“Belay, Stephen! Hold hard!”
Throwing up a hand in warning, Jack took a firmer grip on the rocky outcrop with the other. To his right, the flurry of stones dislodged by his footsteps were still tumbling into the void, rattling as they knocked further debris loose from the mountainside. The long, undulating summit he and Stephen had been crossing had terminated without warning in cloud-filled emptiness, its grassy sward cut short by a cliff plummeting precipitously into the valley below. Gazing down through the swirls of mist to follow the stones’ fate, Jack experienced a sensation he had first known as a midshipman sent up to the masthead of an 84-gun ship of the line: the sudden, immediate awareness that death was but half a step away, and a wet, slippery step at that.
He glanced back at Stephen, halted a few feet from the edge.
“Forgive me, but we must retrace our steps,” he said. “Retrace and turn southwards around this outcrop. There is no passage to be had on this side, even if we had cables and pulleys to hand.”
Stephen made no reply, merely pulling his cloak closed against the biting wind. He had spoken barely two dozen words since they had started their ascent; only the quiet statement that, as it did not seem likely the mountains would move from their path, their path must needs traverse the mountains.
Southwards they therefore turned, picking their way across the rock-strewn wasteland that skirted the summit’s crowning pinnacle, a mass of slate thrust upwards in immense, shattered slabs like a colossal shipwreck smashed to its very ribs.
Southwards around the outcrop, and then westwards along the mountain ridge, Jack looking over his shoulder time and time again to assure himself that Stephen was still following, his footsteps inaudible beneath the steady shriek of the wind over the boulders. Once he heard a cry and swung round, expecting to see Stephen prostrate, but it was only a bird overhead, a vast white gull banking and wheeling towards the distant sea.
“Not much farther now, Doctor,” he called. “The first safe path down from this height should take us from the worst of the weather.”
Onwards they stumbled, their heads bent low against the buffeting wind. The faint sheep-track along the mountain’s crest left them dangerously silhouetted against the skyline, but it was still safer than the cliffs to either side, and in any case the low, streaming clouds concealed them much of the time from the valleys below. Jack was calculating and recalculating the distance to the coast. If their pursuers had taken the southern road, he and Stephen might yet outrun them. No horses, however swift, could hope to skirt the mountains in less than two days, and none could cross these craggy uplands, too steep even for wild ponies. If they had circled round to the north – but Jack shook away the thought impatiently. This was his own country, however unfamiliar this particular corner might be, and he did not mean to be outwitted by a pack of foreign agents.
Onwards, until at last the path began to descend, at first via a flank of loose shale that had Jack and Stephen sliding and stumbling into each other, and then down to a small plateau leading into a narrow cleft, shielded from the wind. Down and farther down; and there, at the point where the path turned a corner, was a half-ruined shepherd’s bothy tucked into the lee of a boulder, more shelter than Jack had dared hope for. Stephen gave it a sideways glance and shrugged deeper into his cloak.
“Must we heave to, then, soul?” he asked, contrariness flickering across his pale, drawn face. “Is ‘lose not a minute’ so lightly cast aside? With a little more effort we might make the valley floor.”
“Aye,” thought Jack to himself, “and for the last hour of that, I should be carrying you.” Buoyed by Stephen’s attempt at nautical language, however, he laid a steadying hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Pray indulge me with a few hours’ rest, Stephen. I am no landsman; I cannot march endlessly, watch-and-watch, as you terrestrial fellows do.”
Stephen pursed his lips but allowed himself to be guided into the bothy, whose least ruinous corner was filled with a great heap of dead bracken.
“Well,” he said, limping towards the pile and sinking down as if his strings had been cut, “if there is truly no help for it, I…”
Jack waited, but silence followed. Stephen’s eyes had slid shut and he was already fast asleep.
Jack awoke long before dawn, with a sailor’s instinctual awareness of time having passed. Something was tickling his nose; he brushed the dried bracken fronds aside and sniffed at the sharpened air. A half-clear sky was showing through the ruins of the roof, with cloud banks obscuring the stars to the west, and moon shadows lying stark and bold-edged across the frost-sprinkled floor.
He shifted under the cloaks, pulling Stephen closer, careful not to jog Stephen’s wounded arm, the unnatural heat of which could be felt even through its makeshift wrappings. He had carried him away when the wound was fresh made, had seen him swab the blood from it – so much blood, more blood than most men could lose and survive, never mind so meagre a fellow as Stephen – and he had no desire to see it ever again. Perhaps when they reached Holyhead there would be a physician whom Stephen would permit to examine it, or perhaps the packet ship would have a surgeon who knew his business; otherwise it must wait for Dublin and safety.
Stephen roused slowly, burrowing and butting his head like a lamb against Jack’s chest before he came fully awake.
“Oh,” he said dully, his face an unearthly grey in the moonlight. “We are on the mountain.”
“Almost down from the mountain,” said Jack, “and only ten miles or so from the coast, once we reach the valley bottom. Then another fifteen across the isle of Anglesey, although I hope to God we can get horses for that. Could you bear to leave now, Stephen? It may come on to blow later, and to rain too, if those clouds hold true.”
For a few moments longer, Stephen lay still, his chest wheezing against Jack’s, and their mingled breath a warm cloud condensing between them in the frigid air. Then he sat up all at once in a swift, determined motion, scratching at the bracken in his hair.
“I am none of your miserable weak puling makeweights, Jack,” he said. “You forget that I am hardened as much to the dank endless mizzle of a County Cork peat bog as to the dust of a Lerida summer, if not more so. I am born to the downpour: part bittern, part marsh harrier, not to say bearded tit.”
“No,” said Jack, rubbing at his unshaven chin. “Let us certainly not say bearded tit.” He studied Stephen’s determined frown and the feverish glint in his eye. “Come, then. A bite to eat and we must be off. If we can make the shoreline before dawn, so much the better.”
Onwards, onwards, but dawn broke over Snowdonia long before they made the shore. Revived to some degree by a breakfast of beef and ship’s biscuit (though sadly cold and coffeeless), they headed down past a string of mountain lakes and into the long valley that snaked westwards to the coast, their footsteps ringing on the frozen mud. Jack thought wistfully of the horses they had left behind to the south of the mountain range; exhausted, mud-spattered horses, now recovering in the stables of a trustworthy inn.
“We have saved perhaps half a day by crossing on foot, however,” he thought. Half a day, which might still be enough to save them. Squaring his shoulders, he quickened his step.
“Jack,” said Stephen at length, as though the notion had just occurred to him, “the moon is full; we must surely be visible half a furlong or more. If we meet some Cambrian shepherd, some rustic Corydon on his way to loose his flock, must we not hide?”
“As to that,” said Jack, who could no more have overlooked the moon’s progress than he could have forgotten to draw breath, “I should be glad enough to ask the way. These drovers’ paths seem to double back on purpose to lead us astray. I take a bearing for the coast and five minutes later we are plumb in line for – what was that goddamned mountain called again?”
“Glyder Fawr, or Glyder Fach, I cannot tell which. But are you not forgetting that asking for directions may not be a simple matter? The peasantry hereabouts are likely monoglot, possessing nothing but the barbarous tongue of these parts.”
“Oh,” cried Jack, “but can you not—”
“Speak Welsh, joy? No; it is not an accomplishment I ever thought to acquire.”
“Is it not related to Irish, then?”
“Related?” said Stephen. “No, not since the Tower of Babel. Irish is the language of saints and scholars, of illumination and inspiration. Welsh, I take it, is the language of mud. But I must forgive you, Jack, as a poor innocent who knows not whereof he speaks.”
The poor innocent nodded meekly and held his tongue. If Stephen still had strength enough to make game of him, why, so much the better.
Onwards they trudged. Before much longer, any trace of such strength had evaporated, their trail unrelieved by conversation. An hour after that, Stephen could not rise from the milestone on which he had sunk to rest, though he tried valiantly, fending off Jack’s arm even as he crumpled to the ground. Jack hauled him up and slung him over his shoulder, deaf to all protests.
“Lie still, Stephen,” he said, adjusting his burden. “We shall make the coast, whatever it takes. And if it is of any comfort to you, you may tell yourself it is for the good of the service.”
Later Jack would not be able to say exactly how he and Stephen had reached the island and crossed to the ferry port of Holyhead on its far side. His memories, though each vivid and immediate in itself, were so jumbled as to form a kind of shifting patchwork, shot through with urgency and increasing desperation as the hour grew later, and as the distant smudge on the southern road grew clearer: a knot of horsemen, galloping hard in pursuit.
To be sure, had he been recording his impressions in the dry, official tones of a ship’s logbook, they might have been tolerably concise: Cut out skiff. Traversed Menai Strait, wind WSW, squally with rain. At 9 made east shore of Anglesey, reaching Anchor Inn ½ past 9.
“Cut out skiff”: that much had been simple enough, casting loose the painter of an unattended boat and shoving it out onto the high tide, but his mind recoiled from the memory of shaking Stephen awake, from the confusion on Stephen’s haggard countenance as he was roused from his stupor to find himself deposited in the stern of a fisherman’s skiff.
“Jack?” he asked dazedly, looking about himself. “Are we afloat, so? Must we swim?”
“No, never in such a tide race,” said Jack, shipping his oars. He scanned the coastline again, his heart skipping a beat as he spotted their pursuers barely half a mile away along the shore road. “Stephen, have you strength enough to steer? I would not ask, but I must pull, and the current will drag us far north of the point, else.”
Stephen blinked and stared around stupidly until Jack thrust the tiller into his hand.
“This? This is the steering oar?” asked Stephen. “Sure I can tuck it under my sound arm, thus.” And so doing, he was immediately shoved sideways so violently by it that he was all but knocked overboard. Catching up the severed end of the painter, Jack used it to lash the tiller to Stephen and Stephen to the thwart with half a dozen round turns, avoiding his injured arm.
“Bear up, brother,” he said, clambering back to his own thwart and hauling on the oars. “Keep your seat as best you can, and lean harder on the tiller when I call.”
The wind was rising and cross-seas were already breaking against the gunwales, the sea haze lifting patchily to show a strait flecked with white tips. The horsemen were so close now that their individual mounts could be distinguished, kicking up a plume of dust as they tore along the turnpike road.
Onwards, onwards, Jack’s muscles burning with the effort. The shore of the mainland retreated gradually, losing itself in the haze until nothing was left but the whistling of the wind, the shrieking of the gulls, the thump and drag of waves on shingle. Jack strained his ears for sounds of a chase, but he could hear only the waves crashing higher and higher against the gunwales, the oars creaking in the rowlocks; still no pursuit.
He kicked at the hessian sack by his feet, shoving it beneath his thwart. At no point during their wild flight had he enquired what was in the oiled-silk package Stephen carried in his bosom; whatever it was, Stephen had very nearly given his life for it, and that was all Jack needed to know. In the sack lay a heap of knuckle-sized stones, ready to weigh it down, should any incriminating documents need to be sunk beyond retrieval in the swirling waters.
Loud breakers behind him, now: breakers beating on the island side of the strait. He heaved at the oars again, again, and at last the skiff beached against the shore. He staggered out into the shallow water, mussel shells crunching beneath his boots.
“Come, Stephen,” he said, slashing Stephen’s bindings with his pocket knife and lifting him into his arms, “if the Anchor at Porthaethwy can supply us with the horses your contact promised, we shall make it to Holyhead while our pursuers are still getting their bearings.”
The Holyhead packet was a fine, swift sailer, but she had a tendency to roll more than she ought. Jack, sitting cross-legged on the deck beside Stephen’s cot, put out a hand to steady its movement. Stephen’s arm had been re-dressed by the Anchor’s landlady, a redoubtable woman who had ignored all Stephen’s protests, fed him and Jack with hot soup, and bundled them both into a gig to Holyhead with instructions addressed solely (and perhaps wisely) to the horse, and they had arrived just as the ferry was preparing to draw up her gangplank. Jack had been bracing himself for doubts, refusals, perhaps a confrontation of some sort, but the packet’s captain was clearly accustomed to dubious passengers, however damaged and squalid.
“Uncommon damaged, in this case,” Jack muttered, adjusting the loose end of Stephen’s bandage. “Uncommon squalid too, though I cannot talk.”
Stephen stirred in his sleep, his eyes fluttering open.
“Jack?” he asked, blinking in confusion.
Jack bent over the cot. “Do not stir, Stephen. We are safe aboard the Holyhead ferry, and halfway to Ireland by my reckoning.”
“Ireland?” Stephen laid his head back on the pillow, closing his eyes, and for a long while he was silent. Then he heaved a deep sigh. “I find I am in your debt again, Jack. I would have been lost a hundred miles since without your intervention. Nay, before that.”
“Not at all, brother,” said Jack. “I merely provided the transport.”
Stephen’s lips twitched. “Then I am grateful for that, as ever. And I shall be able to show you Dublin at last, my dear.”
“At very long last, indeed.” Jack sat down, setting his back against the planking, his gaze wandering over the bulkhead opposite as he thought of the many places he and Stephen had visited together, the scores of ports and islands, the numberless towns and far-flung wildernesses, in the course of a lifetime’s voyaging.
“It is a beautiful city,” said Stephen. “So very beautiful.” His voice had begun to waver, and it was in no more than a whisper that he added, “How I hope you will like it.”
Jack smiled; he knew how little his notions of beauty had ever matched Stephen’s, and he knew, too, how little it had ever mattered. When he looked across at him, meaning to tell him so, however, he saw that he had drifted into sleep, one hand dangling limply from the cot.
“I do not doubt it, Stephen,” he said softly, taking Stephen’s chilled fingers and chafing them between his own. “I do not doubt it for a moment.”