On the southern coast of England, between Chichester and the sea, stretch the woods of the Manhood Peninsula. Once upon a time, these woods were much more isolated than they are now, and the trees and waves whispered strange tales to each other. Tales of Armada galleons foundering on the rocks nearby, their creaking timbers later used to build a local farmhouse; of spies landing from France, on their way to secret rendezvous; of birds whistling to each other, which have no business being awake at dead of night; and of ponies making their way cautiously through the trees, with illegal casks of brandy slung across their saddles.
Twelve-year-old Damaris Crocker has grown up in the shadow of the Manhood. To her, the woods are a favourite playing ground, but she is well aware that there are darker goings-on among the trees after night-fall. Damaris knows that when a chalk cross appears on the stable door, there will be a Run that night. She also knows never to ask questions. Her father doesn’t approve of smuggling, but he still leaves the stable door unlocked on certain nights, and as long as the horses are back in their stalls by morning, he doesn’t say a word.
Indeed, it is often wisest to say as little as possible, for England can be a dangerous place and it is sometimes difficult to know whom to trust. It is only five years after the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745, and there are still many who remain loyal to the Stuarts and would put Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne in place of fat King George. The Fair Traders run their share of risks as well, for the Customs House men shoot on sight, and the penalty for smuggling is death by hanging. So that when Damaris stumbles upon a wounded man in the woods one afternoon, she knows that his life depends on her keeping him hidden, even from her father.
With the help of her friend Peter and Genty, the Wise Woman of the village, Damaris moves the stranger to safety and nurses him back to health. It soon becomes clear that Tom Wildgoose, as he comes to be known to them, is neither a smuggler nor a French spy. But then who is he, and what does the oilskin pouch concealed beneath his shirt contain? Damaris is uneasily conscious that Tom’s activities are quite probably treasonous, yet she feels oddly protective of him. An unexpected friendship blossoms between the farmer’s daughter and the young Jacobite courier: it is to Tom that she confides her secret desire for a flame-coloured taffeta petticoat, like the one the gypsy dancer wore at the Harvest Supper two years ago. And Tom promises to send her one when she gets married.
In a trice, however, all thoughts of petticoats and weddings are banished, for Tom is captured and Damaris, Peter, and Genty must act quickly in order to rescue him. Suddenly, Damaris, too, is involved in stealthy nocturnal errands, racing against time to free Tom and speed him on his way to London before the Customs House men get to him first.
In limpid, evocative prose, Rosemary Sutcliff recreates the atmosphere and the language of the eighteenth century and spins a pretty tale of smuggling and adventure which will appeal both to children and to fans of Jamaica Inn and “The Highwayman”.
© Florence Berlioz 2011