Wanted, A Gentleman
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By the good offices of Riptide Publishing
KJ Charles’s new Entertainment
WANTED, A GENTLEMAN
Or, Virtue Over-Rated
the grand romance of
Mr. Martin St. Vincent . . . a Merchant with a Mission, also a Problem
Mr. Theodore Swann . . . a humble Scribbler and Advertiser for Love
Act the First:
the offices of the Matrimonial Advertiser, London
where Lonely Hearts may seek one another for the cost of a shilling
Act the Second:
a Pursuit to Gretna Green (or thereabouts)
a speedy Carriage
sundry rustic Inns
a private Bed-chamber
In the course of which are presented
Romance, Revenge, and Redemption
Deceptions, Discoveries, and Desires
the particulars of which are too numerous to impart
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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London, June 1805
WANTED, a GENTLEMAN. A lively and engaging Lady who finds herself in Distressing Circumstances due to her too liberal Heart seeks a Gentleman whose Kindness will be well rewarded by all the Happiness that Beauty, Congeniality, and Youth may confer. Responses to LD at the Three Ducks, Vere Street, will be most carefully consider’d.
Beauty, congeniality, youth, and another man’s child in her belly, Theo thought. Well, it happened, and the three first attributes might outweigh the last, in the event that the advertiser was telling the truth about her attractions.
Theo took leave to doubt that. In his experience, nobody told the truth until they were forced to it. But the Engaging Lady could be a foul-tempered crone for all he cared; it was none of his affair once she’d paid her shilling. He put the letter in the pile for the next issue and picked another off the day’s new arrivals. There was a good haul today, a great heap of notices, all for publication in the Matrimonial Advertiser of Little Wild Street, proprietor Theodore Swann.
A recently widowed lady sought a man of honour and sentiment, possessed of keen wit and noble spirit, to help her regain her pleasure in life. A gentleman who had suffered reverses (through no fault of his own, he was keen to point out) would be obliged if a lady possessed of five hundred pounds would marry him before next quarter day. That was little more than a fortnight away; Theo wished him luck. An older gentleman, yet not so advanced in age that he could not enjoy life’s pleasures, sought a lady of youth and buxom form. Theo was sure he did, the lecherous old goat.
The next advertisement claimed that a lady with ten thousand pounds and some beauty sought a gentleman whose elegance of mind was of more import than any concern of birth or person. She would reply to all letters. Theo rolled his eyes at that obvious fraud. Doubtless some young sprigs were having a lark at the expense of ambitious clerks dreaming of a rich wife, and more fool anyone who replied.
That was still not Theo’s affair. The Matrimonial Advertiser’s pages had to be filled every fortnight, and if some of the advertisements were obviously false, and others self-seeking or deluded, that was none of his concern. Chaff and detritus; hopes and dreams; greed, loneliness, wishes, malice, madness, naivety: he published them all, because they paid.
He took up the next letter and his chest tightened.
A GENTLEMAN of STRONG ARM is ready & willing to chastise any handsome Youth in want of well-deserv’d Punishment. He will expect gratitude & absolute obedience in return for a stern hand with the birch.
Well, that was out of the usual run of things. Not unique—the recklessness with which some men placed advertisements astounded him—but certainly a novelty in a humdrum day. He shifted slightly in his chair, feeling a slight stir of interest. The advertisement was not for him; Theo liked his men decided and energetic, but he’d had enough chastisement of his person at school to last him a lifetime, and he had it on good authority that he was incapable of either obedience or gratitude. The Gentleman of Strong Arm would need to look elsewhere for satisfaction. Still, the words did their magic, as words always did.
The question was, could he publish it?
Perhaps. He could surely claim, if interrogated, that he’d thought the advertiser was a tutor or schoolmaster. He published everything he could, because he never turned down a shilling without regret. As long as he could reasonably claim not to have understood what was being said . . .
Theo looked at the text again. Handsome. Would that stand out to those who didn’t know that one man might desire another, or that some found flagellation a pleasure? Would others see what was plain to his eyes? And mostly, would he find himself haled in front of the magistrates for disturbing the King’s peace if he printed it?
He put the advertisement to one side of the desk for consideration and bent again to his work, pledging silently that he would go through the whole pile before he stopped for a bite to eat. He was absorbed in an eccentrically spelled paragraph from a Widdow of Refinment when a knock broke his concentration.
He looked up, but before he could speak, the door opened, without permission and with such force that the cat dozing on the windowsill levitated several inches in shock.
The man on his threshold was . . . unexpected. He was of a little more than medium height, well setup, with broad shoulders and a waist that was not trim, but certainly taut. He was also a black man.
There was nothing unfamiliar in that. Theo had lived in Marylebone during his first, despairing London years, on the cheaper outskirts of the expanding city where many black Londoners made their homes, and his nearest drinking den had been the Yorkshire Stingo, a public house greatly frequented by men of colour. He’d made friends there and had been carried along to some rousing meetings to hear speeches on the subject of slavery and abolition, often because he’d been too drunk to protest that he didn’t give a fig for politics.
So it was not the visitor’s colour that caught Theo’s attention so much as his clothing. Most of the black men he knew were small shopkeepers and craftsmen, or jobbers like himself, making a precarious living this way and that, or beggars, or slaves. This man wore a coat that had been fitted by a good tailor not more than a few months ago, making Theo uncomfortably aware of his own dishevelled state and inky, threadbare cuffs. The visitor looked not just neat, but wealthy.
Neat, wealthy, and not at all happy. He had very thick, somewhat intimidating brows and he was fixing Theo with an unfavourable look.
Theo cleared his throat as he stood. “Good morning, sir. May I assist you?”
“I seek the publisher of the Matrimonial Advertiser. Mr. Swann.”
The visitor had a remarkably deep voice, the kind of bass that tingled in Theo’s fingers and vibrated in his chest. It would have been a very pleasurable voice to listen to if it had been a little more friendly.
“I’m Theodore Swann. At your service, sir.”
“That remains to be seen,” the visitor said. “My name is Martin St. Vincent, and I am here on a matter of some delicacy.”
Four years of running the Matrimonial Advertiser had left Theo with a limited capacity for astonishment, but he was surprised now. It seemed extraordinary that this man would need to resort to advertising. There were very few women of colour in England compared to the number of men, so Mr. St. Vincent would likely enough need, or for all Theo knew might wish, to marry a white lady. Doubtless some of those would object to his complexion, but many more would not, and frankly, Theo thought, if a woman failed to appreciate the view he had now, she’d be a fool.
Martin St. Vincent was a decidedly good-looking man. He had rich, deep-brown eyes a few shades lighter than his skin, which was of a darker tint than most. Delightfully severe brows, strong cheekbones, a firm chin, and a full mouth that Theo could imagine putting to the best possible use. An impressive specimen all told, and Theo couldn’t imagine why he should have to resort to advertisement, especially since his pockets were clearly well-enough filled.
Still, business was business, and if he wanted to advertise, Theo was here to take his pennies. Maybe the fellow had no graces, or intolerable breath, or the kind of character that would negate his more obvious advantages, and in that case, Theo would very happily help him conceal his faults.
“It will be my pleasure to serve,” he said, slipping into his usual patter. “The Matrimonial Advertiser offers the greatest discretion to our patrons. We are perused by all sections of society and walks of life, and can take credit for many happy marriages—”
“You know that, do you?” enquired Mr. St. Vincent, bone-dry.
Of course Theo didn’t. He had no idea how many matches he might have made, still less the happiness of the couples thus pledged. He wouldn’t have wagered thruppence on it.
“Absolutely. I have many written testimonials,” he assured his new client. That was perfectly true; he’d written them himself. “Our success is unparalleled. Other matrimonial gazettes cannot compare.”
Mr. St. Vincent appeared profoundly unimpressed. His dark gaze travelled slowly over the shabby office and down to the heaped desk, expression quite blank, and the thought dawned on Theo rather late that perhaps he couldn’t write.
That was very likely it, he decided. Illiterate men often despised the world of words that excluded them. “I will be very willing to assist you in finding the right turn of phrase, if you wish. There is an art of advertisement, if I can so put it, which allows a gentleman to enumerate his finer qualities and convey his hopes in the most appealing manner—”
Mr. St. Vincent looked at him. The sales patter withered on Theo’s tongue.
“Are you suggesting,” Mr. St. Vincent said, slowly and clearly and with just a suggestion of rigidity in his very strong jaw, “that I advertise myself? Put myself up for sale?”
Blood rushed to Theo’s cheeks as the man’s meaning dawned on him. “No!” he yelped, with more sincerity in that one syllable than he’d managed in this office over the last four years together. “Absolutely not, not at all, no. Not sale. Or anything else you don’t want, definitely not. Uh, what do you want?”
Mr. St. Vincent’s lips compressed, almost as if he was attempting not to smile. Theo very much hoped he would fail, mostly because he preferred it when people didn’t glare at him, but in part because he rather wanted to see Mr. St. Vincent’s face wearing a more pleasant expression. He essayed a hopeful smile of his own. Mr. St. Vincent’s eyelids drooped disdainfully.
“What I want, Mr. Swann, is information.” He stepped forward, holding a copy of the last issue of the Advertiser out, over the desk. A message was circled in ink.
CRESSIDA—Your words gladden my soul. My most ardent sentiments grow stronger daily. They cannot separate us forever. Let me know your heart when you can—Your TROILUS
Troilus and Cressida’s correspondence had appeared in the Matrimonial Advertiser for a number of issues now, with declarations of love, plaints against cruel fate and restrictive guardians, and cryptic instructions for further communication. Theo’s impression of Cressida was of a young lady thoroughly enjoying herself. He read the advertisement over again. “Yes?”
“Uh . . .” Well, what? Theo scrabbled to find the answer he was clearly expected to give, and came up with, “Are you Troilus?”
Mr. St. Vincent looked at him. “No.”
“Cressida?” Theo’s mouth suggested, before his brain could step in to prevent it.
“Let’s come to an arrangement,” Mr. St. Vincent said. “You tell me everything you know about this Troilus, and I won’t bring two men with cudgels to make you.”
“Oh. Are you Cressida’s father?” He seemed a little young for the role, around thirty by Theo’s guess, but boys made mistakes. Theo certainly had, although not that one.
“No. Stop asking me questions, Mr. Swann. Your role is to give answers.”
Theo retrieved his professional smile from somewhere, not without effort. He was quite used to being spoken to with distaste, but it didn’t usually happen here, where he worked and slept. Swallowing insult in his own home rankled.
“Sir, you will understand that confidentiality is crucial to my business. There is no dishonour in this means of seeking a companion, but it can be met by a sad lack of sympathy.” Mr. St. Vincent’s snort suggested he was among the unsympathetic. “And I cannot disclose private affairs,” Theo finished in a rush. “Well, but consider, sir, I have promised discretion—”
“And you are a man who always keeps his promises, I have no doubt. Let us not play games. How much for your loyalty?”
Mr. St. Vincent’s tone was so sardonic that it brought the blood flaming to Theo’s face. How dare he? How dare the fellow walk in here and weigh him up and in just a couple of moments decide that Theo was untrustworthy, unreliable, ready to be bought?
He was, of course. But how dare this man just assume it, with that lazily dismissive look in his eyes?
He’d double the price for that, Theo thought vengefully, and had to remind himself of the men with cudgels. He didn’t doubt their existence—he’d been threatened similarly more than once—and he had no desire to encounter them.
And pride was not something Theo could afford. If his visitor was truly offering a carrot as well as a stick, he would do well to take the former.
“Look here, Mr. St. Vincent,” he said, dropping the high-flown talk since it wasn’t working, and going for the air of an honest, plainspoken man. “I take the advertisements, I lay them out, I publish the Advertiser. All that’s lawful enough. If there’s something unlawful being conducted in my pages, I’d like to know what. I won’t have that sort of thing.”
“Will you not.” Mr. St. Vincent picked up a paper from the desk. It was, Theo realised, the advertisement from the Gentleman of Strong Arm, and he’d apparently read it upside down.
“I shan’t publish that one, of course,” he said. “Dear me. What people send, Mr. St. Vincent, you’d be amazed.”
“Mmm.” Mr. St. Vincent’s eyes were fixed on the paper. This close, Theo could see they weren’t a plain brown, but flecked with glinting orange, like one of those semiprecious stones. Topaz, he thought it might be called, or possibly agate. He decided on topaz, as the lovelier word.
Not that Mr. St. Vincent seemed lovely as he read aloud, in frozen tones, “‘Ready & willing to chastise any handsome Youth in want of well-deserv’d Punishment.’ Well, there’s plenty of people in want of that. Out of interest, Mr. Swann, if I read through your back issues, how many advertisements of this sort would I find?”
Enough to bring me all the trouble you wish, was the answer. Theo braced himself for the threat that would follow.
It didn’t come. Mr. St. Vincent dropped the paper to the desk. “What a trade you have, sir. Very well.” He indicated the advertisement he’d circled. “The lady here called Cressida is just turned seventeen years old and possessed of a strong will and determined temper. She has been engaging in a clandestine correspondence with this ‘Troilus’ for months. Troilus claims to be a gentleman and honourable in his intentions, but he has made no approach to the lady’s father, who discovered this business only by accident. He is an extremely wealthy man, and she his only child.”
“Indeed. Miss— Cressida is to be presented at Court next season,” Mr. St. Vincent went on. “She is likely to make an excellent match, with her own charms and her father’s wealth. You may imagine that he does not want her snatched away by a fortune hunter before she is out.”
Theo could, although it was nothing more than imagination. He had not mixed in circles of wealth or rank even before he had been cast out to the darkness of London; he had nothing to do with Society here in his shabby, precarious refuge on Little Wild Street. “I daresay he does not. But with respect, is that not a matter for him alone? Should he not assert his, uh, paternal authority over the lady?”
“She is of very strong will, and extremely determined temper,” Mr. St. Vincent said drily. “The correspondence was discovered, so the young lady was removed from her school. Her letters were inspected, so she bribed a maid to deliver them in secret. The maid was dismissed, but then—” he tapped the circled advertisement “—this. Since it appears her family can’t stop her, I have been charged with the task of stopping him.”
That wasn’t entirely clear. “You’re the family’s servant?” The man seemed too well dressed for a household position, but why else would he be entrusted with such a sensitive task?
“I’m a merchant,” Mr. St. Vincent said, voice even. “My help was asked as a trusted friend of the family. As a favour.”
Theo filed that away for future reference. Mr. St. Vincent’s relationship to the family was of no great interest to him; what mattered was that if the fellow had been asked to deal with a matter of such delicacy, he would surely want to succeed. He would be very ready to do whatever was needed, which would doubtless include paying for assistance. And if there was money in it, Theo was interested.
“Well, that puts matters in a different light,” he said. “Obviously, in law, the lady is entitled to place whatever advertisement she wishes, but her father’s concern is most natural, and I should not wish any match made in the pages of the Matrimonial Advertiser to be less than happy. I can, I think, aid you a little more than somewhat. The only question is— I hesitate to ask it in a matter of such importance, but you will understand that my work is demanding and my time precious. Of course it is my earnest wish to help, but as a mere publisher, supporting myself wholly by my labour—”
“Ten shillings, and don’t argue with me,” said Mr. St. Vincent with finality.
Less than Theo had hoped, better than he’d feared. “Done.”
“Right. Who is he?”
“I’ve no idea.” Theo held up his hands against the other man’s look. “I’m not given names. People want discretion.”
“What about letters? How are they exchanged?”
“They come to the public house I use—”
“The Three Ducks.”
Theo shifted in his seat at the implication he thought he heard. “It’s the closest by. And Ducks, you see, so people remember it. Because of Swann. My name.” Mr. St. Vincent’s expression suggested he had not needed that explained in quite so much detail. Theo pulled himself together. “I don’t see the letters coming in or handed out; the publican does all that. Was the lady writing to Troilus as well as advertising?”
“It appears there was some direct correspondence recently, thanks to the bootboy. Miss Cressida has loyal friends, and a talent for suborning the staff.” There was just a slight curve to his lips as he said that, a glimmer of reluctant amusement. “A letter from Troilus was found among her possessions, but bore no address.”
Theo applauded Troilus’s caution; he wouldn’t risk putting his own address on clandestine correspondence either, for fear of finding those men with cudgels at his door. “Well, if Miss Cressida sent letters via the Ducks, it’s possible the landlord may recall who came asking for them. I can take you there to find out.”
Mr. St. Vincent gave him a look. “Are you proposing to charge me ten shillings merely to take me to an inn?”
“I can do more,” Theo offered hastily. “Just let me see.” He glanced around, identified the pile of waste paper he had yet to discard, and went to scrabble through it. “A moment, a moment—here!” He held up the object of his search. “Troilus’s most recent advertisement. This will appear in tomorrow’s Advertiser.”
“‘CRESSIDA,’” Mr. St. Vincent read aloud. “‘My sentiments of admiration and respect can be confined no longer. You have my heart. May I dream to have your hand? Reply to your TROILUS in The Times.’ The wretch.” His hand closed on the paper. “You will not publish this.”
“I can’t stop it,” Theo said. “The papers have been printed and collected.”
“I can’t!” The thought alone was enough to make him sweat at the expense it would entail. “It’s impossible. And anyway, surely you don’t want me to?”
“I believe I expressed myself clearly,” Mr. St. Vincent said.
“No, but hear me out. It seems as though your lovebirds have done very well at finding ways to communicate. If you cut off this route, will they not find another you don’t expect? If I were him, I’d put this in half a dozen papers, actually. Make sure she sees it. In any case, if this advertisement appears, you will know Miss Cressida’s next move. Even if you fail to intercept her response, you can watch the columns of The Times.”
“I see,” Mr. St. Vincent said slowly. “Yes. Very well.”
“And it’s his writing,” Theo added. “That is the hand in which all his advertisements have been written.” The adequately formed script of an adequately educated man, lacking any individuality, as though the writer had not cared to write much since he left the schoolroom. “If it comes to a matter at law, or of identification . . .”
“I see. Good. You’re earning your fee, Mr. Swann,” Mr. St. Vincent said, with a hint of surprise. Theo had a vague urge to kick him. “Now you can earn it a little more.”
“Absolutely. I shall be delighted. How?”
“By taking me to an inn, of course.”
* * * * * * *
Martin paced down Little Wild Street with Swann at his side, keeping one eye on his companion. He believed the man’s story, for what that was worth, but he had no intention of paying the ten shillings before they were fairly earned. He did not trust Theodore Swann as far as he could throw him, although that would probably be a reasonable distance, the puny wretch that he was.
A down-at-heel sort of man, Theodore Swann. Worn, ink-stained cuffs and a coat whose better days had long passed and not been particularly good in the first place. Perhaps four inches shorter than himself, and built on much less sturdy lines, with a thin, pale, bony face, narrow shoulders, and flyaway light-brown hair. His voice was decidedly more educated than his appearance suggested; his grey eyes, the colour of wet weather, were calculating; his manner was wheedling. He was quite clearly a grasping, untrustworthy, venal man who carried out a trade that Martin regarded with baffled disdain.
He looked as though he’d fuck like a tomcat.
It was an absurd thought, a dangerous thought, and what was worst, it wasn’t impossible. There was that intangible something about Swann that had Martin’s own awareness tingling, but more, too—that advertisement sitting on his desk, and the fact Swann had very clearly known what it meant. And of course he used the Three Ducks inn.
Granted, it was no distance from the shabby, cluttered office on Little Wild Street to Vere Street, where the Three Ducks stood. It was quite natural that the Matrimonial Advertiser’s letters should be delivered to the public house there. But Martin knew exactly what sort of place the Three Ducks was, and he had little doubt that Swann did too.
Little doubt of that; no doubt at all that Swann would use anything he might find about Martin for his own ends, which made it all the more imperative he keep his thoughts to himself.
He could do that. Very few people ever suspected his tastes ran to men, so far as he could tell, and it would surely not be hard to keep his hands off a fellow whose face suggested he’d sell his own grandmother. Even if there was that something about him that set Martin’s imagination off and running.
Because of course Swann did sell people, or at least offer a market for them to sell themselves. Men advertising for rich women, women advertising for men to keep them or buy them. The business turned Martin’s stomach, and it was Swann’s living.
And now it was Martin’s problem, because of Miss Jennifer Conroy.
He found it difficult to think about the Conroys clearly. He had no idea how to unpick the decades-old knot of anger, resentment, obligation, love, and hate that tied him to the family. But Miss Jennifer was just seventeen and the object of an obviously unscrupulous man’s attentions, and Martin had no doubt what he felt about that.
He’d been thirteen when Miss Jennifer was born. He’d carried her, sung to her, read her stories, played pat-a-cake with her chubby hands, and rioted around her nursery being a horse, bear, dragon, or anything else required by her imperious demands as she grew, because the unquestioning, uncomplicated love of a child had been an anchor to something good and right in his life, even as he’d grown to manhood and his anger had grown with him.
It had ended when he was eighteen. He’d left the Conroys then, and it would hardly have been appropriate for a grown man of no family or fortune to play with a child-heiress, even had he not been busy making a life for himself. He’d become a free man with responsibilities. But he had never forgotten those games, that little golden time of simple childhood, and the thought of Miss Jennifer hurling herself into the arms of some greasy, greedy fraud was appalling. A married woman was subject to her husband’s whim or command. Her property became his to use or waste, her body his to command and chastise; her husband was legally her master. Martin wondered why any free woman would subject herself to it, given a choice.
Miss Jennifer would doubtless marry, because that was what young ladies did, but at least she would not have to tie herself to some brute from necessity. Her wealth was a honeypot that would attract an extensive range of potential husbands from which she might have her pick. Unfortunately, like all honeypots, it attracted wasps too.
They had reached the Three Ducks while he wool-gathered. Swann glanced up at him. “I could fetch Mr. Royle out here, if you prefer?”
Martin considered that. It might be wise not to enter a known sodomites’ den at all, and certainly not with Theodore Swann. His eyes were a little too searching for that, his manner a little too much on the lookout for advantage, and Martin just a little too aware of his lean body. On the other hand, his throat was dry, it was uncomfortably hot, and they were about the Conroys’ private business, which was not to be conducted in the street.
“We’ll go in.”
The interior of the Three Ducks was dark and cool. There were only a few men in there, all white, of course, and doubtless most of them hoping to find willing flesh. Everyone looked around as the door opened. A couple saluted Swann; a few more gave Martin long, speculative examinations. He sensed curiosity rather than hostility, but found that hardly more welcome. He was very, very tired of being the object of curiosity.
Martin took a seat at one end of a heavy wooden bench sticky with years of spilled beer, as Swann went to the bar and returned with a couple of pints of ale. “Mr. Royle will be with us shortly. He may be able to tell you something of who came for the letters. A name like Troilus might be sufficiently unusual to have snagged his attention.”
Martin sipped the thin ale and grimaced. Swann gave an apologetic shrug.
“Why do you do it?” Martin asked at last, just to break the silence.
“Your paper. Why advertise marriage?”
“Why not? It pays. People want to find husbands and wives, so why should they not seek them?”
“It’s . . .” Martin searched for the word. “Lowering. Commercial.”
“Well, we are all commercial. This is the age of commerce. A man is worth his value at the bank.”
“I know what a man is worth,” Martin said, the words tasting as sour as the beer.
Swann’s eyes snapped up to meet his gaze. “Well, yes, but . . . That is, are you married or affianced?”
“Would you like to be?”
Martin gave him a look. “If you intend to play Cupid with me—”
“I shouldn’t dream of it. Unless you pay me to, in which case I shall be delighted. But the fact is, most people would like to be married, and this is the modern world. We must all make our own way. I simply provide a service by which people may encounter one another and form their own arrangements.”
“As this Troilus is trying to do.”
Swann turned his palms up. “He wants a rich wife. Do you blame him for that? You may fault his way of going about it, but you can hardly argue with his ambition. You said yourself that Miss Cressida’s riches ought to secure her a good husband—which, put the other way, is to say that a well-born man will choose her because of her riches. Well, then, where is the difference? She is to be married for her money either way. The only difference is whether she chooses for herself or her father does it for her. And as I say, this is the modern world. May not a lady have a voice in her own future?”
Martin sought for a riposte. He couldn’t immediately find one, a fact that did not make him feel any more kindly disposed to Swann. “Her parents want a husband who will treat her well. Who will offer affection, and value her for more than her money.”
“Oh, I see. So they don’t intend to marry her to the highest-ranking man they can snare?”
“It’s none of your damned affair what they intend,” Martin snapped, since he well knew that a title was the peak of Mrs. Conroy’s ambition.
Swann shrugged. “All I say is, marriage is a business same as any other, and everyone’s got the right to pursue his own advancement. Or hers.”
“And yours with it, since you make a profit from their efforts.”
“You don’t make a profit from your business?” Swann asked with wide-eyed concern. “Perhaps you should have someone help you with that.”
Martin was saved from responding by the approach of a greasy fellow in a greasy apron. He introduced himself as Royle, the landlord, who collected and distributed letters on Swann’s behalf.
“Troilus, Troilus,” he muttered. “Aye, I recall the fellow, he came a few times in a fortnight or so. Tall, thin drink of water. Right miserable, too, not a pleasant word spoke.”
“Do you have a name?” Martin asked. The landlord shrugged. “Can you describe him?”
Martin sighed. “Face?”
“Aye, he had one,” Royle said, and broke into a wheezy laugh. Swann cackled. Martin glowered at them both. “I dunno. Nose in the air sort of cove.”
“How should I know?”
“Because you saw him,” Martin said. “Don’t play the fool with me.”
“Aye, I saw him, but I didn’t see under his wig, did I?”
“Aye, wig. Horsehair. The usual thing.”
“He was a servant?” Swann demanded.
“Didn’t I say?”
“No,” Martin said, with restraint. “You didn’t.”
“Oh, well. Footman, I reckon, or some such.”
He could describe nothing else, didn’t know where the footman had come from or gone to, had nothing else to offer that might help, and wandered off after a little more fruitless conversation to give the bar a desultory wipe with a dirty cloth.
Martin and Swann looked at each other. “Servant.”
“Acting on his own behalf?” Swann mused. “Or doing his master’s bidding?”
“If Troilus is a gentleman . . .” Martin began slowly.
“That’d be bad, wouldn’t it? For the family, I mean.”
“How do you work that out?”
“Well, one—” Swann counted on a finger “—he likely isn’t the sort of gentleman you’d want for a son-in-law, or he’d have put his suit to Old Mr. Cressida, not managed things this havey-cavey way with secret letters. He must know he’d be given his marching orders if he went about matters directly. But, two, if he appears and sounds a gentleman, he’s more likely to win the lady’s agreement. Wouldn’t you say?”
Martin had been assuming Troilus was some hopeful clerk, likely to be a threat to Miss Conroy’s reputation because of their clandestine correspondence rather than a serious danger to her heart. The picture Swann had painted was significantly more worrying. “Yes. I see.”
“And the other thing is . . .” Swann counted off a third finger. “If he can pay a servant, he can probably pay for other things. Like a special licence, say—no, she’s too young for that. But certainly money will make things easier for him. It always does.”
Martin gave him a long look. “You seem to have thought about this a great deal, considering you claim not to know anything about Troilus.”
“I’ve never thought about him in my life,” Swann said indignantly. “I can tell a hawk from a handsaw, that’s all. You tell me there’s a rich lady and a fellow wooing her for her money, and then you wonder why I can imagine what happens next?”
“All right, that’s fair.” Martin subsided a little.
“I’m a scribbler, when I’m not running the Advertiser,” Swann added. “Making stories is my trade.” He hesitated. “And I know plenty of others in the same trade. Gossipmongers. If your young lady is wealthy as you say, word might have spread of this. If I knew the lady’s name, I could ask—”
Swann held his hands up in surrender. “Your choice. Very well, then, I suppose you’ve to wait for her reply in The Times and see where you go from there. So, Mr. St. Vincent.” He tipped up his pint mug, drank, licked ale from his lips with a pink, pointed tongue. “What else will you have from me for your money?”
The question caught Martin completely unaware. He’d been focused on the problem at hand, and on Swann’s words and the agile mind they revealed. He hadn’t been thinking of Swann’s thin, sinewy body at all for the last few minutes, but he bloody was now.
He knew exactly what he’d like from this ratty, unscrupulous little sod, in this dark den with its darker back room and a landlord whose business and freedom depended on discretion. His hands on Swann’s sharp hip bones, or tangled in his hair, or pressing down on that lean back that would look so pale in the shadows, and feeling Swann push against his strength.
It was what he’d like, and he was sure it was what he could have for, at most, an extra few shillings. Swann, bought and paid for.
He shoved the bench away from the table with a grinding scrape. “Just find a way to earn it.”
***TOP PICK*** Charles’ latest gay historical is a romp of a novella.
[T]heir sex scenes are honest, raw, and hilarious.
This romance has a delicious Gothic feel, with a damsel in distress and a Snidely Whiplashesque villain throwing an upstanding gentleman and a lovable scoundrel together to save the day.
In this short, eloquent novel, randy adventures ensue in a lighthearted feel-good but historically plausible early-19th- century setting, with just enough intrigue to stay interesting.
With humor and wit, Charles puts a unique, sensuous spin on the classic Regency Gretna Green elopement plot.