A TRUE RELATION
New Year’s Eve, 1699.
A storm had rolled in from the channel to soak the last seconds of the century. Wind and rain joined the high tide, waves blanketing Bantham Beach to slam against the hillsides. The River Avon surged, breaking its banks, into the South Hams. The water destroyed Grace Tucker’s garden, ripping up the cradled buds and nurtured roots, to finally push the front door open, letting the violence in.
Grace stood before the struggling fire. It was the centre of her house, black from providing heat for food and light for the table, which was stained too, with ink spills and the scratches of a child’s first pen strokes. Now the flames were reduced to embers by the storm, just as the kitchen seemed to shrink with both men stood at either end, boxing her in.
Benedict hovered in the doorway, soaked through, and Grace thought she’d glimpsed dried blood on his hands. On the far side of the room, Tom leant against Molly’s bedroom door. The column of his body collapsed inwards, those huge shoulders dragging on a failing back. In one hand, he held her diary. In the other, a pistol. Grace tried to keep her hands pinned to her skirts, but kept returning to pick at a loose thread.
‘Please, Tom,’ she said. ‘I do not understand what has happened.’
Tom raised the book. In the firelight, he could just make out where Grace had pressed ink into its hide, embedding her words: A True Relation of My Life and Deeds.
‘I remember one night, you saying you wanted to write for your bread,’ he said. ‘I laughed. I never thought you meant it. You must have kept this little confessional somewhere safe when I came around. Strange, to find it out tonight, with all the fineries I bought you. As if you was packing. And with my name on nearly every page. So now I know what a woman has to write about. Gossip, and the secrets of men.’
‘It has only my life,’ said Grace. ‘I have written it for Molly. And – and for myself. There is nothing strange in that, nor harmful. Now please, tell me why you have come here so late.’
In the doorway, Benedict eased from foot to foot. He had never met Tom’s lover before. None of the crew had. Whenever they came ashore, the ship burdened with barrels of brandy or chests of tea, Tom came here. The crew all talked about it: Tom West and his lover, a woman with a child begot by another man. But never in front of Tom. No one told him he was a lucky devil, a lady of quality to lie with whenever he wished, or said how strange it was, Tom caring for a girl with nothing of his blood in her veins. This was more than a warm bed and pottage in the morning, though. Benedict understood that now, but not why Tom had come here. What could this cottage mean to the men they’d dragged from the river, smugglers and Revenue bleeding alike? He shuffled back.
‘I can wait outside,’ he said. ‘The horses -’
Tom cut through him, rolling Grace’s gentle vowels in his Devon growl: ‘No harm in it, you say. Then I take it there are none of my movements scribbled down in this masterpiece of yours?’
‘What do you mean?’ said Grace.
‘A little late to play the fool, my girl.’
‘I am playing at nothing.’
‘No?’ said Tom. ‘Then it weren’t your wretched words that got me and my men ambushed tonight?’
‘Ambushed?’ repeated Grace. She edged backwards. The floorboards groaned and she stilled.
‘The Revenue was hidden by the tidal road at Aveton Gifford,’ said Tom. ‘As if they knew I was coming. As if they was waiting. Two of my men are dead. Shot whilst rowing. No warning, no chance.’
Grace paled. ‘Are you hurt?’
Tom laughed. He squeezed the pistol’s walnut grip, his fist swelling like a joint of pork strung too tight. ‘Would it matter?’
‘How could you ask such a thing?’ said Grace.
‘Someone told them where I’d be. Someone didn’t care if I was lain down to die tonight.’
‘That boy – that boy you told me about – Frank Abbot. You said he had been seen talking to the Revenue,’ said Grace, ‘before he… left, for Plymouth. He must have mentioned where you would be taking the goods.’
At Frank Abbot’s name, Benedict searched for Tom’s familiar eyes in the dark, but all he could see was the man’s terrible height, which seemed to grow in the gathering silence. The only other time Benedict had seen Tom like this was when they discovered Frank Abbot had betrayed them. Everyone knew what happened to Frank next, but no one spoke of it. The villagers shook Tom’s hand as they always had, enjoying the pint of ale he bought them, or praising his name whilst they sprinkled salt he carried from France on their food.
‘What makes you think Frank left for Plymouth?’ said Tom, looking at her steadily.
Grace glanced at the pistol. It was shaking in his hand. She had never asked him how many of the rumours were true: if that pistol acted as just a warning, remaining in his belt, or if he was free with it. Sometimes she believed she never asked him because he in turn had never asked about the gossip built up around her, what was true or false. She knew, too, how gently he could hold a child, and surely his hands were not capable of all people said. Other times, she believed she never asked because she knew how anger could change his face.
Now she took a deep breath and said, ‘I know what you did. I heard some fisherman talking about it. Frank Abbot was found dead on Burgh Island. I know you ordered it, or did it yourself.’
Tom’s grip went slack on the gun and then tightened quickly before he dropped it. ‘And haven’t you got a whole load of docity, coming out with it. A lady of your breeding, repeating men’s private conversations. I wonder if they thought they was safe, these fishermen, speaking their secrets so close to your ears. Perhaps they thought you was the kind of woman who observed sanctities. The kind of woman who would keep any words that crossed her pillow close to her chest.’
‘I do not know what you are trying to say,’ said Grace, ‘but whatever you think – you are wrong.’
Tom tried to breathe. He was burning, too many tolls taken: nerve-endings seared from diving into freezing water to haul his men out; a bullet graze on his arm; fractured ribs. He was swaying on his feet. He was falling into Grace’s green eyes. Green like the land he loved, that’s what he had told her. But not blue, like the sea you love more. Her words. One foot on land, one leg in water. After the ambush, he had mounted a dead officer’s horse and left his men by the tidal road, driving the animal here as fast as he could. Benedict had followed – at Harry’s command no doubt – arriving thirty minutes later. Time enough for Tom to see Grace packing, to go through her books whilst she lied to him, and find her diary with his name scrawled throughout. Tom had not told Benedict to leave when he stumbled through the door, believing he could keep his temper in check as long as the boy was staring at him with that lamb-like worship. But all he could think of was her eyes: green like the land I love.
‘I saved you,’ he said. ‘I kept your little girl from starving. I’ve been good to you. Better than you precious husband ever was, or would have been. I’ve loved your daughter when any other man would have scorned your bed for having a child crawling into it. I’ve – you know, Grace. You know what I feel. I trusted you with my life, and the life of my crew. I thought I had cause.’
‘You do. Please, Tom, step away from Molly’s door.’
‘You think I’d hurt her?’ Tom snapped, making both Grace and Benedict jump.
‘No,’ said Grace, her hands up. ‘I know you would not. Please, just sit with me. Please.’
‘Tom, sir, we’ve got to go,’ said Benedict. ‘The Dragoons will be out soon. Please, we’ve got to get to the ship.’
Tom breathed out through his nose. He was trembling. He looked at the pile of lace and linen he had bought Grace, now folded up on the table, ready for a bag. She was going to leave him. She had betrayed him, and now she was going to leave him.
‘I’ll sit with you, if that’s what you want,’ he said. ‘Benedict, get out. Go.’
Benedict wormed on the spot, and then gave a nod and twisted away: back down the cross-passage and out the front door. The world was black now, water and hills and sky merging, solid. Benedict blundered into it, groping for the damson tree. Water sloshed around his ankles. A hot breath on his face made him jump. The horses. He felt for the reins, tugging and pulling at the knot. But in this weather, even if he got the horse free, it would be impossible to get back up the hill without any help.
In the kitchen, Grace and Tom sat across from each other at the table as they had for the past three years. Tom’s long legs barely fitted. Grace perched, birdlike, on the edge of her chair. Tom set her diary down, but kept the pistol. His wet hair hid his eyes. Grace reached for him, fingers skirting his swollen knuckles. Tom hunched, gripping the pistol closer.
‘There is blood on your hands,’ she said.
‘Not my hands alone.’
The seconds passed, giving those low, scratched words strength, giving them meaning. From the other room came the sound of Molly crying. Grace rose. Tom’s hand moved quickly, holding her where she was.
‘Molly needs me,’ she said.
‘I need you,’ said Tom. ‘You know why I’m here. What I need you to tell me. Don’t you?’
Grace’s shoulders slumped. She looked over his face and then down to where his fist was tightening on her arm, cutting off the blood to her hand.
She said, ‘I can explain.’