by D. J. Cockburn
Le Méridien's Hackney carriage shuddered to a halt on Gracechurch Street. Through the side windows, he saw people looking toward a commotion ahead so he stepped out to see for himself. A draper's wagon had broken a wheel while turning across the street and completely blocked one of London's main thoroughfares.
The driver of Le Méridien's Hackney was one of half a dozen people gathered to shout advice and imprecations at the hapless draper's assistant examining the wheel. The Hackney driver hurried over when he saw Le Méridien. "Not to worry sir, we'll 'ave it shifted in two shakes. You just wait here."
He glanced around the gathering onlookers. "And look to yer pockets, if you follows my meaning sir. I'll just give him a hand and we'll be on our way." The Hackney driver turned back to the draper's assistant, who was still peering at the broken wheel. "It's broken, you great ninny! We can all see that so get it off the bleedin' road before you swing at Newgate for blocking the King's highways!"
Le Méridien smiled but stayed beside the carriage door. He was returning from giving fencing lessons at a Bond Street club and his foils and plastrons would be a rich haul for a footpad. He glared at a pair of urchins sidling toward him, but their looks of slack-jawed astonishment showed more interest in the novelty of a black man wearing a burberry jacket and waistcoat than any larcenous intent.
He noticed a couple of other boys quartering the crowd. One slipped toward a well-dressed tradesman enjoying the altercation. The tradesman's fist shot backward and sent the boy sprawling. The other boy joined the crowd's bellow of laughter.
Le Méridien's eye was drawn to a man whose broken nose and uneven teeth made him look more like a pugilist than the gentleman he was dressed as. The few boxers who had become wealthy were well known but Le Méridien did not recognize this man. Le Méridien turned his face to the stricken wagon but kept his eye trained on the man, who was edging toward a young woman. He walked with a feline grace that belied his broad frame and confirmed Le Méridien's first impression that he was a fighter of some sort. He would make an excellent swordsman, but the scars on his face told of fists and knives rather than the gentile blood-letting of the dueling ground.
The fighter glanced around, checking that everyone's attention was occupied. Le Méridien watched him slide a deft hand toward the girl and withdraw. The girl did not start as she would have done if the hand had insulted her, and the hand left open and empty. The man disappeared around the corner of Fenchurch Street as quickly as a pickpocket anticipating a hue and cry. Whatever the man had done, the girl did not seem to have noticed.
Le Méridien turned back to scrutinize the girl, who was perhaps fifteen or sixteen. Her jacket and shift could have been worn by a Duke's wife or an actress's maid, but a lady of wealth would not be walking alone and there was something a about the stoop of her shoulders that spoke of someone more accustomed to receiving orders than giving them. He shook his head. No small incident in London ever failed to draw a crowd, and no crowd of Londoners could gather without spawning intrigues worthy of the Prince Regent's court.
He was about to forget the matter when the fighter strode out of Fenchurch Street, pointed at the girl without breaking stride and bellowed, "There she is! Hold the thief!"
The girl's head turned to him with the rest of the crowd.
"Hold the thief!" shouted the fighter again.
Le Méridien saw the look of perplexity on her face when she saw the fighter was pointing at her. She had not even tried to run when someone seized her arm, almost jerking her off her feet. Someone else grabbed her hair, which spilled from under her bonnet in a brown cascade. Her wail of pain was drowned by shouts of triumph.
Now, Le Méridien told himself, was the moment to allow sense to triumph over curiosity and stay by the carriage door until he could go back to his salle in Southwark. He sighed a lament for his feeble sense and pushed into the crowd that was ebbing from the wagon and flowing toward the fresh drama of the seized girl.
"My name is Jonathon Norbury." The fighter's tone was conversational but he spoke loudly enough to carry over the chatter of the crowd. "Warranted thief taker of the city."
That got everybody's attention. Thief takers were unpopular but they could be counted on to add drama to any situation. Norbury snatched at the girl's jacket and drew a fistful of silver spoons from a pocket inside. Le Méridien, standing at the side, saw the shock on her face that would be hidden from the men holding her from behind.
Norbury offered the crowd a broken-toothed grin. "Don't think a kitchen maid can afford the likes of these but I think your master might recognize them, eh?"
The girl shook her head but Norbury spoke over her. "Thank you for your help, sirs." He dug in his pocket and handed coins to the men who held the girl. "Now if you'll hand her to me…"
Willing hands pushed the girl to Norbury and Le Méridien saw more than one squeeze her bottom before surrendering her to a short fate that could only end with a shorter rope.
Le Méridien spoke over the buzz of conversation. "A moment, Mr. Norbury. Was it not you whom I saw lingering by this young woman before you dashed into Fenchurch Street, only to return a few moments later?"
Norbury's grip on the girl's arm made her wince, and he did not slacken it as he turned to Le Méridien. Norbury did not speak immediately and people began to back away from the ground between them as though to clear a line of fire between two duelists. Norbury slowly raised his eyebrows. The unspoken meaning was as clear as if he had shouted it. Who put a big black bugger in those fancy clothes and taught him to speak like the quality? Le Méridien heard a couple of sniggers as others noted the mockery, but he knew that Norbury was drawing out the moment to make sure no one else would say they had seen him.
When Norbury spoke, it was with a courtesy that could only exaggerate the ridiculous figure he was making of Le Méridien. "Begging your pardon sir, but you must be mistaking me for some other gentleman. If, that is, I may have the honor of naming myself a gent before so fine a gentleman as your good self."
Laughter bubbled around him. Le Méridien saw how Norbury's coins and wit had drawn the crowd to his side, thief taker or no. It would take more than simple truth from Le Méridien's thick lips to change their minds. Le Méridien bowed his head. "No doubt you are right, sir. May I offer you the use of my Hackney to take her to Newgate? I presume that is where you are going?"
Norbury's expression did not change, but Le Méridien saw discomfort in the shift of his weight from one foot to the other. Norbury could have no desire to share a Hackney with Le Méridien's suspicions, but to refuse would be to risk someone asking why and probably raising London's traditional distrust of thief-takers.
Norbury nodded. "Thank you kindly. I'd be glad to accept your offer."
The row over the draper's wagon raged on as Le Méridien's Hackney turned around toward Newgate. Le Méridien opened the door and Norbury half lifted and half threw the girl before him. Norbury sat beside her and Le Méridien opposite. The girl cast her eyes to the floor and made no sound beyond an occasional sniff that betrayed barely suppressed hysteria. Norbury fixed his eyes on Le Méridien's and backhanded the girl across the face. "Enough of your noise, girl. You'll disturb this kind gentleman who saved us a walk."
As a fencing master, Le Méridien taught his pupils to read what an opponent's body unwittingly betrayed, and how to choose what they communicated themselves. He knew that he was engaged in such a contest now so he stifled the cry of protest that Norbury's violence dared him to utter and kept his face impassive. He opened his handkerchief and mopped the blood from the girl's lip. "What is your name, my dear?"
He sensed Norbury shift, confused by his failure to monopolize Le Méridien's attention. The girl shrank away from the handkerchief so Le Méridien placed it in her hand and raised it to her mouth. "Your name?"
"Tell me Carrie, why is this man so interested in you?"
Le Méridien saw Norbury's knuckles whiten as his hand tightened on her arm. Carrie gasped with pain but did not speak.
"Stuck her fingers in her master's cutlery draw, didn't you girl?" Said Norbury.
Le Méridien looked for defiance or denial in Carrie's face as she raised her head, but saw only bewilderment. Norbury's fingers shifted on her arm and dug between bone and bicep. Carrie's back arched. "Yes! Yes I did!"
Le Méridien did not believe it for a moment.
Le Méridien stood in the public gallery of the Newgate magistrate's court when an usher manhandled Carrie Barlow into the dock. Some impulse made him look at his watch to time the proceedings. It took Mr. Justice Chatterton forty seconds to read the charge and persuade Carrie to plead loudly enough for the court recorder to hear the words 'not guilty'. It took two and a half minutes to hear Norbury's evidence. It took twenty seconds to pronounce a sentence of death by hanging. Three and a half minutes in all.
Le Méridien left the gallery, strode to Newgate Street and stood for a moment before the place where the gallows stood every Monday morning. He looked at the gates of Newgate prison, and found himself imagining the wheeled scaffold stored behind them, awaiting its next tribute of life. He sighed a last lament for sense and rapped on the keeper's door. A hatch opened and an unshaven face appeared. The keeper's eye travelled from Le Méridien's dark face to his apparel and his jaw sagged with the effort of deciding which to adjust his manner for.
Le Méridien spoke first. "Good morning to you."
"I wish to visit an acquaintance in the women's quadrangle." Le Méridien held up a shilling.
Le Méridien held up a crown.
"Billy!" The keeper opened the door and took the coin as Le Méridien came in.
Clumping footsteps announced the appearance of a young man who looked too thin for such a heavy step. "What is it, Tom?"
"Take this, this gentleman, to the women," said Tom the keeper, "and mind they don't clout his purse while he's in there."
"Who are you visiting?" asked Billy the turnkey.
"Her name is Carrie Barlow. She was sentenced not half an hour ago."
"Sentenced for what?" asked Tom.
"She'll hang then?" asked Tom.
"In three days."
"Not allowed," said Billy.
Le Méridien gave him a crown. Billy pocketed it and led Le Méridien down a tight corridor and unlocked the door at the end. They emerged into the daylight and a couple of women looked up from the water pump in the middle of the open quadrangle.
"Bleedin' hell Billy, what's this? The black baron of Newgate?" The shrill voice echoed around the quadrangle and women appeared in the empty doorways to stare at the newcomer.
"Oi Billy, leave him in here will you? We'll look after his grace!" A woman in one door yanked down her blouse to expose underfed breasts. Laughter cackled from the room behind her.
A voice from the other side of the quadrangle took up the challenge. "Nah, bring him here and he'll thank you. Long as you don't mind carrying him home, that is!"
More women joined the fun and Le Méridien was caught in a hailstorm of laughter and obscenities. Billy touched Le Méridien's elbow. "Beg pardon, sir. They're for Botany Bay in a couple of weeks and serve 'em right. We're for this ward here if she's a thief."
A woman with grey-streaked brown hair stood in the doorway with her back to them, wagging her bottom. Billy slapped her and she stepped aside. "Ooh Billy, I wish it weren't just your hand you could do that with!"
Cheers drowned her voice as their ward won the contest for Le Méridien. The stink of the room burned into his nostrils and it took a moment to gather himself enough to see Carrie sitting against the wall with her knees against her chin. For a moment, he thought she was utterly unaware but her face turned to him as he stepped toward her.
Something brushed his side and he saw Billy grasping the wrist of a woman who had tried to pick his pocket. Billy punched her and she landed on her back. She flung open her arms. "Come to me, Billy love, come down here!"
Le Méridien closed his eyes and tried to clear his head. "Billy, could you give us a few moments alone? We have a few things to discuss and, excellent as the company is, we would prefer confidence."
Billy opened his mouth to speak. Le Méridien patted his purse. "I know. Not allowed."
Billy's lip twitched in something like a smile and he raised his voice. "All right, you ain't in Drury Lane no more! The gent says out, Billy says out, so out you goes!"
Billy swore and cuffed and the women shrieked and laughed, but they filed out. Le Méridien squatted in front of Carrie. He spoke her name. She looked up, but there was no comprehension in her unfocused eyes.
"Carrie, do you remember me? I brought you here after Norbury slipped the spoons into your jacket. I'd like to talk to you."
"They’ll hang me," she said. "I'll dance the Newgate jig. For a bunch of spoons I never took."
"That's what I'd like to talk about."
Carrie's face showed no sign of understanding. "Didn't do nothing and they'll hang me."
Her jaw quivered. Le Méridien watched as facts she must have been hiding from her consciousness burst forth in one howling sob after another. He took her hands in his and she fell forward into his arms, clinging to him as though he was a stout tree in a storm. He held her tight and tried to restrain his impatience. He would learn nothing until the storm passed, but Billy's forbearance would not be infinite. He waited for the worst convulsions to pass.
"Carrie," he said, "Carrie, you must listen."
She showed no sign of having heard him. He prized her arms from around his neck and seized her face in both his hands. She tried to shake him off but he held her with a grip that must have hurt. "Carrie, will you listen?"
He felt her try to nod in his grip and released her.
"I didn't steal them spoons," she said at last.
"I know. I saw Norbury put them in your jacket, though I didn't know what he was doing at the time."
Her eyes focused on him and for the first time, he saw something other than despair in her face. "You did?"
"I did. But as you see, I don't have the sort of face that commands the respect of magistrates."
"Cos you're a coon?"
"If you want to put it that way. The point is that perhaps if I know why he did it, I can find a way to prove it. But first you must tell me why, if you know."
Her eyes dropped. "You a devil?"
"I heard the devil's black and you got a funny name. Now here you come offering temptation cos if you can show I didn't steal the spoons, I won't hang. But the devil always wants his due. I heard that too."
"My name is French, not diabolical." Le Méridien allowed irritation to creep into his tone. "My father was an aristo, my mother was his slave and the only devils I know are the Jacobins who guillotined them. Now are you going to tell me whatever it is that you're ashamed of, or would you prefer to hang?"
Her head jerked back as though he had slapped her, but he saw her register the sense in his demand.
"He must of put the spoons there because my master paid him to."
"And who is your master?"
"His name's Theobald Gudgeon. You heard of him?"
"I've been spared the pleasure. Would you like to explain the charade with the spoons? Most employers simply dismiss their maids when they tire of them."
"Oh he's tired of me, that's for sure." She dropped her voice to a mumble that Le Méridien could hardly hear. "Not just as his kitchen maid."
Le Méridien's lips formed a silent 'oh' but he did not speak. Words poured out of her in a torrent. "I needed the extra money. My sister got the consumption, me dad's dead of it two years back, me mum's on the gin and we've had no wages for six months. He weren't so bad. Then he said he were getting married and I shouldn't come back. I told him I'd starve without the wages I were waiting for and I'd had to borrow money, which weren't nothing but the truth, and I told him about me mum and me dad and me sister. He says he weren't giving me no more money and I said he would if he knew what was good for him and he didn't say nothing then and I kept coming to work like nothing was different. I thought I'd keep the job till he paid up and we'd say no more about it, but he must of sent that man instead."
It was all spoken in one breath and she stopped talking when she ran out of wind. Le Méridien was gratified to see defiance in her glower. She would need all the courage she could muster in the next two days.
She dropped her gaze. "You're still here."
"You still going to help me now you know I'm a whore?"
"I don't know yet."
They regarded each other for a silent moment.
"Tell me," said Le Méridien, "why did you tell me your father is dead?"
"Sounds better than run off with another woman, don't it?"
* * *
Sarratt sipped his coffee and regarded Le Méridien with a raised eyebrow. "My dear Le Méridien, we've been here ten minutes and you haven't asked me about the latest Royal Society meeting once. I can only surmise that you are in thrall to your Quixotic muse again."
Le Méridien had to smile. Sarratt's fascination with natural history was usually a welcome diversion from the drudgery of raising the rent for his salle, but today he could not deny that his mind was elsewhere.
"You have me," he said, and told the story of Carrie Barlow's impending execution.
Sarratt frowned when he finished. "You say her employer is Theobald Gudgeon? There's a name I've heard."
Le Méridien's interest stirred. "You've met him?"
"No, he's very much one of the Fancy so our paths haven't crossed."
"The Fancy. He's something of a rake, then?"
"No more than is usual in the Fancy, which would make seducing his maid more or less compulsory. But it's rumored that his real vice is gambling."
Le Méridien nodded. One of his pupils was an heir to an earldom who had gambled so heavily on how far an acquaintance could throw a stone that he could no longer afford lessons in Harry Angelo's fashionable salle and had to depend on Le Méridien to keep him in preparation for the duels that the Fancy was so fond of. "As his gambling is a subject for rumor, I presume it is usually unsuccessful?"
"Disastrous by all accounts. He's said to be a good enough player who never knows when to stop. The man's more or less ruined himself and nearly taken his family with him. His father, by some sleight of hand that we can only guess at, has arranged a good marriage for him but only on condition that he swears off gambling and shuns the Fancy."
Le Méridien was conscious of well-fitting cogs beginning to turn. "And presumably off kitchen maids?"
"I imagine that went without saying. His unfortunate bride-to-be is Miss Henrietta Burnfield."
"Related to the Burnfield wool merchants?"
"Old man Burnfield's only surviving child. Henrietta's a widow with two daughters and she's already thirty-five, so Burnfield must be in a hurry to marry her off while there's still a chance of a son and heir. Though the more I hear about Gudgeon, the more desperate I think Burnfield must be."
"Probably not desperate enough to weather the scandal Carrie Barlow would stir up."
"So Gudgeon seems to think. He would probably buy her off if he could afford it, but you say he isn't even paying his servants' wages and paying her after the marriage might involve explanations he'd rather avoid."
Le Méridien nodded. "While he could come up with all sorts of reasons for needing to pay Norbury. All the same, he could face some very uncomfortable explanations if he doesn't have the money when Norbury wants it."
The two men shared a smile, but Le Méridien's mind was already forging ahead. He reached for his coffee and became aware of the resignation in Sarratt's smile.
Sarratt spoke first. "Before you ask me what you are going to ask me, may I ask what this girl means to you?"
Le Méridien's cup froze in mid air. He could not help but laugh at himself. He was so used to depending on his inscrutability that he forgot how long Sarratt had known him. "Shall we say that she is a fellow traveler who has fallen and requires assistance?"
"And you to her?"
"She asked me if I was a devil."
"Then you may depend on me."
"I intend to. You have the sort of face that will be believed when you give your word of honor that Carrie Barlow is innocent."
There was a hint of concern in Sarratt's reply. "My word of honor is not something I give lightly."
"That is why it will be necessary for Gudgeon to confess to you before you give it."
"Ah. A plan with the virtue of simplicity. There is but one complication."
"We are not assaulting the Bastille," said Le Méridien.
Sarratt snapped the pistol's lock to check the flint. "Humor me, Le Méridien. I don't intend to shoot my way into a Berkeley Square house but I will find it easier to look Mr. Gudgeon in the eye with these in the gig. It will offset the knowledge that he's already tried to kill to hide what we threaten to bring to light."
"To kill certainly," said Le Méridien. "To spill blood on his own carpets I doubt."
Sarratt loaded the second pistol and returned it to its box under the seat. Le Méridien held himself motionless and watched furrows of tension ease from Sarratt's brow while Sarratt's mouth assumed the firm line of purpose. Sarratt had been one of Le Méridien's best pupils before he discovered that defeating fear before a duel was far easier than defeating remorse afterward.
Sarratt's gig bumped to a halt outside Gudgeon's house and Le Méridien stepped down. The afternoon's still air left a shroud of coal smoke over the city and brought near twilight to three o'clock. Sarratt told his driver to wait and rapped on Gudgeon's door. The valet who opened it was identifiable as such only by his manner, for his jacket, breeches and cravat would have passed inspection by Beau Brummell.
Sarratt gave him a card. The valet gave it a glance and tipped his head back to a patrician angle. "May I enquire Mr. Sarratt's business?"
"Quite so. Please be so good as to inform Mr. Gudgeon that Mr. Sarratt does indeed have business." Sarratt's voice was low and level and only a man who knew him as well as Le Méridien could hear the tension in it.
The valet managed to convey insolence without actually glowering as he showed them into the parlor and left them to find Gudgeon. A hint of perfume tickled Le Méridien's nose. He shared a look with Sarratt. Gudgeon's finances may have been in a perilous state but he was determined to maintain the façade of opulence to the last.
The valet returned. "Mr. Gudgeon will see you now, Mr. Sarratt. Perhaps your footman would care to wait in the kitchen."
Le Méridien turned his whole body toward the valet but kept his face blank, letting the valet torture himself by guessing what he was currently suffering in Le Méridien's imagination.
Sarratt waited until the valet began to visibly shrink before he spoke. "Mr. Le Méridien is my particular friend and is as anxious as I am to see Mr. Gudgeon. Now if you please."
The valet practically scurried ahead of them to the drawing room door. "Mr. Sarratt and Mr., er, Lemennon."
Le Méridien strode in first and stretched out a hand. "Le Méridien. Your servant, sir. Delighted to meet you."
In the two steps from the door to Gudgeon's hand, Le Méridien recognized a considerably less formidable opponent than Norbury. Gudgeon's slight stoop made him look as though he was in his mid-forties, but the debauched red of his cheeks spoke of a man younger by several years who was aged by ill-usage. Gudgeon's feet shuffled with surprise at seeing a six foot black man in his drawing room. Gudgeon took Le Méridien's hand before knowledge could restrain habit and his mouth curled slightly as he realized that he had just accepted a black tradesman as his guest.
Le Méridien stepped aside and allowed Sarratt his turn with Gudgeon's hand.
"Please take a seat, Mr. Sarratt." Gudgeon pointedly ignored Le Méridien. "Tell me of your business."
Sarratt exuded affability as he sank into an armchair. "Carrie Barlow."
There was no change in Gudgeon's demeanor. "I'm sorry?"
"Carrie Barlow. Your kitchen maid who will be executed at Newgate the day after tomorrow."
"Ah. Yes. Carrie Barlow. Now I remember."
"I imagine you do," said Sarratt. "I doubt you hang a kitchen maid every day."
Le Méridien would have kept silent and let Gudgeon realize for himself how foolish his denial had sounded, but Sarratt had succeeded in unbalancing Gudgeon. The turmoil behind Gudgeon's smile was as plain as if he had been thrashing on the floor.
"No, no, of course not." Gudgeon managed a chuckle. "But look, I can't leave my guests dry. Brandy? Good, good. One moment, one moment."
Gudgeon left the room for a little longer than seemed necessary to tell the valet to bring brandy, but then he could have called the valet into the room and given the order in front of Le Méridien and Sarratt. Gudgeon returned with his shoulders relaxed and his stoop gone. Le Méridien saw he had anticipated the arrival of the brandy by a glass or two. Gudgeon sat opposite Sarratt and darted a glance at Le Méridien, who had placed himself at a right angle to the two of them.
"Mr. Sarratt," said Gudgeon, "You were speaking of Carrie Barlow."
"Actually, Mr. Gudgeon, I came to discuss a hundred guineas. I merely mentioned the Barlow girl by means of illustration."
Gudgeon confined his reaction to a single raised eyebrow. He had assumed his card-table manner. "Blackmail is it?"
"Good heavens, no! What possible grounds for blackmail could there be?"
Another glance at Le Méridien showed that Gudgeon was as unsettled by Le Méridien's silent presence as by Sarratt's abrupt changes of direction.
"What indeed?" asked Gudgeon.
"Of course, some might consider your liaison that you ended by having Jonathon Norbury send the girl to the gallows."
Gudgeon said nothing. Le Méridien's stomach muscles tightened. The critical moment was approaching and Gudgeon's thoughts were hidden behind his face.
"You're not going to waste our time by denying it, are you?" said Sarratt. "I had understood that you are a man amenable to business."
Gudgeon smiled the thin smile of a gambler trying to hide the crippling damage that the last hand had cost him. "If you know this much about my affairs, you know I do not have a hundred guineas. I may raise a little perhaps, but a hundred is entirely beyond my means."
Le Méridien relaxed.
"Then we may indeed discuss business," said Sarratt.
"Business be damned. You people came here to blackmail me so let's call the devil by his name." Gudgeon threw another glance toward Le Méridien.
Or did he? Without moving, Le Méridien summoned the map of the room he had committed to mind before he sat down. He remembered that the door was behind him and immediately to his right. Had that been the real focus of Gudgeon's nervous glances? Had he half heard a rustle of cloth or the brush of a boot on a carpet? Had the brandy been the only thing that Gudgeon had ordered from the valet, or had there been a summons as well? He found himself as convinced of a presence outside that door as if he had heard a knock.
Sarratt was reacting to the suggestion of blackmail with theatrical mortification. "Dear me, a horrible accusation. I don't ask a penny for myself but I'm sure you would not deny Carrie Barlow a pension after the ill treatment that she has suffered. Ill treatment that will end directly when you tell the Justice that the spoons weren't yours, or whatever you choose to tell him before I speak to him myself…"
Le Méridien cut him off. "Please come in, Mr. Norbury."
Silence fell. The door opened and Norbury's lithe step carried him to the middle of the room. He looked utterly feral, a piece of the violence of the rookeries among embroidered table cloths and chairs covered in faux-chinoiserie. Sarratt, Gudgeon and Le Méridien stood.
"Course he ain't here to blackmail you." Norbury's words were to Gudgeon but he did not move his gaze from Le Méridien. Although Le Méridien had not spoken since he sat down, Norbury showed no doubt as to who his principle adversary was. "Mr. Le Méridien ain't the blackmailing sort. Leastways, that's what them what know him say, and one or two who only heard of him. I been asking. The sort to take the part of a poor girl sent to hang by the likes of you and me, but not the sort to blackmail you over it."
Le Méridien saw both the respect to himself and the implied insult to Gudgeon in Norbury's refusal to acknowledge anyone else in the room. He also recognized a man who was likely to show respect for a worthy opponent by waiting for him to turn his back before he struck.
"So now Mr. Le Méridien's mate here can go tell the magistrate that he put it all before you and you didn't deny it. And because he's white and he'll give his word of honor with a straight face and a clear conscience, the magistrate will believe him. You bloody, bloody fool."
Le Méridien nodded politely. "Actually, Mr. Gudgeon will be as delighted to tell the magistrate himself as he will be to pay Miss Barlow a pension of a hundred guineas. He is very keen to spare the Burnfield family the embarrassment of reading about Carrie Barlow in Town and Country before his marriage."
Le Méridien's hands were by his sides, but Sarratt caught the wave of his finger and made for the door.
Norbury nodded, some of the tension easing as he saw a way to keep the money promised to him. "He's very keen indeed."
"Then you gentlemen must have things to discuss. Good day to you." Le Méridien strode round Norbury without touching him. He followed Sarratt out of the house and into the hazy gloom of the street.
Sarratt opened the gig door. "Home, Johnson, quick as you please."
Johnson the driver looked dubious. "She might manage a trot, sir."
"Well be a good fellow and make it a brisk trot."
Le Méridien climbed in beside Sarratt. Sarratt let out his breath. "Damn it, I was enjoying myself before that bruiser turned up. You certainly have some interesting friends, Le Méridien."
"I meet them in coffee houses."
Sarratt shook the gig with his laughter. Le Méridien saw the strain of the last half hour leave him as he laughed much harder than the joke warranted. Finally Sarratt slumped back and the two men pulled on their cloaks against the cold of the approaching evening. A clatter of horseshoes on cobblestones preceded the blur of a galloping horse past Sarratt's window. Le Méridien saw several pedestrians scatter out of the way.
"A pity we can't just go to the magistrate now," said Sarratt. "I'd like to finish this wretched business."
"I too," said Le Méridien, "but Chatterton is not bound to believe us while he can hardly fail to heed Gudgeon if he says there was no theft in the first place."
Sarratt nodded and they both lapsed into silence. The sound of galloping approached from ahead. There was a whinny of pain and the gig stopped dead and lurched backward.
"What the devil?" Sarratt reached for his door.
Le Méridien gripped his shoulder. "Gudgeon is a gambler who doesn't know when to stop and your word of honor could cost Norbury his thief-taker's warrant. Stay inside."
Le Méridien pulled a pistol from the box under the seat and cocked it as the gig lurched back again. He slid out of the cart and slipped the pistol under his cloak. Johnson was trying to calm the horse that was rearing between the gig's traces. Men and women were gathering, drawn by the disturbance, but there was still enough light for Le Méridien to be sure he recognized none of them. "What happened?"
"Damned galloping blade on his fancy horse!" said Johnson. "Begging your pardon, I mean some gentleman come galloping past and gave Strawberry here the end of his crop on her nose. She ain't used to it, are you my dear?"
Le Méridien was no longer listening. He worked his way around the bucking gig, slowly enough to scrutinize every figure his progress revealed.
A man much nearer than anyone else appeared around the gig's corner. Le Méridien just had time to note that he slouched and walked with a shuffling gait unsuited to approaching a panicking horse before the man straightened up and leveled a pistol at him. There was no triumph on Norbury's face, just the concentration of a craftsman at a challenging task.
Sarratt, thought Le Méridien. Sarratt was the reason he was still alive. It was Sarratt's word of honor that must be silenced, and Sarratt who was out of clear sight and could be pointing a pistol of his own at Norbury.
Le Méridien turned side on to Norbury like a duelist presenting the smallest possible profile to an opponent's fire. Norbury was a fighter but not a fencer so he did not see the significance of Le Méridien's feet shifting into the stance of en garde, nor the way he placed his weight over the front leg.
Both men stood still, waiting for Sarratt to perpetuate a situation he may not even have been aware of. Le Méridien focused every sense on Norbury until it was as though they were alone in the grey smog. The rocking gig and the people shying away from Norbury's pistol could have been on another continent.
A click from the gig's door announced that Sarratt was coming out. Norbury's pistol swung to the gig as though attached to his eyes. Le Méridien flicked his cloak aside from his own pistol. The half-inch eye of Norbury's pistol jerked back to glare at Le Méridien. The flint snapped and priming powder flared. Le Méridien did not try to point his pistol but threw his front leg straight and hurled himself forward in the fleche. Two pistols banged. A ball plucked at Le Méridien's cloak.
The fleche carried Le Méridien three steps before he arrested his momentum and swung back to Norbury. He just had time to see Norbury crumpling to the ground before vanishing behind the smoke of Le Méridien's own priming powder a moment before the kick of the discharge.
Le Méridien stepped through the smoke to see Norbury sprawled on the street. He looked around to see Sarratt half out of the gig, his pistol sinking to his side. Sarratt's pistol was still cocked.
"Hesitated," said Sarratt to nobody in particular. "I hesitated and then he dropped."
Le Méridien thought back. He was sure he had not been mistaken when he heard two reports, yet Sarratt had not fired. Le Méridien looked at the gathering crowd and his eyes were immediately drawn to the one man who was moving away while everyone else had decided that the shooting was over and was coming closer. Le Méridien saw that the man was making his way toward a horse that was ambling away. He felt everything fall into place.
"Mr. Gudgeon. A moment of your time." Le Méridien's voice cut through the growing buzz of conversation. The man walking away stopped in his tracks. "We'd like to thank you for shooting this…footpad…in the back."
The man appeared to abandon the idea of furtive escape and strode toward Le Méridien and Sarratt. Le Méridien nodded to himself when he saw it was indeed Gudgeon
"Thank God I was in time," said Gudgeon when he was close enough that only Le Méridien and Sarratt could hear him. "I tried to persuade him to accept your terms but he seized one of my horses and took off after you. I gave chase of course, but it was a damned near thing. A damned near thing indeed."
Le Méridien could detect nothing in Gudgeon's manner to show he was lying. If only the man had known when to cut his losses, he could have been a very successful gambler but even now he could not resist trying his luck against the clear evidence of his actions.
"Then you had no reason to slip away," said Le Méridien, "and I only see one horse wandering off."
"I beg your…"
"I'm sure Norbury carried on abusing you after we left. That must have dented the pride of a man who feels free to dispose of anyone who doesn't wear silk whenever they become inconvenient to him." Le Méridien kept his voice as low as Gudgeon's.
"This is ridiculous…"
"You saw a way to solve all your problems at once. Norbury was ready to accept our terms so you must have offered him more money. Whatever you offered, you rode us down with Norbury on your own horse, probably because he couldn't ride. You dropped him ahead of us and turned back to whip Sarratt's horse and stop the gig. Norbury was waiting for Sarratt to step out so he could silence his word of honor. You probably didn't care about me, but Norbury would have shot me even if you didn't tell him to. He knew both of us couldn't outlive Sarratt for very long."
Gudgeon's mouth opened and closed in a face set in an expression of denial, but no words came out.
"But you had an idea you didn't share with Norbury. Perhaps he offended you or perhaps you woke up to the fact that you can't let a man like that into your life and expect him to quietly walk away when you finish with him. Either way, you stayed back so you could shoot him down as a footpad as soon as he shot Sarratt. You're not a bad shot, Gudgeon, but if you've ever fought a duel, you're still alive by sheer luck. You had him covered because you knew he'd shoot you if he even suspected what you had in mind. But you panicked when he fired and shot him before you made sure he'd hit anyone. You probably didn't even mean to shoot, did you?"
Le Méridien sniffed Gudgeon's breath. "I'll give you this. You're a much better dissembler after your fourth drink than when you're sober. If you had been as transparent as when I first met you, Norbury would have seen through you in a moment and you would be a very dead man by now."
Gudgeon looked as though he had contracted a sudden bout of ague. "This is…absurd. You're insane."
"Do you give me the lie?"
Gudgeon's protests died in his throat. Le Méridien watched the thoughts chase each other through Gudgeon's mind. Gudgeon had accepted Le Méridien as a guest so could not insist on a difference in class. Gudgeon's gaze dropped to Le Méridien's warm pistol, then rose to regard the cool expression and consider the clear thinking in the aftermath of mortal danger. He glanced at Sarratt, who was within hearing of the deadly sleight on Le Méridien's honor that he was on the brink of making.
"No, no. Dark. Easy to make a mistake."
"Quite. The dark often affects my hearing as well. Now go and get your horse before the watchmen decide it's safe enough to come and find out who was shooting at whom. You'll need it for you visit to Mr. Justice Chatterton tomorrow."
Gudgeon backed away, nodding like a clockwork bird.
"Mr. Gudgeon," said Sarratt. "Carrie Barlow's pension now stands at two hundred guineas."
* * *
Le Méridien was putting away foils and plastrons after a class when he heard the knock. He went down the stairs that connected his salle to the street and opened the door. The girl outside gave him a hesitant smile and it took him a minute to recognize her as Carrie Barlow. There was a healthy flush to her complexion that had been bleached out by fear and dismay whenever he had seen her before.
"Come in, Miss Barlow."
Her face showed a moment's confusion at being addressed as 'Miss', but she stepped in and allowed him to take her cloak as she climbed the stairs.
"Please have a seat, Miss Barlow. Would you care for some brandy? "Brandy? Not 'alf!" She grinned like a child offered a special treat. "I mean, I'd love some, sir."
She looked around the salle. "This is where you work? I thought Mr. Sarratt said you live here."
"I have a small room at the back." He handed her a glass of brandy.
"Oh, I thought you was a gent. I mean a gentleman."
Le Méridien pulled a chair opposite her. "I'm afraid I have no debts to anyone. A most unfashionable condition among the gentry."
"Oh." She sipped the brandy and squinted at the glass. "Funny taste. Well, so much the better. I haven't done very well with gents."
"How is Mr. Gudgeon?"
"Married, and looking ten years older." She grinned again. "Looks like he had a right scare. Perhaps it was Mrs Gudgeon. I do hope so."
"I hope the poor woman can give him a scare as well. I'd have tried to confound his marriage plans, but I had to offer him a way out to be sure he would see you released.
"He's a gent. He'll always get what he wants in the end. It's the rest of us who have to make do."
"Very true. But I trust he gave you a generous pension."
"I'll say. He sent for me and gave me two hundred guineas. I couldn't believe it. I mean, why'd he come over so generous all of a sudden?"
"Perhaps it were that Mr. Norbury. Heard he got shot trying to rob some gent. Typical bloody thief-taker." Her hands shot to her mouth. "Oh I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
Le Méridien inclined his head. "As you said, I am no gentleman."
"No, s'pose not. Anyways…" She tilted her head on one side and gave him a different sort of smile. "I came here to thank you for…well, for everything you done to keep me from the Newgate jig."
She stood up and slipped her shift down to her elbows. She was fashionably naked underneath. Le Méridien stood and pulled it back up.
Carrie's smile faded into open-mouthed confusion.
"If you please." Le Méridien could think of nothing better to say.
"It is not why I did what I did."
"It weren't? But it's like I said in Newgate. You must want something, don't you? I asked a few people and they put me right, said you black fellows ain't devils but that you can't never get enough of white…"
"Right. Well." Carrie drained the brandy in one swallow. "Reckon I prefer beer. You don't want no thanks then?"
"You have already thanked me."
"Right. I'm taking my sister to my Dad's cousins in Bristol. Going to buy a pub with Mr. Gudgeon's money, so I don't think I'll see you again."
"Thank you for coming."
"You was right. You ain't no gent." Le Méridien thought she meant it as a compliment, but she was gone before he could be sure. He sighed and put the rest of the foils away.
D. J. Cockburn says: I have been publishing occasional stories for several years now, in between receiving a long monologue of rejections and earning a living through medical research on various parts of the African continent. Other phases of my life have included teaching unfortunate children and experimenting on unfortunate fish.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
When I'm in a receptive mood, I find ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. However it takes several different ideas to make up a story, and they usually come from different sources. When I decided I wanted to follow up Steel in the Morning with a second Le Méridien story, things slotted into place quickly enough. A walk around the City of London is always good for setting, as you can't escape the sense of the centuries built on top of each other. As usual, much of the premise came from reading about the Regency period, in particular the description of the corrupt thief takers in Fergus Linnane's London's Underworld and the tales of the Fancy in Peter Radford's The Celebrated Captain Barclay. Once I had created enough corruption and decadence, I could trust Le Méridien to find his own way through it.