Monday, March 26th, 2018
The next day, close to the appointed hour for Mr. Thackeray’s visit, Thomas entered the parlor after a brief knock.
“I saw his carriage broach the rise, Ma’am. He is coming, and on time it seems. He must have gone further afield after I mentioned the bed bugs and fleas at The Maggot.”
“Thomas. You know they have none.” She took him to task for his deception. “Mrs. Fleur keeps a cleaner house than almost any in the village.”
He smiled sheepishly. “I know that, Ma’am. But he don’t.” He thumbed over his shoulder at the approaching carriage.
“Who is coming, mama? Are we expecting a visitor?”
“Not one we need to concern ourselves with. Come girls, we must walk out of the back and across to Mrs. Davenport. She is expecting us at this time, and I told you that we would be visiting her this morning. We need to stay out of the way for a while. Oh. Where did Annis get to? Does she not know we were to be out of here when he came?”
“She may be over there already, Mama, and visiting with Ellie. But who is coming?”
“Someone who is not welcome, I can assure you of that. Who it is need not concern you for the moment. We shall be away for a while until he has gone. Is William ready for him, Thomas?”
“Indeed he is, Ma’am, but you need not worry, there will be no trouble. I shall be close by.”
“I hope you are right, Thomas.”
Mrs. Barristow quickly rounded up the girls, other than for Annis who had taken it in her head to be elsewhere at that moment, and ushered them out through the back of the house, where they would not be seen by the arriving gentleman. She had no intention of confronting a scheming, lying, and manipulative old enemy of her family who had been trying for far too long to see them off the property by any means possible, including one failed legal challenge after another. He had been a constant and persistent thorn in the side of her husband for the last ten years since her husband’s elder brother had died and would now be congratulating himself that all he might have to deal with in his way would be several helpless girls and a woman, as well as someone he might feel it easy to remove from his path. He must be even now, congratulating himself on his reviving fortunes.
The Thackeray carriage turned in through the now-open gates and into the driveway before the house. He sat there, looking warily around for the dog he had seen the day before.
William went out to see him.
The description his son had given him of his attacker told him that this was the man responsible for that vicious beating. There were no recent marks on his face or anywhere else about him that he could see, though his son was still laid up with his injuries, and his face was still notably marked.
He scowled and looked about impatiently. “No stable hands to see to my horses? The place was awash with them yesterday. They were uncooperative and disobliging to me. Not the way to greet a visitor.”
“They appear to be busy at the moment. But you can leave your horses there, if you can trust them to stand. You won’t be staying long.” There was no mistaking the nature of his welcome.
The man started to respond in a scathing tone to such unwelcoming comments but decided against it. Better to start on a gentle footing until he got to where he wanted to be.
He was a tall man, thin, but getting expansive about the waist and with an erect proud bearing. He was dressed in black but with a white cravat, a fashionable hat covering his graying hair, a little jewelry at his throat, and a silver-headed walking stick. He dressed well, considering that rumor had it that he was suffering under a mountain of debt, maintaining a lifestyle he felt entitled to but did not have the means to keep up.
William smiled at his dour expression. The elder Thackeray did not seem to be any more impressed with his lack of welcome today than he had been yesterday from Thomas’s description of him, but was intent on getting over whatever rough ground might face him and prevail as he believed he might. His reception left him uncertain of what was going on. He might have been able to bully his way past Mrs. Barristow but the gentleman before him was a different kind of problem. One he had been amply warned of.
The visitor looked William over coldly. “I am here to see Mrs. Barristow, sir. Please convey my condolences to her along with my compliments, and tell her that Gideon Thackeray, a not-so-distant relative, is here to see her and to solicit her hospitality.”
William nodded his head to acknowledge the formal approach, but did not respond with his own name. “They are not here, Mr. Thackeray, but I am. You may deal with me. Perhaps you should start by telling me exactly why you are here?”
He did not relish that idea and looked about himself. He would have liked to ignore the man. “I was told they would be here today, and they would have been told to expect me.”
“No, sir. I am your only welcoming committee.” He smiled at his own humor. Nothing welcoming about any of it.
“Considering their recent losses, I am surprised there are no signs of mourning at the gate or the door.” He looked him over with a scathing and contemptuous eye and noticed that he was being smiled at. He expressed himself with cold calmness and detachment, even polite iciness, but it was a struggle. “I think I know who you are. My son told me of you. I want nothing to do with you. It is Mrs. Barristow I would speak with. I should have the law brought down upon you for what you did to my son, attacking him without provocation as you did. He is still laid up and not likely to be about again for some time.” He spoke quietly, but William could feel the anger roiling inside the man, evident in the way he looked at him.
William smiled, but there was no humor in his eyes, which had never left the visitor’s face. “That was your son? Ah well, you have my sympathies then, sir. A pity you did not manage to teach him better manners when he was dealing with ladies or those protecting them. But then possibly he did not give you an accurate account of what happened to him. I, myself, take a dim view of anyone who intrudes onto another’s property, forces his way into the house, and then deals roughly with the servant girls, and tries to bully them in order to get his own way.”
Mr. Thackeray let out a sound of disbelief. “Dealing gently with ladies is not one of your strong points either, considering what I heard of you and your goings-on about town.”
“There.” William smiled easily. “You do know me, despite all of that being old history. I thought you might. Just as I know of you.”
The older man did not believe that he would know anything of him at all. “Unlike my son, I am capable of removing those who stand in my way.”
William continued to smile at him in a way that the old man would undoubtedly find infuriating. “Bravely said, sir. Bravely said. Let us hope it does not come to discovering which of us might succeed there.” He watched him fidgeting with his cane. “A nice-looking sword stick you have there. I trust we shall not need to go down that path. Your son, on the other hand—a noisy shite-fire if ever there was one–thought to carry the day by producing a pistol to deal with me, and I, defenseless and unarmed. Quite unnerved me.” His continuing calmness and his smile put the lie to that. “I have that pistol by the way.” He seemed to suggest it might be in his pocket, and it could be, for there was a slight bulge there. “I was not of the impression that he was producing it at the time in order to show it off to me, any more than you might be with that stick, though it is quite an impressive little gun. Your son wisely decided to leave any other weapon where it might be, fortunately, or there may have been more serious injuries to one or both of us. He was trespassing without invitation, bullying womenfolk, and poking and prying where he should not have been. I could not allow that.”
“So you say.”
“Oh, there were many witnesses to his forcing his way into the house, even after they had told him that their mistress was not at home. She is not home now either. Fortunately, but unfortunately for your son, I then was, as I am now. So if we wish to speak of the law intervening in anything, I would be more cautious in whom and what you believe.”
“That is a matter that has nothing to do with you, and I will thank you to keep your nose out of it.”
“On the contrary. It does concern me now.”
“I doubt it. I do not particularly care how you may have ingratiated yourself with the Barristows, but I can assure you that it will not serve any purpose other than to delay the inevitable. Clearly, I wish to speak with Mrs. Barristow about this property and its prompt disposition to its rightful owner. Me. It is my property now. I will deal with you later.” He had rushed forward more than he had intended to at this stage, but then he was meeting with an unexpected resistance.
“My, oh my. How confusing it has suddenly seemed to become. But perhaps you should deal with me now. We could get this over with quickly if you can produce a valid deed to the place, and you can then be on your way back to London to finalize everything while I remove myself.” William was smiling. He knew he could do no such thing.
“In good time. I did not come here to either see you, nor to be encouraged in any kind of a disagreement with you.”
“Then I am relieved. But I can assure you that you will not meet with anyone else while you are here. I am it. I cannot be bullied or overawed by a loud voice, threats, or bluster…as women might be. Your son tried it and did not fare too well, as you know. I do, however, respond better to an intelligent and rational approach and am even open to persuasion. So unless you can convince me that you have anything constructive to say or have some worthwhile business or legal purpose here, then I shall bid you good day and not waste more of your time nor mine on a fool’s errand.”
“I shall not leave until I have spoken with Mrs. Barristow.”
“Really? Then you will be waiting here for a long time. But then, why should I beat about the bush? Do I take it you need to speak with the owner of this property?”
He looked him over with a puzzled look in his face. “Yes, I do. That is what I have been striving to tell you since I arrived. Its temporary and unlawful owner at the moment, who is inhabiting what is rightfully mine. Yes, I do, and not some interfering murderous interloper. I know all about you.”
“As I do about you, sir. It is amazing what one learns when one drops the name of Gideon Thackeray into a gathering of individuals in any tavern at the south end of the bridge and around Saint Olav’s. The air suddenly takes on an icy feel about it, and one gets the impression that one might have stepped in something unsavory and had brought it into the company on the bottom of one’s boot. So let us say that I am as familiar with your reputation about town as you may think you are familiar with mine.” Mr. Thackeray did not like what he was hearing. “However, my reputation is undoubtedly exaggerated, as it is about five years out of date. I am said to have improved notably in those five years with regard to polish and temperament. For the better that is. At least I hope so. I am considerably more restrained than I was, and less likely to act on impulse or the spur of the moment. Although that depends upon the circumstance.” He smiled at his visitor. Mr. Thackeray was obviously not satisfied with the way the conversation or his visit was unfolding.
William continued to look at his visitor with a hint of humor about his mouth. “Yes, I see we do begin to understand each other at last. I am the only one you will get to speak with today or any other day if it comes to that. I would advise you to be brief, however. I have other calls upon my time, and I am losing patience and any feeling of hospitable behavior by the minute in this cool wind.”
William noted a stir within the door to the house behind him, and a flurry of skirts, and began to realize that not all of the family had gone off to the neighbors as he had hoped, for the servants were all instructed to be either in the garden or at the far end of the house until their uninvited guest had gone.
“But then I am not entirely ill-mannered or totally inhospitable either. We should discuss this briefly in the warmth of the parlor than out in the driveway with the wind blowing everything about, for unlike you, I did not dress for the outdoors.”
William saw him dismount from his carriage and ushered him into the parlor, where Mr. Thackeray immediately went over to the fireplace and warmed himself before the blaze. Gideon Thackeray was angry at the opposition he was facing and irritated to find that he was up against someone he could not easily bully. He began to feel out of his depth. He was at a loss and not sure how to go on or deal with this assured and confident stranger.
He spoke in calmer tones than he felt, from the warmth of the fireplace. “You seem to think you know who I am. I can assure you that you do not. I do not take kindly to those who intrude into my life or make inquiries of me.” He was becoming more calm, but was still uncertain of what faced him.
William had an enigmatic smile upon his face. “I heard that too. Servants can be too expansive of their former masters when plied with gentle encouragement and a few drinks. Perhaps if you used your stick less often…or were less inclined to produce that blade within it…they might feel less threatened and thus less likely to betray confidences. But then, reputations—good or bad—are never personal things you know, lying under our own control. I wish they were. They are what the world about us perceives, so my father once told me, and believes it knows of us, and the world is a vocal place and can be quite cruel concerning those it takes amiss and in dislike.” He smiled at the man before him. “I do speak from personal experience. But then I diverge from the subject at hand. I can perhaps roll things along and save you from a needlessly prolonged visit if I tell you that I now own Underby outright. Lock, stock and barrel.”
He saw the older man stiffen. He was startled to hear anything of the kind and did not seem inclined to believe him.
“I see you do not find that news at all to your liking, but I assure you, I have a clear and legally notarized title, which I know you have been unable to obtain so far, even with promise of rewards and outright bribery over the years.” He looked at him again with a smile still on his face. “Former servants again, I am afraid. As well as the coerced confessions of a beleaguered firm of less reputable lawyers in the city. Yours.”
He heard a gasp and movement from outside of the door. He stood up and closed it and even turned the key, regretting that he had not thought to do so earlier, but taking care not to present his back to the older man by the fire.
His voice dropped so that he might not be easily overheard by anyone else. “And far from it being unlawful, I assure you that as of yesterday afternoon, when I was in the city seeing my own lawyers and making inquiries, I own it legally and lawfully and outright. Easily done too, when it is done properly. I ensured that Mrs. Barristow had clear title, which I think you already knew, and then I persuaded her to transfer it to me for…various considerations. I have been here only a week or so, but I have grown exceedingly fond of this property and there is something about it that interests me, and that I intend it to be a permanent occupation. So it appears that your journey from London was a snipe hunt.”
Mr. Thackeray’s brow had clouded upon hearing how it had so easily been snatched from him, if it were true, and he looked ready to explode. “I do not believe you. If so, you are a usurper, a thief, a….” There were a few moments of stunned silence and uncertainty. It was unsettling to be faced by one so calm and unruffled, who looked at him with a slight smile on his face, but with steely cold eyes.
William heard the door handle rattle under some concerted effort to gain entry.
“A usurper? I suppose so, but one who was more determined and cunning than you.” He smiled, knowing it would infuriate the older man. “And no, I shall not enlighten you further.
“I know what your efforts with your own lawyers yielded. Who are they now? Yes, Manley, Wrigley, and that other one—Johnson. Strange that they had thought to represent Mr. Barristow all of these years while actually working on your behalf to dislodge the Barristow claim. No wonder settlement never ever seemed possible. Their one true skill is in estimating how much they might squeeze from someone seeking their efforts. You included. Their contrivances on your behalf were not as fruitful as they undoubtedly led you to believe, as they continued to milk you, which is why you are here to try and provoke and frighten Mrs. Barristow into an unwise act of signing that legal-looking paper that sits in your pocket and which is likely to erode further, her supposed grip on this property.”
His protestations were immediate. “Nothing of the kind. You attribute your own motives to me.”
William laughed gently. “But then I am now the rightful owner, and the family is not here to be browbeaten or cheated by you.”
“If that is the case, then no. For it seems that you are the one who has already cheated them.” The older gentleman was becoming more agitated and angry by the minute.
“So it seems?” William sat down at the end of the table away from the fire and removed the small gun from his pocket and laid it on the table within reach as he smiled at his uncomfortable guest. “Damn thing stretches the pocket more than I like. I see you have the same problem.”
His guest started, and pursed his lips, but held back any response.
William noted a vague shape walking outside and looking into the window. He recognized Annis and saw her move away.
“I have been here but a few days, and it was not so difficult to sort out the estate and its succession if you have access to the right documents, and know what you are about, and can employ trustworthy and honest individuals. It seems that you have tied yourself to a race of Petty Foggers, who have tried for years now to overturn the legal claim of the Barristow’s here, and I achieved in just a few days what you could not, and they would not, in as many years. You really should employ a better class of lawyer, you know if you wish to achieve anything? Mrs. Barristow was the actual owner after her husband died, for I was able to discover that her brother-in-law had seen to quieting all previous claims more than ten years ago. It made it so much easier for me to step in and scoop it out from under them—with their unknowing connivance and co-operation—for a mere pittance compared to what it is really worth.”
“My claim was not quieted.”
“You will find that it has been removed altogether, however, when you consult again with Manley, Wrigley, and Johnson, your ‘ambidextrous’ lawyers who take from both parties, while cheating them both. I doubt they will meet with you. They feel lucky, I think, to escape with only relatively minor penalties once they fully disclosed—with some gentle persuasion from my own lawyers—their unethical behavior concerning the Barristows, and implicated you in it. They are quitting the city and are even now relocating to the North of England as the price for evading a more hurtful legal outcome. They may be hard to find.”
He continued to look over his guest with an annoying smirk on his face. “In truth, you were too far off to the side to count. However, I do not and did not expect you to believe me, but you may believe a legal document issued by a reputable legal firm when you see it.”
He tossed a document onto the table for him to pick up and read, and followed it with another.
Mr. Thackeray made no move to pick either of them up.
“Or not. It does not matter to me one way or t’other. I am in possession now, and I intend to stick, and with properly authenticated title and deed. I will be harder to dislodge than a mere woman and her helpless daughters, whom you had planned to browbeat.
“A tick on a dog’s ear has more purchase than you do here. Even that tick can be readily dislodged with a glowing splinter touched to its arse.”
William laughed but without humor. “But I am of more substance and tenacity than a tick, as I think you know, and as your son soon discovered. It will take more than a hot splinter to displace me.”
The older man was breathing heavily with emotion, and his face was flushed.
“Go ahead. Read it. I have nothing to hide.” The older man picked the second document up and read it, blanching as he did so. It was essentially a full description of the confessed unethical behavior of Manley, Wrigley, and Johnson in the matter of the Barristow estate. He then picked up the first and read it too with mounting anger and agitation. He tossed them both back onto the table and turned away to the fire for a moment to avoid letting his feelings of frustration show too obviously on his face before he regained control of his anger once more and turned to face the man at the table.
“All of this means nothing except to another lawyer. Their way of enhancing their fees for the same simple piece of work. Legal jargon. Used to hide the true state of everything and to confuse the rest of us outside of their tight-knit cabal. They are the biggest criminal class against the rest of us on this earth.”
“The ones you usually deal with are, yes, as you can now see. I thought you would eventually recognize that you had no rightful claim, which is why you tried bribery to achieve your ends. That also is illegal, by the way, and is also described in the first document you saw.”
Thackeray looked at him from under a frowning brow. “But hard to prove. I put nothing in writing, and it is merely their accusation against me.”
“That is as may be, but I am sure you will recognize the name of the legal firm that drew it all up on my behalf. They have a considerable reputation for knowing what they are doing and for succeeding in it. They do not take bribes, and I would never think of offering them or anyone else one to achieve what I legally and honestly wish to achieve. I do not believe they have ever been wrong in anything they have done for my family. But then they are expensive.”
Mr. Thackeray was not feeling quite as on top of the world, as when he had at first arrived. “You use the word bribery too easily. Bribery. They are not above it any more than they are above outright robbery when they can get away with it. No one of that kidney is. That’s what you are talking about, bribery. These damned legal fellows can manipulate and connive to cheat a man out of everything and anything.”
“Or see that he is not cheated out of it. I know nothing of that. But I share your concerns when it comes to less reputable lawyers. That is why I employed only the most reputable lawyers acting on my behalf and in my interest. I find I can now afford them. But they are cheaper by far in the long run.” He looked about himself. “Rather a nice little property this.” He smiled in a needling way. “You should drop in on them, if you dare. I am sure they will give you better advice than your own, who are decamping even now. They may be expensive, but they will cost you less over the longer haul. On second thought, I doubt they would be interested in whatever business you may think to give them once you tell them who you are. They value their reputations more than that.”
He saw the old man bristle.
“If you like, I will instruct them to provide you with a duplicate of their findings. It will not come cheap, however.”
The old man’s eyes sparkled with feeling. “What of the Barristow girls and the mother? Did you give no thought of them?”
“My. What a wonderful recovery, sir. I must congratulate you. But strangely enough, I did give some small consideration to their welfare and far more than you might have. They will be comfortably settled after all of this. Most comfortably. They will not suffer too much from what I achieved, I can promise you that.”
Thackeray’s cane rattled on the floor in his barely concealed anger. “You will not get away with this, sir.”
“I already have. It is a done deal.” Thackeray could also see that for himself. He had been cheated in the same way he had planned on cheating the Barristow ladies. “But feel free to have your lawyers—if you can find them now—get in touch with my lawyers and discuss this further. They won’t of course, for there is no more reputable or well-known firm in London than that of Stevens, Dellingpole, and Diebold, for knowing their business and how to achieve what needs to be done. Your own are gone anyway by now. I am only surprised that it could be accomplished so well, in so short a time, but then, there was a history that proved easy to follow.”
His beleaguered guest now began to look distressed. “But you do not look well, sir.” The older gentleman looked flushed and seemed unsteady on his feet.
“I am perfectly well, damn you!”
“I am glad to hear it. I am aware that you have a reputation as a fire-eater and can be unpredictable with your stick and that little gun, like this one, and are more to be feared in most circles than your son. Not too difficult I would think, for he is mostly thunder and roar without substance to back it up. I should also warn you that if you try to produce a sword from inside of that stick that you are handling, as you now seem more tempted to do, that we will both regret it.”
He was inclined to believe him, for he had made inquiries of Mr. Devane before he had ever left London after that incident with his son. It may have been old information for the most part, but he had not liked what he had heard. He habitually carried a small pistol, so the story went, and never far from his hand, so there could be another one in his other pocket too as well as the one on the table.
“Yes. I have heard of you.” His voice was hard and perhaps even more clipped than it had been.
“Of course, you have. Who has not, even after five years? Just as I have heard of you, but then we covered that didn’t we?”
“You are not a gentleman but a ruthless, violent blackguard.”
“I freely admit it. There. It takes one to know one. Well at least you are right about that. But I make no claims to being a gentleman.”
“And no woman safe in your company either.”
“So rumor has it.” He was not generally so agreeable to those painting him in such an ill light.
“That is the general understanding. Obviously the ladies here do not know of your scurrilous reputation or your intent to plunder them all in their beds.”
“No. Fortunately they don’t. Unfortunately, mine, unlike that of your son, might be too well earned and deserved. I am sure you might feel tempted to look up the Barristows and inform them of my perfidious behavior, but you would be wasting your time, for it is too late for that. A done deal. But none of this need concern you further. Our meeting is at an end. You will, of course, excuse me if I do not offer you a lunch or a glass of wine. I gave most of the servants the day off. Besides, I am not known for my hospitality to those I do not know, or who appear to be trying to work against me.”
He stood up and unlocked the door and opened it. He was relieved to see that the corridor beyond was now empty.
“I doubt you will ever need to approach me again, sir, for any reason. Indeed, I gave your son the same advice, and I see he chose not to accompany you, so I may have convinced him, at least, of the wisdom of it.”
His listener realized that the interview was ended. “I shall take Joshua’s pistol, watch, and other property with me. The pistol is of some value and so is the watch.”
William was not about to turn over a pistol to this man. “You should have him apply to me then. A simple letter will do, describing the gun in all of its details, and he can explain to me the meanings of the initials carved into the stock of the gun. I had some difficulty reconciling Joshua Thackeray or J.T., at least two of your son’s initials, with those I actually read there—S.B. Unfortunately I have grown to like his little pistol, so I shall not easily give it up, even if it does stretch my pocket. I must find out what or who the S.B. is. Perhaps the watch which I have not yet seen is similarly engraved or identified.
“But then, I seem to recall something I read in an older Gazette, of a money lender recently brutally murdered in the city and robbed—Silas Bergmann. You once owed him a large sum of money, which you repaid about that time.” He smiled annoyingly. “Yes. Those damned servants again. As he was robbed at the time of his murder, nothing of any money could be found, yet you soon repaid another loan you had just previously incurred for exactly the same amount. Come to think of it, perhaps your son might not be so well advised to write that descriptive letter, in case it fell into the wrong hands.”
The older man did not like what he was hearing. “The city is a violent place. Someone is murdered there every day or night. It is also not illegal to borrow or repay money.”
William saw that he had hit a nerve with the name he had mentioned, for the older man suddenly began to look even more uncomfortable. No doubt he would raise the subject of that engraved pistol with his son when he next met with him. It had been a surprise to him, hearing the extent of Mr. Devane’s inquiries, even into his own finances, as discovering that he had been effectively blocked from his ambition with this extensive property.
“Perhaps if your sudden concern for the disinheritance of the Barristow ladies extended to a pension or a sufficiently large gift, I think they might feel grateful for it, but then I doubt that you planned on doing that anyway.”
Mr. Thackeray recognized that their interview was over and stormed out of the house. He mounted his carriage, wrenched the horses around, and drove off without any further word.
William spoke quietly after him as he left. “No, I thought not.”
He watched him go and then saw Thomas appear from the stable with a saddled horse made ready for him as he had instructed. He followed Mr. Thackeray for some time, to ensure that he did indeed head straight back to London and did not have other business or plans in the area.
He had the reputation of not being a man one might cross, and then turn ones back upon. He did not trust the old man, for his extensive inquiries had revealed that he had better be careful how he handled him. He was another that might feel inclined to pay others to see him shot on the highway or to slide a knife or that murderous sword into his back when he least expected it, as had happened before with others who had crossed him. However, that entirely unexpected comment on attempted bribery and the other on the brutal murder of Silas Bergmann may have shown him the wisdom of not meddling with him in any underhanded way, for fear of what might be revealed.