He reached the Belle Sauvage whose yard was well lit with flambeaux and busy with coaches and travellers arriving and departing. He went into the waiting parlour and looked about him. Hunt was sitting at a table in the corner with the remains of a meal in front of him. He had his hand on an almost empty tankard of ale. Adam strode over to him.
‘Mr Hunt, I was told I would find you here. I am Adam Trent.’
‘I know well who you are, Viscount Kimberley, no need to hide your rank from me.’
‘May I buy you another ale?’
‘Thank you, yes.’
Adam beckoned a waiter and ordered two quarts of ale and sat down opposite the orator. ‘If you know who I am, then you will mayhap know why I am here.’
‘You tell me.’
‘I have heard rumours of another meeting...’
‘There are always meetings.’
‘Yes, but when Orator Hunt is to be the speaker, thousands travel from all over the country to listen to him.’
‘You flatter me.’
A waiter brought the ale and the diversion served Adam to gather his thoughts. It was evident Hunt was not going to help him out. ‘I have heard this meeting is to be the largest yet and that you will be calling for universal suffrage and the repeal of the Gagging Acts.’
‘I have no quarrel with your aims, in fact, I support them, but I am concerned that, as happened at Spa Fields, the crowd will become unmanageable and cause a riot. The militia will be called in and there will be violence.’
‘I abhor violence. I prefer peaceful demonstration.’
‘Can you guarantee this will be peaceful?’
‘I cannot. No one could.’
Adam recognised the truth of that. ‘So you would stand by and let it happen. If troops are called in there will be injuries, even lives lost.’
‘Do you think I have not thought of that? Unfortunately, there is always a price to pay for progress. With attitudes so unbending in those who govern, is it any wonder people demonstrate?’
‘It is but a short step from demonstration to riot and anarchy.’
Hunt took a swig of ale before he replied, ‘I can, and will, advise my followers to be unarmed and not rise to provocation. I can do no more.’
‘When and where is this meeting to be?’
‘That I cannot tell you.’
‘Spa Fields again?’
‘I have said I cannot tell you, nor would I if I could.’
‘You do not trust me?’
The man gave a grunt of a laugh. ‘My lord, you are an aristocrat and a mill owner. Your interest lies elsewhere than with the workingman.’
‘How can you say so? There are others, like myself, in sympathy with the plight of the workers, who would change their condition if they could.’
‘Too few,’ Hunt said laconically. ‘And they are not listened to.’
‘You heard my speech in the Lords?’
‘I read the report.’
‘It changes nothing.’ He paused. ‘My advice, my lord, is to go home and not meddle. Do your good deeds, if you must, but leave the cause of the workingman to workingmen.’
Knowing he was making no headway, Adam took his leave. He was annoyed with Hunt for his condescending attitude, even more annoyed with himself for his failure to make an impression.
He was striding back in the direction in which he had come when he realised he was being followed. He stopped; the footsteps behind him stopped. He continued; they continued. Assuming it was a footpad, who were numerous in that area, he dodged down a side street and then another and another, until the sound of footsteps behind him ceased. He did not know exactly where he was and it was dark as pitch. The alley he was in was narrow, the buildings either side tall and for the most part shuttered and their doors opened straight onto the street, whose cobbles were slick with grime. A cat yowled, startling him.
He kept walking forward, and then he saw lights ahead and realised he was outside the Fleet prison and had almost walked in a circle. He looked up at its bulk, imagining all the people incarcerated there, some for minor offences like stealing a loaf of bread, some for grand larceny, some for insurrection, some even for murder and awaiting the hangman’s rope. He shuddered and made his way back to Fleet Street and the Strand where he was able to hire a cab to convey him the rest of the way to Wyndham House.
He had told the housekeeper not to wait up for him, but she had left a tray of bread, cheese and ham and a carafe of wine for him in case he was hungry when he came in, and he sat down to eat and drink and go over his evening.