The Earl Returns

The Earl Returns

Chapter One

London, 1816

On a rainy afternoon in late March, two men came around the corner into the square and stopped in front of Ashleigh House. Their queues and the sea bags on their shoulders proclaimed them to be sailors, and their rolling gaits declared they had not been long off their ship. They paused at the bottom of the steps, staring.

Ashleigh House was indeed an impressive sight. It took up most of one side of the square, with its side garden occupying the rest. To be fair, the square was a rectangle rather than a true square, and the side occupied by Ashleigh House was the short side. Nonetheless, it was a building of impressive size, four stories of pale, almost white stone, every immaculate inch proclaiming its owner’s wealth and power.

The two sailors were also of impressive size, both tall, brawny men. The older, Dick Hodgson, was a man in his mid-thirties, with a narrow face, high cheekbones and a hawk-like nose. His bronzed skin was almost as brown as his hair. The other, Tom Wortham, some ten years younger, had blond curls bleached almost white by the sun and a broad, pleasant face that seemed made for laughter. At the moment, however, his expression was intent, almost angry. 

“The knocker’s up, so Ashleigh’s here.” Wortham closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Thank God!”

Hodgson looked from the house to his companion and said, “It’s all true then, that tale you spun us when you first came aboard?” 

“Every word of it. Every word.” The younger man never took his eyes from the house. 

“Well then, let’s get on with it and get out of this blasted rain.”

The flat, unemotional tone prompted a grin from the Wortham, who hied himself up the stairs, rapped sharply on the door and brushed past the footman who opened it. The butler, looking horrified at the eruption of two ruffians into Ashleigh House, promptly positioned himself to block their way. In frosty tones, he said, “Persons seeking employment should present themselves at the rear…”

The intruders paid no more attention to him than to the footman. The younger man put down his bag and gazed around. “Tell Ashleigh to come down. You can tell him I have news of the Earl of Merton—the fifth earl.”

The butler’s eyes widened at the presumption of referring to His Grace so familiarly, but he hesitated. Then with a glance and a flick of his hand, he sent the footman upstairs. If these—persons—actually knew something about the fate of the fifth earl, the duke would indeed want to hear it. However, he had no intention of leaving ruffians like these loose in the house with only a footman to watch, even if one of them actually sounded like a gentleman. He looked again at the younger man, and then looked more closely. Something about him seemed familiar. The way he tilted his head, he almost looked like… no, that was impossible. 

There was a slight commotion upstairs, and then hurried footsteps. “I’ll see them swing if this is another swindle, so help me.” The angry voice could be heard clearly in the hall. Neither of the two sailors seemed intimidated. The younger one smiled a bit.

The owner of the angry voice appeared on the steps. He was much of an age with the younger sailor, though slimmer, slighter. While the sailor was blond with a tanned face and clear blue eyes, this man was dark-haired, with the pale face of a man who spent much of his life indoors. He moved gracefully, hurrying without apparent effort, until he froze halfway down the stairs.

He stared at the young sailor, then whispered, “Tom?” Without taking his eyes from the sailor, he continued slowly down the stairs. “By all that’s holy, Tom, is it really you?”

“In the flesh.” Tom tried to grin, but couldn’t manage it. “God, Peter, I didn’t think I would ever get back.” The two men clasped hands and stood there, torn between laughter and tears, neither one quite able to speak. Then the duke grasped Tom by the arm and pulled him into the library. Tom beckoned the other man to follow.

The bewildered young footman turned to the butler for enlightenment, only to find that man goggling—positively goggling—at the library door as it closed behind the three men. 

The butler turned back and tried to pull his dignity together. “Well, lad,” he said gruffly, “this will be a tale for your grandchildren. Do you know who that is? That’s the Earl of Merton, the fifth earl, the one who vanished three years ago, the one everyone thinks is dead.”

Now it was the footman’s turn to goggle. “But what’s he doing here, then?”

Safe in his superior knowledge, the butler now smiled kindly. “Childhood friends they were, our duke and the earl. Closer than many brothers I could name. I wager he came here first so he’ll have a friend at his side when he goes to face that family of his.” Neither the man who thought himself the sixth earl nor his family were popular with servants. The butler smiled dreamily. “What I wouldn’t give to be in the room when he walks in and turns everything topsy-turvy on them.” 


Inside the library, Peter Bancroft, Duke of Ashleigh, poured three glasses of brandy. “I suspect we are all going to need this,” he said, handing one to Tom, the fifth Earl of Merton, who was sprawled in a leather chair by the fire, and another to Hodgson, who leaned on the mantel, staring into the flames. He took a large swallow from his own glass, then said, “All right, that takes care of the amenities. Now, where the hell have you been, and why didn’t you let anyone know? Have you any idea what it was like, not knowing what happened to you?”

“Believe me,” said Merton, “I would have been delighted to trade places with you. Being a seaman in His Majesty’s Royal Navy is not a position I recommend to my friends.” At that, Hodgson gave a snort, which Merton acknowledged with a nod. “Dick here is one of those Americans who were impressed off their own ships by our navy, leading to that stupid war with the colonies”—he held up his hand at Hodgson’s glare—“all right, former colonies. Since I was carried on board unconscious and bound hand and foot, he assumed I was no more a willing recruit than he was. Thus, he passed along enough advice to enable me to survive.”

“That’s preposterous,” snapped Ashleigh. “The press gangs don’t go around snatching up peers. Why didn’t you just tell them who you are?”

“But that was the beauty of it.” Merton stared into his glass as he swirled the brandy before he looked up and continued. “Whoever arranged that voyage for me carefully told the impressment officer that I was a distant relative—a bastard relative—who had been passing myself off as the Earl of Merton and the real earl wanted me out of the country.”

Ashleigh paused, then leaned forward, hands clenched on his knees, scowling furiously as if his anger could change what had happened. “You can’t have been on board all this time. The ship must have made port somewhere.”

“Indeed, first in the Mediterranean and then for the past two years in the West Indies. The first problem was that they don’t like to let pressed seamen off the ship. Apparently, they don’t always return from shore leave. The other problem was that I did not know a soul in Egypt, or Morocco, or San Domingo, or any other bloody port we made. Even if people had heard of the Earl of Merton, they did not know me. And this is the first time in nearly three years that I have been in England.”

“But if you had written, we could have had you out.”

“Ah, that is another story,” sighed Merton.

“You cannot tell me that sailors are not allowed to write letters.”

“There are things that are allowed and things that are allowed,” put in Hodgson with a twisted smile. “Tom here had a bit of a problem with Lieutenant Montague, and somehow things always happened to Tom’s letters. They fell out of the mail sack into the sea or got torn or just got left behind.”

Ashleigh took a long swallow of his brandy. “It was never some sort of accident, then, some mistake,” he said finally. “It was deliberate. You were kidnapped.” 

Merton nodded.

“But why?”

Merton gave a bitter laugh. “Do you think I haven’t been asking myself that question for the past three years? If someone wanted me out of the way, why not just go ahead and kill me? Did someone hate me so much that killing me would have been too kind?”

“And that someone must have been a damned fool not to realize that you were stubborn enough to survive,” put in Hodgson.

Ashleigh smiled slightly. “Well, your return to the bosom of your family should prove interesting.”

Merton gave a similar, slightly twisted smile. “There is one piece of business that must be dealt with first. As far as Captain Chester of the good ship Ulysses is concerned, I am a bastard going by the name of Tom Wortham and an able-bodied seaman on his ship. If we are not back on board tomorrow afternoon, I’m sure Lieutenant Montague would be delighted to drag me back and hang me for desertion.” He cocked a brow at Ashleigh. “A duke at my side would be useful.”

Ashleigh nodded, moved over to the desk, and drew out some paper. Starting to write, he said, “I think we can do even better than a duke. What say you to an admiral?” He folded and sealed the note, rang for a footman, who appeared promptly. “Take this to Admiral Lord Kendrick. He might be at the Admiralty, but you are more likely to find him at White’s. Wait for a reply.” 

Once the footman had left, the duke turned back to Merton. “He will be overjoyed to see you—refused to believe you were dead. He has never been able to stand Edgar and has been one of those preventing him from officially taking on your title.”

The two friends smiled at each other. 

“Lord Kendrick.” Merton shook his head, remembering. “A more honest, upright man never walked the earth. He will get you out as well, Dick, never fear.”

Hodgson raised his brows cynically, but said nothing.


It was a long night. Hodgson retired shortly after dinner to toss sleeplessly in the unaccustomed softness of a feather bed. Merton and Ashleigh talked into the early morning hours, and each one found it difficult to calm his thoughts thereafter. So it was that the three men who arrived at the Admiralty looked elegant and polished, but not well rested. 

A tailor and his assistants, called in first thing in the morning, had done their work well and speedily, so Hodgson and Merton presented an impressive appearance when they arrived at the Admiralty. The American was dressed simply—buff trousers, blue coat, and a pale waistcoat, his cravat tied without elaboration. Merton, however, had elected to appear as a dandy. His embroidered waistcoat blared forth in shades of yellow and purple, his cravat was a waterfall of elaborate creases, his collar pricked his ears, he carried a walking stick with a silver knob, and around his neck hung a quizzing glass.

“It seems foolhardy to mock the navy until we’re safely out of it,” muttered Hodgson. His eyes darted from side to side as they walked down the marble corridor. “I won’t breathe easy until I have the papers in my hand saying I’m a free man.”

“I do not mock the navy.” Merton tilted his tall beaver hat at a more rakish angle and peered about him through the quizzing glass. “Only Lieutenant Montague.” 

He led the way to Admiral Kendrick’s office. The admiral himself was seated behind his desk, a vast expanse of mahogany. The shelves that lined two of the walls held volumes of maps and charts, and a cabinet supported a globe fully three feet in diameter. Comfortable chairs grouped around the fireplace awaited the visitors. 

Hodgson found it impossible to sit still and prowled around the room, looking at a volume here, a map there. When a young officer opened the door to announce two more visitors, he stilled, then leaned casually against the mantelpiece to watch them enter.

Captain Bartholomew Chester and Lieutenant Horatio Montague marched in stiffly, saluted and stood at attention. The admiral held their eyes for a moment before standing to return the salute. The silence stretched out uncomfortably. Finally he said, “I believe you know two of these gentlemen.”

Captain Chester looked about uncertainly. “I do not believe I have had the honor…”

Lieutenant Montague, however, reacted to the sight of Merton and Hodgson far more dramatically. His narrow face flushed. “Wortham and Hodgson,” he spat out. “How the devil did you get in here?” 

Merton stood up languidly, put the quizzing glass to his eye and peered down at Montague. Then he yawned.

Montague swung about to face the admiral. “Sir, I hope you have not been imposed on by these villains. Wortham is a known confidence trickster. These fine feathers of his are merely a masquerade. I’ll have him and his friend taken back on board and I’ll see they learn their place.” His mouth twisted in an ugly sneer.

“Is that so?” said the admiral mildly. “This fellow here is a trickster, is he? Well, he has played plenty of pranks over the years, I’ll grant you that. But he is not imposing on me, not at all. You see, I’ve known Tom Wortham all his life. Knew his father and grandfather before him. He is the Earl of Merton.”

“He can’t be!” said Montague. “He is nothing but a pretender, a puffed-up popinjay.”

“Afraid you’re wrong there,” drawled Ashleigh. “Oh, he may be a popinjay. Lord knows he is dressed like one at the moment”—Merton nodded a smiling acknowledgment—“but not a pretender. Known him for years. Went to school together, you see.” The duke smiled sweetly. “I am the Duke of Ashleigh, by the way.”

Captain Chester looked thoroughly confused. “I don’t understand. Lord Merton, you were on my ship?”


“But how did I not know of this? Why did no one tell me?”

“Ah, that, you will have to ask Lieutenant Montague here.” Merton looked at the lieutenant rather as a wolf looks at his dinner while it is still on all fours. Everyone else looked at the lieutenant as well, awaiting an explanation.

The lieutenant flushed even more. “I was only doing my duty. I was told he was a confidence trickster. I could not let him impose on you.” 

“Just a zealous officer, Montague?” said Merton. “I suppose it was also just zeal that made you have me flogged when I tried to see the captain?”

“Flogged?” said the captain, suddenly looking very nervous. Flogging a peer—that could be considered a hanging offense. “That was not well done, sir. Not well done at all.”

Montague held himself stiffly and looked at no one. “It was my responsibility to see that the ship was manned and to keep order on board. I do not believe I ever did other than my duty.”

The admiral looked at him sadly. “Zeal is a very good thing, but good things carried to extremes… let us consider the case of Mr. Hodgson here, who was impressed in May 1812 from the ship Miranda.”

“A British deserter,” spat out Montague, spinning to glare at Hodgson. “He should have been hanged.”

Hodgson stared back coldly.

“The embassy has provided me with a list of those men the Americans claim were unlawfully impressed.” Kendrick looked down at the paper he held. “Among them are the three men taken from the Miranda that day. It seems that the owner of that ship, a Mr. Joseph Rokeby, personally checked to make sure every man on board had papers proving his citizenship before he let them sail.”

Captain Chester was growing paler by the minute. He licked his lips. “I never saw any papers.”

“That would be because the good lieutenant tore them up and threw them overboard,” said Hodgson, his voice still soft.

“They were blatant forgeries,” said Montague. His voice was growing strident. “I was certain of it.”

The admiral nodded slowly. “Wait for us in the outer office, lieutenant.”

Montague spun about to step smartly to the door. He stumbled slightly when he caught Merton’s eye. 

Merton smiled.           

The admiral seated himself once more, placed his hands flat on the desk, and looked coldly at Captain Chester. “The captain of a ship is in a position of great power. He has power of life and death over the men on his ship. He has the responsibility to wield that power justly. He must ensure that when he delegates his authority to the officers under him, they also wield it justly.”

The captain seemed to wilt where he stood, but the admiral was not finished. “To claim ignorance of events aboard your ship is no excuse. Ignorance only exacerbates your offense. You should have known. It was your responsibility to know. And you will not be excused.”

He turned to Merton and Hodgson. “I promise you that these officers will not go unpunished, but I promised myself the pleasure of handing you your official discharge papers along with the apologies of His Majesty’s Royal Navy.”

Merton grinned as he took his papers and lifted them in a mock salute to the captain. Hodgson grasped his tightly, looking to make sure that they said what was promised, that he truly was free. 

They left the room, Merton jauntily, Hodgson grimly, and Ashleigh strolling elegantly behind them. Waiting outside was Montague, whose pale, tense face made Merton smile more broadly. “I believe they are now ready for you inside. Ready and waiting, little man.”

Montague looked ready to choke with fury.

Hodgson stared at the lieutenant like grim death.