Jeannie slipped back around the barrels, her blue eyes glimmering with fear. “Miss Fenwick, you need to go back to Meriweather Hall. You will be safe there.”
“Gregory wasn’t.” She hesitated, then said, “Neither was Stanley.”
“I don’t know anywhere that is truly safe since he took control of the owls.”
Vera recognized the cant term for smugglers. “Who is he?”
“I cannot tell you that, Miss Fenwick, because Stanley never told me. He said it was too dangerous for me to know what he had chanced to learn while working on the new church. He thought he was safe because he waited almost a week before he contacted Lord Meriweather.”
“But the smugglers must have realized he had overheard and they waited for him out on the cliffs.”
“Yes! That is why you must go, Miss Fenwick. If they think you know, they will kill you, too. That you are the vicar’s sister means nothing to them.”
“I can’t go without my brother.”
Vera grasped Jeannie’s hands. “Would you leave without doing everything you could?”
Staring at the floor, Jeannie sighed, then shook her head. “If I could have done something to protect Stanley, I would have gladly risked my own life.” She drew her hands out of Vera’s and motioned for her to follow.
The barmaid led Vera among the casks. She squatted and gestured for Vera to do the same. Close to the stone floor was the perfect hiding place. They could see if anyone approached, but, unless someone looked closely, they would be hidden.
“What I am about to show you,” Jeannie said, “you cannot share with anyone. You must promise that.”
Vera hesitated, knowing what Jeannie knew might offer Edmund the key to putting an end to the smugglers. Not to give him that information would be more difficult than anything she had ever done. For a moment, she was as indecisive as Edmund but knew, as much as he was determined to halt the smugglers, he would not want the victory to come at the cost of Gregory’s life.
“I promise,” she whispered.
“If the smugglers have the vicar, there is only one place he could be. Under the village.”
“Under? In a cellar?”
Jeannie would not meet her eyes. “No, not a cellar.”
“In a tunnel? The smugglers had a tunnel into the old church’s cellar.”
“There are more than one?”
“Yes. I don’t know how many, but at least one goes all the way to the sea.”
Vera nodded. That no cargo had ever been found in the village or on the beach was a sure sign the smugglers had an efficient way to get it out of sight.
“And they open into a few buildings along the street,” Jeannie said.
“What?” Her voice squeaked, and she lowered it. “The tunnels are connected to the houses?”
“Into the cellars. That allows for cargo to be moved if someone gets too close.” She glanced out between the casks, then at Vera. “There is a way into the tunnels from The Scuppers. I found it a few months ago.”
This time, she did not hesitate. “Take me there.”
Stopping only to get two dark lanterns and lighting them, Jeannie led the way down into the public house’s cellar. No cobwebs clung to the walls, and the dirt floor had grooves where heavy items had been dragged across it. Jeannie did not give her time to look around as she went to a stone wall that looked no different from the others.
Vera watched closely where Jeannie put her fingers. The way to reopen the door would require identical motions on the other side. When a stone slab swung back on silent leather hinges, rushing water sounded as loud as a shout.
“The beck?” she asked.
Jeannie nodded. “The rocks are slippery. Watch where you put your feet. Once you’re through the door, turn left and climb the hill. If your brother is in the tunnels, he most likely will be in that direction.”
“I don’t know how to thank you.”
Handing her a lantern, its door slid almost closed so only a narrow line of light emerged, Jeannie said, “Thank me when you and the vicar are safe. Whatever you do, don’t come back here for at least three hours. The tavern will be busy soon, and someone may see you. There are places along the tunnels where you can hide in the shadows, and you may escape notice.”
“All right.” Her voice was small as her fear loomed larger with every passing second.
“Are you sure you want to go?”
“I have to go.”
Jeannie nodded with a sad smile. “When you do come back, hide among the casks in the kitchen until I can sneak you out. God go with you.”