Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s thrilling historical novel Blood and Sugar
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Settle in with a glass of wine and this excerpt from Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s debut historical novel Blood and Sugar.
If you’re looking for thrilling historical fiction with beautifully drawn characters, Blood and Sugar is a must-read.
About the book
‘A page-turner of a crime thriller … This is a world conveyed with convincing, terrible clarity.’
– CJ Sansom
June, 1781. An unidentified body hangs upon a hook at Deptford Dock – horribly tortured and branded with a slaver’s mark.
Some days later, Captain Harry Corsham – a war hero embarking upon a promising parliamentary career – is visited by the sister of an old friend. Her brother, passionate abolitionist Tad Archer, had been about to expose a secret that he believed could cause irreparable damage to the British slaving industry. He’d said people were trying to kill him, and now he is missing …
To discover what happened to Tad, Harry is forced to pick up the threads of his friend’s investigation, delving into the heart of the conspiracy Tad had unearthed. His investigation will threaten his political prospects, his family’s happiness, and force a reckoning with his past, risking the revelation of secrets that have the power to destroy him.
And that is only if he can survive the mortal dangers awaiting him in Deptford …
Read the excerpt:
Blood & Sugar
Deptford Dock, June 1781
The fog hung thick and low over the Thames. It rolled in off the water and along the quays, filling the squalid courts and dockside alleys of lower Deptford. The local name for a fog like this was the Devil’s Breath. It stank of the river’s foul miasma.
Now and then the fog lifted, and Nathaniel Grimshaw caught a glimpse of the Guineamen anchored out on Deptford Reach: spectral lines of mast and rigging against the dawn sky. His greatcoat was heavy with damp and his horsehair wig smelled of wet animal. He had been pacing in that spot for nearly half an hour. Each time he pivoted, Jago growled. The dog’s black fur stood up in spikes and his eyes shone like tiny yellow fog-lamps in the gloom.
Nathaniel could hear the fishermen talking, and he could taste their tobacco on the wind. He wanted a pipe himself, but he wasn’t sure he could hold it down. He didn’t know how they could stand there, in such close proximity. A figure loomed out of the mist, and Jago growled again, though he quietened when he recognized the stocky, square frame of the Deptford magistrate, Peregrine Child. A pair of bleary eyes peered at Nathaniel between the wet folds of the magistrate’s long wig of office. ‘Where is it, lad?’
Nathaniel led him through the fog to the wall that divided the Public Dock from the Navy Yard. The fishermen parted to let them through, each man turning to observe Child’s reaction.
On the quayside stood a ten-foot pole topped by a riveted iron hook, where the fishermen liked to hang their largest catches. Lately it had displayed a shark that had washed up here last month. Now the shark was gone and in its place hung a man. He was naked, turning on a rope in the wind, secured under the arms, with his hands tied behind him. Nathaniel didn’t like blood and there was a lot of it – dried on the dead man’s chest and back, smeared across his thighs, in his ears, in his nose, in his mouth. He had seen murdered men before – washed up on the mudflats, or dumped in the dockside alleys where he worked as a nightwatchman. None of them had prepared him for this. This one was more than a corpse. He was a spectacle, like the boneless man at the Greenwich Fair.
Steeling himself, he studied the man again. He was about thirty years of age, very thin, with long black hair. His eyes wide open, staring accusingly. His lips were pulled back in a frozen rictus, white skin stretched taut over angled cheekbones. Beneath the first mouth was a second: a gaping, scarlet maw where the throat had been slashed.
Child stepped forward, his face inches from the body. ‘Jesu.’
He was staring at a spot just above the dead man’s left nipple. The lines seared into the pale, hairless skin were smooth and deep. The flesh around them was puckered and blistered. From where he stood, Nathaniel could just make out the design: a crescent moon on its side surmounted by a crown.
‘It’s a slave brand,’ he said. ‘Someone’s marked him like a Negro.’
‘I know what it is.’ Child stepped back, still staring at the body.
Jago’s growling rose in pitch, and Nathaniel made soothing noises, though his heart was in full sympathy with his dog.
‘You recognize him, don’t you, sir? It’s that gentleman, Thomas Valentine. You met him, didn’t you, sir, before?’
‘I met him.’ Child’s abrupt tone discouraged further discussion upon this point.
Nathaniel studied the magistrate surreptitiously, trying to understand his mood, trying to work out if he himself was under suspicion. But Child seemed to have forgotten that he was even there. He mouthed something beneath his breath that Nathaniel didn’t catch, only a waft of sour brandy fumes on the chill dawn air.
‘Cut him down,’ Child said at last. ‘Not a word to anyone. Understand?’
Nathaniel dragged an old shipping crate over to the hook, and clambered onto it. The dead man’s eyes gazed unseeing at the still, brown river. Out on the Reach, the Guineamen creaked, and the fishermen muttered sullen, riverine prayers. On every side of them, the Devil’s Breath coiled and smoked.
21–24 June 1781
That things is said to be free (liber) which exists solely from the necessity of its own nature, and is determined to action by itself alone. A thing is said to be necessary (necessarius) or rather, constrained (coactus), if it is determined by another thing to act in a definite and determinate way.
I. Of God, Ethics, Baruch Spinoza
The worst surprises are those we think we see coming.
Amelia Bradstreet called at my London townhouse at a little after nine in the evening on the 21st day of June 1781. I was playing with Gabriel at the time, lining up rows of lead soldiers on the Turkey rug in my bookroom, so that he could knock them down with a stick. My infant son’s delight in this simple activity was matched only by my own, yet the rap at the front door extinguished all such pleasure in a moment. A week ago, at around this hour of the evening, a young gentleman had called at the house without invitation, and I feared that this same troublesome individual had now returned. Yet when my butler knocked and entered, he swiftly disabused me of that notion.
‘There is a lady to see you, Captain Corsham.’ Pomfret handed me the card on his tray.
‘Mrs Bradstreet,’ I read.
‘She says that you knew her once as Amelia Archer.’
I stared at him in surprise. Tad’s sister. It must have been over ten years since I’d seen her last. Dimly I recalled a thin, bookish, birdlike girl, with her brother’s large grey eyes and pale skin. I’d been in America when she’d left England and had consequently missed much of the scandal that had attended her departure. She had returned last year after the death of her husband, and Caro had been adamant that we should not receive her. As far as I was aware, nobody did.
I hesitated, pondering her motives. Had Tad sent her here? What could she want?
‘She came in a hired carriage, sir. No servant to speak of. Shall I tell her that you are indisposed?’
Pomfret, like my wife, was a stickler for the proprieties. Not the fact of the thing, but the look of the thing. Some call it hypocrisy, others society. For my part, I had seen men entangled in their own entrails upon the battlefields of the American rebellion, and the crimes of the drawing room seemed small by comparison. Nor was I minded, at that moment, to please my wife. Call it my own act of rebellion, if you will.
‘Show her into the drawing room, would you, Pomfret, please?’
I dispatched Gabriel into the care of his nursemaid, and went to the console mirror in the hall to retie my cravat and straighten my periwig. Then I walked into the drawing room, where Amelia Bradstreet was waiting.
She did not look like a widow, was my first thought. She was standing in the centre of the room, gazing about – at the furniture and the silver and the portrait of Caro by Thomas Gainsborough over the fire. My eyes were drawn at once to her gown, which was close-fitting with bared shoulders, the silk a rich and vibrant shade of indigo. She had matched it with a Kashmir shawl embroidered with golden flowers, and an amethyst necklace.
She turned, and we appraised one another. I recalled that Amelia was three years younger than Tad and I, which would make her twenty-seven years old.
‘Captain Corsham,’ she said faintly, holding out her hand for me to kiss. ‘How long it has been since those happy days down in Devon. I hope you can forgive my intrusion at this late hour.’
Her eyes were silver in the candlelight, her hair a dark, lustrous brown. She had curled and pinned it high, and I admired the curve of her throat and the rich glow of the amethysts against her skin. Her features were all angles: high cheekbones, a pointed chin, a sharp little nose. When she spoke, I caught a glimpse of tiny white teeth.
I caught other things too. Agitation, in her movements and the way she spoke. Poverty, in her cheap perfume – a sickly wash of jasmine – and the shabby slippers I spied beneath the hoops of her skirts. Finally, I sensed resilience in her gaze and in her bearing.
‘It is no intrusion,’ I said. ‘Won’t you sit down, Mrs Bradstreet? Some Madeira perhaps?’
While we waited for the wine, she examined Gainsborough’s portrait. ‘Caroline is not at home?’
‘At Carlisle House.’ I smiled to reassure her. ‘Taking on all comers at the faro table.’
Her relief was palpable and she sank onto the sofa, her fingers tugging at the sleeves of her dress. The footman knocked and entered, bearing the Madeira, and I noticed his eyes slide over Mrs Bradstreet as he served her, alive with carnal interest and contempt.
‘You carry off the redcoat,’ she said, as the door closed behind him. ‘Not all men do.’
‘It isn’t vanity.’ I felt an unaccountable need to explain myself. ‘The War Office likes us to wear it.’
‘You have earned the right to wear it, have you not?’ She regarded me solemnly. ‘I read about you in the newspapers. Captain Henry Corsham, scourge of the American rebels.They say even the King knows your name.’
‘They exaggerate,’ I said, and there was an awkward pause, while I tried again to divine why she had come. To borrow money, perhaps? To lay claim to a connection on the grounds of our long acquaintance? Or did Tad hope to mend the rupture in our friendship? The thought made my scalp crawl as if with lice, and in my mind I juggled words of polite refusal.
Amelia leaned forward, her eyebrows knotted. ‘I hope I do not embarrass you and Caroline by coming here tonight, but I’m afraid my business was far too pressing for a letter.’ I frowned. ‘Mrs Bradstreet, forgive me for asking, but are you in some kind of trouble?’
‘Not I, but I fear that Tad might be.’
‘I see.’ I tried to mask my anxiety with irritation. ‘Is he in a debtors’ prison? Is it money that you need?’
She blanched a little at my tone. ‘He is missing. He called at my cottage nearly a week ago now, on his way out of the city on business. He said that he would call again on his return to London, but he never came. I have tried at his rooms, but he’s not there. The porter hasn’t seen him since he left town. Neither has anyone else.’
‘When were you expecting him?’
‘This Thursday past.’
‘That’s only four days,’ I pointed out. ‘Tad never was the most reliable fellow.’
She touched her necklace and the stones flashed in the candlelight. ‘Tad told me he was on his way to Deptford,’ she said quietly. ‘Deptford is a slaving town, is it not?’
Tad and slavery. I remembered our pamphlets and our essays and our speeches. The unfashionable cause of abolition had once fired our youthful souls. We had nearly been sent down from Oxford because of it. Since my return from the war, I had turned my mind to more orthodox political matters, but Tad had only grown angrier and more determined over the years.
I spoke gently to assuage her fears – and my own. ‘I am sure there is no cause for undue concern. They might not like abolitionists in Deptford, but the worst they’d do is run him out of town.’
She was silent a moment. ‘I am worried for him. It isn’t just Deptford. Tad was mixed up in something dangerous. He told me that he had made some powerful enemies.’
‘He was always prone to grandiose language. And he used to see enemies everywhere.’
‘That doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. He was afraid. I could see it.’ Her voice caught. ‘He said that people had been following him and that someone in Deptford had tried to kill him. Itold him to go to the authorities, but he said the authorities were in league with the slavers.’
You know what he’s like, I told myself. He’s probably locked in some Deptford sponging house after running up debts, or hiding from his creditors in London. Yet a little knot of fear flagellated these more cynical thoughts. What if someone really had tried to kill him? What if that person had tried again, and this time succeeded?
‘Did he say anything else about these powerful enemies?’
‘He said he’d lit a fire under the slave traders. He said he was going to burn their house to the ground.’
‘I presume he meant it metaphorically?’ With Tad you could never quite tell.
‘I think so. He said that after he had finished with them, the slave trade would never recover.’
I didn’t smile, though in other circumstances I might have done. It was the kind of thing we used to say when we were students together at Oxford. ‘We’ll end child labour. End bear-baiting. End slavery.’ Childish dreams, as impossible as they were laudable.
Amelia was waiting for my reaction, and when none came, she pressed on: ‘I told him that was ridiculous. The trade in Africans is worth many millions of pounds. It spans three continents. How could one man hope to end all that?’
‘What did he say?’
‘Only that he was going to Deptford to collect something that his enemies would want, something he could use against the slavers. If anything happened to him while he was there, then I should go to Harry Corsham. He said that you would know what to do.’
I stared at her. ‘He said that? I haven’t seen him in over three years.’
‘I think you are the only person he truly trusts.’ She held my gaze with those grey eyes that were so like Tad’s. ‘I do not pretend to understand what happened between you and my brother, Captain Corsham, but there was a time when he was your dearest friend in all the world. Will you go to Deptford and see if you can find him?’
Still I hesitated. I had no wish to see Tad again and open up old wounds. Yet how could I not?
‘Of course I will go. First thing tomorrow morning. In the meantime, do try not to worry.’
Her eyes were bright with emotion, but I did not want her gratitude. I only needed to know that Tad was safe. For that brief moment, when I’d imagined his death, I’d felt cold as marble in a crypt. It was as if a shadow had passed across my soul.