On the morning of my birthday, Edith was extra specially nice to me and Mother made sure I was given a birthday breakfast of my favourites: sardines with mustard sauce, and fresh bread with cherry jam made from the fruit of the trees in our grounds. I caught Jenny giving me a sneering look as I tucked in but paid it no mind. Since our conversation in the drawing room, whatever power she’d had over me, slim as it had been, had somehow been made less distinct. Before that I might have taken her ridicule to heart, maybe felt a little silly and self-conscious about my birthday breakfast. But not that day. Thinking back, I wonder if my eighth birthday marked the day I began to change from boy to man.
So no, I didn’t care about the curl of Jenny’s lip, or the pig noises she made surreptitiously. I had eyes only for Mother and Father, who had eyes only for me. I could tell by their expressions, tiny little parental codes I’d picked up over the years, that something else was to come; that my birthday pleasures were set to continue. And so it proved. By the end of the meal my father had announced that tonight we would be going to White’s Chocolate House on Chesterfield Street, where the hot chocolate is made from solid blocks of cocoa imported from Spain.
Later that day I stood with Edith and Betty fussing around me, dressing me in my smartest suit. Then the four of us were stepping into a carriage at the kerb outside, where I sneaked a look up at the windows of our neighbours and wondered if the faces of the Dawson girls were pressed to the glass, or Tom and his brothers. I hoped so. I hoped they could see me now. See us all and think, “There go the Kenway family, out for the evening, just like a normal family.”
The area around Chesterfield Street was busy. We were able to draw up directly outside White’s and, once there, our door was opened and we were helped quickly across the crowded thoroughfare, and inside.
Even so, during that short walk between the carriage and the sanctuary of the chocolate house, I looked to my left and right and saw a little of London: the body of a dog lying in the gutter, a derelict retching against some railings, flower sellers, beggars, drunkards, urchins splashing in a river of mud that seemed to seethe on the street.
And then we were inside, greeted by the thick scent of smoke, ale, perfume and of course chocolate, as well as a hubbub of piano and raised voices. People, all of whom were shouting, leaned over gaming tables. Men drank from huge tankards of ale; women, too. I saw some with hot chocolate and cake. Everybody, it seemed, was in a state of high excitement.
I looked at Father, who had stopped short, and sensed his discomfort. For a moment I was concerned he’d simply turn and leave, before a gentleman holding his cane aloft caught my eye. Younger than Father, with an easy smile and a twinkle that was visible even across the room, he was waggling the cane at us. Until with a grateful wave, Father acknowledged him and began to lead us across the room, squeezing between tables, stepping over dogs and even one or two children, who scrabbled at the feet of revellers, presumably hoping for whatever might fall off the gaming tables: pieces of cake, maybe coins.
We reached the gentleman with the cane. Unlike Father, whose hair was unkempt and barely tied back with a bow, he wore a white powdered wig, the back of it secured in a black silk bag, and a frock coat in a deep, rich red colour. With a nod, he greeted Father then turned his attention to me and made an exaggerated bow. “Good evening, Master Haytham, I believe that many happy returns of the day are in order. Remind me please of your age, sir? I can see from your bearing that you are a child of great maturity. Eleven? Twelve, perhaps?”
As he said this he glanced over my shoulder with a twinkly smile and my mother and father chuckled appreciatively.
“I am eight, sir,” I said, and puffed up proudly, as my father completed the introductions. The gentleman was Reginald Birch, one of his senior property managers, and Mr. Birch said he was delighted to make my acquaintance then greeted my mother with a long bow, kissing the back of her hand.
His attention went to Jenny next, and he took her hand, bent his head and pressed his lips to it. I knew enough to realize that what he was doing was courtship, and I glanced quickly over to Father, expecting him to step in.
Instead what I saw was he and Mother looking thrilled, though Jenny was stone-faced, and stayed that way as we were led to a private back room of the chocolate house and seated, she and Mr. Birch side by side, as the White’s staff began to busy themselves around us.
I could have stayed there all night, having my fill of hot chocolate and cake, copious amounts of which were delivered to the table. Both Father and Mr. Birch seemed to enjoy the ale. So in the end it was Mother who insisted we leave—before I was sick, or they were—and we stepped out into the night, which if anything had become even busier in the intervening hours.
For a moment or so I found myself disorientated by the noise and the stench of the street. Jenny wrinkled her nose, and I saw a flicker of concern pass across my mother’s face. Instinctively, Father moved closer towards us all, as if to try and ward off the clamour.
A filthy hand was thrust in front of my face and I looked up to see a beggar silently appealing for money with wide, beseeching eyes, bright white in contrast to the dirt of his face and hair; a flower seller tried to bustle past Father to reach Jenny, and gave an outraged “Oi” when Mr. Birch used his cane to block her path. I felt myself being jostled, saw two urchins trying to reach us with their palms out.
Then suddenly my mother gave a cry as a man burst from within the crowd, clothes ragged and dirty, teeth bared and his hand outstretched, about to snatch my mother’s necklace.
And in the next second I discovered why Father’s cane had that curious rattle, as I saw a blade appear from within as he span to protect Mother. He covered the distance to her in the blink of an eye, but before it cleared its scabbard, he changed his mind, perhaps seeing the thief was unarmed, and replaced it, ramming it home with a thump and making it a cane once again, in the same movement twirling it to knock the ruffian’s hand aside.
The thief shrieked in pain and surprise and backed straight into Mr. Birch, who hurled him to the street and pounced on him, his knees on the man’s chest and a dagger at his throat. I caught my breath.
I saw Mother’s eyes widen over Father’s shoulder.
“Reginald!” called Father. “Stop!”
“He tried to rob you, Edward,” said Mr. Birch, without turning. The thief snivelled. The tendons on Mr. Birch’s hands stood out, and his knuckles were white on the handle of the dagger.