Authors: Murder in the Pleasure Gardens
One never knows what sort of muddle the most idle of thoughts will land one in, now do they?
With nothing more than time on my hands one night, I pondered the seemingly innocent topic of the quality of the food at White’s Club for gentlemen.
White’s is the exclusive domain of four hundred fifty gentlemen who gather for intelligent conversation, a quiet corner in which to read a newspaper, a wager on a hand of cards, or a game of billiards. There are some wagers on less savoury topics involving the fair sex but, as a gentleman, I feel I should remain silent on those.
At any rate, the one thing White’s does not have is a decent chef. And that is a problem.
My harmless musings regarding the subject escalated to a crucial point when I swallowed yet another morsel of over-cooked mutton, and my pained gaze met the identical one of Lord Headfort across the table.
“The animal must have been part of a flock of pugilistic sheep, this meat is so tough,” I remarked, indicating my plate.
His lordship, a robust man in his fifties, chewed frantically, then swallowed using a great gulp of wine to wash the food down. “By Jove, Brummell, it’s a sad day when a man can’t come to his club and partake of a proper meal.”
“Perhaps we ought to open another club and employ a chef who knows how to cater to a man’s stomach,” I reflected.
Sometimes a brilliant idea like that will pop into my head, you know.
Lord Headfort leaned forward eagerly. “I’ll put money behind such an endeavour and help run the damn thing.”
“And I shall be president,” I replied selflessly.
No one can accuse me of being miserly. I am always generous when it comes to a good cause. Or a good plate of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
Over the following month—a delightful period of time when I sampled the efforts of various chefs—Prinny became involved in starting the club and offered up his chef, Watier, to prepare meals. We named the club after the chef and opened at the corner of Piccadilly and Bolton streets.
Evidently Lord Headfort and I were not the only souls unhappy with the food at White’s, for soon Watier’s membership was at its limit.
Speaking of limits, past all previous limits was the amount of money a gentleman could gamble on macao, whist, or faro. How this happened, I cannot tell you.
All I know is that suddenly my club was renowned not only for its food, but it had the reputation for the most notoriously high level of play in London.
Unfortunately, where there is a great deal of money changing hands, there is often trouble.
* * * *
On a warm evening in the first week of July, I sat at my usual table at Watier’s—overlooking the door—partaking of a very fine Chambertin wine with Viscount Petersham. I enjoy a fine Chambertin, though most any good wine will do. My motto is “When your spirits are low, get another bottle.” Even when your spirits are not low, wine is good for a man’s soul, I believe.
But I digress. I was speaking of my good friend Petersham. While we often debate the wisdom of his sporting side-whiskers, the viscount and I have been comrades since the late 1790’s when we both served under the Prince of Wales in the Tenth Light Dragoons.
“Going to Vauxhall later tonight, aren’t you?” he asked me.
“Good God, yes. Anything to relieve my boredom,” I replied. I did not want to admit to myself that I had grown used to a new pastime: that of investigating murders. I cannot say that I am all that good at it, although I have stumbled my way through three previous cases. Without a killer to collar, life seems dull with only the cut of my coat, the graceful motion of raising my quizzing glass, and the exertion of having a witty remark on my tongue for my fellow members of Society. I occasionally require having something to stir the workings of my brain.
Petersham, who never leaves his house prior to six in the evening said, “The Pleasure Gardens at Vauxhall promise to be entertaining for once. All the world will be there, since it’s a gala evening under the patronage of our Prince. There’s to be a military review, a band, fireworks, and an exhibition of the Cascade.”
“Intriguing,” I replied absently, my attention caught elsewhere. “Devil take it, look who has just come in the door.”
Petersham took the time to finish admiring his latest snuff box—he has one for every day of the year—before raising heavy-lidded eyes to see what I was talking about. “You mean Sylvester Fairingdale?”
“Partly,” I replied in a tight voice. “Though that fool will never overshadow me, no matter how much he wants to, not so long as he pairs glass-green breeches with a carrot-coloured coat.”
“Everyone knows Fairingdale is a ninny. You aren’t going to permit him to disturb your comfort, Brummell. Say, aren’t those new breeches you’ve got on? Weston make them?”
“Yes,” I answered shortly, for once not interested in disclosing the details of the creation of a new garment. I know this must shock you, but what can I say? That is how the matter stood. My gaze remained on Fairingdale and, more importantly, the young man he had in his company. Dressed in scarlet regimentals, the soldier was a good-looking youth with a square jaw and a wide smile. I was shocked at his presence at the club after what had happened.
Petersham managed to lean forward whilst expending the least amount of energy and pour himself another glass of wine. “How did Fairingdale obtain membership here at Watier’s anyway?”
“My guard slipped, I expect. Anyway, I could not deny him when he lives with Lord Wrayburn and the new Lady Wrayburn, remember?”
“Oh, that’s right. No, the Wrayburns would take it as quite a snub.”
“Besides, that coxcomb Fairingdale has left me alone for a while.”
Petersham tsked. “Remember what you used to say to me when you’d protect me from the bullies who’d tease me about my asthma, ‘Never let your guard down.’“
I watched the two men seat themselves at one of the tables and my heart sank. “Lieutenant Nevill is going to play again after all that happened last Saturday.”
“Who’s Nevill? The young fellow in the scarlet regimentals?”
I nodded, my gaze still on the table of gamblers. “After a spectacular loss at the tables just this past Saturday night, the youth declared he would place the business end of a pistol in his mouth and pull the trigger.”
“No money, eh?”
“Not a shilling. I waived his debt. Then, I spent the better part of two hours convincing him that he need not end his life, that he should consider this a valuable lesson and not game beyond his means ever again.”
“I say, that was good of you, Brummell.”
I shrugged. “The lieutenant is a fine young man, not above twenty years of age. I could not let him commit such a heinous act as doing away with himself over a thousand pounds. What sort of fellow would I be? The club took the loss after Nevill said he would not play for high stakes again.”
“Word is you rescued Tom Sheridan from a similar fate. Getting soft in your old age?”
I raised my right eyebrow. “I am only twenty-nine.”
“And still unwed.”
I motioned to a wigged footman for another bottle of Chambertin, leaving Petersham’s comment hanging in the air. I do not have a wife and am not likely to obtain one any time soon. The lady I consider to be the Ideal, her Royal Highness, the Duchess of York, is married to another, devil take it. The other female in my life, Miss Lydia Lavender, is a high-spirited independent miss of the middle classes, who holds the Society where I am the Arbiter of Fashion in contempt. Besides, her father, a Bow Street investigator, would sooner have Napoleon for a son-in-law than yours truly, Beau Brummell.
Ignoring Petersham’s words, I focused my attention on the lieutenant. Sure enough, he and Fairingdale had joined in a game. Blast! Had the young man not learned his lesson?
“Brummell, what are you going to do?”
“Do? What am I, the Patron Saint of Fallen Gamblers?”
“Don’t talk fustian. I can tell you want to go over there and yank Nevill from the table. Calm down. I don’t see why you’re worried. The other gamblers are unexceptional and won’t let the play get too high. There’s Lord Perry’s cousin, Tallarico—”
“Whose only interest in life is females, I know.”
“Exactly. And Theobald Jacombe. Come now, that man is beyond reproach. He won’t lead young Nevill to ruin,” Petersham opined, taking a pinch of snuff from his jewelled box.
I felt myself relax a bit. Petersham had the right of it. Theobald Jacombe is one of the most well-known, honourable men in London. He is the trusted friend of Earl Spencer and a long-time official in the Home Office. Mr. Jacombe oversees the magistrates of Bow Street and supports every effort to make London a safer place.
No, Nevill was in good hands. After the game, I would offer to buy him a drink and have another talk with him. All would be well.
I was wrong.
“You are a cheat, sir!” The accusation rang out across the green-baize tables, causing an instant silence to fall. A battery of shocked gazes turned toward the speaker.
I felt my heart plummet to my highly polished evening shoes. Nevill had been the speaker. He sat across from Mr. Jacombe and had accused that upstanding man. The youth’s face was flushed red, though his bearing was proud and strong.
Mr. Jacombe’s face paled with anger. “I beg your pardon,” he said, deathly calm. “I could not have heard you correctly.”
Victor Tallarico, an Italian now living in London and my only rival for the affections of the Duchess of York, uttered the words, “
The lieutenant glanced around the room nervously, but was not about to back down. “I saw you. You pulled a card from your sleeve. It’s the oldest trick known to card players. Fellows in the barracks taught me that on the first day.”
Everyone in the room sat riveted to the scene playing out in front of them.
“If you are well-versed in the ways of dishonest card-play, perhaps you are accusing me to cover your own perfidy,” Mr. Jacombe said in a measuring tone.
Lieutenant Nevill shot to his feet.
By now I was at his side and placed a friendly hand on his shoulder. I applied pressure, gently forcing the soldier back into his chair while I addressed Mr. Jacombe. “Sir, how could our young lieutenant here be adept at cheating, when I see from his vouchers on the table and the number of gaming counters in front of you that he has lost a goodly amount?”
Mr. Jacombe is a paunchy man of middle years with sparse light brown hair and a fair complexion. He rubbed his chin in a considering manner. “Well, Brummell, that could be a way of disarming me. Nevill might have any number of schemes in mind. I’ve been around longer than you have, you know, and have heard the tales of men’s trickery from the Bow Street magistrates. Nothing is above some men in their quest to advance themselves.”
That put me in my place. Mr. Jacombe never has approved of me, thinking me a rackety sort trying to get above my place in life. He next eyed Petersham, who had come to stand beside me, with a faint air of contempt, nothing obvious, mind you, but I am observant and noted it at once. Mr. Jacombe would not approve of the known close relationship Petersham has with his dearest companion, Lord Munro.
“Why not count the cards and settle the matter?” Lieutenant Nevill asked hotly.
“A good idea,” Tallarico agreed.
Fairingdale remained safely silent, looking down his long nose at the company, the dolt.
Mr. Jacombe’s deep-set blue eyes raked his accuser. “Because there is no need to lower myself by responding to such a base accusation.”
The Lieutenant turned his gaze toward his saviour.
Er, that would be me.
“Mr. Brummell, sir. You can speak for me. When I lost all my money to you Saturday night, I obviously wasn’t cheating. You knew that, else you wouldn’t have dismissed my debt. Mr. Jacombe here is the one who is playing false.”
My hand was still on the youth’s shoulder. I squeezed it a bit. “Often a man’s eyes play tricks on him, Nevill. Why not give Mr. Jacombe the benefit of the doubt? Consider the game over and come have a drink with me.”
I judged it best to end the matter before Nevill’s accusation turned into a deadly confrontation. To say a man was a cheat could have only one inevitable consequence: a duel. Theobald Jacombe’s reputation for honesty and fairness could be the only thing preventing him from thrashing the youth for questioning his honour. As it was, I could tell the government man was holding his temper in check with great effort.
Just then an oily voice sounded. “Had a run of bad luck lately, have you, Nevill?” Sylvester Fairingdale asked. “And Brummell let you off. How very kind of him. Did he make you give your word you would not play again?”
The lieutenant squared his shoulders, but my hand remained firm while I tried to contain him.
Fairingdale, with his forward-jutting chin and his unnaturally elongated neck, is one of those annoying people—really an adder—who breathes life through other peoples’ misfortunes. I was not about to let him contribute his nastiness to an already dangerous situation.