John Bellasis was sitting in the library of the Army and Navy Club in St James’s Square on a large leather armchair drinking a cup of coffee and reading a copy of Punch, a new magazine he had heard of but never seen before. Dressed in a pair of fashionable pale yellow trousers, a blue Valencia waistcoat, a white shirt and a black frock coat, he had made something of an effort with his appearance. That afternoon, he was waiting for a friend, Hugo Wentworth, to arrive and he was very keen not to appear down on his luck.
Wentworth was a member of the club, which had opened only four years earlier in 1837, the year that had seen the young Queen Victoria ascend the throne and, as an officer in the Fifty Second Light Infantry, Wentworth was eligible to belong to it, but John didn’t envy him. With the membership confined to those in the forces, when John did visit the place he found the conversation rather flat, and the food … well, the food left a lot to be desired. It was not for nothing that Captain Higginson Duff had christened it ‘The Rag’. The story went that, on returning from a tour, he’d described the unappetising supper he’d been served as a ‘Rag and Famish affair’. The Rag and Famish was a squalid gaming house, not unknown to John’s own father, which was notorious for its filthy rooms and disgusting dinners, so the remark was clearly intended as an insult. But the members chose to be amused rather than offended, and the club had been known as ‘The Rag’ ever since. ‘Bellasis!’ came the booming voice of Hugo Wentworth, who was standing in the doorway and pointing straight at John.
‘There you are!’ He strode across the room, resplendent in his uniform, the noise of his heavy boots thudding on the Turkish carpet. ‘You look very dashing,’ he said. ‘You certainly know how to show a man up.’
John shook his head. ‘Nonsense. There is no civilian dress that can compete with a uniform, as we all know.’
Hugo coughed. ‘Is it too early for a glass of Madeira?’
‘It’s never too early for a glass of Madeira,’ said John. But he wondered how much longer they would have to go on with this small talk. He was impatient to start the business that had brought him here.
‘Good, good.’ Hugo looked around and caught the eye of a club servant. ‘Madeira, please,’ he said as the man approached. ‘For both of us.’
‘What is your news?’ said John. Evidently they were going to have to wade through a certain amount of idle chatter before Wentworth would begin.
Hugo’s tone became serious. ‘I’ve just been told I’m off to Barbados. I must say I don’t fancy it one bit. Can’t stand the heat.’
‘No. I can imagine.’
‘Anyway, what will be, will be,’ he said. ‘By the way, I saw the notice of your engagement in The Times. Congratulations. She’s a lovely young woman.’
‘I’m very lucky,’ said John, without meaning it. ‘When’s the wedding?’
‘Soon, I think.’
His leaden tone told Captain Wentworth it was time to move on and at last he did. ‘Now,’ he took out a packet and removed some papers from it, ‘I have a done a little digging, as you asked.’
‘And?’ John sat up in his chair. This was what he’d come for. He had not been himself since he’d read the copied material which Ellis had brought to him. And when she’d failed to return with the originals later that day, he had been forced to acknowledge that the information they bore witness to could not be destroyed or even contained. In the first of Sophia’s letters she’d told her maid of the child she had conceived. A child who was to be sent to live with a family named Pope as soon as it was born. That much he had absorbed easily. He’d long realised that Charles Pope was in some way connected by blood to one or other of the major players in this game. John had suspected him of being James Trenchard’s son. Now it turned out he was the son of Trenchard’s daughter. All this was fair enough. Trenchard had been anxious to keep the secret to protect his daughter’s good name, and John understood why. The letters had also allowed him to fill in the missing piece of the jigsaw. The father of Sophia Trenchard’s baby was Edmund Bellasis, John’s own cousin. It all made sense – Trenchard’s patronage of Charles Pope, Lady Brockenhurst’s obvious affection for him. There was nothing to surprise in this revelation. On the contrary, for the first time since Charles Pope had come into their lives, everything was clear.
Then he had read the remaining sheets. The first was apparently proof of a wedding in Brussels. This was when he’d barked to Ellis that he would...