It was a lovely afternoon in Mayfair. The windows of shops and homes alike had been flung open to take in the autumn breeze, and up and down Hill Street, housemaids were seizing the chance to sweep down their front steps while the sun was still warm. Coachmen doffed their hats more readily when they went clopping past, and along the pavement a half-dozen footmen lingered, taking in the fresh air and waiting for something -- or nothing -- to do.
The Earl of Walrafen's library was perfectly situated to enjoy such a day, positioned as it was on a second-floor corner. All four of his sashes were up, and behind him he could hear pigeons warbling as they preened and picked at their feathers. But unlike the housemaids, Walrafen was not content -- he rarely was -- and so he tossed the letter he was reading onto his desk and scowled across the room at his clerk.
"Ogilvy!" he bellowed. "The pigeons! The pigeons! Get them off the bloody windowsills!"
Ogilvy's face went blank, but to his credit, he leapt from his writing table and charged, a yardstick in hand. "Shoo, shoo!" he cried amidst the thumping and fluttering of wings. "Off, you wee devils!"
That done, he bowed stiffly and returned to his copying. Walrafen cleared his throat and felt a bit foolish. Perhaps young Ogilvy was not yet a full-fledged man of affairs, but it really was not the lad's job to chase pigeons, was it? Walrafen opened his mouth to apologize, but in that instant the breeze shifted to a gale and blew open the file on his desk. Two years of correspondence went whirling through the room, a tiny tornado of foolscap.
Walrafen cursed aloud. "Is it not enough, Ogilvy, that that woman must plague me weekly with her harangues?" he grumbled as they gathered up the papers. "Now it seems Mrs. Montford's file is possessed by the devil, too."
And it did indeed seem to be so, for the air was perfectly still now. Ogilvy tapped the file's edge lightly on Walrafen's desk. "No harm done, sir." He handed the file back to Walrafen. "It's all here."
The earl smiled wryly. "That's what I'm afraid of."
The lad grinned and went back to his work. Walrafen opened the file and began the topmost letter again.
As explained in my last four letters, it is now imperative a decision be made regarding the west tower. Having heard nothing from you, I took it upon myself to send to Bristol for an architect. Messrs. Simpson & Verney report there is a deep fissure in the exposed wall, and the foundation is badly shifted. Please, sir, must we tear it down or shore it up? I assure you I do not care, and wish only that a decision be made before the whole of it collapses on one of the gardeners, as good ones are hard to come by.
your obedient s'vant,
Good Lord, was this really her fifth letter about that moldy old tower? He would have thought she'd had the bloody thing fixed by now. Walrafen had no wish to think about it further. Already, she'd hired architects. Yes, in Mrs. Montford's capable hands Cardow, and everything in it, could be forgotten, just as he wished. He could safely do nothing. It was an almost astonishing luxury.
0 He went on to the next sheet of foolscap. Ha! Another of her favorite scolds. Uncle Elias. The poor chap probably never saw a minute's peace.
Your uncle continues most unwell, suffering now from a bilious liver, I collect. He will not let Crenshaw in, and last week hurled an empty bottle at his head whilst the doctor was climbing back into his carriage. His vision going the way of his liver, the bottle missed. Still, I implore you to turn your attention to him in an effort to persuade him to compliance....
"Madam," murmured Walrafen to the paper, "if your incessant nagging does not persuade him, then I have not a chance in hell."
"Beg pardon, my lord?" Ogilvy looked up from his work.
Walrafen lifted the letter, pinching it between two fingers as if it were a soiled handkerchief.
"Ah!" said the lad knowingly. "The housekeeper."
Yes, the housekeeper. A well-known thorn in his side. Walrafen gave a rueful smile, filed away the letter, then on a strange impulse, pulled another from the pile. March, two years ago! This one was an early favorite.
Your uncle has fired me again. Please tell me if I am to stay or to go. If I am to go, please be advised I am owed £1.8.6 which I advanced the chemist last week when your uncle spitefully swallowed the key to the cash box. (We had exchanged ill words about his wish to purchase some untaxed brandy in the village.) If I am to stay, pray write him forthwith, and tell him that the cash box key must be retrieved, and that the duty of uncovering it, so to speak, rests with him....
Poor Uncle Elias! He could see him bent over the chamber pot now, his penknife in hand, and Mrs. Montford behind him, probably clutching a riding crop. Walrafen snorted with laughter, ignored Ogilvy's curious glance, and seized another. Oh, yes! This one was from the early spring, when she'd been turning out the house top-to-bottom. A little part of him wondered what the old place looked like nowadays.
Are you aware that there are six dead toads in the bottom drawer of the bombé commode which sits in your old dressing room? Betsy tells me you gave strict orders upon your departure for Eton that nothing within be touched. But since that was in 1809 and this is 1829, I thought it best to clarify. May I add, regrettably, that said toads are but dust and bones now?
My sympathy at your loss,
P.S. Your uncle has fired me again. Please tell me if I am to stay or to go.
Walrafen tossed the last letter aside and pinched the bridge of his nose hard between his thumb and forefinger. He wanted to laugh. Damn it, he wanted to cry, too. Go, go! he thought. Go, and good riddance, Mrs. Montford!
But he didn't really want her to go, did he? No, dash it, he didn't. The paper seemed suddenly too bright for his eyes. He could feel a headache coming on. The woman always had a way of getting under his skin. She angered him. She amused him. She was insolent. Yet sometimes deploringly incisive.
That was the very trouble, was it not? In his more honest moods he could admit it: the woman made him feel guilty, and had done so with appalling regularity for almost three years. Her letters had grown more strident, more demanding, and more perceptive with each passing month. He dreaded opening them, but he read them over and over. Usually he never bothered to answer them, which only resulted in more letters. He should have fired her at the first sign of insolence.
But her letters did make him laugh sometimes, and he'd had little enough of that in his life. And they brought to mind most vividly his childhood home. The pleasant parts of it, anyway. It was very odd, but sometimes it almost felt as if Mrs. Montford were trying to -- well, to lure him there. Sometimes there was something in her letters beyond the cynicism and chiding. Something that spoke to him in a quiet, secret voice.
He took another, from just this past May, its corners already dog-eared, and read a familiar passage.
The upland gorse this year is a most remarkable shade of green, my lord. I do wish you could see it. The China roses show great promise, and Jenks tells me he is of a mind to build a pergola near the walled garden....
Why did she write to him of such things? And why did he read them over and over? Walrafen wondered, not for the first time, if his housekeeper were pretty. He was not sure of her age, but her letters told him she was young. Young and full of vitality. Uncle Elias had always preferred to employ the prettier servants on their backs instead of their feet. He wondered if the randy old goat had got this one into his bed.
Well, of course he had. Otherwise, he'd have run her off long ago. No servant would put up with Uncle Elias for the paltry amount of money he paid Mrs. Montford. No one could be that desperate. Could they?
The question made him feel...well, he did not know how it made him feel. Certainly, he didn't wish any Englishman -- or woman -- trapped by class or by poverty in a position which they found intolerable. The pounding in his head was worsening. Oh, God, she was a pox upon him, his carping Mrs. Montford! Really, what did he care whether the west tower lived or died? He almost didn't care whether the gardeners lived or died.
Oh, that was not so. He had not spent the whole of his career fighting for the rights of the workingman only to recklessly risk one of his own. But if he simply did nothing, Mrs. Montford would take care of it. Oh, she would be angry with him. An ice storm of haughty letters would rain down upon his head, followed by a hailstorm of bills and receipts. But all would be set to rights at Cardow. And for his lassitude, Walrafen would have all that correspondence to read as penance. Or diversion. He wasn't sure which. The thought made Walrafen wonder again why such a clever woman would let Uncle Elias grunt and heave on top of her.
A piercing pain stabbed into his temple. "Ogilvy!" he said sharply. "Draw the draperies and ring for coffee."
Ogilvy looked at him suspiciously. "Yes, my lord." But before Ogilvy could rise, the door flew open.
"Lord de Vendenheim," announced his butler. And then Walrafen's friend Max stepped into the room.
"Per amor di Dio!" muttered Max, stripping off his driving gloves as he strode into the room. "You aren't dressed!"
Lean, dark, and stoop-shouldered, Max always sounded irritable. And arrogant. The fact that Walrafen outranked him had never much troubled Max, not even when he'd been a lowly police inspector working the river in Wapping, while Walrafen had been one of the most influential members of the House of Lords. If you were a fool, Max treated you as one. He was very egalitarian that way.
rMax was scowling down his big, olive-colored beak now. "Are you going with me?"
From across the room Ogilvy cursed softly. "The dress parade, my lord!"
Walrafen smiled tightly. "They can hardly start without us, old fellow," he said, coming to his feet. "But I'd best go upstairs and change. I can't think where the time went."
Max's eyes fell upon the file which lay open on Walrafen's desk. With his long, dark fingers he picked up the topmost letter. "Ah, the housekeeper again," he said knowingly. "Really, Giles, when are you going to stop playing cat and mouse with this woman?"
Walrafen shot his friend a dark look. "That's my business," he said, trying not to limp on his leg, which had stiffened while he was seated. Max followed, carrying the letter. While his valet stripped off Walrafen's coat and cravat, Max sat down in Walrafen's favorite chair and read the bloody thing aloud.
"What an extraordinary creature!" he remarked when done. "I should very much like to meet her."
Walrafen barked with laughter. "Still waters run deep?"
Max lifted his dark brows. "Oh, these waters are not still," he said certainly. "They are churning with thwarted intent -- and something else, too, I'd wager. I wonder...yes, I wonder what it is."
Walrafen leaned a little closer to the mirror and adjusted the folds of his fresh cravat. "Mrs. Montford is just a servant, Max. Just an arrogant, overbearing housekeeper."
"Then dismiss her."
"What, and burden some other poor chap with her?" Walrafen laughed. "I could never dismiss a servant without a reference. Not unless they'd done murder or worse. And really, what trouble is she to me?"
"A vast deal, from what I've seen in your eyes," said Max, rising and throwing open the door. "And I rather doubt she will do something so convenient as to murder someone, and thereby save you from your life of -- what is it you call it? Benign neglect? Yes, then you'd be forced to go home, wouldn't you?"
Walrafen strode past him. "Put down the bloody letter, and let's go," he said. "There will be crowds in the streets around Whitehall now. We shall have to walk."
"Yes, and whose fault is that?"
Walrafen's prediction was to prove true. By the time they reached Charing Cross, they were forced to elbow their way through the throng. The usual tide of black-coated clerks and bespectacled shopkeepers surging out of Westminster in search of their luncheon was choked to a trickle by the carriages. At Max's office the corridors were filled with men rushing about in long blue police uniforms and tall hats. The stairwells were clogged with clerks and bureaucrats, even a few ladies sporting chip bonnets and parasols.
Amidst the chaos, last-minute changes were shouted out, and finally they reached Max's door. But the room was already occupied. A lady and gentleman stood looking out the window, staring down into the tumult below. At the sound of the door the lady turned, but Giles knew her instinctively. It was Cecilia, his father's young widow, and her second husband, David, Lord Delacourt.
"Good afternoon, Cecilia," Walrafen said, bowing to her. "And Delacourt. What a surprise."
"Hello, Giles, my dear," Cecilia answered. "And Max! We'd hoped to catch you here."
Cecilia floated toward Walrafen, her cheek already turned for his kiss. And he would kiss her, of course. He always did. But suddenly a small boy appeared from behind Cecilia's skirts and hurled himself between them.
"Giles! Giles!" said the boy. "We saw Sergeant Sisk! He let me wear his hat! Are you and Lord de Vendenheim going to march in the parade with him?"
His heart suddenly lighter, Walrafen swept the boy up in his arms. "No, but I am going to give a very dull speech, Simon," he said. "And I should have wanted Sisk's new coat, myself. I like those big brass buttons."
The boy laughed. Cecilia's husband stepped away from the window. "Cecilia and Simon insisted on seeing London's new police sworn in," said Delacourt a little apologetically. "I hope we're not in your way?" He was addressing Max, but his eyes were watching Walrafen.
"Not at all," Max answered.
"Good," said Delacourt. "If you gentlemen have your schedules and speeches in hand, may we take you up to Bloomsbury in our carriage? Simon, climb up on Papa's shoulders and I shall carry you downstairs." The boy scrambled over as Max threw open the door.
Cecilia smiled and laid her hand on Walrafen's arm. "Giles, I am so proud of you today," she whispered. "You make me feel quite the doting stepmother."
Walrafen let the others file out as he stared down into her beautiful blue eyes. "Don't be absurd, Cecilia," he murmured. "You are no longer my stepmother. Indeed, you are Delacourt's wife. Simon's mother, for heaven's sake."
Cecilia looked at him strangely. "As I am well aware," she murmured. "Are those things so mutually exclusive? I have always cared deeply for you, Giles. Not, of course, as a mother. But as -- well, as a sister, I daresay."
As a sister. Platonically. That was ever Cecilia's way. And it was all he could hope for now. In the eyes of the church Cecilia was his mother, and thus could never be anything else -- which was precisely what his father had intended by marrying her, devil take him. Then, as if to worsen Giles's torment, his father had died prematurely, allowing Delacourt, a scoundrel unfit to kiss Cecilia's hems, to slip shrewdly into her life. To everyone's amazement, he'd become a faithful husband. And Delacourt had better remain faithful, thought Walrafen grimly. Otherwise, he'd have to kill him. Which would be rather a shame, since he'd come to like the preening coxcomb.
Gently he propelled Cecilia out of Max's office. "I am older than you, Cecilia," he reminded her as they started down the stairs. "When you married Father, I was three-and-twenty and already sitting in the Commons. It sounds foolish for you to go on calling yourself my stepmother."
With a light laugh Cecilia halted and patted him on the cheek. "My poor, poor Giles!" She made a little pout with her lips. "David and I are part of your family, whether you want us or not. Now, speaking of family, tell me how Elias is keeping. He won't answer my letters."
"The Home Office is no place for a lady, Cecilia," Walrafen said, ignoring her question. "Can't your husband keep you in Curzon Street where you belong?"
Cecilia laughed again. "Why, how very rigid you are, Giles. I wouldn't miss this. Peel could never have pushed this bill through Parliament without your influence, and Max's hard work. Everyone says so."
Walrafen gave up. Cecilia said nothing more, and soon, with their positions in the viewing stand secured, the five of them watched and waved as the newly formed Metropolitan Police paraded about in their new uniforms. In their sweeping coats and towering hats, the men made a stirring sight. But soon the dull speeches were finished, the new officers sworn in, and the waving and cheering was over. Cecilia offered her cheek again, and dutifully Walrafen kissed it. He and Max declined an offer to return to Mayfair in Delacourt's carriage, and strolled down Upper Guildford Street on foot.
"She is a rare sort of woman, isn't she?" said Max as Cecilia waved at them through the crowd.
Walrafen said nothing for a time. Cecilia was more than rare. She was incomparable. "Speaking of rare women," he finally said, "where is your wife?"
"Home in Gloucestershire," said Max a little glumly. "Her newest niece or nephew -- possibly one of each -- is soon to make an entrance."
"And what of you, old friend?" asked Walrafen. "Will you follow her? Town will soon be empty. The shooting season, you know."
Max pushed his way past a hawking newsboy as they strode through Russell Square. "I daresay I shall," he said. "We would normally winter in Catalonia. But with the new baby coming? No."
"You could stay in town with Peel," Walrafen suggested.
Max shook his head. "Peel may be going home, too. His father is failing."
"Ah!" said Walrafen. "And soon he shall be Sir Robert, I suppose? A title instead of a beloved father. He'll think that no fair trade."
Max looked at him curiously. "Is that how you felt when your father died?"
Walrafen stared across the open square. "My father's death shocked both Cecilia and me," he finally answered. "His health had been excellent."
"My friend, I do not think you answered my question."
Walrafen looked at him darkly. "You are ever the police inspector, are you not?" he answered. "No, Max, I felt nothing when my father died. We'd been estranged since my boyhood, and despite Cecilia's efforts to reconcile us, we were barely on speaking terms at his death. And I cannot say I was sorry to see him go. Do you think less of me for it?"
Max shocked him then by settling a hand between his shoulder blades and gently patting him. "No, Giles," he said quietly. "I could never think less of you. But I do think it a waste for you to remain here in town alone. That is what you mean to do, isn't it?"
Fleetingly Giles considered it. But the truth was, he'd nowhere to go. Oh, Cecilia had already invited him to Delacourt's seat in Derbyshire. But it felt ungentlemanly to accept a man's hospitality when what you really wanted was his wife. Of course he could always go to Gloucestershire with Max and Catherine, and spend the season shooting on their estate -- he could sense Max was on the verge of inviting him. But the warmth and ebullience of Catherine's extended family always left him feeling vaguely awkward, as if he were inept at something he could not quite put a name to.
So that left only Cardow. And its memories.
"Max, I am too busy," he finally said. "So much must be done before Parliament reconvenes. There is a groundswell of support for this new radical reform association, and Peel is rightly worried. Equality is a fine notion, and I support it in principle, but this could get out of hand."
Max looked at him oddly. "My father once supported a radical movement," he said warningly. "And all it got him was a shot to the head, courtesy of Napoleon. So be careful what you do, Giles, else one of these days your noble notions are going to get you shot. Then I'll be in the damnable position of having to figure out who did it -- the Whigs, the trade unions, the radical mobs, or your own blasted party."
Giles shrugged. "Someone has to worry about En-gland's future, Max," he said. "This is my life's work."
Max chuckled quietly. "Oh, there is more to life, my friend, than one's work, a lesson I've finally learned." Then he added, half in jest, "Here's a thought, old fellow. Find yourself a wife. I can recommend it, and after all, you need an heir. Someone besides Elias, for pity's sake."
"Oh, I've a long-lost cousin or two," said Giles. "Somewhere in -- I don't know, Pennsylvania, perhaps? One of them will turn up if there's enough money in it. Americans are opportunists to the core."
Max laughed. "But isn't there some plump, pretty country girl left pining for you in Somerset?" he suggested. "After all, you need to go home and put that saucy housekeeper of yours in her place."
"Mrs. Montford?" Walrafen laughed. "I'd likely strangle her."
Max shot him a curious glance, but kept walking. "Tell me, Giles, is your Mrs. Montford old or young? Or somewhere in between?"
Walrafen lifted his shoulders dispassionately. "Quite young, I assume," he said. "They always are."
"What do you mean?"
"Uncle Elias hires them," said Walrafen. "What do you think I mean?"
"Ah!" said Max. "She has other duties in addition to her housekeeping?"
Walrafen hesitated. "Well, in the old days they often did," he admitted. "But my uncle is no longer young. I do hear, however, that he and Mrs. Montford quarrel often, and bitterly."
"Oh?" challenged Max. "And from whom?"
"Pevsner, the butler," said Walrafen. "I think Mrs. Montford put his nose out of joint, too. But since Uncle Elias has never complained to me, one must conclude there is something between them. My uncle does not have a charitable disposition."
For a while no more was said. They were walking through Berkeley Square when Max spoke again. "How's that leg today, Giles?" he asked. "You are limping a bit, I fancy."
But he'd had enough of Max and his meddling for one afternoon. "You are not responsible for my leg," he grumbled. "Walk on, for God's sake, and let us stop talking of all this old nonsense."
Max looked at him as if wondering just what nonsense he meant. The leg? His father? Cardow? Ah, so many possibilities! And none of them pleasant. But like the good friend he was, Max said no more.
Copyright © 2001 by S.T Woodhouse
A Deal With the Devil
Aubrey Montford claims to be a widowed housekeeper. Desperate to keep her new post -- and her secrets -- she transforms desolate Castle Cardow into a profitable estate. Yet soon after her employer, Lord Walrafen, returns from long years of absence, Aubrey is suspected of murder. Sparks and tempers ignite whenever she and the smoldering earl meet, but he may be her only hope.
Walrafen returns reluctantly to the childhood home he loathes. Cardow is said to be haunted -- by more than the earl's sad memories -- but it was no ghost that murdered his uncle. Is the castle's beautiful chatelaine a murderess? At the very least, she's a liar -- he has proof. Yet the truth of his soul is that he's drawn to her with a kind of fierce passion he's never known....