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The regular meeting of the Society for the Discovery and Apprehending of Criminals, popularly known as the Piccadilly Gentlemen's Club, was drawing to its close. Led by James, Lord Drymore, they were all gentlemen of independent means dedicated to promoting law and order in a notoriously lawless society. Some called them thieftakers, but it was a soubriquet they rejected only because of its unsavoury connotations. In general thieftakers were nearly all as corrupt as the criminals they brought to justice, but the members of the Piccadilly Gentleman's Club were not like that and refused payment for their services.
Today each had reported on the case on which they were working. Jonathan, Viscount Leinster, was trying to trace two notorious highwaymen who had escaped from prison while awaiting trial and not having much luck. Harry, Lord Portman's particular interest was counterfeit coiners and he often went in disguise to the rookeries of the capital in search of information, though to look at him, you would hardly believe it; he was the epitome of a dandified man about town. Ashley, Lord Cadogan, was chasing smugglers with the help of his brother-in-law, Ben Kingslake, and Captain Alexander Carstairs had just returned a kidnap victim safe and sound to her distraught parents without it having cost them a penny in ransom money. James himself was tied up with their sponsor, Lord Trentham, a Minister of the Crown, in maintaining law and order in an increasingly disgruntled populace.
'Allow me to offer condolences on the loss of your uncle and cousin,' James said to Alex as they prepared to disperse. 'To lose both together was a double tragedy.'
'And felicitations on your elevation to the peerage,' Harry added. 'Marquis of Foxlees, no less.'
'Thank you,' Alex said. 'It was a great shock and I have hardly had time to gather my wits. A peerage is something I never expected and I'm not at all sure I like the idea.'
'The same thing happened to me,' Ash said. 'My cousin was the heir and he died out in India and his father, my uncle, soon afterwards. It was an upheaval adjusting to it and just before my wedding, too.'
'At least I don't have a bride waiting for me,' Alex said.
'That will soon be remedied, my friend,' Harry said, flicking a speck of dust from his immaculate sleeve. 'Sooner or later, everyone in the Piccadilly Gentleman's Club succumbs to falling in love.'
'Not me. I will have my hands full sorting out my uncle's affairs. It is just as well I have no case on hand at the moment.'
'That, too, can be remedied,' Jonathan put in.
'I think we can allow Alex a short respite to sort out his affairs,' James said with a smile.
They stood up, replaced hats on heads and headed from the room in Lord Trentham's house where they held their meetings and emerged on to the busy thoroughfare of Piccadilly, where they went their separate ways.
Alex set off on foot to Long Acre because he wanted to hire a carriage to carry him to Norfolk and his newly inherited estate. He had not visited it in years, mainly because his uncle and cousin were so rarely there. They were seafarers, just as he was, just as his late father had been and his father before him. His uncle, his father's older brother, had bought Foxlees Manor when his wife had decided, after a half a lifetime of following him all over the globe, that she had had enough of travelling and living in hot, uncomfortable places and wanted to stay at home.
That did not mean his uncle had given up his voyaging; the sea was in his blood and, being captain of an East Indiaman, he found it a lucrative business. He simply came home at the end of every voyage to spend a little time with his wife and their son, Harold, until Harold himself became a seaman and followed in his father's footsteps. The marchioness had died soon afterwards and his uncle and cousin rarely visited Foxlees Manor after her demise. When not at sea they lived in their town house on Mount Street.
They had both been lost when their ship foundered in a storm while rounding the Cape of Good Hope and so Alex found himself a Marquis and owner of the Mount Street house and the Foxlees estate. It was something he had neither expected nor wanted, but he admitted the town house was a great deal better than the bachelor apartments he had hitherto occupied.
He enjoyed his life as Captain Alexander Carstairs, member of the Piccadilly Gentleman's Club; it fulfilled his sense of adventure at the same time as he was doing some good in society. He had a full social life and many friendswhat more could a man ask? But with his elevation to the peerage and the acquisition of an estate came responsibilities and these he could not shirk.
He emerged from Newport Street and crossed the road into Long Acre, looking for the coachmaking premises of Henry Gilpin.
'The Earl of Falsham has failed to pay his interest again this month, Papa,' Charlotte said, looking up from the ledgers on which she was working. 'Last time I wrote to remind him, I warned him that if we did not receive at least some of what was owed, we would take him to court. He did not even favour us with a reply.'
The Earl had bought two carriages two years previously, a splendid town chariot for two hundred and ninety pounds and a phaeton for seventy-two pounds, borrowing the money from her father to pay for it. For the first six months he had diligently paid the five per cent interest on the loan, but since then nothing at all. Charlotte, who kept her father's books, had written every month on behalf of the company to remind him, but the Earl had ignored her letters.
Henry Gilpin sighed. 'You know how I hate taking customers to court,' he said. 'It ruins their reputation. As soon as news of the case gets out, every dunner in the country beats a path to their door. Let's not forget that the Earl did introduce me to his cousin and he pays promptly.'
'I am persuaded his lordship is counting on you remembering that.'
Henry chuckled. 'No doubt you are right. Send the Earl another stiff letter. Give him seven days to reply and if he does not, then court it shall be.'
It was not that Henry Gilpin was in need of the moneyhe was one of the richest men in the kingdombut his wealth was built on sound business practice and allowing bad debts to accumulate was not one of them. He did not in the least mind people owing him money so long as they paid the interest. To make sure of that he always insisted his debtors take out a bond for double what they owed in the event they reneged. The bond was backed by their assets which could, and sometimes did, include their estates.
Charlotte looked up from the desk at which she was working and looked about her. The Long Acre premises had been much enlarged over the years and were now big enough to house the whole coachmaking business, a workshop for the construction of the undercarriages, another for the body, one for the wheelwright, furnaces for the metal working, paint shops, leather shops, design rooms and offices, huge stores for the timber: mahogany, pine, birch and deal; racks of cloth and lace for the interiorseverything necessary for constructing coaches of every description. And in each department there were men to do the work, two hundred of them.
Charlotte was the only woman and she had had to plead with her father to allow her to work there. He had no son and she was his only child, so one day she would own it all. She needed to know how it operated and she loved the cut and thrust of business, the smell of varnish, paint and hot metal, loved watching the new coaches taking shape under the skilful hands of their operatives and derived huge satisfaction from the pleasure of their customers for a job well done. Since her mother had died, it had become her father's whole life and hers, too. Not for her the round of meaningless social gatherings intended to unite eligible young men with suitable brides.
'But you do not need to concern yourself with it,' her father had told her when she first broached the subject of working at Long Acre with him. 'One day you will marry and your husband will take over.'
'I may not marry.'
'Of course you will. You are a considerable heiress and that alone would secure you a bridegroom, even if you were not so lovely.'
'Lovely, Papa?' she queried.
'Of course you are. You are the image of your dear mother, God rest her. You can afford to be particular. A title, naturally, and the higher the better. I do not have a son to make into a gentleman, but I am determined you will be a lady.'
'If I am not already a lady, then what am I?' she had demanded with a teasing smile. 'An hermaphrodite?'
'Do not be silly. You are a lady, do not doubt it, but I meant a titled lady, a countess, a viscountess or a baroness at the very least. I may be able to mix with the best in the land and you may be admitted to every drawing room in town, if you would only take the trouble, but it doesn't make us gentry. That is something for the next generation.'
'Hold hard, Papa.' She had laughed. 'I am not yet married. And supposing I don't fancy any of the eligible titles? I might fall in love with a man of the middling sort, a businessman like yourself, someone I can respect.'
'Bah!' he had said. 'Falling in love is an overrated pastime and does not guarantee happiness, quite often the reverse. If you must fall in love, then make sure he is worthy of you. A title he will have, even if I have to buy one for him, though I'd as lief he came with a respected family history.'
'I might decide I would rather stay single and keep my independence. You need someone to help you run the business and that is what I most like to do. I should hate to see it ruined by a profligate son-in-law who does not understand how important it is.'
'Then you must make your choice carefully. I will not always be here to guide you.'
'Papa, let us have no more of that. You are good for years and years yet.'
He had given in and allowed her to accompany him from their mansion in Piccadilly to Long Acre every day to assist the accountant with the book-keeping, a task which gave her a great deal of satisfaction. It was better than sitting at home looking decorative, reading, sewing or paying calls and listening to the latest scandals. And it gave her an insight into how the business was managed. If she had her way, she would do much more.
Their discussion about the Earl's debt was interrupted by a shout and a resounding crash coming from the main workroom. They both dashed out from the office to see what was amiss.
Joe Smithson was lying at the bottom of the stairs to the upper floor and was struggling to rise. The stairs were wide and had a detachable banister because the coach bodies were constructed on the first floor and they were let down with ropes when complete and it was this task which had been occupying him when he fell. Charlotte had once said that the workrooms should be rearranged in order to construct the bodies on the ground floor, but her father had pointed out that to do that the metal workers, decorators and the upholsterers and all the other ancillary workers would have to be moved upstairs and how could they do their work if the coach on which they needed to work was downstairs? She was obliged to admit the logic of his argument. There was a completed shell of a town chariot on the upper workshop floor and Joe had been readying it for its descent to the ground which had meant removing the banister.
Charlotte and her father dashed forwards but someone beat them to it, a tall stranger who had come in from the street and reached Joe a fraction of a second before they did. He bent down and put his hand on Joe's shoulder to stop him struggling to rise. 'Be still, man,' he said. 'We need to know what damage is done before we get you to your feet.'
'Yes, Joe, keep still,' Charlotte said, as other workers crowded round them. 'We will send for a doctor.'
'Miss Charlotte, there's no need for that,' Joe said. 'I'm not badly hurt, just shook up a bit. I'll be right as ninepence when I've got me breath back.'
The stranger squatted down beside Joe and began feeling along his arms and legs. When he reached Joe's left ankle the young man winced. 'I am sure it is not broken,' he told Henry who hovered nearby. 'But if I were you I should send for the sawbones to be sure.' He put Joe's arms about his neck and hauled him to a standing position, then flung him over his shoulder. 'Where shall I take him?'
'Into the office,' Henry said, leading the way. Charlotte sent the messenger boy for the doctor and the rest of the workforce back about their business before following.
She found Joe deposited in a chair, her father fussing round him and the stranger dusting down his coat. He looked up as Charlotte entered.
She was struck by his looks. She was not particularly short, but he overtopped her by a head at least. His complexion was tanned and there were wrinkles each side of his eyes as if he had spent hours out of doors, peering into the weather. A mariner, she surmised, and this was confirmed when he bowed to her.
'Captain Alexander Carstairs, at your service, ma'am,' he said, sweeping her a leg, a very elegant leg, she noticed.
'I thank you for your assistance, Captain. It was lucky you were passing.'
'I was not passing, I was heading here and just entering when the young man fell. It is surely dangerous to have stairs with no handrail?'