The Emerald CrossChapter 3

Two weeks after his secret meeting with Hodgson, Vicars had completely lost enthusiasm for the adventure. He was sure he had made the right decision in agreeing to help the king, but was increasingly reluctant to make the journey to Italy. He had an uneasy feeling that Hodgson had rated his fitness for the task too highly. He was not at all sure he would know what to say if he was caught crossing the border with the jewels. Recalling his helplessness in the hands of Hodgson's two men, he shuddered at the thought of an encounter with bandits. The violent desperadoes rumoured to attack travellers on the ill-maintained roads of France and Italy would have no mercy on him. If only he had asked Hodgson to send someone else with the jewels! He could have made the excuse that he was too much under pressure at work. Indeed there was some truth in this, the Office of Arms was busier than he had ever known it to be before, though to balance that, Sydney Horlock was coping well with the tasks assigned to him. What was needed, really, was a man of action, someone with experience of foreign travel who could fight off the bandits.

Someone like Frank Shackleton. A tall young man who had fought in the Boer War with the Third Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, by all accounts he had acquitted himself well and was awarded the Queen's medal. In conversation about his wartime experiences, Frank had hinted at secret assignments he had carried out away from his regiment, alone in the mysterious continent of Africa. A peacetime journey to San Remo and the handover of the jewels would be nothing to him. He would probably see it as an opportunity for a pleasurable holiday. Yes, Frank was the right man for the job. If only he had suggested this to Hodgson!

He found Frank sitting alone in the Library, flicking idly through a vividly illustrated book on heraldry.

"That's a rare and very expensive book, Frank," he admonished the younger man. "Be careful with those crumbling old pages."

Then, suddenly aware that this was perhaps not the best prelude to asking a favour, he said hastily, "But never mind that now, there's something I must tell you in confidence." He closed the heavy oak door behind him. "Frank, will you swear to me that you will not speak a word of what I am about to tell you to anyone else."

"If you tell me something in confidence, Arthur, of course I won't repeat it. You can trust me."

"This is important, Frank. I need your help, but I can't tell you if you don't swear to keep it a secret."

"What is it? Do you have money troubles? I'll help you in any way I can. All right, I swear I'll never tell a soul, if that's what you want."

"Thank you for that. It is to do with money troubles, as you say, but not mine! Someone of much higher rank."

"Surely not Lord Aberdeen, that old Scotsman?"

"No, higher even than that. It is His Majesty who needs our help, Frank."

"The King? What can he possibly need from us?"

"He needs to raise some money quickly and secretly, and as security for the loan he wants to use the jewels that I have here in the safe. The problem is, they must be taken to a certain Italian Count in San Remo. I can't go myself, it would look suspicious if I was absent from the Castle at this busy time. I should be here to supervise Horlock until he has learned the job. I need someone I can trust to travel to Italy with the jewels, and you are often away from Dublin, you won't be missed as I will. What do you say, Frank?"

"Of course I'll go! Anything to help His Majesty. When do you want me to leave?"

"As soon as you can, please. But you understand, you must tell no one, and particularly not Captain Gorges. He's liable to get drunk and reveal it to the dregs of Temple Bar."

"I've sworn an oath, haven't I? Not a word, not even to Richard. Don't worry, I can quite see why it's got to be under cover. I'll say I have to travel for my personal financial affairs. Maybe this Count will invest some money in my Mexican scheme."

"You know what I think of that, Frank, much too risky."

"You're too cautious, Arthur! That's no way to get rich. I'll leave for England on tomorrow's ferry and get a ship across the Channel as soon as I can. With luck, I can be in San Remo in three or four days."

Vicars took his large bunch of keys out of his pocket and selected the key to the large safe, three feet wide, that stood in a corner of the Library. He opened the safe door and took out a small box. This opened to reveal a gold collar, worn on ceremonial occasions by a Knight of the Order of St Patrick. Hidden under the gold collar was a small key of unusual design. Vicars now took a larger and more ornate box from the safe and put the small key in the lock of this box.

"Have you seen these jewels before, Frank?"

"I saw them at the time of the King's last visit, adorning His Majesty at the ceremony. I have never seen them since."

Vicars opened the box. The jewelled cross and badge of the Order of St Patrick were revealed in all their splendour, the bright Brazilian diamonds dazzling against the dark velvet lining of the box.

"Incredible," breathed Frank, "they must be worth an absolute mint. The diamonds, the rubies and those large emeralds! I think those emeralds are the most beautiful stones I have ever seen."

After Frank had left, Vicars sat down in his spacious first floor office to write a letter. Three attempts were torn up and thrown into the fire before he was happy with the result.

J C Hodgson, Esq. Warren Street London

I regret I find myself quite unable to travel to Italy at this time. It is most inconvenient with regard to the responsibilities of my office. However I have managed to send a delegate in my place, with the materials as you requested.

Unfortunately it became necessary to take him into my confidence to a certain extent. I hope you will pardon me and not consider this too great a breach of trust, as this seemed the preferred option to failing to provide you with the necessary collateral. The man I have sent is Francis Shackleton, the Dublin Herald. He is intelligent and courageous and his loyalty is beyond question. His brother is the famous explorer Sir Ernest. I have explained to him the need for urgency and secrecy. He should arrive in Italy in three days.

Yours most sincerely,

Arthur Vicars

"No mention of jewels, the King not named; I think that will do," muttered Vicars as he read through the final draft. "I detest this slyness and concealment. Never again will I get involved in such matters; oh, no, from now on my actions will be as an open book to the world."

Vicars had no idea that downstairs at the door to Bedford Tower, where the Office of Arms was housed, Captain Richard Gorges had arrived and was interrogating Stivey, the porter.

"Is Shackleton here? I've come to take him away from his books! It's a waste of a day like this, to spend it shut up in a fusty old Library."

"He's not here, Captain."

"I don't suppose you know where he may have gone?"

"Why, he's gone to Dun Laoghaire to catch the ferry! He's off abroad somewhere, we're not expecting him back for a while."

Gorges swore loudly, his normally pale face flushing red. "Damn the man!" he glanced at his watch. "There's just time; I'll catch him yet!"

The village of Dun Laoghaire lay silent in the pale winter sunshine. Even the grey sea was calm and still. Frank, already on board the ferry, was impatient to depart, looking forward to the crossing and to the longer journey that lay ahead of him.

"You've picked a good day for the crossing, Sir," the ferry captain said to him, "It's not usual to see Dublin Bay as calm as a millpond. Now who could that be, riding up as fast as if the Devil were after him? Left it right to the last minute to catch the ferry, I reckon. He's only just made it."

"Good God! It's Richard."

Almost before his horse had stopped moving Gorges was off its back and striding on to the ferry.

"Frank! What do you mean by going off like this without a word, damn you?"

"Hello, Richard. Something came up suddenly; I didn't really decide to go until yesterday. Sorry, I didn't get a chance to tell you."

"Where the hell are you off to, anyway?"

"San Remo in Italy. I've got a letter of introduction to a rich Count who lives there and I'm hoping to persuade him to make some investments."

"Oh God, not the Mexican venture! I should have known it was something to do with that hare-brained scheme of yours. I should watch out if I were you; your Count probably has a man of business who will want to poke his nose into the details. He won't be as gullible as the old country widows who are your usual marks!"

"The Count can enquire as much as he wishes. There's nothing underhand about the deal in Mexico, Richard, I've told you that before."

"As you say. As long as you don't ask me for money."

"You never have a penny that's not owed to some tavern!"

"God, Frank, don't start that! Do we have to quarrel when you're going away and I don't know when I'll see you again?"

"You started it! And it's not as if I'm going to be away for long, it should only take a couple of weeks. I'll be back as soon as I can, Richard!"

"Gentlemen, the ferry must leave now!" the ferry captain interrupted. "Are you crossing with us, Sir?"

"What do you say, Frank? Shall I desert my regiment and go with you to Italy? I shan't miss the cold Irish winter."

Frank hesitated for a little too long before he replied. "Won't you be in trouble with your regiment?"

"That won't be anything new! But I can see when I'm not wanted. All business and no pleasure on this voyage, I expect. No, it wouldn't suit me. I'll be off then. Goodbye, Frank. I hope you manage to persuade your Count into an enormous investment."

"I hope so! Things might get precarious if I don't get some money quite soon. Goodbye, Richard. I'm glad you came."

So the two men shook hands and parted, Captain Gorges waiting astride his horse on the quay until the ferry was merely a dark speck on the calm grey water. Then he rode to his favourite tavern in Dublin, where they would let him drink on credit.

the Harbour, Dun Laoghaire