A Dangerous Scheme by Laura Beers
Guy shrugged on his green jacket and adjusted his cravat. He had spent most of the night at the pub but discovered nothing that would help him with his assignment. He had anticipated that might be the case, since most folks were wary of new people, especially if they had something to lose.
He exited his room and headed down the stairs. The hall was practically empty, but a few men were still drinking ale from tankards at this early hour.
The innkeeper met him at the base of the stairs. “Are ye interested in some breakfast?” he asked. “My wife just made some plum cake.”
“I could always eat.”
Gesturing towards the tables, Mr. Croke said, “Take a seat and I will be back shortly.”
As he sat down, he noticed that Henry was sweeping the hall and waved him over. “Good morning, Henry.”
The young boy eagerly hurried over to him. “Morning, Mr. Stewart.”
“How did you sleep?”
“I slept well,” Henry replied.
“I am traveling to Linton Colliery this morning,” Guy revealed, keeping his voice low.
“Why would you wish to do that?” the boy asked.
“I am in town to inspect the conditions at the mine,” he shared.
The boy took a step closer to him. “It is awful there.”
“In what way?”
“People are dying all the time.”
“I was informed that wasn’t the case.”
Henry was about to respond when Mr. Croke stepped back into the hall. “I need to get back to work,” he said and resumed sweeping the floor.
Mr. Croke placed a plate in front of Guy with two slices of plum cake. “I do hope that Henry is not bothering ye.”
“Not at all,” he replied as he reached into his pocket to retrieve coins. “I find him to be a delight.” He extended the coins towards the innkeeper. “I was saddened to hear about his parents’ deaths.”
Mr. Croke accepted the coins. “It is a miracle that Henry survived working at the mines for as long as he did.” He watched the boy with pride. “Once we heard about Henry’s plight, we contacted the vicar, and I offered to apprentice the boy.”
“That was kind of you.”
“Frankly, we have grown rather fond of Henry,” Mr. Croke revealed. “He is a hard worker, and my wife likes to spoil him.”
“Henry is most fortunate, then.”
Mr. Croke nodded. “I do hope ye enjoy yer breakfast.”
After Guy ate the plum cake, he wiped the crumbs off his hands and exited the coaching inn. He hurried towards the bank and noticed an open carriage waiting out front.
He stepped into the bank and was immediately greeted by Mr. Huxley, who was standing next to a younger man who bore a striking resemblance to him. The man had blond hair slicked to the side, a long face, and was dressed fashionably, if not a bit flamboyantly.
“Good morning, Mr. Stewart,” Mr. Huxley said. “Allow me the privilege of introducing you to my son, Albert Huxley. He has been working at the bank with me for over a year now.”
Guy tipped his head in acknowledgement. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” he greeted respectfully.
Albert returned the gesture, albeit stiffly.
The elder Mr. Huxley continued. “Albert will be accompanying you on your drive out to Linton Colliery.”
“Thank you,” Guy replied.
Albert gestured towards the door. “Shall we?” he asked curtly. “The sooner we arrive at the colliery, the sooner we can leave.”
Guy followed Albert out to the carriage, and the driver opened the door for them. “I do appreciate you taking me to the colliery,” Guy said as he sat across from the banker.
“I wasn’t given a choice,” Albert muttered. “My father was rather insistent on the matter, but I contend it is a waste of time.”
“And why is that?”
“Why should you care about the workers at the mine?” Albert asked.
“It is my job to care.”
Albert huffed. “They get paid for their time,” he declared. “If they aren’t happy, they can quit and find a new job.”
“It has been my experience that jobs are harder to come by these days.”
Albert tugged down on the sleeves of his purple jacket. “There is always menial work for these simple-minded people.”
“Why do you assume they are simple-minded?”
“You shall see,” Albert replied dismissively.
They didn’t speak much after that, and Guy didn’t mind. He found Albert’s condescending manner to be quite irksome. It wasn’t long before they arrived at the coal mine, but he was not prepared for what he saw.
Dilapidated buildings sat back from the entrances to the mine. Blackened, half-naked men were carting coal from the pit as other men barked orders at them. A steam engine was operational, and he was pleased that the colliery at least had one of those. It helped pump water out of the mines, thus saving lives.
“When did the colliery acquire a steam engine?” he asked.
“Many years ago,” came Albert’s vague response. “My father was against it, since it requires a great deal of coal to operate.”
“The old technique of using pumps run by windmills was not nearly as effective,” Guy said. “Furthermore, it allows the men who used to carry up the buckets of water to be free for other tasks.”
Albert frowned. “The windmill cost was minimal, compared to the expensive cost of the steam engine.”
“Doesn’t the steam engine save lives?”
“I suppose it does.”
Guy’s eyes roamed the buildings until he saw a group of dirtied children huddled around the young woman he’d seen in town.
He gestured towards the young woman and asked, “Who is that young woman?”
Albert let out a sigh. “That is Miss Locke,” he replied. “She is insistent on bringing clothing, blankets, and food to the children.”
“You speak as if it is a bad thing.”
“It is, because all of those children should be in the pit right now,” Albert replied.
“Every child needs a break.”
“We don’t pay them to take breaks,” Albert said. “Come, I will introduce you to Miss Locke.”
“I would appreciate that.”
They exited the coach and walked towards the building where Miss Locke was. When the children saw Albert approach, they immediately dispersed without saying a word.
Guy watched as Miss Locke frowned at Albert. “That was poorly done on your part,” she commented as she held a basket in her hand. “I was handing out food to the children.”
“Those children should be working,” Albert contended.
Miss Locke stiffened. “Those children should be playing.”
“They are more than welcome to play, but I won’t be paying them for that.”
“You hardly pay them as it is,” Miss Locke declared.
“I don’t hear any complaints.”
Miss Locke’s eyes narrowed slightly. “If anyone dares to complain, you dismiss them.”
“For good reason,” Albert replied. “Any simpleton can do this job.”
“They are not simpletons, Mr. Huxley.”
Albert let out a disbelieving huff before gesturing towards Guy. “Miss Locke, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Stewart. You will be pleased to know that the bank sent him here to inspect the colliery.”
Miss Locke turned her attention towards him. “I didn’t think the bank cared about what happens to these people.”
“That is not true,” Guy replied. “We care very deeply.”
Miss Locke gave him a look that implied she didn’t believe him. “This mine should be shut down,” she declared.
“And why is that?” Guy asked.
“The working conditions are horrendous, and it is only a matter of time before there is a terrible accident, much like what happened at the Felling Colliery.”
Albert let out a heavy sigh. “Only ninety-two miners were killed in that explosion.”
“Only ninety-two?” she repeated.
“My point being that it could have been a lot worse, but the explosion was contained to just the pit,” Albert said. “And Sir Humphry Davy is currently working on a safety lamp to solve this problem. You just need to be patient.”
“I daresay I cannot stand idly by and watch you treat these children so deplorably,” Miss Locke asserted.
Albert shook his head. “We are treating them no differently than how other mines treat their workers.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” Miss Locke stated firmly.
“Go home,” Albert encouraged. “It isn’t safe for you to be here.”
Miss Locke tilted her chin stubbornly. “I have never had any reason to fear for my safety,” she said.
“You could soil your gown,” Albert pointed out.
“That is the least of my concerns,” Miss Locke remarked. “These poor children are in threadbare clothing, and many of them don’t even have a blanket to sleep with.”
“A blanket is not a necessity,” Albert insisted. “Besides, the children can huddle together on the straw mattress if they are cold.”
Miss Locke turned her attention towards him. “What are your thoughts on the matter, Mr. Stewart?”
“I think it is admirable that you care for the children’s welfare,” Guy replied honestly. “It is refreshing to find someone who advocates for others with such passion.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stewart,” Miss Locke said.
Before he could reply, a voice came from behind them. “Mr. Huxley,” an old, weathered man said. “May I speak to you for a moment?”
Albert nodded. “If you will excuse me, I will be back shortly.”
As Albert walked away, Miss Locke muttered under her breath, “Insufferable man.”
Glancing down at the basket in her hand, Guy asked, “What did you bring to feed the children?”
“My cook made bread and biscuits for them,” she replied.
He smiled. “That is most kind of you.”
“It is the least I can do for these poor children,” she said. “Many of them have no parents.”
“They are orphans?”
“Working in a mine can be rather hazardous, and many of their parents have passed away from accident or lung disease.”
“That is awful.”
“These children are not working here by choice,” she replied. “I’m afraid it is the difference between life or death for them.”
“Does the parish not defend them?”
Miss Locke shook her head. “They only care that they are employed and are being taught a trade. They do not care where that is.” Her pleading eyes met his. “You must report back to the bank about these terrible conditions.”
Guy shifted uncomfortably in his stance, knowing that he had no choice but to lie to Miss Locke. “I will do my best, but I cannot promise that my report will result in any real change.”
He could tell his response disappointed her by the frown that was tugging at her lips. “I understand,” she replied dejectedly.
Feeling compassion for her plight, he suggested, “Perhaps I could call on you later and you could tell me more about the heinous work conditions here. That way, I can let the facts speak for themselves.”
“I would like that, Mr. Stewart.”
He bowed. “Until later, Miss Locke.”
As he walked away from Miss Locke, Guy recognized that she might be the only person who would be willing to help him at the moment. He hoped that she would give him names of people who were also sympathetic to the coal miners’ plight.
Daphne sat inthe drawing room as she worked on her needlework. She couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Stewart and his intense, watchful eyes. There was something different about him, and she couldn’t quite understand what that was.
He was undoubtedly handsome, with his dark hair and square jaw, but he appeared a bit uncomfortable in his expertly tailored clothes. She found it peculiar, as if there were a story behind it. Then again, she had always been most curious when meeting new people.
Her grandmother’s voice broke through her musings. “How did your visit at the mines go, my dear?”
“It went well,” she replied. “I do wish that you would accompany me one of these days.”
“I am much too old to be traipsing through a coal mine.”
“I do not go into the shaft,” Daphne said, lowering the needlework to her lap. “I go to the building that houses the children.”
“They must be pleased to see you.”
Daphne smiled. “They are,” she replied. “They gather around me and cheer when I remove items from the wagon.”
“I would be remiss if I did not inform you that a coal mine is not an appropriate place for a young lady to visit.”
“I know, Grandmother,” she said, “but I can’t very well sit around in this large manor and do nothing to help those poor children.”
“You are like your mother in so many ways,” her grandmother remarked with a wistful smile. “Grace used to be a crusader, as well.”
Her grandmother nodded. “I have no doubt that your mother would have accomplished great things if she had not died at such a young age.”
Daphne grew wistful at that thought. How she missed her parents. They had been taken away far too early.
Reaching towards the table in front of her, her grandmother picked up a teacup and took a long sip. She lowered the cup and said, “Grace would have hated that mine if it had been around when she lived here. She would have fought for its closure.”
“That is impossible,” Daphne said. “The bank would never close that colliery.”
“Nothing is impossible,” her grandmother responded. “I daresay that you just haven’t thought of the solution yet.”
Daphne smiled at her grandmother. “Why do you have such great faith in me?”
“Why don’t you?”
“I suppose it is because women have such little say in business dealings, especially one as profitable as the coal mine.”
“That is only because you don’t speak loudly enough.”
“Perhaps, but I will continue to focus on what I can do,” Daphne said. “Despite Mr. Huxley’s objections, no one else seems to mind that I donate clothes, blankets, and food to the children.”
“Mr. Huxley and his father are fools.”
Daphne nodded in agreement. “That they are.”
“Mr. Huxley offered for me once,” her grandmother revealed.
“Which one?” Daphne joked.
Her grandmother laughed. “The elder one, but I am still twenty years older than him,” she said. “He showed up one night and brought me flowers. Then, he started reading out of a book of love poems before he offered for me.”
“It was not a night that I wish to remember.”
“What did you say to Mr. Huxley’s offer?”
Her grandmother placed the teacup back onto the tray. “I thanked him kindly for it, but I informed him that I had no intention of marrying again.”
“How did he take the rejection?”
“We haven’t spoken of it since,” her grandmother replied, smiling. “For which, I have no complaints.”
“Albert has offered for me, but I do not wish to marry him.”
“Nor should you. I highly suspect that the Huxley men are more interested in our money than in us.”
“Well said, Grandmother.”
The butler stepped into the room and announced, “Mr. Guy Stewart is here to call upon Miss Locke.”
“Mr. Stewart?” Daphne repeated.
Barrow tipped his head. “Yes, Miss,” he replied. “Would you prefer it if I turn him away?”
“No,” she rushed out. “I wish to speak to him.”
“As you wish,” Barrow acknowledged.
Her grandmother eyed her curiously. “Who is Mr. Stewart?”
“The bank hired Mr. Stewart to inspect the conditions at the colliery,” Daphne explained as she took off her spectacles and smoothed her dress.
“But why is he here?” her grandmother pressed.
“I informed him that I would speak to him about the terrible conditions the workers are forced to endure.”
“Couldn’t he just see them for himself?”
Before she could reply, Mr. Stewart stepped into the room and gave her a stiff bow. “Good afternoon, Miss Locke,” he said. “I hope I am not disturbing you.”
“You are not.” Daphne gestured towards her grandmother and provided the introductions. “Mr. Stewart, allow me the privilege of introducing you to my grandmother, Lady Frances.”
Mr. Stewart gave her a brief smile. “It is a pleasure to meet you, my lady.”
Her grandmother’s critical eye swept over him. “Would you care for something to drink, Mr. Stewart?”
“If it isn’t too much of an imposition,” he replied, stepping further into the room.
“Nonsense,” her grandmother replied. “We are always eager to make new friends. Won’t you sit down?”
Mr. Stewart stepped over to an upholstered armchair and sat down. “You are most generous.”
Daphne moved to sit on the edge of her seat, then poured two cups of tea before extending one to Mr. Stewart.
“Thank you,” he said as he accepted it.
She picked up her cup and took a sip. She attempted to come up with something witty to say but found herself at a loss for words.
Her grandmother’s voice broke through the silence. “Where do you hail from, Mr. Stewart?”
“London,” he replied.
“What a terrible place to live,” her grandmother declared. “The smell wafting off the River Thames is atrocious.”
“That it is,” Mr. Stewart agreed. “I’m afraid it is a smell you become accustomed to after living there for a few years.”
“The only time we went to London was when we visited my husband’s relatives,” her grandmother shared. “They preferred to live there than in the country.”
“Many people prefer the bustling streets of London over the quieter lifestyle of the countryside.”
“Which would you prefer?”
Mr. Stewart paused. “I have never considered that question before, partially because my life is in London.”
“If you can, you must retire to the countryside,” her grandmother pressed.
“I shall heed your advice, my lady.”
Daphne spoke up. “How long have you lived in London?”
“For most of my life,” he replied. “I attended Cambridge, and I suppose I never saw a reason to leave home after that.”
“My husband went to Cambridge, as well,” her grandmother said. “It is a fine university.”
“That it is.” Mr. Stewart put his teacup on the table and turned his attention towards Daphne. “I was hoping to speak to you about the conditions in the mines.”
Her grandmother raised her hand. “I do not wish to have my mood sullied,” she declared. “Why don’t you speak of this unfortunate subject as you tour the gardens?”
“I am not opposed to that, assuming Miss Locke is in agreement,” Mr. Stewart said.
Daphne set her teacup on the tray. “I think that sounds like a splendid idea.”
Mr. Stewart rose and offered his arm. “Allow me to escort you.”
As they walked towards the rear of the townhouse, she glanced over her shoulder and saw a maid trailing behind them at a discreet distance.
They stepped onto the veranda, and Mr. Stewart lowered his arm to the side. “I do appreciate you taking the time to speak to me.”
“I assure you that it is no trouble at all.”
“I’m afraid I was unable to speak to any of the children,” he revealed. “After they scattered, I didn’t see any of them.”
“That is because they were forced to go back to work,” she replied. “Do you know that children as young as six years of age work in the mines?”
“I did not.”
“Some have to crawl through narrow spaces as they drag their heavy load of coal behind them. Their bodies are nearly black when they exit the pit,” she revealed. “For many of them, they remain in the darkened pit for the entire day as they spend their time minding the doors.”
“That is awful,” he murmured.
Daphne glanced over at him. “They hardly ever bathe, and their hair is matted against their heads,” she continued. “They have deep scarring on their little bodies from the leather straps they use to haul the coal, and you can see the outline of their bones beneath their clothing.”
Mr. Stewart pursed his lips, then said, “I had no idea that children were treated so deplorably at the colliery.”
“But it is not just the children who are treated so distastefully,” Daphne declared. “No one seems to care a whit about these people because they are migrants. They consider them savages, even though they have only treated me with kindness.”
“That is because you are caring for their children.”
“That may be true, but I would like to believe they are good people who just want to work for an honest wage.”
Mr. Stewart stopped, and his boots ground into the gravel. “I was asked to report on the conditions, but I do not want to give you any false hope that the bank will make changes.”
Mr. Stewart clasped his hands behind his back. “Is there someone else that I can speak to in town who shares your same passion?”
“Sadly, most of the gentlemen in the town share Mr. Huxley’s view on the matter.”
A disappointed look came to Mr. Stewart’s face. “I had been hoping that there was at least one decent man in this town.”
“There are many, but they do not hold any authority.”
“That is not an issue for me.”
“If that is the case, Mr. Burke worked as a trapper at the colliery when he was a boy, but he is now the blacksmith,” she said. “He often speaks up about the ill treatment he used to receive there.”
“Do you think Mr. Burke will speak to me?”
“I do, but it might be best if I provide the introduction.”
Mr. Stewart smiled. “I would greatly appreciate that, Miss Locke.”
Daphne’s eyes landed involuntarily on his lips. “Would you care to join us for dinner?” she blurted out.
His smile slipped for only a moment. “I would be honored to dine with you this evening.”
“Wonderful,” she replied, turning towards the manor. “I shall speak to the cook.”
“In all honesty, I would rather dine with you than eat at the coaching inn or the pub,” Mr. Stewart said as they began walking back.
Daphne felt a blush creep onto her cheeks at his kind words, but she chided herself for being foolish. The coaching inn and pub were known for their lackluster food, but it didn’t stop the travelers from eating there.
What was it about Mr. Stewart that caused her to blurt out an invitation to dinner? And why did she find herself so nervous in his presence? She had been around handsome men before, but there was something different about this one.