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Early spring 1750
A breathless James arrived at the Blue Boar in Holborn just in time to see the stage disappearing out of sight. He stood and watched it go and swore roundly in several languages.
'Dammit, Sam,' he said at the end of this tirade. 'The devils have slipped through our fingers again. They're as slippery as eels, the pair of them.'
'Yes, sir. Do you think they knew we were on to them?'
'Couldn't fail to, could they? We have been hounding them for two years. But they need not think this is the end of it, for I will not give up while there is breath in my body.'
Captain the Honourable James Drymore turned from the sight of the back of the stage disappearing from the end of the road and went into the inn to enquire about its passengers. He did not expect to be given names; they would have meant little if he had. Those two, whose real names he had ascertained were Morgan Randle and Jeremy Smith, would have used aliases and probably disguises, too. If his informant had been right, they were finding his pursuit of them too close for comfort and had decided to leave London for the provinces. He did not know their destination, but he had learned, only that morning, that they had arranged to meet at the Blue Boar at nine in the morning with the intention of boarding a coach north. He had rushed home to pack a few clothes, put some money and his pistol into his pocket and, with Sam in tow as he always was, made all haste to the inn.
'Two men travelling together,' the proprietor repeated, when James finally persuaded him to stop rushing about issuing orders to his servants and speak to him. 'Well, there were two, clerical men I should say. Dark clothes, bob wigs, shallow hats.'
'And was one a spidershanks, without an ounce of fat on him, and the other a beefy fellow with a bulbous nose?' James asked, mentioning attributes it would be hard to disguise, even if their clothes and wigs were changed.
'You could so describe them, sir. What might I ask is your interest in them?'
'I am empowered by the Bow Street magistrate to arrest them for theft and murder, so if you know anything of them you should tell me at once.'
'I don't ask the passengers for their histories when they board one of my coaches, sir. I'd never do any business that way.'
'I understand that, but perhaps you could tell me their destination.'
'They bought tickets to Peterborough. Where they were going from there I cannot tell.'
'And when is the next coach going in that direction?' 'To Peterborough? Not until tomorrow, but there's one going to Lynn in half an hour. You could leave it at Downham Market and find your way to Peterborough from there.'
'That will have to do.'
He bought inside tickets for himself and Sam, his friend as well as his servant, and went into the inn's parlour to wile away the thirty minutes they had to wait. There was a good fire in there and they sat warming their frozen toes on the fender and drinking mulled wine.
James had every reason to want to see Randle and Smith brought to justice. The victim of the murder he had spoken of had been his own wife. Poor, innocent Caroline had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time when those two had run into the silversmiths' to rob it at gunpoint. According to the shopkeeper, she had been buying a silver cravat pin as a present for him. She appeared well and happy and had told him she was looking forward to having her husband home again after two years at sea. The thieves had waved their pistols about and when he had been too slow in obeying their commands to hand over everything of value, one had fired and the ball had ricocheted off the wall behind Caroline and mortally wounded her.
She had been carried to Colbridge House, the family home in Golden Square, but in spite of the best care his father could obtain for her, she had died the same day. 'She passed away with your name on her lips,' his father had said, giving him the pin that had been in her hand. 'She charged me to give you this.' James had taken it and wept over it, wept over her grave, too, but when his tears dried, he had been miserable, angry and guilty by turns.
He had been a poor husband, had not told her often enough how much she meant to him, and now it was too late. If he had not been away so much, they might have had children; he knew she had wanted them, as he had. And poor, innocent darling, she was thinking of him when she went into that shop to buy him a coming-home present. The anguish was unbearable and his temper was something dreadful to behold. Only his patient and loyal Sam Roker put up with him.
A visit to Bow Street had followed, where he had raved at the watchmen and constables for their lack of action. It was unfair of him, he supposed; they were not employed to investigate, but simply to arrest wrongdoers when they were brought to their attention. There seemed no one prepared to spend time on detective work. It was slow and laborious and nearly always futile. James had resolved to catch the pair himself, come hell or high water. It was a quest he had been pursuing for the best part of two years and had involved putting on some strange disguises and mixing with the rogues who inhabited London's underworld. News of his pursuit seemed always to precede him because, whenever he followed up a lead he had been given, the quarry had decamped. The lure of a reward had eventually brought information that the two men were leaving London from the Blue Boar, but, once again, he had arrived too late.
He sat drinking his spicy wine, while musing on his life with Caroline. He had been away at sea a great deal of the time, but when he was at home, they had been happy together, delighting in each other, sometimes dining in, sometimes going to the theatre, meeting friends, going for walks, planning the family they hoped to have, until it was time to leave her again. After his last leave, he had, for her sake, resolved to quit the service, settle down to domesticity and become a doting husband and father. He had been torn apart with guilt to think she would never know of that promise. The plans he had made for going back to his small estate near Newmarket and becoming a gentleman farmer meant nothing without her to share them. He could not bear to stay there and left his steward in charge while he set about tracing the murdering thieves. It had become a crusade from which he never wavered.
In so doing he had been instrumental in uncovering other crimes which he had reported to the appropriate magistrate, earning him the name of thieftaker, a soubriquet he hated. Thieftakers had a bad reputation with the public for frequently faking evidence to obtain a conviction in order to claim the reward. He did not need the money. True, he was only the second son of the Earl of Colbridge and not his heir, but he had been left an annuity by his maternal grandfather that, together with his pay and his share of prize money, meant he was of independent means. Anything he was offered for his services to law and order he gave to charity. 'What we need,' he was fond of telling Sam, 'is an independent police force paid for out of taxes, a body of astute, incorruptible men whom everyone can trust.'
'And pigs might fly,' Sam would say. 'Folks'd never agree to pay for it.'
They heard a horn followed by the rattle of a coach coming into the yard and went to join their fellow passengers. Apart from two or three men who climbed on the roof, which was cheaper, there were three inside besides themselves. A parson in a black suit of clothes, a full wig and wide-brimmed hat, and a man and a young woman who appeared to be travelling together. James, settling himself in the seat opposite, found himself covertly studying her.
She was so pale there was hardly a vestige of colour in her face and even her lips seemed blanched. Her eyes were blue, but they were clouded by worry. Her clothes, though not the height of fashion, were nevertheless of good quality. Her simple unpadded open gown was in a blue-and-white striped material with an embroidered stomacher. She had a cloak, but no hat or gloves and her shoes were flimsy, not intended for out of doors. Her fair hair hung about her shoulders in a tangle, as if she had left home in a great hurry. Had she been coerced into making the journey? Or even abducted? She did not look as if she would fetch much in the way of ransom.
She noticed him looking at her and quickly looked away. Was she ill? Was she nervous because she was unused to travelling by public coach? She would not look at her companion and when the man put a hand on her arm, she flinched as if she had been struck. He wore a black suit of clothes, shiny with age, and a beaver hat with a wide crown crammed on to a grimy scratch wig. Not on the same social plane, James concluded. A servant, perhaps, but not one she trusted.
Sam, sitting in the corner, was looking out of the window at the darkening sky. 'We'll have snow afore long,' he said to no one in particular.
The man with the girl simply grunted in response. 'Are you and the lady going far?' James asked him pleasantly.
'That's our business,' the man growled and James noticed the young woman imperceptibly shake her head as if warning him not to pursue his questioning.
He turned to the other occupant of the coach. 'What about you, sir? Do you have far to travel?'
'To Cambridge, God and weather permitting,' the parson said. 'I never knew winter to last so long. We should be seeing the shoots coming through the cold earth by now, but not a sign of them yet. And what with earthquakes and suchlike I do not doubt we are being punished for our wickedness.'
'What, all of us?' James queried. 'Surely the righteous should not be punished along with the wicked?'
The man paused to look at him and then went on as if such a remark were too foolish to merit an answer. 'I would not have travelled if it could have been avoided. I abhor London with its smoke and grime and stink. Full of thieves and cutthroats. Why, I had my pocket cut while walking in Hyde Park yesterday.'
'I am sorry to hear that.' James answered him, but he was looking sideways at the young woman. She had not moved, was staring straight ahead and did not appear to be listening. What was going on in her head, for clearly something was? He wondered how to draw her into the conversation and then asked himself why he wanted to. If she wished to sit silent, then so be it. 'Did they take much?'
'Several guineas, sir. I do not know what the country is coming to, when a man of the cloth can be blatantly robbed in daylight.'
'You reported it, of course.'
'Yes, but the judiciary are more concerned with rooting out Jacobites, than protecting honest citizens.'
'Yes, I heard tell the Young Pretender is about to make another bid for the crown,' Sam put in. 'Everyone is in a fever over it. He is here, he is there, he is everywhere.'
'He would surely not make another attempt without French backing,' the parson added, looking worried. 'He would not dare, would he?'
''Tis all rumour,' James said. 'You may be sure the Scots won't come to his aid again, not after the way Butcher Cumberland put them down after Culloden. And without them, where would he get the money to pay troops and buy supplies and armaments? It is common knowledge his pockets are to let and he has to resort to begging from his friends.'
'The Arkaig treasure,' Sam said. 'I reckon someone knows where it's been hid.'
James noticed the man beside the girl sit forward and show an interest in the conversation for the first time. James smiled to himself, wondering whether to speak of what he knew. He had been on board one of English ships sent to intercept the French vessels taking supplies to the Scottish rebels in the last battle of the '45 rebellion off the shore of Loch Nan Uamh. Before they had chased the French vessels off, everyone on board had witnessed the Highlanders hauling large quantities of cargo up from the shore to the woods, some of it extremely heavy, and it was common knowledge that there had been several thousand louis d'or in barrels. There was brandy, too, and many of the rebels had been paralytic with drink. He could not believe they had not appropriated at least some of the gold. Their captured leaders had talked of it and tried to account for it all, but a large proportion had never been found.
'I hope nothing comes of it,' he said. 'It would mean war and though I do not doubt we would be victorious, I should not like to see another monarch executed.'
'Are you a Jacobite sympathiser, sir?' the parson demanded.
'No, indeed not. I serve my king and country and armed rebellion has to be put down. That does not mean I approve of some of the measures taken to achieve it, nor that men should be persecuted for sincerely held beliefs. This is a free country, after all.'
'Free!' the young woman's companion scoffed. 'Free from what, I should like to know. 'Tis only the likes of you and the parson there can call themselves free.'
'Please,' the girl said suddenly. 'You are all speaking too loudly and I have the headache.'
James, surprised that she had spoken in the refined accents of a lady, bowed towards her and spoke softly. 'I beg your pardon, madam. When we stop to change the horses, I will obtain a tisane for you.'