A Dangerous Scheme by Laura Beers

Chapter Six

Daphne had just exited her bedchamber the following morning when she heard the sound of shouting coming from her grandmother’s room. She couldn’t exactly make out what was being said, but she would recognize her cousin’s voice anywhere.

She hurried to the door and knocked on it. The yelling stopped and, a moment later, the door was thrown open.

Phineas stood on the other side of the doorway and glared at her. “Do you mind?” he asked. “We are in the middle of a private conversation.”

“Why are you shouting at Grandmother?” Daphne asked, not cowed by his boorish behavior.

Phineas huffed. “Why should it matter to you?” he questioned, his words slurring.

She lifted her brow. “You are drunk.”

“I am not,” he declared. “I only had a few drinks at the pub to lessen the feeling of betrayal that my grandmother has most graciously bestowed upon me.”

“Grandmother did not betray you,” Daphne said.

“No?” he asked, his voice rising. “Then why did it feel like she put a knife in my back?”

Her grandmother’s stern voice came from inside the room. “That is enough, Phineas,” she ordered. “Go sleep it off.”

Phineas shook his head. “After everything I have done for you, this is how you thank me.”

“Pray tell, what have you done for Grandmother?” Daphne challenged.

“I write to her,” Phineas said.

Daphne crossed her arms over her chest. “When was the last time?”

“It has been a few weeks.” He winced as he brought up a hand to his forehead. “Maybe months, but it was less than a year. I am sure of that.”

“My apologies, you are a wonderful grandson,” Daphne remarked dryly.

Phineas took a commanding step towards her. “At least I didn’t sit around and conspire to steal someone else’s inheritance.”

“I did no such thing!” Daphne shouted, her arms dropping to her sides.

“You always were jealous of me,” Phineas declared, leaning closer.

Daphne scrunched her nose at the strong smell of alcohol on his breath. “You stink, Cousin.”

Phineas straightened and narrowed his eyes. “I will get what is rightfully mine, one way or another.”

“Whatever do you mean by that?” Daphne asked.

“You don’t need to concern yourself about that,” Phineas said. “I have no doubt that Grandmother will see the error of her ways soon enough.”

Their grandmother rose from her dressing table chair and stepped closer to Phineas. “Leave us, Phineas,” she ordered in a tone that brooked no argument.

Phineas frowned. “As you wish, my lady.” He dropped into a flamboyant bow before brushing past Daphne.

As Phineas stumbled down the hall, Daphne stepped into her grandmother’s bedchamber and closed the door behind her. “Are you all right?”

Her grandmother gave her a weak smile. “Phineas just needed to vent his frustrations.”

“It sounded like he was yelling at you.”

“He was, but it was nothing that I couldn’t handle,” her grandmother said. “It might be best if you avoid him for the time being.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He is rather upset that I have named you as my heir.”

“I assumed as much.”

Her grandmother returned to the dressing table and sat down. She reached for a bottle of lotion, then said, “Once he calms down, I will explain that I have still left him a sizeable inheritance.”

“Do you believe he will calm down?”

“He is an angry drunk,” her grandmother stated. “His father was the same way.”

“That is most unfortunate.”

As her grandmother rubbed lotion on her wrinkled arms, she continued. “Phineas only just returned from visiting the pub.”

“He was out all night?”

“That he was, but I didn’t expect any different from him.”

Daphne sat down on the settee. “You must be disappointed by his disreputable behavior.”

Her grandmother paused. “It is something I have come to accept. It makes me sad, but it is Phineas’ life. I can’t live it for him.”

“You will always have me, Grandmother.”

“For which I am immensely grateful.”

Daphne rose and embraced her grandmother. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

She stepped back and asked, “Would you care to join me for breakfast in the parlor?”

“Not today,” her grandmother replied. “I have already requested a tray to be brought up.”

“Then I shall see you in the drawing room after my ride.”

“Be sure to take two grooms with you.”

Daphne shook her head. “I don’t believe it is necessary that grooms accompany me, especially since I intend to stay on our lands.”

“Please just humor me.”

“As you wish,” she replied, “but only because I am hungry and don’t wish to argue with you about this.”

Her grandmother smiled. “Thank you.”

As she descended the stairs, Daphne could hear the muffled sound of a woman giggling. She followed the noise to a closet just off the main stairs and opened the door.

To her surprise, she saw the back of her cousin, his arms wrapped around a young maid.

“Phineas!” she exclaimed. “What on earth are you doing?”

Phineas dropped his arms and turned around. “What do you think I am doing, Cousin?” he growled. “Do you mind?”

“Do I mind?” she repeated. “I believe Sarah has more important things to be doing than cavorting with you.”

Sarah adjusted her uniform and slipped past Phineas. She mumbled her apologies before she hurried down the hall.

Daphne arched an eyebrow, but she didn’t say anything.

Phineas tucked his shirt back into his trousers. “I didn’t take you for such a prude.”

“And I didn’t take you for such a scoundrel,” she countered.

“I suppose you can’t wait to tell Grandmother about this.”

Daphne shook her head. “You are an arse, Phineas.”

Phineas looked at her with mock outrage. “I didn’t think a lady of your genteel breeding was capable of having such a filthy mouth.”

“Do you think you can make it to your bedchamber without trying to seduce another maid, or should I send a footman along to accompany you?”

“I was just having some fun.”

“Well, have fun at your own house,” she said. “I care about the people who work here.”

“I care about that maid…” His voice trailed off and then he snapped his fingers. “Sophia. Her name was Sophia.”

Daphne sighed. “You are wrong,” she replied. “Her name is Sarah, and you are a rake.”

“There is nothing wrong with my behavior, and I could use a little less judgment from you, if you don’t mind.”

“Go sleep it off.”

“I will, but I might see if I can find another to warm my bed.”

“So help me, Phineas—”

“I am just teasing, Cousin,” he said, putting his hand up. “You need to learn how to take a joke.”

“And you need to not be drunk at nine in the morning.”

He smirked. “I had a late night at the pub.”

Realizing this conversation was going in circles, Daphne spun on her heel and headed into the parlor. As she stepped up to the buffet table, a footman handed her a plate, and she put two pieces of toast onto it. She had just sat down when her cousin stormed into the room.

“What do you want now?” she asked.

“I wanted to finish our conversation from earlier.”

“You truly want to keep discussing your escapades?” Daphne asked as she put her napkin in her lap.

“Not that conversation,” Phineas responded. “I am referring to the one where you stole my inheritance.”

“I did no such thing.”

“After all these years, why did Grandmother decide now to change her will?” he asked. “What changed?”

“If you had cared to visit, you would have noticed that her health has been declining these past few months.”

Phineas stepped closer to the table and lowered his voice. “I have been waiting for years for her to die, but she is quite stubborn on the matter.”

“Lovely sentiments,” Daphne muttered.

“We both know that inheritance belongs to me,” Phineas said. “When you get married, it will just go to your husband.”

“True, but I am not sure if I will marry.”

“You will,” Phineas replied, “and then another bloke will be spending my rightful inheritance!”

Daphne reached for her teacup. “It was Grandmother’s choice to alter her will, not mine.”

“You coerced her.”

“I did no such thing,” she asserted.

Phineas pulled out a chair and sat down. “I don’t intend to leave until I convince Grandmother to change her mind.”

“I wish you luck with that.” Daphne rose and set her napkin on the table. “If you will excuse me, I’m afraid I’ve lost my appetite.”

“You have always been one for theatrics.”

She lifted her brow. “You would know that how?” she asked. “You hardly know me, Cousin.”

“I know enough,” he replied. “Although, I misjudged how conniving you were.”

“You are impossible to talk to when you are like this,” Daphne declared.

“You will regret this,” Phineas said as she walked away.

She stopped at the door and spun around. “If you had been listening to anything I have been saying, you would realize that I have done nothing to you.”

Phineas met her gaze. “That is not how I see it.”

Daphne let out a frustrated sigh as she departed from the parlor. She truly hoped her ride would soothe her nerves. If she were lucky, Phineas would be gone before she came back; but she knew that was unlikely to happen.

Guy stood infront of the bank as he waited for Miss Locke. He hoped being introduced to Mr. Burke would be the break in the case he had been waiting for. Despite the townspeople being accommodating, no one would speak to him about the atrocities happening at the coal mine. When he did bring it up, whomever he was speaking to would quickly change the subject.

He needed to send a letter to Corbyn to update him on the status of his case, but he had nothing to report at this time. It was rather infuriating. He was quite proficient at his job, but this case was moving at a snail’s pace.

He saw Miss Locke coming down the road, wearing a lovely blue gown that highlighted her comely figure perfectly. Her hair was piled atop her head, though a few strands had escaped and curled around her forehead and cheeks. A maid and two footmen were trailing behind her at a discreet distance.

She was an undeniable beauty, but it was her charitable heart that fascinated him. He couldn’t quite believe that she was related to Phineas. He was a despicable excuse for a human being and had made Guy’s life at Eton truly and utterly miserable.

Miss Locke came to a stop in front of him and smiled. “It is good to see you, Mr. Stewart.”

“Likewise, Miss Locke,” he replied. “I do worry that your gown may get soiled at the blacksmith shop.”

“That is why I wore one of my sturdier cotton gowns.”

“I see,” he replied, even though he didn’t see at all. He estimated that the gown she was wearing cost more than his income for the month, if not more.

He offered his arm. “Shall we?”

“We shall,” she replied, accepting it.

As he led her down the street, he asked, “How did the evening go with your cousin?”

She let out a puff of air. “Phineas is impossible,” she replied. “He seems to believe that I cheated him out of his inheritance.”

“Why would he believe that?”

Miss Locke hesitated. “Because my grandmother has named me as her heir,” she eventually replied.

He looked at her in surprise. “That is quite generous of Lady Frances.”

“It is,” she responded, “but my grandmother has always been generous when it comes to me. It has been that way since I was a child.” She glanced over at him. “My parents died when I was ten, and she raised me.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, knowing his words were in no way adequate.

She offered him a timid smile. “Before I arrived in Anmore, I was passed around to my other relations, but no one wanted to raise me. After a while, I started to feel like a burden, since I knew no one wanted me to be there.”

“That is awful.”

“That is why I am immensely grateful for my grandmother,” she replied. “She has never once made me feel anything less than loved.”

“She sounds like a remarkable woman.”

“That she is,” Miss Locke agreed. “Even though tragedy befell me when I was young, I have felt blessed that I have a grandmother who has loved me so fiercely.”

“You are most fortunate.”

“That I am,” she replied.

Guy gave her a curious look. “May I ask how your parents died?”

“Influenza,” she replied softly. “There was an outbreak in our village, and our household was hit rather hard. I was one of the fortunate ones since I made a full recovery.”

“I am sorry to hear about that.”

A pained look came to her delicate features. “There is nothing harder than watching someone take their final breath,” she revealed. “It is a sobering moment, and one I hope to never experience again.”

Unsure of what to say, Guy settled on, “What a terrible thing to witness.”

He watched as Miss Locke brought a smile to her face, but he noticed that it didn’t reach her eyes. “I do apologize for the serious nature of this conversation. I can assure you that I did not intend to speak on this subject with you.”

“There is nothing to apologize for, Miss Locke,” he rushed to reassure her.

They stopped outside a brick building on the edge of town. A crude sign above the door read “Blacksmith”. The ringing sound of a hammer hitting an anvil reverberated through the streets.

Guy opened the door and stood to the side to allow Miss Locke to enter first. As he followed her inside, he saw a dark-haired man sitting at the desk reviewing ledgers.

Guy cleared his throat to alert the man of their presence, and his head shot up. He looked at them in surprise before he shoved his chair back and rose.

“Miss Locke,” the man said, raising his voice to be heard over the noise in the back, “I’m afraid I didn’t hear you come in.”

Miss Locke gave him a cordial smile. “I do apologize for bothering you, but I was hoping to speak to Mr. Burke for a moment.”

The man nodded. “I will see if he is available. He just started a new project, and time is of the essence, I’m afraid.”

“I understand,” Miss Locke replied.

The man disappeared into the back room. A moment later, the metal clanking stopped, and they could hear the two men’s muffled voices.

The man returned and said, “Burke has agreed to see you. Just head into the back room.”

Guy gestured towards the back door, indicating that Miss Locke should go first. He followed her into the back room, which he found to be incredibly stuffy. There was a blazing fire in the hearth and tools hanging from the walls. A brawny man wearing a blackened apron stood next to an anvil in the center of the room.

“How may I help you?” Burke asked as he removed his thick gloves.

Miss Locke stepped forward. “I do apologize for bothering you at work.”

“That is no trouble at all, Miss Locke,” Burke replied. “I am always available to speak to you.”

She gestured towards Guy. “I wanted to introduce you to Mr. Stewart. He was hired by the bank to inspect the conditions at the colliery.”

“Is that so?” Burke asked, eyeing him cautiously.

Miss Locke continued. “I was hoping that you might share some of your experiences working as a trapper in the pit.”

Burke frowned as he averted his gaze. “That is not something I generally wish to discuss.”

“I am well aware, but it would greatly help Mr. Stewart’s investigation,” Miss Locke remarked.

“How so?” Burke asked.

Guy spoke up. “Miss Locke has spoken to me in great detail about the terrible conditions that the children must endure at the coal mines, but I find that the atrocities do not stop there.”

“No, they don’t,” Burke replied. “You have no idea the hardships that women, children, and men are forced to endure at the colliery. It is inhumane.”

“Will you tell me about them?” Guy asked.

“For what purpose?” Burke questioned with an exasperated look. “You will write your report, but the bank won’t make any changes.”

“How do you know that for certain?” Guy pressed. “Don’t you owe it to the workers at the colliery to at least try to make a difference?”

“We are trying,” Burke declared.

“In what way?” Guy asked, hoping to keep the eagerness out of his tone.

Burke pressed his lips together. “It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “The bank will never make changes, at least while the colliery is profitable.”

“Mr. Stewart is sympathetic to the plight of the children,” Miss Locke interjected. “It’s the first time anyone at the bank has even listened.”

“That is true,” Burke muttered, “but it isn’t saying much.”

“I am only here to help, and I can’t do it without yours,” Guy said.

Burke met Miss Locke’s gaze. “Are you sure you trust this bloke?”

“I do,” Miss Locke replied. “He is an honorable man.”

Guy felt the familiar twinge of guilt for deceiving Miss Locke, but this was his assignment. He was to root out a trade union and arrest the people involved. So why did he feel like he was betraying Miss Locke and the whole town?

Burke studied him for a long moment. “Fine. I will tell my story, but it isn’t for the faint of heart.” He turned his attention towards Miss Locke. “Would you prefer to step outside while I share the gruesome details?”

“I will stay,” Miss Locke said firmly.

Burke nodded. “As you wish.” He let out a heavy sigh. “I started as a trapper at the colliery when I was nine years old. My day started at three in the morning and didn’t end ’til nearly five at night,” he shared. “The pit was dark, and I couldn’t even see my hand in front of me. At first, I was scared, but then I realized I would be beaten if I made any noise.”

Burke set his gloves on a table and continued. “I was whipped for the slightest infraction, and I wasn’t the only one,” he said. “I saw children younger than me and women in the family way beat constantly.”

Miss Locke let out a small gasp, but she remained silent.

“As I got older, I was responsible for pulling carts of coal in the low and narrow passages since I was so thin,” Burke said. “It was grueling work, and I would often have to go on my hands and knees.”

Burke frowned. “I was one of the lucky ones, though,” he shared. “I became too large for the passages, so I was given tasks above ground.”

“Are you still acquainted with the workers at the mine?”

“Aye,” Burke replied. “I bring them food and supplies nearly every week in an attempt to ease their suffering. The food that they are given to eat is barely edible. Not only are they risking their lives every time they go into the pit, but they are starving for want of good food.”

“The bank did install a steam engine,” Guy remarked. “Have they implemented any more changes in favor of the workers?”

Burke let out a dry chuckle. “The bank does not care about the workers, no matter what they say. The conditions are just as awful as when I worked there, if not worse.”

“How did you come to work at the blacksmith shop?” Guy asked.

“I was drinking at the pub and saw Mr. Thorpe sitting at a table in the back,” Burke answered. “He owns a few of the businesses in town, including the blacksmith shop. I approached him and boldly asked if I could apprentice at the blacksmith shop.”

“And he agreed?”

Burke shook his head. “No, but that didn’t stop me from asking,” he replied. “Every time I saw him at the pub, I would ask him the same question.”

“And you wore him down?”

Burke chuckled. “You don’t wear a man like Mr. Thorpe down,” he said. “A few of the patrons at the pub were in their cups and were getting rowdy. One of the men started bothering Mr. Thorpe, and I stepped in. After I knocked the man unconscious, Mr. Thorpe hired me on the spot.”

“It was most fortunate for Mr. Thorpe that you were there, then,” Guy commented.

“It was,” Burke replied. “Thorpe isn’t exactly a respected businessman in our town, and he has made some enemies over the years.”

Guy gestured to the shop around them. “Regardless, you have done well for yourself,” he remarked.

“That I have,” Burke agreed. “Which is why I choose who I align myself with most carefully.”

“As well you should,” Guy said. “Are there any other like-minded individuals who would be willing to speak to me about the conditions at the colliery?”

“I’m afraid I can’t speak for anyone else,” Burke responded. “Most people who have worked in the mines want their memories to be buried. No one wishes to stir them back up.”

Guy nodded his understanding. “I can respect that, but their experiences may make a true difference in the lives of many of the workers at the colliery.”

Burke regarded him for a moment. “I will need to speak to a few people before I can commit to anything.”

“I understand. You can find me at the coaching inn.”

“I’m afraid my break is over,” Burke said, reaching for his gloves.

“I do appreciate you sharing your story with me,” Guy remarked, “and I hope to be hearing from you shortly.”

Burke tipped his head at him. “Good day, Mr. Stewart,” he said before turning his attention towards Miss Locke. “It is always a pleasure to see you, Miss.”