The Gentleman's Thief - Isobel Starling

The Unexpected Guest

Tuesday 28th December 1897

There was a beggar on my doorstep. He wore a seaman’s felt cap and sported a thick grey beard. One eye appeared to be blackened as if it had recently met a fist. Two lines of brass buttons shone on his black moth-eaten greatcoat, and I noted three spaces where buttons were absent. The coat was made for a man much taller because it near touched the slushy pavement. The beggar held a timber crutch under one arm on which he leaned heavily, and looking down I saw that he appeared to be missing half of his left leg and wore just one single boot. The boot on his right foot was separating from the sole and it was clear that the melting seasonal snow had leaked in as he’d hobbled through the square to my doorstep.

Clarence carriages and hansom cabs passed by, the horses trotting warily and wheels crunching in the frozen slush on the road outside my house at number twenty-six Bedford Square, Fitzrovia, London. Residents in their seasonal finery took the winter air as they walked cautiously in the once verdant garden opposite my house. The larger trees had lost their leaves and appeared skeletal and yet the garden designer had ensured that evergreen shrubs and smaller trees gave year-round colour to the communal space.

No one who passed by my house paid much attention to the beggar at my door. But I did. I most certainly did! My stomach turned somersaults and my heart thundered, not with anger, like my housekeeper Mrs. Twigg, who moments before had opened the front door to discover the beggar and proceeded to batter him with her broom. I had relieved her of that broom, requested tea, and a plate of her exceptional sweet mince pies to be rid of her, and allow me to deal with this situation alone.

I looked at the actor before me and could not believe the effervescent giddy pleasure swirling in my gut. I was bemused that Sebastian Cavell, master-thief and, I blush to think of it; my secret lover was on my stoop dressed in the guise of Josiah, a beggar who I’d befriended months before I knew his true identity.

It was six days since our first tryst in a Glasgow hotel room. I’d found myself snowbound after a disastrous journey to a Scottish Estate sale that I discovered, all too late, I was barred from bidding at. I remained vexed that I had been lured to Dunecht Hall as a ruse to assist my ex-paramour Lord Euan Ardmillan with schemes to not only defraud buyers of art and antiquities, but Euan had also wanted me to perform a sex ritual with him to restore his flagging virility.

I was warned of Euan’s true intentions by a mysterious stranger. I believed this man to be a German collector named Artur Engles, as he was the man I’d dined with that very evening, but after the man lured me to the chilly attic to speak with me in private, he introduced himself as Sebastian Cavell. Cavell was a name I recognized from scandalous newspaper headlines. I discovered that in real-life Cavell was the rather comely gentleman thief who had twisted the Police force in knots as they attempted to discover his true identity and whereabouts. This thief was at Dunecht Hall for reasons of his own. Cavell had explained what he’d discovered of Euan’s plans, which—not wanting to doubt my ex-lover, I had initially not believed, but everything Cavell told me was true.

I’d left the highland mansion furious, disappointed, and empty-handed to then find the damnable weather had brought the whole British Railway system to a grinding halt and I was unable to journey back to London.

I took a room at the hotel adjoining Glasgow Central Railway Station and this is where Cavell sought me out. There he had unexpectedly revealed his admiration for me and that—I feel embarrassed to think of it—I was the prize he had wanted to steal from Euan and not any of the antiquities.

Reluctantly, I succumbed to my long-repressed desires to lay with a man and we’d shared quite an exceptional night in one another’s arms. The solitary night of passion with this man of mystery changed me in ways that I was still discovering. Cavell had jested that I was buttoned-up and pious, but his care and tenderness most certainly unfastened my buttons!

On my train journey home I did not read the Bible to avoid eye contact, as