Sep 052020

[Kay Rennie writes novels set in the Regency era and publishes them on Amazon under the pen name Lily Milner. She also has a website This is the first chapter of her current novel, due to be published some time in September.]

London 1818

Tristan Rigal was aware he was being watched.

London was just as he had expected, foggy and dismal, streets thick with mud as black as ink and the people surly. He had arrived on the crowded docks three weeks ago, and for a time he was just one of the anonymous throng blending into the smoke and clamour of the great city.

Much had changed in the few years since he last visited London. It was now dirtier, noisier and taller. New buildings rose out of the mist, their upper stories lost to sight in the fog. Crowds gathered in the gloom and then dispersed, wraithlike, along with horses and carts and recognisable landmarks. November was the worst month for the evil humours that plagued the city. A million coal fires spewed smoke into the air, and rainwater accumulated into deep pools of filth.

Yet for all this, London was still as comfortable as an old coat, and he looked forward to living in a better part of town, close to the more respectable clubs and gaming halls. For the moment he had enough gold to keep himself living at the level of a gentleman, for that is what he chose to be here. In Paris it had been different. There the underbelly of society was more to his taste, as was the wine and the pleasures of Montmartre.

One day when the London miasma unexpectedly lifted, he had been surprised to be greeted by at least three different people. A very well-dressed gentleman and an elegant woman both bowed slightly as they passed, but said nothing. Neither did they smile. He returned the bow, not sure why he should, but obviously they had mistaken him for someone else. Why disappoint them? Later that same day, though, he felt a tap on his shoulder when leaving his lodgings in St James’s Street. Instinct made him reach for the knife under his coat, but he soon saw it wasn’t necessary. This time the fellow had definitely taken him for someone else.

“John. You here in London? Why the devil have you not called? And Julia will want to see you.”

Rigal simply stared at him, not yet sure how to respond.

“I say, you look a little out of sorts. Is something wrong?” Again, the man was extremely well-dressed. If Rigal had not been wearing his multi-layered coat, the rather frayed jacket underneath would surely have shown the fellow his mistake.

“Yes, well no.” He quickly decided to play along. “Business brought me here. And it is tiresome. I need a diversion.”

“Ah, well I’m sure you know where to go for that.” The man’s lips curled and he raised one eyebrow. “But you’ve been away for a while, so you may not know that Madam Maxine’s establishment has closed. No doubt she will open somewhere else when things go quiet. Of course, there’s always Ma Bonnington’s. Go there. They tell me they have new talent.”

Rigal was quick to understand the type of establishment the fellow was recommending. Obviously, this John he’d been taken for was no saint. Briefly, he considered exploiting the connection, but no, it would be risky. He had decided to stay out of trouble, at least until the money ran out.

“Perhaps I should,” he answered, affecting a disinterested expression. “But I must leave you now. I have a pressing appointment.”

The fellow bowed. “I’m glad I ran into you. I’ll tell Julia you’re here. Are you staying in Grosvenor Street?”

“Yes. For the moment.” Grosvenor Street was a very respectable address. His apparent look-alike was obviously a wealthy man.

“Well don’t forget me if you decide to have a dinner party, m’lord.” And with that the stranger smiled and walked off into the crowded street.

Rigal stared after him in wonder. He had been mistaken for a lord, by someone who obviously knew the man well enough to ask for a dinner invitation.

That had been almost a week ago. When the November fog closed in again Rigal was glad of it. So far, he had not chanced his luck at the high-class gaming tables. For the time being he had decided to confine his social life to the less than salubrious inns in the stews. Although he was initially bemused by the fact that he’d been taken for someone of high rank and privilege, the idea did not sit well with him. If it happened again, what should he do? He could deny all knowledge of this Lord John, who was obviously well-known in London society, or he could play along. It would be a dangerous game, but who knew what might be gained from a simple masquerade?

He had not come to a decision when the strange events that follow overtook him.

Food at the chop houses was usually vile, but instinct told Rigal he needed to stay out of sight, so he chose to eat frugally and save money until the persistent feeling of unease resolved itself one way or another.

“Boiled beef, roast beef, haunch of mutton, eel pie, steak pudding.” The decidedly unwholesome choice was recited in nasal tones by the waiter, standing at his side with a filthy towel slung over his arm. He decided on the steak pudding and a tankard of beer. At least the beer was good, but oh for some traditional Rognon au Vin at his favourite eatery in Montmartre. French food was like manna from heaven compared to this English pap, but he would have to get used to it. He didn’t plan on going back to Paris anytime soon.

Eating in London was very much a communal affair, with the customers seated close together at long tables, and it was hard to eat without rubbing shoulders with your neighbour. Tonight, an old man with faded yellow side-whiskers slurped a bowl of soup, not caring that he occasionally splattered Rigal with droplets of the greasy gruel. The man continually muttered to himself in repetitive tones between mouthfuls. Rigal caught the rhythm, but whether he was listening to prayers or curses he could not tell. He gave up on the steak pudding when only half-finished and rose to leave.

The old man grabbed his sleeve. “Not finishing it? I’ll ‘ave it.”

“Take it, with my complements,” Rigal passed him his half-full tankard as well.

“May the Lord be with you, yer honour. Mind how yer go.”

So, he had been blessed, and cautioned. That was payment enough. Now it was time to find out who had been following him, and why.

It was raining when he set out to walk back to his lodgings – soft rain that fell in a forgiving mist, hiding the nastier elements of the district under a fine veil. The weather briefly reminded him of country life, when as a lad he had enjoyed walking through such light mists across the wooded Swiss countryside. Now his greatcoat protected him from the damp. It also hid the fact that he had his hand on his dagger.

The streets narrowed to alleys where gas light could not penetrate. At the end of one of these twisted laneways he stopped and hid himself behind the jutting facade of a ramshackle house where the roof dipped almost into the mud below. It was not in his nature to be someone’s quarry, and he had no intention of staying confined to the nastier parts of the city for fear of being mistaken for a wealthy lord at the gaming tables. He would sort this problem out.

Rigal waited in the shadows, aware that his boots were squelching in some unmentionable muck, but he held his position. The wall he huddled against was thin, and he heard a man’s angry shout and a woman’s cry from within. In little more than a minute a shadow slipped past. Soundlessly, he caught up with the figure and slipped his arm around the man’s throat. At the same time, he used his other hand to prick the skin of the soft under-throat with his dagger. No not a man, a lad, he thought. The figure was slight and did not resist his choking grip. He leaned forward and whispered in the shadower’s ear.

“Start walking. Over there to the middle of the alley, where I can see you.”

They marched two together into the open lane. Rigal was confident no-one would come to the rescue. In this part of the city murders were many, and to try to help a victim would have been foolish indeed.

Still keeping his knife at the soft throat, Rigal grabbed the lad’s long hair and pulled his head back. What he saw startled him. This was no assassin, nor was it a lad as he had assumed when he dragged the offending creature away from the wall. His shadower was definitely a woman, and young. God’s blood, had he mistaken a doxy from the stews for a cut-throat, a poor light-skirt looking to make a quick shilling in the alley? He was losing his touch.