This Duchess of Mine Page 64


“We’re trying to find someone who lives in Spitalfields,” Elijah said, but Knabby was already through the door to the courtyard.

It wasn’t nearly as lively this afternoon. “Cully’s sleeping,” Knabby announced. “Sophisba’s husband took her away again, and Mrs. Nibble went to stay with her sister, as has a stomach ulcer.”

After greeting everyone in the circle, Elijah said, “We’re trying to find Ponder Stubbins, who lives in Spitalfields and raises flowers. Does anyone know him?”

There was a moment of silence. Then Waxy said, “’Course it is the duke.” But it was clearly a struggle between Spitalfields loyalty and glassworks loyalty.

“We don’t mean him any harm,” Jemma put in. “We only want to find a doctor who buys his flowers.”

“Oh,” Knabby said, sounding very relieved. “In that case, Stubbins is just around the corner. He lives somewhere, maybe on Wiggo? But he’s never there as his wife is a proper terror. He sleeps behind the mews in Fish Street.”

“Excellent. We are most grateful for your help.” Elijah made the rounds of the circle again, shaking the wavering hands that were held out in his direction, and they left.

The mews were a two-story wooden structure. The ground-story rooms were occupied by horses, busily producing manure, which made it easy enough to find Stubbins. They had only to follow the smell. It was a particularly rich, brown type of smell, perhaps because the back of the mews faced east, and sun struck the manure piles all morning.

Stubbins had everything neatly arranged. To the left were flower beds, and to the right were fresh piles of dung.

“Oh, it’s you, is it?” he said, leaning on a shovel. “I thought you’d be about.”

“You did?” Jemma asked, shocked. “You thought we’d follow you here?”

“Not you, ma’am, but your husband here. I reckoned he was curious about the manure, and I was right wasn’t I?” Without waiting for an answer, he started showing Elijah his arrangements. “It can’t be too hot. Fries the flowers, I suspect. So I rakes it here, and then I give it, oh, four or five days. Sometimes I pour fresh milk on it.”

That would explain some of the pungency, Jemma thought.

“Then I pile it over here and mix in a little o’ that and a little something else. Then I plant my seeds.”

He showed them the shack where he kept his seeds, and Elijah looked at everything gravely and asked just the right sort of questions, and Jemma knew exactly why the Cacky Street Glassworks was doing so well. It was Elijah. He was grave and compassionate, and so honorable that people longed to be near him.

A few minutes later Elijah led Stubbins to the question of the doctor.

“He used to live in Birmingham,” Stubbins confirmed. “And then he went to one of them far-off countries, but it didn’t do the doctor’s lungs any good, so he’s back in London now. He has rooms on Harley Street, I think. ’Course I never go there because he just sends a man to pick up my flowers.”

Jemma’s heart was pounding in her throat. “It is he,” she said, clutching Elijah’s hand. “Dr. Withering! He’s the one, Elijah, he’s the one!”

A moment later they were back in the carriage and racing to Harley Street.

Chapter Twenty-seven

April 4

“Grindel’s in Wapping does not appear to be known to the headmaster of St. Paul’s,” Ashmole said, appearing like a bird of prey in Villiers’s study. “In fact, the headmaster believes there are no schools in Wapping.”

“Any word from Templeton?”

Ashmole’s eyes glinted with the fascinated delight that servants always display when one of their own goes bad. Villiers had seen it before. There was nothing more carnivorous than a household that had discovered a maid with child.

The butler drew himself up to his full height—approximately that of a twelve-year-old boy. “Mr. Templeton has vacated his premises.”

Villiers generally prided himself on his lack of reaction to unpleasant news, but he surprised himself with a hearty Anglo-Saxon oath.

“Precisely, Your Grace,” Ashmole said, bobbing his thin neck in a gesture of solidarity. “That bird has flown.”

“Why?”

“It’s always money.” Ashmole hadn’t been head of the duke’s household for years for nothing. “How much did you give him?” He cackled. “Shall I let the gardener go and tell Cook to economize in the kitchen?”

“I don’t suppose he could get at a great deal, but he certainly had means to feather his nest.” He followed up with a few more oaths.

“We can have a Bow Street Runner after him,” Ashmole said.

“That won’t get the money back.” But there was something darker in the back of his mind. “Why now? Why did he run now, Ashmole? It must be something to do with the children.”

The old man stared at him, perplexed.

“The devil take him,” Villiers said. He’d given Templeton far too much rein. “Get a Runner after him, not for the money—because I’ll never get that back—but because I want to know about those damned children.”

“Yes, Your Grace. Shall I send a footman over to Wapping to locate the school and fetch the boy?”

Villiers pulled out the list Templeton had sent him just before he decamped to parts unknown. “We’ll just stick to the one problem at the moment. I’ll go to Wapping. Fetch me a carriage. And I need to see both Plammel and Philaster this evening, whether they’re free or not.” Those two lyrical names belonged to the unlyrical men who handled his business affairs.

“If they’re still in London,” Ashmole cackled.

Villiers gave him a look.

“They’ll be here,” the butler said grudgingly. “Templeton wasn’t a man to share his profits.”

Villiers was in a carriage five minutes later. Generally, he spent at least a half-hour with his valet before leaving the house. Since he maintained the affectation of never wearing a wig, he demanded perfection in his hair, not to mention gleaming boots, a shirt the picture of snowy perfection…

Today he simply left the house.

What the hell had happened to the children?

The children, an obstinate little voice in the back of his mind reproached him, those same children whom you didn’t care a fig for a month ago.

Yes, those children. Why had Templeton run? Mrs. Jobber was kind, and had obviously provided a good home. But then his eyes narrowed. Why didn’t Mrs. Jobber have the other children? There were five more of them, after all. Why were they not placed together?

And what had happened two years ago, when Templeton had taken the oldest boy away to school? Villiers was quite certain that he’d never delivered any edicts about school. He’d avoided speaking or thinking about the children, in fact. He’d never asked Templeton for a report, the way he did on his wheat fields, or his tenants.

Guilt was such a tiresome emotion.

The village of Wapping seemed to live on the River Thames. Other places had houses and perhaps a river to the side. In Wapping, everything started at the river, and then jumbled up the bank any old how. There was a charming breeze, smelling of mud and dying fish.

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