To my chagrin, if not my surprise, the rain still hung mistily in the air. Two boys running toward the Wig and Feather careered into my person. It was all I could do to preserve my dignity and balance. I checked my pockets and my purse. Only my repeater time-piece was missing. I wished the thieves well on it. For the watch had told no time since my wife had become ill. Some may think me at once sentimental and callous, that I wound it not since the day she took to her bed, yet let it fall to thieves so carelessly a scant week after her death. Both charges I will not countenance. I had my reasons, though I do not care to share them. At least not yet.
I hailed a hansom cab and rued the inclemency of the weather once more as the near side wheel slurried my boots and trews.
‘Cheapside, The Chaste Maid Inn.’ I said as I settled in the seat. The driver’s grunt was eloquent and bespoke a premium on the fare. As much for the indesirability of my destination as the elegant cut of my clothes, no doubt.
‘A rare place, sir.’ The driver said gruffly as I paid in coin.
‘Rare enough.’ I allowed.
‘You’ll not find another such in Cheapside.’ The bark of his laugh was echoed by the crack of his whip and I leapt clear of the mud splashes.
Be assured that such as the Chaste Maid were in fact none too rare in many parts of London. Neither post-house nor coaching house, its custom comprised the rough butchers and slaughtermen of the Shambles and the more rakish of the commodity brokers from Goldsmith’s Row: young blowhards in search of women who made mock of the hostelry’s name. My room was cheap, as it needed to be: I had made nothing more of my modest means in the years of my wife’s illness. Capital needs growth and I had tended mine but poorly.
Passing through the public bar, I noted Thackeray, the landlord, hugger mugger with two hulking brutes who appeared to know little of silverside of beef or silver trading. The staircase at the rear was dark and unwelcoming, but it led to my room and I took the stairs themselves at the gallop. The bed was little more than a cot and the remaining furnishings as ill-matched as the load on a totter’s van. I threw my topcoat and hat on the sad cot and rummaged in the coat for the red taped packet of papers.
Varied they were; several folded sheets of good vellum, two of the new-fangled lozenge-shaped ‘envelopes’ for the Penny Post and one curious parchment with a broken wax seal. The parchment was clearly the older document, though none appeared new. The Penny Post had delivered the envelopes to Bloat & Scrivener over a year ago. The vellum sheets were blank. I sat on the cot, pushing the soaked topcoat toward the bolster. I had no intention of remaining another night. Unaccountably, I trembled as I opened the parchment. It bore the palsied hand of the aged. The tremors marring the cursive beauty of the copperplate. I began to read.
‘It being the year of our Lord 1838 anno Domini, and I, Septimus Coble, of Gibbous House, Bamburgh, Northumbria, being of sound mind, do make this my last will and testament, voiding all and any extant or anterior wills and codicils.
I do leave all my possessions in sum and total to the husband, should there be any such person, of my great-niece Arabella Coble, on condition that said party do remove himself and all chattels to reside in Gibbous House without delay on being apprised of the contents of this my last will and testament.
Signed and sealed by Septimus Coble in the presence of
This 27th day of February 1838 anno Domini.’
I felt sick to my stomach. I could be rich, but at what price? The proximity of the border country to Edinburgh filled me with dread.