A woman crossed the street. Coach lamps winked at her out of darkness, dazzling her eyes. Her feet sloshed through mud and horse muck, soaking the bottom of her skirt. When she reached the other side, she threaded her way down the crowded footpath, forced to skirt a cluster of prostitutes. Next she encountered a crew of young men, out to enjoy themselves at the taverns or supper rooms nearby. One of them, a boy, called a jest to his friend, and she paused to gaze after him, thinking how lucky he was to walk in safety, to live without fear. He did not notice her. She bent her head, pressed on.
Reaching her destination, she flattened her body against the door of an adjoining shop-front to stand gazing up at the windows of the London Daily Intelligencer. Light blazed in the editor’s room and in the printing offices above, where the pressmen and compositors would toil to produce the morning edition. As journalists came in and out of the building, speaking to one another in ordinary, cheerful voices, she withdrew to the shadows. She fixed her eyes on the window of Dryden Leach’s private room. At this hour he would be working alone.
It was his settled habit to retire to his room with orders he was not to be disturbed so that he might finish his work. He would sit, a glass at his elbow, his Burke and his Shakespeare ready for apt quotation. He would think only of how to turn a profit, ingratiate himself, shout the desired opinion. He cared for nothing and no one. He was greedy, fawning, deceitful… cold. Once she had been fool enough to think he loved her, but in that she had been wrong. Always she had been the pawn of the men in her life. Hatred swelled in her heart.
She saw her chance when several parliamentary men piled out of coaches, returning with their reports of the night’s session. When the porter came out to greet them, she slipped, like a restless spirit, behind him and into the hall, where voices reached her ears along with the creaking of floorboards. Swiftly, she mounted the stairs to the editorial offices on the first floor. Her hand went out to open the door to his chamber. Under her cloak, her other hand groped for the knife in an interior pocket, the solidness of its handle reassuring. Exultation overtook her; she threw open the door and went in.
The man at the desk looked up, annoyance settling over his handsome face. He was in his early fifties, dark-haired, with thin lips and eyes dulled by brandy. His gait a little unsteady, he came forward to meet her in the center of the carpet. Slowly, deliberately, she lifted her veil.
“Did you bring the memoirs?” he asked.
In her mood of dark liberation, it was surprisingly easy to achieve her purpose. She stepped closer and thrust the knife into his breast, pushing past his startled recoil, feeling it penetrate his coat, his shirt, the flesh underneath. She withdrew the knife to thrust a second time, more deeply. For a long moment, they stared at each other as wetness darkened his shirt.
“You fiend,” he gasped. “How could you?” “You had to be stopped.”
Swaying, he fell to his knees on the carpet and bent over, coughing, his labored breathing the only sound in the room. She stepped away. At the desk, she reached out with shaking fingers to grasp some papers, her eyes frantically skimming a few sentences before she pushed the sheets into the pocket of her cloak. She could go now. But suddenly he reared to his feet and in two strides was at the desk. His hands came out to restrain her. Wrenching free, she ran out of the room and down the stairs. But she heard his footsteps behind her and glanced over her shoulder to see him lurch into the wall and clutch the banister. Still, he managed to make his way to the bottom. The trembling in her hands made it difficult to get the front door open, but after an agonizing pause she had darted past the startled porter and into the street. Racing away, she looked back once as Leach emerged, the porter at his heels. No one stopped her, and she fled into the night. Only then did she remember to draw the veil over her face.
# # #
Penelope had not seen the barrister Edward Buckler since she was engaged as a lady’s companion while living apart from her husband, Jeremy. When her daughter Sarah became dangerously ill, Penelope sent for Jeremy, but Sarah recovered, thank God. Almost a year ago Penelope had left the employ of Lady Ashe and returned to London, hoping to establish a new lease on her long-faltering marriage. It had seemed somehow unwise to resume her friendship with Buckler—she even avoided the lawyer Ezekiel Thorogood and his wife Hope, her dear friends, because they were first and foremost Buckler’s friends.
And yet she often thought of her last strange meeting with Mr. Buckler, standing over the grave of an unbaptized child who had not been as fortunate as Sarah. They had staged a baptism ceremony so that this child’s soul would not be lost, and, serving as co-sponsors, they placed their hands side-by-side atop the cloth bundle that held the remains and renounced all sin and corruption in the poor mite’s name. Long after that day, Penelope’s sense of loss remained, a nagging reminder of her own loneliness.
She felt this loneliness keenly when Jeremy sauntered in one morning to find her sitting over her breakfast. Chin covered in stubble, beautiful eyes bloodshot, coat crumpled beyond redemption, he still managed to look handsome and well satisfied. He poured a cup of coffee and threw himself in a chair. “You won’t have heard the news. Rex said the matter is to be kept as quiet as possible. No notice to the papers and Bow Street not to be called in. He was terribly shaken when the message from the surgeon came.” Jeremy had caught her interest, no doubt his intention, thus avoiding a shrewish reminder that he had broken yet another promise to return home early the prior night.
“The damndest thing. Last night Rex’s son-in-law, Dryden Leach, was viciously attacked in his own office at the Daily Intelligencer.” He quirked an eyebrow. “Stabbed, my dear. Apparently, he ain’t dead, though something close to it. Rex and Leach are not the best of friends, but I’m sure the family will rally round under the circumstances.”
Penelope struggled to keep her expression neutral. Dryden Leach was the man writing the vitriolic replies to the Collatinus letters published in the Free Albion, a radical newssheet. Over the last fortnight she had followed the increasingly heated exchange. Finally yesterday she had decided to approach the newspapers but was not foolish enough to venture into Seven Dials, a dangerous rookery, to visit the office of the Free Albion. Instead she tried to see Mr. Leach, hoping he might know something of his adversary. To no avail. A polite but very firm assistant had refused her admittance.
Absently, she buttered another piece of bread, which she left untasted on her plate. “Who was the attacker?”
“No one knows. Leach is a rabid Tory who sees a traitor and an infidel in every quarter. There have been threats before, I’m told. Perhaps he went too far, made somebody too angry. He managed to give a description of the attacker: a tall man in a cloak and black crepe mask. Rex hurried off to inquire into the matter.”
Alarmed, Penelope considered confiding in Jeremy, only to reject the idea, for he would only think her guilty of idle, womanish nonsense. She had intended to tell him the whole story once she had a chance to speak with Mr. Leach after which she wouldn’t have minded a laugh at her expense if that meant she could dismiss her fears. But now her unease grew.
“I’ve been reading Mr. Leach’s letters in the paper. He refused to back down for fear of the assassin’s knife. It sounded like boastful posturing, but do you think Collatinus attacked him?” “Very likely.” Jeremy did not sound much interested. In one of his quick mood changes, a discontented look settled over his face as he sipped his coffee and stared out the window.
Penelope suppressed her irritation. “Haven’t you been reading the exchange? Collatinus hints about hidden evil stretching back to the time of the treason trials, and Mr. Leach fires back with charges of villainy. I should think you would be interested given the amount of time you spend with his father-by-marriage.”
“Jealous, my dear? Rex and the Countess were telling me about their acquaintance with your father. I hear he left London rather abruptly, though I fail to grasp why this ancient history should concern you.”
“Has Mr. Rex mentioned Collatinus?”
Jeremy smiled. “We’ve had other topics to engage us. My career for one, which I should think you would be glad of. He has been immensely useful to me, so I wish I understood why you dislike him.”
It was an old argument. Penelope had not been in favor of Jeremy befriending the well-known—some would say notorious—moneylender and gentleman upstart Horatio Rex. Born a Jew, he had divorced his first wife to marry an Anglo-Irish countess. A fiery pamphleteer and printer in his youth, he made his fortune as a money-broker but was taken to court numerous times for his predatory business dealings, spent several stints in the Fleet and King’s Bench prisons, and twice fled the country to escape bankruptcy. These days Rex, who had anglicized his birth name of Hirsch Reyes, ran lending offices all over London, some more respectable than others, all catering to different segments of society. No, Penelope could not like this connection, though Mr. Rex had once been her father’s friend. But as it was clear Jeremy did not share her views, she held her tongue. Instead, she would seek Mr. Buckler’s counsel.
# # #
Penelope went first to Ezekiel Thorogood’s office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, catching him as he was about to step into a hackney. His weathered cheeks wrinkling in delight, he wrung her hand enthusiastically and said he was on his way to Westminster Hall to watch Buckler argue a crim. con. cause in the court of King’s Bench.
“An attorney called Grouse has sued Buckler’s client, a sugar broker, for engaging in criminal conversation with his wife. Grouse has demanded damages of ten thousand pounds.” Shaking his large, gray head in disapproval, Thorogood explained that the plaintiff, no newcomer to the legal system, had already triumphed to the tune of a few hundred pounds in an earlier cause against his own coachman on the same charge of adultery with his wife.
Though the old lawyer kept his face somber, a gleam of humor lurked in his eyes. “Even though Grouse first challenged his coachman in court, he claims it was the sugar-broker Lionel Taggart who initially seduced his wife from the path of virtue. But I daresay Taggart makes the richer target.” His humor faded. “Ruining the coachman was merely incidental.”
Thorogood was utterly content with his wife Hope, a Quakeress who had braved her family’s displeasure to marry him, yet he’d seen enough of the world to look upon the frailties of men and women with compassion. His sympathies were ever with the downtrodden, with those crushed under the weight of the powerful. As a result, he would feel little pity for one rich man striving to relieve another of his precious wealth. And this case marked a departure for Buckler, who was often dragged into Thorogood’s more colorful—and less lucrative—projects to help the wretches accused of various crimes.
Curious, Penelope asked: “Has Mr. Buckler been employed in such a case before? I thought him mostly attached to criminal matters.”
Thorogood grinned at her. “It’s the first. Defending Taggart could be a big step for him. Some would say Buckler does well to wash off some of the Old Bailey dirt in a civil case. Accompany me, my dear, and give your opinion as to whether he has found a new career. Hope will not approve of my having exposed you to such scandalous proceedings, but, after all, there’s a new pamphlet on the subject every other day. These cases are distressingly common among the fashionables.” His eyes were kind, bearing no hint of insinuation. Still, Penelope knew he was well aware of the state of her own marriage.
Smiling back, she took his hand and allowed him to help her into the coach. In a courtly gesture, Thorogood used a corner of his cloak to dust off the seat, and they rumbled off in the rickety, smelly carriage that looked as if it might have been new some fifty years ago when George III came to the throne.
“You must tell me of your affairs. What have you been doing with yourself since your return to the metropolis? Hope will want to know all the details.”
She shifted to face him. “My husband has taken lodgings with a gallery and painting room in Greek Street. We received an unexpected legacy from a cousin of mine, and this good fortune has enabled Jeremy to fulfill his ambition of setting up a studio.” “Excellent,” he said too heartily. “Has the business prospered?” “He has sold three portraits of a man, his wife, and his daughters. Now he has several other commissions to fulfill.” If he could only be persuaded to complete them, she added silently, and to stop increasing the pile of bills on her desk. The three hundred guineas Jeremy had earned from these portraits had been swallowed up almost immediately.
Reading something of her chagrin, Thorogood arranged his bulk a little more comfortably and trained his benevolent gaze on her. “Tell me why you have come to see me, Mrs. Wolfe.”