Brandy for the Parson

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Chapter 6

After leaving the beach, and Will to get some rest before taking the night patrol with Henry, John went for a walk back up the common path to where the body had been found. He didn’t have much idea of what he was looking for, or what he expected to find. He did find where the horses had been, and he could tell where they had ridden off across the common away from the path, but the tussocky grasses and rough ground disguised which way they had taken from there. Beyond the common the woodland and farmland started. They could have gone anywhere.

John looked closely at the ground next to the ditch, carefully trying to figure out what might have been going on from the footprints and scuff marks. There didn’t seem to be enough disturbance for there to have been much of a struggle there. He looked around the ditch and amongst the weeds, but he found nothing more.

He walked back and had another look at the body in the storeroom. It was lying on a table beneath the black cloth that Will had covered it with. He regarded it cautiously and with some unease, as if it might suddenly move. Nevertheless, he pulled away the black cloth exposing the tight, drawn face, the ghoulish stare with sightless eyes. The body was stiff with the onset of rigor mortis, and there was still a slight odour of alcohol. John stood and looked at the face. He wondered who it might be and what might have brought him to his end in the ditch. He wondered who might be missing him, if there was a family or a wife somewhere waiting for his return, anxious now with the passing of time. He wondered if the man had a God to whom he ought to address some word or thought on his behalf, but if his God had brought him to this end no word of contrition now was likely to do him much good. John pulled the cloth back over the face.

Then, at last, John got his mackerel. Mary could see his mind was engaged, and left him to settle in his favourite chair, where he fell into a sleep with the dappled light of the afternoon sun slanting though the windows and playing on the cottage walls.


It was late in the afternoon when he felt the light touch of Mary’s hand on his shoulder.

“John,” she said in a low voice so as to bring him easily from his sleep, “Nathaniel Watson is here.”

John opened his eyes and raised his head from the back of the chair. The light was still strong and the tall, slim man in a trimmed beard and the red tunic of a Commissioned Boatman stood in silhouette inside the doorway.

John stood as the man came forward and they clasped hands firmly. “Nat,” said John warmly, “thanks for coming. Here, sit down and Mary will get us some tea. How was your ride?”

“Easy enough, once I got away. That lad Will of yours! He said you told him we would feed him and he wouldn’t leave until we’d done so!” The men laughed, but they soon fell to the business in hand. “Will tells me you’ve got a dead body, found in a ditch up at the common and a note left in the guardroom.”

John nodded. He told Nathaniel the story, then he said, “I want you to take a look at it, Nat. That’s why I asked you to come.”

“You think I may know something of him?”

John shrugged. “Maybe. It’s a long shot, but maybe. It’s down in the storeroom.”

The men finished their tea and then walked down to the storeroom where the body lay as John had left it a couple of hours ago. They stood before it, Nathaniel with his hands in his pockets and a grim look on his face. When John looked at him Nathaniel nodded, and John drew back the cloth.

They stood in silence as they both regarded the face. “Aye, John,” Nathaniel said, “he’s one of ours.” John pulled the cloth back up.

***

John knew that what Nathaniel meant was that the man had been an informer. Information in this business was a valuable commodity. Disrupting the activities of the smuggling community was usually a matter of guesswork, or pure luck, but when intelligence came their way it enabled the likes of John and his men to be in the right place, at the right time. Intelligence came from a variety of sources. Sometimes it came from other stations, knowledge gained from observation and logical planning, but the most valuable was that delivered by the word of an informant. It may be a local, a villager discontent with the fear and intimidation occasioned upon them by those determined to advance their unlawful cause. A word overheard at the inn might be passed on, a whisper from behind a hand. Strangers might be mentioned, discretely. A shilling or two would pass hands in favour of those prepared to risk the consequences of their disloyalty being discovered.

But the most valuable information came from those, those few it must be said, who played the game from both ends. They were the crafty ones who sought the allegiance of the smuggling gangs, worked with them even, facilitated their routes, their cover, and the distribution of the ill-gotten gains, the barrels of brandy and gin, cases of tea, linens and tobacco. They found favour with their masters and profited by a share, a case of this or that, a barrel or a few bottles would be their reward.

But for some that reward could be much enhanced. They were the valuable resource of the Excise Men, and their allegiance was coveted. When the Dutch trading ships came down the east coast of England laden to the gunwales with cargo which would never reach the port of London and on which no tax or duty would ever be paid, a mile offshore they unloaded onto the small boats of those armed with cutlasses and guns, who sought to profit greatly from such endeavours. Knowledge of when and where these boats would come to shore, silently under the cover of darkness or the weather, was the powder in the armoury of the Revenue Men, coastguards like John.

The rewards these inside men received for their knowledge was considerable. It had to be, for the penalty for discovery, the retribution visited upon them should their treason be uncovered, was inevitably violent and uncompromisingly terminal. This man had been both the smugglers’ accomplice and the Government’s man at one and the same time, and he had paid the price for his duplicity.

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