Read Constant Lovers Online

Authors: Chris Nickson

Tags: #General Fiction

Constant Lovers (9 page)

Then the old Constable had taken him on. He'd seen something different, something good, in the feral boy that Nottingham had been then. And now he was the Constable of the city himself. He'd never lived anywhere else and never would.

Slowly he settled next to Mary. ‘We used to come up here when we were courting,' she recalled. ‘Do you remember that?'

‘We did a lot of things when we were courting.' He grinned, eyes flashing, and she tapped him playfully on the arm.

‘Sunday afternoons,' she continued. ‘You'd call for me and if the weather was good we'd go for a walk.'

‘Once your father trusted us to be alone together,' he reminded her.

‘Well, he was right about that.' She blushed. ‘He'd have beaten us both if he knew what we got up to. Sometimes I think it was a miracle that Rose wasn't conceived before we were wed.'

At the mention of the name the spell broke. Rose, whose death was still a large shadow on the horizon. He squeezed her hand lightly and she gave a brief, tight smile in return.

Names, he thought. What a strange, awful power they had. The nerve was still raw and painful to the touch.

They lingered for another half-hour, conversation muted and neutral, then ambled home. The sun was lower, still pleasantly warm on his face. The workmen had gone and the fields were quiet save for an occasional bleat. As they emerged on to the road he glanced ahead.

‘Isn't that someone at our door?' he wondered.

‘Emily,' Mary shouted. She gathered up her skirts and began to run.

Nine

By the time he reached them Mary had folded her daughter into a tight embrace. Emily was sobbing on to her mother's shoulders, the tears pouring. Her bag, bulging with all she owned, sat on the ground outside the house.

With a tiny shake of her head Mary indicated he should leave them. He unlocked the door, took in the bag and poured himself a mug of ale in the kitchen. Whatever had happened, it couldn't be good, that much was obvious. And just the day before the girl had seemed so happy  . . .

His attention shifted as Mary led Emily in and sat her in the chair.

‘Richard, can you bring her something to drink?'

He poured another mug of ale and took it in. Emily reached for it, her hand shaking slightly, eyes red and cheeks blotched as she looked up.

‘Here you go, love.' He forced a smile. ‘Long walk on a hot day.'

She drained the cup quickly and he took it from her. There was dust from the roads all over her dress, and hair spilled untidily from the bonnet. Mary knelt by her, a gentle hand on her shoulder, and asked, ‘Now, what's this all about?'

Emily glanced from one parent to another, looking desperate and hunted.

‘Mr Hartington's dismissed me for insolence,' she announced.

‘Oh, pet,' Mary began, but Emily cut her off.

‘It's not like that, mama,' she protested, tears spilling from her eyes again. ‘This morning Mrs Hartington took the girls out. Mr Hartington came to my room and he  . . .' She shook her head rather than say it. ‘When I said no he told me to go, that I was insolent.'

Mary pulled her daughter close again, stroking her back as she cried, just the way she'd done when Emily was little. Over the girl's shoulder she looked up at her husband, raising her eyebrows.

Nottingham didn't move. Instead he breathed deeply, going over the words once more in his mind. The father in him was ready to dash up to Headingley and beat Hartington senseless, but he'd been part of the law for too long to do that. He had to cap the rage that was building inside him.

Tonight he'd talk to Emily, comfort her, and hear the full tale. Then he'd decide what to do. He knew it happened often enough, masters taking advantage of the female servants. If they wanted to keep their posts they had no choice but to agree.

He was proud of Emily for refusing. The girl snuffled and gazed up at him. ‘You do believe me, papa?'

‘Of course I do, love.' He smiled and took hold of her hand, cradling the thin fingers. ‘You just get yourself settled. We'll look after you, you know that.'

She didn't want to eat, didn't want much of anything except to curl into herself. That was simply the way she was, and he knew it was better to let her be for now. He'd talk to her once she was in bed. For the moment she needed to feel safe.

Neither of them fussed around her; they treated her normally, as if nothing had happened, as if she'd never gone away. Finally, as the sky grew fully dark, Emily went off to her room.

He followed a few minutes later, a candle in his hand. At the door he looked in, seeing her under the cover and unable to forget that Rose had once shared the bed with her.

He placed the light on the table and eased himself down on to the old wooden chair.

‘I'm sorry,' he told her.

Emily rolled over to face him. ‘Why are you sorry, papa?'

‘I'm sorry all this happened to you.'

She was silent for a long time. Then, ‘Does it happen a lot? With men like that?'

‘Sometimes.' He sighed. ‘It always has, I suppose. Give some men money or power and they get to thinking they have rights just because a girl works for them.'

‘He told me exactly what he wanted me to do.'

‘Did he try and force you?'

‘No,' she said.

‘That's something,' Nottingham conceded softly. ‘Many men don't take no for an answer.'

‘But what am I going to do?' Her eyes were moist again. ‘I loved the girls. And Mr Hartington said he'd never give me a reference. He was going to tell his wife I'd been insolent and he'd had to dismiss me.'

‘You leave that to me, love.'

‘I'm sorry, papa.'

‘Don't be,' he said, reaching over and stroking her cheek. ‘You've nothing to be sorry for. You go to sleep, it's been a long day.'

‘What are you going to do?' Mary asked later, lying against him in the bed, her head on his chest.

‘I'm going to talk to Hartington tomorrow.'

‘Richard  . . .' There was a quiet warning in her voice. He stroked her hair lightly.

‘Don't worry. Everything will be fine, I promise.'

She kissed him.

The Constable was at the jail soon after dawn, hoping that Lister would be as good as his word and that his enthusiasm hadn't been a sham. He heard the clock at the Parish Church chime quarter to the hour and began to pace.

Just before the hour rang the door opened and Lister walked in.

‘Good morning, boss,' he said with an eager smile. He'd listened to Nottingham's advice and dressed down. The suit had seen many better days, the elbows shiny, the knees of the breeches worn, his shoes weary, unpolished and down on the heel.

‘Very good, Rob,' the Constable approved. ‘Ready for work?'

‘I am, boss.' He said the title with pleasure.

‘Make yourself comfortable, look around.' He offered the lad a mug of ale. ‘You'll be spending enough time here, better know where things are.'

Sedgwick arrived five minutes later, his hair unkempt, yawning. Nottingham knew he'd already been busy, checking the night men and making the morning round.

‘Morning, John. Everything quiet?'

‘Mostly.' A frown crossed his face. ‘One of the night men said a whore got cut last night.'

‘There's nothing new in that, some customer thinks he deserves it for free.'

‘This wasn't like that, boss. It was a pair of men who walked up to her. One grabbed her by the arm and the other used a blade on her cheek. Told her to leave Leeds.'

‘Who's the girl?' Nottingham asked.

‘She's new, only been here a fortnight or so.'

‘Who's running her?'

‘Someone called Hughes. He must be new too, I've never heard of him before.'

‘So someone's warning him off through her.'

‘Aye, probably. Most likely Amos Worthy.'

Worthy was the city's biggest procurer, a criminal who often supplied girls and loans to members of the Corporation and rich merchants; in return, they made certain he was never convicted of anything. It was a situation the Constable hated. But it had become more complex when he'd learned that his mother had once been Worthy's lover, and that he'd looked after them during some of the bleak days when Nottingham's father had thrown them out. More recently, too, he'd helped find a killer who'd murdered one of the few men in Leeds the pimp respected. He was strange, with a code of honour that defied any easy definition.

The Constable thought for a minute. ‘How many girls does Hughes have?'

‘Four, that's what the lass said. Do you want to do anything about it?'

‘I don't like it but let's wait and see what happens. If there's anything more we'll jump on it.'

‘Yes, boss.'

Lister ambled out from the cells and the deputy raised his eyebrows.

‘This is Rob Lister. Rob, this is Mr Sedgwick. He's going to teach you everything you need to know. Mind his lessons well.'

The men nodded at each other and the Constable noticed the wary look on the deputy's face.

‘Take Rob out and show him the ropes,' Nottingham instructed. ‘He's joining us. I think he'll catch on quick enough.'

‘Yes, boss.'

‘I'll be gone most of the morning. Go round the pawnbrokers and sellers again, see if any of those items the servants stole have turned up yet. If they haven't left Leeds I expect we'll be due to hear more about them soon.'

‘Yes, boss.' He looked expectantly at Lister. ‘Ready?'

Nottingham had taken the horse from the stable to go out to Headingley. He could have walked the distance easily enough, but riding would be quicker. More than that, he wouldn't look like such a poor man when he arrived.

He'd made inquiries into Hartington before allowing Emily to go and work for the family. Everything indicated a man of probity. He was in his thirties and married with two young daughters, well respected, a supporter of charities for the poor. There was some money in his family but he'd built on that quite astutely, buying and selling land in Leeds.

His house was new, up to the fashion with a plain front and plenty of windows, set behind a long sweep of lawn. It was understated, elegant, and expensive. The Constable dismounted, and waited until a stable boy appeared to lead the animal away.

‘I'm here to see Mr Hartington,' he told the footman at the door.

‘He's breakfasting, sir,' came the smooth, sure answer. Even in his best suit, no one would believe Nottingham to be a man of any wealth.

‘Tell him that the Constable of Leeds would like to talk to him,' he said with quiet authority. ‘It's important.'

He only had to spend five minutes in the withdrawing room before Hartington hurried in, a frown of annoyance on his face. He was a slight man, shorter than Nottingham, dressed with the casual ease of someone who could afford the best and wore it lightly. A full-bottom wig of glossy black brushed his shoulders, and his shoes buckles gleamed gold.

‘Well?' he asked.

‘You dismissed my daughter yesterday.'

‘I did,' Hartington agreed, eyeing the Constable warily and keeping a discreet distance. ‘I won't tolerate a servant talking back to me. I told her that when she first came here.'

‘So saying no to rape is talking back in this house, is it?' Nottingham asked evenly, keeping deliberately expressionless.

Hartington's cheeks flushed with anger. ‘What? She told you that?'

‘She told me that and I believe her.' He could see the man's eyes shifting around the room, focusing on anything but his face.

‘She's lying.'

The Constable said nothing at first then took a pace forward, close to Hartington. The man flinched.

‘She's not. We both know that. Perhaps your wife would like to hear Emily's side of the story. After all, she and the children were gone when it happened, weren't they?'

‘That's neither here nor there.'

‘I think it is.' Nottingham moved one threatening step towards the door. ‘The people you do business with in Leeds will be interested to know, too.'

‘That would be slander, Mr Nottingham. It would be her word against mine.'

The Constable stopped and stared calmly at the man, his eyes cold, the anger an undercurrent in his voice.

‘Not quite; I'd make damned sure it was my word, too, Mr Hartington. You'd better think about that. By the time anything came to court the damage would already be done. You'd better understand exactly what I mean. I'll make absolutely certain your reputation is ruined.' He sounded forceful and convincing, yet in truth he had no idea whether anyone would listen to him. He was just the Constable, not a gentleman of rank.

A weighted silence filled the room. Nottingham could see the worry on Hartington's face. He stayed silent a few more seconds, then said, ‘You're going to write an excellent reference for Emily. The best you've ever written for anyone. Do that and we'll forget the matter entirely.'

There was the gamble, he thought, watching the other man closely. Hartington could still call his bluff and he had nothing more in his arsenal. He stared at the man, eyes never wavering, mouth set hard.

Finally, with a curt nod, Hartington caved in. ‘I suppose it makes no difference to me if I recommend the girl or not.'

‘I'll stay while you write it and take it home with me.'

‘Stay here, then.' He stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him. From elsewhere in the house Nottingham could hear the high prattle and laughter of girlish voices. He breathed deeply feeling his heart pounding hard.

The longclock ticked softly, the hands moving through a full quarter-hour before the footman appeared with the letter. The Constable read it quickly, nodded and took his leave. Outside he folded it carefully and put it in the deep pocket of his waistcoat. The horse was waiting, but it wasn't until he was back on the Otley road that he allowed himself the satisfaction of a smile. Hartington had done well in his humiliation; Emily would have no trouble finding another position. Nottingham might have another enemy now but it was just one more to add to the number.

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