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Hart of Empire

BOOK: Hart of Empire
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CONTENTS

Hart of Empire

Saul David

www.hodder.co.uk

First published in Great Britain in 2010 by Hodder & Stoughton

An Hachette UK company

Copyright (c) Saul David 2010

The right of Saul David to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted

by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,

stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means

without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated

in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and

without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance

to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

Epub ISBN 9781848947306

Book ISBN 9780340953655

Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

338 Euston Road

London NW1 3BH

www.hodder.co.uk

For my darling Tamar

Preface

Copy of an undated letter given to the eighteen-year-old George Hart in the autumn of 1877 by Josiah Ward of Ward & Mills, a London firm of Solicitors-at-Law, shortly before George joined the 1st King's Dragoon Guards as a young officer fresh from Sandhurst:

To my son George Arthur Hart, Esq.,

To encourage you in your early military career, I have put aside the sum of PS30,000. But it will only be made over to you, in the amounts mentioned, if you manage to comply with the following conditions before your twenty-eighth birthday, a lapse of ten years:

1. Marry respectably, that is to a lady of gentle birth - PS5,000.

2. Reach the substantive rank of lieutenant colonel in the British Army - PS5,000.

3. Be awarded the Victoria Cross - PS10,000.

If you comply with all three conditions within the time allotted, you will receive an additional sum of PS10,000. This money is in the safekeeping of my solicitor, Josiah Ward of Ward & Mills, and will be disbursed by him once reasonable proofs of compliance have been provided.

Chapter 1

Haymarket, London, late spring 1879

'Thirty-three black!' announced the croupier.

George shook his head slowly, scarcely able to believe his luck. He preferred gambling at cards but neither baccarat nor
chemin-de-fer
had been kind to him today and he had switched in desperation to roulette, placing his last fifteen pounds of chips on black. It had won and, for want of a better strategy, he had bet on the same colour for five more spins, each time doubling his money, so that with this latest success, he now had the princely sum of PS960. One more win would give him the two thousand or so that he desperately needed. He took another gulp of whisky and decided to let the money ride. All or nothing.

But something in his drink-fuddled brain told him it couldn't be black again, not seven times in a row, though he knew the odds on each new bet were the same for either colour. At the last moment, as the croupier was about to spin the wheel, he leant forward and moved all his chips to red. Then he closed his eyes and prayed.

As the ball was released, George glanced nervously round the dingy gambling den, its candelabra casting ghostly shadows over the few remaining players. He was alone at his table but for the croupier, a small, wiry man with greasy hair and a lopsided bow-tie, who was staring at the wheel as if his life depended upon it. Maybe it did, because his brow glistened with beads of sweat and his hands were gripping the table so tightly that the knuckles were white.

George looked back at the wheel and, almost imperceptibly, the croupier moved his right thumb below the level of the table, felt for a small button and pressed it. Seconds later the ball ran out of momentum and fell into the bed of the wheel, rattling along the numbers before finally coming to rest.

'Zero green,' announced the croupier, with as straight a face as he could muster, before raking George's neat pile of chips from the red diamond at the side of the baize.

Oh, my God, thought George. It's fallen into the only number I didn't consider, the one that gives the house its advantage. But even as his racing heart and clammy hands registered the consequences, he noticed the visibly relieved croupier grinning at someone behind him. He swung round to see the rotund proprietor, Mr Milton Samuels, advancing towards him.

'So sorry for your loss, Captain Hart,' said Samuels, thumbs crooked in his bright checked waistcoat. 'You win some . . .'

George's eyes narrowed. He had lost money before, of course, but Samuels had never felt the need to console him. Something was wrong. He looked from boss to employee, and back again, and felt sure he had been cheated. 'Don't give me that flannel, Samuels,' he said, a hard edge to his voice. 'You're not sorry at all. And why would you be when you've just fleeced me of everything I own?'

'Now, now, Captain Hart, there's no need for that.'

'Isn't there?' said George, his voice rising. 'So, you keep your temper when you've been rooked, do you?'

The room had fallen silent, all eyes on the altercation. Samuels glanced beyond George to the stairs. 'I assure you, sir, that nothing untoward--'

'I saw your croupier gripping the side of the table and suspect you may have fitted some mechanical device to ensure the ball landed on green.'

George strode towards the croupier's end of the table, intent on discovering the truth, but Samuels intercepted him, his arms outstretched. 'I don't want no trouble, Captain Hart, so if you leave quietly we'll say no more about it.'

'I shall go nowhere without my money.'

'That right, Cap'n?' said a new voice, behind him. Before George could turn he felt an iron-like grip on his throat as an arm pinned him from behind. The more he struggled, the more the pressure increased. He could feel blood pounding in his ears and knew he was close to blacking out. But then the pressure on his throat eased a little and, coughing and spluttering, he regained his senses.

'Like I was saying,' snarled Samuels, 'I don't want no trouble but you would insist. All right, Paddy, throw him out.'

George felt as helpless as a rag doll as he was dragged backwards up the stairs, through the entrance and propelled on to the pavement, the boisterous Haymarket crowd parting for yet another drunk. Furious, he scrambled to his feet and advanced towards O'Reilly, the huge doorman who had thrown him out and was now standing coolly on the steps, his arms crossed. 'Don't be a fool, Cap'n. I'll make mincemeat of you, so I will, and it'd be a shame to damage that handsome figurehead of yours.'

George knew he was no match for the former prize-fighter, and was likely to receive a thrashing, but he was so angry and drunk he didn't care. He swung a right hook that missed as the battle-scarred Irishman swayed out of range, moving his large frame with the speed and grace of a cat. Overbalancing, George stumbled forward into a hammer of a counter-punch, O'Reilly's right fist slamming into his solar plexus, driving the air from his lungs and dropping him to his knees. He had never been hit so hard.

'You won't get away with this,' he said, gasping for breath. But he knew that they would, for he could hardly complain to the police about an illegal gambling den.

'Go home and sober up, Cap'n, though I'll wager home for you is far from these shores.'

Normally such an insulting reference to his dark skin, which made him look more southern Mediterranean than British, would have provoked a violent response. But the blow George had received had knocked much of the fight out of him and, as he crouched on the pavement, he realized he had only himself to blame for his humiliation. He rose to his feet, dusted himself down and, with a last scornful glance at O'Reilly, set off in the direction of his hotel in Knightsbridge. It was a fair distance and he would normally have hailed a cab but he had decided to walk to save money and to clear his head.

Halfway down Piccadilly - oblivious of the fashionable swells in their frock coats, checked waistcoats and tight blue trousers, and the ladies in dolman-style cloaks and narrow-brimmed bonnets - he pulled out his mother's letter and read it a second time.

17 Connaught Square

Dublin

Dearest George,

It was wonderful to have you to myself again for those few short weeks of your convalescence, and to hear all your news. I am so proud that your gallantry in South Africa has been rewarded with a regular commission, and that you now have a second chance to make something of your military career.

I am grateful for the PS500 you sent on your return to England. I have never been good with money, and since your father stopped paying your allowance it has been a constant struggle to keep my creditors at bay. In truth the PS500 was quickly eaten up by debts and I have been forced to resort to moneylenders. But their interest is exorbitant and they have warned me that if I do not pay the PS2,000 I shall owe by January next year they will force me to sell the house. I hate to burden you with this, my darling, particularly after your recent generosity, but I don't know where else to turn.

Your loving mother,

Emma

George folded the letter and groaned. He knew he had been a fool to try to raise the money his mother needed by gambling, but what was the alternative? After having kitted himself out with his new regimental uniform he had been left with barely two hundred pounds. Now, thanks to his idiocy, that money was almost gone and tomorrow he would return to South Africa to join his new regiment. It was almost a relief.

He set off at an unsteady walk and, twenty minutes later, was in sight of his hotel on Queen's Gate when he registered footsteps behind him. They grew gradually louder, and as the pedestrian caught up, George moved aside to let him pass. Instead he felt a tap on the shoulder.

'What do you--' As he turned, George froze in mid-sentence. There, standing before him in a top hat and cape, was a ghost. The ghost of a man he had killed in a fight the year before: the same huge frame, clothes and blotchy red face. It couldn't be, yet he seemed real enough in the flickering light from a nearby gas lamp. 'It can't be . . .' he whispered. 'You're dead.'

'Not me,' snarled the man, 'my brother Henry. I'm Bob Thompson.'

'You're his
brother
?' George was aghast.

BOOK: Hart of Empire
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