The year is 1742, and the people of Preston are looking forward to their ancient once-every-twenty-years festival of merriment and excess, the Preston Guild. But the prospect darkens as the town plunges into a financial crisis caused by the death of pawnbroker and would-be banker Philip Pimbo, shot behind the locked door of his office. Is it suicide? Coroner Titus Cragg suspects so, but Dr Luke Fidelis disagrees. To untangle the truth Cragg must dig out the secrets of Pimbo's personal life, learn the grim facts of the African slave trade, search for a missing Civil War treasure and deal with the machinations of his old enemy Ephraim Grimshaw, now the town's mayor. Cragg relies once again on the help and advice of his analytical friend Fidelis, his astute wife Elizabeth and the contents of a well-stocked library.
As in his previous Cragg and Fidelis stories, Robin Blake brings a vivid cast of characters to the page in this third historical mystery about the dramas that breeds below the surface of life in a provincial Georgian town.
"For financial buccaneering it's the 18th Century you want....The sleuths in this series are too precious for words, but what's valuable here is the author's portrait of the emergence of investment banking." -Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
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The Hidden Man
By Robin Blake
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Robin Blake
All rights reserved.
Standing in the doorway, with medical bag in hand, Luke Fidelis peered into the shadowed room until its main features had resolved themselves: the outline of the low pallet bed; the man's gaunt, ghostly face looking steadily upwards; the pale hand resting motionless outside the covering blanket. The doctor went to the window and pulled aside its rough curtain to admit more light but, in doing so, let in a damp gust of air from off the Moor. Picking up a stool beneath the window he placed it beside the bed and sat, depositing his bag on the hard mud floor. The prostrate man's breath was shallow but absolutely regular, as if he reposed with not a single care. Fidelis spoke in a low voice, his mouth close to his patient's ear.
'Adam. Adam Thorn. I am Dr Fidelis come from Preston at your wife's request to attend you. Do not fret about the fee – there won't be one.'
Fidelis touched Adam's brow and found no fever. He felt his wrist. The pulse was even, and so was the heart, which he checked by pressing a silver listening-trumpet to the chest, and placing his ear on the earpiece at the narrow end. Next he felt with soft fingers around the contours of the skull. Finally he drew a candle end and tinderbox from his bag, lit the wick and leaned across to peer with the help of its light upon Thorn's face. His skin was dry, his lips cracked, his eyes staring in his head. Fidelis shielded the light from those eyes for a moment with his hand, then revealed it again, and noted how the pupils contracted in response. By this he determined that the automatic processes of the body were continuing as normal. But was the man conscious? Was he aware?
Standing, he returned to the window and dropped the curtain again, then crossed back to the door and ducked his head as he passed into the main room. Here a child of three sat playing on the ground and a baby grizzled in its cot, while another sucked at the breast of its mother who sat on a rough bench beside the cheerless fireplace. This was the month of June, in the year 1742: far from cold enough to make a fire essential for warmth, though this had not been much of a summer in the north country, and the doctor knew that Dot Lorris, his landlady, would have a log burning back at his own room in Preston, and glad he'd be of its comfort when he returned home on this damp day.
'You have no fire, Amity,' he observed. 'Do you not cook?'
Amity Thorn unplugged the child from the nipple, and let it loll back against her shoulder, dreamy with milk. With her free hand she pulled up her dress to cover the breast.
'I'll cook tomorrow. There's not the fuel for a fire every day. I have to learn thrift, with him the way he is ...'
She cocked her head towards the inner room.
Fidelis sat down at the worm-eaten table on one of the room's two chairs. To learn thrift, you first had to have something to be thrifty with, he thought, looking around the bare room.
'Well,' he said, 'I've had a look at him, and now I want to know more about how it happened.'
'I wasn't there. I didn't see.'
'But you found him, didn't you?'
'No, it was John Barton that found him and brought him home.'
'Barton the horse-coper up at Peel Hall Stables?'
Barton's yard had been part of a dismantled estate that centred on Peel Hall, now more or less of a ruin on the edge of the Town Moor, to the north-east of Preston.
'Where did John Barton find him, then?'
'Out on the Moor, lying on the ground. It were near the Bale Stone. John Barton saw him and heard him moaning.'
'When was this?'
'A week ago now.'
'A week? Has he been lying like that for a week?'
'Yes, except the once, he's neither moved nor talked, just sort of twitched sometimes. He gave over the moaning after we'd got him to bed.'
'What about food and drink?'
She nodded to the table where a spoon and porringer lay.
'He's been taking soup and milk off the spoon. I have to pull open his mouth, mind, but he's been taking it.'
'Did you not think to send for me or another doctor before this?'
'I had old Mother Greenshaw in to look at him – the wise woman. She told me what to do – if he'd take it, give him the soup and milk and porridge and maybe a beaten egg and some brandy, and just wait, and he might come round. Was that all right, what she said?'
'It's not bad advice. My own would not have been very different. Did you follow it?'
'As well as I could, only he's not come round, has he? He just lies there staring, staring. It frightens me.'
'You said he was like that "except the once". What do you mean by that?'
'After he'd been in bed a bit, he seemed to revive, like. He started groaning again, then I could make out some words. Babbling he was, and I saw he was moving one of his arms.'
'What was he saying? Did he give any indication of what happened to him out there?'
'No, he was only thinking about how he felt. I came to feed him and he kept on lifting his hand and trying to bat away the spoon, saying "rich, rich" meaning the food was too thick for him, or too flavoured, I guessed. The same way, he couldn't stand too much light, or noise.'
'As if all his senses were heightened? It's a possibility.'
'Well he were grateful to me. He kept saying I was precious to him. It were touching.'
'So how long was it before he lapsed into the state I have just seen?'
'He went on with his babbling for an hour or more. Then when I went back in to him he was lying still again, just breathing quietly. I talked to him but it seemed he never heard. When the baby screamed, he never flinched and he made no more fuss about the food I gave him. He's been like that since. If he doesn't come round, what am I to do? There's no one here but me and the little ones.'
'Have you no family anywhere – someone who can come and help?'
'There's nobody, only Peg.'
'His eleven-year-old niece that he's had charge of since her ma's died.'
'Does Peg live here?'
'Not now. She's gone into service as a housemaid. He thought the world of her, him. But we couldn't afford another mouth to feed even before this. Now I don't know what I'll do.'
'Can you make any money on your own account?'
'There's the little I get from selling my eggs at market. We have a few birds. But most of our money came from bits of work he did, for farmers and gardeners and such. He got some good pay at harvesting, which we put aside to help us through winter. But I had to pay the wise woman, and then there was the brandy to get. So I've had to spend.'
'If you're very short you can go to the parish. You'll be allowed something until your husband recovers. I'll put in a good word with the church warden. In the meantime, I'm afraid there is nothing more to be done except to care for him with warmth, food and drink, as best you can.'
'What is the matter with him, doctor?'
'He has suffered a seizure of the brain. There is also an injury to his skull, a lump from a bang on the head. It's difficult to know which came first. The head injury could have caused the seizure but just as likely he got the lump by falling down after the seizure. They very often do happen over their own accord, seizures. They make the sufferer insensible so that he falls to the ground.'
'But Adam will get better? If not, I don't know what I'll do.'
'I regret it's impossible to be sure, Mrs Thorn. He might come round at any time, or stay the same indefinitely. Or thirdly, I am sorry to say, he might suddenly be taken from us, without any warning whatsoever.'
She rose and deposited the child in the cot beside the baby, and went to a side table. There she took a scoop of cold gruel from a pot and poured it into the wooden porringer. After placing this on the table she picked up the eldest child from the floor and balanced it upon her knee to feed it. The somewhat battered and dented spoon carried the gruel inefficiently, but by working fast she managed to force a high proportion of the thin liquid into the mouth, though the child pulled faces and wriggled with dislike of its dinner.
'It will be terrible to live with such uncertainty – if we can live at all.'
Suddenly the child on her knee twisted around and one of its hands grabbed at the spoon. In surprise Amity let go and it fell, clattering off the edge of the table and bouncing to the floor. Immediately Fidelis stooped to retrieve it.
Before he returned the implement to her he glanced at it. Though damaged, pitted and discoloured, it had once been a fine piece of spoonery – the shank heavy and with the remains of chasing along its length, and a nobbled end, as of some figure now unrecognizable. He turned it over: there were four black pits on the shank, square in shape and black where dirt had compacted in them. Amity held out her hand.
'Give it back, doctor, if you please. I must feed him quick or he won't take it at all.'
'Of course. Here.'
He gave her back the spoon and, for the time being, thought no more about it, while they talked of Amity Thorn's hard life, and of what she could do to alleviate it.
'Remember to go to the church warden as soon as you can,' he said firmly, thinking at last it was time to leave. Then his eye caught sight again of the spoon, which lay in the now empty porringer on the table.
'And there is one more thing I should mention,' he said, pointing at the bowl. 'That spoon of yours looks silver. I fancy, if you clean it up, that it will raise a sum of ready cash in town.'
She picked up the spoon and turned it in her hand.
'This dirty old thing? Adam brought it back a month ago, off the Moor. You don't mean it's worth something?'
'It might be. Where did he get it?'
She shook her head.
'As I say, I reckoned he must have picked it up off the Moor, or somewhere about. It were all muddy and stained: just an old spoon, as I thought, though he did say different.'
'What did he say?'
She gave a short, melancholy laugh.
'That it was treasure. "Treasure trove, is that," he said. He's done it before – come home with some brass farthing he'd found on the Moor and said it was treasure trove. He was bitten with this idea that some old soldier had buried a big lot of silver up there a hundred year ago. But he'd got himself killed and the secret died with him, so the silver was never found. Adam even told me he'd gone to Preston to talk to the Recorder to prove it were true.'
'The Recorder? Mr Thorneley?'
'I don't know his name. Adam kept on about looking for it but I just said if poor folk ever do find such things they get them taken off them, as sure as the Gospel, so what's the use? He shut up about it after that but I'll give you a warrant that he never gave over looking for it. That was his way.'
Fidelis looked carefully at the underside of the spoon's shaft, and showed it to her.
'Well, I don't know about any treasure, but I am saying that, if these pits on the underside of the handle are hallmarks, then it really is made of silver – assayed silver. Maybe that's what Adam was trying to tell you when he was saying "rich" and "precious". He was talking about the spoon you were feeding him his gruel with.'
Her face fell. She had imagined she was the precious one. The doctor gave her back the spoon.
'So you can exchange it for some silver coin. Do it, Amity. Buy some wholesome food for the little ones, and for Adam too. Marrowbone broth is always recommendable.'
Fidelis got to his feet and returned for a last look into the darkness of Adam Thorn's room. As before nothing there moved, only two tiny winking sparks of light from Adam's eyes, which every few moments were extinguished and immediately reappeared.
Then he returned to where Amity was, bade her good day and ducked out into the drizzle. He put his hat on his head, turned up the collar of his coat and strode off towards town.
* * *
You, the reader, might very well suppose, in order to recount all this to you, that I, Titus Cragg, must have been loitering about under the dripping eaves of the Thorn house, peering in through chinks in the window sacking, listening at the door, committing the conversations I heard to memory. In reality, I was not: all that afternoon I was in Preston town, more than a mile distant from the Thorn house, seeing to my practice as an attorney-at-law and my work, which I hold to be equally important, as the town Coroner.
But how, you must ask, can words describing an event in the world seem so convincing – so real – when their author never himself observed the event? It is a question that often bedevils a law court. It doesn't matter how many times witnesses are warned to tell only what they directly saw and heard, they will run on with the gossip of chair-carriers, and chambermaids' tittle-tattle, taking the jury with their story-telling into the realm of speculation, and soon into a state of firm belief. Many poor innocents have gone to the gallows in those realms and states of fantasy, but their necks were not the less truly broken for it. Stories and lies are so knitted together with facts and experience that they can never easily be disentangled – not in a law court, and not in life.
In a book, then? That, you may suppose, is my aim. The events I have just described were long ago and nobody's neck depends on whether or not you believe my writing. Nevertheless, let me reassure you: every word of what I have written about Dr Fidelis's visit to the Thorns is true, for I had it on the following evening detail by detail from the lips of the doctor himself, and assiduously committed it to my journal before going to bed.
And the reason I set it down here will be clear in due course.CHAPTER 2
Earlier in the same day I had been in my lawyer's office, adjoining my house on Cheapside at the very heart of Preston, when a note arrived by hand of a messenger. It came from the merchant Phillip Pimbo of Fisher Gate, one of Preston's leading sellers of gold and silver, and was written in the hand of Pimbo himself.
'Dear Cragg,' he wrote, 'I would be extremely obliged if you would attend me tomorrow morning at your earliest convenience. A matter of wrong-doing has arisen which taxes my understanding, and I am very much hoping you can provide me with some legal assistance in the matter. I am &c. Phillip Pimbo.'
Pimbo was a bachelor who lived with his mother at Cadley, and was noted for large ears that stood at right angles to his head. I had last spoken with him at any length about three or four months earlier, when we had met at the postal office in the Shambles. We were waiting to take our turn at the clerk's window, and he was talking volubly about his partnership with a scrivener from Liverpool called Zadok Moon, and of their plans to provide Preston, for the first time, with something like a bank.
Looking back across the span of more than thirty years, it seems incredible that we in the country had managed affairs for so long without our own local banks. We still relied on strongboxes to keep our money safe, if not on secret holes in the ground, or sliding panels in the wainscot. Goldsmiths had long accepted plate and other valuables on pawn, and some also took in cash on account for safe keeping, or on security, which they could then use to finance their pawnbroking advances. In my grandfather's day it was done by the age old tallystick method: the amount of the deposit would be marked by a certain number of notches on the stick, which would be split along its length, one half to be kept by each side of the bargain.
Beside these moneylending goldsmiths, here and there a scrivening lawyer could also be found (Moon of Liverpool was, I assumed, one of them) whose specialty was the investment of money on behalf of clients in interest-bearing Exchequer Bills and Debentures, or in the profits from voyages, toll-roads or waterways. But so far no one in the County had taken the next step. No one had put these two services together and formed a bank that took in deposits at interest and issued notes to the public.
Pimbo had brought with him to the post office a brown and white spaniel pup, and as he talked – which he did a great deal – he repeatedly called it to attention – 'Suez! Sit! Good boy!' – in order to treat it to little balls of bacon fat, of which he kept a supply in the pocket of his coat. Between treats Suez persistently attacked the buckle of my shoe making it hard to concentrate on what its master was saying.
But his burden was the tale of how he, Pimbo, had persuaded the Corporation, a couple of years back, to place in his keeping the entire fund of money built up and laid aside to pay for the Preston Guild, the grand civic celebrations which were held every twenty years, and which as he spoke would be coming round again in six months. Pimbo puffed out his chest like a cock pigeon.
'It is a great amount, very great, for the Guild is no cheap undertaking.'
'I hope your strong room is safe, then,' I said in a jocular tone.
'Safe?' he boomed. 'Yes, my friend, it is indeed safe. Imagine the Bastille of Paris lodged inside the Tower of London. That would not be safer. My strong room's door has inside it a gate made from thick bars of iron, closed by a pair of strong locks of the latest design. Safe? I should just like to see the man who can dig or break his way into there. But no matter, because the large part of a bank's money is not in the strong room.'
Excerpted from The Hidden Man by Robin Blake. Copyright © 2015 Robin Blake. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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