The Emerald CrossChapter 1

Opening night of The Playboy of the Western World by John Synge, January 1907

"That was incredible! Fantastic! The best night I've had in a theatre for years!"

An excited crowd burst out of the big double doors of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Richard Gorges was more at home in a pub than anywhere that could be associated with culture but tonight he was glad that he had allowed his friend, Frank Shackleton, to persuade him to attend the opening night of a new play.

"For all the wrong reasons, I am sure! Confess now, did you not find the riot more entertaining than the performance?"

"Of course! Most amusing thing I've seen for a long time. All over a trifle of lady's underwear. How can anyone be shocked by the word "shift"? You'd think we were still in Victorian times."

"When they put trousers on pianos and skirts around vanity tables! You're right, Richard, some of our Irish citizens have yet to move into the twentieth century. It was lucky the word was shift and not, say, petticoat!"

"Or worse! It could have been camisole!"

"Or what are those things with laces? I know, corsets!"

They spoke loud enough to cause an elderly lady, dressed completely in black, to look at them severely over the top of her spectacles. Before she could say a word, Richard said loudly, "Knickers!" and, laughing, they ran away to lose themselves in the crowd.

Many miles away in another crowded city, a lone man walked a dimly lit street unaware of those who were hiding watchful in the shadows.

"Shall we go to my house? Arthur is away in London, so you shan't be bothered by his disapproving looks," Frank said to his companion.

"What has the man got against me, anyway? I've never been less than polite to him!"

"He feels you are a bad influence on me, Richard, it's as simple as that! I'm his protégé and can do no wrong, so any bad behaviour on my part must of course be your fault."

"I see! He doesn't know you as well as I do then."

"I'm quite happy for him to go on blaming you, Richard. This is a pleasant position I have here, not too much work, plenty of free time. Of course I don't want to stay here for the rest of my life and if my investments work out I shan't have to. But for the moment it suits me to stay on the right side of Sir Arthur, and I must say, he has been very good to me. Making me Dublin Herald, allowing me to share his house and introducing me to the best society in Ireland! I owe him a lot and I am not ungrateful. But still, I am glad that he is not at home tonight."

"So am I! Has he any of that excellent brandy left?"

The lone man on the dark London street paused, uneasy for a moment. He turned round to survey the shadows behind him but could see nothing outside the pools of grey haze that bleached the pavement around the street lamps. He walked on and did not see the movement of two stealthy figures in the dark behind him. The two moving shadows quickened their pace, knowing that around the next corner was an even darker, quieter street. This was where they planned to make their move.

As he rounded the corner the man heard running feet behind him. He started to turn but was caught with a tight grip on each arm and dragged towards the mouth of a dark alley. He kicked out at one of his attackers but the only result was a curse and a tightening of the grip on his arm.

"You'll regret this!" he shouted. "I'll have the police after you! I'm an important person. You can't possibly get away with this! You don't know who I am!"

The darkness of the alley closed around the struggling man and his captors. In the wall of the alley a narrow door opened and the slightly built man was pushed inside by his two bulky assailants. A third man, his face half muffled by a scarf, closed the door behind them.

"We know very well who you are," one of the two big men said, a leering grin on his face, "that is why you are here, Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King of Arms."

"Do not worry, Sir Arthur, I have no wish to hurt you," the man with the scarf said as Vicars struggled to free himself, and added to the two men, "You can let go of him now, I think."

Vicars tried to make a dash for the door but as he did so the man removed his scarf. The sight of his face stopped Vicars at once.

"I know you! You're Hodgson, aren't you? The antiquary?"

"Yes, I am. Sir Arthur, I am sorry to bring you here in this way, but the matter is an urgent one and demands the utmost secrecy."

"What do you want with me, Hodgson?"

"Wait outside," Hodgson said to the two men in the commanding tones of an employer. Without a word they left the room. "Take a seat, Sir Arthur. We have much to talk about tonight. First, can I ask for your promise that you will never reveal to anyone what I am about to tell you?"

"I must say, Hodgson, I don't care for being attacked in the street and dragged in here like a miscreant! Whatever you have to say to me, it can't possibly justify this kind of arrogant behaviour to a person of my standing! I don't like all this hiding and secrecy; I'd much rather have things out in the open. A man in my position needs to be above suspicion!"

"As I'm sure you are, Sir Arthur. In fact it is because of your high reputation as a loyal and honest man that I have decided to trust you with some very sensitive information. You know me as a man of small but independent means, whose income makes it possible for him to live comfortably while maintaining a small antiquary's business in London, more for pleasure and interest than for profit. Would it surprise you to learn that my real business, my secret business, is as a manager of finances for certain people at the very highest level of our society? Can you imagine a man who pretends to a position less powerful and an income much reduced from that which is in reality the case?"

"No, I cannot! I do not see the need for all this secrecy and back-alley work."

"Of course, you had to work hard to qualify for your position, and rightly you are proud to have been so successful in life at a comparatively young age. How hard it must be for you to imagine the ties of loyalty that compel me to secrecy. It is not easy for me to take even a trusted official like yourself into my confidence. Before I say another word, Sir Arthur, I must have your promise."

"You will have nothing from me, Hodgson! Now let me out."

"Sir Arthur! Please do not be so hasty. We have a lot in common, you know. I, like you, am half-Irish; my mother, may she rest in peace, was Irish. I understand that you, unlike your half-brother Mahoney, are a staunch unionist, and I hope you are loyal to the king?"

"No man dares to question my loyalty to the crown!"

"That is why it has been decided to involve you in an important matter in which you can be of great help to His Majesty. I need your oath of secrecy, Sir Arthur."

"The king needs my help?"

"I can't tell you any more without your promise."

"Then of course, I swear I will tell no one of what you tell me tonight. Why didn't you tell me at once that it was for the king?"

"Even in here, we should not speak so openly. It is the usual practice of agents such as myself to refer to a certain person by the codename of "Bertie". Please follow this practice at all times, and of course in all correspondence. Bertie has an urgent need to raise money secretly. I have come to an arrangement with a wealthy foreign nobleman, who of course has no idea of Bertie's identity. He knows only that I am an agent for a gentleman who wishes to remain incognito. Of course he needs some security for the loan. This is where I need your help, Sir Arthur."

"You are mistaken, Hodgson, I am not a rich man!"

"I am fully aware of your financial position, Sir Arthur. It is in your capacity of Ulster King of Arms that you can be of help. It is the wish of Bertie that some valuable property which is in your keeping at Dublin Castle should be given as security for the loan."

"You don't mean the regalia of the Order of St Patrick!"

"Yes, exactly. Since they are usually locked in a safe at Dublin Castle, their absence for a few months will hardly be noticed."

"They will be needed this summer, for Lord Castletown's investiture; I am not sure of the exact date. The k- Bertie will be in Dublin for the ceremony."

"They will be returned to you well before then, I am sure. The arrangement is for a short term loan; I expect to repay the money within three or four months. There is no real risk, but Bertie must have the money at once. I am sure you can see why this is all extremely confidential."

"Yes, of course, I appreciate that now. I'm glad to be able to help, on condition that the jewels are back in time for the ceremony."

"That won't be a problem, I assure you. Could you take them to Italy yourself and give them to the nobleman I mentioned earlier?"

"Don't you wish to do that yourself?"

"Better not, if they are found in my possession I would have great difficulty explaining how I came by them! I could not possibly betray Bertie's trust and reveal the truth. Whereas you, I'm sure, as guardian of the jewels, could come up with a reasonable explanation. And as you yourself said before, someone in your position is above suspicion, unlike a mere antiquary with an auction house in London like myself. No, it will be much better if you can take them out of the country."

"It may be difficult for me to get away. I expect to be quite busy over the next few months. Still, I'm sure they can manage without me for a few days."

"Yes, I'm sure they will. If you will allow me, I have a recommendation to make to you on behalf of a young friend of mine, Mr Sydney Horlock. He has heard that the Office of Arms is in need of a secretary and, knowing that I was acquainted with you, asked me to put in a word. He is a very able young man with a great interest in genealogy. I am sure you will find him a useful addition to your staff at Dublin Castle. He can take some of the more routine duties off your hands so that you have more time for the fine details. If you care to interview him, I can ask him to call on you tomorrow."

"Yes, I'll see him. I like to encourage any young men with an interest in genealogy and heraldry."

"I'm sure he won't disappoint you. He'll hold the fort for you while you're in Italy, at least. You need to go to San Remo; I'll try to meet you there. It's a delightful spot. I can introduce you to Count Silvio, if you like, he's a charming man and of course, extremely wealthy. He owns some beautiful sixteenth century paintings. How soon will you be able to leave?"

"I go back to Dublin the day after tomorrow. I should really stay there for at least a week; say, in two weeks' time? Will that be soon enough?"

"Yes, I believe that will do. I cannot thank you enough, Sir Arthur. I am extremely grateful to you and I am sure Bertie will be too. Of course you must never refer to this when speaking to Bertie, even if you do have the honour of a private audience with him. I am sure he will find a way to reward your loyalty."

"Well, if that's all, Hodgson, I had better be going. I'm staying with friends and if I am too late they will wonder what has happened to me."

"Yes, of course. Goodbye, Sir Arthur, and thank you again. We'll meet in San Remo in two weeks."

"Goodbye, Hodgson." As he closed the narrow door behind him and made his cautious way to where a faint light glowed at the end of the dark alley, Vicars anxiously pondered his decision. Handing over the priceless regalia of the Order of St Patrick to a foreigner was certainly a betrayal of his responsibility as Registrar of the Order. On the other hand, could he turn down the opportunity to do a favour for the king? The jewels had been a royal gift to the Order and no doubt King Edward saw them still as royal possessions, to do with as he wished. He remembered Hodgson's words, "I am sure he will find a way to reward your loyalty." Perhaps with the king's patronage he could aim even higher than the office of Ulster King of Arms that up to now had been the pinnacle of his ambition?

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin 1907