Love and the Loathsome Leopard, страница 1
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Love and the Loathsome Leopard
Chapter One 1814
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THE LATE DAME BARBARA CARTLAND
Love and the Loathsome Leopard
Life had become a nightmare of terror and despair for lovely Wivina Compton. Jeffrey Farlow, leader of the village gang of smugglers, was determined to make her his wife.
Wivina despised him. His crude advances repulsed her, and she was certain he had ordered her father’s murder.
No one in the village would dare stand in Farlow’s way. He would marry Wivina by force. There was only one man who could save her - the man known throughout England as “The Loathsome Leopard.”
Napoleon escaped from Elba without the help of the smugglers, but it’s an historic fact that Tom Johnson was offered forty thousand pounds by the French to release him from St. Helena. Tom Johnson was never caught, and he continued his smuggling activities until he died in 1839.
The Coastal Blockade, set up with a war-time technique including H.M.S. Ramillian with seventy-four guns, and H.M.S. Hyperion with forty-two, had some effect on the smuggling trade, but it was not until 1831, after fifteen turbulent years, that the Coast-Guards came into existence.
Two years later the Battle of Pevensey Sluice finally convinced the more intelligent smuggling companies that the day of the “forced run” was over. “Scientific” smuggling is said to have lasted another thirty years or so, but the terror and brutality of the gangs were finished. The name and the description of the Leopards given to the Duke of Wellington and his troops are accurate.
“Is there anything else you require, my Lord?”
“No, I will ring if there is.”
“Very good, my Lord.”
The butler followed by three footmen left the room and Lord Cheriton sat back in his armchair at the top of the table and surveyed his guests.
There were six of them, all young men with an alertness about them which told him what he knew already, that they were extremely intelligent.
The dinner had been superlative and the wine excellent, but there had been no ostentatious provision of it as often happened at bachelor parties, and the host had noticed that his guests drank discriminatingly without overindulgence.
Now as the decanter of port circulated for the second time, none of those present refilled their glasses.
He took a sip from his own glass before he said,
“I think you realise, gentlemen, that I have asked you here tonight for a special reason.”
There was no reply but he knew that the men were waiting, giving all their attention to what he had to say.
There was no doubt that he was unusually striking-looking in a manner which made him appear different from any of his contemporaries.
More than one man sitting at the table thought he lived up to his nickname in an almost uncanny manner.
Napoleon’s orders in the middle of the war had been that Wellington’s Army in Spain was, like Moore’s, to be driven into the sea.
With his usual flair for the vernacular, he had hit upon a particularly offensive name for his opponent, he called him “the Leopard.”
He had not chosen the lion, King of Beasts, but the heraldic leopard, hideous and emaciated, by which to deride the Commander of the British Army.
The nickname was effective, ridiculing as it did the creatures on the Royal Standard.
But every trooper who had served in India under Arthur Wellesley appreciated and was amused by the image.
Tippoo Sahib’s hunting leopards had given them all the creeps, but they had destroyed them as they destroyed their owner and they laughed uproariously when they heard Napoleon’s instructions.
“The hideous leopard contaminates by its very presence the Peninsula of Spain,” the Emperor declared. “Let us carry our victorious Eagles to the Pillars of Hercules.”
But if Wellington was condemned to be called the “hideous leopard,” so were all those who followed him, and his Commanders divided their troops into groups. There were the “furious leopards,” the “lean leopards,” the “vicious leopards,” and the “loathsome leopards.”
“Let us teach them to loathe us,” Lord Cheriton had said before the Battle of Vitoria and the French had fled before the ferocity and deadly aim of the loathsome leopards.
Those who served under Lord Cheriton knew him to be hard and ruthless, a man who would drive those who served him to the utmost limit of endurance as he drove himself.
He was also completely just.
His men did not love him, but they respected him and as one trooper was heard to say:
“‘E ’ad I lashed to a pulp for plunderin’, but by God, in a fight I’d rather have ’im with I than the Almighty ’imself!”
The fact that he had in a strange way a look of a leopard added to the legends which grew up round him during the years of war.
As Wellington knew, he had not only the essential attributes of leadership, but that indefinable sixth sense which could at the last minute turn a defeat into a victory.
“Only the loathsome leopard could have pulled that one off!” became a frequent remark among the other Commanders.
Looking round the table, Lord Cheriton knew that every man present had proved himself in battle and that they were as fighting fit as only soldiers can be after long years of campaigning amid every known form of discomfort.
This summer of 1814 had seen a rich and secure Britain celebrating the peace and Europe licking her wounds.
This meant that thousands of those who had won the victory were personally apprehensive about their own future and were wondering how they would spend their leisure, having in their young lives known little other than war.
Lord Cheriton put down his glass and said,
“Have any of you ever heard of the Hawkhurst gang?”
For a moment there was an expression of puzzlement on the faces of those listening to him, then one man, Captain Charles Hobden, asked,
“Were they not smugglers, my Lord?”
“You are right,” Lord Cheriton replied. “Fifty years ago, the Hawkhurst Gang terrorised the whole of the South Coast of England. They were not only notorious, they were extremely powerful.”
“Fifty years ago!” someone murmured, as Lord Cheriton went on,
“It was claimed at the time that the Gang could assemble five hundred armed men in Hawkhurst in an hour. That, as you realise, implied not only a remarkable feat of organisation, but it showed the impossibility of the task allotted to the wretched handfuls of Customs men who were dotted over the area.”
“It sounds incredible!” someone remarked.
“It was in many ways,” Lord Cheriton agreed, “but it set a standard for smuggling which has been imitated ever since.”
He saw that some of his guests looked incredulous and he asked,
“Have you any idea how much gold was smuggled into France during the war?”
“I have heard that it provided Napoleon with an invaluable source of ready money for the purchase of war supplies from neutral countries,” Captain Hobden remarked.
“You can understand how grateful he was to our smugglers,” Lord Cheriton said, “when I tell you that what were known as the ‘guinea boats’ were estimated to have carried ten thousand to twelve thousand guineas per week across the Ch
“It’s impossible!” someone ejaculated.
“My informant was the Prime Minister himself,” Lord Cheriton said coldly.
“The Prime Minister!”
The name was murmured round the table.
“It is a fact,” Lord Cheriton went on, “and it is because of the task with which the Prime Minister has entrusted me that I have asked you here this evening.”
“But the war is over,” a young Major remarked.
“So we hope,” Lord Cheriton replied, “but smuggling will undoubtedly continue and, in the Prime Minister’s estimation, even increase.”
“Because when the Navy is disbanded there will be an enormous number of seamen who will be ready instruments of those who have little capital but are eager to engage in the traffic of smuggling.”
“I can understand that,” remarked the Major who had spoken before.
“The arrangements with France put in operation in the seventies make it more formidable than any enemy fortifications.”
Lord Cheriton paused as if he was carefully deciding what to say before he went on.
“Huge warehouses in Roscoff, Dunkirk, Fécamp, and Calais made the purchase of smuggled goods easy and Napoleon encouraged the building of smugglers’ boats in France.”
“Can that really be true?” Captain Hobden gasped.
“Sometimes as many as eighteen of these galleys were being built at one time in the harbour at Calais under licence for the French.”
The astonishment on his listeners’ faces would have been amusing, Lord Cheriton thought, if it had not been so serious.
“According to Napoleon himself,” he finished, “there were upwards of five hundred English smugglers in Dunkirk alone.”
“But our Riding Officers, our Coast Guards, what are they doing?” a guest asked.
“It is obvious to anyone who has studied the subject,” Lord Cheriton replied, “that the Riding Officers have little or no power. When they attempt to intervene, the result is often pointless bloodshed, injury and death.”
He paused before he said,
“The Prime Minister is also aware that juries at the Assizes have for years been terrified of retaliation if they convict. For the same reason, it is almost impossible to find a witness who will give evidence against a smuggler when he is taken prisoner.”
“It sounds a pretty hopeless position,” Captain Hobden remarked.
“I can inform you,” Lord Cheriton went on as if the Captain had not spoken, “that two new gangs have sprung up in the last years of the war. One is based between Alford and Hythe and works the shore of the marshes, calling themselves the ‘Blues’. The other, known as the ‘Larks,’ is to be found along the coast between Havant and Worthing.”
Lord Cheriton paused before he said,
“What we know is that these two gangs have a large number of tub carriers, fighting batmen and, under the orders of their leaders, the military art of a forced run has reached its highest point.”
“What does that mean, my Lord?” a man who had hitherto not spoken, enquired.
“It means,” Lord Cheriton replied, “that tub carriers can unload a boat or strip a tub rope of its tubs within minutes. I have been told that they cut the tubs loose so fast that the carriers have to be quick to avoid losing half their fingers!”
“And it pays them to take such risks?”
“The risks up to now have been really very small,” Lord Cheriton replied, “and tea, spirits, and tobacco all ensure a very large profit once they are brought into this country Customs free.”
There was silence, everyone at the table realising how those three commodities had risen in price during the years of the war.
Then Captain Hobden asked,
“Are you intending that we should put a stop to this activity, my Lord?”
“Eventually,” Lord Cheriton answered. “But what the Prime Minister has asked me to do first is to make a survey of what is occurring and advise on how the whole business can finally be brought to a standstill. It is intended, and this of course is secret, that now that the war is over there shall be a new policy called the ‘Coast Blockade.’”
Lord Cheriton smiled slightly as he went on,
“It will, the Government thinks, help to solve two problems simultaneously, in that it will both offer ex-sailors employment and put down smuggling.”
“From what you have said, my Lord, it sounds a formidable task.”
“There will be battleships to help,” Lord Cheriton answered. “Men will be quartered in the many Martello Towers recently built for coastal defence, and each station will be responsible for a ‘rowing guard’ for its section of the coast and for a shore patrol in bad weather.”
“And where do we come in, my Lord?” a young man asked eagerly.
“What I want you to do at the moment,” Lord Cheriton said slowly, “is to infiltrate into the villages and small towns near the Kent and Sussex coast and find out what you can about the Blue Gang and the Larks.”
He paused to add sharply,
“Whatever you learn, you are to take no action whatsoever. You are merely to report to me and when we have pooled all our information, I will then submit it with our suggestions to the Prime Minister.”
“It sounds interesting,” a Major remarked.
“Interesting and extremely dangerous!” Lord Cheriton replied.
There was a note in his voice which made all his guests turn to look at him simultaneously.
“Anyone who knows anything about smuggling,” he said, “is aware that an informer, if he is caught, is not only killed but subjected to the most sadistic, horrible and terrifying tortures.”
He went on to say even more impressively,
“The bodies that have been found have in some cases been beaten to death and others have been degraded and mutilated in a manner which I will not describe. For most of them, death, prolonged for days if not weeks, was a release from an intolerable suffering.”
Lord Cheriton spoke very seriously and he knew that those listening were impressed by his words.
“The popular idea,” he said, “of the jolly good-humoured smugglers, wicked in practice but decent at heart, is a romantic notion created only by novelists.”
His voice was grave as he continued:
“The exact opposite is the truth. The men we are up against are ruthless and completely heartless murderers. They terrorise local farmers, make themselves free not only with their horses and their houses but with their women, and strike down without mercy anyone who opposes them.”
Lord Cheriton let his words sink in, then he asked,
“Any questions, gentlemen?”
There was no reply and he pushed the decanter and glasses farther onto the table to spread out in front of him a large map.
“Then let us get down to business,” he said abruptly. “There is a great deal to be done.”
Lord Cheriton, emerging from the shadows of the trees, saw in the distance the English Channel vividly blue in the summer sunshine.
The wood through which he had been riding was on the slope of a hill and below him he could see fields of ripened corn and in the valley a small hamlet.
He pulled his horse to a standstill and sat looking at what he saw, while his servant who was riding behind him reined in his horse and waited.
It was sixteen years, Lord Cheriton thought, since he had last looked on Larkswell Village – and he had meant never to see it again.
When he was in India, he had thought of it as dark as hell and covered in a pall that was almost like a fog. Yet now in the summer sunshine with the sea beyond, it had a beauty that he resented.
He had thought that if the Larks Gang had, as he suspected, made their Headquarters in the village, it was poetic justice and just what the place deserved.
He sat so still that after some minutes his servant coughed as if to remind him that they still had some way to go.
At the sound Lord Cheriton turned his head and the man asked almost apologetically,
“Is that Larkswell, my Lord?”
“Yes, Nickolls, that is Larkswell, and you know when we reach it what I have told you to do.”
“Go to the pub, M’Lord, and enquire if there are rooms in which we can stay the night.”
“That is correct,” Lord Cheriton approved. “We are travellers on our way to Dover and in no particular hurry about it, since having left the Army we neither of us have any employment.”
“I’ll remember your instructions, my Lord.”
“Then stop calling me ‘my Lord’.”
“Yes, sir. It’s only when we’re alone, sir.”
“From this moment, Nickolls, you will address me as an ordinary gentleman and while we are in Larkswell my name is Bradleigh, Stuart Bradleigh.”
“I’ve not forgotten, sir.”
“It is essential that you should not do so.”
“I realise that, sir.”
“And above all, Nickolls, don’t appear inquisitive. Ask no questions. Listen to what you are told, but on no account appear as if you are interested in local doings or local people.”
“You can trust me, sir.”
“I am aware of that,” Lord Cheriton said, “otherwise I would not have brought you with me.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Nickolls said, “but if anyone asks what rank you held in the Army, what am I to say?”
“Reply I was a Captain, as I was too poor to buy myself a better Commission and too much of a rebel to be given quick advancement.”
Lord Cheriton paused to think before he added,
“Give the impression we are both heartily sick of war and want to settle down.”
“Very good, sir.”
“We both have to improvise as we go, Nickolls.”
As Lord Cheriton spoke, he began to move his horse down the hill towards the village, and the expression on his face would have made those who had served with him know that he was at his grimmest and most formidable – a man going into battle.
Lord Cheriton left Nickolls outside The Dog and Duck and proceeded down the narrow, dusty road until he came to the entrance of what appeared to be a Park enclosed by a stone wall.