last updated: 8 August 2017 (approximate reading time: 11 minutes; 2163 words)
This is an early draft of the first chapter from a new novel which will be set in the mid 18th century.
Usually when I put out something, it’s from a book that has been or will shortly be published. This extract is different: it’s not from a published book, it’s not from my next book, and it’s not from my next-but-one book. In other words, don’t expect the finished version anytime soon, and also, expect a lot of changes by the time it is released.
You can read more about this chapter and the series, including my discussions with readers by following this link.
He sent a boy to fetch me.
The child—probably not yet ten-years-old—found me at my lodgings at the Red Lyon Inn just before five in the morning. “We must hurry, sir,” he said from the other side of High Holbourn, leaving me in the pre-dawn light to step gingerly through the debris strewn along and across, with the stench of the early morning filling my nostrils. The smell that never goes away. The smell of shit and decomposition mixed by the rain to run along the open sewers of the street.
It took us fifteen minutes to make the journey of just over a mile. The boy dragged me like an eager horse that knew it would be rewarded when it reached its destination. He scampered ahead, seeming to know where every pothole and obstacle lay. I puffed behind him, feeling the sweat starting to form on my back despite the early morning chill, and cursing each fetid puddle, each pile of human excrement emptied from the windows above, and every dead animal carcass that my feet found.
As we approached the house of my former master—the house that I was familiar with having lived and worked there over many years—the boy passed the front door and headed to the narrow gate at the end of the railings. He turned onto the stairs in the well between the house and the railings, following the steep incline that led to the back door. In truth, the door wasn’t at the back—it was at the front, but it was the door to the basement, the domain of the servants.
The boy knocked and as the door began to open, he disappeared inside like a cat getting through a gap that you don’t realize is there until the animal has disappeared. As the door opened wider I was met by a friendly face and welcomed inside. “His lordship is expecting you.”
My cape was taken and I was hurried through the servants’ quarters without a moment to do more than meet the eyes or perhaps exchange a smile with those of my former compatriots who were just beginning their working day. There was a hiss from one another to be quiet since the young lord was still awake and in my wake, a questioning as to why I had returned. I was pressed up the stairs and led to the morning room. A single knock and I entered.
A solitary candle had nearly burned out. The flame leaned steeply in the draft of the open door. Its movement pushing the shadows around the room which was dark with the still closed shutters keeping out any hint of pre-sunrise light. On the table next to the candle was a glass of brandy, untouched as far as I could tell.
“My Lord,” I said, more from habit than necessity, looking to my former employer sitting in one of the two wingback chairs angled toward the fire.
Our relationship was different to how it had been until four months ago. We were no longer master and servant. Now we were two individuals. Two individuals of different social classes, but both subjects of King George and neither owing allegiance to the other for reasons other than historic loyalty.
As I was no longer in his employ, when no greeting or comment was forthcoming I sat in the other chair and looked to him, awaiting his explanation for summoning me.
His face was lit by the small flames of the fire, which to guess from the accumulation of ash had been burning all night. He had aged more than four months since I last saw him. He was thinner, his skin grayer and had lost some of its luster. But he seemed to have more gravity, a greater significance as a person, as if a burden had been thrust upon but nonetheless accepted.
“Kitty Wilson.” When he finally spoke, he said a name and no more, his face scrubbed of emotion.
He noticed as the side of my mouth twitched with the name. It was as if it was a relief to him to have said the name out loud and to see my reaction. But then, it was a name that most of London would have known, and would have held an opinion on, however ill-informed that opinion may have been.
He said no more, either in words or in his demeanor. I waited, not sure if he wanted me to speak or remain silent. And if I was to speak, was I there to try to bring some levity to my former employer?
“Miss Wilson,” I said. “As I recall, while visiting this house—a most rare event and most unexpected visit; indeed, so unexpected that you yourself did not know of her presence—the lady became lost. In her disoriented state she stumbled into a bed chamber—your chamber—and not finding a way to then leave she became afraid. This extreme anxiety in finding herself trapped made her weary and feeling a great tiredness, she fell asleep. Asleep in your bed. When you returned to your chamber—on an evening when you had coincidentally discharged me from my duties—you found her asleep. And since you are an honorable man and were without me to assist, you realized the profound distress she must have felt in her predicament, so you determined that the proper course was to remain with her so that she would not be alarmed when she woke.”
In my former master’s morning room—sitting as something closer to equals—I was starting to find I could speak more freely. My master seemed unwilling to talk, but appeared to appreciate my effort to fill what may otherwise be an uncomfortable silence.
“And I seem to recall that after she awoke, you then took great pains to comfort her. Indeed, you held her very close to reassure her, as I found when I brought her breakfast—having neglected to bring it previously, not having known that Miss Wilson had endured such an unfortunate experience through the night, nor being aware of how you had assisted the lady.”
I was beginning to enjoy talking, for the first feeling able to speak with my former employer in a manner that I felt unable to when I was reliant on him for my employment, my income, my lodging, and my future references.
“However, I am still unclear about when her clothes fell from her body and nor am I certain why you felt it best to comfort her without your clothes. I presume in order that she would not feel ashamed in her nakedness—”
“Enough.” He made a small and slow movement, lifting his hand to quiet me. His voice nearly silent, but his manner was commanding. I looked hard; there was no anger, but any sign of humor had drained from his face. “Kitty Wilson is dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear,” I said, then fell into silent contemplation. When offered nothing more, I asked, “Was it Venus’s curse?”
“She was no frigate on fire, burning with the clap,” said my former master. Now there was anger in his voice. Indignation. When he continued he adopted a more measured tone, almost mournful. “When I last saw her, some weeks ago, she was in good health.” He paused, staring into the fire, “I don’t know how she died and I had not heard that she had been unwell. It is very sudden. Most unexpected.”
“Sir,” I said, force of habit determining my address. “What then was the manner of her death? Was there an accident?”
It seemed an age before he continued, he had that look I used to associate with him weighing both what to tell me and how to tell me. “You know she had experienced some unpleasantness in recent months after her protector, Sir Evelyn Broxbourne, died.”
I nodded, but said nothing. I did not know, but felt this wasn’t the time to discuss the extent, or otherwise, of my knowledge of a woman who was best known for the people she knew.
“Sir Evelyn was generous to Kitty. He provided the house in which she lived and financing which covered the salary of maybe three or four staff, but he made no written provision for her in his will. Sir Evelyn’s family has shown itself most unwilling to publicly acknowledge the man’s, shall we say, friendship with Kitty.”
“Sir Evelyn’s widow—” I began.
“I do not blame the woman, she too has lost her source of income and must manage her capital and assets. And the widow was fair; she said to Kitty, ‘buy the house or move out so I may sell.’ Kitty did not like either option, believing the house was already hers and that Sir Evelyn’s estate owed her a continuing obligation. There was also the practical issue that Kitty had nowhere to go and lived an expensive life with more servants than Sir Evelyn’s generosity would provide. She lived the life of a dowager duchess or maybe a baroness. Not the life of…”
He drifted, his moistening eyes drawn to the fire. When he continued, his voice was softer. “She told me that she first let herself be seduced by an older man when she was fourteen. And since then—some twenty-plus years—she has been living off her wits and the appetites of men. But now there is firmer flesh in Westminster. Flesh that tells new jokes. Flesh without wrinkles. Flesh that doesn’t imply an obligation to provide a house, a wardrobe, and staff. At the end of the day, the butcher sells his scraps cheaply, and that which he cannot sell he gives to his dog, and that which the dog will not eat gets thrown on the street.”
He did not paint an attractive picture, but he seemed to be trying to explain, maybe to justify, so I held my tongue.
“Kitty’s circumstances were becoming dire, but after much consideration she arrived at a scheme to underwrite her lifestyle.” He paused, his lips twisting in a wry grin as he waited until he was sure he had my attention before he continued. “She wrote a book—her memoirs. You know her reputation…well, some, much, of what you will have heard was true, and she had set it down in a book. A book with names and she was ready to publish.”
“I had heard there was a book, but I dismissed it as alehouse gossip by those with tongue enough for two sets of teeth. But you say there is a book that names her men. Did she write the truth?”
“Close one eye, blow out the candle, and look through the crack of a door on a moonless night and you’ll better see the truth. You don’t think Kitty attracted so many men by chaining herself to the absolute fidelity in her narrative? The truth is not amusing or entertaining. But a story with a grain of truth on which you build an exaggeration—an exaggeration that everyone wants to be true and which everyone believes reveals what is truly in a man or a woman’s heart… Now tell me that isn’t the truth.”
He had been leaning forward. For the first time since my arrival, my former master had seemed more animated. Not just animated—he seemed almost proud of Kitty’s enterprise. Proud as if he may have helped her recollect her memories.
“And you think this book is the reason for her death,” I said, both making a statement and asking a question.
His stare in return was as if to say, “What other explanation could there be?”
“If the book is connected, people would have needed to know for certain that there was a book and that they were named. How did word get around?”
The look of pride returned to my former master’s face. This was more than pride, this was unconstrained admiration. “She had a scheme—a most Kitty-like scheme. She wrote to all the men she had recollected in her book—at least, all the men who were not poor—and made them a simple offer: pay and your name will be removed.”
The room was quiet apart from a few soft cracks of the fire and the shouts from the street outside. The conversation between us paused as we both contemplated Kitty’s scheme.
“And what do you want from me, sir?”