“Yes, Tresting.” Ashland’s voice was scarcely more than a whisper. “I see that is no surprise for you.”
“Not a surprise, but I had hoped I was wrong.” He thought of Lillian and how her great-uncle’s connection to the smugglers could tarnish her reputation. “But supposition won’t be enough to have someone arrested. We must have proof.”
“You may find it in the village.” A smile flitted like a shadow across his pale lips. “Or, to be more accurate, under the village. You have heard about the tunnel built to divert the beck down to the sea?”
“Yes.” His cousin Sophia had spoken of the tunnel on the very first trip he had made to the village. A small stream, which the locals called a beck, vanished under some houses midway down the steep hill and then emerged at the foot of the street where the fishermen drew their cobles up on the sand and hung their nets to dry.
“The entrance is hidden behind the fishermen’s nets, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Yes, but it is well guarded.” He shifted and moaned. Again he waved Edmund away. “It is easy for the smugglers to pretend to be doing work while they make sure nobody gets too close to the entrance. If you bring others to overwhelm the guard, a fight would erupt. With the houses having a good view of the foot of the street, reinforcements would be upon you in seconds. You’d be waging a battle on two fronts with the sea to one side.” His eyes narrowed. “But one man alone might sneak past the guard.”
“Was that your plan, Ashland?”
“It was, and you see how well that turned out. Until you chanced by, I thought we would have to let the smugglers win this round.” He drew out a pistol from beneath his coat and handed it to Edmund. “Now...”
“Is the time to strike.” As he finished Ashland’s sentence, he stood. “Will you be all right here for another hour or so?” He knew well what he was asking the viscount to endure, but Ashland was alive, and Edmund wanted to make sure the vicar was, too.
“I will with God’s help.”
“There isn’t any better.”
A faint smile tipped the viscount’s lips. “I’ll be praying that you succeed where I failed, Meriweather.”
He nodded his thanks, then edged around the fallen log. No movement on the cliff top or along the beach was a good sign. He hurried into the shadows before he could think about what awaited him in the village.
The public house smelled, like many other buildings in the village, of fish and salt and the sea. The odor of ale and burned food wove through those smells when Vera opened the thick oak door. Overhead, a sign with a ship on a high sea swung in the wind. The whitewashed plaster walls were dull in the dim light of a single lamp. She wondered how burly fishermen fit into the cramped entry. She pushed aside the door to the left and stepped into the tavern.
Thick rafters made the ceiling feel even lower. Battered chairs surrounded small tables. The tops of the tables were marked with rings from tankards, but the uneven floorboards, painted the same black as the rafters, glistened with care.
Through an arch, she saw the bar. It was simple, a counter where drinks could be served. A single person stood by it. When the person moved into the light from the lamp on one side of the bar, Vera sent up a prayer of gratitude.
“Jeannie,” she said, weaving her way between the tables.
“Miss Fenwick!” The short brunette dropped a wet cloth on the bar and rushed to meet her. “What are you doing here? Ladies don’t come in here.”
“As the vicar’s sister, I have been welcome in every building in the village. Why not here?”
“You would be welcome.” She glanced toward the pair of windows overlooking the steep street. “Just not tonight.”
“It must be tonight because I have to find Gregory.”
“The vicar? Is he the one they grabbed?” She clapped her hand over her mouth.
“Where can we talk in private?” Vera could not risk Jeannie, who knew, all too well, what the smugglers were capable of. Stanley Cadman had been her nephew.
“Come with me, Miss Fenwick.” She hurried Vera past the tavern and toward a narrow staircase that leaned drunkenly against the wall. Opening a short door, she led the way down a pair of brick steps to a room that appeared to be both a kitchen and a storage room. Casks were stacked against two walls. A few rusty, scorched pots sat in the dead embers on a smoke-stained hearth.
Vera started to speak, but Jeannie put her finger to her lips and tiptoed around one stack of casks. When a door opened and closed, Vera realized she was checking to make sure they were not overheard.