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A Dangerous Fortune

May, 1873

When Micky Miranda was twenty-three his father came to London to buy rifles.

Senor Carlos Raul Xavier Miranda, known always as Papa, was a short man with massive shoulders. His tanned face was carved in lines of aggression and brutality. In leather chaps and a broad-brimmed hat, seated on a chestnut stallion, he could make a graceful, commanding figure; but here in Hyde Park, wearing a frock-coat and a top hat, he felt foolish, and that made him dangerously bad-tempered.

They were not alike. Micky was tall and slim, with regular features, and he got his way by smiling rather than frowning. He was deeply attached to the refinements of London life: beautiful clothes, polite manners, linen sheets and indoor plumbing. His great fear was that Papa would want to take him back to Cordova. He could not bear to return to days in the saddle and nights sleeping on the hard ground. Even worse was the prospect of being under the thumb of his older brother Paulo, who was a replica of Papa. Perhaps Micky would go home one day, but it would be as an important man in his own right, not as the younger son of Papa Miranda. Meanwhile he had to persuade his father that he was more useful here in London than he would be at home in Cordova.

They were walking along South Carriage Drive on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The park was thronged with well-dressed Londoners on foot, on horseback or in open carriages, enjoying the warm weather. But Papa was not enjoying himself. “I must have those rifles!” he muttered to himself in Spanish. He said it twice.

Micky spoke in the same language. “You could buy them back home”, he said tentatively.

“Two thousand of them?” Papa said. “Perhaps I could. But it would be such a big purchase that everyone would know about it…”

So he wanted to keep it secret. Micky had no idea what Papa was up to. Paying for two thousand guns, and the ammunition to go with them, would probably take all the family’s reserves of cash. Why did Papa suddenly need so much ordnance? There had been no war in Cordova since the now-legendary March of the Cowboys, when Papa had led his men across the Andes to liberate Santamaria Province from its Spanish overlords. Who were the guns for? If you added up Papa’s cowboys, relatives, place men and hangers-on it would come to fewer than a thousand men. Papa had to be planning to recruit more. Whom would they be fighting? Papa had not volunteered the information and Micky was afraid to ask.

Instead he said: “Anyway, you probably couldn’t get such high-quality weapons at home…”

“That’s true”, said Papa. “The Westley-Richards is the finest rifle I’ve ever seen…”

Micky had been able to help Papa with his choice of rifles. Micky had always been fascinated by weapons of all kinds, and he kept up with the latest technical developments. Papa needed short-barrelled rifles that would not be too cumbersome for men on horseback. Micky had taken Papa to a factory in Birmingham and shown him the Westley-Richards carbine with the breech-loading action, nicknamed the Monkey tail because of its curly lever.

“And they make them so fast”, Micky said.

“I expected to wait six months for the guns to be manufactured. But they can do it in a few days!”

“It’s the American machinery they use.” In the old days, when guns had been made by blacksmiths who fitted the parts together by trial and error, it would indeed have taken six months to make two thousand rifles; but modern machinery was so precise that the parts of any gun would fit any other gun of the same pattern, and a well-equipped factory could turn out hundreds of identical rifles a day, like pins.

“And the machine that makes two hundred thousand cartridges a day!” Papa said, and he shook his head in wonderment. Then his mood switched again and he said grimly: “But how can they ask for the money before the rifles are delivered?”

Papa knew nothing about international trade, and he had assumed the manufacturer would deliver the rifles in Cordova and accept payment there. On the contrary, the payment was required before the weapons left the Birmingham factory.

But Papa was reluctant to ship silver coins across the Atlantic Ocean in barrels. Worse still, he could not hand over the entire family fortune before the arms were safely delivered.

“Go over it again”, Papa said. “I want to make sure I understand this.”

Micky was pleased to be able to explain something to Papa. “The bank will pay the manufacturer in Birmingham. It will arrange for the guns to be shipped to Cordova, and insure them on the voyage. When they arrive, the bank will accept payment from you at their office in Cordova.”

“But then they have to ship the silver to England.”

“Not necessarily. They may use it to pay for a cargo of salt beef coming from Cordova to London.”

“How do they make a living?”

“They take a cut of everything. They will pay the rifle manufacturer a discounted price, take a commission on the shipping and insurance, and charge you extra for the guns.”

Papa nodded. He was trying not to show it, but he was impressed, and that made Micky happy.

They left the park and walked along Kensington Gore to the home of Joseph and Augusta Pilaster.

In the seven years since Peter Middleton drowned, Micky had spent every vacation with the Pilasters. After school he had toured Europe with Edward for a year, and he had roomed with Edward during the three years they had spent at Oxford University, drinking and gambling and raising Cain, making only the barest pretence of being students.

Micky had never again kissed Augusta. He would have liked to. He wanted to do more than just kiss her. And he sensed that she might let him. Underneath that veneer of frozen arrogance there was the hot heart of a passionate and sensual woman, he was sure. But he had held back out of prudence. He had achieved something priceless by being accepted almost as a son in one of the richest families in England, and it would be insane to jeopardize that cherished position by seducing Joseph’s wife. All the same he could not help daydreaming about it.

Edward’s parents had recently moved into a new house. Kensington Gore, which not so long ago had been a country road leading from Mayfair through the fields to the village of Kensington, was now lined, along its south side, by splendid mansions. On the north side of the street were Hyde Park and the gardens of Kensington Palace. It was the perfect location for the home of a rich commercial family.

Micky was not so sure about the style of architecture. It was certainly striking. It was of red brick and white stone, with big leaded windows on the ground and first floors. Above the first floor was a huge gable, its triangular shape enclosing three rows of windows – six, then four, then two at the apex: bedrooms, presumably, for innumerable relatives, guests and servants. The sides of the gable were stepped, and on the steps were perched stone animals – lions and dragons and monkeys. At the very top was a ship in full sail. Perhaps it represented the slave ship which, according to family legend, was the foundation of the Pilasters’ wealth.

“I’m sure there’s not another house like this in London”, Micky said as he and his father stood outside staring at it.

Papa replied in Spanish. “No doubt that is what the lady intended.”

Micky nodded. Papa had not met Augusta, but he had her measure already.

The house also had a big basement. A bridge crossed the basement area and led to the entrance porch. The door was open, and they went in.

Augusta was having a drum, an afternoon tea-party, to show off her house. The oak-panelled hall was jammed with people and servants. Micky and his father handed their hats to a footman then pushed through the crowd to the vast drawing-room at the back of the house. The french windows were open, and the party spilled out on to a flagged terrace and a long garden.

Micky had deliberately chosen to introduce his father at a crowded occasion, for Papa’s manners were not always up to London standards, and it was better that the Pilasters should get to know him gradually. Even by Cordovan standards he paid little attention to social niceties, and escorting him around London was like having a lion on a leash. He insisted on carrying his pistol beneath his coat at all times.

Papa did not need Micky to point Augusta out to him.

She stood in the centre of the room, draped in a royal blue silk dress with a low square neckline that revealed the swell of her breasts. As Papa shook her hand she gazed at him with her hypnotic dark eyes and said in a low, velvet voice: “Senor Miranda – what a pleasure to meet you at last.”

Papa was immediately entranced. He bowed low over her hand. “I can never repay your kindness to Miguel”, he said in halting English.

Micky studied her as she cast her spell over his father. She had changed very little since the day he had kissed her in the chapel at Windfield School. The extra line or two around her eyes only made them more fascinating; the touch of silver in her hair enhanced the blackness of the rest; and if she was a little heavier than she had been it made her body more voluptuous.

“Micky has often told me of your splendid ranch”, she was saying to Papa.

Papa lowered his voice. “You must come and visit us one day”

God forbid, Micky thought. Augusta in Cordova would be as out of place as a flamingo in a coal mine. “Perhaps I shall”, Augusta said. “How far is it?” “With the new fast ships, only a month.”

He still had hold of her hand, Micky noticed. And his voice had gone furry. He had fallen for her already. Micky felt a stab of jealousy. If anyone was going to flirt with Augusta it should be Micky, not Papa.

“I hear Cordova is a beautiful country”, Augusta said. Micky prayed Papa would not do anything embarrassing. However, he could be charming when it suited him, and he was now playing the role of romantic South American grandee for Augusta’s benefit. “I can promise you that we would welcome you like the queen you are”, he said in a low voice; and now it was obvious that he was making up to her.

But Augusta was a match for him. “What an extraordinarily tempting prospect”, she said with a shameless insincerity that went right over Papa’s head. Withdrawing her hand from his without missing a beat, she looked over his shoulder and cried: “Why, Captain Tillotson, how kind of you to come!” And she turned away to greet the latest arrival.

Papa was bereft. It took him a moment to regain his composure. Then he said abruptly: “Take me to the head of the bank.”

“Certainly”, Micky said nervously. He looked around for Old Seth. The entire Pilaster clan was here, including maiden aunts, nephews and nieces, in-laws and second cousins. He recognized a couple of Members of Parliament and a sprinkling of lesser nobility. Most of the other guests were business connections, Micky judged – and rivals, too, he thought as he saw the thin, upright figure of Ben Greenbourne, head of Greenbournes Bank, said to be the richest man in the world. Ben was the father of Solomon, the boy Micky had always known as Fatty Greenbourne. They had lost touch since school: Fatty had not studied at a university or done a European tour, but had gone straight into his father’s business.

The aristocracy generally thought it vulgar to talk about money, but this group had no such inhibitions, and Micky kept hearing the word “crash”. In the newspapers it was sometimes spelt “Krach” because it had started in Austria. Share prices were down and the Bank Rate was up, according to Edward, who had recently started work at the family bank. Some people were alarmed, but the Pilasters felt confident that London would not be pulled down with Vienna.

Micky took Papa out through the french windows on to the paved terrace, where wooden benches were placed in the shade of striped awnings. There they found Old Seth, sitting with a rug over his knees despite the warm spring weather. He was weak from some unspecified illness, and he looked as frail as an eggshell, but he had the Pilaster nose, a big curved blade that made him formidable still.

Another guest was gushing over the old man, saying: “What a shame you aren’t well enough to go to the royal levee, Mr Pilaster!”

Micky could have told the woman this was the wrong thing to say to a Pilaster.

“On the contrary, I’m glad of the excuse”, Seth harrumphed. “I don’t see why I should bow the knee to people who have never earned a penny in their lives.”

“But the Prince of Wales – such an honour!”

Seth was in no mood to be argued with – indeed he rarely was – and he now said: “Young lady, the name of Pilaster is an accepted guarantee of honest dealing in corners of the globe where they’ve never heard of the Prince of Wales.”

“But Mr Pilaster, you almost sound as if you disapprove of the royal family!” the woman persisted, with a strained attempt at a playful tone.

Seth had not been playful for seventy years. “I disapprove of idleness”, he said. “The Bible says, ‘If any would not work, neither should he eat.’ St Paul wrote that, in Second Thessalonians, chapter three, verse ten, and he conspicuously omitted to say that royalty were an exception to the rule.”

The woman retired in confusion. Suppressing a grin, Micky said: “Mr Pilaster, may I present my father, Senor Carlos Miranda, who is over from Cordova for a visit.”

Seth shook Papa’s hand. “Cordova, eh? My bank has an office in your capital city, Palma.”

“I go to the capital very little”, Papa said. “I have a ranch in Santamaria Province.”

“So you’re in the beef business.”

“Yes.”

“Look into refrigeration.”

Papa was baffled. Micky explained: “Someone has invented a machine for keeping meat cold. If they can find a way to install it in ships, we will be able to send fresh meat all over the world without salting it.”

Papa frowned. “This could be bad for us. I have a big salting plant.”

“Knock it down”, said Seth. “Go in for refrigeration.”

Papa did not like people telling him what to do, and Micky felt a little anxious. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted Edward. “Papa, I want to introduce you to my best friend”, he said. He managed to ease his father away from Seth. “Allow me to present Edward Pilaster.”

Papa examined Edward with a cold, clear-eyed gaze. Edward was not good-looking – he took after his father, not his mother – but he looked like a healthy farm boy, muscular and fair-skinned. Late nights and quantities of wine had not taken their toll – not yet, anyway. Papa shook his hand and said: “You two have been friends for many years.”

“Soul mates”, Edward said.

Papa frowned, not understanding.

Micky said: “May we talk business for a moment?”

They stepped off the terrace and on to the newly-laid lawn. The borders were freshly planted, all raw earth and tiny shrubs. “Papa has been making some large purchases here, and he needs to arrange shipping and finance”, Micky went on. “It could be the first small piece of business you bring into your family bank.”

Edward looked keen. “I’ll be glad to handle that for you”, he said to Papa. “Would you like to come into the bank tomorrow morning, so that we can make all the necessary arrangements?”

“I will”, said Papa.

Micky said: “Tell me something. What if the ship sinks. Who loses – us, or the bank?”

“Neither”, Edward said smugly. “The cargo will be insured at Lloyd’s. We would simply collect the insurance money and ship a new consignment to you. You don’t pay until you get your goods. What is the cargo, by the way?”

“Rifles.”

Edward’s face fell. “Oh. Then we can’t help you.” Micky was mystified. “Why?”

“Because of Old Seth. He’s a Methodist, you know. Well, the whole family is, but he’s rather more devout than most. Anyway, he won’t finance arms sales, and as he’s Senior Partner, that’s bank policy.”

“The devil it is”, Micky cursed. He shot a fearful look at his father. Fortunately, Papa had not understood the conversation. Micky had a sinking feeling in his stomach. Surely his scheme could not founder on something as stupid as Seth’s religion? “The damned old hypocrite is practically dead, why should he interfere?”

“He is about to retire”, Edward pointed out. “But I think Uncle Samuel will take over, and he’s the same, you know.”

Worse and worse. Samuel was Seth’s bachelor son, fifty-three years old and in perfect health. “We’ll just have to go to another merchant bank”, Micky said.

Edward said: “That should be straightforward, provided you can give a couple of sound business references.”

“References? Why?”

“Well, a bank always takes the risk that the buyer will renege on the deal, leaving them with a cargo of unwanted merchandise on the far side of the globe. They just need some assurance that they’re dealing with a respectable businessman.”

What Edward did not realize was that the concept of a respectable businessman did not yet exist in South America. Papa was a caudillo, a provincial landowner with a hundred thousand acres of pampas and a workforce of cowboys that doubled as his private army. He wielded power in a way the British had not known since the Middle Ages. It was like asking William the Conqueror for references.

Micky pretended to be unperturbed. “No doubt we can provide something”, he said. In fact he was stumped. But if he was going to stay in London he had to bring this deal off.

They turned and strolled back towards the crowded terrace, Micky hiding his anxiety. Papa did not yet understand that they had encountered a serious difficulty, but Micky would have to explain it later – and then there would be trouble. Papa had no patience with failure, and his anger was terrifying.

Augusta appeared on the terrace and spoke to Edward. “Find Hastead for me, Teddy darling”, she said. Hastead was her obsequious Welsh butler. “There’s no cordial left and the wretched man has disappeared.” Edward went off. She favoured Papa with a warm, intimate smile. “Are you enjoying our little gathering, Senor Miranda?”

“Very well, thank you”, said Papa.

“You must have some tea, or a glass of cordial.”

Papa would have preferred tequila, Micky knew, but alcoholic drink was not served at Methodist tea-parties.

Augusta looked at Micky. Always quick to sense other people’s moods, she said: “I can see that you’re not enjoying the party. What’s the matter?”

He did not hesitate to confide in her. “I was hoping Papa could help Edward by bringing new business to the bank, but it involves guns and ammunition, and Edward has just explained that Uncle Seth won’t finance weapons.”

“Seth won’t be Senior Partner much longer”, Augusta said.

“Apparently Samuel feels the same as his father.”

“Does he?” Augusta said, and her tone was arch. “And who says that Samuel is to be the next Senior Partner?”

Hugh Pilaster was wearing a new sky-blue ascot style cravat, slightly puffed at the neckline and held in place with a pin. He really should have been wearing a new coat, but he earned only £68 a year, so he had to brighten up his old clothes with a new tie. The ascot was the latest fashion, and sky-blue was a daring colour choice; but when he spied his reflection in the huge mirror over the mantelpiece in Aunt Augusta’s drawing-room he saw that the blue tie and black suit looked rather fetching with his blue eyes and black hair, and he hoped the ascot gave him an attractively rakish air. Perhaps Florence Stalworthy would think so, anyway. He had started to take an interest in clothes since he met her.

It was a bit embarrassing, living with Augusta and being so poor; but there was a tradition at Pilasters Bank that men were paid what they were worth, regardless of whether they were family members. Another tradition was that everyone started at the bottom. Hugh had been a star pupil at school, and would have been head boy if he had not got into trouble so much; but his education counted for little at the bank, and he was doing the work of an apprentice clerk – and was paid accordingly. His aunt and uncle never offered to help him out financially, so they had to put up with his looking a little shabby.

He did not much care what they thought about his appearance, of course. It was Florence Stalworthy he was worried about. She was a pale, pretty girl, the daughter of the Earl of Stalworthy; but the most important thing about her was that she was interested in Hugh Pilaster. The truth was that Hugh could be fascinated by any girl who would talk to him. This bothered him, because it surely meant that his feelings were shallow; but he could not help it. If a girl touched him accidentally it was enough to make his mouth go dry. He was tormented by curiosity about what their legs looked like under all those layers of skirt and petticoat. There were times when his desire hurt like a wound. He was twenty years old, he had felt like this since he was fifteen, and in those five years he had never kissed anyone except his mother.

A party such as this drum of Augusta’s was exquisite torture. Because it was a party, everyone went out of their way to be pleasant, find things to talk about, and show an interest in one another. The girls looked lovely and smiled and sometimes, discreetly, flirted. So many people were crowded into the house that inevitably some of the girls would brush up against Hugh, bump into him as they turned around, touch his arm, or even press their breasts against his back as they squeezed by. He would have a week of restless nights afterwards.

Many of the people here were his relations, inevitably. His father, Tobias, and Edward’s father, Joseph, had been brothers. But Hugh’s father had withdrawn his capital from the family business, started his own enterprise, gone bankrupt, and killed himself. That was why Hugh had left the expensive Windfield boarding school and become a day-boy at the Folkestone Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen; it was why he started work at nineteen instead of doing a “European tour” and wasting a few years at a university; it was why he lived with his aunt; and it was why he did not have new clothes to wear to the party. He was a relation, but a poor one; an embarrassment to a family whose pride, confidence and social standing were based on its wealth.

It would never have occurred to any of them to solve the problem by giving him money. Poverty was the punishment for doing business badly, and if you started to ease the pain for failures, why, there would be no incentive to do well. “You might as well put feather-beds in prison cells”, they would say whenever someone suggested helping life’s losers.

His father had been the victim of a financial crisis, but that made no difference. He had failed on 11 May 1866, a date known to bankers as Black Friday. On that day a billbroker called Ovcrend and Gurney Ltd had gone bankrupt for five million pounds, and many firms were dragged down, including the London Joint Stock Bank and Sir Samuel Peto’s building company, as well as Tobias Pilaster and Co. But there were no excuses in business, according to the Pilaster philosophy. Just at present there was a financial crisis, and no doubt one or two firms would fail before it was over; but the Pilasters were vigorously protecting themselves, shedding their weaker clients, tightening credit, and ruthlessly turning down all but the most unquestionably secure new business. Self-preservation was the highest duty of the banker, they believed.

Well, I’m a Pilaster, too, Hugh thought. I may not have the Pilaster nose, but I understand about self-preservation. There was a rage that boiled in his heart sometimes when he brooded about what had happened to his father, and it made him all the more determined to become the richest and most respected of the whole damn crew. His cheap day school had taught him useful arithmetic and science while his better-off cousin Edward was struggling with Latin and Greek; and not going to university had given him an early start in the business. He was never tempted to follow a different way of life, become a painter or a Member of Parliament or a clergyman. Finance was in his blood. He could give the current Bank Rate quicker them he could say whether it was raining. He was determined he would never be as smug and hypocritical as his older relatives, but all the same he was going to be a banker.

However, he did not think about it much. Most of the time he thought about girls.

He stepped out of the drawing-room on to the terrace and saw Augusta bearing down on him with a girl in tow.

“Dear Hugh”, she said, “here’s your friend Miss Bodwin.” Hugh groaned inwardly. Rachel Bodwin was a tall, intellectual girl of radical opinions. She was not pretty she had dull brown hair and light eyes set rather close together – but she was lively and interesting, full of subversive ideas, and Hugh had liked her a lot when he first came to London to work at the bank. But Augusta had decided he should marry Rachel, and that had ruined the relationship. Before that they had argued fiercely and freely about divorce, religion, poverty and votes for women. Since Augusta had begun her campaign to bring them together, they just stood and exchanged awkward chit-chat.

“How lovely you look, Miss Bodwin”, he said automatically.

“You’re very kind”, she replied in a bored tone.

Augusta was turning away when she caught sight of Hugh’s tie. “Heavens!” she exclaimed. “What is that? You look like an innkeeper!”

Hugh blushed crimson. If he could have thought of a sharp rejoinder he would have risked it, but nothing came to mind, and all he could do was mutter: “It’s just a new tie. It’s called an ascot.”

“You shall give it to the boot-boy tomorrow”, she said, and she turned away.

Resentment flared in Hugh’s breast against the fate that forced him to live with his overbearing aunt. “Women ought not to comment on a man’s clothes”, he said moodily. “It’s not ladylike.”

Rachel said: “I think women should comment on anything that interests them, so I shall say that I like your tie, and that it matches your eyes.”

Hugh smiled at her, feeling better. She was very nice, after all. However, it was not her niceness that caused Augusta to want him to marry her. Rachel was the daughter of a lawyer specializing in commercial contracts. Her family had no money other than her father’s professional income, and on the social ladder they were several rungs below the Pilasters; indeed they would not be at this party at all except that Mr Bodwin had done useful work for the bank. Rachel was a girl in a low station in life, and by marrying her Hugh would confirm his status as a lesser breed of Pilaster; and that was what Augusta wanted.

He was not completely averse to the thought of proposing to Rachel. Augusta had hinted that she would give him a generous wedding present if he married her choice. But it was not the wedding present that tempted him, it was the thought that every night he would be able to get into bed with a woman, and lift her nightdress up, past her ankles and her knees, past her thighs.

“Don’t look at me that way”, Rachel said shrewdly. “I only said I liked your tie.”

Hugh blushed again. Surely she could not guess what had been in his mind? His thoughts about girls were so grossly physical that he felt ashamed of himself much of the time. “Sorry”, he mumbled.

“What a lot of Pilasters there are”, she said brightly, looking around. “How do you cope with them all?”

Hugh looked around too, and saw Florence Stalworthy come in. She was extraordinarily pretty, with her fair curls falling over her delicate shoulders, a pink dress trimmed with lace and silk ribbons, and ostrich feathers in her hat. She met Hugh’s eye and smiled at him across the room.

“I can see I’ve lost your attention”, Rachel said with characteristic bluntness.

“I’m most awfully sorry”, Hugh said.

Rachel touched his arm. “Hugh, dear, listen to me for a moment. I like you. You’re one of the few people in London society who aren’t unspeakably dull. But I don’t love you and I will never marry you, no matter how often your aunt throws us together.”

Hugh was startled. “I say –” he began.

But she had not finished. “And I know you feel much the same about me, so please don’t pretend to be heartbroken.”

After a stunned moment, Hugh grinned. This directness was what he liked about her. But he supposed she was right: liking was not loving. He was not sure what love was, but she seemed to know. “Does this mean we can go back to quarrelling about women’s suffrage?” he said cheerfully.

“Yes, but not today. I’m going to talk to your old school friend, Senor Miranda.”

Hugh frowned. “Micky couldn’t spell ‘suffrage’ let alone tell you what it means.”

“All the same, half the debutantes in London are swooning over him.”

“I can’t imagine why.”

“He’s a male Florence Stalworthy”, Rachel said, and with that she left him.

Hugh frowned, thinking about that. Micky knew Hugh was a poor relation and he treated him accordingly, so it was difficult for Hugh to be objective about him. He was very personable, and always beautifully dressed. He reminded Hugh of a cat, sleek and sensual with glossy fur. It was not quite the thing to be so carefully groomed, and men said he was not very manly, but women did not seem to care about that.

Hugh followed Rachel with his eyes as she crossed the room to where Micky stood with his father, talking to Edward’s sister Clementine, Aunt Madeleine, and young Aunt Beatrice. Now Micky turned to Rachel, giving her his full attention as he shook her hand and said something that made her laugh. He was always talking to three or four women, Hugh realized.

All the same Hugh disliked the suggestion that Florence was somehow like Micky. She was attractive and popular, as he was, but Micky was something of a cad, Hugh thought.

He made his way to Florence’s side, feeling thrilled but nervous. “Lady Florence, how are you?”

She smiled dazzlingly. “What an extraordinary house! Do you like it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“That’s what most people say.”

She laughed as if he had made a witty remark, and he felt inordinately pleased.

He went on: “It’s very modern, you know. There are five bathrooms! And a huge boiler in the basement warms the whole place with hot-water pipes.”

“Perhaps the stone ship on top of the gable is a little too much.”

Hugh lowered his voice. “I think so too. It reminds me of the cow’s head outside a butcher’s shop.”

She giggled again. Hugh was pleased that he could make her laugh. He decided it would be nice to get her away from the crowd. “Come and see the garden”, he said.

“How lovely.”

It was not lovely, having only just been planted, but that did not matter in the least. He led her out of the drawingroom on to the terrace but there he was waylaid by Augusta, who shot him a look of reproof and said: “Lady Florence, how kind of you to come. Edward will show you the garden.” She grabbed Edward, who was standing nearby, and ushered the two of them away before Hugh could say a word. He clenched his teeth in frustration and vowed he would not let her get away with this. “Hugh, dear, I know you want to talk to Rachel”, she said. She took Hugh’s arm and moved him back inside, and there was nothing he could do to resist her, short of snatching his arm away and making a scene. Rachel was standing with Micky Miranda and his father. “Micky, I want your father to meet my brother-in-law, Mr Samuel Pilaster.” She detached Micky and his father and took them off, leaving Hugh with Rachel again.

Rachel was laughing. “You can’t argue with her.”

“It would be like arguing with a dashed railway train.”

Hugh fumed. Through the window he could see the bustle of Florence’s dress as it swayed down the garden beside Edward.

Rachel followed his eyes and said: “Go after her.” He grinned. “Thanks.”

He hurried down the garden. As he caught up, a wicked idea occurred to him. Why should he not play his aunt’s game and detach Edward from Florence? Augusta would be spitting mad when she found out – but it would be worth it for the sake of a few minutes alone in the garden with Florence. To hell with it, he thought. “Oh, Edward”, he said. “Your mother asked me to send you to her. She’s in the hall.”

Edward did not question this: he was used to sudden changes of mind by his mother. He said: “Please excuse me, Lady Florence.” He left them and went into the house.

Florence said: “Did she really send for him?” “No.”

“You’re so bad!” she said, but she was smiling.

He looked into her eyes, basking in the sunshine of her approval. There would be hell to pay later, but he would suffer much worse for the sake of a smile like that. “Come and see the orchard”, he said. Augusta was amused by Papa Miranda. Such a squat peasant of a man! He was so different from his lithe, elegant son. Augusta was very fond of Micky Miranda. She always felt more of a woman when she was with him, even though he was so young. He had a way of looking at her as if she were the most desirable thing he had ever seen. There were times when she wished he would do more than just look. It was a foolish, wish, of course, but all the same she felt it now and again.

She had been alarmed by their conversation about Seth. Micky assumed that when Old Seth died or retired, his son Samuel would take over as Senior Partner of Pilasters Bank. Micky would not have made that assumption on his own: he must have picked it up from the family. Augusta did not want Samuel to take over. She wanted the job for her husband Joseph, who was Seth’s nephew.

She glanced through the drawing-room window and saw the four partners in Pilasters Bank together on the terrace. Three were Pilasters: Seth, Samuel and Joseph – the early nineteenth-century Methodists had favoured Biblical names. Old Seth looked like the invalid he was, sitting with a blanket over his knees, outliving his usefulness. Beside him was his son. Samuel was not as distinguished-looking as his father. He had the same beak-like nose, but below it was a rather soft mouth with bad teeth. Tradition would favour him to succeed because he was the eldest of the partners after Seth. Augusta’s husband Joseph was speaking, making a point to his uncle and his cousin with short jabbing movements of his hand, a characteristically impatient gesture. He, too, had the Pilaster nose, but the rest of his features were rather irregular and he was losing his hair. The fourth partner was standing back, listening with his arms folded. He was Major George Hartshorn, husband of Joseph’s sister Madeleine. A former army officer, he had a prominent scar on his forehead from a wound received twenty years ago in the Crimean War. He was no hero, however: his horse had been frightened by a steam-traction engine and he had fallen and banged his head on the wheel of a kitchen wagon. He had retired from the army and joined the bank when he married Madeleine. An amiable man who followed where others led, he was not clever enough to run the bank, and anyway they had never had a Senior Partner whose name was not Pilaster. The only serious candidates were Samuel and Joseph.

Technically, the decision was made by a vote of the partners. By tradition the family generally reached a consensus. In reality, Augusta was determined to have her way. But it would not be easy.

The Senior Partner of Pilasters Bank was one of the most important people in the world. His decision to grant a loan could save a monarch; his refusal could start a revolution. Along with a handful of others – J.P. Morgan, the Rothschilds, Ben Greenbourne – he held the prosperity of nations in his hands. He was flattered by heads of state, consulted by prime ministers, and courted by diplomats; and his wife was fawned upon by them all.

Joseph wanted the job, but he had no subtlety. Augusta was terrified that he would let the opportunity slip through his fingers. Left to himself he might say bluntly that he would like to be considered, then simply allow the family to decide. It might not occur to him that there were other things he should do to make sure he won the contest. For instance, he would never do anything to discredit his rival.

Augusta would have to find ways to do that for him. She had no trouble identifying Samuel’s weakness. At the age of fifty-three he was a bachelor, and lived with a young man who was blithely referred to as his “secretary”. Until now the family had paid no attention to Samuel’s domestic arrangements, but Augusta was wondering if she could change all that.

Samuel had to be handled carefully. He was a fussy, finicky man, the kind who would change his entire outfit of clothes because a drop of wine had fallen on the knee of his trousers; but he was not weak, and could not be intimidated. A frontal assault was not the way to attack him.

She would have no regrets about injuring him. She had never liked him. He sometimes acted as if he found her amusing, and he had a way of refusing to take her at face value that she found deeply annoying.

As she moved among her guests, she put out of her mind the irritating reluctance of her nephew Hugh to pay court to a perfectly suitable young girl. That branch of the family had always been troublesome and she was not going to let it distract her from the more important problem that Micky had alerted her to, the threat of Samuel.

She spotted her sister-in-law, Madeleine Hartshorn, in the hall. Poor Madeleine, you could tell she was Joseph’s sister, for she had the Pilaster nose. On some of the men it looked distinguished, but no woman could look anything but plain with a great beak like that.

Madeleine and Augusta had once been rivals. Years ago, when Augusta first married Joseph, Madeleine had resented the way the family began to centre around Augusta – even though Madeleine never had the magnetism or the energy to do what Augusta did, arranging weddings and funerals, matchmaking, patching up quarrels, and organizing support for the sick, the pregnant and the bereaved. Madeleine’s attitude had come close to causing a rift within the family. Then she had delivered a weapon into Augusta’s hands. One afternoon Augusta had stepped into an exclusive Bond Street silverware shop just in time to see Madeleine slipping into the back of the store. Augusta had lingered for a while, pretending to hesitate over a toast rack, until she saw a handsome young man follow the same route. She had heard that the rooms above such stores were sometimes used for romantic rendezvous, and she was now almost certain that Madeleine was having a love affair. A five pound note had persuaded the proprietress of the shop, a Mrs Baxter, to divulge the name of the young man, Viscount Tremain.

Augusta had been genuinely shocked, but the first thought that had occurred to her was that what Madeleine could do with Viscount Tremain, Augusta could do with Micky Miranda. But that was out of the question, of course. Besides, if Madeleine could be found out, the same could happen to Augusta.

It could have ruined Madeleine socially. A man who had a love affair was considered wicked but romantic; a woman who did the same was a whore. If her secret got out she would be shunned by society and her family would be ashamed of her. Augusta’s first thought was to use the secret to control Madeleine, holding over her head the threat of exposure. But that would make Madeleine forever hostile. It was foolish to multiply enemies unnecessarily. There had to be a way she could disarm Madeleine and at the same time make an ally of her. After much thought she had evolved a strategy. Instead of intimidating Madeleine with the information, she pretended to be on her side. “A word to the wise, dear Madeleine”, she had whispered. “Mrs Baxter cannot be trusted. Tell your viscount to find a more discreet rendezvous.” Madeleine had begged her to keep the secret and had been pathetically grateful when Augusta willingly promised eternal silence. Since then there had been no rivalry between them.

Now Augusta took Madeleine’s arm, saying: “Come and see my room – I think you’ll like it.”

On the first floor of the house were her bedroom and dressing-room, Joseph’s bedroom and dressing-room, and a study. She led Madeleine into her bedroom, closed the door, and waited for her reaction.

She had furnished the room in the latest Japanese style, with fretwork chairs, peacock-feather wallpaper and a display of porcelain over the mantelpiece. There was an immense wardrobe painted with Japanese motifs, and the window-seat in the bay was partly concealed by dragonfly curtains.

“Augusta, how daring!” said Madeleine.

“Thank you.” Augusta was almost completely happy with the effect. “There was a better curtain material I wanted but Liberty’s had sold out of it. Come and see Joseph’s room.”

She took Madeleine through the communicating door. Joseph’s bedroom was furnished in a more moderate version of the same style, with dark leather-paper on the walls and brocade curtains. Augusta was especially proud of a lacquered display cabinet that held his collection of jewelled snuff-boxes.

“Joseph is so eccentric”, said Madeleine, looking at the snuff-boxes.

Augusta smiled. Her husband was not in the least eccentric, generally speaking, but it was odd for a hardheaded Methodist businessman to collect something so frivolous and exquisite, and the whole family found it amusing. “He says they’re an investment”, she said. A diamond necklace for her would have been an equally good investment, but he never bought her such things, for Methodists considered jewellery to be a needless extravagance.

“A man should have a hobby”, Madeleine said. “It keeps him out of trouble.”

Out of whorehouses was what she meant. The implied reference to men’s peccadilloes reminded Augusta of her purpose. Softly, softly, she said to herself. “Madeleine, dear, what are we going to do about cousin Samuel and his ‘secretary’?”

Madeleine looked puzzled. “Ough we to do something?” “If Samuel is to become Senior Partner, we must.”

“Why?”

“My dear, the Senior Partner of Pilasters has to meet ambassadors, heads of state, even royalty – he must be quite, quite irreproachable in his private life.”

Comprehension dawned, and Madeleine flushed. “Surely you’re not suggesting that Samuel is in some way… depraved?”

That was exactly what Augusta was suggesting, but she did not want to say it outright, for fear of provoking Madeleine to defend her cousin. “I trust that I shall never know”, she said evasively. “The important thing is what people think.”

Madeleine was unconvinced. “Do you really suppose people think… that?”

Augusta forced herself to have patience with Madeleine’s delicacy. “My dear, we are both married women, and we know what men are like. They have animal appetites. The world assumes that a single man of fifty-three living with a pretty boy is vicious, and heaven knows, in most cases the world is probably right.”

Madeleine frowned, looking worried. Before she could say anything else there was a knock at the door and Edward came in. “What is it, mother?” he asked.

Augusta was annoyed by the interruption and she had no idea what the boy was talking about. “What do you mean?”

“You sent for me.”

“I most certainly did not. I told you to show Lady Florence around the garden.”

Edward looked hurt. “Hugh said you wanted to see me!” Augusta understood. “Did he? And I suppose he is showing Lady Florence the garden now?”

Edward saw what she was getting at. “I do believe he is”, he said, looking wounded. “Don’t be cross with me, Mother, please.”

Augusta melted instantly. “Don’t worry, Teddy dear”, she said. “Hugh is such a sly boy.” But if he thought he could outwit his Aunt Augusta he was also foolish.

This distraction had irritated her, but on reflection she thought she had said enough to Madeleine about Cousin Samuel. At this stage all she wanted was to plant the seed of doubt: anything more might be too heavy-handed. She decided to leave well enough alone. She ushered her sister in-law and her son out of the room, saying: “Now I must return to my guests.”

They went downstairs. The party was going well, to judge by the cacophony of talk, laughter, and a hundred silver teaspoons clinking in bone china saucers. Augusta briefly checked the dining-room where the servants were dispensing lobster salad, fruit cake and iced drinks. She moved through the hall, speaking a word or two to each guest who caught her eye, but looking for a particular one – Florence’s mother, Lady Stalworthy.

She was worried by the possibility that Hugh might marry Florence. Hugh was already doing far too well at the bank. He had the quick commercial brain of a barrow-boy and the engaging manners of a card-sharp. Even Joseph spoke approvingly of him, oblivious of the threat to their own son. Marriage to the daughter of an earl would give Hugh social status to add to his native talents, and then he would be a dangerous rival to Edward. Dear Teddy did not have Hugh’s superficial charm or his head for figures, so he needed all the help Augusta could give him.

She found Lady Stalworthy standing in the bay window of the drawing-room. She was a pretty middle-aged woman in a pink dress and a little straw hat with silk flowers all over it. Augusta wondered anxiously how she would feel about Hugh and Florence. Hugh was no great catch, but from Lady Stalworthy’s point of view he was not a disaster. Florence was the youngest of three daughters, and the other two had married well, so Lady Stalworthy might be indulgent. Augusta had to prevent that. But how.

She stood at Lady Stalworthy’s side and saw that she was watching Hugh and Florence in the garden. Hugh was explaining something, and Florence’s eyes sparkled with pleasure as she looked at him and listened. “The careless happiness of youth”, said Augusta.

“Hugh seems a nice boy”, Lady Stalworthy said.

Augusta looked hard at her for a moment. Lady Stalworthy had a dreamy smile on her face. She had once been as pretty as her daughter, Augusta guessed. Now she was remembering her own girlhood. She needed to be brought down to earth with a thump, Augusta decided. “How quickly they pass, those carefree days…”

“But so idyllic while they last.”

It was time for the poison. “Hugh’s father died, as you know”, Augusta said. “And his mother lives very quietly at Folkestone, so Joseph and I feel an obligation to take a parental interest.” She paused. “It is hardly necessary for me to say that an alliance with your family would be a remarkable triumph for Hugh.”

“How kind of you to say that”, said Lady Stalworthy, as if she had been paid a pretty compliment. “The Pilasters themselves are a family of distinction.”

“Thank you. If Hugh works hard he will one day earn a comfortable living.”

Lady Stalworthy looked a little taken aback. “His father left nothing at all, then?”

“No.” Augusta needed to let her know that Hugh would get no money from his uncles when he married. She said: “He will have to work his way up in the bank, living on his salary.”

“Ah, yes”, said Lady Stalworthy, and her face showed a hint of disappointment. “Florence has a small independence, happily.”

Augusta’s heart sank. So Florence had money of her own. That was bad news. Augusta wondered how much it was. The Stalworthys were not as rich as the Pilasters – few people were – but they were comfortable, Augusta believed. At any rate, Hugh’s poverty was not enough to turn Lady Stalworthy against him. Augusta would have to use stronger measures. “Dear Florence would be such a help to Hugh… a stabilizing influence, I feel sure.”

“Yes”, said Lady Stalworthy vaguely, and then she frowned. “Stabilizing?”

Augusta hesitated. This kind of thing was dangerous, but the risk had to be taken. “I never listen to gossip, and I’m sure you don’t either”, she said. “Tobias was quite unfortunate, of that there is no doubt, but Hugh shows hardly any sign of having inherited the weakness.”

“Good”, said Lady Stalworthy, but her face showed deep anxiety.

“All the same, Joseph and I would be very happy to see him married to such a sensible girl as Florence. One feels she would be firm with him, if …” Augusta trailed off.

“I…” Lady Stalworthy swallowed. “I don’t seem to recall just what his father’s weakness was.”

“Well, it wasn’t true, really.”

“Strictly between you and me, of course.”

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have raised it.”

“But I must know everything, for my daughter’s sake. I’m sure you understand.”

“Gambling”, Augusta said in a lowered voice. She did not want to be overheard: there were people here who would know she was lying. “It was what led him to take his own life. The shame, you know.” Pray heaven the Stalworthys don’t bother to check the truth of this, she thought fervently.

“I thought his business failed.”

“That, too.”

“How tragic.”

“Admittedly, Joseph has had to pay Hugh’s debts once or twice, but he has spoken very firmly to the boy, and we feel sure it will not happen again.”

“That’s reassuring”, said Lady Stalworthy, but her face told a different story.

Augusta felt she had probably said enough. The pretence that she was in favour of the match was wearing dangerously thin. She glanced out of the window again. Florence was laughing at something Hugh was saying, throwing her head back and showing her teeth in a way that was rather… unseemly. He was practically eating her up with his eyes. Everyone at the party could see they were attracted to one another. “I judge it won’t be long before matters come to a head”, Augusta said.

“Perhaps they have talked enough for one day”, Lady Stalworthy said with a troubled look. “I had better intervene. Do excuse me.”

“Of course.”

Lady Stalworthy headed rapidly for the garden.

Augusta felt relieved. She had carried off another delicate conversation. Lady Stalworthy was suspicious of Hugh now, and once a mother began to feel uneasy about a suitor she rarely came to favour him in the end.

She looked around and spotted Beatrice Pilaster, another sister-in-law. Joseph had had two brothers: one was Tobias, Hugh’s father, and the other was William, always called Young William because he was born twenty-three years after Joseph. William was now twenty-five and not yet a partner in the bank. Beatrice was his wife. She was like a large puppy, happy and clumsy and eager to be everyone’s friend. Augusta decided to speak to her about Samuel and his secretary. She went over to her and said: “Beatrice, dear, would you like to see my bedroom?”

Micky and his father left the party and set out to walk back to their Iodgings in Camberwell. Their route lay entirely through parks – first Hyde Park, then Green Park, and St James’s Park – until they reached the river. They stopped in the middle of Westminster Bridge to rest for a spell and look at the view.

On the north shore of the river was the greatest city in the world. Upstream were the Houses of Parliament, built, in a modern imitation of the neighbouring thirteenth century Westminster Abbey. Downstream they could see the gardens of Whitehall, the Duke of Buccleuch’s palace, and the vast brick edifice of the new Charing Cross Railway Station.

The docks were out of sight, and no big ships came this far up, but the river was busy with small boats and barges and pleasure-cruisers, a pretty sight in the evening sun.

The southern shore might have been in a different country. It was the site of the Lambeth potteries, and there, in mud fields dotted with ramshackle workshops, crowds of grey-faced men and ragged women were still at work boiling bones, sorting rubbish, firing kilns and pouring paste into moulds to make the drain-pipes and chimneypots needed by the fast-expanding city. The smell was strong even here on the bridge, a quarter of a mile away. The squat hovels in which the workers lived were crowded around the walls of Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, like the filth left by high tide on the muddy foreshore. Despite the nearness of the archbishop’s palace the neighbourhood was known as the Devil’s Acre, presumably because the fires and the smoke, the shuffling workers and the awful smell made people think of Hell.

Micky’s lodgings were in Camberwell, a respectable suburb beyond the potteries; but he and his father hesitated on the bridge, reluctant to plunge into the Devil’s Acre. Micky was still cursing the scrupulous Methodist conscience of Old Seth Pilaster for frustrating his plans. “We will solve this problem about shipping the rifles, Papa”, he said. “Don’t worry about it.”

Papa shrugged. “Who is standing in our way?” he asked. It was a simple question, but it had a deep meaning in the Miranda family. When they had an intractable problem, they asked: Who is standing in our way? It really meant: Who do we have to kill to get this done? It brought back to Micky all the barbarism of life in Santamaria Province, all the grisly legends he preferred to forget: the story about how Papa had punished his mistress for being unfaithful to him by putting a rifle up her and pulling the trigger; the time a Jewish family opened a store next to his in the provincial capital, so he set fire to it and burned the man and his wife and children alive; the one about the dwarf who had dressed up to look like Papa during the carnival, and made everyone laugh by strutting up and down in a perfect imitation of Papa’s walk – until Papa calmly went up to the dwarf, drew a pistol, and blew his head off.

Even in Cordova this was not normal, but there Papa’s reckless brutality had made him a man to be feared. Here in England it would get him thrown in jail. “I don’t anticipate the need for drastic action”, Micky said, trying to cover his nervousness with an air of unconcern.

“For now, there is no hurry”, Papa said. “Winter is beginning at home. There will be no fighting until the summer.” He gave Micky a hard look. “But I must have the rifles by the end of October.”

That look made Micky feel weak at the knees. He leaned against the stone parapet of the bridge to steady himself. “I’ll see to it, Papa, don’t worry”, he said anxiously.

Papa nodded as if there could be no doubt about it. They were silent for a minute. Out of the blue, Papa said: “I want you to stay in London.”

Micky felt his shoulders slump with relief. It was what he had been hoping for. He must have done something right, then. “I think it might be a good idea, Papa”, he said, trying to hide his eagerness.

Then Papa dropped his bombshell. “But your allowance will stop.”

“What?”

“The family can’t keep you. You must support yourself.”

Micky was appalled. Papa’s meanness was as legendary as his violence, but still this was unexpected. The Mirandas were rich. Papa had thousands of head of cattle, monopolized all horse-dealing over a huge territory, rented land to small farmers and owned most of the stores in Santamaria Province.

It was true that their money did not buy much in England. Back home a Cordovan silver dollar would get you a slap-up meal, a bottle of rum and a whore for the night; here it would hardly stretch to a cheap meal and a glass of weak beer. That had come as a blow to Micky when he went to Windfield School. He had managed to supplement his allowance by playing cards, but he had found it hard to make ends meet until he befriended Edward. Even now Edward paid for all the expensive entertainments they shared: the opera, visits to racecourses, hunting and whores. Still, Micky needed a basic income to pay his rent, tailor’s bills, subscriptions to the gentlemen’s clubs that were an essential element of London life, and tips to servants. How did Papa expect him to find that? Take a job? The idea was appalling. No member of the Miranda family worked for wages.

He was about to ask how he was expected to live on no money when Papa abruptly changed the subject and said: “I will now tell you what the rifles are for. We are going to take over the desert.”

Micky did not understand. The Miranda property covered a big area of Santamaria Province. Bordering their land was a smaller property owned by the Delabarca family. To the north of both was land so arid that neither Papa nor his neighbour had ever bothered to claim it. “What do we want the desert for?” Micky said.

“Beneath the dust there is a mineral called nitrate. It’s used as a fertilizer, much better than dung. It can be shipped all over the world and sold for high prices. The reason I want you to stay in London is to take charge of selling it.”

“How do we know this stuff is there?”

“Delabarca has started mining it. It has made his family rich.”

Micky felt excited. This could transform the family’s future. Not instantly, of course; not soon enough to solve the problem of how he would live with no allowance. But in the long term…

“We have to act fast”, Papa said. “Wealth is power, and the Delabarca family will soon be stronger than we are. Before that happens, we have to destroy them.”