The ‘Mission’ sets off
Early on Saturday morning, a bright if somewhat hazy autumnal day, Doctor Johnson and James Boswell bid their farewells to the friends they had found in Summerdale.
‘I may be denied the advantages of a formal education,’ said Elisabeth, ‘But this last week has convinced me that the experience of a full life can be perhaps an even greater advantage if one aspires to be a writer. I may even become a reasonable novelist if I apply myself diligently enough.’
‘I am delighted to hear that, my dear. Work at the craft and send me early samples of your work, fragments and ideas, in however draft a form.’ said Doctor Johnson. ‘And if you wish, I shall send you my thoughts and my advice. I shall also ask my friend, Miss Burney, to give you the benefits of her experience and her suggestions. And what are you going to do, Tom?’
‘I don’t know about the future, sir, but today, now all is well again, I feel like celebrating, even though I am a little sad that you are leaving us.’
‘And how shall you celebrate, Tom – I see your sister frowning!’
‘I think I shall roll down Church Hill, sir. No one will mind me doing that.’
‘I should think not, indeed. One of the great pleasures in my life has been to roll innocently down hills with boisterous young companions. Will you permit me to join you Master Trundle?’
‘Why, with great pleasure, sir.’
‘Take care I do not roll upon you – I might squash you flat!’
‘Fear not sir, I shall twist out of your way, and if you go astray be sure I shall steer you straight.’
(‘Is this not rather unwise for Doctor Johnson?’ whispered Mr Bagley.
‘I think not.’ said Boswell. ‘He knows his limitations and this is not one of them!’)
‘I will not race you up to the top, Tom,’ said Doctor Johnson, ‘But I shall race you rolling to the bottom.’
‘I believe you will beat me, sir, for with more to roll with you may go faster.’
‘Why, you impudent young dog!’ laughed Doctor Johnson.
‘Do be careful Doctor…’ said Elisabeth.
‘I’ll look after him.’ said Tom, and off they went.
Jasper now emerged from the Town Hall to lead the expedition.
He had a bible under his arm, and was clad in a long black Geneva coat, with a high clerical collar around his neck from which hung wide white strips, and with a black broad brimmed flat shovel hat on his head. There was no sign of the red wig, and his moustache now drooped in a suitably solemn manner. He bowed to Aunt Hetty, who came across the square from the Inn.
‘Ah, Sister Hepzibah.’
‘Well, here I am. And I don’t pretend to like it – all got up like a superannuated nun.’
‘I particularly like the wimple and the lappets.’
‘It’s the closest I could get to a pointy hat. And I’m not wearing sandals for no one.’
‘Of course not. Those boots look fine to me. They could be part of a penance, perhaps.’
Then five members of the crew appeared, shuffling self-consciously forward, some running their fingers around the inside of their rather stiff collars and all looking rather embarrassed.
‘Good God!’ said Aunt Hetty.
‘So we understand.’ said Jasper. ‘Despite the evidence to the contrary.’
‘What are we supposed to be?’ asked Aunt Hetty. ‘Baptists?, Anabaptists?, Latitudinarians?’
‘Covenanters?, Congregationalists?, Presbyterians?, Episcopalians?, Quakers?’ I give up.’
‘Well, following my make-over, allow me to re-introduce myself. I chose my second name as almost the perfect brand fit, so am now the Reverend Mr De Quincey, and we are consequently the Quinceyites.’
‘What do you believe in?’
‘Tomorrow – who knows?, but today we certainly don’t believe in making people’s lives worse by giving them needless fears, worries and burdens in order to control them.’
‘Different to most religions then?’
‘Just a little. We do however believe in helping, smoothing the way, and spreading contentment.’
‘No change there then.’
‘And I do so hope to limit the sarcasm as much as possible…’
‘Sorry. Where did you get all this gear?’
‘Some of it belongs to the choir and the Mayor in his capacity as Churchwarden, but most of it we found in the Vicarage which has had a rather sombre series of incumbents for many years past.’
‘What’s my role going to be?’
‘I thought the feminine touch – bringing sweetness and light, and grace and compassion to our outlaw brethren in the forest who are so in need of forgiveness.’
‘You must be confusing me with someone who gives a toss.’
‘Ah, woe is me. We’ll just have to thrash them then as part of our mission to bring redemption through submission.’
‘You are really enjoying this, aren’t you?’
‘I believe in being as thorough as possible in all I undertake.’ replied Jasper, a trifle smugly. ‘Allow me to introduce my acolytes, all crack shots, I assure you. Despite their names we are not real Puritans – we none of us have that all consuming fear that somewhere, someone, somehow, is in danger of being happy… This is Deacon Strike-them-hip-and-thigh Rathbone.’
‘Mornin’ Ma’am.’ smiled Rathbone. ‘You look, er – impressive…’
‘And this is Brother Beware-for-tribulations-cometh-upon-thee Archibald.’
‘Hello Miss. Sorry about yesterday – being rude to you, and that…’
‘I’m sure you are, Archy lad.’
‘And here we have Brother Woe-unto-sinners-who-repenteth-not Clarence.’
‘Do you believe in a god Clarence?’
‘How could I Ma’am? I come from Hackney. Anyway I think that Sid Arthur got it right.’
‘Sid Arthur – you know, that Buddha bloke. He reckoned that it depends on how good you’ve been in this life as to how you get on in the next. Well, I’ve been very good at piracy so live in high hopes for when I die.’
‘I don’t think it works quite like that.’ said Jasper. ‘But you’re on the right lines. And you remember Tembo? I think he’s a Rastafarian Quinceyite.’
‘Halleluia Ma’am. We noh reach Mount Zion yet, but we am mekkin all de right moves.’
‘Where’s your friend Twiga?’
‘He wid de escort party for Doctor J, Ma’am.’
‘And this of course is Brother Maurice Bend-down-for-the-Lord-and-be grateful Dancer.’
‘Well, hello Missis. May I call you Sister?’
‘I suppose so, but don’t push your luck.’
‘What do you think of my canonicals?’
‘Yes, very fetching, but hardly low church, are they? Not with the pink tippets.’
‘Oh, dear me – everyone’s a critic these days.’
‘And I think the flares are a bit over the top as well…’
‘Well it was either them or gaiters, and I just do not do gaiters – they are so last season.’
‘So, here we have our congregation.’ smiled Jasper. ‘All of them devout nutters, I promise you.’
‘ “Sure, isn’t it grand to be a priest, Ted?” ‘squawked Tantamount. ‘Pleeeese…’
‘I’m sorry Sir Tantamount.’ said Jasper. ‘But we’ve been through it thoroughly, haven’t we? And you agreed – it would just not look right for us to have such a colourful, intelligent and unusual creature as yourself on a Mission like this. You would just excite curiosity and doubt and quite likely imperil our plans. You’ll be with Tom and Elisabeth and I need you to keep an eye on Mr Speke as well.’
‘So there’s only six of you…’ said Aunt Hetty, doubtfully. ‘You’ll be well outnumbered if what Mr Boon said was correct.’
‘That is deliberate.’ said Jasper. ‘They will feel far more at ease when faced with such a small and apparently harmless party which can be captured without resistance. By the time we have reluctantly unloaded our apparent provisions of food and ardent spirits and started to pay out the ransom (which is dispersed amongst several panniers), they should be well off their guard, with some possibly already at a disadvantage, maybe with a leg of chicken in one hand and a jug of rum in the other.’
‘And that’s when we take ‘em.’ said Rathbone.
‘Exactly.’ said Jasper. ‘And, of course, we have the huge advantage of your company and skills in case something unforeseen happens, together with Fastnet and some of his seagull cousins to ensure excellent communications, and the very strong escort for Doctor Johnson and Mr Boswell following behind out of sight.’
‘But suppose they are so desperate that they just leap out as soon as they see you and attack without warning?’ said Aunt Hetty, still rather worried. ‘I’d better have a quick fix ready in case – a sudden swarm of bees or blinding flashes of light, or something similar… Bit of a problem if you’re all fighting – to pick ‘em out without hurting you.. There’ll be no time for preparations for anything major. The power works best when linked to a location you remember…’
‘I do understand.’ nodded Jasper. ‘But we are unlikely to be surprised, even if they are so well hidden that the seagulls don’t see them. We shall be well in front of the pack horses and you on your donkey, and will be walking on our 2-2-2 foraging formation, which is our ‘Naïve innocent visitors admiring the scenery whilst wandering along picturesque pathway’ mode. Close together Rathbone and I will take point, two yards behind and slightly wider apart Morry will be left half and Clarence right half, and a further two yards back Tembo will be on the left wing and Archibald on the right. Each of us will have two primed pistols concealed under our coats, some double barrelled, and all will have clear shots at the nearest of any deranged buffoons who leap out from whatever side and actually looks like seeking to do us damage there and then.’
‘I am impressed, Mr de Quincey.’ said Aunt Hetty. ‘Such military competence in a man of the cloth.’
Jasper smiled, and then bid goodbye to the others now gathered at the Town Hall to see the expedition off. He shook hands with Professor Paragon, Mr Bagley, Barney, and Umbrage, kissed the hands of Esme Trundle and Elisabeth, and then crouched down to talk to Tom (who had actually beaten Doctor Johnson down the hill by half a yard by twisting round at the last moment and sticking out his legs).
‘Tantamount’s in your care again, young man. Don’t give him too many sweets – they make his feathers fall out.’
‘He hasn’t got many to lose.’
‘Exactly. And we don’t want him catching a cold, do we?
‘You will come back, won’t you sir?’
‘You can be sure I shall do my very best to do so Tom.’ replied Jasper. ‘Not just because I’ve promised you all my service in this matter, but also because I feel there could be much at stake for me, here in Summerdale.’ He glanced quickly at Esme Trundle, and then turned to the crowd of townsfolk and crew members who were being left behind. ‘Do your best for these people, men. Remember, you are lucky to be still alive. I know you won’t let me down. Particularly since I shall return within the week and expect to see major progress in the repairing and renovating of Goldcaster and I would really hate to be disappointed. And you know how unreasonable I can become when that happens…’ He raised his hat to everyone and they gave him a rousing cheer.
The Quartermaster, saluted, and ground his teeth together as he watched the expedition leave.
* * *
By the time Sunday morning dawned Luther Speke was beginning to feel rather exhausted. Not only had he been driving his men and himself as hard as possible with their tasks in order to ingratiate himself with his captors, even working partly through the preceding night, but the need to ensure the summoning of what he thought was a warm and friendly smile whenever any resident of Summerdale crossed his path was wearing out his face muscles. He had not yet realised that this was what was causing everyone to twitch and shy away from him whenever he appeared, and attributed their behaviour to fear and respect.
His mental torment was also intolerable. He had been racking his brain trying to work out where the Captain’s chest might have been concealed, and surreptitiously searching for a clue to its whereabouts without any success whatsoever so far. All he knew for certain was that the Professor, his aunt the so-called witch, the Mayor, the dwarf, and that Barney Trim person, had all been nowhere to be found in the middle of the night. Trying to keep track of them had been one of the reasons he had worked into the small hours. And much good had it done him.
And this magic business was really a great worry. Hardly what one would want to have lurking in the background when searching for a treasure chest, stealing it, and getting out and clear away as soon and as fast as possible.
And just what was this Paragon creature really capable of? Speke had seen the colours when the bells had been rung and had suffered from the storm, but different members of the crew who had experienced other effects first hand had all sorts of conflicting ideas about the extent of this power and what it could achieve.
‘Anyone about?’ he whispered from inside one of the Town Hall cellars, halfway through Sunday morning.
‘Nope.’ said Blackheart who was sitting on the passage floor having his elevenses, exhausted, and morosely drinking a mug of very sweet tepid tea, with not a trace of rum in it.
‘Sod all down ‘ere.’ agreed Steelclaw, examining the contents of what he had hoped would be a decent bacon sandwich but which had turned out to be some sort of triangular cucumber concoction with trimmed crusts. And no salt. ‘Bloody Cook gone on strike, has he?’
‘He’s got the shakes and can’t get off the floor.’ said Blackheart. ‘They haven’t allowed him any rum since Friday night and that Tupman woman’s in charge of our grub today. She hates pirates.’
‘Never mind that.’ said Speke. ‘We’ve got to get out of here before Scabbard gets back. He knows which side his bread is buttered and I believe he’s going over to them to save his skin. Know what that means? Those who don’t suck up to him, and certainly we three, will be right out on our ears – either strung up here or handed over for trial. So we’ve got to escape. And if we go I don’t intend to go empty handed. His chest is here somewhere and we’ve got to find it. So you’ve got a choice – stay here and die – probably painfully, or help me get the treasure again, have it away, and live like lords for the rest of your lives. What’s it to be?’
‘Not dying.’ they both said together.
‘How do we find out where the chest is?’ asked Steelclaw.
‘The Mayor knows.’ said Blackheart. ‘Let’s torture ‘im.’
‘It may come to that but we’d have to kill him afterwards.’ said Speke. ‘And if he disappeared all hell would break loose. They’d be watching the hiding place like hawks and probably suspect us anyway and torture us. No, it may take a day or two longer but I favour getting into their good books, getting that Barney bloke or the dwarf drunk, and teasing it out of them.’
‘They went missing with the others last night. I reckon they helped hide it.’
‘But getting the treasure and getting away – who’s to say that this Professor feller won’t use his magic to stop us?’
‘That could be a problem.’ agreed Speke. ‘I wish I knew how he works it.’
‘It’s all to do with them bells, innit?’ said Blackheart. ‘They say he can only do the business when they ring…’
‘Well the bloody things are ringing all the time, aren’t they?’ said Steelclaw.
‘No they aren’t.’ said Speke, licking his lips and rubbing his hands together. ‘I do believe that for once Blackheart, you’ve said something sensible. There’s one rings at sunrise, another at sunset, others peal for the quarter and half hours on Sundays, but only the largest strikes on every hour. If you’re right that means that generally most of the time his powers are probably limited.’
‘What about the birds?’ said Steelclaw. ‘They say he talks to them.’
‘They are saying all sorts of stupid things.’ snapped Speke. ‘What does it matter? Let him chatter to the blasted birds – he can talk to the trees for all I care, as long as he doesn’t talk to me too much.’
‘We’ve still got to find the chest. I don’t like having to rely on getting those two drunk – they still might not tell us. We could certainly do with a bit of luck right now.’ said Blackheart.
‘I don’t believe in luck.’ snarled Speke. ‘I make me own.’ He raised his finger to his lips. ‘What’s that?’ he whispered. ‘Be quiet – there’s someone at the top of the stairs…’
Keeping to the shadows he edged his way silently along the passage. Near the bottom of the stairs he could clearly hear voices coming from the floor above.
‘I still wonder if it will be safe up there?’ said Barney Trim. ‘Things get quite rowdy once they get going.’
‘But it won’t be the real thing, will it?’ said Umbrage. ‘Friday midnight was the peak of the Equinox, so they’ve missed the proper ceremony. By the time they’ve got everything ready it will just be a celebration.’
‘Yes, you’re right. And anyway, nobody will go near the Tingle Stone. They’ve far too much respect for something so sacred…’
Their conversation continued about other matters, so Speke tiptoed back along the passage to his minions, licking his lips and rubbing his hands together.
‘I take back what I said about luck…’ He whispered, then continued in a much louder voice. ‘Right you two, that will do for now. We don’t want the cellars too crowded so just stay on guard here for a moment while I see if I can find our friends.’
He walked smartly away along the passage again and started to climb the stairs.
‘Ah,’ he leered. ‘Mr Trim, Master Umbrage… I wonder if you would be kind enough to advise the Mayor that we have arranged as many belongings as practicable in the cellars already. I don’t want to fill them up otherwise people won’t be able to examine them properly. Perhaps Mr. Bagley would like to make arrangements for his citizens to view the goods we have brought ashore so far? Once they have been reclaimed I shall bring over more.’
‘Er, yes, of course.’ said Barney. ‘I must say you’re certainly very efficient.’
‘You’re very kind, but I feel most sincerely that it is my bounden duty to make amends as fully as possible if we are to earn forgiveness. Now if you would excuse me, I must get over to the Forge to see how the repairs are proceeding. I do so want to get that roof back on whilst the weather remains clement.’ Speke turned and shouted down the stairs. ‘Mr Trim is here, so you can lock up the cellars and return the keys to him…’
Barney and Umbrage watched Speke and his henchmen leave, and then looked at each other and smiled.
‘Do you think he took the bait? said Barney.