The Crown Agent, by Stephen O'Rourke, part two: Revelation

In the second of four extracts from Stephen O’Rourke’s historical thriller The Crown Agent, family secrets are revealed.

Wednesday, 17th March 2021, 7:00 am
Stephen O’Rourke QC ,author of The Crown Agent

My connection with Knox marked me, however, and the Infirmary’s Trustees lost no time in restricting my right to practice surgery. Then I lost a patient in difficult circumstances and was banned altogether. After that I hardly knew what to do with myself so, after lingering round the patients each evening making notes, I’d trudge home to bed. My sister Margaret, always writing at her desk in the drawing room, sensed much but said little.

One morning in Spring, as I sat reading a journal and smoking my pipe, a runner came with a note. Be at my club at noon. It was signed by the Lord Advocate. What could Scotland’s most senior government minister possibly want with me? Naturally I prepared myself for yet more unpleasant questions.

‘His Lordship is expecting you,’ said the doorman when I arrived. ‘You’ll find him upstairs in the Day Room.’

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The Crown Agent

A long clock chimed twelve. A fire crackled and pipe smoke drifted over the back of a chair. Hearing my footsteps he turned and I immediately recognised his mutton-chopped face.

‘Doctor Lyon! Do take a seat. Delighted you could make it. Henderson, some sherry if you please.’

He offered his tobacco pouch and I caught the aroma of Turkish Blend. I lit my briar. The sherry arrived. He asked about my work and even sympathised with the cares

of my profession.

‘It’s been a trying time, Lyon. But I’ve spoken to the Prime Minister and have his assurance there will soon be legislation to, shall we say, regularise things.’

Thereafter we chatted like old friends, but all the while he was sizing me up like a Bengal tiger. He nudged things round to family, and so I told him how my parents met at a Company ball in Calcutta, then settled in Bombay where I was raised by my ayah, Ranjita. I told of how my mother had died giving birth to Margaret, and how we were sent home to live with my maternal grandfather, the General.

I was a little surprised to discover he knew my father, but then Scotland is a small place. When my father finally returned we had lived together until his disappearance, and presumed death, three years ago. With that, other than mentioning Margaret’s debility which kept her home, there was little else to say.

The clock chimed the half hour, followed by more footsteps. Just as I thought my interview had ended, the Lord Advocate give a satisfied nod.

‘Take lunch with me, Doctor Lyon. There’s someone I want you to meet.’

At the top of the stairs was a ruddy faced gentleman, catching his breath.

‘Doctor Lyon, allow me to introduce Sir John Foster. Sir John is the Collector of His Majesty’s Customs at Leith.’

Sir John proved excellent company, and I observed that the reputation of His Majesty’s Customs men for enjoying fine wine and good food was well-founded. He spoke of Leith (which is the port of Edinburgh) and Scotland’s blossoming trade routes, all swelling the funds of the Exchequer. Wine from France, tea and jute from India, sugar from the Indies and tobacco from the Americas.

‘The consumption of our nation is unrelenting,’ he said, ‘and Britain the shopkeeper of the world. But we must jealously guard our trade routes, because they’re at the heart of all our success.’

As he said this, he shared a wry smile with the Lord Advocate.

‘Your father understood that, Doctor Lyon, being of our number.’

‘My father was an East Indiaman, Sir John, not a Customs Officer.’

They exchanged a glance.

‘Doctor Lyon,’ said the Lord Advocate, ‘Sir John isn’t referring to the Customs.’

‘Then to what?’

Sir John drained his wineglass and lit a cigar. As the smoke filled the room, I had the sense I was on the verge of something extraordinary.


‘Britain has enemies, Doctor Lyon,’ began Sir John, ‘and maintaining our advantage depends on some remarkable men...’

‘...and women,’ murmured the Lord Advocate.

‘Apologies, my Lord – and women – who serve this country in secret.’

My father? A secret agent?

‘But what has this to do with me, gentlemen? I’m a surgeon, not a spy!’

I looked to the Lord Advocate, but he met my eyes serenely.

‘Doctor Lyon,’ continued Sir John, ‘you’re educated. You understand the world. And you’ve few ties to bind you. Now if we consider that recent business with Knox...’

‘Oh not this again!’ I rose to my feet. ‘My Lord, I told the Fiscal everything. If you’ve brought me here to charm out secrets I’m afraid you’re wasting your time.’

‘Sit down Doctor Lyon,’ retorted the Lord Advocate, and he spoke with such authority that I complied at once.

‘Now listen to me. We know the account you gave of yourself in that matter. It’s what first brought you to my attention. Do you think my aim in the resurrection business was to discredit Edinburgh’s surgeons? Hardly. I’d no interest in bringing a prosecution against Knox. But not through lack of evidence. For it may interest you to know, Doctor Lyon, that of all the surgeons whom we questioned, you were the only one who didn’t point the finger of blame at Knox.’

I swallowed hard. I was green as grass, stubborn and full of anger. What’s more, I was afraid. But could he see something in me that I couldn’t?

The clock chimed two and the Lord Advocate rose to leave.

‘Well, Doctor Lyon, it’s been a pleasure but I’m afraid I have some rather pressing business. So I shall leave you in the capable hands of Sir John.’

‘But, my Lord,’ I protested. ‘My work at the Infirmary?’

‘Will be taken care of.’

And he left.

Tomorrow: Undercover

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