Folkestone and Dover, one leading Harry’s horse. Harry inched down the back of the roof and dropped into the alley. The kitchen door stood open. He went through to the front room, where the innkeeper sat with a bloody cloth pressed against his face. “Well, young sir, that was not the way I like to start the day, but I’ve had worse. Especially in this trade. So, what do they want with you?”

“I am not sure. It may be that they think I might be plotting something. I know not what. There were some books from Grantville. Perhaps I was in one of them.”

“Oh, that lot. Dutchmen, weren’t they? Sailing right up the Thames and back out again! With the Tower ruined and half the guards dead, the other half gone with them. That was a queer thing, that was. Some new kind of ship, I hear, that goes against wind and tide. And they blame you for that?”

“No, not that, but you know how they have been seizing or killing innocent men. I believe they mean to do the same with me. I need to pass over to the continent.”

“Yes, we heard about that, and I think you must go or hang, and hang for nothing. Now, have you any port in mind?”

“Any but an English one.”

“We’ll get you over, all right. You’ll want to stay off the road to Dover. That would be where they’ll look for you, it being the shortest way over. Now, if you were to take the south road, where it turns off, you’ll get to Hawkhurst, about 20 miles. Ask there for the road to Rye, maybe another 20 miles. It’s a much smaller port than Dover, and shallow, but there’s smaller ships that come there from France. The inn there is the Mermaid. Tell the landlord that Jack Peckham at the Swan sent you. He’ll see to you. You’ll want to hire a horse, I’m thinking, since those thieves in top-boots took yours. Now I think of it, you’ll want to change your fine clothes for something more common. Come along. You’re a long one, but I think I have something that will fit, though not so fine.”

Harry changed his clothes. The new ones, not really new, were wool stockings and breeches, a linen shirt, and a plain wool coat. The boot soles were thin in places. He could feel pebbles through them. The horse provided was an elderly mare. He soon discovered that she would trot for a few yards, then resume walking. She responded to light reins. She had probably had bad riders grinding the bit into her mouth, and no doubt she was sore there.

He reached Hawkhurst in early afternoon. He asked the way to Rye, and hired another horse. The road, or rather the track, went through the marshes. A few miles in, he knew he could not ride in the dark. He urged the horse into a trot for a while, alternating with walking. The double track showed it was used by carts. It branched off from time to time. Even when he tried to choose the more worn path, he could not always tell which one was the main road. One path led him to a dock along a small river, and he had to retrace his steps. There was mud and water in the lowest parts of the road, and small streams to ford. He only met one other traveler, a freight wagon with a team of four horses heading north.

It was nearly dark when he reached the Mermaid Inn. He had mud and water soaking into his boots and the horse had mud up to his belly. He took the poor animal to the stable to be groomed and fed. When he walked into the tavern, the men sitting there all looked him over, but no one spoke. He spotted the innkeeper, and said “Mr. Etheridge? My name is Harry Vane. Jack Peckham in Maidstone sends his greetings and said that I should ask for you.”

The other patrons returned to their suppers and drinks. “Oh, he did, did he? Then have you come here on business for him?”

“No, on business of my own. I want to go over to the continent. Mr. Peckham said you might know a captain going that way.”

“That’s as may be. There’s a ship down by at the wharf taking on ballast. I don’t know where they’re going. I don’t ask, but you might. They’ll be sailing on the morning tide, is my guess. Ask for Captain Johnson. You want to do that tonight. Do you want a room to yourself, sir?”

Harry thought dark thoughts as he went down Mermaid Street to the wharf. Instead of learning French or German or Dutch, not to mention Latin and Greek, he might have better learned English as the country people spoke it. Even with these worn clothes, the innkeeper had taken him for gentry. Right now, he wanted nothing so much as to be inconspicuous.

The ship lay by the wharf. It looked to be a Dutch fluyt, or a copy of one. Sailors and dock workers were loading cobbles into half-barrels, rolling them onto cargo nets, and hoisting them with a small crane from the wharf into the hold. Harry sought out the man overseeing the process. “Captain Johnson?”

“Yes?”

“I would like to take passage to the continent with you.”

“And who tells you I am heading for the continent?”

“It is well known here in town that you leave tomorrow morning. I can pay for my passage.”

“If I am going anywhere. You did not even ask where I am bound.”

“Very well, then: where are you going?”

“That’s none of your business.”

Harry began to lose patience. “Let us not continue this business of fencing with words. You and I both know that you would not have the authorities see you arrive, and I would not have them see me leave. Shall we leave it at that? Good. You go in ballast, which earns you nothing. I do not know where you are bound, but I can guess that it is somewhere on the continent. Since they have sufficient sand and cobblestones for their ordinary use, I suppose that you go there to load cargo, not to discharge it. I offer you an opportunity to make a bit of money on the unprofitable part of your voyage. It costs you nothing except the use of a spare hammock and a little food. You owe nothing to the merchants for it. Do you think I am going to turn you over to the king’s agents? How could I do that when we have sailed away from those agents? And I have seen nothing unlawful, remember. No law prohibits the export of stones from England, and no customs duties are charged. Perhaps if you kept up this trade for ten thousand years or so, England might have one county less and France one county more, but that is not our concern for today. Now, captain, shall we discuss the fee?”

****

            He met the captain at the wharf the next morning. “Utterly foul weather. Are you certain it is safe?”

“Safe? Nothing we do is safe, sir, and very few things are certain. Foul weather keeps those indoors I had rather not meet, and the wind is fair for the continent. It will blow over by tomorrow morning, you’ll see.”

Harry’s coat had stood the rain for a while, but now was wet through, and the brim of his hat collected water that poured out when he looked up or down. He went up the gangplank, took two steps on the wet deck, and slipped, landing on his rump. He glared at the grinning sailors and pulled himself back to his feet. The sailors went back to work turning their capstans, one at either end of the boat. They had dropped anchors away from the wharf when they arrived. Now, they were kedging the ship away from the wharf by drawing against the anchors, with the ebbing tide assisting. Once they were well clear of the wharf, the topsails were set, then the main and mizzen.

“A fine day in England, isn’t it, sir?” said a sailor, once the anchors were aboard. “Follow me, sir, and we’ll have you out of the weather.” He led Harry to the captain’s cabin. Harry stayed there the rest of the morning, reading, praying, and making up cartridges.

The captain arrived at noon, followed by a sailor with food. “How do you do, sir. It looks as though you have your sea legs already.”

“Yes, thank you captain. Tell me something, though. I saw you took on a little cargo at Rye, but also some ballast. Do you always travel lighter one way than the other?”

“You are very observant, sir. We bring a load of woolen cloth to Cherbourg, and sometimes find things there much in demand in England.”

“I wonder if it might interest you to make this leg of the voyage a little more profitable. There are those who would like to make the crossing without attracting the attention of some of the same men you prefer to avoid. Other than myself, of course.”

“Some others not seeking to be noticed, then.”

“Something like that. These are troubled times, and one cannot blame all those who feel unsafe. I am not speaking of criminals, mind you, but men of quality who might find the continent more to their liking for a while. Some who may have fallen out of favor, shall we say, through no evil deeds of their own.”

“It sounds like a dangerous trade.”

“Oh, surely you have faced danger, captain, and will do so again.”

“That is true, but not without good reason.”

“I am sure we can find reason enough.”

The captain smiled. “I am sure we can.”

****

            Harry slept uneasily in the captain’s cabin. The constant motion of the ship got into his dreams, and he dreamt of being taken and shaken by a giant hand. Sometime in the night, he came awake. There was someone in the cabin. The captain’s bunk was empty, and Harry had seen him leave. He heard the creaking of the ship’s timbers, the slap of a line against a spar, the rush of water in the wake, and the faint scuffing sound of a barefoot man finding his way in the dark. There was a little moonlight seeping through the shutters, just enough to make out a shape. Harry slowly pulled his revolver from under his rolled-up coat that served as a pillow. When it was clear, he cocked the hammer. Whoever it was, the sound stopped him. “Who are you, and why should I not shoot you? Be brief,” Harry said.

“Please, sir!” the other replied.

“Not that brief. Persuade me not to kill you. Otherwise, I assure you, you will be dead, someone will drag your carcass out, and I will go back to sleep.”

“Oh, no, sir, please!”

“Hmm. Another Cicero for eloquence. Never mind. Kneel down and place your hands upon your head.” Harry saw the shape move and heard the thump of the man’s knees on the deck and a clatter. He edged past him, then unlatched and opened the shutters. His prisoner was a ragged sailor. A dagger lay on the deck before him. No honest sailor’s sheepsfoot blade, but an assassin’s dagger. Harry picked it up, then stepped back. “Now,” he said, “turn around. You will open the door slowly and go out.” The sailor, eyes staring wide, did as he was told. “Wait!” said Harry. “One more thing.” Harry transferred the revolver to his left hand, taking the sailor’s knife in his right. It would not do to show weakness to this pack of scoundrels, but Harry did not want to take a life. He drove the point of the dagger through the man’s ear, then snatched it away from his head. The man shrieked. “Be thankful it was your ear, not your neck, as you deserved. I have notched your ear like a pig, so I will know you again. If you ever see me, run for your life. Now open the door.”

Harry peered past the sailor. As he expected, Captain Johnson stood beyond him on the deck with a sword in his hand. “Captain,” said Harry, “I had understood that my passage was to Cherbourg, not just halfway there.”

“Yes, sir, well . . .”

“Never mind. Our terms have changed, obviously. I will remain in your cabin for the rest of the voyage, while you make arrangements for your comfort elsewhere. Have the cook send up some bread and cheese. No one will enter. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, you damned whoreson puppy!”

Harry kicked the sailor away and slammed the door. Or hatch. Whatever.

Captain Johnson said, “Listen to me, young fellow. You’ll have us all up on the rocks if I cannot navigate. My charts and my instruments are in there.”

MoS-TE-strlb“Describe them to me, then,” Harry said. Harry found the back-staff, astrolabe, logbook, and charts, and passed them out to the captain.

“You will have to come out of there sooner or later, young fellow,” growled Captain Johnson. “We shall settle our accounts when you do.”

Harry spent the day and next night in the cabin. He even managed to sleep a little. He was reasonably safe in the captain’s cabin; it had a stout bar fitted against the door, in case the captain needed refuge. With his revolvers ever near at hand, he could guard the two means of access against a fixed number of attackers. That was alright for now, but he wondered how he would get off the ship. He would be vulnerable from all sides outside the cabin. Once they were docked, Captain Johnson might alert an English agent, or a French guard, or pay a dockside tough. The voyage to Cherbourg should take about three days and two nights, Harry estimated. He must be ready to move today. Captain Johnson must surely be turning the possibilities over in his own mind.

Late in the morning, the ship neared Cherbourg. As the ship entered the harbor and approached the dock, Harry heard the anchors being heaved overboard. With a favorable breeze and tide, the crew would pay out the anchor line gradually, with a minimum of sail and the wind on the hull itself pushing them sideways toward the dock. They would repeat the process of kedging when they left, hauling on the anchors to pull the ship away from the dock. As the ship swung around, he could see a small boat rowing out from the dock with a line trailing in the water behind. The sailors would use the line to pull the heavier mooring cables out to the ship and guide it in.

That was the chance he needed. Smiling now, he wrote a note, placed some coins on it, and waited for the boat’s approach. As the sailors aboard the ship caught the thrown line, Harry flung the door open and raced to the bow of the ship, and then jumped into the boat. To the oarsmen, Harry said in French, “My good men, you will be dry after your exertions. If you pull for the shore with a good will, here is something to wet your muzzles,” and held up a couple of silver shillings, a bargain price for an hour’s head start. The oarsmen grinned and put their backs into rowing, ignoring the shouts from the ship.

As the boat pulled away, Harry hailed the ship. “Captain Johnson, I have settled my account. Look in your cabin. Goodbye!”

Captain Johnson considered lowering the ship’s launch, but there was no way of overtaking Harry. Instead, he went to his cabin. There were three pound coins and a note. The note read “Captain Johnson, here is the fare we agreed upon. If we meet again, please bear in mind that I pay my debts, in blood or money. Yours, etc., H. Vane.”