I’ve challenged Author Stuart S. Laing to write a story inspired by this photo shared on Facebook a few weeks ago and he accepted my challenge and wrote a short story called The Day of Storms that takes place in The Kingdom of Fife, Scotland, February 5th 1794. Today is Part III and in this story, you will meet Sarah, Rebecca Hopkins and a band of ruthless smugglers.
There followed a tense ten minutes. The sisters sat, hands clutching each other, horrified as they realised their very lives were in deadly peril through stumbling unwittingly into this viper’s nest of smugglers. The smugglers themselves were equally silent as they drank their ale and brandy. Only the baleful looks they cast towards the young women spoke of their cruel intentions. When Bobbie finally returned, stamping snow off his boots, with a cold smile on his face what little hope still lingering in the women’s hearts withered and died. He sneered in their direction as he said, “George has seen no’one else enter the village but for the coach. There’s no tracks in the snow either. They’re on their own.”
The doorkeeper, now clearly revealed to be the leader of this band of smugglers, gave the sisters a pitying look. “So you truly chanced upon us by no more than a cruel twist of fate?” He shook his grey head with amusement momentarily twinkling in his dark eyes. “Jings, of all of the doors you could have thought to knock on you had to come knocking on mine! Well then, young Misses Hopkins, what are we to do with you?”
“You can do as you promised,” Rebecca said with a defiant tilt of her chin. “Have your man deliver the note to our coach. We intend to be on our way home as soon as possible. Believe me, sir, we have no more desire to spend a moment longer here than is absolutely necessary. This has been a day of storms, let there be no further trouble between us. Thus far you have said nothing we could use to show you, and your friends, are involved in anything illegal, have you? We have simply taken shelter in your tavern. There is nothing else we could possibly tell father other than that simple fact.”
“That simple fact, eh?” he replied, one hand cupping his bearded chin as though considering her words carefully. “And Sir Hector, the king’s own man in Fife, a man with a burning desire to put an end to smuggling on the Fife coast once and for all, will take you at your word, will he? No, unfortunately I think I know the man well enough after all these years of making sure I always stay one step ahead of him and the Excise to say that he would not be long in coming to pay me a visit. I’m sorry, girls, I truly am, but I can’t go letting you put any naughty ideas in his head.”
“Father knows where we are,” Rebecca said urgently while Sarah seemed to shrink beside her. “And you know that this tavern is the very first place he will come looking.”
“That is probably very true,” he conceded with a lazy smile. “Do you know that I have lost count of the number of times he and his men have torn this place apart looking for contraband. Can you guess how many times he has found anything? Not once. Do you want to know why?”
“Because you aren’t smugglers?” Sarah gasped out through a terrified sob as she clutched at her sister’s hands. “You are just honest, decent men who have done nothing wrong. Father has found no contraband for there is none to be found, sir. Father will know you are a good man who did no more than offer shelter to his daughters when ill fortune left us stranded here.”
“Well said, Miss Hopkins. But in all truth this tavern is built on contraband. Your father just doesn’t know where to look.” He pointed a thick finger towards the blazing fire while gazing at the beautiful but terrified faces before him. “When I said this place was built on contraband, I meant it. Bobbie, Alfie, would you be kind enough to show our guests where their room for the night is?”
With dark laughter the two men brushed past the girls to kneel before the fire. A heavy flagstone on either side of the hearth was, with little difficulty, raised and slid a few inches to the side to reveal narrow recesses carved into the stone of the hearth. A metal rod was inserted into this recess on either side and was used to swing the heavy stone upwards to mask the fire but for a few inches at the top. Now revealed were a set of steep steps leading down into darkness.
“Well, girls, down you go then,” Bobbie sneered. “Best take a candle. It’s dark down there.”
“And don’t bother shouting. Once that hearth is back in place you could fire a cannon down there and no’one would be any the wiser,” the doorkeeper added with a shrug as unwillingly the sisters fearfully, and carefully, descended the firm wooden steps. As soon as Sarah’s head was low enough the hearth was lowered back into place and the only sound was their own breathing.
* * *
The steps delivered the Hopkins into a long, narrow, arched cellar of well-dressed stone. On every side lay all that had illegally been brought ashore. Dozens of barrels of brandy, gin, rum and wine lay stacked neatly by racks of muskets, powder and shot. Three small barrels of gun powder sat alone on a wooden rack with a dark lantern sitting by them. Rebecca, using the candle she had brought, quickly lit this before passing the candle on to her shaking sister. “Look,” she hissed as she examined a crest on one of the barrels of black powder. “It says Republique Francois, They’re not just smugglers. They are damned Jacobins! That is why they have all these muskets. They intend to bring the Revolution here. We risk suffering the Reign of Terror right here in Fife!”
Sarah, her heart thudding painfully in her chest, clutched her cloak about her shivering body as she edged forward a few inches to look at the gunpowder before shaking her head. “I think it is more likely it signifies no more than something else those rogues can sell for easy profit.”
Rebecca dismissed her words with a wave of one hand as she stalked the length of the cellar pointing the lantern light into every corner. Finally, she stopped and turned to face Sarah. “They mean to kill us!”
“I know,” came the frightened reply.
“Well then, we just have to make sure that doesn’t happen, won’t we?”
About the Author:
Born and raised on the east coast of Scotland in the ancient Pictish Kingdom of Fife Stuart grew up looking across the Firth of Forth towards the spires and turrets of the city of Edinburgh and its castle atop its volcanic eyrie.
He has always been fascinated by the history of Auld Reekie and has spent most of his life studying Scottish history in all its aspects whenever he finds the time between family, work and the thousand and one other things that seek to distract him.
Despite the vast panorama of Scotland’s history, he always finds himself being drawn back to the cobbled streets of the Old Town. Those streets have provided the inspiration for his stories and characters.
He would urge all visitors to Scotland’s ancient capital to (briefly) venture into one of the narrow closes running down from the Royal Mile to get a flavour of how alive with mischief, mayhem, love and laughter these streets once were.
Stuart’s books on Amazon
Part IV will be posted next Friday.