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The Assistant

Prologue

Autumn, 1799

The rains had come in a deluge the previous night, with thunder and lightning, frightening horses and sending young children into the arms of their anxious parents. A storm this heavy could cause damage to homes and bridges, could knock down trees and block roads. Such heavy rain was unusual for the early days of autumn, but not unheard of, and consequently the servants at the estate were prepared for the worst when the first crash of lightning lit the midnight sky as bright as noon.

They were prepared when a subsequent bolt struck the stables, setting them afire despite the torrential rains. One small crew worked fearlessly to bring the terrified horses to safety under the portcullis of the old buildings, whilst another strove to douse the flames that licked at the hay stacked under the peaked roof. The work was exhausting and all-demanding, and when, after some time, the fire was extinguished and the horses returned to the slightly charred but otherwise undamaged building, the servants gratefully retired to the kitchens for some well-earned tea and cakes, and perhaps something stronger to ease their nerves. The storm had abated now and lightning no longer split the air, and in the aftermath of their exertion and the lessened sense of urgency, the men and women took their ease, resting before the demands of another day of work.

No one noticed the small figure that crept its way out of the kitchen door, which had been left ajar to allow men access to the warmth and sustenance.

The ground was wet and spongy underfoot, and the passage of two feet left small puddles in their wake, grass-covered indentations filling with water before slowly releasing their liquid back into the rain-soaked earth. In the heavy cloud-laden darkness, still hours before dawn, the slight figure picked its way tentatively down the edge of the hedges that rimmed the long drive, ducking into the foliage wherever possible so as to avoid being noticed by any who might still be awake and watching. The figure hefted a small bag onto one shoulder and wrapped the greatcoat more snugly. At long last, upon reaching the road at the end of the property, the tense shoulders relaxed just a bit, the first ordeal having been survived. One step closer to freedom!

It was a long walk to town, near on ten miles, but the traveller did not seem to be in any hurry. Although the road from the estate ran straight into the town, it was too well traveled for the fugitive’s peace of mind. A little known path through the woods that bordered the thoroughfare would provide better protection. Keeping to the bushes, the rough-clad wanderer crept slowly onward through the wet undergrowth, anxious of unseen stones or slippery patches in this darkest of nights, stopping every now and then to assess location and direction. In the woods ran a stream, surging from the recent downpour, which fed the river that flowed through the city, and the traveller carefully and slowly followed the sound of the rushing water. There was no need to hurry. There was no one waiting. Brushing dirty hands on rough woolen trousers, the wanderer adjusted the much-worn coat atop thin shoulders and moved on, towards what, heaven only knew.

 

One

Every man must play a part
(Merchant of Venice I.i.80)

Edward sat in his room at the inn in Derby, looking through the window and down onto the early morning activity in the streets below. He had hoped to travel on today towards Manchester and thereafter to Liverpool, where a ship was expected shortly into port, but his business here had been delayed due to the ado surrounding a local festival and the corresponding nuptials of the mayor’s son to the daughter of a baronet. The cargo on the ship he hoped to meet had been purchased in good faith and could wait for his arrival, whenever that might be. On this festive day, the shopkeepers in Derby were more concerned with meeting the demands of their clients than of their suppliers, and Edward supposed he could not blame them. After all, their success was directly responsible for his own.

His father had instilled this into him as a youth: take care of your customers, for they are the source of your income. And his father had done exactly that, establishing a rich network of loyal milliners, shopkeepers, and private customers for his high quality merchandise. Sourcing both fine local fabric and exotic goods from around the world, Edward’s esteemed sire had raised the prospects of a small import business to a highly regarded establishment that catered to those with the finest tastes and the budgets to satisfy them.

Old Mr. Gardiner had done very well for himself indeed. He lived simply but well, and owned homes both in London near his warehouses, and in a small village in Hertfordshire, whence he hailed. His income, not excessive but more than adequate for a comfortable life, was constantly reinvested and worked upon, and despite living in some degree of luxury, he did not allow his family to grow accustomed to a life of leisure. The money came from hard work, and through hard work it would grow. Mr. Gardiner’s family would know the value of their comfort from their own labours.

From his first marriage, Old James Gardiner had two daughters, both as beautiful as their late mother, and unfortunately, as vapid. They were lovely, good-hearted, but silly girls, who grew to find more value in gossip than fine fabric or the joy of a good business deal. His second marriage had been to Edward’s mother, a plain but intelligent woman, with a pleasing temper, a sharp wit, and the business acumen of the most experienced merchant. She had produced only this one son, but he shared his mother’s intellect and was of the utmost pride to both his parents.

It was Edward’s own mother, Mary, who had convinced James Gardiner that young Edward needed an Education. Not of the class to consider Oxford or Cambridge for their son, the Gardiners determined upon the colonies, and upon completing his primary education in the local parish, Edward was sent to the newly established King’s College in Windsor, Nova Scotia.  His three years abroad were initially lonely ones for the shy young man, but along with an excellent education, he also acquired the social skills required of a successful businessman. He learned to meet people and engage with them on their own terms; he learned that a pleasant smile and a friendly demeanour would better recommend him to others than mere social éclat; he learned the importance of business in keeping the blood of the Empire flowing; and most importantly, he learned that, in this less stratified world of the Atlantic colonies, tradesmen and sons of local magistrates were social equals, who could converse intelligently on matters of consequence. Edward returned home educated and mature, with a knowledge of his place in the world, but with the skills to move beyond his circles. He could discuss business affairs with his fellow merchants, fashion with the Ladies who sought unique decorations at his establishments, literature and sport with the gentlemen who accompanied them, and was a competent and sought-after chess partner.

In short, Edward Gardiner had every prospect of outshining his father.

And now, at five and twenty years of age, he was starting to take over his father’s place in the business. The older man was tiring and his health was indifferent at best. He chose to spend his time in London with his wife and friends and doctors, dealing with the paper end of the business, whilst letting his energetic son assume the more taxing aspects of the affairs. Edward’s energy and straightforward good nature, and his lack of domestic entanglements, rendered him ideal for this activity. He had, as yet, no wife or family to keep him at home, and his friends were undemanding of his time, happy to see him when he was available for social endeavours, but understanding of his need to travel. Which was why, on this cloudy morning, Edward was sitting in the inn in Derby, biding his time until his clients could arrange to make their appointments.

Even at this early hour he could hear the denizens of Derby begin to move into the centre of the city for the festival. Voices of men, women, and children sounded through the glass of the window and into his room which overlooked the square on Irongate. The cathedral bells rang clearly in the rain-damp air, with its smoky smell lingering from the heavy overnight storms. The scent of early morning fires also permeated the atmosphere, as meats were placed on spits to be cooked for the crowds which would later come to see, buy, and eat their way through the festive day. Peering from the window of his second-story rooms, Edward watched cartloads of produce as they were moved around the muddy streets, the wagons and drays festooned with colourful cloths and ribbons as befitted the festive aura of the city. Ah, good, he thought to himself, at least they’re buying up my pretty pieces of cloth! He smiled despite his impatience to move on from this place.

Whilst the air that overhung the city was still heavy, the storms of the previous night had clearly passed and the clouds seemed to be dissipating. Like his mother, Edward was inclined to good humour, and thus was not to be found fretting his enforced stay in Derby. Rather, he reckoned that a brisk morning walk among the incoming traffic would do well to bolster his spirits. Although certainly no London, after the years spent in Nova Scotia, Derby seemed a veritable metropolis to Edward and he determined to explore some more of the city before returning to the inn for breakfast, and hopefully some business. Perhaps he might find a book to purchase, or some small gifts for his mother and sisters amongst the wares offered by the merchants setting up their stalls on the streets.

He donned his coat and hat against the weather, and paused before the mirror in his rooms to check his appearance. His reflection announced his position in society and proclaimed him to be of the middle class, but nonetheless he cut an acceptable figure. His height was good, though not excessive, and any lack of perfect refinement in his features was compensated for by an appealing face, the ruddiness of youth, and good health. His hair was a middling brown, neither too light nor too dark, and his eyes likewise shone with a green-brown regard. His ordinary but pleasant looks were complemented by a fashionable and conservative cut of clothing, although, as might be expected, the fabric was superb. He looked exactly what he was — a prosperous young merchant with no pretensions.

He descended the staircase, bid good morning to the proprietor of the inn, and stepped onto the street. Here, the noise of the city greeted him in full force. Horses whinnied and neighed and dogs barked in response. Farmers and tradesmen called out in greeting and women could be heard ordering servants and children around. The occasional oath sounded as well, as wheeled traffic and pedestrians vied for space on the narrow lanes that led to the square by the cathedral. The streets were wet but well paved and passable, as the incoming wagons attested, suitable for a morning stroll.

He had already wandered down past the cathedral the previous afternoon when he first arrived in town. The church itself was lovely, guarded as it was by an ancient iron gate, and the shops and establishments in its immediate vicinity were fashionable and grand. He paused now, debating which other direction to point his feet. There were no docks to avoid in this mid-country town, but the river ran nearby, with its own share of barges and skiffs. Having had enough of shipping and knowing that no work would be accomplished this day, he chose instead the other direction and set off at a brisk pace.

The streets here were quieter, and the occasional cart waited at the side of the road. Farmers sat in small groups, enjoying a chat or a shared muffin before their busy day ahead, and the feeling of anticipation that suffused the city was felt here on the quieter paths as well. As he passed carts and wagons, he called out his own morning greetings to the drivers of these vehicles and inquired of one or two about their contents and the location of the farms from which they originated. Some carried apples to be sold and eaten, or to be made into jams and preserves, or baked into pies. Others held the last of the summer wheat or bags of flour from the nearby mills. Still others carried bales of wool or vats of tallow, or even some small metal trinkets and wooden toys for children. The conversations he carried on with the men who drove the carts were interesting and stimulating, and Edward found his energy increasing as he walked. Gradually the sun began to grow stronger, burning off the lingering haze, and its cold light reflected off the still-damp leaves and puddles on the streets.

Following the road out of town, Edward noticed the sun glinting off water through the trees. Eventually a small path appeared, leading off the lane and towards the water, and he resolved to follow it to see where it led. The way was muddy and slippery, but the heavy canopy of trees had prevented the path from becoming impassable, and Edward was prepared to suffer dirt-soiled boots in his adventure. Before long, he achieved his goal. Past the low brush, among swollen and muddy banks, a stream flowed through the brush, wending its way toward the River Derwent. After his long walk and many conversations, the sight of the fresh water made Edward thirsty. He slowly picked his way through the thickets and growth, careful of the mud and unsteady footing on lichen-covered stones, and at last he stepped forward to cup some of the cold liquid in his hand. As he did, he thought he heard a sound. Must be an animal, he thought. A rabbit, or a fox.  But something about that notion struck him as false, and he found himself following the sound, picking through undergrowth and past foliage, to where the stream opened up into a small pond. There he found the source of the sound. A figure lay curled up by the opposite bank, damp and shivering violently, moaning softly.

At first, the creature didn’t hear him, until he cleared his throat. “Hello?” he called. “May I be of assistance?” His accent matched his appearance: well-modulated and cultured, as befit his education but without the clipped cadences of the upper classes. The tones of London seemed to bring the shivering creature to an awareness of the world, and with what seemed a great effort, it sat up slowly and stared.

Edward saw a youth looking back at him from scared pale eyes. He seemed to be 13 or 14 years of age, still smooth skinned, with gentle features and the prettiness of youth. Almost like a girl, thought Edward. For certain, he’ll grow more manly as he nears twenty years and his beard comes in. The soft face was filthy, and blood streaked down one cheek, matting the straw-coloured hair that stuck out in strange angles from under a heavy farmer’s cap. “Are you injured?” Edward asked again. “May I help?”

The youth stared back in horror, eyes wide and seeking desperately into the woods past Edward’s back. “Don’t be afraid, boy. I mean you no harm, and only wish to help you.”

At the sound of Edward’s soothing voice, the boy stilled a bit, and then slowly, as if seeking his voice, carefully answered back, “I… I turned me ankle ‘n I canna walk.” Like his face, his voice was the high and unbroken voice of childhood, and the boy spoke in the accent of the region, his brogue heavy but not impenetrable, despite the shivering lips.

“Let me help you to the town, then,” Edward offered. “You are shivering fiercely and need to get warm and dry before you take ill. Where are you headed? I will see you there. Come, let me help you stand and you can lean on my arm for support as we leave these woods.”

Terror suffused the boy’s face. He shrank back into the bushes. “No…  I canna…” he started, once more looking wildly around him as if seeking an escape.

“Boy, if you cannot walk, you will perish here, either by cold or by fever. I will not hurt you, and can help you to safety. I assure you I mean no harm.” Edward’s voice was gentle and low, and his gaze direct. The boy grew calmer under his serene gaze and after a long while nodded, almost imperceptibly, accepting Edward’s offer. Edward inched forward, careful not to further alarm the terrified lad, and waded across the shallow pond. Cold water flooded into his boots as he strove to maintain his balance on the slippery stones beneath the water’s quickly moving surface.

He reached the boy and helped him to his feet. The offending ankle was unfit to support weight and Edward was loath to remove the boy’s boot to examine the ankle beneath it in this wild location. It could wait until they were in a dryer, warmer place. “Here, lean upon me,” he instructed, “and use my arm to support yourself. We must go carefully across this small river. I can well support your weight. Steady now.” Inch by inch, shuffling and hobbling, the two eventually returned to the far bank, and thence, equally slowly up the narrow path to the road. Both the boy and Edward were now shivering from exposure to that cold stream and Edward knew from his experiences in the icy winters of Nova Scotia that he needed to get both of them warm soon.

Spying a farmer’s wagon not far up the street, he hailed the driver. “Heigh there, man. We require transport into the town. I will make it worth your effort to get us there as quickly as possible,” gesturing to his purse, “before this youth succumbs to the cold. He cannot walk and I cannot support his weight all that distance.”

The driver seemed a good sort of man and quickly took measure of the situation. Within minutes, both Edward and the boy were sitting in piles of hay at the back of the wagon, wrapped in rough but warm blankets, as the horses began drawing the vehicle towards the centre of town and the noisy festival therein. Crowds and heavy traffic in town delayed their eventual arrival in front of the inn, the boy shaking all the while. Edward tried to pull the lad close to his own body to help warm up the cold and wet flesh, but the boy refused absolutely, leaving Edward worried and confused.

When, at last, they arrived, Edward ran inside the inn to find the proprietor, water still dripping from his boots. “Quick, a fire in my room, a hot one, and a strong arm or two. I need assistance with a sick boy I found. His ankle is injured and he is frozen to the quick.” The proprietor nodded at once and shouted to all who would hear him, commanding a maid to stoke the fire, then summoning two sturdy lads from the stables at the back to help the shivering boy from the cart and up the stairs to Edward’s suite. Edward payed the wagon driver well for his efforts, and then hurried up the stairs to see to his unexpected charge.

 

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The Assistant is set for publication on March 12, 2018! Pre-order links will be available soon. In the meantime, sign up for my mailing list. I promise I won’t overload your email, and I will never, ever disclose your information to anyone. I value my privacy and I value yours! What you will get are occasional pieces of news, a tidbit every now and then, and information on new releases, including the links for this one!

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