Thomas Chaloner’s Tenth Exploit in Restoration London
The murder of a wealthy goldsmith-banker leads Chaloner to a murky underworld of debt and treachery.
London in the spring of 1665 is a city full of fear. There is plague in the stews of St Giles, the Dutch fleet is preparing to invade and a banking crisis threatens to leave Charles II’s government with no means of paying for the nation’s defence.
Amid the tension, Thomas Chaloner is ordered to investigate the murder of Dick Wheler, one of the few goldsmith-bankers to have survived the losses that have driven others to bankruptcy – or worse. At the same time, a French spy staggers across the city, carrying the plague from one parish to another.
Chaloner’s foray into the world of the financiers who live in and around Cheapside quickly convinces him that they are just as great a threat as the Dutch, but their power and greed thwart him at every turn. Meanwhile, the plague continues to spread across the city, and the body count from the disease and from the fever of avarice starts to rise alarmingly …
Cheapside, January 1665
It had been a terrible night for Nicholas Colburn. He had been a wealthy man, proud owner of a country estate, founder of a reputable wine business, and fêted as a shining beacon of respectability and virtue by his fellow vintners. Now he had nothing, and he doubted that even his most loyal friends would hold him in very high esteem once they learned what he had done.
As he left the illicit gambling den the sun was rising, presaging the start of another crisp, blue winter day. Then he saw the man who had introduced him to his vice, and who had been whispering for weeks that his luck would change. The fellow was smirking. Colburn stared at him. Was that vengeance in his eyes – that he had wanted this to happen? Colburn shook himself irritably. No, he would not blame his ruin on someone else. He had always had a weakness for cards, and the higher the stakes, the more exciting and irresistible he found them. It had been his own choice to continue playing in the face of all reason.
As his fortune had dwindled, he had applied to the goldsmiths for loans – goldsmiths were also bankers, men who stored money for some clients and lent it to others. They had been astonished that such a rich man should need to borrow, but he had invented a tale about expanding his business, and had offered to pay twice the usual rate of interest. Naturally greedy, they had scrambled to accept his terms. However, being gentlemen of discretion, not one had discussed the arrangement with his colleagues. And that was unfortunate, because if they had, they might have prevented what was about to happen.
It was too late now, of course. The previous night had seen Colburn lose the last of the vast sums he had begged. Unbeknownst to each other, virtually every goldsmith in the city had accommodated him, and many had overreached themselves to do so, flattered that they should have been chosen by such a prestigious customer. Many of the smaller concerns would not survive when he defaulted. Indeed, even the larger ones would suffer a serious blow.
Bowed down with remorse, Colburn trudged along Cheapside, which was bright, lively and chaotic. And noisy – the sound of iron-shod wheels on cobbles and the honks, bleats and brays of animals being driven to market was deafening. It reeked, too, the hot stench of dung mingling with the contents of the drains that ran down either side of the road – slender ribbons of water that were wholly incapable of coping with the volume of rubbish tipped into them.
As he passed the church of St Mary le Bow, a royal herald climbed the steps, resplendent in his fine uniform. Two trumpeters blared a fanfare to attract attention, and Colburn went to listen, although he did not know why – what heralds proclaimed could not matter to him now.
In a penetrating bawl, the man announced that war had been declared on the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Colburn wondered why the King had waited so long to say so – the news was weeks old, and had already been thoroughly discussed in the coffee houses. He experienced a familiar, sharply agonising stab of guilt as the little procession marched away to its next destination. Wars were expensive, so how would His Majesty pay for one? The answer was that he would expect help from the goldsmith-bankers. Except that many of them would not be in a position to oblige, thanks to Colburn and his gambling.
He hid behind a cart when he saw several bankers in the crowd that had gathered to hear the herald. Taylor, Wheler and Backwell headed the most powerful enterprises, while Angier and Hinton were smaller, but still influential. They stood talking in low voices, no doubt discussing how best to fund the enterprise. But some would have nothing to give, thanks to Colburn. Misery engulfed him. What if the Dutch invaded because the King could not afford to defend his realm?
Sick with shame, Colburn stumbled away. How could he live with the knowledge that his fondness for cards had put his country in danger? He could never repay what he owed, and no one would ever spare him a smile or a friendly word again. He would be a pariah, shunned by all until the day he died. Gradually, he began to see what he must do. He waited until a particularly heavy cart was lumbering past, and flung himself beneath it.
There were cries of horror as the wheels crunched across him, and people hurried to stand around his mangled body, shaking their heads in mute incomprehension. Some were the bankers.
‘It is Nicholas Colburn,’ said Backwell, unsteadily. ‘One of my biggest clients.’
‘And mine,’ added Angier. ‘In fact, he owed me a fortune, so I hope his estate can pay, or I shall be ruined.’
Blood drained from faces as others said the same and the awful truth dawned. The sum total of the loans that Colburn had taken out were far greater than the value of his assets, and he had offered the same collateral to all. No one would receive more than a fraction of what had been lent.
‘The war,’ gulped Backwell. ‘How shall we finance the war?’