Newcastle upon Tyne, 1736. Newly married to a lady of means, musician Charles Patterson is learning to juggle his devotion to his craft with his responsibilities as a gentleman. Meanwhile, Richard Nightingale, a ladder dancer from London, is causing a stir with his flashy performances and flirtatious demeanor. But soon Charles has another complication in his life, as he once again must investigate a murder.
When a child is run down and killed by an unknown horseman, Charles is the only witness close enough to see that the collision was no accident. With the help of his young protégé Kate, Charles vows to hunt down the rider. But when Nightingale is attacked next, Charles realizes the situation is far more complicated than he first realized.
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A gentleman always behaves with restraint ...
[A Gentleman's Companion, September 1736]
The day was as filthy as my temper. Gusts of wind swirled the September fog, slapped chill flurries of rain into my face. Passers-by were shadows that flickered into existence as the fog parted then faded as it drifted back again. The hulks of ships moored at the Key were merely dark patches in the murk. Seagulls shrieked overhead.
While I'd been in the houses of the ladies and gentlemen all day, trying to sell them tickets for the winter concerts, the fog had come up the Tyne in thick waves, blanketing the river and the buildings on either side, muffling the clatter of the keelmen loading coal, the barking of dogs, the cries of children. An unseen ballad singer was working her way through a popular song about the latest murder in London. A thin child's voice. Desperation, surely, to be trying to wheedle money out of anyone in this weather.
I turned up the collar of my greatcoat and stepped cautiously along the wet cobbles of the Key. A couple of drunken sailors loomed out of the fog, reeled across my path, laughing hysterically. I jolted back, trying to avoid them, slipped, cursed.
I'd had to spend almost an entire day, in one house or another, talking to ladies who'd only one topic in mind and were determined to raise it. In newly decorated drawing rooms, upholstered with the most fashionable wallpaper and hung with embroideries done by the lady of the house, I'd handed over the freshly printed tickets; lady after lady took them graciously, perused them, asked me who was singing this year – and slipped in a question or two about my wife: 'And how is the new Mrs Patterson?' I've never seen a set of people so eager for gossip.
The snide remark made by the maiden lady at my last house-call had been the final straw. 'But my dear Mr Patterson, we didn't expect to see you at all this year. We expected you to be taking it easy at home.' A coy smile. 'A gentleman who marries money has no need —' a simpering hesitation – 'to toil.'
Nice of her to avoid the dreaded word work, I thought savagely. I'd bowed out of the house and vowed never to go back. A useless resolve, of course; I couldn't afford such a dramatic gesture.
The fog swirled in closer; I twisted a foot on an up-jutting cobble, stood a moment cursing with pain. To make matters worse, I could hear a murmur from my right, from the river itself. A faint keening of grief, a wailing and moaning of distress. Faint lights glittered through the fog, dancing in the water like a hundred stars faintly twinkling.
Each light was the spirit of a man who died in the river, inhabiting the place of their death, as all spirits do. The essence of a man bundled up and concentrated in a single cold gleam of matter, lingering eighty or a hundred years after death, until final dissolution takes it. I know worlds where spirits do not exist, but here we all come to this, eventually: a lonely point of dulled light in a bright vibrant world.
For some people fate is kind. Those who die on solid earth cling to the buildings in which they expire, and can gossip to the living almost as if they have never died; they can feel still part of the world around them. For others, fate is harsh; those who drown in the river or at sea are at the mercies of the tides and swells, and can find themselves drifting forever alone, visible to the living merely as a glimmer of light on a wave. Whenever they come close to land, they cry out and wail and lament their fate, pleading with those who pass for help that cannot be given, that would be years too late. Everybody ignores them, hurries away, afraid that one day this might be their fate too. It is the loneliest, most desolate sound I know.
When it comes to my time to die, I intend it shall be in my bed, or at my own hearth, where my spirit can linger in comfortable commerce with my friends and descendants.
My bed? My hearth? My wife's bed and my wife's hearth, at any rate. As the maiden lady said, I've married money.
The pain in my foot eased; I hobbled forward. The fog thinned, showed me a keel moored at the Keyside. A pig squealed at the bow like an exotic figurehead. Sailors were hurrying about on deck, stowing kegs of water and boxes of biscuits: intending to sail on the next tide, no doubt. The keel bobbed up and down on the choppy waves, drifting away from the Key then bumping back up again, gangplank creaking and mooring ropes straining.
A sailor stopped to call to a woman staggering down the Key. In the trailing wisps of fog, I could see only her back, a ragged shawl, bedraggled hair. As she turned to yell to the sailor, I saw she carried an infant in her arms. Very young, I guessed, by the way its head lolled back. The woman shrieked, cackled with laughter.
No guessing what ailed her. Gin.
The fog drifted back in. I shivered, pulled my coat round me. If I made it as far as the Printing Office without injuring myself, it would be a miracle. And after that, I'd go home. To my wife. My wealthy wife. The spirits wailed, and the young ballad singer sang a coarse song that ill-suited her youth. She breathed in all the wrong places; I itched to correct her.
The clop clop of horse's hooves. Moving fast – too fast for this weather. I stopped, trying to gauge the horse's direction, not wanting to be ridden down. The fog took up the sound, battered it against the buildings lining the Key and threw it back again confusingly. Was it behind me or —
The horse loomed up ahead, beyond the keel. It was grey as the fog, being ridden hard, breaking into a gallop. On cobbles, in limited visibility, it was folly. The rider was a mere hulk on its back, a bulky figure swaddled in greatcoat and hat. Head down, face almost entirely hidden.
I watched, helpless, as the inevitable disaster struck. The horse came on, tossing its head, struggling against its rider's grip. On, on. One of the sailors shouted. The drunken woman glanced up, almost lazily, obviously befuddled. The horse came on. All the sailors were shouting now.
It was too late. The horse slammed into the woman. Its heavy shoulder caught her, spun her to one side. She shrieked, flung out her hands, dropped the child, grabbed at it again, went down —
The boat, caught by the river swell, drifted away from the Key. The woman went down into the gap between wharf and boat, and was lost from sight.
The sailors were after her instantly, scrambling down, throwing ropes, hauling her sodden and shrieking from the river. Water poured out of her clothes, cascaded down her face, plastered her hair to her head. A burly sailor hugged her tight, swung her up on to the deck. She was beating her fists against his chest, struggling to get away.
The baby had gone.
The horse tore past me, so close I saw the white sweat on its flanks and beneath the saddle. Its breath floated away; its rider's coat skirts drifted out and brushed my shoulder. There was an almost tangible emanation of fury; I caught sight of a hard mouth curling into a snarl. And a glimpse of leather bags hung over the saddle, one embossed with intertwined letters. Then the horse was past and its rider with it, swallowed up by the fog.
Women were running from a nearby tavern. The burly sailor was trying to restrain the woman. She was shrieking over and over, the same word: baby, baby. And in the confusion, I heard someone call out, 'Accident!'
It was not an accident. I'd been directly facing the horse. I'd seen the rider tug on the reins, and the horse shift course fractionally to strike against the woman. It had been deliberate.
A wife is an ornament to any household, provided she be thrifty and assiduous in the pursuance of her duties.
[A Gentleman's Companion, January 1730]
'A ladder dancer?' I echoed incredulously.
Esther smiled mischievously across the breakfast table. Early morning sunlight gleamed on her golden hair and the charming lace cap she has taken to wearing since our marriage. My wife. My heart turned over just at the sight of her.
She'd been reading the latest missive from one of her friends in London before she revealed her unpleasant surprise. 'So Maria says.' She shuffled the sheets of the letter obviously looking for something; a three-page letter, I thought, how much had we had to pay for that?
'Ah, here it is.' It was a cutting from a London newspaper. 'This is the advertisement for his performance at Drury Lane last month.' She read from the cutting. 'Mr Richard Nightingale, Master Ladder-Dancer of England. He does such wonderful things that have been very surprising to all that ever saw him. He stands on the uppermost Step of the Ladder and turns himself quite round, which no Man ever did, or can do besides himself, while playing on the Violin, with several other things.'
I groaned and buried my head in my hands. 'And Jenison has hired him for the winter concerts!'
'Now, Charles,' she said, reprovingly. 'Do not despair. It says here the violin has no strings.'
'Then how the devil does he play it?'
'He sings the notes.'
'He imitates the sound of the violin. Oh, and the flageolet, and the trumpet. And many other instruments besides. It says he sang the overture to Mr Handel's opera, Giulio Cesare.'
I seized my coffee dish. It was, thankfully, very strong coffee.
Esther regarded me sympathetically. 'I know such things can hardly be regarded as musical —'
'Hardly? Not at all!'
'It will attract the audiences,' she pointed out.
'That's the most depressing thing of all!'
'But if you can get them to listen to Richard Nightingale, perhaps later they will enjoy something more worthwhile, Corelli's music, for instance, or Geminiani's?'
I sighed. 'One can always hope.'
I looked at Esther – my wife! – as she scanned the letter for any further information on this paragon of musical virtue. My wife: how strange that still seemed. Three weeks was not remotely enough time to become used to it. Or to its consequences.
Three weeks ago, walking into All Hallows' Church with Esther on my arm, I had been ecstatically happy. It had been a quiet wedding, with my patron, Claudius Heron, to support the bride, and my friend Hugh Demsey to support me, the only other witnesses being the organist of All Hallows and his cat, which had wandered in and stayed to wash in a patch of sunshine. We repeated the correct words after the glowing young, romantically inclined curate, accepted congratulations from everyone present, excluding the cat, and went back to Claudius Heron's elegant home for the wedding breakfast. In the pleasure of good food and good conversation with friends, I'd even forgotten to be nervous about the inevitable intimacies of married life until the carriage set us down in front of Heron's country mansion, loaned to us for a short bridal trip. And, thankfully, there'd been nothing to be nervous about.
That was not the problem. If it had merely been a question of love, and compatibility, there'd have been nothing to worry about, despite the differences in our ages – I've just turned twenty-seven, Esther's twelve years older. But there's more than age between us; there's status and there's wealth.
I expected the disapproval of the ladies and gentlemen; a musician, a mere tradesman, marrying a lady who's related, however distantly, to an earl! What I hadn't bargained for was my own reaction.
Three weeks after the ceremony, immediately after returning from the bridal trip, I'd moved from my lodgings into Esther's house in Caroline Square. With its drawing rooms, dining room, breakfast room, library, half a dozen bedrooms, several dressing rooms and the servants' quarters besides. And a garden. I'd lived previously in one room. I'd had no servants. I'd sent out for my meals or gone to the tavern for them and I'd never had to walk further than a yard or two for my violin or music books. And now, for heaven's sake, I had a room solely set aside for the eating of breakfast! Why the devil could we not simply use the dining room?
The sunshine shone through the windows from the garden and glinted on the strands of hair escaping from the confines of Esther's elegant lace cap to lie across the curve of her neck. Every time I looked at her, I felt a pang of longing and pride that almost overwhelmed me. And every time I looked at her, I saw the jewels in her ears and at her throat, the fine fabric of her dress. And then I looked at the shabby cuffs of my coat.
Esther put the letter down, cleared her throat. 'Charles,' she said carefully. 'You cannot grumble over every little expense. It is a small sum to pay for a letter.'
I gripped my coffee dish. If I could have talked myself out of this ridiculous annoyance, this strange sense of unreality, I would have. I wanted to. No – I wanted to get back to the old easiness I'd felt in Esther's presence, before the question of money raised its ugly head. Had there ever been a time like that? 'I was thinking of the coat you wanted me to buy,' I admitted.
'I mentioned two coats,' she said. 'And new breeches. And some shirts.'
'No, no,' I protested, seizing on the diversion. 'I bought three new shirts only a month ago.'
'Only three?' she said, wincing. 'Charles, you need at least seven – one for every day. More would be better. I will see to it.'
'You will?' I said blankly.
She looked surprised. 'Linen is always the wife's responsibility.'
'Well,' I said, speaking before thinking and bitterly regretting it the moment the words were out of my mouth, 'it's your money.'
'No,' she said evenly, 'it is not. When we married, my money became yours.'
'I didn't earn it.'
She took a moment to fold the sheets of the letter away. 'So you intend that when we go out together, I will be dressed expensively, and you will be wearing your old shabby clothes just to prove you are not taking advantage of my wealth?'
I looked at her. She held my gaze steadily. The vision was just too ludicrous; I laughed ruefully. 'That would merely draw attention to the situation, would it not?'
She leant forward, reached out for my hand, her fingers warm on mine. 'People will gossip about our marriage, Charles. They will believe you married me for my money; that is inevitable. We know it is not true. Surely that is all that matters?'
I wanted to respond. I wanted to say yes. I couldn't bring myself to do so. 'I hope to earn a great deal more this year,' I found myself saying. 'The tickets for the subscription series are selling well and the concert directors will be paying me more.' That was true, but not to the extent I was implying; five shillings extra a year was never going to make me rich. 'And I can make more money,' I hurried on, seeing Esther draw back and her smile fade, 'if I take on an apprentice.'
A virulent green gleam shot across the table and climbed to the top of my coffee dish. I jerked back, startled. Coffee splashed on to the tablecloth. 'Master!' the spirit said with an indignant squeak. 'I'm your apprentice.'
Esther sighed, just audibly. George, who died in this house a year ago, at the age of twelve, had been in life my apprentice, and in some ways, I felt responsible for his death. Which adds a degree of guilt to my feelings towards his spirit. I gritted my teeth. 'You're dead, George,' I pointed out. 'You can't play in concerts and earn me money any more.'
'You don't need another apprentice,' he said obstinately, like the sullen boy he'd been when he died. 'You don't, you don't!'
'This is a private conversation, George,' Esther said. 'Please leave us.'
The gleam flickered uncertainly; the green colour faded slightly. George adores Esther with the intensity of a boy's first crush; he told me only a few days ago he was pleased he died in her house so he could stay with her 'for ever and ever'. From the moment I moved in, he's been annoyingly offensive, giving me directions to rooms I already know, introducing me to servants I've been acquainted with for a year or more, and generally trying to give the impression he's the man of the house. In short, showing every sign of jealousy.
Fortunately, mixed in with his adoration of Esther is a healthy dash of adolescent bashfulness which means one disapproving word from her is enough to send him into agonies of guilt. That alone, thankfully, has kept him out of our bedroom at nights.
'Now, George,' Esther said.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Ladder Dancer"
Copyright © 2011 Roz Southey.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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