Astrea threw herself bodily at the window and was suddenly careening through a cascade of glassy shards. In moments of life-challenging tension such as this, she would experience vivid recollections from her past. In an instant the tinkling shards became spray-crowned ocean waves seen from a sailing ship.
That past voyage to and from the New World had been both the most joyous and the most sorrowful time in the life of the young English woman, but Astrea had become the mistress of her emotions. She locked away the sorrow and remembered only the joy. Her free fall into the hay cart, which she knew to be under the window, was a moment of visceral glee as she recalled the swaying of the ship and the accompanying undulations of the hammock she had shared with her new-found lover some years ago.
In another instant Astrea was back in the here-and-now, as she hit the hay and rolled off the cart, burst from a crouch to a run, and sprinted along the lane towards the closest canal, praising her boots and cursing her many-layered skirt as she did so.
Astrea relished her current life as a spy for the Crown. Even as the child of servants in a big provincial mansion, she had admired the lives and manners of the gentry. Her present profession allowed her to mix with her betters and experience the finery and intrigue of courtly society. It was different here in the Netherlands - the lines between the nobility and the mercantile classes seemed hazier than in her homeland. Still, that worked just fine for her. What mattered most was hearty fare, well-made clothes and a life so busy that she could forget the past by rushing madly into the future.
The echo of yells and running boots warned Astrea that she indeed had pursuers, so she turned into a tiny alleyway that took her to a parallel lane. Astrea always took walks round any premises she was likely to visit and it was times like this that her 'constitutionals' proved to be more than just a form of exercise. She paused for a moment to ensure that the parchment she had pilfered from her Dutch paramour was still securely stowed in her satin bodice. However, there was no rest for the wicked, so Astrea ran on, making for the canal that divided one district from another.
It had taken weeks for Astrea to get what she needed to complete her mission. She had located an exiled Englishman with Dutch naval connections who proved surprisingly resistant to her usual enticements. Finally she recognized an important fact - his preference for his own sex - and shifted her tactics. Astrea offered to broker for him a return to England and a pardon for his past crimes, crimes that had offended the republican government of the puritanical Cromwell but which could be overlooked by the re-instated Crown. This had gotten her what she needed - an invitation to a soiree at which she could get closer to those planning a coming maritime assault on England. Her timing was fortunate, as the modest stipend her spymaster provided had all but gone in the cause of good food, private lodgings and a new dress for the soiree.
Her lovely dress was now torn and sullied by her spectacular escape from the townhouse of the Viscount, but these were the risks Astrea took as a spy. Her calves were sore from sprinting and her thighs ached from her work of the preceding night in the bedchamber of her sweet yet stupid mark. She had now reached the canal and contemplated her distance to the closest footbridge. As she did so she glanced into the water, reflecting the blue sky of a cool morning, and was suddenly reminded of the mirror she had looked in several hours before.
A full-length mirror was a precious luxury and Astrea took the chance to observe herself, naked in the candlelight, her tresses and hands granting her a minimum of modesty. This she did only briefly, as her intent was to exhaust the Viscount to such a degree that she could then search his bureau thoroughly while he slept in the adjoining bedroom. Fortunately the Viscount was comely of form, with a deep sonorous voice and a much milder odour than most. Astrea also pondered, as she turned to face him, the gossip back home that the men of the Continent were more attentive in bed than were Englishmen, a rumour she was intent on testing.
One thing Astrea knew was that entwining flesh with flesh was never simply that. Anyone of flesh-and-blood was bound to betray something of who they were while between the sheets and this was a very useful fact for a spy. However it was also a two-edged sword. The Viscount declared that Astrea was ‘as sweet as honey’ and she retorted, smilingly, that she was more akin to the ‘Spices of Surinam’. Her quip got them discussing the New World and Astrea was suddenly in her element as a teller of tales. She talked of what she had witnessed in her travels, of the strangeness of the natives and the misery of the slaves. Astrea presented her words with care and yet something in her manner must have told the Viscount more, for he mused that something had marred her innocence on that journey. At this Astrea changed the topic to one for which words are rarely needed, and discovered that the giggling talk of English lasses was right.
Later, while the Viscount fell into slumber, Astrea lay there thinking of Surinam. Something in the intuition and tenderness of the Dutchman evoked images of that other lover from some years back. Her brave and good Commodore had promised to both show her the world and to delve the fathoms of her heart. They had met on the crossing of the Atlantic and had parted only weeks later on the return voyage. How was it that such a fine and true hero as her Commodore could best three drunken slave-traders in a tavern brawl and yet fall prey to a tropical malady that Astrea herself had shrugged off in days? From the dismal day that his body had been cast into the ocean she had eschewed any prospect of caring for anyone and any notion of honouring anything but herself. Since then the work of a spy had become her path to honour and riches.
Astrea’s task now involved deciding how to escape the private guard of the Viscount. A passing skiff was a better bet than running to the closest bridge only to rush along even more lane ways. The skiff was on its way to deliver its wares to the harbour, a good destination for a spy on the run. She hoped she could jump the distance from the rim of the canal to the skiff. Astrea threw herself into the hands of fate as she leaped forward with all her power and will and, as she did so, her mind vexed her with another memory of what had prompted her huge leap that morning.
Astrea had been surprised at how quickly searching the bureau of the Viscount had revealed correspondence on the topic of ship numbers and movements in the Channel. The papers discussed only mundane facts but simply knowing what the Dutch knew would be a boon to her employers. Astrea turned towards the hall but suddenly the bedroom door opened and in walked the Viscount, wearing only breeches and sporting an expression blending anger with just a hint of amusement. Astrea froze in mid-turn. The Viscount declared that ‘my English strumpet is also a she-spy in wont of better skills at dissembling.’ Astrea desperately wanted to make some witty rejoinder but nothing came to her in the instant she decided to rush for the window and the hay cart below.
Later, her wit returned to her as Astrea grinned at the oarsman who had been startled by a disheveled yet striking woman landing on his cargo of tulip buds. She offered to tell him exactly why a lady such as herself should be landing in his vehicle but only if he agreed to let her off at the harbour. He added the further condition that she give him a kiss, to which she assented with a smirk and a roll of her eyes. Once more she was in her element as the teller of a tale even more outlandish than the truth. Her accidental rescuer was enthralled. Within the hour she was in a harbour tavern frequented by Englishmen, negotiating her safe passage home to deliver her documents.
Astrea sighed with exhaustion as she nursed an ale and reflected on her morning ordeal. She had to admit to herself that the deceptively incisive Viscount had shaken her confidence in her role as a spy. However her encounter with the oarsman suggested that her skills of wit and wordplay could be turned to a safer vocation, and she resolved to ingratiate herself with some playwrights and poets on her return to London.
As a writer of tall tales Astrea could win both comfort and notoriety from her own desk. As she sipped at her drink she mused that this was a shrewd resolution as long as she never shared the tragic tale of her lost Commodore. Comedy would be the thing for Astrea and the mask she hid behind would be a smiling one.
Whatever its reception may be I did enjoy writing this and so community event like short story contests provide an impetus to do that and to brave the somewhat embarrassing act of sharing my baby with the world.
Labels: Creative Writing