The Gentleman and the Thief – Sarah M. Eden

Hollis Darby learned two things at the knee of his not-so-dear, long-departed, low-life, scoundrel of a father: how to gamble beyond what was advisable and how to be an utter disappointment to his family. He’d long ago given up cards. But, if his brother’s ongoing rant was any indication, he continued to excel at being a disaster of a relative. “Even in the leanest of times,” Randolph continued, “a gentleman does not sink to some levels.” “Would those ‘levels’ exclude things such as having food to eat, clothing to wear . unacceptable behavior like that?” Hollis’s brother had been harping on this particular topic from the moment they’d climbed into the carriage together. Randolph’s face twisted into the patient expression he’d perfected in their childhood. “I am not suggesting you cannot find means of supporting yourself. But there are some methods of doing so that would not bear scrutiny.” “Such as?” Hollis drawled a touch too innocently, but he’d found playing the fool made his brother’s posturing more bearable. “Do you truly need me to delineate the acceptable professions for a gentleman?” Randolph skewered him with a look of utter annoyance. Hollis popped up his gloved fingers, counting off options. “Making speeches in Parliament.

Firing cannons during war. Something to do with horses.” “Do not be obtuse.” Randolph swayed with the rattling of the carriage. “You receive no subsistence from the family coffers—those have been empty all our lives—and Society knows you haven’t been secretary to Lord Whitley for at least a year now.” Two years, actually. The offer to come to London with Lord Whitley ten years earlier had been a godsend. Hollis had been nineteen, with no money for Cambridge, no place to go to escape his broken family, no desire to keep gambling for money to live on. Dogging Whitley’s heels, Hollis had made connections and avoided starvation, all while keeping himself away from the card tables. “Whitley has a secretary,” Hollis said. “I believe his name is Carlton or Hepsworth or Nithercott. I can’t ever keep those three straight.

” “Those names are nothing alike.” Randolph’s gaze narrowed a moment before understanding filled his eyes and he shook his head. “Why do you always insist on jests when I am attempting to have an important discussion?” “My apologies.” He held back the bit of theatrical puffery he’d have liked to have tossed in. “I have reason for concern regarding your public activities,” Randolph said. “This family’s name has not precisely been free of stain these past years.” “These past generations,” Hollis corrected. Randolph ignored him and pressed on. “I am attempting to restore it and our fortunes at the same time. I cannot have even the slightest hope of success if you are undermining my efforts.

” “Have you heard even the quietest whisper of scandal around me, Randolph?” “I’ve heard plenty enough speculation.” Randolph pulled his watch from his waistcoat pocket. “I’m to have luncheon with Barty Simmons at our club. He has the ear of a great many in Society. Wouldn’t hurt the family cause to have you join us.” Hollis shook his head. “I have other obligations this afternoon.” “Why is it you always have other obligations when I’m going to the club?” “Why is it you’re always going to your club when I have other obligations?” He asked the question as if he were entirely in earnest. Randolph was not put off his topic. “We’re a legacy family at White’s.

” “Not all legacies demand preservation.” The carriage slowed, though not, as far as Hollis could tell, because of the press of traffic. “We must be approaching Hatchards.” He snatched his hat from the bench beside him. “A thousand thankyous, dear brother, for dropping me here.” “You would prefer an afternoon at a bookshop to one at a gentlemen’s club?” “Infinitely.” Hollis moved to the end of the bench just as the carriage door opened. “Enjoy your very important luncheon.” “At least consider helping me restore this family’s good name and standing,” Randolph said as Hollis stepped down onto the walk. “My children’s future depends upon it.

All I ask is that you not do anything for which Eloise or Addison will suffer.” “I would never do anything to hurt my niece and nephew; I think you know that.” Some of Randolph’s bluster died down. “I’m fighting an uphill battle; I think you know that.” Hollis popped his hat on his head. “I’ll be the very portrait of propriety.” As tedious as that would be. Randolph looked the tiniest bit mollified. “You’ll come take dinner with us soon?” Hollis dipped his head in acknowledgment before motioning for the carriage door to be closed. He stood on the walk as the carriage rolled away down Piccadilly and turned off the street.

Free of his brother’s scrutiny, Hollis walked with casual haste away from the bookshop. Hatchards was a fine place to spend an afternoon, but it was not actually his destination. Randolph worried that Hollis might be involved in a profession that would cast a shadow on the family reputation. Oh, Randolph. You ought to be fretting about so much more than that. Hollis pulled a penny from his pocket and spun it in his fingers as he moved leisurely in the direction of Covent Gardens. He had time enough to make his way at a pace that wouldn’t draw notice. Mongers hawked their wares. Customers with a few coins to rub together wandered in and out of the shops. A good number of people had, either in their hands or in their pockets, the familiar “penny dreadfuls”—serial stories sold for a penny and exceedingly popular among the poor and working class.

They were considered a scandalous choice among the upper crust, one few admitted to but many indulged in. Onward he went, spinning his penny, keenly aware of anyone and everyone around him. He would appear to them as a gentleman of means, of indifference, never knowing he tracked them like a pickpocket in a crowd of unguarded purses. Among the penny serials, he spotted a good number sporting the teal cover of Mr. King’s latest work. King was, in a bit of fitting name-play, the reigning monarch of the genre. Hollis also saw a smattering of the first installment of a new series by Lafayette Jones, a particular favorite of his. He stopped and purchased a copy for himself. That’d put some truth to the bald-faced cropper he’d told Randolph about how he meant to spend his day. He tucked the lightweight booklet in his interior jacket pocket, keeping it hidden from prying eyes.

They would see what he wanted them to see. Nothing more. He kept his demeanor casual but his eyes sharp. He didn’t usually get this close to his destination without spotting others tossing or spinning pennies about. It was a sign, an identifier, a calling card among them. He didn’t see any. Hang it. He’d be skinned if he was late. Hollis turned up the steps of what, to a passerby, would look like an unassuming London townhome with an ordinary blue door. It wasn’t locked; it never was on these crucial days.

The entryway looked a bit shoddy compared to the polished stone floor and carved columns of his family’s London home. Father had managed to complete the Darbys’ descent into bankruptcy, but at least he hadn’t taken a crowbar to the old place and sold it by bits. The vestibule was unexceptional. The sleeping butler, though, was an oddity. Hollis laid the penny he had been spinning in his hand on the walnut end table alongside at least a dozen others. The butler, head still hanging and heavy with sleep, reached out and pressed a specific flower in the decorative molding. The first time Hollis had seen the butler press that flower, triggering a nearby door to open all on its own, he’d been speechless. The wonder of it had faded over the years. He moved with quick step into what, in any other home, would’ve been a parlor or sitting room or something painfully boring like that. Here, it was a small-scale recreation of the House of Commons.

The room was abuzz, but the meeting hadn’t started. He wouldn’t be chewed up and spit out for tardiness. Not this time. Brogan Donnelly greeted him as Hollis moved toward his usual seat. “I’d nearly given you up. ’Tisn’t like you being the last to arrive.” “I didn’t have the sun shining off your fiery hair lighting my way,” he said. Brogan shrugged. “I offered m’services to those who came when they were meant to. Couldn’t laze about waiting on you.

” “My brother offered to drop me wherever I was going,” Hollis said. “I had to formulate a likely story and destination that wouldn’t garner suspicion.” “Where’d you choose, then? The ‘I Don’t Belong to a Secret Society of Renegades’ shop? I hear one recently opened on the Strand.” Hollis sighed dramatically. “If only I’d thought of that. I chose Hatchards.” “A shame.” Fletcher Walker, Hollis’s closest friend and the acting head of this organization, known amongst themselves and in whispered speculation around Town as “The Dread Penny Society,” called out over the cacophony of voices. “Order, mates! Order.” With a degree of swagger even an American would have been hard-pressed to emulate, the membership made their way to their various seats.

Fletcher, as always, occupied the throne that sat in the midst of them. The society’s newest member sat directly across from Hollis. Elizabeth Black, who wrote under the nom de plume “Mr. King,” had made the most memorable application for membership in the history of the Dread Penny Society—cloaked in confidence and clad in trousers—and she had proven herself an invaluable addition during the two months she’d been one of them. “With me,” Fletcher instructed. Every meeting began with a recitation of the society’s oath: “For the poor and infirm, the hopeless and voiceless, we do not relent. We do not forget. We are the Dread Penny Society.” Fletcher sat with either elbow on a chair arm, his fingers entwined. “Penny for your thoughts, gen’lmen”—he tossed a flirtatious look to Elizabeth, the two of them being sweethearts—“and lady.

” Elizabeth took the floor first. “The Barton School for Girls is open and running smoothly, but it will still need an influx of funds if it is to remain in operation. I’d like to see us secure another donor or two.” The Dreadfuls supported a lot of causes, but education was Hollis’s personal passion. The Barton school focused on vocational training for young girls, many of whom the Dreadfuls had rescued from being forced into less savory occupations. Fletcher turned his attention on Hollis. “Squeezing money out of the fine and fancy—that’s why we keep you around.” Blast it if that wasn’t truer than he wished it were. Until Elizabeth had joined, he’d been the only Dreadful with connections among the well-to-do. He regularly got the symbolic pat on the head as he was sent off to do the namby-pamby work the others were too rough-and-tough to bother with.

“My sister-in-law mentioned a musicale hosted by the Kennards,” he said. “What’re the chances you’ll know anyone there?” Fletcher asked. Brogan jumped in. “Better’n the chances you would.” The group laughed. Fletcher took it in stride, as always. “Thompson will likely be there,” Hollis said. “He might consider patronizing the Barton school. Lewiston might as well.” “I, too, received an invitation,” Elizabeth said.

“I might know some of those Hollis doesn’t, though musical evenings aren’t precisely my specialty.” “They’re not mine, either,” Hollis said. A rare bit of quiet settled on the group as they all pondered the best means of chewing the fat with potential donors without drawing too much attention to their activities. Secrecy kept them in business. Kept them alive at times, too. Stone spoke, which was a rare enough thing to draw the group’s attention. He was only known by that single name, and other than having been a slave in America’s South, no one knew anything about his past. Little was known of his present. But when Stone spoke, everyone listened. “Convince Miss Newport to perform,” he said.

Everyone looked to Elizabeth. Miss Newport was the music teacher at her school. “An excellent suggestion,” Elizabeth said. “Brilliant,” Fletcher said. “The four of us will see if we can’t squeeze a few society types for a healthy stack of loot.” To the room, he said again, “Penny for your thoughts.” Kumar spoke up. He had been born in India but had lived the entirety of his adult life in London. The penny serials he wrote were set in the land of his birth. That he never portrayed his fellow countrymen as caricatures or simpletons, shallow villains or helpless victims like far too many English writers did when setting stories in India made his stories all the more important and needed.

“Martin spotted our tiny thief,” he said. “She was slipping out of a house in Mayfair. Police haven’t caught her yet, but neither have we.” The Dreadfuls had gotten wind of a small girl undertaking thefts at the homes of the upper class. Their estimations put her at eight or nine years old. They knew the Metropolitan Police were keen on apprehending her, but the DPS was determined to catch her first and give her a chance at a better life. The business of searching out a slippery London urchin was discussed, though no strategy was formed other than keeping their eyes peeled and ears open. Other matters were discussed, everything from previous missions to whispers of criminal activity, from employment opportunities for some of the children they’d rescued to what supplies were needed at the schools for which they were silent patrons. Through it all, Hollis’s thoughts never strayed from the upcoming musicale, but not because of his assignment. Ana Newport would be in attendance.

Ana Newport. He’d met her months earlier when calling at Elizabeth’s school. Though he would never have admitted it out loud, he’d been almost immediately smitten with the sweet-natured music teacher. He’d been by the school a few times since but received little more than a very kind, very vague greeting. Spending an evening in her company would be both wonderful and torturous. The DPS meeting wound to a close. Rather than wander back to his flat, Hollis retreated upstairs to the library. Dropping into a leather chair near the window, he pulled the penny dreadful he’d purchased earlier from his jacket pocket. Holding one of Lafayette Jones’s stories in its final form hadn’t yet stopped being a first-rate feeling. Randolph would be troubled if he knew his brother spent his days reading such uncivilized literature, especially considering Jones’s work was meant more for children, and working-class children at that.

Yes, Randolph would not like knowing Hollis had read it. He grinned a touch wickedly. If only Randolph knew Hollis had written it.

.

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