He pushed himself to his feet and leaned toward a joist. The odor of brandy was strong on it. Whoever had started the fire had soaked the floor with enough smuggled alcohol that the reek remained. But had it been the smugglers?
The lantern was passed down to him, and he edged toward the place where the opening was cut into the stone wall. The work had been done fairly recently because the chisel marks where the stones had been torn out of the wall still had rough edges.
He peered into the opening. He slapped his hand against the wall when he saw earth and stone blocked what once had been a tunnel. Someone had pulled down the ceiling only a short time before because the stones still had dirt clinging to them.
Taking a step toward the opening, he stopped when his foot struck something soft. He bent down. It was a water-soaked coil of French lace, another favorite item among the smugglers. He had no further doubts. The smugglers had been using the cellar and had burned the church. It was not the first time they had used fire to intimidate, because there had been a suspicious fire in Meriweather Hall’s kitchen before Christmas. But who had given the order to set the church aflame? The order had to have come from their leader, a man who would have no compunctions about burning the parish’s church.
He heard a warning creak. He looked up to see Henderson and Sims dashing up the beams. Dirt and ash fell on him. He did not hesitate. He was close on their heels by the time he reached ground level. Jumping off the beam, he whirled as several joists caved in to the cellar. A gray cloud rose up. He waved aside the ash and coughed.
Edmund motioned for everyone to get back from the edge, then thanked Sims and Henderson and the other men. They nodded and went back to piling debris closer to the cliff. But he did not miss their troubled expressions.
He picked up his coat and pulled it on, listening to make sure the men were not within earshot. As he drew on his greatcoat, he asked, “Mr. Fenwick, when was the last time you were in the church’s cellar?”
“At least eight or nine years ago.” His nose wrinkled. “Shortly after I accepted the living here, I had everything stored down there brought up so it didn’t molder away. The door into the church has been locked shut, and the key was lost years ago.”
“So the smugglers had the perfect place to hide their cargo.”
“Smugglers! In my church?” The vicar shook his head. “Impossible.”
“The evidence is in the cellar.” Edmund outlined what he had seen.
The vicar’s face grew long with dismay. “This is an outrage. When I heard the story that a previous vicar counted himself among the smugglers’ ranks, I had hoped it was untrue. Now...” He choked, unable to continue.
Patting her brother’s arm, Miss Fenwick said, “We must make sure it does not happen again.”
“That may be easier said than done,” Edmund said. “They need a place to hide their illicit cargo. Who knows how long they have been using the church? At least since we made it impossible for them to use the dower cottage at Meriweather Hall. All worked well for them until a section of the church’s roof fell in. They must have feared someone would check the cellar to make sure the joists could support a new roof.”
“So they set the church on fire,” Miss Fenwick said, looking from him to the cellar, “to hide that they had been using the cellar.”
“That is exactly what I was thinking.” He appreciated her acceptance of the facts.
Her brother remained less willing to see what was right in front of them. “But why would they burn this church? We have been discussing building a new church—”
“They could not take a chance that the decision would be made to fix up the old one instead.” Miss Fenwick’s face hardened. “But where will they go next? It could be anywhere.”
Miss Kightly gave a soft cry of fright and wobbled as if she were about to faint. Mr. Fenwick jumped to keep her from falling. He helped her back to her carriage where she could sit and recover her composure.
“I should go back with her,” Miss Fenwick said. “It appears that Gregory and I will be accepting your invitation to stay at Meriweather Hall.”
“For as long as you need to.” Both he and Lady Meriweather would be happy to have company in the huge house that would seem empty now that both his cousins were married to his two best friends, Jonathan Bradby and Charles Winthrop, the earl of Northbridge.
“Thank you. We will need to depend on your hospitality until we can live in the vicarage again. That must wait until after we have a church, of course.” She turned to go, then paused. “Before I go, I must ask you one question.”