Enjoy this opening chapter from In The Shadow of a Curse,
previously titled, The Vanson Curse.
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Early January 1838
The last of the weak winter daylight died away while the schooner, Tamarith, creaked and groaned against the hard timbers of an icy wharf. The slight roll of the ship in concert with the fast falling tide, the comforting shipboard sounds and the nearby fish market smells did nothing to restore Kit Vanson’s confidence. Above him, a flurry of snow danced to the tune of a light breeze.
“You’re gonna be alone in Cornwall. No shipmates to get you outa any tight corners,” Ben Worth said in his usual blunt manner. His beard quivered; grey and heavily flecked with silver like the first tentative dabs of paint on a bare canvas. The old sea captain jabbed his pipe stem at Kit’s chest, adding emphasis to his Alabama drawl. “You still sure about goin’through with this?”
Kit shrugged, feigning nonchalance. Of course he wasn’t sure, but he was not about to admit it. “Got no worries, Ben.” The lie was wasted because the older man understood him better than anyone else, having treated him like a son over the years. He gave Ben his most persuasive look. “Gonna give it all I’ve got.”
His face burned hard by sea winds, the captain nodded sagely. "If things don’t work out…” He offered a handshake with apparent reluctance, releasing it quickly as if that brief clasping of hands was also a moment of loss for him.
Kit motioned to his sea chest on the deck nearby.“You’ll see it gets to the mail coach?”
“Of course,” Ben said amidst a cloud of pungent tobacco smoke. “Now be off with you,” his voice turned hoarse, “before I try to knock some sense into you.”
Kit managed a weak smile then dusted snowflakes from his jacket, pulled up his coat collar to his ears and shouldered his worn carpetbag. With a last farewell he strode down the gangway without looking back. Lingering doubts still haunted him as he crossed the slushy grey quay cobbles, aiming into a narrow alley that led towards Plymouth town. Snow settled quickly onto his hair and an icy chill ran through his frame. Ben was right; he was on his own now. He couldn’t turn back without loss of face and he was nothing if not a proud man. Too proud for his own good, people sometimes told him.
In the town’s darker reaches, Kit walked assertively beneath upper storeys that leaned nose-to-nose across a cobbled lane where the snow was stained with decayed food, faeces and urine. His eyes stung from the sooty blanket of chimney smoke that pressed down between the rooftops and darkened the snow gathered on the slates. Lamps glowed ghostlike from an uneven series of windows, shimmering in the hazy atmosphere. Icicles grew silently, drip by drip, from ledges and sills.
He came to the Admiral Nelson Inn, a place he knew well from previous voyages, and he paused beneath a wooden signboard that rattled in greeting. Interior lamps burned behind the glazed door, and a familiar unsavoury smell of recently emptied piss-pots hung about the alley. Raised voices spilled from inside the building but Kit registered the noise with indifference; he was no stranger to fights and arguments in harbour towns. He caught a glimpse of a frail young prostitute loitering in a next doorway. Her eyes were dark and impenetrable, almost lost in shadow.
He waved a fist at her “Go home, wench!” Then he shook his head at the wasted life. He had seen too many such wretched beings in too many seaports and his revulsion persisted.
“Mind yer own business!” She snorted at him indignantly and tangles of black serpent’s tails fell forward across her face. Before she backed out of sight, Kit registered a look of hollow shame in her eyes. And then, to his surprise, a glint of dampness on her cheeks was caught by a slant of candlelight. Was it an indication of the depth of her shame?
He turned his attention back to the inn at the sound of a loud bellow; the feral growl of a primitive hunter. A woman’s piercing cry of pain immediately followed, curdling the blood in Kit’s veins. Then he heard a harsh scuffle of feet.
“Harlot!” The roar was followed by the sound of furniture crashing.
The unseen situation opened Kit’s mind to painful memories and thoughts of home. He peered in against the inn’s mottled window glass, and gritted his teeth at the sight of a woman under attack. Appalled, he hurried into the taproom, pausing to allow his eyes to adapt to the yellow flickering lamplight while stamping heavy clumps of snow from his boots. The heat and smell hit out at him; a heady, claustrophobic mix of sweat, ale and pipe smoke. Slamming the door shut, he scanned the room, just in time for another piercing scream to resonate around the walls. He thought of leaving and finding a quieter inn at the top end of the town, but the Admiral Nelson Inn was the hostelry he always came to in Plymouth and he was not going to be easily put off.
“Let me through!” He pushed his way forward, dragging his bag at his side.
Hostile stares fixed upon him briefly then swung back to the centre of the room where two men faced up to each other. Kit scanned about; where was the woman under attack? He caught no sight of her and turned his attention back to the men.
“Stand up for a harlot, would you!”
“She ain’t no harlot! She’m a lady.”
Kit took in the larger of the combatants, a burly man wearing a rich blue velvet coat. His angry red cheeks bloomed behind splayed side-whiskers. His dark hair was shot through with grey streaks and swept back from a prominent forehead. He scowled as he aimed his riding crop accusingly to his opponent, a wasted, hollow-eyed man in a heavily-stained fishing smock.
The onlookers remained strangely silent, oddly detached from the conflict and that puzzled Kit. Most seafaring men needed no excuse to pitch into a fight.
“She’m a lady, I tell you! You hit a lady.” The fisherman, his teeth bared and fists at the ready in front of him, waited for the next move. His eyes flashed like hot coals.
Lady? What lady? Kit glanced around at the spectators, expecting an explanation and getting none. He pulled at the jacket of the man nearest to him. “What the hell’s going on here?”
“Keep out of this, stranger, ’tes none of your business.”
Maybe the onlooker was right. Maybe he should walk away. He released his hold on the man as his stomach grumbled. He had not eaten since the Tamarith berthed early that morning. His determination on a hot meal, despite the commotion, had him jostle his way to an empty table. He dropped his bag to the floor and slumped down into a hard settle.
The watchers budged and Kit saw the combatants circle around their makeshift arena, eyeing each other warily. He grimaced at the unfair conflict. Why had no one stopped the fight? Were they afraid of the consequences?
A buxom, rosy-cheeked serving wench elbowed her way through the crowd, ale spilling from two pewter pots, and Kit rose to draw her attention. “Nell!”
She jerked to a halt, and her gaze fell on him. He was glad to clap eyes on her friendly face as she approached a table nearby.
He nodded towards the fight. “What’s this all about?”
She paused, chewed at her ripe lips and, with a shrug and a sigh, handed the pots of ale to a pair of sullen customers. Then, without a word, she turned towards the kitchen.
The girl glanced back over her shoulder. “What?”
“I need some food, dammit! And a drink.”
She nodded and forced her way back through the crowd to fetch his order. Kit sat down, eyeing the plate of mutton on the next table over. Then he flinched, catching a fleeting glimpse of a young woman spread-eagled on her back. The jostling onlookers had edged apart, giving him a clear sight of her. She sported a livid red gash across her forehead and her long, shiny black hair spilled wide on the filthy sawdust floor.
He leapt again to his feet as anger forced a taste of bile up into his throat. As he started to force his way towards her, she raised herself onto her elbows then fumble with a torn shawl tangled around her arms. Her pale blue dress was rucked up above her knees and she hastily reached down to adjust it. Kit didn’t miss that brief glimpse of fine, shapely knees leading down to well-contoured legs. Nearby, a sailor sniggered and, instantly, the girl’s eyes radiated terror.
A stab of pain ran behind Kit’s eyes.
The girl’s reaction was not one of a common whore caught up in a taproom brawl. Something was very wrong. A sharp memory flashed through his mind: the image of his youngest brother, Clem, looming over a frightened Negro woman while he beat her to within an inch of her life.
Kit fisted his hands, his nails digging hard into his palms. Hell’s teeth! Not again—not here in his new homeland!
He glanced around at the watchers. Why would only one old man come to the victim’s aid? Why did the rest of them continue to stand aside? Damn them all to hell! Well, he wasn’t prepared to stand aside like them. Determined to help, he continued to power a path between the tight-packed bodies until no one stood between him and the softly whimpering young woman.
He knelt beside her. “Let me help you, ma’am.” He clasped her hand, unusually firm for a lady, and eased her to a sitting position.
“Thank you.” With a grateful smile, she wiped at the blood on her forehead. Her skin was ashen beneath the red flow trickling down her face.
“You!” A menacing shadow fell over Kit. “Leave that bitch alone, God rot you! You’re in me way.”
Barely able to contain his sense of outrage, Kit released the woman’s warm hand. He swung round on one knee to face the speaker.“You addressing me?”
The man grinned, but no trace of humour reached his eyes. “Who else?”
Kit eyed him warily, biding his time. He had downed such bullies before and knew the importance of choosing the right moment to act.
The man’s pockmarked cheeks quivered beneath his bushy side-whiskers as a sneer creased his face. He slapped his riding crop impatiently against his well-filled breeches. “Did you hear me, stranger? Or do I have to take me whip to you as well?”
Kit allowed a brief silence to envelop him, breathing deep in his struggle to control his pounding heartbeat. Slowly, he turned towards the fisherman. The old man held out his arms, seemingly ready to continue the affray, but he was clearly no match for the assailant.
“Leave this to me,” Kit told him. He redirected his gaze at the well-dressed attacker, hoping to end the confrontation peacefully.“It seems to me this lady needs protection.”
“Ah, a colonial, damn me hide!” the whiskered man’s words were slow and slurred. “Keep your nose out of things that don’t concern you and leave the bitch to me.”
Kit rose to his feet, keeping his gaze firmly focussed on the man. Drawing another deep breath, he squared up to him while, from the corner of his eye, he saw the fisherman stand back, blood still dripping from a shadowed cheek.
“I don’t mean to intrude in anyone’s business here.”Kit kept a watchful eye on the attacker’s riding crop. “It ain’t my way. But I take exception to men who attack women.”
“None of your business.” The man laughed acidly, and his eyes took on a glint of expectation. “I warned you to keep out of this.” He raised his right hand jerkily then flashed the crop forward. Like his words, his actions were slow, too slow.
Kit sidestepped the blow and caught his forearm. With one deft move, he jerked the arm behind the man’s back, forcing him to his knees, his velvet coat billowing out as he fell heavily with a laboured breath gasping from between his thick lips. Before the assailant could rise of his own accord, Kit grabbed a handful of the coat and hoisted the man to his feet. He gave a curt nod to the fisherman, and jerked his head toward the door. The old fisherman jumped ahead of them. With an ease born out of many years at sea, Kit propelled his catch towards the exit.
“Open it!” he ordered, and the fisherman grinned broadly, wrenching open the door. Kit summoned up all his reserves of strength and, with one giant heave, threw the man out into the snow. The fisherman slammed the door shut and wiped his hands together decisively.
A strange sense of elation swept through Kit, as if he had satisfied an unrecognised desire for retribution. “Reckon he’ll come back for more?”
The fisherman touched his forelock. “Not straight away, sur. Ee was on his own and I reckon ee won’t come back ’til ee’s got others with him. Reckon ee’ll find some rich hotel for the night and lick his wounds.”
“Good.” Kit dusted sawdust from his breeches and sniffed with distaste. Close up, the fisherman’s clothes released a heady odour of putrefying fish.
He hurried back to the woman and thrust out a hand to help her to her feet. “Sorry I didn’t come to your aid sooner, ma’am. Maybe that damned fool will think again when he’s sobered up some.”
She stared up at him, traumatized and hesitant, before she finally accepted his grasp. On her feet, she quickly snatched her hand away, her lower lip trembling.
The mumbling customers returned to their drink and food as the excitement died away. The innkeeper strode into view through an inner door, a platter of mutton in each hand. He seemed unconcerned that any conflict had occurred on his premises.
“Let me help you to a table, ma’am,” Kit volunteered.
“No. I’ll be all right.” The young woman straightened to her full height. “You’ve done enough. Please don’t get yourself into any more trouble on my account.”
Kit caught a tremble in her voice. “It ain’t no trouble. What was the commotion all about?”
“A private matter.” The woman covered her face with her hands and blew a long breath, seemingly relieved. She dropped her hands and gave him a pleading look. “Please don’t ask me to explain.” She spoke with more than a hint of Cornish accent and yet, to Kit, it sounded warm and soft, almost melodic.
“If you say so.” He inclined his head briefly, indicating the matter was closed. It was none of his business. And yet she was a pretty young thing; too pretty to be mixed up in a taproom brawl. “You got far to go?” he asked.
“No.” She waved towards the stairs. “I’ve a room here tonight and I’ll be travelling on in the morning. I’ll be safe enough now.”
In this place? Kit wasn’t so sure. “Only as long as that man don’t come back with his friends. Who is he?”
From the taproom bar, the fisherman grunted loudly.“That be Ralph Killiow, sur,” he said, a slow smile spreading over his face hiding thoughts Kit could only guess at. “His father be Squire Killiow down at Penmarith. Big landowners, they be. Wise men don’t mix it with them.”
Kit raised a brow. “But you did.”
“So did you, sur. Reckon that makes thee an’ me the only fools here.” The fisherman winked while wiping a hand down his bloodied cheek.
“Reckon you’re right.” Kit snorted. “Penmarith, you say? Well, I guess Mister Killiow and I just might have to cross swords again one day.”
The woman’s expression filled with alarm. “Not on my account?”
“No, ma’am.” He was in no mood to explain as his stomach grumbled, seemingly loud enough for her to hear.
“You’re very kind, both of you coming to my aid.” She gave each man in turn a sincere smile.
“’Twas least we could do, mistress,” the fisherman sniffed and, with an air of disgust, eyed the other customers. He raised his voice. “Even if others was afraid to.”
In the background, the serving wench called to Kit. She winked at him as she rattled a jar of ale and a platter of mutton onto his table. Her pendulous bosom heaved, as if she anticipated his intimate attention. He raised a brief smile at her then returned his attention to the intriguing woman beside him. “If you get any more trouble, you just holler for me. I aim to stay here tonight.”
“I hope that won’t be necessary.”
“Me too. I’ll bid you good night, ma’am.” Kit gave her a parting nod, anxious to fill his stomach and enjoy Nell’s company, but the young lady held out her hand to him awkwardly.
“Wenna. My name is Wenna Lanyon. No one need call me ma’am.”
“Christopher Vanson. Kit to my friends.” He took her hand lightly and released it almost immediately. Her presence here, amongst hardened seamen, worried him; she was out of place. “If you’ve had your supper, I reckon it’s best you get away to your room. I’ll buy a jar of ale for our friend here.” He clapped a hand on the fisherman’s shoulder. “He deserves it.”
The fisherman grinned broadly, displaying a line of broken, black teeth. He ambled away to where Nellie waited at Kit’s table, the stink of fish wafting in his wake.