‘CAN WE DEPEND on you Charlie?’ Nell asked the crossing-sweep as they squatted together in the warmth of Myers’ brick kilns in Southwark. He often slept there of a evening, so long as he was well clear before the men rekindled the ovens at seven o’clock, which gave him two hours extra sleep on a winter’s morning. Any later and they’d bake him alive, he said, and meant it.
‘Mister Sharp said I’d help, did he?’ he asked, sucking on the orange Nell had brought him and pocketing the bread as if it were gold.
‘Not in your official capacity as sweep,’ said Robert, his legs aching from his cramped position. ‘In fact Mister Sharp denies all knowledge of this arrangement. He says you’ll understand – no?’
The dirty-faced boy sucked his orange some more, his shoulders hunched, his neck tucked into his meagre coat like some wind-blown bird. And how the wind whistled among those kilns; from the north for sure, frozen up there, snow-bound, said all the reports. ‘I ain’t denying I owes him a favour or two, what with all he’s done for me over the years.’
‘He says there’s no one but you could do this job,’ Nell encouraged him.
‘No one else small enough I expect,’ said Charlie resignedly. ‘He knows I’m such a little boy for my age, not likely to grow much. It’s tonight yer say?’
‘Yes Charlie, we can’t afford to wait.’ They’d had it from the landlord at the Hope Tavern that the house was not empty as the JP had said; a token presence had been left behind by His Lordship but no better chance would be had. The side entrance to the property had a broken fanlight small enough for a boy to crawl through and unlock the door from the other side. Broken by tradesmen delivering furniture, it wouldn’t be left broken for long.
‘Don’t your worry yourself, Miss,’ said Charlie, rubbing his cold hands. ‘I’ll get you inside all right.’
‘Good boy,’ she said, and gave him another orange.
It was agreed that they’d rendezvous at two in the morning, which left enough time to hire a coach and plan their next step. Bad weather or not, they were determined to go north as soon as rescue was effected.
Charlie stood shivering, as if he’d never stopped, when they arrived at the appointed hour. There was no moon, and no one abroad in the cold dark square, not even the bell man who told the hours. They slipped through the gate and made their way cautiously to the front of the house.
‘Will you get through there Charlie?’ Joe asked, pointing at the fanlight above the door. ‘It looks more cracked than broken.’
‘We can’t widen it or we’ll make too much noise,’ Nell said, disappointed by its narrowness.
‘I can make it I think,’ said Charlie, straining to look. ‘I’m like a slug when I get started, yer’ll not believe how I shrink and flatten myself. It’s a trick I’ve learned over the years.’ Nell was tempted to ask how old he was – eight, fourteen, twenty – all three were possible. ‘Clasp yer hands together,’ he said to Joe, ‘and give me a lift.’
Soon Charlie was clambering silently up the tall door like a ragged bat. At the height of the fanlight he anchored himself one-handed on the slim sill, hooked up his short thin legs and slid in, top half first, a human tortoise now, entering its shell in reverse. A deft swinging of the rest of him and he’d disappeared with hardly a noise, not even a squeak of glass as he dropped silently on the other side. The drawing of the bolts was noisier but he managed the task in two or three short bursts, pausing to check that the house stayed quiet. Presently the door edged open and his foxy features greeted them through the vacuous gloom.
They entered a small vestibule, not yet altered to His Lordship’s tastes in the fashionable Adams style. It led into the main hall, whose black-and-white tiles were the same as at Belle Isle, though floor-space was not so generous. Of smaller size too was a bronze statue of Mars, the god of war, which seemed apt – it was a war of sorts they were fighting, and Nell hoped the old god was on their side.
Her feet creaked on the polished floor and she walked on tip-toe, urging the others to do the same. As they climbed the broad staircase with its gleaming roundels, she looked behind with a shrug that said, ‘Which room? – do we try them all?’ The shrugs returned said yes, what choice do we have? She wasn’t thinking straight, however, and it was Charlie who put her right: ‘If one be locked, Miss, chances are it’s the one we want.’
Delicately they tried them all and one for sure was locked, right at the end of the left-hand corridor. The room faced a painting in the classical style but rendered in strange, inexplicable perspective. It was, Nell realised, a topsy-turvy likeness of the house, the lines and curves intended to confuse. Her head was in enough turmoil and needed every marker it could get. They’d no keys to help either and little brute force. Question was, dare they use what they had and risk the noise?
‘We’ve no option,’ whispered Joe, ‘it’s shoulders to the door and hope it gives. Then we snatch her from the bed and run.’
‘Agreed?’ Nell asked Charlie, valuing his opinion as much as Joe’s, maybe more. But his mouth, whose teeth were white against the dirt on his face, was not smiling. He nodded, showing fear for the first time.
‘Will we hang if we’re caught, Miss?’
‘No, Lord Pemberton wouldn’t dare,’ she said to appease him. She didn’t like to add that they’d be killed by a blunderbuss before it came to any gallows.
They steadied themselves, ready for the heave. ‘After three,’ Nell said and began the count.
The door was heavy for a bedchamber and didn’t give at the first attempt; a second, a third, and a fourth thrust were needed before the lock rattled and they felt its mechanism give. One more and they had flung it open at last, the force taking them with it so they landed on their knees (Nell and Joe) or on their bellies (Charlie). The figure that seemed to flutter in the darkened room was in a bed low down near the floor. Its muffled cry was Olu’s.
‘No time to explain,’ Nell said, reaching for the hand that was warm and trembling. ‘We must go – now.’
There was no need to answer, the cold grip of her hand was enough. Out the door and back along the corridor, taking the stairs two at a time, so they flew rather than ran and found their feet by miracle. They needed one too, for the house was stirring above, and stirred more when Joe knocked over the bronze statue and set it spinning with enough clamour to make the echoes weep. They lost direction in the darkness and the door was nowhere to be seen. In Nell’s head yet was that swirling, drunken artwork and when she’d rubbed her eyes to clear them they saw what they’d dreaded – a loyal servant (they were always the worst) armed with pistols, descending the stairs.
‘Can you work your magic?’ she asked Olu, for they’d be taken for common thieves as she’d feared.
‘Painting, he loves the painting.’
‘What? – that thing upstairs?’ Nell half believed it was put there to make all the burglars dizzy.
‘No, that one,’ she cried, pointing to the full length portrait. ‘It shows a likeness of His Lordship, who is very vain.’
‘You think to come here like this in the dead of night?’ said the servant, a squat man with a face like raw meat. ‘I resent being woken from my sleep. I don’t get enough.’ His whispery hair looked aglow with anger and fatigue, sprouting at all angles like a house plant finished flowering for the year.
‘You not shoot,’ said Olu. ‘You not want to ruin that picture.’ They kept it behind them as they backed away, and the front door was right beside it. And though the servant followed with pistols pointing he was in a quandary what to do. He took aim and thought better of it, dashing the weapons together so violently in his anger it’s a wonder they didn’t discharge.
But they were out in the street now running three abreast. ‘Don’t look back,’ Nell said, spotting the lamps winking in the gloom where Robert waited with the coach and their belongings packed inside. The weather was against them, but so was time – fate too, if they didn’t look sharp. The coach that Robert had procured was not to be had long-term for neither love nor money. Its driver was strictly a London man whose vehicle was leased from an operator in The Strand. Never mind, Nell reasoned, hadn’t Joe journeyed south by the Leeds Fly, whose return departure from the Swan in Lads Lane was at ten that morning? It was the fastest machine known to man, though that might not be saying much.