Read The Devil's Acre Online

Authors: Matthew Plampin

Tags: #Historical Fiction

The Devil's Acre

The Devil’s Acre
Matthew Plampin

For Sarah

‘People may differ about matters of opinion, or even about religion; but how can they differ about right and wrong? Right is right; and wrong is wrong; and if a man cannot distinguish them properly, he is either a fool or a rascal: that’s all.’

George Bernard Shaw,
Major Barbara,
Act I

‘I will tell nobody what I supply my arms for. If you want to buy, and say you will buy ten thousand of them, and will give me a fair price, you can have them today.’

Samuel Colt, from the minutes of the Select Committee on Small Arms

1

Colonel Colt was on his feet a good five seconds before the carriage had come to a halt, pulling open the door and leaping outside. A brisk spring wind was sucked into the vehicle like a mouthful of cold water, rushing underneath the seats, swirling through the hat-racks and almost scattering Edward’s sheaf of Colt documents across the floor. He tightened his grip on it, coolly shuffling the pile back into shape, and conducted a quick inventory. Something critical was missing. Looking around, he saw a finely made wooden case, slim and about fifteen inches long, resting upon the narrow shelf directly above where Colt had been sitting. He tucked it under his arm and followed his new employer down into the street.

Colt was issuing orders to the coachman while straightening his broad-brimmed Yankee hat. Behind him towered a mighty rank of Italianate façades, among the grandest in all London, belonging to a variety of venerable clubs, learned institutions and government offices. Edward could not help but be impressed. I’ve harnessed myself to a real rocket here, he thought; Pall Mall, the seat of power, on my very first morning! This post in the Colt Company was his great chance – an opportunity of a kind granted only to a few. To prove your worth to a man such as Colonel Colt was to set yourself upon a sure path to advancement. He checked his necktie (his best, claret silk, knotted with special care) and caught sight of his reflection in a panel of the Colonel’s mustard-yellow barouche. Possibly the largest private carriage Edward
had ever ridden in, it stood out among the clattering cabs of London like a great lacquered beetle in a parade of ants. Upon its glossy surface he was reduced to a near silhouette, a smart, anonymous professional gentleman in a black frock-coat and top hat, his face obscured by shadow.

The Colonel glanced over at him. ‘Right here, Mr Lowry – the Board of Ordnance,’ he said, nodding curtly towards one of buildings. Then he bounded up the flight of stone steps before it, surprisingly swiftly for someone of his size, and shoved his way through a set of tall double doors.

Edward went after him, feeling both admiration and a little amusement. The American entrepreneur went about his business with a single-minded vigour far beyond anything he’d seen during his six years in the banks and trading houses of the City. This promised to be interesting indeed.

The hallway beyond the doors was every bit as magnificent as the building’s exterior, its floors covered with thick carpets, its walls lined with marble columns and its lofty ceiling positively groaning with gilded plasterwork. Portraits of British generals hung wherever one cared to look, their grizzled faces arranged into expressions of proud confidence as they stood to attention or leaned against cannon, conquered enemy citadels burning behind them. Pervading this sumptuous environment was an official hush so deep and still that it was almost accusatory. This is a place of the very highest importance, it seemed to say, where decisions are made that affect nothing less than the future of Great Britain; what the deuce are
you
doing here?

Entirely indifferent to this oppressive atmosphere, Colonel Colt strode up to the main desk and bade the smart clerk behind it good morning. The stare that met this salutation told Edward at once that they were not expected; no appointment had been made, and the clerk’s stance in such situations was abundantly clear. Unabashed, Colt went on to ask if he might drop in on Tom Hastings, an old friend of his who he believed was currently the Storekeeper of the Ordnance. He was informed that
Sir Thomas
was fully engaged that morning, and would not receive visitors without prior arrangement in any case.

‘So he’s in the building, at least,’ the Colonel interrupted with a hard smile. ‘Will you be so kind as to tell him that Sam Colt is at his door, and wishes to have a word? He’ll be interested, I guarantee it.’

The clerk would not cooperate, though, not even after Colt had introduced the possibility of a five-shilling note being left right there on his counter, to find whatever owner pleased God. So this is it, Edward thought. We are to fall at the first hurdle. It wasn’t quite the result he’d expected. The Colonel looked down at the carpet for a full minute, still smiling but growing red in the cheek. Suddenly, he barked out an impatient curse and lurched away to the right, cutting across the hall to a stairwell and sprinting straight up it.

Instinctively, Edward fell in behind him, ignoring the clerk’s protestations and the heavy footfalls that were soon gathering at his heels. Together they dashed through the corridors of the Board of Ordnance, skidding around corners and thundering down flights of stairs. Colt threw open doors at random, demanding directions to Hastings’s office from the startled scriveners within – a good many of whom, Edward noticed, were occupied with newspapers and novels rather than government business. In the end, as the crowd of their pursuers grew in both numbers and proximity, Colt simply bellowed out the name of his contact as he ran in the vain hope that this might draw him forth.

They were finally cornered in a remote lobby. A part of Edward was convinced that the police would now be fetched and they’d be led from that place in chains; but he also found that he had an unaccountable faith in Colonel Colt’s ability to rescue them from difficulty. Sure enough, instead of arrest, their detainment was followed by a brief and intense negotiation, during which the Colonel imparted his expectations with considerable forcefulness. A more senior figure was summoned, who in turn sent off messengers to several different regions of the building; and soon afterwards Colt was told that an audience had been granted with Lord Clarence Paget, Secretary to the Master-General of Ordnance, in a mere twenty minutes’ time. They were then taken to a vestibule on the second floor and left to wait.

There was a row of chairs against one wall, but as Colonel Colt showed no inclination to sit Edward felt it best that he remain on his feet as well. The two men removed their hats, and for the first time that day Edward was able to take a proper look at his employer. The Colonel must have been about forty, fifteen years older than Edward himself. He stood in the centre of the vestibule with his feet placed apart like a Yankee Henry VIII; he also shared the famous king’s imposing, barrel-chested build, and had the same small, sharp features set into a broad expanse of face. This was combined in Colt with the mottled, scarlet-shot complexion of the serious drinker, a reddish, close-trimmed beard and a head of dense brown curls which a generous lashing of hair oil had done little to order. His clothes were all the very best, and new. The bottle-green coat he wore was square-cut at the bottom in the American fashion, and had a lining of thick black fur which evoked something of his enormous, untamed homeland; of bears and buffalo, of great snowcapped mountains and rolling plains, of gold-panning and Red Indians; a place of fortune-seeking and wild adventure, very far indeed from the mud and grit of grey London.

Colt started to shake his head slowly, his mouth forming the beginnings of a scowl. They had done astonishingly well, in Edward’s opinion, but the Colonel was clearly far from pleased. Adjusting the case beneath his arm – it was rather heavy, in truth – he asked if anything was amiss. The gun-maker took what appeared to be a twist of tarred rope from his coat pocket, along with a small clasp-knife. Opening the blade, he cut off a piece about the size of a thumbnail and pushed it inside his lower lip. It was chewing tobacco, Edward realised, the great Yankee vice.

‘I know Paget of old, Mr Lowry,’ he muttered, his jaw working away ill-temperedly. ‘This’ll come to nothing.’

Lord Clarence Paget was in the later part of middle age, long-limbed and plainly dressed with a large, squareish forehead. He was seated behind a desk, finishing off a letter with a fastidious air. His office had two wide windows that looked out over the treetops of the Mall and St James’s Park; the
branches, bare a fortnight earlier, were now dusted with budding leaves. The room was sparsely furnished – just a white marble fireplace, a couple of chairs and some mahogany bookcases – but it was packed with evidence of the work conducted within it. Framed prints of artillery pieces lined the walls, mechanisms from a multiplicity of firearms were arranged along the mantelpiece and the bookshelves, and scale models of cannon stood upon the desk, weighting down piles of official-looking documents and incomprehensible technical sketches.

Paget did not stop writing as they entered. ‘You have forced this conference upon me, Colonel, so you must forgive my ignorance of what brings you here today. I don’t claim to know how things are conducted in America, but in Great Britain it is customary to write first and arrange a meeting time that is convenient for both parties.’

‘Guns, Paget.’ Colt drawled out the name, biting off its end –
Paa-jit
– a pronunciation that had a distinctly belittling effect. The man’s high birth clearly meant nothing to him at all. ‘That’s what brings me here. What else could it be?’ He took a seat without waiting to be offered it, indicating that Edward should sit in the chair beside his. Then he extended a hand for the case, waving it over with a twitch of his fingers. ‘This here’s Mr Edward Lowry, my London secretary.’

Paget put a flourishing signature on his letter, scattered some sand on the ink and then laid down his pen, finally giving them his full attention. ‘Your
London
secretary, Colonel?’ he asked pointedly.

Colt did not answer. Instead, he flipped the catch on the front of the case and opened it up. He paused for a moment, an expert, showman-like touch; Edward caught a glimpse of mulberry velvet inside, fitted around a piece of polished walnut. Almost reverentially, the American gun-maker lifted out a revolving pistol, raising it before him for Paget to inspect.

Edward shifted slightly, feeling his pulse quicken. This was the closest he had yet come to one of the Colonel’s creations. It was a fine thing indeed, beautiful even, over a foot long
with a sleek shape very different from the artless contraptions that cluttered Paget’s shelves. Some parts around the trigger had been cast in bright brass, but the main body of the weapon was steel, finished to a hard, lustrous blue so full and dark that it was close to black. An intricate pattern of leaves and vines had been pressed along the barrel, curling onwards into the corners of the frame; and a line of ships, sails full, cruised in formation around the cylinder.

‘The Navy,’ declared Colt with great satisfaction. ‘Named for the Texas Navy, my very first customers of any note, who used my guns to crush the Mexicans at Campeche. This here’s the third model, and the best by some distance. Thirty-six calibre – it’ll punch a hole clean through a door at five hundred yards.’

Paget regarded the gun for a moment or two and then looked back to his letter. Edward could scarcely believe it: he was unimpressed. ‘The British Government is perfectly aware of your revolvers, Colonel. I fail to see why this warranted my attention so urgently.’

The Colonel took this in his stride. ‘I’m showing you this particular piece, Mr Paget,’ he replied with heavy emphasis, ‘as it will serve as the mainstay of my Pimlico factory.’

This regained the official’s interest. His eyes flickered back up to his visitors. ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘What you see here is a Connecticut gun,’ Colt enlarged, chewing on his plug of tobacco, ‘hence these bits of brass, which I know John Bull has no taste for. Within the month, though, my premises down by the Thames will be turning out
London
Colts – pistols made by English hands, and from English materials. The machinery employed is of my own invention, and fully patented; the system of labour is entirely unique; and the combination of the two will lead to a gun factory without equal in the civilised world. Certainly nothing this country has at present comes close. It’ll be able to produce hundreds upon hundreds of these peerless arms,’ here he raised up the Navy once again, rotating his thick wrist to give a complete view, ‘in the blink of an eye – fast enough to meet any order your Queen might see fit to place. And you can be sure that my prices
will reflect this ease of production.’ Colt sat back, adding carelessly, ‘Bessborough Place is the address.’

Edward had seen this factory. It had been the site of his first meeting with the Colonel, in fact, when he’d won his position with some assured talk of past dealings with the steel-men of Sheffield – and a spot of bluster about how deeply impressed he’d been by the Colt stand in the Great Exhibition two years before. His enduring memory of the pistol works itself was of the machine floor, a large, open area occupied by Colonel Colt’s renowned devices, smelling strongly of grease and raw, unfinished metal. These machines had a functional ugliness; spindly limbs, drill-bits and elaborate clamps were mounted upon frames in arrangements of mystifying, asymmetrical complexity. Everywhere, laid out across the floor like giant tendons, were the canvas belts that would eventually link the machines to the factory’s engine, via the long brass cylinder that hung in the centre of the machine-room’s ceiling. A handful of engineers had been attempting to connect one of these belts to the cylinder, cursing as it slipped free and fell away. Edward had overheard enough of their conversation to realise that they were encountering some serious problems in setting up the works. Colt’s sweeping claims to Paget were therefore largely false – but the secretary nodded in support of them nonetheless.

Once again, however, Paget would not supply the desired reaction. He was neither intrigued nor delighted to hear of Colt’s bold endeavours; if anything he looked annoyed. ‘Perhaps, Colonel, you would be so good as to tell me why Her Majesty’s armed forces might possibly require your blessed pistols in such absurd numbers.’

At this, Colt’s easy charm grew strained. ‘My guns are in great demand throughout the American states,’ he purred through gritted teeth. ‘Countless military trials have demonstrated their superiority over the weapons of my competitors. They are credited by many veterans with securing our recent victory over Mexico. But what might interest you particularly, as a representative of Great Britain, is their effectiveness in battle against savage tribes – against the infernal red men with which my country is plagued.
I witnessed it for myself against the Seminoles down in Florida, and the Comanche have been put down quite soundly around the borders of Texas. Small parties of cavalry have seen off many times their number. And this is to name but two theatres. There are dozens more.’

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