John Bellasis braced himself before he crossed the threshold of his parents’ house in Harley Street. He wasn’t sure why he disliked it so much. Maybe because the place was so shabby in comparison to his aunt’s splendid palace in Belgrave Square. Maybe because it reminded him that his origins were not quite as smart as they should have been. Or perhaps it was simpler. Maybe it was just that his parents bored him. They were dull people, weighed down with problems of their own making and, to be honest, he sometimes felt a creeping impatience for his father to quit the scene, leaving John as his uncle’s direct heir. Whatever the truth of the matter, he experienced a certain weariness as the door was opened and he stepped inside.
Luncheon at home with his parents was not an invitation he would normally accept with much enthusiasm. He’d usually concoct some excuse: an urgent, pressing engagement that could sadly not be delayed. But today he was – once more – in need of funds, so he had little choice but to be courteous to his mother, who always indulged her son and rarely refused him anything. It was not a fortune, but he needed something to tide him over until Christmas, and there was the question of Ellis and Turton to attend to. But that was an investment, he told himself confidently. A small outlay for a large reward, or so he hoped.
He wasn’t sure what the butler and the maid would come up with, but his instincts told him that the Trenchards were hiding something. And at that point, any illuminating fact about Charles Pope and his connections would be helpful. John was banking on the butler. He recognised a venal soul when he saw one, and a butler enjoyed greater freedom of access within a private house than a lady’s maid. Turton had carte blanche to wander where he chose, and could lay his hands on keys that would be withheld from servants of a lower rank; the maid’s territory was more circumscribed. Of course Turton had feigned surprise and consternation at their meeting when it was suggested he might investigate Mr Trenchard’s papers, but then again, it was amazing how persuasive the offer of six months’ wages could be.
Walking into the small sitting room at the front of the house, John found his father in a high-backed chair by the window, reading a copy of The Times. ‘Mother not here?’ asked John, looking around the room. If she were about, perhaps he could dispense with luncheon altogether and go straight to the essential question of finances.
It was an oddly decorated room. Most of the furniture, and indeed the portraits, with their heavy gilt frames and elaborate subjects, looked far too grand for their surroundings. The scale was wrong; it was clear these tables and chairs had previously occupied a larger setting. Even the lamps seemed bulky. It all generated a sense of claustrophobia, a feeling that permeated the entire house.
‘Your mother is at a committee meeting.’ Stephen put down his newspaper. ‘Something to do with the slums in the Old Nichol.’
‘The Old Nichol? Why is she wasting her time on that stinking bunch of cockfighters and thieves?’ John wrinkled his nose.
‘I don’t know. Saving them from themselves, no doubt. You know what she’s like.’ Stephen sighed and then scratched his smooth head.
‘Before she gets back, I think I should tell you …’ He hesitated. It was not like him to be embarrassed, but he was embarrassed now. ‘That Schmitt debt is still troubling me.’
‘I thought you’d paid him.’
‘I did. Count Sikorsky was generous and lent me some money at the beginning of the summer, and I borrowed the rest from the bank. But it’s been six weeks, and Sikorsky is asking questions. He wants his money back.’
‘What did you think would happen?’
Stephen ignored his son’s question. ‘You spoke once of a Polish moneylender.’
‘Who charges fifty per cent. And to borrow from one money- lender to pay off another …’ John sat down. Of course this moment had to come. His father had borrowed an enormous sum with no means of returning it. Somehow he had tried to put it out of his mind, but it must be faced. He shook his head. John thought himself irresponsible, but surely women were a safer addiction than gambling.
Stephen gazed rather hopelessly out of the window. He was up to his neck in debt, and it would only be a matter of time before he would join those filthy beggars and vagrants on the street outside. Or would he simply be dragged off to the Marshalsea and imprisoned until he paid? It was laughable, really; there was his wife, busily helping the poor, when in reality her services were required a little closer to home.
For the first time in his life John actually felt quite sorry for his father, as he watched him sink back forlornly into his...