What We Leave Behind

Book Award Sub-Category
2024 Young Or Golden Writer
Book Cover Image
Logline or Premise
To save the life of his son, a resurrection man and his partner must hunt for a cursed diamond, a task which will take them from the gentile drawing rooms of Regency London to the grim boneyards of Limehouse.
First 10 Pages

Chapter 1

‘Heave to, the boat.’

‘What’s that?’ bellows Facey, pulling hard. ‘What d’ye say there?’

‘You heard me, Mr Facey. For I know it is you, just as I know you have a dozen half-ankers of spirits aboard. Stow oars and come about’

‘Put your back into it, Sammy, heave away,’ hisses Facey, bending to his oars. ‘I cannot hear you, sir, the wind is too strong,’ he yells back at the Revenue officer.

The Tide Surveyor, perched on the rail of the Revenue cutter, places a speaking trumpet to his lips. ‘You will submit yourself to an inspection by His Majesty’s Revenue. This instant, if you please.’

‘We are fishermen, sir,’ announces Facey, ‘working our nets and so happened to bring up a few casks from the sinkers and warp.’

‘I know you, Mr Facey, sufficient well to be sure that you have never hauled out an honest mackerel in your life.’

‘I should not know the difference ’twixt an honest mackerel nor dishonest one, Mr Armstrong.’

‘You have been given a lawful order, Mr Facey and now shall have a shot across you by way of final warning.’

‘I cannot spare the time to heave to, sir. There is a fresh catch of honest mackerel, which must be carried to Portsmouth market without delay. For as all know, fish keeps like knowledge, which is to say, for but the shortest time.’

‘Fire,’ comes the peremptory answer. A small carronade to the rear of the cutter belches flame, sending a piece of wadding flying over our heads.

‘Keep rowing,’ hisses Facey.

‘Their next effort will blow us to kingdom come,’ I object.

‘They will do no such thing. Not for a few paltry gallons.’

With Ben Barrett indisposed, his arm broke in a tavern brawl two nights previous, and requiring a confederate to manage the second pair of oars on this tiny craft, my old friend Facey prevailed upon me to accompany him on this doomed enterprise. I should have known better.

These days, I am no desperado, but, for the most part, a mild schoolteacher alongside my wife, Rosamund, at the John Pounds School. Three nights a week I put in my shift as can at our own little tavern, the Bedford In Chase on Wickham Street, which we purchased with a splendid bounty some two years previous. It is, as yet, only a humble establishment, a single tap-room serving ale and rum to sailors where we employ a keeper for the day-to-day regulation of the place. Though the cove knows his trade, I have my doubts as to his honesty since the takings have always seemed strangely modest. This, in combination with unwise speculation in a cargo of Prussian spruce, has left the three on us precious short of ready money.

And so, here I sit, in a fish-stinking, clinker-built boat full of contraband spirit, buffeted by the choppy waters of Portsmouth harbour, peering down the barrel of a Revenue cutter’s carronade. If I am not already blown to flinders by a six-pound ball, Rosamund will scrag me for a certainty.

‘Kindly haul on the right-side oar alone if you please, Sammy Boy,’ orders Facey.

I have only a view of Facey’s broad back and cannot read his expression since we are seated arsey-versy, which is to say in the opposing direction to the front of the craft. It is but one of the many things I cannot like about boats and is the reason Facey has not used the terms “port” and “larboard”, knowing full well that I should only make a hash of it.

We pull together on our right-side oars, which has the effect of turning our small boat sharply round the back end of the cutter.

‘All hands to come about,’ bellows the Tide Surveyor. There is the sound of running and men swarm up ropes on board the cutter.

‘Haul away, Sammy, give it both oars now with a will. Armstrong must tack his cumbersome vessel ’gainst the wind and, barring catastrophe, we shall be snug in the East and West with a hot toddy apiece afore this Duty-sniffer has managed to find his arse with both hands.’

Sure enough, the cutter is barely half turned when we are at the harbour steps. Facey throws out a rope which is caught by a young lad and swiftly tied off. Willing hands reach for our casks, which are loaded onto a cart, concealed with a tarpaulin, and spirited away before I have even managed to catch my breath. ‘Be sure and reserve a cask for the Bedford In Chase,’ bellows Facey to the departing crew.

Facey grins and pounds me on the back. ‘A fine morning’s work that, Sammy. What say we revive ourselves with a mutton pie and a glass of something warming?’

‘I should like that, though I might tell you that I am not made for ocean-going, nor am I willing to risk my neck a second time on such a desperate venture.’

Facey chuckles. ‘A piece of tomfoolery, naught else. Armstrong must blow off a little powder to make a good show and that was scarcely the raging sea but the harbour, which is perilous as a autumn puddle on the Fareham Road.’

‘That’s as may be, but a man might drown as well in three foot as thirty fathom. Besides I am soaked to the skin and every stitch is sodden.’

‘You would never deprive His Majesty’s seamen of a few perquisites for the sake of your own comforts, Sammy. They have little enough as it is, being paid more by the rope’s end than coin. Moresoever, I have no doubt that our Sailor Billy, being a naval man, would most likely look the other way and not trouble hisself on account of a few coppers in lost duty.’

Out on the harbour a watery sun is burning off the low-lying morning mist, the cutter has abandoned its slow turn and is making slowly for one of the larger vessels, no doubt to undertake an inspection of its cargo. Facey gazes out with his one good eye, the other lost to an old injury, these days concealed beneath a black leather patch. There’s a satisfied expression on his dial. ‘A man must have his grog, Sammy, without his family go hungry in consequence. ’Tis a public service we do here in keeping the price of rum to an affordable degree. And never forget your own cut of the profits.’

‘No need. What I endured this morning was out of friendship alone.’

Facey smirks. ‘Endured, is it? A pleasant morning’s oar across the millpond; you ought to pay me for the lark, Sammy. But since you will take no recompense, I shall stand the full expense of young snotty’s dinner tonight.’

‘That is very handsome in you, Facey.’

Facey nods towards the horizon. ‘Like the devil, here is our young snotty approaching even as we speak of him.’

It is Pure John he refers to, an orphan lad from London. Having no remaining kin, Rosamund and me cared for him and brought him away to Portsmouth with us. Rosmaund should have liked to bring him up as our own, but by nine-years of age a boy’s character is often set, and Pure John, being a wilful, venturesome spirit showed a strong inclination to go to sea. In accordance with his wishes, and through Facey’s old naval acquaintances, he was found a berth on the brig, HMS Pandora. Unable to recall his own family name, Pure John took mine and I am proud to say that he appears on the Pandora’s muster book as John Samuel, Ship’s Boy.

I peer out across the harbour seeking Pure John’s vessel. As always, dense crowds of masts jostle and sway at their moorings like clusters of winter trees but I see naught of approaching sails.

‘Was you to squint your eyes just so, you might observe the merest scrap of canvas on the borderline ’twixt sky and sea,’ advises Facey.

‘I have it,’ I say, taking his advice. ‘And that is Pure John’s ship?’

‘Brig. And I believe so, if his missive is to be credited.’

He means Pure John’s letter, lately arrived, in a very poor hand I regret to say, which informed us that the Pandora is due into Portsmouth this very day. Pure John has been granted shore-leave and, to that end, under Rosamund’s very particular direction, Facey has arranged a good dinner at the Keppel’s Nob to mark his return. Furthermore, it is no small thing that Facey has agreed to bear the entire cost. He is not fond of youngsters, by and large, nor folk generally, for that matter, but has always had an affection for Pure John. I believe he is quite looking forward to it.

‘How can you be certain?’

Facey shrugs. ‘I do not wish to come it the pedant with you, Sammy, but for a Portsmouth man, your knowledge of nautical matters is truly pitiful. As anyone, even a cove with but one glim can see, yon is a two-master, thus a brig. And so, of a certainty, ’tis the Pandora.’

I give him a look.

He grins and claps me on the shoulder. ‘Now, now, Sammy, it is not so very often I am able to lord it over you by the workings of my noggin that I should not take some small pleasure in the occasion.’

‘I am chilled to the bone, Facey; I believe I might welcome a toddy.’

‘Certainly. Young snotty will doubtless have a parcel of duties to detain him and we should not expect to see him until evening.’

‘That is as well since we have been at sixes and sevens at home with Rosamund determined to ensure that all is just so for the lad’s return.’

Instead of acknowledging, Facey’s eyes narrow as he gazes in the direction of an old, somewhat tatty curricle on the harbour path. A couple of disreputable-looking individuals stand alongside it, one with a steadying hand on the horse’s reins. They peer out to sea with the avidity of a couple of ratters. ‘I do not like the looks of them coves overmuch,’ he announces.

‘Leave them be, they are none of our concern.’

‘They are strangers here, neither seamen nor dock-hands and have the appearance of bruisers; I am well accustomed to the type. A pair of fish out of water, to be sure.’

‘Most likely they are on a jaunt, having come down to take the sea air. What offence do they give?’

‘If you must know, Sammy, I am uneasy at the abrupt appearance of outsiders at the very moment a valuable consignment has been brought in.’

‘I do not see much harm in them and should like my toddy afore I am quite froze, one with an abundance of rum, since it appears that spirit is now become so affordable.’

The chill is still upon me in the East and West Inn despite a roaring fire and my beaker of rum and hot water. ‘It is said that almost six thousand have succumbed to this Blue Death in a matter of weeks,’ I say.

Facey grunts, immersed in a small stack of Penny Illustrated Papers, a newish periodical, which he much enjoys.

For myself I have three of the London papers to examine: The Times; The Morning Post and The Standard, which are provided gratis to patrons of this Broad Street Inn.

Two years previous we were forced to flee the metropolis, having given offence to parties of considerable influence and power. Though we may not easily return, it is some small consolation to keep abreast of events in our old city despite the papers being a week or so old by the time we have them.

‘I speak of the Asiatic Cholera, which holds all London in terror.’

‘There is always something to be feared in the metropolis.’

‘This is worse by far than some mere bug-hunter or cutpurse. There is no known cure and once caught is invariably fatal. Here,’ I say, reading a paragraph out loud since Facey is somewhat ponderous with his letters: ‘Symptoms of this deadly disease include stomach cramps, looseness of the bowel, vomiting and severe pain in the limbs. Sufferers appear sharp and contracted, the eye sinks, the look is expressive of terror and wildness. The skin is often deadly cold and often damp, taking on a markedly bluish aspect. The tongue always moist, often white and loaded, but flabby and chilled like a piece of dead flesh.’

‘Then we are fortunate to be here in Portsmouth, Sammy, with almost a hundred miles betwixt ourselves and that foul contagion. It is perhaps the one solitary blessing we may lay at Pimlott and Chuffington’s door.’

I take a pull at my toddy, which is still good and hot; Facey refills my beaker from the steaming jug. ‘Yet even here it seems we may be in some peril,’ I continue to read from the Morning Post. ‘Coastal residents are warned of the danger to which they expose themselves by engaging in illicit intercourse with persons coming from the Continent and should be mindful of the imminent risk which they incur by holding any communication with smugglers, and others who may evade the quarantine regulations.’ I give him a meaningful look.

Facey snorts, ‘They are obliged to say such things to discourage the trade in contraband. Besides, our dealings are with honest British seamen, certainly not your parlour-voos, silver-plate Frenchies with whom we have been at loggerheads for a hundred years or more. We leave such things to the Jerseymen, who speak a form of gibberish and so are able to make themselves understood by the crapaud.’

‘Still and all, ’tis a frightful thing.’

‘Never fret, Sammy.’ Facey shakes out his Penny Illustrated, indicating the intricately engraved image adorning the front page. ‘Here is a monkey-looking creature for your attention, labelled a Kin…Kin…Kinkajou, which his secondary name, in the language of the Romans, is Potus Flavus.’

‘I had not heard of it.’

‘Nor seen it neither, I should say, until this moment. And yet here is an image of the very beast drawn from life, transposed with great exactitude onto the page of a periodical for our convenient edification as we sit and sup on toddies. A marvel, no less.’

‘It is an excellent likeness, I am sure.’

‘’cording to the natural philosophers the animal may turn his feet entirely backwards. A useful trick, I should imagine, should you wish to evade the law without appearing to skedaddle.’

‘He seems a meek, law-abiding enough creature.’

‘’Tis the law of the jungle I speak of, which is to say, his natural habitat.’

I chuckle and take another sip at my toddy. Facey is not ordinarily one for quips or jocularity but I see now it has been his intention to goad me into better spirits. With a half-pint of rum, lemon and water inside me, he has achieved his end.

‘Here now is a cove in a most prodigious great hat aiming a fowling piece, or some such, at a antelope called a Springer…’

I am spared further commentary on the rendering, since Facey’s attention has been caught by the entry of a hunched, circumspect individual in a pea jacket and woollen cap. ‘You will excuse me, Sammy, I must attend to business.’ With that Facey collects his beaker and hurries over to a corner table where the pair conduct an urgent, whispered conversation.

I continue to immerse myself in the dismal reports of this new pestilence though I cannot help but notice the brief clink of a heavy-sounding purse being passed by Facey’s accomplice.

Chapter 2

There is no lack of vittles with a great succulent beef pie before us, vegetables and any number of floury potatoes with a fine gravy. Nor is there a shortage of good ale and porter, even a bottle of decent claret to be shared, and yet our party is somewhat downcast this evening, the mood soured and dampened by the absence of its principal guest.

‘I cannot fathom it,’ announces Facey, ‘The Pandora has certainly docked and there is no damage evident to the rigging from a blow or tempest or suchlike.’

‘Signifying what?’ asks Rosamund.

‘It means that the brig does not appear to have been savaged by wind and weather over and above the usual wear and tear. So, saving your presence, Mrs Samuel, it is not likely that any of the company has been washed overboard or dashed to the deck from the yardarms. Furthermore, had there been injury or loss of life that news should be all about the town.’

Rosamund sips at her tiny glass of claret. I can see she has no appetite for the viands. ‘Well, that is something at the least.’

‘Indeed, the brig is not in the slightest mauled and shall doubtless remain in Portsmouth this fortnight for a modest refit: shifting of ballast, replacement of spars and rigging and so forth.’

‘Would that account for Pure John’s absence then? All this shifting and shunting about the ship?’

‘I do not believe so. He is not rated seaman, nor likely to be for a good while yet, being only ship’s boy and so more of a impediment should he remain aboard.’ Facey reaches across the table for the large dish. ‘Here, let me help you to a slice of this pie, which is still good and hot. You have only nibbled at a half a tater, Mrs Samuel, and shall waste away should you continue to deprive yourself.’

'You are kind, Mr Facey, and I will take a very small piece for your sake.’

‘There will be a simple explication. Most likely, would be a postponement of shore leave in consequence of some minor infraction as young lads are prone to: a spot of skylarking; inattention to duties or any number of transgressions frowned upon by the navy.’