I’ve posted a couple of Richard Nottingham stories on here over the last couple of weeks and I’m grateful for how well they’ve been received. This isn’t a third, but it’s related – a tale involving his great nemesis, Amos Worthy (if you don’t know him, read the first three Richard Nottingham books). This goes back to a period before Richard is Constable of Leeds; he’s not even mentioned. But I hope you’ll like it anyway.
The young traveller closed the book of maps, stood up and began to look around.
“If you want the jakes it’s out in the yard,” said the man sitting across the table from him. “But I’d not leave that there, it’ll be gone by the time you get back. Den of bloody thieves, this is.”
“Thank you.” He picked up the book and took it with him.
The man shook his head. Some folk had no more brains than chickens, he thought. He pushed his plate away, downed the last of his ale and left the Talbot Inn, pausing only to loosen his breeches a little; the beef had been filling. One of his men lounged outside the door, watching the street with careful eyes, then quickly falling in step behind his employer.
Amos Worthy walked down Briggate, looking straight ahead, the tip of his silver-headed stick tapping on the street. Although he was dressed in shabby clothes, his coat and waistcoat old and stained, his hose dirty, the wig ancient, he knew he was one of the powers in Leeds. Aldermen came to court him, eager to borrow his money for their businesses or make use of his whores. Merchants deferred to him. None would have him at their table, of course. At one time they’d shunned him, back when he was an honest man. Now, at fifty, he was a pimp and procurer, with deep wealth in his coffers.
He turned on to Swinegate, striding easily through the clamour of people at work or making their purchases and went through the plain door to the house, going along to the kitchen, where the fire was lit. The man was already waiting there for him.
“Alderman Harkness,” he said as he settled onto his chair. “What can I do for you?”
Harkness was close to fifty, about the same age as Worthy, a close pink shave on his heavy jowls. In the last decade he’d ballooned into fatness, much larger than Worthy himself. But he strove to hide it in suits of the best cut, intended to flatter, and expensive, colourful silk waistcoats. He’d made his money from selling cloth and consolidated his power as a member of the city’s corporation.
“I need the loan of some money, Mr. Worthy.” At least the man had the decency to look embarrassed at his request, Worthy thought.
“And how much this time, Alderman?” He let his voice hang on the last word to remind Harkness of his position.
“Two hundred and fifty.”
“Two hundred and fifty pounds?” He was astounded by the figure. It was enough to pay for an apprenticeship with a merchant. Even those who did well in the wool trade that was the backbone of Leeds only cleared twice that in a year. “And what do you need that for?”
“It’s a personal matter.” Harkness tried to sound dignified, but Worthy knew the reason. The alderman’s son, George, loved to gamble. He spent his nights at the tables, in York or London, playing cards or hazard. By April each year he’d already lost his annual allowance and came crawling to his father for more. The man needed the money to honour his son’s debts.
“You’re a man of strong appetites, Mr. Harkness.” Worthy leaned back and studied the alderman in his finery. He glanced over at the guard by the back door. “How many times has he had Sophie in the last two months, Tom?”
Worthy raised his thick eyebrows.
“Twenty times with one of my whores in two months? You’ve a bull in your breeches, Mr. Harkness. And how much have we charged him, Tom?”
“Nothing,” came the reply.
Worthy sat back and sighed.
“You use my girls for nowt, you already owe me a hundred from last year, and now you’re back at the trough for more. What do you say to that, Alderman Harkness?”
“I’ll pay you back,” he answered brusquely. “I always have before.”
“Aye,” Worthy agreed slowly. He poured himself a mug of ale, pointedly offering none to the other man, and drank it all down in one long gulp. “That was then, though. Times have changed, haven’t they?”
Just a year earlier, in 1714, the merchants and aldermen of Leeds had sworn their allegiance to the new king, George. Less than twelve months later, in June, some folk in the city had celebrated the birthday of the Old Pretender, James Stuart. The church bells had rung for hours and bonfires had burned in joy around the town. The dragoons had come out of their barracks to stop the Jacobite sympathy. In the weeks after, Mayor Pollard and two others had been summoned to London and Alderman Cookson had been briefly arrested. After that Leeds had trodden tenderly and cautiously. Trade was down, no one wanted to be seen to do business with traitors. The merchants were making no money, he knew that for a fact; they’d all come grovelling to him for favours and loans. If it lasted much longer, Leeds would be full of paupers, Harkness included.
“They’ll get better,” the alderman promised. “This’ll blow over soon enough, you wait and see.”
“Oh aye?” Worthy asked. His voice was lightly mocking but his eyes were hard. “And how long do I have to wait?”
“A month…maybe three.”
He could see the main was sweating, the drops standing out on his forehead under the carefully powdered wig. Worthy poured more of the ale and sipped at it, tasting the bitterness in his mouth and relishing it in his throat.
“And if I lend you the money, what’s my guarantee?”
Harkness stood straighter.
“My honour. It’s been good enough for you before,” he said, affronted.
“I already said, times have changed.” He knew that the man would get his money and be deep in his debt in many ways. But let him wait a little for it, he thought. Harkness had been one of those who’d hounded him all those years before. He’d had a shop then, a draper’s, doing fair business and gaining a reputation. Then there’d been the news of his affair with a merchant’s wife – nothing as simple or straightforward as an affair, really; it had been love – and the customers he’d relied upon had abandoned him, until he’d had to start over, running whores and finding a life beyond the law. Did the man in front of him think he’d forgotten all that, written it off to history? “So which will you wager on?” he asked. “One month or three?” He could see relief flood into the man’s expression.
“Three months,” he answered quickly, as Worthy knew he would.
“Same interest as before.”
“Tom will bring you the money,” he said and took another drink. The merchant moved towards the door. “And Mr. Harkness,” Worthy said to his back, “there’ll be no more Sophie until you’ve paid.”
The summer passed, a hot and humid August slowly giving way to the first signs of autumn, fruit dropping from horse chestnut trees to be eagerly gathered by boys, the leaves turning to their bright, dying colours.
As the weather turned, clouds and showers replacing sun and heat, another pimp thought to challenge Worthy’s supremacy. Others had tried and failed, and this one was no different. Worthy led his men in the fight, using his fists and boots, enjoying the red rage that overcame him before taking his knife to the upstart as a lesson. Mercy was softness in his business; men had to know that failure brought only one thing. If he didn’t do that, none would respect or fear him.
When it was over he found out who’d betrayed him to his competitor. It was one of his girls, one who’d tried to cheat him before and paid the price for that transgression with a long scar on her cheek. This time, when he questioned her, she’d stood defiant, saying nothing but spitting in his eye. He’d taken care of her himself, making sure none would ever see her alive again, and that no one would find the body. He knew the rumours would spread and his reputation would grow. It would keep the whores in line and the debtors agreeable.
By the end of October he’d received no word from Harkness about repaying the loan. Worthy had kept his ears open. He knew trade was still painfully slow, the merchants and the city still hurting, purses so tight that they squeaked. Three days remained until the loan was due. The second of November, payable in full with interest. There was time, he told himself. The man might arrive on the day itself. One thing Harkness wouldn’t dare do was play him for a fool; that was a devil’s game.
He kept his own counsel on the matter, the way he did with everything else. Never let any man know your mind, he’d learned, and it had served it well. It kept them guessing and kept them wary.
On the day the money was due he stepped into the parlour of the house on Swinegate before going to dinner. There were cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling and dust on the small table. One of the servants had lit a fire, but no one was allowed to clean in here.
“Hello, mam,” he said to the old woman in the chair. She was hunched over, a small glass clenched in her finger. Her stroked her hair tenderly but she took no notice. She’d had him at fifteen and raised him as well as she could, somehow finding the money for his apprenticeship to a draper. When the respectable folk of the city turned their backs to him, she’d found her sweet oblivion in gin. He’d taken her in, made sure there was always enough of the spirit for her.
She didn’t move, didn’t answer, and soon he left her to her dreams, wherever they might take her. He ate at the White Swan, conducted his business and returned, sitting late in the kitchen and brooding while a blaze roared in the hearth. He finished a jug of ale and refilled it from the barrel, paying no attention to the guard who waited patiently by the back door.
The next morning he sent word to Adam the forger, a note telling him what he needed. He knew the man would do it without question.
Adam brought the documents before evening and Worthy inspected them closely before handing over a gold coin, payment for the work and the silence that would follow it. Nights were coming earlier, he thought as he looked out of the window. All too soon it would be winter once more and he’d feel its bitterness in his bones. Each year seemed colder than the last.
He’d give Harkness until morning to appear.
Worthy rose early, dressing in the clothes he always wore, careless of the stains and smell. Bread, cheese and sliced meat were waiting on the kitchen table, the room already warm from the fire, the way he enjoyed it. Finally he pushed the plate away and motioned to Tom.
No Harkness. No word.
“Go up to the barracks and fetch Lieutenant Marsh,” he ordered. He knew the man would come; Worthy had been generous with his whores and gifts of wine to the man. Marsh had been the officer to quell the celebrations and arrest the men he believed disloyal to the King. He was an ambitious fool, someone who believed fervently in crown and country as he paraded around Leeds in his best uniform and paid court to the young ladies of Leeds before tupping the prostitutes in the back rooms of inns.
It took two hours for the soldier to arrive, the heels of his polished boots clacking on the flagstones of the hallways. He stood on the other side of the table, back straight, his hat clutched under one arm, a quizzical expression in his eyes.
“I believe all the men you arrested over the birthday celebration for the Pretender are free,” Worthy began. He was seated on the stool. He’d put more coal on the fire, making sure that the man would sweat in his fine plumage.
“They are, sir.” Marsh’s voice was loud and abrasive, with the drawl of generations of money.
“You must be disappointed, laddie.”
“Sir?” He looked confused.
“All that work and they’re let go in the end. They’ll not have thanked you in London. Making all that work for them and it comes to nought.”
Marsh was silent. Aye, Worthy thought, he’d have earned himself a black mark or two with that. He smiled.
“Would you like to redeem yourself, Lieutenant?”
He drew the papers from the deep pocket of his waistcoat. They’d been folded and refolded, the handwriting carefully imitated.
“What would you say if I told you I had proof that someone here had been writing to the Pretender? To James Stuart himself, pledging his loyalty. Of his own desire,” he added carefully, “nowt to do with the city.” Marsh stepped forward eagerly. “What do you think would happen to a man like that?”
He could see the soldier thinking quickly of his own glory.
“He’d be taken to London and tried. If he was guilty, he’d be executed.”
Worthy nodded sagely.
“And as a good subject of his Majesty, it would be my duty to pass on this information, of course.”
“It would.” Marsh held out his hand and Worthy passed over the documents. “What’s the man’s name?”