While the Eagle household wore an air of mourning for Lucas’s loss, it got little sympathy for its plight among friends and neighbours. Sir Walter had said it was for the best, adopting the same dismissive tone he might have used on a son who’d thought better of marrying beneath his station. Grimdike was equally sparing in commiserations, quipping that the boy had shown his true colour by upping and going. Even Marshall was only lukewarm, saying in his charming tone, which this time rang hollow, ‘My dear fellow, if you leave the cage-door open long enough, even the most loyal creature will smell freedom.’
Two weeks passed; Eagle had begun to feel he would never see his clerk again, when a letter arrived from his London agents apprising him of intelligence regarding the probable whereabouts of the boy. They’d had the news from a North Wales attorney, for whom, like Eagle, they did agency business in the capital. The man had heard rumours of a young negro who’d been kidnapped somewhere in Yorkshire on behalf of his former owners. The boy in question was undoubtedly Lucas, the family who’d authorised his abduction the same that had branded his shoulder with the letter B – for Broughton. Eagle acquired the address of this noble family – Marchwiel Hall, near Wrexham – and planned his route immediately. Riding to Halifax that day on a vital probate trip that couldn’t be cancelled, he would take coach for Manchester from there, journey to Chester and on into Wales. God willing, he should reach Wrexham, that most fractious of towns, late the following afternoon.
Tom would be left in charge during his absence, and there was much for him to do. Eagle began with general instructions: ‘Bring our day-books and ledgers up-to-date; send out requests for fees and demands for those outstanding; check that the cases coming to the next Quarter Sessions and Summer Assizes are in order.’ Then he instructed him specifically: ‘Meet with Mr Worsely and advise him on ancient lights. Write to Miss Dean that I’ve found a suitable security for her five-hundred pounds; write to Mr Derby telling him that the six months’ interest on the two-hundred pounds he borrowed on security of his messuage at Killingbeck is now due; and write to our agents to send us Latitats in three cases of debt you’ll find detailed in my pocket-book. Most importantly of all, do anything that Sir Walter instructs you to do, and do it with a smile on your face.’
He left the old clerk breathless but with a smile on his face. ‘Aye, aye, captain!’ he said, as though he were the ship’s first mate. Little did Eagle know, as he set off that afternoon, how apt that nautical reference would be.
Five hours later, he boarded the Manchester coach. He enjoyed relative peace, if not seclusion, all the way there and on to Wrexham. But the Welsh town itself was not quite journey’s end, for there remained the two miles to Marchwiel Hall. That distance he accomplished during early evening, following dinner at his inn for the night and hire of a horse from a livery-stable. The parish church of St Giles was chiming six as he left. It was Saturday night and already the town was thickening with colliers, who’d arrived for a night of carousing. He knew from experience what excesses such men were capable of. To do as he planned and return to town with a black boy up behind him was asking for trouble. If not incensed by blatant nigger love, they would think he was mocking the dirt that was their stock-in-trade. Never mind, he would cross that bridge when he came to it, and cantered off towards Marchwiel.
The hall, dark-stoned and irregularly planned, stood in the midst of parkland next the village which it took its name. As he rode up the winding track from the main gates, fearing by now what the gentry had taught him to fear – dogs and gamekeepers – it finally dawned on Eagle that right was not on his side. Surprisingly, till now, he had given the Mansfield Judgment of twenty years ago little thought. But surely, thinking back to the eminent Chief Justice’s ruling, all that was now illegal was the shipping of negroes back to the West Indies against their will. In other words, he had said nothing about the status of blacks remaining on English soil. In light of the law as it currently stood, they must remain the property of their owners. They were chattels, recoverable where and how an owner chose. Eagle’s only means of freeing Lucas legally was to purchase him, though if the Broughtons had gone to such trouble to fetch him back, they were unlikely to relinquish him cheaply, or even at any price.
He was soon to discover, however, that the family didn’t have him. In the pink-plastered drawing-room where Sir George and Lady Broughton reluctantly agreed to see him, he learned that their once ‘darling Pompey’ had been expected days ago, but was still nowhere to be seen. The agreement to bring him back had been broken, which was as much as they were prepared to tell him.
The couple were young, handsome and fashionable, not at all as Eagle had expected. That was no ugly old roué who sat facing him, no ageing virago at his side. But it was hard to imagine they had used and abused Lucas before he left, unless, that is, one looked into their eyes. There was something debauched in his and hers, and the more Eagle looked the more it seemed to be so.
‘So you don’t deny having him kidnapped?’ he asked, fatigue making him brash.
‘Why should we?’ answered the young squire, with a shrug. ‘He was rightfully ours.’
‘And I wanted him back,’ cut in his wife, pursing her lips in determined fashion.
‘Both of us wanted him back,’ qualified the husband, pointedly.
Eagle looked into their eyes again, and his imagination ran riot – his prick up the boy’s arse, the boy’s prick up her quim; late night revelling gone rampant, Lucas dragged from his bed to join them in a drunken romp. It was all there if you looked for it.
‘Wanted,’ Eagle enquired, ‘or still want?’
anted,’ said the girl, with an affected yawn.
The pretty-faced squire endorsed her view. ‘You’re welcome to him, Mr …?’ He’d no sooner asked the question than he began to do what his wife had done: yawn rudely.
‘Eagle,’ he sighed, in frustration. ‘Excuse my lack of sharpness, but if you went to the trouble of arranging his recovery …’
‘Can’t you see it doesn’t matter any more?’ said the squire, with fierce impatience.
It was then that Eagle saw what he meant. There was another person in the room, whose movements Eagle caught in the mirror above the fire-place. Then, as he turned round, his eyes resting upon the comely features, his mind flew back to what Sir Walter had said that night of his anniversary dinner. Evidently the fashion for all things Chinese had come late to Marchwiel Hall in the shape of a boy of outstanding physical beauty.
‘Pig-tails!’ shouted Lady Broughton, with fond peremptoriness. ‘Come and repeat one of those phrases I’ve taught you. Come and say to our guest, Your Servant, sir or Your wish, sir, is my command.’
The eponymous pig-tailed youth came bowing towards the attorney, and halted by his side. ‘I very honoured to serve you, sir,’ said the boy, desperate (on pain of what?) to please.
‘Perhaps you ought to show Mr Eagle out now, Pig-tails,’ sighed her Ladyship, giving the youth an ambiguous wink. ‘It really is time he was leaving.’
‘Yes, it most certainly is,’ Eagle said, struggling to keep his composure. ‘I’ll see myself out, if you don’t mind. I’m sorry to have troubled you.’
He left them faintly smiling as the youth came and stood between them. Man and wife both, Eagle noted, had rested a hand on one of his slender hips.
All seemed lost regarding Lucas, for without any clues he’d have little chance of finding him. That he should get a clue after all, was down to one of the grooms, who saw him to his horse. ‘I don’t know what’s happened to him, but I’ve a good idea where they might have taken him,’ said the boy, whose lazy eye and over-sized tongue were a huge distraction. ‘I overheard ‘em talking to this man who’d brought news, see, ‘n’ he told the master ‘n’ mistress that Pompey had been taken to the nearest port, ‘n’ that whoever had done it was in a hurry, like.’
Eagle, having put two and two together, was suddenly in a hurry himself. If Liverpool were the nearest port, then that was where they had taken him. And there could be only one reason: to bundle him aboard ship bound for the Caribbean, to sell him anew for a hefty price. There was no time to lose; the information was days old, and Lucas might already be gone. Eagle thanked the groom heartily, gave him a shilling and clambered into the saddle. ‘Damn it!’ he cried. ‘Where will I find a coach at this time of night? Waiting for the morrow might be too late.’
‘Then go tonight, sir,’ said the groom. ‘Ride to Chester for all your worth and catch the Liverpool Fly. You’ll be at the port by dawn.’
He thanked him again and rode away, his body telling him one thing – that he needed to sleep – and his mind another – that if he didn’t go tonight all chance of recovering the boy might be lost. Resolved as to his course, he rode back to town in the fading light, collected his belongings from the inn and rented a fresh horse. Minutes later, he was galloping along the Chester road like Dick Turpin in search of an alibi. Speed and time were of the essence, and though his body was exhausted, strength of will kept him going. He told himself that he’d had a lucky escape at the Wynnstay Arms, whose beds would have given him a bug-bitten night. There would also have been the colliers, whose drunken noise would have kept him awake. He was no worse off where he was, he reasoned, flying through the night on an errand of mercy. But he wasn’t sincere, and knew it: a night on the high seas in a leaky vessel would be more restful than this.
There it was again, that nautical image of a ship beyond reach.
My eighteenth-century crime novel, An Uncommon Attorney, features the characters I write about in my blog. It is available on Amazon: tinyurl.com/qylwxnq