The year my brother came home was a year of great unrest and turmoil. We had won a great victory at war but were losing ground back home. My brother left a bright, shining example of bravery and returned a shaken shell filled with fear. His confidence had been left on some bloodied battlefield, and all that he brought home were nightmares.
London, June 1819
Gregory St Claire, Duke of Thornton, pulled on a plain, if rather worn, white shirt and breeches like the commoners wore. He sidestepped around corners and evaded the servants who might tell his mother of his appearance or anything else. Gregory liked to be alone most of these days. Wandering the streets of London gave him great solace that he was not as ignorant to the plight of the common man as his fellows and peers.
The streets off the main roads were tight and curling affairs. The roads wound around brick buildings where sheets were hung out windows and overhead. The sun was almost completely blocked at points by laundry hanging between the buildings.
Gregory stepped around a suspicious puddle. It had not rained that day, and Gregory had no intention of finding out what the origins of the puddle actually were. Ahead, he heard voices, and he quickened his pace.
A young man, slender of frame, stood up on top of a wooden crate. He looked at the gathering of men and women. “Too long have we suffered injustices at the hands of the mighty. The Lords and Ladies dance while our children starve,” the man shouted, and there were nods of agreement. A quiet mumble of discourse among those gathered around sounded as they found they felt similarly.
The spokesman said fervently, “I’m not calling for violence. I’m calling for change. We as artisans have to stand up for our livelihoods. If we do not, then no one will. The tons label us as libel, they plaster names of distaste on our children’s heads, and we have let them do it.”
A man in the crowd shouted, “How can we stop them? If we gather in public, they arrest us. If they choose not to pay us for hard work done, we have no recourse.”
“Where a footing is not equal, someone is bound to fall,” the spokesman said in agreement with the man who had spoken out. “I am just suggesting that it be they who fall and not us.”
There were shouts of approval from the crowd, and Gregory felt a vague sense of uneasiness. He could not disagree with any point the crowd or spokesman had made. Perhaps, that made him most uneasy of all.
As the crowd started to disperse, Gregory sought out the spokesman. He was very interested in meeting this young man who held such lofty ideas of reform. “Excuse me, Sir,” Gregory said with deference to the man as he caught up with him. As the man turned, Gregory took stock of the dark, quick eyes that sized him up as swiftly as the hunter spotting game. “I was wondering if I could have a word,” Gregory said with a polite smile.
“You seem to already be having a word,” the young man said coldly. “I’ve got things to do, Mister.”
Gregory reached out and grabbed the boy’s arm as he turned to leave. “Please, just a moment of your time.”
“I haven’t seen you before,” the young man said suspiciously. “Who are you?”
Gregory said simply, “My name is Gregory, and truthfully I haven’t been around much. I don’t come into London proper that often.”
“Farmer or herder,” the young man said with a nod. “Funny, you don’t look like you’ve ever done a good day’s work with those hands.”
Gregory could not protest that, but his hands were not that of a woman’s. “I’ve done my share of things,” Gregory said without elaborating. The young man’s hair was tucked under his derby cap. It was then that Gregory noticed the delicacy of the man’s cheekbones, and something about it made him uneasy. Something was not right about this boy, but Gregory could not put his finger on it.
“Are you a Molly or something?” The young man asked the question as he stepped away from Gregory and the intent gaze the taller man was giving him.
Gregory laughed, “Hardly. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I was just taken by your delicate features. You could pass for a girl.”
“And you could almost pass for a man,” the young man fired back at Gregory. The young man turned on his heel and swiftly walked away but threw the words over his shoulder, “You might want to watch yourself. People around here are not too keen on strangers.”
Thinking it wise to let the young man cool off, Gregory did not try to pursue him. He knew a thing or two about young male pride, and the remark of Gregory’s had evidently smarted. With a sigh, Gregory turned back towards the main street. He would be missed soon with the dance of Lady Mallory set for this evening.
Jules had paused at the corner and watched the strange man walk off toward the busier, wider roads of the heart of London. What sort of herder would be coming from the centre of London? Jules mused on it as she turned towards her own home. The building where her mother and younger siblings lived was just around the corner and a quick jaunt up some steps.
The building had been one that her father had helped build back when this block of the city was merely just a thought and a dream. She stepped inside their apartment where her mother sat sewing up some garment or other. “Hello, Mother,” Jules said as she swept the cap off her head. Her dark hair fell to her shoulders in waves.
“Was that you I heard rousing the army out there?” her mother called as Jules walked into the kitchen to splash some water from the basin on her face.
Jules laughed, “Might’ve been.”
“You really should be careful, Julia,” her mother warned. “It’s bad enough that you insist on keeping this ridiculous pretense up, but with the guards arresting people without regard, I worry so about you. I thought when your father died that you would put this all aside and look for a husband perhaps.”
Jules walked back out of the kitchen and shook her head at her mother. “Father needed an apprentice, Mother. And after he died, we needed the money. I’m doing what Father trained me to do. What is the point of having a skill if it doesn’t benefit my family?”
“You should have a family of your own by now,” her mother said.
Jules dropped down into a rickety wooden chair near her mother. “And where is Georgette? And Tally? They are off working, aren’t they?” When her mother did not respond, Julia continued, “They are just little girls. Tally is barely six.”
“You started working when you were younger than that,” her mother said, but Julia could see the worry in her eyes.
Julia nodded and agreed, “Yes, I did. I held reins for riders out on the street while they did their errands. I even carried bundles across town for people.” She sighed. “I saw them an hour ago. They are still helping till the garden for that wealthy widower on Blackston Street.”
There was a sigh of relief from the mother as she smiled. “I’m glad they’ve you to watch out for them, Jules.”
Jules eyed her mother and the bags under the woman’s eyes. The skin on her fingers was bleeding again from her work, but her mother never complained. At fifteen, her mother had married Jules’ father. Her father, Ralph Kelley had a bright future, and they set out on their adventure into the rising middle class.
Mrs Kelley eyed her daughter. “What are you thinking about?”
“How you and Papa should have had a good life,” Jules said. “When he died, there were no male relatives to keep control of our property; I felt outraged. Because of a matter of birth, we lost all we had. That’s why when we moved here I kept the persona of father’s son alive, Mum. If I hadn’t, there’s no telling what would have happened.”
Mrs Kelley nodded. “You are a brave and noble soul, Julia. I’m sorry. I meant Jules,” her mother said as she smiled over at her daughter.” Mrs Kelley looked back down at her work and then said, “It is a rather charming name, even for a girl.”
“It has rather grown on me,” Jules admitted. “Besides, it is all Papa ever called me, and it reminds me of him. I miss him.”
Mrs Kelley nodded sadly. “I do too. He was a good man.”
“A man that none of us seem likely to forget soon. You could have remarried after all. It’s acceptable to avoid poverty,” Jules said thoughtfully.
Mrs Kelley scoffed, “Isn’t a man alive could match your father.”
“Maybe not,” Jules said softly. Her mind went back to the strange herder she had met today. “I met a stranger today.”
Her mother looked over at her curiously. “What’s so odd about that?”
“He claimed to be a herder, but his hands weren’t calloused. Then when he left, I saw him head toward the city’s centre.” Jules propped her elbows up on her knees. “Do you think he’s a guardsman?”
Mrs Kelley shook her head. “I wouldn’t think they’d have the head for disguise and such.” Mrs Kelley frowned and added, “Might want to be careful, though. There have been rumours of raids and arrests. Could be someone looking for evidence of libel to stick all you masons in chains.”
“Don’t worry, Mum. I’m always careful,” Jules promised. “Better get back to work. I’ll check on the girls when I get a chance.” Jules tucked her hair under her cap and gave her mother a wave goodbye.
The music swirled through Mallory Hall like the smoke that drifted on the air from the cigars the men were gathered smoking. Lady Mallory preferred the smoke to be kept in the garden, but there always seemed to be a knot of men who had not yet suffered the wrath that the Lady of Mallory bestowed upon those who broke her rules.
Gregory had learned a long time ago to steer clear of such behaviour in Mallory Hall, and he bypassed the men who gave him nods as he passed. As he turned to go towards the garden, a slender hand halted him with gentle pressure on his arm. Gregory turned towards the person already aware of who it would be. “Yolanda Greyson, my you have grown,” Gregory said as he turned to face the petite young woman. Her strawberry blonde hair had been curled and pinned so that Gregory thought it a wonder that she could hold her head up straight.
“Your Grace, I’m honoured that you remember me,” the young woman said with breathy enthusiasm.
Gregory started to suggest that she loosen her corset so she could speak properly but bit down on the remark. Instead, he smiled and said, “Who could forget such a lovely girl.” He made sure to emphasize the girl part. He had no interest in the child as a woman.
Yolanda was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, sugar cane if Gregory remembered her father’s occupation correctly, but the man had been bestowed an honorary title which made his attendance to such affairs, unfortunately, a standard event. As if the man had been summoned by Gregory’s thoughts, Yolanda’s father appeared at her elbow.
Sir Greyson grinned happily at Gregory. The short man’s pudgy fingers were practically dancing as if he was counting money. “Your Grace, I’m so happy that you’ve shown such interest in my daughter. She’s been very well educated, but not too haughtily.”
Gregory fought the urge to shove the man and his daughter out of his way. The merchant was clearly intent on listing the benefits and charms of his daughter as if to tempt Gregory into purchasing the girl. It might have worked with his sugar cane import, but it did nothing to make the girl appear more interesting to Gregory.
“Boris,” Gregory said cheerily as his cousin walked over. “You are just the man I wanted to see!”
Boris raised a bushy eyebrow in suspicion. “I am?”
“Yes, I need to speak to you on an urgent matter.” Gregory turned an apologetic smile towards the father and daughter duo he had been speaking with. “I know that a man of your stature understands that business can’t wait,” Gregory said to Sir Greyson. To Yolanda, Gregory gave a bow and offered, “I certainly hope you enjoy yourself.”
Yolanda gave him a smile which she hid behind her gloved hand. Gregory grabbed Boris’ arm and led the man away forthright. Gregory only halted when they were hidden from sight by the columns. “Mercy on you, good Boris,” Gregory said with feeling.
Boris chuckled. “Running from the matrimonial yoke again, Cousin?”
“As fast as a mule who has had the whip one too many times,” Gregory agreed heartily. It was then that Gregory took in his cousin’s appearance. “Boris, you shaved.”
Boris tapped his chin. “By the King’s name, someone has stolen my beard,” Boris said with dramatic flair.
“You are still an awful actor,” Gregory said as he clapped his hand on Boris’ shoulder. “Tell me that you have not been enchanted by a foul potion.”
Boris’ curly eyebrows furrowed until they almost touched his curly locks. “Your tongue always holds such clever mockery, but in all seriousness, I am courting a young lady.”
“What young lady have you caged with your lion’s gaze?” Gregory leaned his elbow against the column as he watched his cousin intently.
Drawing himself up, Boris said proudly, “I’m courting the youngest daughter of the Marquis of Dorchire.”
“Is that the one with the freckles? Or the one with the prominent front teeth?” Gregory asked the question earnestly. He never could keep track of the Marquis’ daughters. The man had seven of them after all, and they looked exceptionally alike.
Boris groaned, “She has freckles, Gregory. Honestly, you should think of your position more than you do. You carry on as if you are still a boy running through the gardens and stealing fruit.”
“If only I were,” Gregory lamented.
Boris was a good two inches taller than even Gregory who stood six feet tall, and he looked every bit of it and then some when the man drew himself up to his full height. Gregory patted his cousin on the shoulder again amicably. Boris relented a bit in his stance. “You should think of heirs,” Boris said gently. “Or will you leave that to Fred?”
Fredrick was Gregory’s younger brother. Gregory had been set to join the war, but when their father died, Gregory took over the title, and Fredrick took Gregory’s place on the battlefield. Gregory sighed, “Fred is still recovering. I think the fairer set is not on his mind at the moment.”
“I had heard that he was injured,” Boris said sadly. “I do hope he is well enough to join us on an outing or at least for a visit soon. I would very much like to catch up with him. You will tell him that, will you not?”
Gregory nodded. “Of course I will.”
“Jules,” David Larkin called as he came over to where Jules was making sure the walls of the shop they were building were level. Jules raised her eyes up to the man. She and David were junior masons together before Jules got promoted. David panted, “There’s been a fire.”
Everyone seemed to be running the next moment. It was as if the whole of the human population was swarming towards the light that flickered in the predawn hours. All the tradesmen and women that were close enough rushed to help, but at the building they were pushed back by the heat.
Jules stared open-mouthed and filled with frustration. Try as they might to rush into the building, the flames pushed them back. No help seemed to be coming, but there was the commotion of running feet. Buckets and water flew between hands. Jules could not see where they were getting the water from.
A woman’s cry near Jules made her turn her head towards the ailing woman. The woman sat miserably leaning against a post with another woman’s arms around her as if holding the wailing woman back from the fire. “My Bonnie!” the woman wailed over and over.
Jules understood. The factory had employed children. Jules swallowed down her fear and ran toward the fire again. The fire burst out a window. Jules and two men scattered to avoid the flying glass. “We can’t get in,” one of the men shouted.
“Just help with the water,” Jules shouted. “It’s too far gone. We need to keep it from spreading to the other buildings.” She felt defeated, but there was no reason to get others killed.
The breakfast was spread out over the small, intimate table that his mother liked to eat at in the morning. Lady St Claire had a very dear affection for the roses in her garden and liked to dine among them whenever possible. Gregory looked out through the glass doors that opened onto a stone terrace where his mother’s breakfast table was set up.
As Gregory opened the door to go out into the garden, his mother looked around at him. She was a short woman, full of figure and of fire, as Gregory’s father had always said. “Morning, Mother,” Gregory said amicably as he came over and pulled out a chair for himself.
“And to you, son of mine,” Lady St Claire said in amusement. “Did you run into that merchant and his daughter?”
Gregory gave his mother a look of dismay. “I certainly hope that you have not been encouraging Greyson and his offspring with their schemes,” Gregory said as he picked up a plum off the fruit bowl set to one side.
“I would not say that,” Lady St Claire said with a wry grin. “No. I simply have stated to the merchant that I would very much like to see you happily wedded. If he took that as an endorsement, then that is on his shoulders.”
There was no point in arguing over the details of what she said. The woman was used to the twisting tongues of the courtesans and ambassadors of the court. She could talk herself out of anything if she were given enough room to manoeuvre. Gregory ate his fruit in silence. His mother seemed content with that arrangement as well as she went back to looking over her garden.
The door from the living area that opened onto the terrace burst open with enough force to rattle the glass in the wooden frame. Lady St Claire put her hand over her heart. “Fredrick St Claire, you are going to break that door. It was a gift from the French ambassador,” Lady St Claire said sternly.
Fredrick did not look abashed at the scolding, instead he came over to the table unsteadily. He had not yet gotten the knack of walking on the wooden leg that he had been fitted with, and he refused to use the crutches even when at home. “Thought you might be interested in this,” Fred said as he dropped a newspaper onto the table near Gregory before slumping down in a chair.
Gregory picked up the newspaper. He had thought it would be another of those horrible gossip papers that spread all sort of rumours about anyone of any importance. Gregory had found himself in a few over the years.
Instead of the gossip rag, Gregory found it was the daily newspaper. There were an account and a depiction of a fire at a factory over near where Gregory had been the day before. His thoughts flicked to the spokesman briefly. “What a horrible thing,” Gregory said as he pushed the newspaper away.
“Horrible thing? Children died,” Fred spat. “What’s worse is there’s a clamour already that it was set deliberately.”
Lady St Claire gave a strangled cry of distress. “Can we please not talk about such things while breaking our fast?”
Fred grew silent, but he stared at Gregory with a glare. Gregory nodded and tapped the paper. “I might see what I can learn about all this while I am out today,” he said lightly.
“You will do no such thing,” Lady St Claire said then she added, “I am sorry to treat you like a child, but you have to take your responsibilities seriously.
Gregory agreed, “I know, and that is exactly why I need to know the truth.” He sighed, “I promise to be careful, but I have to satisfy my curiosity on this.” With his mother somewhat distracted, Gregory turned to his brother, “Fred you should take a jaunt with me and get out of this stuffy house.”
“You know that I cannot do that,” Fred said as he folded his arms across his chest defiantly. Although he was two years Gregory’s junior, one would have thought him much older with the deep lines that etched across his face in the early morning sun.
Gregory reached across the table and grasped his brother’s arm. “Are you truly unable, or are you merely adopting an attitude of ineptitude to keep from facing the world outside?”
“Leave me be about it,” Fred warned as the man shoved to his feet.
After Fred had made his exit, Gregory took his leave of his mother’s breakfast table. He went back upstairs, and instead of putting on his commoner’s disguise, he pulled on his travelling coat. The sun was bright and shining without giving any clue to the fact that a tragedy had occurred the night before.
The street the fire had happened on was one filled with small businesses and residencies. The buildings had smut on them from the smoke of the fire, and everywhere lay bits of ashes or burned wood. Gregory stepped over a piece of debris, wary of the sharp nails sticking out of it.
The rancid scent of smoke filled the air, and Gregory pulled a handkerchief out of his coat pocket to hold over his mouth and nose. He looked around at a sound and saw movement from the burned-out building. Three youths were carrying a bundle out wrapped in a blanket. Bile rose in Gregory’s mouth. He had not realized that the bodies of the workers were inside still.
“Not something a Lordly sort sees every day,” a voice said behind Gregory causing Gregory to turn abruptly to face the speaker. The young man from the day before stared at Gregory with an air of distrust.
Gregory coughed to clear the smoke scent from his nostrils. “Yes, I guess I thought they would have the bodies moved by now.”
“Odd for someone like you to be here at all,” the young man said. There was a pause before he continued, “It takes a long time to find bodies, especially the ones that are more badly burned.”
Gregory could see the ash and smut that decorated the young man’s clothing and face. A group of men came by, and one of them clapped the young man on the back and said, “Ready to go back in?”
The young man nodded and said to Gregory, “Feel free to hop to it, your Lordship.” The men guffawed and turned to go to the building with the young man in tow.
Gregory did not get offended easily at the indifference to his title, but he still bristled at the distaste that the people here seemed to treat him with. He stepped into a bakery across the street.
“Your Lordship, it is an honour,” the old baker gasped. “Can I get you a cake or some honey bread?”
Gregory waved off the man’s offer. “I’m actually here enquiring about the fire.”
“The fire, Lord?” The baker’s brows furrowed together. “No need to worry about that. They’ll have it sorted soon enough. The boys are just getting the remains so the families can have their dead. They’ll probably start tearing it down soon.”
Gregory frowned andmo looked at the building across from the baker’s. The factory sat like a stark skeleton on the corner where one street met another. “The building does not concern me. Have there been any guardsmen to check into it?”
“Doubtful the guards will worry over us, Lord,” the baker said with a shake of his head. The man seemed confused as to Gregory’s motive. “Do you own some property near here?” The man asked the question as he tried to reason out what Gregory had to do with the burned building.
Gregory was doubtful the baker would give him any information. “Yes,” Gregory said, but he did not elaborate. To compensate the man for his time, Gregory laid some coins on the counter which the man profusely thanked him for as Gregory left.
He would have been better off coming in disguise, Gregory realized. He had thought that perhaps a noble checking on his property would be a reasonable excuse to make enquiries. However, the locals appeared to be wary at best and hostile at worst towards their betters.
Now his cover was blown since the young spokesman had seen him the day before. The young man had clearly recognized him. Gregory sighed in dissatisfaction. He walked towards the street where he had left his horse with a young girl.
The little girl looked up with a smile as Gregory approached. Her dark hair showed that she was not used to frequent baths, and her face was smudged with what could have been any number of things. “For your worry,” Gregory said as he held out two coins to the girl. She took them with more enthusiasm than Gregory had ever seen. He could not help smiling as the girl raced off down the street that Gregory had just arrived from.
“Whatcha suppose he’s up to?” Roger said gruffly after the dandy nobleman had taken his leave.
Jules shrugged. “Checking property, perhaps,” Jules said with distaste. “That’s all the ranks of his sort care about.”
They sat down heavily on the curb. Since before dawn, they had been sifting through the debris. There were still names unaccounted for, but the men had grown weary. David walked up dusting off his breeches and spat, “Would be nice to see a guardsman.”
“They would just give you a fine for the effort of coming to look at you,” Roger said as he shook the ash from his red locks.
Jules shook her head. “There’s no need to be so distraught over such as guards. What I’d love to know is where were the insurance’s watermen? No fire brigades seen yet, and we all know there was no way that Marcus didn’t have that place insured.”
The men all nodded. Roger agreed, “I remember seeing the badge on the building.”
“Aye,” called another Irishman down the way. “I saw the fire mark too. It was just by that lantern post by Roger’s head.
There was a chorus of agreement from the men. Jules too was certain that something had gone terribly wrong. There had to be a reason the watermen did not come. Were they not called? “Speaking of the Devil, has anyone seen Marcus?” Marcus Lambert was the owner and operator of the factory in question.
The men all fell silent. Roger scratched his head. “I saw him at the baker’s yesterday morning, can’t say I saw him again after that.”
“Didn’t see him at the pub, either,” another local named Finnegan added. “He’s almost always there going on about his money.”
Jules sighed. There definitely was something off about the fire.
“Did you see what they were saying in the paper?” Jules’ mother asked as Jules came in from working all day to clear the rubble.
Jules wiped her forearm across her ash-smeared forehead. “I’m certain it will not be helpful,” she said with a tired sigh.
“The implication was that the fire was set deliberately. Why would anyone want to burn down that old place?” Mrs Kelley shook her head. “Makes little sense, and I can see no one that would benefit.”
Jules was too tired to contemplate any of it, and she just grunted as she went to find her old mattress upstairs. She collapsed unceremoniously onto the mattress that had at one time been her grandmother’s. Jules just did remember to take off her cap before she gave herself up to sleep.
“Sounds like the Luddites to me,” Maxwell Chapman said definitively. He rapped his knuckles on the wooden table in the Gentleman’s Club as if he were presiding over a court. Maxwell was a nobleman in his own right, as the son of the Duke of Rutherford, but he had chosen to dedicate himself to a life on the judge’s chair.
Gregory shook his head. “I fail to see how it would benefit anyone to burn down a building filled mostly with women and children,” he said with disgust.
“You obviously have not met any of the activists that claim to be trying to protect the jobs and security of the working class,” Maxwell said. “Why to them the only negative is if their jobs get hurt in the process.”
Gregory sighed at his old friend, “Some of the people the Luddites advocate for worked in that very factory. Besides, I went down there and perceived the damage. The only ones there were the local tradesmen and artisan guilds. Not a guardsman in sight.”
“Why would there be?” Maxwell lifted his shoulders dismissively. “The insurance companies are bound to keep the fires in check, not the guards.”
While the answer did not sit well with Gregory, he knew that the guards only did what they had to do. Few would go beyond the normal calls of duty, especially for the kinds of people who worked and lived in the section of the city where the factory had been.
“The Artisan and the Duke” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Gregory St. Claire, the Duke of Thornton, never cared much for society and flew in the face of tradition whenever he could, but from the moment he met the strange artisan shouting out a rallying call in the streets of London, Gregory’s curiosity is peaked.
When he discovers that what the thought was a young man is really a beautiful young woman, Gregory is intrigued. Together they stumble into a mystery surrounding a fire that should never have happened, and get pulled into the darker corners of society.
Jules Kelley’s opinion of high society is pretty low. So, when a noble playing commoner stumbles upon her and her secret she is all but certain that things could not get worse, until there is a fire and a raid on the Mason Guild. Gregory may have saved her from the guards, but is he just saving her from one evil only to pull her into another?
“The Artisan and the Duke” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.