Authors: Ashley Gardner
I had an appointment on Lady Day, not half a week away, to face a man in a duel.
My opponent was one Lord Andrew Kenton Stubbins, known to his intimates as Stubby. The reason for the appointment—I’d come across him beating a young woman he’d hired for his pleasure. I’d indicated to him, by snatching the strap from his hands and giving him a taste of it, what I’d thought of his choice of pleasures.
Stubby had subsequently challenged me, Lucius Grenville had agreed to be one of my seconds, and I’d been fitted with a new suit for the occasion. I thought it ridiculous to waste new clothes on what was certain to be a messy business, but both my wife and Grenville, the most fashionable man in society, assured me it was the done thing.
Being a man of Mayfair now, with servants at my beck and call, I could have sent one of them to do my errand today, but I used the excuse to go out for a bit of exercise. I made my way via hackney to the Strand to fetch a walking stick I’d sent for repair. During my adventures in January, the stick had been stolen from me only to turn up again next to a corpse in my old rooms in Covent Garden. The stick had been exonerated of any wrongdoing and returned to me by a Bow Street Runner, but I’d discovered eventually that the sword inside was bent.
I did not use the sword much, and so did not hurry to repair it. But I complained of it until my wife, Donata, in exasperation, told me to please get the blasted thing fixed.
I’d taken the walking stick to its birthplace—a shop in the Strand—explained the problem, and left it with them. This morning, I’d had word that the sword was now in good repair, and I’d come to collect it. I was particularly fond of that walking stick, as it had been a gift from Donata, who only two months before this had done me the honor of becoming the second Mrs. Lacey.
After I retrieved it, I decided to walk a while before returning home. Spring was easing over London, kinder winds replacing the harsh ones of winter. March meant green creeping mist-like over trees in the city parks, bulbs pushing their leaves through the ground. It meant rain and fog as well, but also days like this, blue skies with a promise of sweeter weather to come.
March also meant a whirl of soirees, supper balls, musicales, dinners, at-homes, and other such functions beloved of Donata, formerly the Dowager Viscountess Breckenridge. She was a hostess to be reckoned with. Now that she had a husband to stand beside her in his well-kept regimentals, she doubled her efforts to best every other lady in Mayfair. Hence my eagerness to run an errand to the Strand this afternoon, and my excuse to linger and enjoy the first flush of spring.
“Captain?” A voice at my elbow pulled me from my airy contemplations.
The young man who’d addressed me had brown hair and small brown eyes set rather close together. He was well dressed in an expensively cut coat and kid gloves, his hat as fine as any Grenville would own.
“Mr. Travers,” I said in true delight, taking his offered hand.
I’d met Gareth Travers while investigating the affair of Colonel Westin, a murder with roots in the Peninsular War. Travers was the close friend of Leland Derwent, whose family invited me to dine with them once a fortnight, where they’d beg me to entertain them with stories of my army days. Now that I was married, they’d extended that invitation to my wife as well.
The Derwents were a family of innocents, looking upon the world with benevolence, never noticing its darkness. Travers had a bit more cynicism in him, but I imagine he enjoyed their unworldly companionship as much as I did.
“Well met, Captain,” Travers said. “I am pleased to have been walking along this same stretch of pavement. I’ve been meaning to call on you.”
“Have you? What can I do for you, Mr. Travers?” I liked Gareth, who seemed intelligent and sensible, though I did not know much about him.
He hesitated. “There is tavern not far from here. Perhaps …?”
“Of course,” I said politely. A chance to stop for a good pint would delay me further from returning home. Donata would hold a soiree tonight, and the house was currently in an uproar preparing for it. My role would be to stand with her at the top of the stairs and shake hands with the crush that shoved their way toward us. A friendly ale at a pub was just the thing to fortify me for the task.
We walked along the Strand toward Charing Cross, Travers leading me to whatever tavern he had in mind. As we neared St. Martin’s Lane, a strange roar rippled through the spring air. The sound grew and built, flowing down the street to us like a sudden river. A cart horse shied, hooves clattering on the cobbles while the driver tried to calm it. Travers stopped, as worried as the horse.
“A mob?” he asked, his young face drawn in concern.
I sincerely hoped not. Riots at times tore through these streets, mobs crushing, breaking, beating, anything in their way. I could not blame those who protested the cost of bread, which seemed to rise out of all proportion to anything sensible. In these times after the war, so many had returned from the army to no work and no wages, cast upon the shores of their native land without recompense. Add to that the cost of grain and men unable to feed their families, and anger built to the breaking point. Houses and shops were demolished during the violent rioting, with soldiers called to fire into the crowds and restore peace.
A strained peace, with desperation boiling just below the surface.
If a mob came this way, we’d have to take refuge in a shop or house. I could not outrun a riot on my injured leg, though I had little doubt that Travers, young and healthy, could sprint to safety.
After listening a moment I said in relief, “I do not think so.” The crowd was excited, but missing the sharpness of fury. “Someone in the stocks, possibly.”
Travers relaxed a bit, but only a bit. “Poor bastard.”
I agreed. The stocks were for those convicted of crimes of a lesser degree than murder, robbery, and other heinous things. While the convicted might not be hanged, he could lose his life if the mob grew incensed enough. If the person had the crowd’s sympathy, he would fare little worse than stiff limbs from the ordeal, but if the crowd despised him or her, the man or woman could be battered to death.
It became clear as we neared Charing Cross that the fellow in the stocks today did not have the crowd’s sympathy. The unfortunate man was already covered in filth from rotted vegetables and dung. His head hung down, and he shuddered when another missile burst upon his back. My pity for him stirred.
I could not get close enough to read the placard that proclaimed his crime. The crowd was chanting, but it was difficult to hear what they said. I turned to a coffee vendor who’d decided this a good place for business today. “What has he done?” I asked.
The vendor looked pointedly at the rather dented bulbous silver coffee urn in front of him, so I politely handed him a coin and bought a cup. He took a cracked mug from his cart, turned the spigot to release thick, steaming coffee into it, and handed it to me.
I took a sip and tried not to make a face. I was going soft, being served the finest brew at Lady Breckenridge’s table every day. Then again, my former landlady had made coffee better than this in her little backstreet bakeshop.
“Buggery,” the vendor grunted. “So they say.”
“Ah.” While a hanging offense, sodomy had to be proved with a witness. Gentlemen who engaged in the practice usually were wise enough to make certain they were completely private. But a charge of unnatural behavior could be made and tried. Conviction meant a day in the stocks, at the mercy of the mob.
“Poor bastard, indeed,” I said.
“He’ll last.” The vendor, a large bull of a man, showed no compassion. “Resilient. He’ll be happily poking away at some other bloke in a week or so.”
I had no wish to stand and watch the man confined by his hands and feet be kicked in the backside by youths who found this good fun, so I finished a few more sips of coffee, handed the mug back, and signaled Travers to lead me on to his tavern.
The public house was north on St. Martin’s Lane, the interior dark with aged wood, the atmosphere quiet. Travers must be a regular, because men greeted him with nods instead of hostile stares.
“Brutal.” Travers looked a bit white about the mouth as we dug into good, thick ale the landlord brought us. “But so many laws in England are.”
“Stocks are a bit harsh for the offense, I always thought,” I said. “I knew two soldiers during the war who spent the night with each other before every battle. We all knew it but said nothing, because the two in question always fought the more fiercely for each other the next day. I believe the Spartans did much the same.”
Travers listened to this revelation in surprise. “You are a reformist then?” A hint of a smile touched his lips. “A radical perhaps?”
“A realist, I would say,” I said with a shrug. “I’ve learned to take things as they come.” Or perhaps I had been sanguine because the two gentlemen had never tried to seduce
However, injustice always enraged me, and I was known to take matters into my own hands. Hence, my forthcoming appointment with Stubby Stubbins.
It was difficult for me not to rush back to Charing Cross, unlock the stocks, and let the pathetic man out, but I knew that such an act could result in my death and his. No, he’d finish his sentence, go home, nurse his wounds, and be more careful the next time.
I took another drink of ale and let the bitter taste of hops soothe me. “Why did you wish to call on me?” I asked Gareth. “Something for which you seek my help?” I was gaining a reputation for assisting those in need.
“Nothing so dire,” Gareth said easily. He sipped his ale, licking a droplet from his pale upper lip. “I simply thought to have a conversation.”
This surprised me. I had nearly twenty years on Travers and never thought him interested in conversation with a fortyish ex-army man. Whenever he and I both attended the Derwents’ dinners, he rarely spoke to me at all, preferring the company of Leland and Leland’s widowed cousin, Mrs. Danbury.
For all his professed interest, Gareth Travers did not seem to know what he wanted to say to me. He began a ramble about the Derwents—his amusement about how unworldly they were and his admiration for them at the same time, and his worry for Lady Derwent’s health. I nodded at intervals, waiting to discover his true purpose in speaking to me.
When he started to appear at a loss, I broke in, “You’ve known the family a long time?”
Travers seemed relieved I’d taken charge of the discussion. “From years back. Eely—Leland, I mean—and I were at school together, but you knew that. I spent all my holidays with the Derwents, practically lived with them. My own father’s a bit threadbare. Clergy, you know. He was happy to have the Derwents look after me.”
Travers dressed well to be the son of threadbare clergy, I thought. But while his father’s living might be minuscule, Travers could have come into trust money or been left a legacy by a friend. Money didn’t always travel in a straight line—except in my family. Our line of wealth had gone directly to my father and then straight into the ground.
“You are fond of the Derwents,” I said.
Travers looked embarrassed. “I am. They have been very good to me.”
“And they’ve been good to me. They enjoy taking in strays.”
“Too true. Eely is an ass about it sometimes. Once at university, Leland tried to help a bloke he found in the street. Took him in, let him stay in our digs, gave the man his clothes, his money, tried to find employment for him. I warned him, but Leland is stubbornly blind sometimes. Of course the chap up and robbed us of almost everything and disappeared into the night. Leland was only sad we hadn’t helped him more. He even offered to recompense me for my losses. And then he wanted to go after the man and try again.”
Travers laughed, sounding genuinely amused. I imagined, though, that he hadn’t been much amused at the time.