Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1
Beador was desperate for money. That ought to have made negotiations simple. Sir George Beador wanted money, and John Stevenson wanted land. Specifically, he wanted twenty acres near Stockton on the river Tees, the best place in the whole country, he decided, for a small iron foundry and smelting works. Sir George Beador had land in Stockton, and John had money in the bank. Yet the negotiations were not proving at all simple. You're a liar, John thought. And not even a good liar.
The young baronet's frank, blue, uncaring eyes wavered as if he read John's thoughts.
"See here, Stevenson," he blustered. "I'm putting land into this partnership." He was shivering, as if his sincerity had already been challenged. "Land!" He repeated the word, making it sound like "blood." John could see him trying to say "good land" but the words stuck in his throat.
"And therefore...?" John prompted.
"Well... I mean to say, just as land conveys certain privileges in life-privileges that mere money can never purchase-don't ye think it should convey the same sort of privilege in business too?"
John pretended to consider this nonsense while he wondered what lay behind it. Sir George was trying to distract his attention from something. But from what? Nasty, uncharitable suspicions were already forming in his mind. He hoped he was wrong. In a curious way, he almost liked Sir George-an amateur swindler who had not even practised how to lie convincingly. It touched some reserve of sympathy within him.
One end of a burning log fell onto the hearth. Sir George rose and pulled the bell chain; then he stood, looking directly down at the burning wood. The smoke rising from it made him cough. Even his coughing lacked conviction. It sounded like a smothered laugh.
Wheezing, Sir George crossed to the tall French window. His water-filled eyes trembled. The sky beyond was a uniform leaden gray, and from it fell a steady rain, warm for early February. While his breath returned, he looked morosely out. "They'll find nothing today. We had the best of it this morning."
Fleetingly John thought of Nora, still out there somewhere amid the weather; if they had found, she'd be up among the leaders, no matter how strange the country or how cunning the fox. Yet how she'd love to be here too. She'd soon run Sir George Beador to a standstill. And she'd stay to see him broken. A footman came in and, without a word, rebuilt the fire. He did not look at Sir George, and Sir George did not even notice him.
"But you've said you're willing to pay me ten thousand pounds for the land," Sir George wheedled. "Surely you'd not go back on your word!"
John, counting silently to retain his patience, looked around the room at the books of polished leather and soft suede, warm by the firelight in their tall glass cases. The man was not the fool he seemed. It would pay to remember that. "I will offer ten thousand to secure the land and your partnership. You know the value of your name around Stockton. And elsewhere. Subtract that from ten thousand and you have the price of your land."
Sir George turned toward him at last. John could not read his face against the brightness of the window, but the voice was cold and morose. "Money! Even one's name is negotiable nowadays."
"Be thankful for that," John said.
Sir George laughed. "Aye," he agreed. "I'll not deny it." He came and sat by the fire, cheerful again. The mud that had earlier fallen from his boots crunched on the polished floor. "Should get out of these wet things. I'll regret it."
John smiled. Sir George looked at him and chuckled, an echo of his earlier laugh. "That's a smug sort of a smile, Stevenson," he said. "You've no cause for it, I may say. You may be dry, but you stink of that wretched mackintosh stuff." Sir George would not risk such warmth unless he felt he had somehow mastered this discussion. It was the moment of overconfidence for which John had been waiting.
"Not railway shares, is it, Beador?" he asked, his voice suddenly crisp and brutal. "Not been speculating there?"
Sir George's immature cunning could not withstand such an assault. His eyes registered shock, fear, guilt, confusion, and finally anger at having registered anything at all.
"Dammit, Stevenson!" he said.
"What have you applied for?" John did not relent.
"I've been allotted nothing." Sir George Beador regained some of his composure. But it was too late. The mask had slipped, and all the truculence and all the cold blue blood he could muster would never divert John Stevenson from pursuing this particular inquiry to its end, however many weeks or months it might take.
"But you have applied?"
Sir George looked sharply at him, offended.
"As a partner, I'd have to know," John said. "I'd be liable for any debt of yours." Sir George lowered his eyes; his shoulders slumped. "Damn complicated," he said to the palms of his hands.
"I must know. Before we engage in any deed."
"I'll draw up a list," Sir George said. His interest in his hands was now intense, making it difficult for John to persist.
The distant clatter of hooves on sodden gravel announced the return of the rest of the party. It annoyed John; his whole purpose in leaving the field early had been to settle this partnership once and for all. If only Sir George would behave rationally, like a man needing money, instead of with this boyish mixture of dumb cunning and lordly indifference.
Sir George looked up the avenue and rubbed his hands gladly; for him the returning riders were a rescue party. John kicked a dead ember back into the grate and left the room. A more open show of his annoyance would achieve nothing.
His way out lay through the gun room, then down the passage to the north wing, which flanked the stable yard. This wing was, in fact, the remains of an H-shaped Tudor manor-or I-shaped, to keep the convention that puts north at the top. The passage was the crossbar, but where the southern wing had once stood, there was now a large square block built in Georgian stone. Its full three stories laid a permanent shadow over the two humbler floors of the old red-brick manor, now called the north wing.