This Thursday, June 1, On Copper Street will finally be published in the US, and everywhere as an ebook. It’s been getting some lovely reviews, for which I’m very very grateful, and I’ll be even happier if you want to read it (purchasing or from the library) and leave your own review somewhere. But I’m not going to harp on about that…too much.
You’re back at work after the holiday, and you’d probably rather be somewhere else. So let me try and entertain you with something new. The book – if it continues – will be called The Rigs of the Time, and it takes place in Leeds in 1815, pretty much midway between the Richard Nottingham and Tom Harper series. The threat from the Luddites has only recently passed in West Yorkshire, and in the wider world, Napoleon has escaped from Elba and is gathering forces in France.
It’s quite long, but I’d be grateful to know what you think. Enjoy (I hope)!
Leeds, April 1815
He reached for the glass and drained the dregs, glancing up as the door opened. Kitty the servant. A day of work and her apron was still crisp and white. How did she manage it?
‘There’s a man asking to see you, Mr. Paget.’ A short, telling pause. ‘He came to the back door.’
‘He wants me?’ He wasn’t expecting anyone, certainly not at this time of the evening. And someone arriving like a tradesman?
‘Asked for you by name, sir. Insisted on it.’ She pursed her mouth. ‘He claims he’s a Bow Street runner.’
A Bow Street runner? What did some like that want in Leeds? And why would he come here, Paget wondered?
He inspected himself in the glass, tightening the stock at his neck into an even bow and smoothing down the lapels of his jacket. He never cut a handsome figure, he knew that; the women had made it clear since he began attending the assemblies in town. No matter how he tried to tame it, his dark hair flew hither and yon like a scarecrow, his nose was too long, and his chin was too weak. A catalogue of sins.
At one time the opinions had mattered so much like life and death. He’d fussed and fretted about them. Thank God that time had passed. But wow…now he was thirty, a married man with a wife. Appearance was nothing. He had far more important worries in his life.
The door opened, Kitty again, a man right behind her.
‘Mr. Hammond, sir.’
He was broad and imposing, with heavy shoulders that pressed tight against his coat. He seemed to feel the room as he entered, carefully taking in all the furniture and the portrait over the fireplace as he gazed around. Tidy fair hair and questioning eyes, but a face that was curiously bland and unmemorable. He extended a large hand.
‘Ben Hammond, sir. Thank you for being willing to see me..’
‘George Paget. You must forgive me, I have absolutely no idea why you’re here. You’re one of the runners, Kitty said?’
‘That I am, sir. A Principal Officer.’ He drew a folded sheet of paper from his coat. ‘A letter from my magistrate to prove it. Sixteen years a runner and proud of it.’
Paget read the note; it looked official enough, everything dutifully signed and sealed. He shook his head. ‘I still don’t understand why you want to see me.’
‘You’re a magistrate in Leeds, sir,’ Hammond said. ‘Is that correct?’
‘No. I haven’t been for a while. I resigned two years ago.’
‘But you committed Paul Booth to the York Assizes in 1812?’
Now he understood.
It had been a dispiriting day. He’d gone into town on business. Only three miles from Chapel Allerton, but every time felt like a journey to another, darker country where the air was blighted by smoke from the factory chimneys. Half the children he saw appeared starved, the others as if they might slit your throat for a farthing. Men and women, dead-eyed and hopeless, as if the machines that kept grinding away had crushed all the spirit from them.
The news from his solicitor about his investments was poor, Dinner at the Old King’s Head and an afternoon of playing hazard had done little to make him smile. Walking to collect his horse from the ostler he passed a group of old soldiers, some missing arms and legs, begging for their bread. All this and the stink of battle in the air once more. Bonaparte had slipped out of Elba and now he was back in France, with thousands flocking to him every day, if the newspapers were honest. Just as they’d begun to grow used to a sense of peace after so many years of fighting, war had returned.
He stood by the window, cradling a glass of claret, and stared out towards Leeds. Dusk was growing, the sky glowing deep, burning red on the horizon.
‘You’re brooding again, George,’ Charlotte said.
Paget turned to smile at his wife. ‘A little, perhaps.’
She was perched on the small settee, needlework gathered on her lap as she stared at him. Her face was pale, drawn, the cheeks hollow. As her belly grew with the baby, it seemed to leech all the colour from her cheeks.
Still three months before the child was due. He’d spent money on physicians and midwives. They’d come to see her and prescribed tonics full of this and that, but nothing had helped.
His wife seemed to be slowly fading before his eyes and it pierced his heart. They’d barely been married a year. He remembered how he thought he might yell with joy when she nervously told him about her condition. Now there was nothing but fear for mother and child.
‘You look exhausted’’ he said.
‘I’ll be fine.’ She considered her answer. ‘I’m only a little tired.’
‘Why don’t you go and rest for a while?’ Paget glanced at the clock. ‘There’s still an hour to supper. It might help. Please.’
‘All right.’ She pressed her lips together as she stood, one hand supporting her stomach as she rose. Quickly, she leant forward and kissed his cheek. ‘Maybe your mood will have brightened by then.’
Maybe. He spent too much time thinking, he knew that. But the world seemed a very fragile place these days.
Hammond offered a crooked smile.
‘Would you mind if I sit down, sir? It’s a long journey on the coach from London, and this isn’t a short tale.’
‘Yes. Of course.’ He pointed at a chair. ‘A glass of wine?’
‘I never say no if it’s offered.’ He grinned and settled on the seat, extended a long pair of legs, and waited as Paget uncorked a fresh bottle. ‘Your good health, sir, and I thank you.’
There was no point in small talk. Paget wanted to know the reason the runner had travelled so far. The case was three years old, the man was dead. It was history.
‘Booth, you said. What about him? He was executed. I saw him drop.’ He grimaced at the memory. Five minutes dangling until some soul grabbed his legs and pulled. A horrible, brutal death.
‘I know, sir. I’ve read the account of the trial, sir. But there are some things that have come to light recently. There’s a possibility that Booth might have been innocent.’
‘What?’ Paget sat up so sharply that wine slopped over the lip of his glass. ‘That’s impossible. Five men who gave evidence against him. Respectable men, too. They caught him trying to break into a cropping mill and break the machinery. That was why I sent him for trial.’
That didn’t seem to perturb the man.
‘Were there any witnesses on his behalf?’ he asked quietly, and Paget could feel the man’s stare.
‘No one came forward.’ And under law, the accused could not speak in his own defence.
‘Tell me, sir, did you ever wonder why no one spoke up for him?’
He hadn’t. It was only his second case as a magistrate, taking over on the bench after his father died. He was nervous, unfamiliar with the law. Five reputable men had given their testimony. They claimed they’d caught Booth with a hammer. Those with him had run off before they could be caught. Who was he to doubt them?
‘No,’ Paget said, ‘I didn’t. The times, the problems. If you lived in West Yorkshire then-’
‘I do understand, sir.’
- A riot in Leeds about food prices. The troops called out to keep order. Men destroying the cropping mills all across West Yorkshire. There was a growing sense of terror in the air, the feeling that any minute it could all turn to revolution. Machine-breaking had been declared a capital crime by the government. Other magistrates had their networks of spies and informers, claiming harshness was the only way to suppress the workers and their demands.
Yet Paget walked around Leeds and saw only poor, powerless people. Hungry people.
‘What’s this information you’ve received about Booth? I don’t see what it has to do with me.’
‘Well, sir…’ Hammond had barely begun when the door opened.
‘George, I-’ Charlotte stood, then blushed to find a stranger. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know someone had arrived to see you.’
‘I apologise, ma’am.’ The runner stood quickly, turning his hat in his hands. ‘I wasn’t expected.’
‘Why don’t you go ahead and eat supper,’ Paget said to her. ‘I’ve a feeling I might be a little while.’
She nodded and the door closed with a whisper and a long silence filled the room. Hammond still stood, looking embarrassed and uncertain.
‘You started, you might as well finish your story. You said you’ve come a long way to tell it.’
‘I have.’ He sat once more, picked up the wine glass and drained it in a gulp. ‘Did you know Booth had a sister?’
The only thing he knew about the lad was the fear on his young face. He was seventeen when he was brought into court in chains. An apprentice cropper, tall, with the thick muscles the job demanded to handle the shears.
The croppers were the aristocracy of cloth finishers. They could add to the value of a bolt or ruin it completely with a tiny slip of the hand as they cut off the nap with their heavy blades. It was skilled labour and they received a handsome wage for it. But they were losing their jobs to the new shearing machines.
‘She shared a house with him and claims some men came one night, pounding on the door. As soon as Booth answered, they dragged him out, and they warned her to run far away and keep her mouth shut if she wanted to stay alive.’
Hammond said it so matter-of-factly that for a moment Paget didn’t believe him. It seemed impossible, a ridiculous fiction. But his gaze was serious.
‘She came to London. Petrified, she said. Worked as a servant and tried to keep herself anonymous. Last year she married a shopkeeper. Mrs Thompson she is now. Two months ago she hired a thief-taker to come up here and bring the truth into the open.’
‘He never came to see me.’
‘The last anyone saw of him was when he climbed on the coach for Leeds.’ He took a few breaths. ‘He was my brother. So perhaps you understand why I’m here, sir.’
‘Yes,’ he answered. If it was true…it couldn’t be. Those men all lying on oath. Good men. Friends of his father, people he’d known his whole life. Wool merchants who’d all seen their fortunes tumble in the last ten years. ‘I don’t know what to say to you, Mr. Hammond.’
‘I came here because I wanted you to know that I’m in Leeds, sir. I made a few inquiries about you, and people say you’re honest. Reliable. A bit of a Radical, too, they told me.’ He smiled briefly. ‘The word is that’s why you resigned from the Bench. You didn’t like what you had to do.’
‘I left for my own reasons,’ Paget answered. It was all true, but he didn’t need to admit that to someone he didn’t know. ‘Are you here officially?’
‘Well, I’ve been given leave to look into my brother’s disappearance, and Mrs. Thompson is employing me. But I’ve handled enough investigations in my time to know the reason my brother vanished has to be linked to the Booth case.’
‘Then you ought to talk to the Constable in Leeds. He’s the man to help you. I don’t have any authority now. You must know that.’
‘Ah.’ Hammond said and paused thoughtfully. ‘My brother – Matty’s his name, Matthew Hammond – he planned to start with the constable. You can see why I’m a little reluctant to do the same. I only showed you that document so you’d know I am. It’ll be packed away tomorrow. I’d appreciate you keeping quiet about me.’
‘You still haven’t really explained why you turned up at my door.’ He could feel his irritation growing; he’d never liked any intrusion on his privacy. ‘If you’re asking me to help, there’s nothing I can do for you. I spend most of my time out here, not in Leeds. And my wife…’
‘Of course, sir. I have three little ones of my own. My sister has the looking-after of them since my wife died. Little terrors, the lot of them.’ But he beamed as he spoke, pride on his face. ‘I was hoping you might tell me who to trust.’ Another short, deliberate hesitation. ‘And if you might see your way to talking to the men who accused Booth, that would be very useful. They’re never going to speak to the likes of me. Not an outsider.’
Paget didn’t reply, looking down into the remains of the wine, a deep blood red at the bottom of the glass.
‘I appreciate it’s a lot to ask, sir,’ Hammond continued. ‘But Matty’s sent no word and he isn’t the kind to just disappear. He’s bigger than me and he know how to handle himself. He’d put up quite a fight if anyone started with him. Truth is, I’m certain as can be that something’s happened to him, and I’d appreciate any assistance in trying to find out what.’
He was clever, no doubt about that. The man’s concern was real, but he knew just how to phrase things, how to appeal without being sentimental.
‘Where are you staying?’
‘The Talbot Inn, sir. Can I-’
‘I’ll come and see you there in the morning,’ Paget told him. ‘I need to think about it all.’
‘You look a little better now.’
Charlotte was in bed reading one of her novels, her back propped up with pillow and a bolster. In the candlelight he could see more colour in her cheeks and the dullness gone from her eyes.
‘Supper helped, I think.’
The curtains were drawn, the windows tightly shut to keep out even the hint of a chill. Paget stroked the back of his wife’s hand.
‘Who was that man, George? He looked…strange. A bit fierce.’
‘Someone with a few questions about the past. Don’t worry, it’s nothing to affect us.’
Hammond prowled up and down Briggate, moving from inn to beershop to tavern. He was quiet, listening, observing. After an hour his ear grew accustomed to the accent and the words that sounded curious and awkward in his London mind. He was a stranger here, and since the start of the French wars people had learned to be wary of them.
Maybe it had always been that way outside the capital, where people teemed in from all parts of the kingdom and beyond. He didn’t know. But safer for now to speak as little as possible, to stay as invisible as possible. That was something he’d learned on the job.
He’d started out on the foot patrols, down among the real rough and tumble. Worn the runner’s red waistcoat proudly and proved himself, before he was promoted to captain and finally Principal Agent. It was a very fair living, some years as much as many gentleman might earn. But he knew better than to flaunt it. A good house for Nancy – God rest her – and the children. Ample for their wants. More put by for the future. Nothing flash. Nothing to draw attention or resentment.
If not for Matty, he wouldn’t be in Leeds now. He’d have politely refused Mrs. Thompson. He owed her nothing. Paul Booth meant nothing to him. The man was mouldering in his grave, and nothing would change that. But this was his own blood, his kind. Poor Matty who always needed to prove himself, to show he was better than his older brother. Bring in the tougher felon, solve the trickier case. He was good. That didn’t matter when your luck ran out.
Matty was dead. He knew it as surely as if he’d seen the body.
Damn him. Damn him for not being good enough.
He’d discover who’d done it and take pleasure in watching them swing.
First, Hammond needed to find the right men, ones who’d trust him and give him the truth. Usually he could gauge a person from five minutes’ conversation. Sometimes his life depended on it. He’d learned to trust his judgment. That and the pistol, knife, and club he kept in his pockets. Never go anywhere unprepared, and be willing to use you weapons. An old runner taught him that when he started the job, and he knew it was true. This wasn’t a trade where hesitation paid if you wanted to stay alive.
What about Paget? Hammond wondered as he sat with his glass of beer. He seemed like an honest sort. Decent enough, but nervous as a colt. With that house, the good clothes and easy manner, had all the assurance of money, a man who’d never had to worry about his next meal. Still, it had been child’s play to prick his bubble and bring him bumping down to earth. A little more talk and he’d be able to make an ally of the man and take advantage of the guilt he sensed behind Paget’s eyes; he would be useful. Someone who knew this town. Someone with connections.
He stood and stretched. Too many days cramped in the coach coming up to this place. But a good night’s sleep and he’d be fine. Ready to begin.
Long before dawn, Paget lay awake listening to the familiar sounds of the house, all the usual creaks and small grumbles. But they couldn’t soothe his mind.
Thoughts kept tumbling through his head. Seeing Booth in court, trembling, looking so young and helpless as he glanced around all the faces. Watching him on the scaffold, almost collapsing as the hangman tried to place the noose around his neck.
Paget knew he’d done his duty from the evidence presented to him. He had no choice. The laws were clear. Guilty of machine-breaking and it meant death. But he could have asked more questions, probed the statements a little. No damage had been done; Booth hadn’t even entered the factory. Instead, he was too callow, too new as a magistrate, so he passed the responsibility to the Assizes, certain they’d discover the truth. Instead, they did little more than pronounce sentence. He’d pushed him down that path and seen the end on the gallows.
For a long time he’d managed to push it all away.
Now Paul Booth had come to plead with him. He knew he couldn’t refuse.
Very quietly, he slid out of bed and dressed.
No need for a light as he went down the stairs. He knew this place too well, which board to avoid because it creaked, where every table and chair blocked his path. He’d been born here, run around all the rooms with his brother and sisters. It was filled with memories, so many that they seemed to spill out from every room. And more to come once his own child was born.
Paget prowled through the garden, lost in the darkness and smelling the spring. In the distance he heard the rough bark of a fox, then another calling in answer. He ran his hand over a low tree branch, feeling the stickiness of new buds under his fingers. Life, growing, renewing.
At eight, Charlotte was still sleeping. Good, he thought, rest was what she needed, a chance to gain some strength. He told Kitty to give her a bowl of broth when she woke and walked up to the Bowling Green Inn. The house was too small for a stable, so he kept the horse here, stroking the animal’s muzzle as the groom tightened the girth under her belly.
Paget had bought the mare the day he turned twenty-one. Nine years later, they knew each other very well, almost as if they could read each other’s minds. she responded instantly to any slight pressure on the rein or stirrup, and he could sense every one of her moods, whether he’d pushed her a little too hard or she was eager to gallop.
Abbess, he’d named her. Now she nuzzled affectionately against his cheek, moving her legs eagerly as soon as he was in the saddle. He’d only intended to ride into town, but he could feel she needed exercise. There was time; another half-hour wouldn’t signify either way.
He cantered through Chapel Allerton village, letting her stretch, before digging in his heels as soon as he saw open country ahead. She changed her pace immediately and he let her run for a couple of miles, relishing the gallop, feeling the wind rushing into his face and the wondrous sense of the world opening up around him.
As soon as her pace changed, he slowed her to a canter, turning and heading towards Leeds as he patted the side of Abbess’s neck. He rode three or four times a week. This was his joy, his escape from life. In the saddle he felt free of everything. There were no cares, only the moment, the sense of life.
The mare pulled up a little as they approached town, the way she always did, as if she was as reluctant as Paget to be among the clamour and crush of the place. He left her with the ostler on Briggate, feeding her an old apple before he went.
The street was filled with carts and people. The fashionable in their fine clothes, women wearing dresses heavy with embroidery and neat, striped stockings staring in into shop windows talking as they leaned towards each other. Men in tall-crowned hat with curled brims, carelessly tapping their walking canes as they moved. Servants rushed about their business. Everything was a blare, a noise of voices and movement. And caught in the middle of it all, the stillness of those who sat, a tin cup in front of them, hoping for charity with glazed eyes and broken limbs.
He eased through the crush of bodies, one hand tight over the money in his pocket, and slipped in to the Talbot Inn, waiting while a servant dashed upstairs with a message for Hammond. Already, people were drinking, gathered in small groups or on their own. Not an ounce of cheer between them. Some wore little more than rags, a few with an attempt at dignity in their stained clothes.
‘It’s like this everywhere in the country, sir.’
Paget turned, seeing the big man assessing the faces with a professional eye.
Hammond nodded. ‘Everywhere,’ he repeated. ‘Too many people and not enough work. Down there all the talk is Bonaparte and what might happen, though.’
‘People talk about him here, too, but they’re more worried about affording enough to feed themselves. More seem to arrive every week. The manufactories keep drawing them from all over the county.’
‘Progress, sir. You can’t stop it. It’d be like Cnut wanting to turn back the waves.’
Well, well, Paget thought. Apparently the man had enjoyed an education. He might appear ordinary, but there was much more lurking under the surface. He shouldn’t judge him too hastily.
‘And meanwhile, the craftsmen are out of jobs.’
‘Wasn’t that the heart of the problem a few years ago, sir?’ Hammond gave a quick smile. ‘Seems like it brings us back to Paul Booth.’
‘Yes, I suppose it does.’
They sat in a private parlour at the inn. Hammond listened closely as Paget told him about Leeds.
‘I could take you around,’ he offered. ‘That would be easier.’
‘It’s probably best if we’re not seen walking together, sir.’ He pushed away the empty plate, just bones left from the kippers. ‘A precaution, you understand. The less people notice, the better. Where are the low parts of town? The places respectable gentlemen wouldn’t go?’
‘The courts and alleys off Briggate. Behind the houses.’
Hammond nodded, took a small clay pipe from his pocket and lit it.
‘How long were you a magistrate, sir, if you don’t mind me asking?’
‘It’s curiosity speaking, but why did you become one? I’ve known plenty in my time, and you don’t seem the type, sir.’
‘No,’ he agreed. ‘I’m not. My father had just died. When they offered it to me I never thought I could refuse.’ He sighed. ‘I suppose I learned that I’m not one to sit in judgment.’
‘Too many seem to feel the opposite, I’ve noticed. What do you recall about Paul Booth?’
‘I remember his face. He was brawny, but croppers always are. He looked so young and helpless. I don’t think he really knew what was going on. It was my first day, I was overwhelmed…’
He’d believed he was doing his duty. His father would have committed the man without hesitation, in the name of law and order, so he’d done the same. Only later, after hearing dozens of cases, had Paget realised he felt more sympathy for most of the accused than the accusers. Men simply trying to feed their families in hard times.’
‘What’s done is done, sir. It was the same decision anyone would have reached at the time.’
‘Yes.’ That was true. Fires, riots, calling out the troops to keep order, mutterings about revolution and insurrection. Leeds was on the edge of chaos.
‘Have you given any more thought to helping me, sir?’ Hammond asked.
‘I still don’t believe I can be much use. I told you, I don’t spend much time in Leeds these days.’
‘But people know you. The men who arrested Booth, for instance.’
‘I suppose so.’ He been at the grammar school with some of their sons; the men had been friends of his father.
‘You’re the one sent Booth on to the Assizes. That would count for something.’
‘Do you really believe it was all a plot? That he was innocent?’
Hammond spread his large hands on the table. There were scars across his knuckles, one finger twisted as if it had been broken and never set properly.
‘That’s what I’m here to discover,’ he answered slowly. ‘Among other things.’
‘Even if I see them…I can’t just come out and ask if they lied.’
‘Subtlety, sir.’ He smiled, tapping a finger against the side of his nose. ‘That’s the trick. Gain their confidence. You never know what they’ll let slip. I’ve found that people love to boast. It’s remarkable what they’ll say. I’ve had a few admit murder to me before now.’
‘If I did it, how would we keep in touch?’
‘I’ll slip out to your house every few days, sir. Easily enough done after dark. Like I said, it’s safer if we’re not seen together in future.’
Paget nodded. He still wasn’t sure. But a question or two, how could that hurt?
Hammond watched the door close, leaned back in the chair and puffed at his pipe. The man would do it. A remark here and there, a conversation or two. Give him a little time, and Paget could be a valuable source of information. Maybe even draw a confession from one of Booth’s accusers, if he was very lucky.
But you never banked on fortune. You worked. You dug. You came at it from every side. And you were sly. That was the key. Sly, and thinking three steps ahead.
He stood and put the pipe back in his pocket. There was work to do.
The yards were like the London rookeries, Hammond decided after tramping up and down and seeing all the suspicious looks. Crammed with the poor. Honest men and thieves side by side in their misery. Leeds had its scent, the smoke and the stink from the chimneys, but it was nothing compared to the capital. He’d grown up near the Fleet River, filled with all the shit and piss people threw in, the dead dogs and cats, even a body or two sometimes. After living with that through childhood, anything else was like a duchess’s perfume.
Subtlety, the man said. Paget knew he’d never been a subtle man. It wasn’t in his blood. He wasn’t a dissembler; as a boy he’d always stumbled over words and blushed if he tried to lie, and every time his father would spot the truth on his face and thrash him.
He didn’t even know where to find the men he needed. He knew their names well enough, they’d often been his father’s dinner guests. They were men who’d stayed in the woollen trade, bracing out the ups and downs of business long after his father had sold up. He stood on Briggate and tried to think, pushed around like a piece of flotsam by the crowd that moved around him. Then he smiled and began to walk. There was one possibility.
The Cloth Hall was the biggest building in Leeds, as imposing as any castle and far more important. Millions of pounds’ worth of trade went on here each year. Some men made their fortunes. Others were ruined. His father had brought him here for the markets on Tuesday and Saturdays; it had been a ritual of his childhood. Always full of people, but so quiet, with deals made in whispers, as if every transaction was a prayer. More than a thousand stalls for the clothiers to display their way, stretching away almost as far as the eye could see.
There was no market today, but sometimes merchants came by, drawn to the place. For the sake of five minutes, he could look.
Through the broad stone entrance and under the grand cupola, then his footsteps echoed on the flagstones. Pale spring light poured through the windows, casting deep, dark shadows. Paget heard quiet voices back in the shade and strode out towards them.
‘George? George Paget? It can’t be you, can it?’
He had to blink to make out the figure. Henry Whitehead, dressed up in his finery – the well-brushed hat, tight, pale trousers, and a jacket cut to flatter his body. They were the same age, born just a month apart. Long ago they’d been good friends, but that felt like another lifetime. It was more than a year since he’d run into the man, and time had made its changes.
Whitehead had grown stout, and most of the hair on his head had vanished. Now he resembled his father, nothing like the young man who loved a practical joke and a dare. He seemed old before his time.
‘Henry.’ They shook hands. ‘I hear you’re running the business these days.’
‘Some of it, at least.’ There was a swell of pride as he spoke. ‘As much as Father will allow.’
‘You’ll have it all in good time,’ another voice said, and a man moved forward into the light. ‘When he thinks you’re ready. Mr. Paget, good to see you. You’re a rare visitor here these days.’
‘Mr. Thornton, sir.’ Paget gave a small bow. ‘I don’t think we’ve met since-’
‘Since I was one of those who brought that damned machine breaker into your courtroom.’ He gave a satisfied smile. ‘A fine day’s work you did there, and a sweet hanging at the end of it. A pity the bench wasn’t to your taste.’
Will Thornton was well into his sixties, a small man who barely came up to Paget’s chin, wiry and still bristling with energy. He wore tall boots and an overcoat that stretched below his knees, wild hair grey barely contained under his hat.
‘We were just discussing next month’s assembly, George,’ Whitehead interrupted. ‘Plenty of toasts to the Prince Regent and the King, and dancing for the ladies. You should bring Charlotte.’
‘We can’t,’ he replied without taking his eyes off Thornton. ‘Perhaps you hadn’t heard: she’s indisposed these days.’
‘My congratulations to you both,’ Thornton said. He had a commanding tone, a bantam with a powerful personality, the kind of man who always drew eyes and attention. ‘I wish you well.’
He clapped his hands together. ‘We should go and have a glass of wine to celebrate. What do you say, Henry?’
‘I can’t,’ Whitehead told him. ‘I’ve business waiting at the warehouse. Cloth to go to Spain, and God knows we’re happy to see those markets open again. Now we just need to knock Boney off his new perch-’
‘We’d better hope Wellington manages that quickly,’ Thornton said, ‘or we’ll all be facing rack and ruin again.’ He reached out and lightly took Paget’s elbow. ‘Just you and me, then. You’ll take a glass, I hope?’
‘Gladly.’ The opportunity had fallen into his lap, to have the man on his own and ready to talk, as if Providence was looking over his shoulder.