Authors: Ashley Gardner
Tags: #Historical, #Romance, #Mystery
London, April 1816
Sharp as a whip-crack, a shot echoed through the mists in Hanover Square.
The mob in the square boiled apart, flinging sticks and pieces of brick as they fled the line of cavalrymen who’d entered the far side of the square. I hugged a rain-soaked wall as people poured past me, bumping and shoving in their panic as though I weren’t six feet tall and plenty solid.
The square and the streets that led to it had been bottled with traffic all afternoon: carts, carriages, horses, wagons, and those on foot who’d been running errands or passing through, as well as street vendors crying their wares. The mob had stopped traffic in all directions, trapping inside the square those now desperate to get out. They scrambled to get away from the cavalry and their deadly guns, and bystanders scrambled to flee the mob.
I scraped my way along the wall, rough stone tearing my cheap gloves, going against the stream of bodies that tried to carry me along. Inside the square, in the eye of the storm, the cavalrymen waited, the blues and reds and canary yellows of their uniforms stark against the fog.
The man who stood in their gun sights had led the mob the better part of the afternoon: shouting, cursing, flinging stones and pieces of brick at the unfortunate house that was number 22, Hanover Square. Now he faced the cavalrymen, his back straight, his gray hair dark with rain.
I recognized the lieutenant in charge, Lord Arthur Gale of the Twenty-Fourth Light Dragoons. A few years before, on a Portuguese battlefield, I’d dragged young Gale out from under a dead horse and sent him on his way. That incident, however, had not formed any camaraderie between us. Gale was the son of a marquis and already a social success, and I, the only son of an impoverished gentleman, mattered little to the Gale family.
I did not trust Gale’s judgment one whit. He had once led a charge so hard that he’d broken through a solid line of French infantry but then found himself and his men behind enemy lines and too winded to get back. Gale had been one of the few who’d returned from that charge, leaving most of the others, horses and men alike, dead.
“Gentlemen,” the old man said to the cavalrymen. “I thank you for coming. We must have him out. He must pay for what he’s done.”
He pointed at the house—number 22, ground-floor windows smashed, front door’s black paint gouged.
Gale sneered down at him. “Get along, man, or we’ll take you to a magistrate.”
“Not I, gentlemen.
should face justice. Take him from his house. Bring him out to me. I beg of you.”
I studied the house in some surprise. Any man who could afford to own, or lease, a house in Hanover Square must be wealthy and powerful. I assumed he was some peer in the House of Lords, or at least a rich MP, who had proposed some unpopular bill or movement, inspiring a riot against him. The rising price of bread, as well as the horde of soldiers pouring back into England after Waterloo, had created a smoldering rage in those who suddenly found themselves with nothing. The anger flared every now and then into a riot. It was not difficult these days to turn a crowd into a violent mob in the space of an instant.
I had no idea who lived in number 22 or what were his political leanings. I had simply been trying to pass through Hanover Square on my way to Brook Street, deeper into Mayfair. But the elderly man’s quiet despair and incongruous air of respectability drew me to him. I always, Louisa Brandon had once told me, had a soft spot for the desperate.
Gale’s eyes were dark and hard. “If you do not move along, I will have to arrest you for breach of the King’s peace.”
“Breach of the King’s peace?” the man shouted. “When a man sins against another, is that not a breach of the King’s peace? Shall we let them take our daughters while we weep? Shall I let him sit in his fine house while mine is ruined with grief?”
Gale made a sharp gesture to the cavalryman next to him. The man obediently dismounted and strode toward the gray-haired rioter.
The older man watched him come with more astonishment than fear. “Is it justice that I pay for his sins?”
“I advise you to go home, sir,” Gale repeated.
“No, I tell you, you must have him out! He must face you and confess what he’s done.”
His desperation reached me as white mists moved to swallow the scene. The blue and red of the cavalry uniforms, the black of the man’s suit, the bays and browns of the horses began to dull against the smudge of white.
“What has he done?” I asked.
The man swung around. Strands of hair matted to his face, and thin lines of dried blood caked his skin as though he’d scratched himself in his fury. “You would listen to me? You would help me?”
“Get out of it, Captain,” Gale said, his mouth a grim line.
I regretted speaking, unsure I wanted to engage myself in what might be a political affair, but the man’s anger and despair seemed more than mob fury over the price of food. Gale would no doubt arrest him and drag him off to wait in a cold cell for the magistrate’s pleasure. Perhaps one person should hear him speak.
“What has the man in number 22 done to you?” I repeated.
The old man took a step toward me, eyes burning. “He has sinned. He has stolen from me the most precious thing I own. He has killed me!”
I watched madness well up in his eyes. With a fierce cry, he turned and launched himself at the door of number 22.
I’d heard such a cry of despair once before, in Portugal during the Peninsular campaign, when a corporal had watched his best friend—some said his lover—be gunned down by a French soldier. He’d hurled himself, with that same cry, at the Frenchman, and had fallen onto his friend’s body with the Frenchman’s bayonet piercing him. I’d shot the Frenchman who’d killed them both.
The battlefield receded and Hanover Square came back into focus. The young cavalryman next to me stepped back, brought up his pistol, and fired it straight into the gray-haired man’s back.
The man jerked as the ball penetrated him, and blood blackened his coat. With another cry of anger and misery, he fell slowly to his knees.
I caught him as he collapsed. Blood coated his rain-soaked worsted suit, and his eyes were wide, bewildered. I lowered him gently to the cobbles then glared up at the cavalryman. “What the devil did you do that for?”
The officer was young. His face was round and babyish, his eyes as gray as the clouded sky. His insignia told me he held the rank of cornet, the cavalry’s version of ensign, and his eyes told me he’d never seen battle, or a French soldier, or death.
His fine nose pinched. “He is a madman. Railing at his betters.”
The old man still breathed. The stones beneath him were slick with that afternoon’s rain and filthy with mud and horse droppings, ground in by the wheels of carts and carriages. I pulled my coat from my shoulders, wadded it, and slid it under the man’s head.
His coat, now ruined, had been well made, if it was a bit out of date, and a tear on his sleeve had been carefully mended. Beneath blood and mud, his gloves were whole and finer than mine. The dark gold rim of a watch peeped from his waistcoat pocket.
“He’s not working class,” I said. “A clerk or a Cit, possibly a solicitor’s or banker’s assistant. A man used to soft work.”
Leather creaked as Gale dismounted. He moved to stand next to his cornet, and studied me in dislike. “Weddington, this is Captain Lacey. Of the Thirty-Fifth Light. Self-appointed expert on all mankind.”
“Indeed. He is ever fascinated by who a man is and why he does what he does.”
I ignored him. Gale had never forgiven me, a mere nobody, for saving his life.
“Who lives here?” I asked, gesturing at number 22.
The house was no different from the others in the square—fine, modern, elegant, large. Two large multipaned windows, now broken, sat to the right of the door, and two more rows of windows marched across the first and top stories. Doric columns flanked the door, and arches above the windows relieved the plain façade. The number “22” hung on one of the columns. The door, painted black, sported a shining brass knocker, an indication that the family within was in residence. If they’d chosen to spend this spring elsewhere, the door would have been bare.
A curtain moved in the upper floor of the house next door, but number 22’s windows remained tightly muffled.
“Damned if I know,” Gale growled. “My commander told me he’d had a personal complaint about a disturbance in Hanover Square, and would I see to it? ‘Yes, sir’ was all I thought to say. I obey orders.”
I hid my wince by straightening the dying man’s coat, but old pain rose, fast and bitter. I wondered briefly if Gale were taunting me, but dismissed it. He could not know. We’d said nothing. That had been the agreement.
The gray-haired man began to shiver, and his eyes shifted back and forth beneath his waxen eyelids. “He’ll die if we do not help him,” I said.
“He’ll die in Newgate then,” Gale offered.
I looked at number 22. “We can take him in there.”
“To the house he’s been chucking bricks at? Find a cart and drag him out of here if you must.”
My white-hot temper began to rise, and I briefly regretted not shoving Lieutenant Lord Arthur Gale back under that horse in Portugal. The dying man meant less to these fine gentlemen of the Twenty-Fourth than a trampled insect.
I got to my feet. I would take the man home. As an officer on half-pay, with no private income, I struggled to make ends meet, and this perhaps gave me more affinity with my poorer neighbors. Let Gale return home to receive his evening port on a silver tray. This man had no one to help him.
Another cry filled the air as a woman pushed through the edges of the now curious crowd and stumbled toward us. She was elderly too, with long gray hair escaping from her cap, her eyes as wide and wild as the dying man’s. “Charles,” she cried. “Husband.”
Her basket fell from her arm, and fruit and paper parcels skittered across the wet cobbles.
The cornet started for her. I put a heavy hand on his arm, and he swung around, eyes lit with anger.
“Let it go,” Gale ordered. “Mount up.”
The cornet and I shared another glance of hostility before I finally released him. He turned from me, rubbing his wrist.
He caught his horse and climbed into the saddle, his movements angry. At a signal from Gale, the cavalrymen wheeled as one and trotted out of the square, leaving me alone with the dying man and his wife.
*** *** ***
I persuaded a good-natured drover to take them home. He didn’t want to, having a load to meet near Hampstead, but I promised him a crown for his trouble. We made our unknown gentleman as comfortable as possible in the bed of the wagon, and his wife crawled in beside him. She neither looked at us nor thanked us, but merely crouched beside her husband, holding his hand as if she could pour her own life into his waning body. I had a devil of a time getting a direction from her, but finally she mumbled the name of a lane, which the drover recognized as one near the Strand.
I gathered up her basket. The fruit in it was rotten, as if she’d carried it with her for days. I threw away the fruit and unwrapped the parcels. Each contained lace, a fine skein of it, each identical to the others. I put them back into the basket and tucked it beside her. She scarce seemed to notice.