Either one of these two things were likely to make Father angry, so we argued and I’m ashamed to say I used some choice language in front of my mother. Of course, Father was furious about that, and I felt the back of his hand for it. What had really enraged him was that the brawl, as he called it (because he wouldn’t accept that I’d been protecting a lady’s honour, and that he would have done the same in my position), had all taken place during the working day. What he saw was them, exhausted from their labours; me, getting drunk and into fights, sullying the good name of the Kenways, and in this particular case storing up even more trouble for the future.
“The Cobleighs.” He’d thrown up his hands in exasperation. “That lot of bad bloody eggs,” he said. “It would have to be them, wouldn’t it? They won’t let it go, you know that, don’t you?”
Sure enough, I rushed out to the front yard that morning, and there was Father, in his work clothes, comforting mother, who stood with her head buried into his chest, sobbing quietly, her back to what was on the ground.
My hand went to my mouth, seeing what had greeted them: two slaughtered sheep, their throats cut, laid side by side in the blood-darkened dust. They’d been placed there so we’d know they weren’t the victims of a fox or wild dog. So that we’d know the sheep had been killed for a reason.
A warning. Vengeance.
“The Cobleighs,” I spat, feeling rage bubble like fast-boiling water within me. With it came a sharp, stinging guilt. We all knew it was my actions that had caused this.
Father didn’t look at me. On his face was all the sadness and worry you’d expect. Like I say, he was a well-respected man, and he enjoyed the benefits of that respect; his relations even with his competitors were conducted with courtesy and respect. He didn’t like the Cobleighs, of course he didn’t—who did?—but he’d never had trouble before, either with them or anyone else. This was the first time. This was new to us.
“I know what you’re thinking, Edward,” he said. He couldn’t bear to look at me, I noticed, just stood holding Mother with his eyes fixed on some point in the distance. “But you can think again.”
“What am I thinking, Father?”
“You’re thinking it’s you who has brought this upon us. You’re thinking about having it out with the Cobleighs.”
“Well? What are you thinking? Just let them get away with it?” I indicated the two bleeding corpses on the dirt. Livestock destroyed. Livelihood lost. “They have to pay.”
“It can’t be done,” he said simply.
“What do you mean it can’t be done?”
“Two days ago, I was approached to join an organization—a Trade Organization, it was called.”
When I looked at my father, I wondered if I was seeing an older version of myself, and may God strike me down for thinking it, but I fervently hoped not. He’d been a handsome man once, but his face was lined and drawn. The wide brim of his felt hat covered eyes that were always turned down and tired.
“They wanted me to join,” he continued, “but I said no. Like most of the tradesmen in the area the Cobleighs have said yes. They enjoy the protection of the Trade Organization, Edward. Why else do you think they would do something so ruthless? They’re protected.”
I closed my eyes. “Is there anything we can do?”
“We continue as before, Edward, and hope that this is an end to it, that the Cobleighs will feel their honour has been restored.” He turned his tired, old eyes on me for the first time. There was nothing in them, no anger or reproach. Only defeat. “Now, can I trust you to get this cleared up, while I see to your mother?”
“Yes, Father,” I said.
He and Mother made their way back into the cottage.
“Father,” I called, as they reached the door, “why didn’t you join the Trade Organization?”
“You’ll learn one day, if you ever grow up,” he said, without turning.
In the meantime my thoughts returned to Caroline. The first thing I did was find out who she was, and by asking around Hawkins Lane, I learnt that her father, Emmett Scott, was a wealthy merchant dealing in tea, who would no doubt have been seen as new money by most of his customers but nevertheless seemed to have inveigled himself high up in society.
Now, a man less headstrong than I, less cocksure, might well have chosen a different path to Caroline’s heart than the one I opted for. After all, her father was a supplier of fine teas to the well-to-do households in the West Country; he had money, enough to employ servants at a good-sized house on Hawkins Lane. He was no small-holder—there was no getting up at 5:00 A.M. to feed the livestock for him. He was a man of means and influence. What I should have done—even knowing it would be futile—was try to make his acquaintance. Much of what subsequently happened—so much—could have been avoided if I had at least tried.
But I didn’t.
I was young, you see. It was no wonder the likes of Tom Cobleigh hated me, I was so arrogant. Despite my social status I thought currying favour with a tea merchant was below me.
Now, one thing I know is that if you love women—which I do, I’m not ashamed to say—you find something of beauty in every woman, no matter whether they’re what you might call classically beautiful. But with Caroline it was my misfortune to fall in love with a woman whose outer beauty matched the inner, and, of course, her charms were likely to catch the attention of others. So the next thing I discovered about her was that she had caught the eye of Matthew Hague, son of Sir Aubrey Hague, Bristol’s biggest landowner, and an executive in the East India Company.
From what I gathered, young Matthew was our age, and as self-important and jumped-up as they come, thinking himself much more than he was. He liked to wear the air of a shrewd man of business, like his father, though it was clear he possessed none of his father’s aptitude in that area. What’s more, he liked to think himself something of a philosopher and often dictated his thoughts to a draughtsman who accompanied him wherever he went, quill and ink at the ready whatever the circumstances to write down Hague’s thoughts, such as, “A joke is a stone tossed into water, laughter the ripples it makes.”
Perhaps his utterings were deeply profound. All I know is that I wouldn’t have paid him much mind—indeed, I would have joined in with the general derision and laughter that seemed to accompany mention of his name—if it hadn’t been for the fact that he’d shown an interest in Caroline. Perhaps even that wouldn’t have worried me so much but for two other factors. Firstly, that Caroline’s father, Emmett Scott, had apparently betrothed Caroline to the Hague boy, and also the fact that the Hague boy, possibly on account of his condescending manner, his tendency to make vital mistakes in even the most simple business dealings and his ability to wind people up, had a minder, a man named Wilson, who was an uncultured brute of a man but very big, with one slightly closed-up eye, who was said to be tough.