In the next series of posts Eagle’s black clerk, Lucas Thorpe, has gone missing.
‘Gone? – what do you mean, gone?’ growled Eagle, irritated by Sukey’s intrusion as he sat at his desk. The little patience he had that morning had snapped; even her sobbing refused to move him. He called her an empty-headed child who had bothered a busy man with a trifle.
‘But if you please, sir, he’s nowhere to be found,’ she continued, wiping away her tears with her apron.
He’d ordered the girl out, when guilt got the better of him. ‘Wait!’ he called, staying her in her tracks. ‘Come back and sit down. I’m sorry I bit your head off,’ he said, when she’d sat facing him across the desk. ‘I have much to vex me on Sir Walter’s account – so much so that you find me at work on the Sabbath.’
‘I understand, sir,’ she answered, with a tearful nod.
‘Now, Sukey, stop your blubbering,’ he said, ‘and tell me all about it.’
The tweenie sniffed and replied in a halting voice, ‘It’s like I said, sir, he’s gone.’
‘He’s up and left, sir,’ answered Sukey, ending on a new sob.
They were getting nowhere fast, and perforce Eagle cross-examined her. ‘How do you know he’s gone? Have you searched the house? Might he not be in the garden? – in the stables? – on an errand for …’
‘He only runs errands for you, sir,’ interrupted Sukey, with annoying perceptiveness, ‘and I know you haven’t sent him on one since yesterday. And that’s just it, you see – he never came back. He’s run away, I just know it.’
He passed her his pocket-handkerchief as the sluice-gates opened again. ‘Now I’ve told you to stop that Sukey,’ he said, mending his snapped patience anew, ‘do try to compose yourself. There – is that better?’ he asked, when she’d given her eyes another dab and blown her small, turned-up nose. ‘I’m sure there’s nothing untoward to fret about.’ But further questioning confirmed that Lucas’s bed had not been slept in. He’d not returned from Wakefield, where Eagle had sent him to register a deed the previous afternoon. A late return was presumed, and his absence at breakfast had caused him no alarm. He had overslept, decided Eagle, an excusable lapse given his fatigue and the fact that it was Sunday.
‘What proof is that?’ Eagle asked, exasperated. ‘Wakefield or Leeds or Bradford or Halifax – if he were determined to be away by conveyance, he might accomplish the task whichever town he chanced to be in. But we are being hasty,’ he said, mustering his optimism. ‘We don’t know for sure that he has run away. There may be any number of reasons for his failed return.’ But none, he quickly concluded, had the ring of truth.
‘Oh sir, I’m so worried,’ said Sukey, clasping Eagle’s hand as he rose to pace the floor. Indulgently he allowed her to take it, felt its small, rough delicacy buried in his own. Her eyes looked up pleadingly; she wanted him to ease her churned insides. ‘Will you hold me, sir?’ she asked, her head bowed in shyness – or was it shame for what she had in mind?
Eagle, with a sigh of resignation, knelt down and did as she asked. Her face was level with his belly, then his crotch. ‘Sir?’ she gasped in ambivalent tone, her sad blue eyes seeking an answer. But what the question had been Eagle never discovered (didn’t wish to!), for in the next second the door opened and there was Tom in his nightshirt. Standing there on his white spindle-legs, there was more of the grave about him than ever: face too thin; eyes sunken; ears gnarled and hairy; teeth so scarce his mouth was all gum. And all confusion, a perfect O of bewilderment at seeing Sukey with her face in Eagle’s groin. Be that as it may, he too was looking for Lucas.
‘Where is he? Where’s that black Bobby-dazzler? …’ Sukey’s renewed wailing as she got to her feet had cut him short. ‘What have I said?’ he asked, nonplussed by the girl’s tears.
‘It would appear that Lucas has gone,’ Eagle explained, loudening her sobs.
‘Gone? – what do you mean gone?’ asked Tom, worriedly.
‘Exactly that,’ Eagle replied, going on to tell him what they knew.
‘I bet it’s me that’s driven him away – me!’ said Tom, running his fingers through his long grey hair as he wandered about the room. ‘All them nigger names I called him. That’s what’s done it. How could I have been so cruel when all along he was such a black Bobby-dazzler …’
Sukey, not without guilt herself where Lucas was concerned, moved towards the old clerk with dubious intent. Such was the look on her face, she looked ready to scratch his eyes out. Fortunately all she did was help him to a chair.
‘Thank you, lass,’ Tom said, and gently pressed her hand.
‘Oh, come come,’ said Eagle, with contrived breeziness, ‘it’s my view that we’re all being foolish worrying so. Why, I’ll wager he’ll walk through that door any minute now. He probably made merry somewhere, and thought twice about riding home. Remember what Reverend Grimdike’s always saying – don’t ride when merry.’ But he was clutching at straws, for he’d not seen the boy touch a drop since that glass of ale Sir Walter’s brother had given him at Owlet Grange.
‘Lucas doesn’t drink,’ confirmed Sukey, lugubriously.
‘Then we shall just have to pray,’ sighed Eagle, catching Tom’s eye, which said, what good will that do?
Very little indeed, for two weeks later the boy was still missing. The word was poignantly apt given that the whole household missed him. Missed him and feared the worst.
My eighteenth-century crime thriller, An Uncommon Attorney, is available from Amazon: tinyurl.com/qylwxnq