“No, Reginald, this is not the way,” said my father calmly. He stood with his arms around Mother, who had buried her face in his chest and was whimpering softly. Jenny stood close by at one side, me at another. Around us a crowd had gathered, the same vagrants and beggars who had been bothering us now keeping a respectful distance. A respectful, frightened distance.
“I mean it, Reginald,” said Father. “Put the dagger away, let him go.”
“Don’t make me look foolish like this, Edward,” said Birch. “Not in front of everybody like this, please. We both know this man deserves to pay, if not with his life, then perhaps with a finger or two.”
I caught my breath.
“No!” commanded Father. “There will be no bloodshed, Reginald. Any association between us will end if you do not do as I say this very moment.” A hush seemed to fall on everybody around us. I could hear the thief gibbering, saying over and over again, “Please sir, please sir, please sir . . .” His arms were pinned to his sides, his legs kicking and scraping uselessly on the filth-covered cobbles as he lay trapped.
Until, at last, Mr. Birch seemed to decide, and the dagger withdrew, leaving a small bleeding nick behind. When he stood, he aimed a kick at the thief, who needed no further encouragement to scramble to his hands and knees and take off into Chesterfield Street, grateful to escape with his life.
Our carriage driver had recovered his wits and now stood by the door, urging us to hurry to the safety of our carriage.
Father and Mr. Birch stood facing one another, their eyes locked. As Mother hurried me past, I saw Mr. Birch’s eyes blazing. I saw my father’s gaze meet him equally, and he offered his hand to shake, saying, “Thank you, Reginald. On behalf of all of us, thank you for your quick thinking.”
I felt my mother’s hand in the small of my back as she tried to shove me into the carriage, and craned my head back to see Father, his hand held out to Mr. Birch, who glared at him, refusing to accept the offer of accord.
Then, just as I was bundled into the carriage, I saw Mr. Birch reach to grasp Father’s hand and his glare melt away into a smile—a slightly embarrassed, bashful smile, as though he’d just remembered himself. The two shook hands and my father awarded Mr. Birch with the short nod that I knew so well. It meant that everything had been settled. It meant that no more need be said about it.
At last we returned home to Queen Anne’s Square, where we bolted the door and banished the smell of smoke and manure and horse. I told Mother and Father how much I had enjoyed my evening, thanked them profusely and assured them that the commotion in the street afterwards had done nothing to spoil my evening, while privately thinking that it had been a highlight.
But it turned out the evening wasn’t over yet, because as I went to climb the stairs, my father beckoned me follow him instead, and led the way to the games room, where he lit an oil lamp.
“You enjoyed your evening, then, Haytham,” he said.
“I enjoyed it very much, sir,” I said.
“What was your impression of Mr. Birch?”
“I liked him very much, sir.”
Father chuckled. “Reginald is a man who sets great store by appearance, by manners and etiquette and edict. He is not like some, who wear etiquette and protocol as a badge only when it suits them. He is a man of honour.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, but I must have sounded as doubtful as I felt, because he looked at me sharply.
“Ah,” he said, “you’re thinking about what happened afterwards?”
“Well—what about it?”
He beckoned me over to one of the bookshelves. He seemed to want me closer to the light and his eyes to stare at my face. The lamplight played across his features and his dark hair shone. His eyes were always kindly but they could also be intense, as they were now. I noticed one of his scars, which seemed to shine more brightly in the light.
“Well, it was very exciting, sir,” I replied; adding quickly, “Though I was most concerned for Mother. Your speed in saving her—I’ve never seen anybody move so quickly.”
He laughed. “Love will do that to a man. You’ll find that out for yourself one day. But what of Mr. Birch? His response? What did you make of it, Haytham?”
“Mr. Birch seemed about to administer severe punishment to the scoundrel, Haytham. Did you think it was deserved?”
I considered it before answering. I could tell from the look on Father’s face, sharp and watchful, that my answer was important.
And in the heat of the moment I suppose I had thought the thief deserved a harsh response. There had been an instant, brief as it was, when some primal anger wished him harm for the attack on my mother. Now, though, in the soft glow of the lamp, with Father looking kindly upon me, I felt differently.
“Tell me honestly, Haytham,” prompted Father, as though reading my thoughts. “Reginald has a keen sense of justice, or what he describes as justice. It’s somewhat . . . biblical. But what did you think?”
“At first I felt an urge for . . . revenge, sir. But it soon passed, and I was pleased to see the man granted clemency,” I said.
Father smiled and nodded, and then abruptly turned to the bookshelves, where with a flick of his wrist he operated a switch, causing a portion of books to slide across to reveal a secret compartment. My heart skipped a beat as he took something from it: a box, which he handed to me and, nodding, bade me open.
“A birthday present, Haytham,” he said.
I knelt and placed the box on the floor, opened it to reveal a leather belt that I plucked quickly away, knowing that beneath would be a sword, and not a wooden play sword but a shimmering steel sword with an ornate handle. I took it from the box and held it in my hands. It was a short sword and, though, shamefully, I felt a twinge of disappointment about that, I knew at once that it was a beautiful short sword, and it was my short sword. I decided at once that it would never leave my side, and was already reaching for the belt when Father stopped me.
“No, Haytham,” he said, “it stays in here, and is not to be removed or even used without my permission. Is that clear?” He had collected the sword from me and already replaced it in the box, placing the belt on top and closing it.
“Soon you will begin to train with this sword,” he continued. “There is much for you to learn, Haytham, not only about the steel you hold in your hands, but also the steel in your heart.”