Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Chapter 2; Part 2

After lunch, I took Bunny and Lady Bea on an extensive tour of the house, delighted by Lady Bea's superior knowledge of the various styles on display in the different rooms, being able to tell the original Elizabethan bits from the later Jacobean bits and the Victorian reproduction bits.  I'd had no idea how much of the house was Jacobean, and before that afternoon didn't even know there was a real difference between the periods.

I left Lady Bea on the second floor, near her bedroom, and walked back to the keep with Bunny.  His room, adjacent to mine, was a nearly-exact reverse image of my room; coming through the adjoining door, one got the bizarre sensation of stepping through Alice's looking-glass.  We settled down with a couple of whiskeys for a good long gossip about mutual acquaintances and favourite queer haunts in London.

Bunny was particularly interested in hearing anything I had to tell him about Claude; but knowing Bunny's almost complete lack of discretion (he'd just told me a lot of things about people that I'm sure they wouldn't want known), I gave him an extremely Bowdlerized version of my rather extensive knowledge of the subject.  Of course, Claude himself would probably tell Bunny everything I'd left out: he wasn't very talkative but always answered any question put to him with shattering candour.

I left him to take his afternoon nap, and went back to my own room to poke around in the corners in my usual settling-in way, thinking about redecorating it to my own taste, and otherwise wasting time until tea.  I wondered if I should be doing more to entertain my guests, devising outings and pastimes and games and the like; but then, I always preferred my hosts to leave me to my own devices when I was visiting.

"Silenus!" I exclaimed when I found my friend from Hyacinth House in the drawing-room at tea, "When did you get here? Nobody told me."

"I came on the one-thirty train as I was expected to do," the old man smiled jovially at me, though there was the tiniest hint of reproach in his tone; he and Bunny and Lady Bea were meant to arrive together, but with the early arrival of the latter two, I'd quite forgotten that the former was still expected at the usual time.  Silenus would never miss a train... and I suspect that if he was late, they'd have held it for him.

Lord Arthur Longueville, known to me and in his professional capacities as Mr. Arthur Silenus, used to run a shadow-department of the government, gleaning rather personal information from unofficial and quite unorthodox sources and using it as leverage to ensure people behaved in a manner beneficial to the government's aims--a spymaster, really, though he laughed at me when I used that word.

When he retired, he converted his private mansion into Hyacinth House, the exclusively gay hotel in St. James's Street where I and several other well-to-do queers make our temporary or permanent abodes; and he kept up his personal network of spies, but instead of utilizing his specialized information on behalf of the government, he now uses it to make London a safer place for our sort, preventing vice raids and discouraging legislation in Parliament.

Before becoming a spymaster, though, Silenus had been an amateur detective, resolving such mysteries as were frequently beyond the ken of the police.  The professional police have very little access to people in so-called 'high life,' and crimes in those circles are difficult for an outsider to solve: though they don't actively impede the police, as a rule, the aristocracy and gentry are an instinctively clannish bunch.  The second son of the 7th Duke of Gelford, however, has all the access to those circles one could possibly desire, and so was extremely successful in a spectacular string of jewel-theft, blackmail, and murder cases in Society.

He looked very different sitting in the drawing-room than he ever did in London: I'd always thought he resembled a Trafalgar Square pigeon, sort of gray and nondescript, sleek and plumpish with a small round head; but for the country he changed his character altogether--instead of misty gray, his tweeds were a rather loud brown and ivory with orange and blue flecks, and his small steel-rimmed spectacles had been replaced by large tortoise-shell frames that gave him a sort of wondering, goggle-eyed look.  Instead of a city pigeon, he looked like a wood-owl.

I suppose, though, that Silenus would look like he was supposed to look wherever he was: if you encountered him in Jamaica, he'd look exactly like a colonial planter in white linen and a great big panama hat; encountered on the African veldt, he'd look like a big-game hunter in khaki and a pith helmet; so in an English country-house, of course he'd look like a bog-standard country gentleman--one would never expect to see a city pigeon in the Cotswolds, so he became an owl instead.

When Lady Bea came in, accompanied by Claude, I could see at once that she'd wasted no time in reestablishing mastery over the boy: he walked two paces behind her, did not look up from his shoes and did not speak unless addressed directly.  I could also tell he was loving every minute of it.  It takes all kinds to make a world.

After tea, I consulted Aunt Em about how much entertainment I should be providing my guests, and she backed up my previous assumption that very little in the way of planned activities was needed; I should, however, spend my time in the public rooms instead of my own rooms, in order to be available to anyone who might become unaccountably bored.  So instead of going back to my room to loaf and lounge until it was time to dress for dinner, I parked myself in the library and took a stab at writing some letters.

"Your aunt is delightful," Silenus said from the depths of a wing-back chair by the fireplace, giving me something of a start: even in his loud tweeds, he'd simply blended in to the embroidered velvet upholstery, and I didn't see him there until he spoke.

"I gather she had quite a schoolroom pash for you," I smothered the tiny annoyance over being startled under a dollop of charm.

"Oh, all the young girls were in love with me, forty years ago.  Something about me was especially appealing to prepubescent females.  I never knew what it was, though my brother insisted it was a resemblance to Rossetti's illustrations for Tennyson's Galahad, and has been calling me Young Galahad ever since."

"How galling," I smiled, not seeing the resemblance, and making a mental note to find some forty-year-old photographs of Lord Arthur.

"He married an ugly and vicious woman, so I consider myself properly avenged by Fate," he smiled back, a crocodile's grin, "And if you're wondering where to find a photograph, I posed for a group Waterhouse exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886, I'm sure you have a catalogue on these shelves.  I'm the third page-boy from the right, but it rather bears out my brother's opinion of my looks, so I don't usually admit to it."

"I need lessons on how not to broadcast my thoughts," I had reached the point where I was no longer surprised when people appeared to know exactly what I was thinking, especially Silenus who seemed always to know what I was going to think.

"Practice in a looking-glass," he advised, "That's what I did.  The trick is to create a single expression, interested and pleasant but emotionally neutral, and then hold tight to it regardless of what you're doing or saying or thinking.  Your face is made up of muscles, the same as any other part of your body; if you can learn a good batting stance at cricket, or how to sit a horse over a jump, you can learn an inscrutable facial expression."

"Oh!" I exclaimed, delighted by how simple it was.  This was exactly what I loved about Silenus: he didn't just make fun of me, he taught me things I needed to know so I could correct my errors.  I got up and went over to the shelves where I knew Royal Academy Exhibition catalogues are kept, and pulled 1886, finding him right away among a melee of Byzantine onlookers in a strangely bloodless martyrdom scene, "Well, you were quite the Pre-Raphaelite beauty, weren't you?"

"Not my favourite style of art, but we can't choose how we look, can we?"

"I'm told there are doctors in Switzerland who can," I said, repeating a bit of gossip I'd overheard recently that I thought was very interesting, about private clinics that could whittle down an ungainly nose to more button-like proportions, or tighten a dowager's face to look ten years younger, or inject you with monkey-glands to give you the energy of a child again.

This topic set us off on a feast of gossip about people who were suspected of having had such operations; and the best thing about gossiping with Silenus is that his gossip tended to be more factual than the usual rumours.  I was always amazed at the depth and variety of information he collected about people, things you'd never think could be important but which could, with proper use, influence entire governments.

We chatted on until it was time to go dress for dinner, and while being put into my dinner-clothes I related everything Silenus told me in the library, and began practicing faces in the glass while he worked.

"What about this one?" I asked, my features arranged in a mask that I thought approximated intelligent interest.

"Like you just had a dose of cod-liver oil," he reported back.

"What about this one?" I tried another.

"Toothache," he pronounced.  This was going to be harder than I'd thought.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Chapter 2; Part 1

When I woke up in the East Bedchamber, with the sun streaming through the high windows and filling the place with dusty golden light, I regretted my decision to take that room as my own.  Attractive as it was, the very vastness of it was surprisingly uncomfortable.  It was like I'd fallen asleep and woke up in a public place, or in the drawing-room or the library.  I felt very distinctly that I was in the wrong place.

"Perhaps your lordship would prefer to sleep in the dressing-room," Pond suggested when I shared my discomfiture with him over my first cup of coffee.

"It seems awfully wasteful, though, doesn't it?" I wondered, peering at the far wall, which was actually a little too far away for me to see clearly, "Hogging up this great big room and sleeping in one of the side-rooms? It's not like I need to use it as a sitting-room."

"Your lordship can always change rooms," Pond suggested.

"You know, I think I will," I decided after thinking that over for a bit.  I'd so badly wanted one of the State Bedrooms, and fought Aunt Em so hard for it, that I was reluctant to let go of the East Bedchamber; but there was no point in being uncomfortable, "The problem is, the family bedrooms in the north wing are just as big, though not as grand.  And I really don't want to go back to the nursery."

"The bachelors' rooms in the keep appear quite comfortable, my lord, and as convenient to the rest of the house as the State Bedrooms."

"Oh!  I hadn't thought of that," I handed back my coffee-cup and got out of bed, "I don't fancy sharing a bathroom again, though."

"One need not give out the other room sharing the bathroom," he pointed out, following me into the dressing-room, "Or, more conveniently, your lordship can have Sir Oliver lodged in the other room when he comes."

"You should be running the country, Pond," I turned to gape at him, stunned with admiration, "Your intellect is wasted putting clothes on a young idiot like me."

"I believe your lordship's wardrobe is more manageable than the government of Britain," he smirked a little, pleased by the compliment.

"Well, then, I'll let you make the arrangements with Coldicott.  If you want to order new furniture, or have something moved from here to there, be sure to let him know."

"I will, my lord.  Thank you," he bowed formally, then handed me my underthings before putting me into my riding-clothes.  I'd hoped that being out in the country would require less formality in my wardrobe, as it had done when I was younger; but apparently the price of adult freedoms is an increased stricture around the neck and ears, and as an adult I was required to wear a tie whenever I left my room and a hat whenever I went outdoors. But since it also meant having pots of money to throw around, the liberty to change rooms whenever I liked, and the ability to arrange my romances in comfort and privacy, I supposed it was a fair trade.

And I have to admit, I looked pretty snappy in my blue serge riding-jacket with the white shirt and scarlet tie, my breeches perfectly pressed and my boots buffed to a high lustre, my gloves and bowler and riding-crop tucked under my arm.  Aunt Em cooed over my Pond-induced splendour when I came into the breakfast-room, though for Caro it was pretty old hat, and Nanny couldn't coo if her life depended on it.

"Are you joining me for a ride, Caro?" I asked, noticing the netted silk top-hat and long gloves on the table when I set mine down.  At Castoris, she always rode in the afternoons.

"I hoped you'd give me a tour," she replied, smiling at me over her teacup, "show me your favourite places and such.  My memory of Foxbridge is very dim, I haven't been here in such a long time."

"I'd be delighted," I responded, passing over the sausages and bacon and tomatoes and eggs prepared three different ways to load myself with my favourite kedgeree, then nearly tripped over the train of her riding-habit on the way to my chair, "Can you gallop in that getup?"

"I'll race you," she said smugly, fluffing the lace frills at her throat and wrists.  Caro was the only young woman I knew who still rode sidesaddle, and her riding-habits had a very distinct eighteenth-century look to them, "A guinea to the winner?"

"You're on," I grinned, knowing full well that she wouldn't have bet me if she had the least doubt of her ability to beat me.  But I'd love to see her galloping across the meadow with all those scarlet serge skirts and black silk veils flying about, a Valkyrie as imagined by Fragonard.

"One does not make bets with ladies, Bassie," Aunt Em scolded me in a distracted manner, not looking up from her newspaper.

"It's not really a bet if I know she's going to run circles around me, Auntie.  It's more of a gift."


"Yes, ma'am," I gave in with a laugh.  I had a feeling that being an adult didn't cut much mustard with Aunt Em, and she'd keep on scolding me out of habit until I was an old man, "I'm afraid you've lost a guinea, Caro,"

"I'll just have to wait and get it from you over a game of bridge," she smirked knowingly.  I was a terrible bridge-player, generally unable to think more than two turns ahead; I usually contrived to partner a better player and follow his lead, but Caro was almost unnaturally devoted to winning and refused to partner me--I'd lost eighteen shillings at bridge the night before with Aunt Em as my partner; she's just as hopeless as I am, though she loves the game passionately.

After I'd stuffed myself with a second bowl of kedgeree and swallowed three more cups of coffee, Caro and I went down the Great Stair and through the hall; Coldicott must have some sort of silent alarm system, signaling overheard intentions to the rest of the staff from his post in the breakfast-room,  since both my and Caro's mounts were waiting in the courtyard, held by Young Grimmett (Grimmett's grandson, the head stableman) and the new stableboy, who was also a Grimmett but at fourteen was deemed too young to have a surname and was simply known as Alfie.

My usual mount was a beautiful bay mare named Polly, whose mane was the same colour as my hair--though I doubt that was why Grimmett chose her for me.  She was the offspring of the horses Mummy brought over from America, called Narragansett Pacers, spirited but biddable, high-stepping and quite graceful.  Grimmett kept them separate from the rest of the Foxbridge stable, to keep the line pure, and was realizing a lively profit for us with them on the show-jumping circuit.

Caro was given a massive gray Irish hunter called Delilah, not the usual morning-ride mount for a lady, but Grimmett's expertise could not be questioned: she looked very well on the beast, and they seemed to have an immediate affinity for each other.  When I was a boy, Grimmett told me that assigning mounts was much like breeding, taking into account the rider's temperament and seat then matching it with the horse's temperament and gait.  He was so good at it that he could judge a rider's temperament and seat just by watching them walk around for a minute.

We cantered out through the gatehouse and got up to a gallop down the drive, tearing hell-for-leather alongside the meadow to the bridge; we turned there and cut up toward the old castle ruins on the headland.  Though Caro could easily have left me in the dust, her command of Delilah so complete on her first ride, she lagged back so that I could keep up and give directions to our destination.  We slowed to a good trot when the path started to rise, so as not to exhaust the horses, and dismounted when we reached the ruins to let them rest and graze.

"Can we go inside?" Caro indicated the restored Norman keep with her crop. 

"I think so.  It's not usually kept locked," I mounted the high, narrow steps to the door, "Unless one of the village busybodies has remembered what a lovely spot it is for springtime trysts.  It happens every few years when someone gets pregnant, but then people forget and we relax the strictures.  Are you good for a climb to the top?  The view up there is incredible."

"You seem to forget that I'm just as much a man as you," she whacked me on the back of the leg with her crop, "And you're as much a lady as me."

"Well, it is easy to forget when you're gussied up like the Dauphine of France," I rubbed my leg, hoping the bruise wouldn't be too ugly, then pointed across the lofty great hall, "There's another corkscrew stair over in that corner.  I'll race you to the top."

I had a slight head start and made pretty good time, but she still beat me, so I gave her the guinea I'd promised for a race at breakfast.

"Oh, it really is breathtaking!" she marveled at the view, walking over to the crenelated parapet and leaning out precariously over the edge, "It's not as high as Castoris, but the country is so much more varied.  Can I live up here when we're married?"

"You don't want to live in the house?" I was unexpectedly stung by the request.  I hadn't given it much thought, but when I had envisioned our married life, I'd thought we'd be in fairly close proximity to each-other, and more importantly in close proximity to the nursery wing.

"I assumed you'd want to live separately," she turned to look at me, surprised by the hurt in my voice.

"Well, I didn't think we'd share a room, but I thought you'd want to be close to the children."

"I hadn't thought of that," she looked at me with her head to one side, "I was thinking more of our love-lives.  I didn't think you'd want to share a house with my girlfriends."

"I wouldn't mind at all.  But if you have an objection to my boyfriends..."

"Not in the least," she interrupted me, turning to lean against the parapet, "We've just misunderstood each other.  And perhaps I'm just a little uneasy about taking on a thing as big as Foxbridge Castle.  It was so much smaller and cozier in my mind's eye, I guess because I was mostly familiar with the nursery wing, and it's so much less vast than Castoris.  But so many rooms, and all these servants, and all the traditions?  It's a little intimidating.  This tower seems so much more manageable."

"I know what you mean," I came to lean beside her, looking over to the great house in the near distance, "But Aunt Em will stay as long as we like.  She was a great help to Mummy, I'm sure she'd be happy to help you get settled, as well."

"I'm not an American, though.  Your mother not only kept Lady Emily in the house, she didn't let the Dowager Countess leave, either.  Lady Emily was telling me about it last night, that the dowager lived and died in the room you've taken over, long after your mother became Countess. It's unheard of, to keep a dowager in residence with the incumbent, but her American enthusiasm overrode our English traditions.  I don't think the daughter of a duke would get the same laxity."

"I think we're going to have to invent some of our own traditions, Caro.  We're not exactly the most conventional couple.  If you want to live up here, or in the Lodge, or in a tent on the grounds for that matter, you'll do whatever you like so long as you're happy."

"You're awfully sweet," she turned her head to look at me, then kissed me rather more passionately than she ever had before--which I found rather more stimulating than I would have expected. 

"Wow," I breathed out when she let me up for air.

"Funny old world, isn't it?" her eyes looked as lustfully surprised as mine probably were.

"Distinctly," I agreed, then moved away from her.  I was feeling an urge that I'd only ever felt with men before, and it was disturbing--though certainly not disagreeable.  But to act on it at this juncture would be idiotic: we weren't married yet, and didn't want to be married for a couple of years.  It would hurry things along considerably if she started producing heirs before next Season even started, and I'd hate to deprive Aunt Em or the Duchess of the grand society wedding they were already starting to plan out for us.

"There's a car coming across the bridge," Caro said after we both took a moment to compose ourselves, facing in different directions, "Dark green two-seater.  A Lagonda by the look of it."

"Oh, damn, Bunny's here already?  I thought he was coming on the train.  I have to get back."

Rushing back down through the tower, we remounted and set off down the path that led toward the house at a breathless gallop, and got there just before Bunny's Lagonda came over the manmade brook that passes for a moat.  We slipped through the gatehouse just ahead of him and reined in by the mounting block; I slid off and ran over to the car, where Bunny and Lady Bea were just starting to disentangle themselves.

"Bunny! Lady Bea!" I boomed out, striding over to them and helping Lady Bea out of the car, "Welcome to Foxbridge Castle!"

"How long have you been rehearsing that line, old sock?" Bunny teased me, getting out and coming around to shake my hand.  He looked very big and extremely countrified in a slightly baggy Norfolk suit and a driving cap turned backward against the wind, his handsome round face hidden behind driving goggles.

"Weeks and weeks," I admitted with a laugh.

"It was pretty good," he leaned in and kissed me on the cheek, "I almost believed you were a country squire."

"I was expecting you on the one-thirty train," I took Lady Bea's little travel case, one of those surprisingly heavy square articles that ladies keep by them on the train when the rest of their luggage has gone into the van.

"I'm afraid I delayed Mr. Vavasor when he came to pick me up in Park Lane.  I had some difficulty with this hat," she indicated the terribly chic little black cloche that enclosed her head, decorated with a large glassy jewel and a bit of veiling, then smoothed down the rumples in her sleek sealskin coat, "It's new and just a trifle too tight, I had to brush my hair down flat to get into it.  We missed the train.  Fortunately I'd already sent my luggage on, so it will arrive on time, at any rate."

"You mean you got here in less than two hours?" I gaped.  The train I'd expected them on took four and a half hours, including a wait and change of trains at Gloucester, "How fast does this thing go?"

"Eighty-something most of the way here," Bunny beamed proudly, "Though of course we had to slow down a bit when we left the main road."

"Golly!" I gasped, impressed.  My Rolls-Royce, which I'd left in Town on the assumption that I wasn't going to need it in the country, had only ever got up to fifty, though the salesman swore up and down that it would go eighty-five if I took it out to the proving-grounds at Hendon.

"What a beautiful house!" Lady Bea exclaimed, taking in the facade that towered darkly over us like a cliff as we walked toward the steps, "I thought it was Victorian when I first saw it, but close-to it appears to be Elizabethan, and the towers look even older."

"Well spotted!" I was amazed at her perception, "It is Elizabethan, with Victorian additions made from Norman bits and pieces brought down from the old castle.  You must be something of an expert."

"My father was devoted to the study of domestic architecture," she said modestly, deferring the praise, "He had loads of books about it, filled with lovely drawings, that he'd let me look through when I was little.  And he gave passing commentary on every building he entered.  One picks things up when one hears them repeated often enough."

When we entered the house, I took them to the morning-room to meet Aunt Em and Nanny, then left them there so I could bathe after my ride.  When I arrived at my room, though, I found neither Pond nor any of my possessions.  Somewhat bewildered, I went on to the keep and peeked into the first-floor bedrooms until I found him.

"I hadn't expected you to move me so quickly," I said when I discovered him in the northwest corner suite, laying out my suit in the large alcove that was set up as a dressing-room.  The keep rooms were made up of small square chambers opening into one another through sturdy Romanesque arches, and the rooms I was occupying consisted of four squares: two squares made a sitting-room and one a dressing-room, with the fourth square in a turret raised up three steps and housing the bed in elaborate medieval hangings.

It was much more comfortable than the vast East Bedchamber, despite its northern exposure and tiny windows in stone walls: built on a more human scale, warmed with rich tapestries and lots of lamps, and carpeted in overlapping piles of fur pelts and woven fleece rugs.  I fell into an immense high-backed chair by the roaring fireplace, put my feet up on the snarling stuffed head of a great Russian bear, and loudly congratulated Pond on his endless cleverness.

"I am gratified you are pleased, my lord," he bowed before kneeling to pull off my boots.  I shed the rest of my clothes on the way to the bathroom, with him following behind and picking up the pieces as I went--though he didn't follow me all the way into the bath, much to my relief.  The tub was already filled and scented, so I sank in gratefully and lit a cigarette from the silver box thoughtfully placed on a little Moroccan stool by my elbow.

I hoped Aunt Em wouldn't be too cross with me for my sudden change of rooms after fighting her so hard for the rooms I'd had, but I was ready to point out to her that the East Bedchamber could now be used for important guests; and one of my guests was the Right Honourable James Ponsonby, sixth Marquess of Faringdon, whom she would consider impressive enough for a State Bedroom (even though I knew him as Jingo, Earl of Jarrow by courtesy before he acceded, the prefect I'd seduced in my first year at Eton--six years my senior, he was already married and embarking on a Parliamentary career, but we still met up occasionally in London for a nostalgic afternoon).

Between the unexpected aftermath of Caro's kiss and then thinking about Jingo at Eton, I had to spend a little extra time in the bath, and was feeling pleasantly tired when I came out.  I was lost in thought as Pond put me into a pretty blue-and-gray lounge, and when he was finished I wandered idly around my new rooms.

These were the rooms that I'd intended Twister to have when he came on Saturday, but he wouldn't know that he was being shunted into a smaller room on my account: he'd only know that he would be separated from me by nothing more than a bathroom door, and we'd have free access to each other every night of his stay without anyone seeing either of us in a corridor after dark.  I'd have to give Pond another rise in pay for thinking up this scheme.

Looking back from the much clearer perspective of hindsight, I realize it was rather stupid to have two old lovers (three, if you count my single drunken night with Bunny back in Oxford) to stay at the same time as Twister, who was the only man I loved but by no means the only man in my life--though I didn't know if he knew that or not.

The second lover I'd invited was Tony (Colonel Antony Gascoyne, CBE etc.), with whom I'd had a brief but intense affair in early August, when he first moved in to Hyacinth House, the queer hotel that was my London residence.  Daily proximity had cooled our ardour rather quickly, but we still found each-other sufficiently interesting to spend the occasional night in one-another's rooms, though we hadn't done so since Twister and I became lovers.

On the other hand, I didn't have many friends with whom I'd never been physically intimate, so it was only inevitable that my old and new lovers would overlap a bit at any house-party I gave.  I only hoped that none of them would say or do anything to make Twister jealous.  He is made of sterner ethical stuff than I, and might break from me if given sufficient cause.  One would think that would make me not give him any cause; but I can be rather stupid when properly inspired, and at the age of twenty-one such inspirations are annoyingly frequent.

It was nearly lunch-time when I finally got bored with my solitary musing, so I went downstairs to play the daily game of "where is Aunt Em serving luncheon?"  In the winter, and on rainy days, luncheon was always served in the great hall; but on fine days, she liked to have the midday meal outside the house somewhere, and liked to make it a surprise.  If one was not feeling adventurous, the servants all knew where it would be, and you could ask them to direct you; but I'm nothing if not adventurous, so I always went hunting.

I found them in the conservatory at the edge of the Italian Garden on the south side of the house, perpendicular to the new chapel.  It was the newest building on the estate, put up by my grandfather as a wedding present for my grandmother.  It was largely inspired by the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition, made of soaring iron girders and plated from foundation to roof-ridge with square panes of glass, featuring a lofty rotunda in its centre and filled with wild birds, butterflies, and lizards living among the exotic tropical plants from all over the Empire.

The luncheon-table was laid beside the fountain in the middle of the rotunda, which trickled gently rather than spraying or pouring, so as not to disturb the brilliant-coloured fish that lived in its basin; Aunt Em and Nanny were ensconced with cool drinks on the other side of the fountain, where elaborate white wicker chairs and settees had been put out for us to lounge on as we gathered for the meal.  I accepted a lemonade lightly spiked with gin from the footman (no idea which one), and settled down in a chair to wait for the rest of the party, who turned up in due course.

Since warm-weather luncheons were something in the way of a 'moveable feast,' Cook always prepared something cold: iced shrimps with a spicy Oriental sauce, Waldorf salad, and cold sliced beef with a potato souffle on that particular day.  Conversation was of a typical country-house nature: though Bunny and Lady Bea were both residents of London, they'd grown up in the country and still frequented their family estates, so were full of news about crops and chickens and hunts in Somerset and Devonshire (respectively).

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Chapter 1; Part 3

We trooped in to the dining-room in a straggling mass instead of two-by-two, since there weren't enough of us to consider precedence, and Aunt Em directed us to our seats.  I was seated, for the first time in my life, at the head of the table, where my father had always sat, and my grandfather and great-grandfather before him, and their grandfathers and great-grandfathers going back twelve generations.  The sensation of seeing things from a new point-of-view was intensified, looking at the white-draped table from one end instead of somewhere on the sides.

It also put me in direct line of sight to my mother's best portrait, painted by Sargent shortly after her marriage, which hangs over the sideboard at the far end of the room. She looked so exquisite in that picture, standing beside the marble fireplace in the Great Chamber, luminous against the rich paneling, wearing a pale apricot-coloured taffeta presentation gown, decked in her court jewels complete with the famous Saint-Clair ruby tiara nesting in her piled-up auburn hair; there was a twinkle of gaiety in her eyes and a laughing little half-smile on her face, as if someone had just said something utterly delightful.

The companion piece of my father, standing at the other side of the same fireplace and also in court dress, his face glowing in ivory and gold above the severe black and white, as sweet and pretty as a girl despite the elaborate mustache, had already been donated to the National Portrait Gallery, though a copy of it hung over the fireplace in the study.  Both portraits had originally hung on either side of the pipe-organ in the music-room, but had been separated after Mummy died so that Pater could look at her in her accustomed place at dinner.  But then he never came back to Foxbridge again after having the portrait moved.

I sometimes wondered if it was only grief that drove my father from Foxbridge, or if want of money played a part.  After all, the marriage settlement turned over the income, but not the principal, of the greater part of her fortune to him, and then only until her death or the dissolution of their marriage.  When she died, her entire fortune came to me, the income to be mine when I came of age and the capital when I married; all Pater had left was some of the dowry and the income off the estates: a considerable sum, but not enough to keep Foxbridge Castle and Vere House going in the style to which he was accustomed.

But then, I had no idea what my father felt like.  He never spoke to me if he could help it; and when he did speak to me, he was brusque and offensive.  The only things I ever found out about him were filtered through Aunt Em or the newspapers.

Over dinner, I had Caro on my left and Lady Heard on my right, with Nanny between Lady Heard and Aunt Em at the other end of the shortened table (the table was very cleverly made, and could be expanded by hooking smaller side-tables into it, reaching anywhere from six feet to twenty-five feet long); it was only when we were seated that I noticed Claude hadn't joined us--I'd once again completely forgotten he was around.  One would think someone as gorgeous, and as goofy, as Claude Chatroy would impress himself on one's memory, but his personality was just so untextured that I didn't notice him at all unless he was talking, or if his place-setting was sitting empty.

"I'm so sorry I'm so late, Lady Emily," Claude gasped out, running into the room a moment later and skidding to a halt behind his chair, his face flushed and his breathing laboured, as if he'd run a great distance.  I was rather amazed by that, since his room was quite close-by, at least in relation to the rest of the house, "I'm afraid I fell asleep."

"That's quite all right, dear boy," Aunt Em beamed at him, gesturing for him to take his seat, then gesturing to Coldicott to serve the soup.

"I'd have thought you got enough sleep on the train, old bean," I said to him, wondering why he was so sloppy about his clothes.  His shirt-front was slightly askew, and his tie very poorly arranged--even before the advent of Pond, I could dress myself better than that.

"Claude sleeps like a dormouse, all he has to do is sit still and he's out like a light," Caro said to the company, then leaned over and said very quietly to me, "I think 'sleep' was a euphemism.  He may have been in bed, but he certainly wasn't sleeping."

"Oh!" I said, seeing her point: on further inspection, one could see that the flush in his face was not the sort that comes from mere running, but rather from more involved and pleasurable exercise; but then, with whom had he been 'sleeping'?  If he thought he could go around getting my housemaids in trouble, he had another think coming.

The rest of the meal passed without much in the way of conversation--at least not general conversation: Nanny and Lady Heard kept on with their debates of eugenics and evolution and ethics, while the rest of us listened, or pretended to listen while tucking into our really excellent dinner (we were very fortunate in our cook, she was as skilled with sauces and pastry as a trained chef out of Paris).  I had a feeling Nanny's role in monopolizing the dinner conversation was going to earn her one of Aunt Em's specialty non-scoldings, where she made you feel an absolute heel for something you'd done without actually criticizing you or even directly mentioning the wrongdoing.

But I figured, why not let them have their heads?  I'm sure they were both hungry for intellectual stimulation: though Aunt Em is by no means ignorant, her interests tend toward the ladylike--music and gardens, watercolours and gossip, etc.--while Nanny was more interested in intellectual pursuits; and Lady Heard, no doubt accustomed to the company of her own serious type at womens'-group meetings and in Parliament, had just spent two weeks with nobody her own age and sex to talk to but the Duchess of Buckland, who was even more exclusively domestic than Aunt Em.  It wasn't doing us any harm to have such elevated talk at dinner, even if we couldn't participate much.

When dinner came to a close, I got up and started out toward the drawing-room with Aunt Em, but she made a motion with her head to indicate that I was supposed to stay with Claude for at least a few minutes, being gentlemanly about the port and cigars.  But neither of us care very much about port, nor do we smoke cigars, so the intermission was rather pro forma.

"I say, old boy," I offered him my cigarette case, but he declined, "I don't mean to be personal, but what were you really doing right before dinner?  And more importantly, with whom?"

"Oh!" he blushed scarlet at having been caught out, "I was, well... you know.  With William."

"William?" the name was unfamiliar.

"The footman," he explained, "The blond, good-looking one."

"Aren't they all blond and good-looking?" I wondered.  I'm pretty sure that described most of the new staff, male and female.  I think Colidicott has a thing for the Germanic types.

"I don't know," he blinked with surprise, as if I'd actually expected him to have an answer, "I haven't seen them all."

"But really, Claude, it simply isn't done," I chided as gently as I could; at least he couldn't get a footman pregnant, but it was still a bit beyond the pale of civilized behaviour to dally with the household staff.

"I didn't mean to," he pouted a little bit.

"Not the sort of thing one does by accident, surely!" I laughed.

"Well, no," he picked up his port and took a hearty swallow, then made a terrible face that would have given my grandfather (who'd paid a guinea a bottle for it in 1885) an absolute fit, "But he sort of... I don't mean to say he forced me or anything, but... he came in to help me dress when I was just out of the bath, and he sort of started in on me without asking, and, well... you know.  It's not the sort of thing one can stop until it's finished."

"Yes, quite. I see what you mean," and I really did see: though I didn't much fancy him, myself (I prefer my men a little more mature, and a lot more intelligent), I have to admit he's a particularly toothsome morsel, especially out of his clothes; William may not have been able to help himself.  I would, however, have to find some way of communicating to the footman that he was not to molest my guests, without going through the usual channels of involving Aunt Em and Coldicott, "Shall we join the ladies?"

They weren't in the drawing-room, though, as I had expected: inspired by an audience, Aunt Em had ordered coffee served in the music-room, so she could play and sing.  Aunt Em is something of a musical prodigy, and if she'd not been born the daughter of an earl, she might have gone on to the concert stage.  When Claude and I came in, she was playing the harp and singing a wonderfully melancholy Irish folk song; but there weren't many instruments in that room she couldn't play: the pipe-organ, the piano, the harpsichord, the violin, the cello, even the Spanish guitar and the Elizabethan virginal.

When she'd finished with the song, Aunt Em went over to the piano, which was more centrally placed so she could take part in the conversation while noodling away in a sort of free-form medley, much like a pianist in a restaurant; without taking her hands off the keys, she motioned me over to sit by her--she could say a great deal with only her eyes, as big and round as my own though a different colour, soft silvery blue; it must be where I get the emotional transparency that Caro had teased me about.

"We have to get a girl for Mr. Chatroy," she said, without preamble.

"Get a girl for him?  How unusually accommodating of you," I smirked, "Do we always provide concubines at Foxbridge?"

"Don't be crude, Bassie," she tried to sound offended but couldn't hide a smile of amusement, "I mean for dinner.  I had all the seating arrangements completed for the party, but I hadn't planned for Mr. Chatroy.  I need another girl at the table, so he won't be odd-man-out.  Do you have any lady-friends you could invite?"

"I'm afraid Caro and Lady Bea are the length and breadth of my feminine acquaintance, at least so far as ladies I know well enough to ask down without their husbands or brothers.  Perhaps Caro can ask a friend?"

"Really, Bassie, now you're of age you can't spend all your time with men.  You're not in Oxford, anymore."

"I don't spend all my time with men," I protested, though since I live in an exclusive hotel for men, and belong to a half-dozen different gentlemen's clubs--as well as doing all of my, shall we say, informal socializing among men--she was very close to the mark, "I've met lots of girls, I just haven't got to know any of them terribly well.  There are so many of them, after all, and I've only had one Season."

"Well, never mind," she dismissed the question with a delicate shrug as she segued from one tune to another, "I'll ask Miss Brazington over from Haresden Hall.  If she's not available, I'll ask Lady Caroline to suggest a friend."

"Haresden?" the name sounded familiar, "Isn't that one of ours?  I seem to remember something about it."

"Sir Lionel's family have had the leasehold for three generations; but yes, it's part of the Foxbridge estate, a few miles upriver."

"Oh, I remember!  Mummy brought me along when she and Pater went to visit there, once.  I remember because I asked why it was called Haresden when hares don't live in dens, they live in warrens.  I don't remember the Brazingtons, though.  Do they not hunt?" the Cotswold Hunt was pretty much the only time I met the neighbouring gentry.

"Sir Lionel used to hunt, but he lost a leg in the War, poor man, and can't sit a horse anymore.  And the animal strong enough to carry Lady Brazington over a jump hasn't been bred yet," she said cattily, "Miss Brazington rides, but she's one of those sentimental girls who feel sorry for the fox."

"Well, they are awfully cute--when they're not eviscerating hens," I laughed.  One usually only met such girls in Town, country life tends to afford girls a more realistic view of Dame Nature's habits.

"She is otherwise exceptionally intelligent. Nanny met her at Shrewsbury College when she went to Oxford for the Gaudy.  She's reading history."

"A University girl?" I gasped in mock-horror, teasing Aunt Em, "Is that quite suitable?"

"Mockery ill-suits you, Sebastian," she spared me a withering glance before changing tunes again, "I'd hate to think where your education would be if Nanny hadn't been to Oxford."

"Well, yes, you know I was only joking," I put down my coffee and raised my voice a little so the subject of our conversation could hear me, "My tutor at Eton was very impressed with how well-prepared I was when I came.  He said I was better-educated than the boys who came in from prep schools."

"Michelangelo couldn't make a statue from shale," Nanny said in one of her rare, roundabout, and obscure compliments, which made me blush a little.

"It would be a silly thing to do, certainly," Caro said, and I couldn't tell if she was making fun of Nanny, of Aunt Em, or of me.  I was still learning to understand her sense of humour.

"Would anyone care to play bridge?" Aunt Em stopped playing and turned on the stool to face the company.

(Something something something...end the chapter somehow, TBD)

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Chapter 1; Part 2

After tea, Aunt Em and Nanny escorted Caro and Lady Heard to their rooms. Though single young ladies were usually quartered on the third floor of the south wing, above the State Rooms, Caro was the only single young lady on the guest-list, and Aunt Em didn't want her to get lonely, so put her in one of the couples' rooms on the second floor, across the hall from Lady Heard.

I walked Claude up to the room I'd had Coldicott set aside for him when I wired ahead from the Beverborough station, which was on the first floor of the keep, one of the rooms just off the old chapel.  I always thought it would be more poetic to keep the young ladies in the keep, separated from the rest of the house by a chapel, but it was on the north side of the house and tended to be a little chilly.  Besides, the chapel had been converted into a combination billiards-room and smoking-room (though it was still called 'the old chapel'), a sort of gentlemen's recreation hall, during the 1850 renovation.

I had to stop a minute and think about where to go next: up until that week, I'd always stayed in my old nursery room on the third floor of the north wing; but when I came down in July to make arrangements for the autumn, I decided that it was time for me to move into a better room, a room suitable to a full-fledged adult, heir to the earldom and a rich man in his own right.  There were plenty to choose from, of course, but for some perverse reason, I really wanted one of the State Bedrooms on the first floor of the central block.

The Queen's Bedchamber was too much of a museum-piece, having been kept almost exactly as it had been when Elizabeth came to stay in 1480, and again in 1487 and 1498, with only the addition of a bathroom and electricity marring the shrine-like antiquity.  Then there was the West Bedchamber, which had been shared  by my parents: Pater lived in the larger of the two dressing-rooms while Mummy lived in the main room that had been furnished to her taste in Art Nouveau and mauve watered silk: but it seemed somehow sacrilegious to sleep in there.

That left the East Bedchamber, which had been my grandmother's room before she died, but was surprisingly masculine for a woman's room (before my parents, the lord and lady of the house had always lived quite separately in the West and East Bedchambers, respectively).  Grandmother had loved old tapestries, and aside from collecting some of the finest in the land for the house, for her own room she collected together every old moth-eaten rag that had been consigned to the attics, using the uneaten parts as upholstery on the chairs, bedstead, and mahogany wall-panels.

It was a delightful room, giving the illusion of being out in the forest, interrupted by little vignette views of distant towns and oddly-shaped castles, with startling little pieces of people and animals peeking out from unexpected corners.

Once I cleared out all the busy little occasional tables and spider-ridden palms  (as no doubt Caro would have done), it required no further rearranging to suit me.  The furniture was old-fashioned, but not yet antique, heavy and solid and very comfortable; the big bay window held my favorite view, over the broad terrace like the shore of an ocean of lawn, bordered by game-infested acres of old-growth forest, with an ornamental lake in the middle (my schoolroom had faced the same direction, so the view always inspired daydreams).

Aunt Em had dithered a bit when I demanded that room for my own use; it had been her mother's room, after all, and she had memories attached to it.  She also worried what my father would think about me taking over one of the State Bedrooms instead of one of the north-wing family bedrooms, as was seemly for the heir.  But since I did not intend to radically alter the room, and since Pater hadn't set foot in Foxbridge Castle for over a decade and wouldn't know unless she told him, she finally gave in to me.

When I got to my room, I found Pond deep in the wardrobe of the dressing-room, obviously enjoying having so much space to work in.  I'd left him behind on my last visit, much to his annoyance, so it had all the delight of newness for him.  And since the room was pretty much new to me, too, we were in the same boat--although he didn't seem to be at all intimidated by the grandeur of it all, while I was feeling just a tiny bit uncomfortable with it.

"Do I have any Norfolk suits?" I asked, peeking into the truly massive wardrobe that took up most of one wall, marveling at the neatness of it: each hanger was exactly the same distance apart, each suit facing the same direction, with like colours together.

"Yes, my lord," he answered in a somewhat incredulous tone, as if I'd asked whether or not the sky was blue.

"Where?" I pursued, examining the suits on the rack, none of which appeared to be a Norfolk suit.

"In the clothes-press, my lord," he smiled at my confusion, "I put all of our outdoor clothes, for hunting, riding, and the like in the clothes-press beside the door to the corridor; such clothing has to be cleaned frequently, I thought it best to keep it separate.  The odour of cleaning-fluid might overpower the dressing-room, it's not very well-ventilated."

"Oh, I see," it was news to me that there was a clothes-press near the door to the corridor.  The bedrooms in the main block of the house were really suites of rooms, each one with two smaller rooms attached, which could be used for dressing-rooms or secondary bedrooms for husbands or servants, with bathrooms and clothes-presses and miscellaneous little spaces tucked in here and there.

I didn't have any use for the second little room, which was a little bigger than my bedroom in London--and its emptiness rather annoyed me.  It was furnished rather vaguely, with a narrow canopied bed against the wall like a couch and a large wardrobe, the basic furniture of all the dressing-rooms in the house; it had no access except through the bedroom, unless you count the door to the poky little box-room that I'd stuffed with Grandmother's bibelots, which in turn had a door into the corridor.

I often caught myself standing in the doorway, trying to think of something to do with it: maybe a laboratory in which I could conduct Holmesian chemical experiments on cigarette ash and finger-prints, or a study where I could pin butterflies to boards or paste foreign stamps into an album.  But I had no training in chemistry, nor enough patience to collect things, so the little room just sat there, taunting me with unnamed possibilities.

Since I had a good deal of time before I needed to dress for dinner, I went over to the bureau and poured myself a drink (being a grown-up entailed having a drinks-tray in my room, an unexpected luxury) before heading in to the bath.  Pond had already started the coal-burning water heater, so all I had to do was wait for the needle on the gauge to hit 100, turn the spigot, and watch the tub fill up with water the perfect temperature for bathing.  This was deluxe technology in 1902, when my parents married, and was already amusingly quaint twenty-five years later.

I lay in the tub for a long time, sipping my drink and staring at the ventilator in the dropped tin ceiling as the steam from the bath and the smoke from my cigarette escaped through it.  I'd locked the door when I went in, a not-so-subtle hint to Pond that I wanted my bath-time to myself again, and very happily made use of my privacy as had been my habit before going to stay at Castoris: the bath was my favorite place to have a 'ham' (as they say in Cockney, rhyming with ham-shank), warm and wet and no mess to clean up.

When I emerged, he was in the dressing-room waiting calmly, with my evening clothes laid out in readiness, betraying no particular dudgeon about having been locked out of the bathroom.  I let out a relieved sigh, not realizing until I did so that I was holding my breath and bracing against him being cross with me; but he seemed perfectly happy to have let me scrub my own back and dry myself off.

"I rather miss the ghost," I said later, making conversation as Pond adjusted my braces, one of the more tedious moments in the ritual, "I always saw him when I came back from the bath to dress for dinner."

"Hmph," he snorted a little more forcefully than usual, almost angrily.

"You're not afraid of ghosts, are you?" I wondered.  That might be a better explanation of why he always stuck close to me at Castoris, rather than the simple distance between bedroom and bathroom.

"Not afraid, my lord," he said quite angrily, though on the surface he was perfectly calm, finishing off the braces and turning to pick up the waistcoat, "But I found the thing very unpleasant.  It was uncomfortable being alone in that wing, knowing it was about somewhere."

"Well, then, I advise you to stay away from the Great Stair at night," I thought it a good idea to arm him with the worst: though we don't have anywhere near as many ghosts as Castoris Castle, we have our share, "There's a fairly strong apparition of a lady in a Jacobean ruff and farthingale who comes down the stairs at a little after ten every night, though you can only see her clearly when it's raining.  Otherwise she's just a moving cold spot in a very faint mist, but you don't want to walk through her.  I stood in her path on a dare once when I was a child, and it took me hours to get warm again."

"I don't imagine I'll have much occasion to use that staircase, my lord," he said with a glimmer of a smile, which I chose to read as relief, though it might have been amusement.  But he was right, the Victorian remodel supplied the house with a half-dozen turrets with corkscrew stairs inside, allowing servants to get from place to place without being seen.

I had learned through other conversations that the house Pond grew up in was fairly new, built in 1875 or so, and didn't have so much as a glimmer of a ghost yet; the baronet's house outside Oxford was older, late-Georgian I think, but just as bereft of spirits.  The supposed Viking at Castoris Castle was the first ghost he'd ever seen, and before then he hadn't even believed they existed.  He still wasn't convinced, either, which I think made him more uncomfortable.  Having a ghost walk through you is unpleasant, but I imagine it would be worse if you weren't entirely confident of what it was.

I went on to tell him about Foxbridge's other ghosts as he finished dressing me, though none of them was as vivid and regular as the Lady on the Stair.  There was a very weak poltergeist in the nursery wing, who quietly moved things around at night, and something that made a sort of whispering, moaning, scrabbling noise under the marble floor of the old chapel during full moons.  And there was a very interesting but startlingly unpredictable thing in the old tower keep on the headland, which would appear as a plump, elderly man in medieval dress, just as real as you like, sitting in a chair or leaning against a table--but for only a moment, and then he was gone.

Though Saint-Clair children of every generation made up stories about the identities of our ghosts (the moaning thing in the old chapel being a favourite subject: I imagined it was a werewolf buried alive under the floor, though I later discovered there was nothing under the old chapel floor except cold-larders), none of them became generally accepted.  We could guess the historical periods of the Tower Man and the Lady on the Stair based on what was visible of their attire, and naturally assumed that the nursery poltergeist had been a child, but had no idea (or interest in, really) who they'd been in life.

I finished my lecture just as he finished brushing me off, so he thanked me for the information and I thanked him for his usual stellar work in making me presentable, and we went our separate ways to dinner.

Being on the first floor of the main block meant that I would likely be the first one down for dinner every night, since I was closer to the great hall than anyone else.  Coldicott was there with the drinks tray, conversing quietly with one of the new footmen (I don't remember which one, I never did learn all of their names properly that autumn, there were too many of them), though of course they cheesed it when I came into the room.

I asked Coldicott to mix me a martini, which I'd taught him when I was there last.  He was suspicious of the concept of cocktails at first, with the very un-English ice and the specialized utensils, but he eventually found he enjoyed the shaking, and the precision required of pouring the ingredients just right.  Minor details and exacting precision, I've learned, are catnip to butlers and valets.

I took my drink over to the big bay window and watched the sun setting behind the steeple of the village church, colouring the sky scarlet and gold for a few precious moments.  In most English houses, the curtains would have been drawn against the sun to preserve the carpets and paneling, but three extravagant countesses in a row had decreed that seeing the sunset in summer was worth any amount of damage to the old family portraits, and none had hung curtains in the hall...though of course the better portraits had been moved.  Extravagance is one thing, but letting a Holbein or a Van Dyck fade and spoil is just vandalism.

"That was gorgeous," Caro breathed out when the sky finally went from purple to soft violet and the Evening Star glimmered into view.

"Don't sneak up on me like that!" I scolded her: I'd almost spilt my drink.

"You're jumpy," she observed, amused, "I'd have thought you'd go all serene and complacent once you were home."

"I don't feel quite settled," I admitted, "Changing rooms, and taking on the housekeeping, has made everything feel different."

"Petterby said something very like that when he moved out of the nursery," she hooked her arm around my elbow and leaned against me (the Marquess of Petterby is her elder brother, the Duke of Buckland's heir), "He said it was then that he really understood the whole show would be his someday, to have and to hold unto death do you part."

"It's a weighty realization," I agreed.  I was glad to hear I wasn't the only one to feel that way.  I wondered if my father had felt the same--and considering the estate was very nearly bankrupt when he acceded, it must have been rather more harrowing.  Mummy's dowry had put it back on its feet, and the rest of her fortune was now mine, so at least I knew I could take care of the place.

Our conversation was interrupted by the advent of Aunt Em, Nanny, and Lady Heard, who entered the room en masse, chattering as they came.  I'd never before seen Lady Heard chatter, so I assumed that Aunt Em had already had the desired civilizing effect on her.

I realized with something of a start that Nanny was much older than I remembered her being, with wrinkles around her eyes and grey threads in her hair, and had become quite mannish in her middle age.  When I was little, she was very severe-looking, but she was pretty in her own way, with a very motherly quality about her; a decade with no children to care for seemed to have changed her, and she struck me as being rather a fatherly type of person--not like my father, of course, but like one imagines a father to be, sternly reserved  but kind. And though she was dressed in the same sort of dark and unadorned clothes as always, there was something sharper around the edges, something military about them.

Watching her and Aunt Em talking with Lady Heard, not touching but still speaking in tandem like two beings with one mind, I began to wonder if there were something more between them than friendship and a professional relationship.  I knew that Nanny had moved into the room next door to Aunt Em's, when she left the nursery; but with my Lesbian fiancee at my side, I looked at them through her eyes and started wondering if Aunt Em and Nanny were Lesbians, too.

"Yes, they are," Caro answered my unasked question, before I could even open my mouth, "Typical old-fashioned gentlewoman couple.  I spotted it right away."

"Do you read minds?" I wondered, thinking of several other times she'd said something aloud that I had only been thinking.

"Not that I know of," she laughed, pulling on my arm to encourage me to move towards the others, "But you have an incredibly expressive face, you're completely transparent."

"Am I really that easy to read?  No wonder I never get away with fibbing."

"You'd make a fine film actor," she pecked me on the cheek, "Your eyes say what you're thinking as clearly as if they were flashing semaphores, they wouldn't even need to caption you."

"Who is capturing Bassie?" Aunt Em wondered, having caught and misunderstood only the last bit of the sentence.

"Lady Caroline was saying that Sebastian could be a film actor, Emily," Nanny explained.  She'd always had ears like a bat: you could whisper a bad word halfway across the meadow and she'd have the switch ready when you came in for tea, "And that his face is so expressive, they wouldn't need captions."

"Oh, no, that would be quite unsuitable," Aunt Em frowned, "Though of course you're quite as good-looking as any film actor, and you did reasonably well in The Tempest when you were at Eton.  But professional acting is simply not a reputable occupation, my dear."

"Oh, I don't know about that, Auntie," I sat down beside her and took her hand, fiddling with the ornate opal and moonstone rings on her fingers as I did in childhood, "So many Society people are marrying actors and actresses these days.  It's much more respectable than it used to be."

"Society people, perhaps," she sniffed, "But not people like us. We can't go around marrying just anybody.  That's why I am so happy you and Lady Caroline are marrying.  She has quite the right blood."

"Does everyone know about that?" I complained, "We might as well announce it in the Times!"

"Just us, Bassie, love," she soothed me, "The Duchess naturally told me about it when she found out."

"But I wanted to tell you," I pouted.

"This is marriage, Bassie," she said in a rather scolding tone that surprised me, "not some little trifle to surprise and delight us.  It can't matter who tells us."

"And what about Mummy?" I asked pettishly; that bit about 'the right blood' had annoyed me, considering I was half-American myself, "Was she the right blood?"

"Well, Charlotte had not as fine of blood as Lady Caroline, of course," she said as dispassionately as if we were talking about a horse or a dog, "But she wasn't just anybody, I can assure you.  Her mother was from a good Boston family, with antecedents in a very old Berkshire family; and her father, believe it or not, was the great-grandson of the Earl of Rutherford.  A very cadet branch of the family, of course, and he had a quite unfortunate Irish grandmother, and a German mother of no apparent family at all."

"Really! I had no idea," I was actually stunned by this intelligence.  My parents' marriage had been the stuff of fairy-tales and novelettes, the pretty but determined little nobody from Cincinnati falling in love with the handsome nobleman of ancient pedigree.  It rather annoyed me that she was nearly as blue-blooded as he.  It robbed them of their romance, somehow.

"But, Lady Emily," Lady Heard inserted herself into the topic in her usual forthright way, "That sort of thing is part of our past, not our future.  The aristocracy will never survive if it cannot adapt to the modern age."

"Perhaps so, dear Lady Heard," she smiled and fluttered her lace-edged handkerchief in a sort of conversational surrender, "But one does fall into habits of thinking. In my mother's day, and my grandmother's, indeed for the last several centuries, these things were considered of paramount importance."

"Such habits of thinking have resulted in a terrible degree of inbreeding," Lady Heard said earnestly; and though she hadn't changed volume, her tone became one of speech-making, and we all dutifully turned to listen, "The physical and mental weakness of our modern aristocracy is evidence of this.  Not all noble families of course, the Saint-Clairs are surely an exception.  But look at some of the weak, wispy creatures currently filling the House of Lords.  Once the leaders of England were the tallest, the strongest, the most intelligent men in the land, more than capable of ruling over their subjects.  But now it's the labourers and merchant classes who have all the strength, all the determination, all the intelligence.  If the aristocracy refuses to breed with the other classes, the strength of the Norman blood will continue to dilute and thin."

"It was my understanding," Nanny said rather excitedly, smelling a good argument in the wind, "that it was the interbreeding of the aristocracy with the lower classes, generally the wrong side of the blanket, that produced the increased strength and intelligence of the peasantry, creating the labouring classes as they are today."

"Quite possibly, Miss Ingleby," Lady Heard rose to the challenge, "But the right side of the blanket, to play on your excellent phrase, has produced an unconscionable number of weaklings, who marry other weaklings and go on to create even more weaklings.  Lord Foxbridge here is a fine specimen of young manhood, quite strong and fit; but I will lay you any odds that even he cannot lift one of the maces or broadswords that hang on the walls of this very room, much less use one in battle, as his ancestors once did."

"But isn't that itself an adaptation?" Nanny argued, "Bassie may not be as strong in brute strength as the first Sieurs de Saint-Clair that ruled here, but brute strength is no longer a useful tool in government, nor even in war.  Cleverness, knowing the right people, the simple authority that comes of knowing one's ancestors and taking for granted the right to rule?  Aren't these of greater value in leading England into the twentieth century than being able to swipe at a man with a flail from horseback?"

"Yes, indeed," Lady Heard returned, "but the cleverness of today..."

I have to admit that their conversation became very technical at this point, encompassing Darwin's theories, Mendelian genetics, and the Utilitarian movement; it rather undermined Nanny's argument about the cleverness of the aristocracy that I was completely unable to follow any of this, and I was vastly relieved when the dinner-gong went.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Chapter 1; Part 1

“You know what I like best about the country, Pond?” I mused as I took my coffee-cup from the proffered tray.

“My lord?” unburdened of the cup, he went to fiddle with the curtains, letting the morning light come streaming through the high lancet window of my tower bedroom at Castoris Castle (the stately home of the Duke of Buckland, near Beverborough, Leics.).

“No corpses,” I hummed with delight after my first sip; the Duchess’s kitchen sent up first-rate coffee, almost better than Pond’s, “It’s been almost two months since I last saw a dead body, and I have to say I don’t miss it.”

“I thought your lordship enjoyed sleuthing,” Pond had my discarded evening clothes folded up and draped neatly over his arm in a single fluid motion.

Sleuthing, yes,” I conceded, “when it’s a matter of theft or kidnapping or blackmail. Nice neat problems with plausible solutions. But death always makes things so weighty, don’t you think?”

“Yes, my lord,” he looked at me sideways, no doubt wondering if I was going somewhere on this train of thought or if I was just idly spinning my wheels.

“On the other hand,” I swallowed the last of my coffee, and Pond was there in a flash to refill it from the pot, “I do miss the people. One was always meeting someone new in Town, but in the country it’s the same faces every day.”

“Perhaps, my lord, that is why so many people live in Town year ‘round and only visit the country on week-ends.”

“Well, if one’s country-house was in the Home Counties,” I agreed, “But I’d hate to go all the way from London to Gloucestershire every Friday.”

“I believe the train service is faster on week-ends, my lord, for just that reason.”

“Well, something to think about, certainly. And now you mention it, I think I might like pop down to London before going to Foxbridge, take in a nightclub and a show,” though to be completely honest, my mind was less on cultural enrichment than on finding a like-minded new friend to relieve a certain sort of itch, one that hadn't been scratched since I came to the Castle two weeks before.  It was making me edgy.

“If your lordship wishes,” he cast an eye over the neat pile he’d already made of my luggage: I was due to depart Castoris for Foxbridge on the eleven-o’clock train, “I can pack an overnight case. Most of our Town clothes are still there.”

“Never mind, it’s too much bother to change plans,” I decided after thinking it over a minute; Twister was coming to Foxbridge in two days, and he'd scratch me just right all I wanted.  I put down my cup and kicked off the covers, feeling around on the floor for my slippers.

“No trouble at all, my lord,” he lied with a perfectly straight face.

“Besides, Caro is coming with me, and her friend Lady Heard,” I slipped into my dressing-gown preparatory to a trip down the corridor for my bath, “It wouldn’t be nice to send them on to Foxbridge without me, what? And Bunny’s coming tomorrow, I want to do the whole country-squire ‘Welcome to Foxbridge Castle’ bit for him, and I’d look a complete ass doing it if he got there first.”

“Very good, my lord,” a vague sort of smile flitted across his face, as it usually did when he got his own way, “I’ll go and draw your lordship’s bath.”

“Thanks, Pond,” I went to the dressing-table and poured myself another cup of coffee. Though the coffee at Castoris couldn’t be beat, it was sent up with a dainty little demitasse cup that I had to refill seven or eight times to get the amount I was used to drinking of a morning. I took a couple of gulps and then topped it up again for the trip down the very long and draughty corridor to the bath.

Unlike Foxbridge, Castoris is a real castle, occupying a site that was fortified by the Romans and has remained fortified ever since. Though the thick wall rising straight up from the river had, over the centuries, become the outside wall of a mansion of mismatched wings and ells and annexes that had grown against it like a great stone bramble-patch (in recent eras pierced with big windows in deep embrasures that would have made that side of the castle indefensible in the rowdy days of the Plantagenets), the rest of the medieval structure was still in place, restored every now and then but never enlarged or diminished.

But, also unlike Foxbridge, Castoris is as frigid, draughty, and inconvenient as any other medieval castle in England, with meandering staircases, whistling chimneys, and hardly any bathrooms. It was also severely haunted: the Chatroys boast that Castoris Castle has more ghosts than the Tower of London; and while that may be only a bit of family-pride hyperbole, I had seen one of the castle ghosts several times in the passage outside my bedroom over the previous two weeks.

It was said to be a Viking warrior of the seventh century, represented by a glimmery sort of mist that congealed into an indistinct human shape in the middle of the corridor, came about twenty feet forward, and drifted to the left through a solid wall that had once been a doorway a long time ago — but certainly not as long ago as the seventh century. My guess it was the ghost of a servant whose routine had taken him through that doorway over and over every day for his whole life, and kept repeating despite his death; but nobody wants to have a castle haunted by mere functionaries, so a more romantic (if historically improbable — that wing was distinctly fourteenth-century, and the corridor much higher than Castoris's walls could have been a millennium ago under the Danelaw) story had to be invented.

Of course, it might have been some scientifically explicable phenomenon, a miasma from an old pipe or something, catching on a convenient draft and passing through a refracted light-source, which would be even less romantic.  At any rate, the shape was pretty much identical to the silhouette of Pond carrying a tray that I saw every morning when I woke up, so I'll stick to my theory.

The bathroom in that wing was a cluttered, narrow, icy little chamber converted from an ancient garderobe, and still had a stone privy-seat against the outside wall, where refuse would once have been dumped straight into the river below (which can’t have been very sanitary); the bath fixtures were mid-Victorian, with  copper pipes bolted directly onto the stone walls, a wood-burning iron stove to heat the water, and a commode encased in wood that looked oddly like a sedan chair with a round china tank on top. But the copper tub was incredibly deep, and the stove made the little room wonderfully warm and steamy when it was burning, so it wasn’t all that bad.

Pond buggered off so I could use the commode, but returned with a fresh cup of coffee when I got into the tub; the hot fragrant water came up to my chin, and I just floated for a while in comfortable bliss while sipping my hot fragrant coffee.  Eating or drinking something hot while floating in hot water is one of life's most potent pleasures.  Setting the cup aside, I pulled the shaving-mirror on  its accordion arm in front of my face to see if a new whisker had happened in the night.

I was looking terrifically pretty after two weeks in the country, with roses blooming on the lilies of my cheeks (as Wilde might have said) and a healthy sparkle in my round chestnut-coloured eyes; I'd even let my auburn hair get a little long, the loose curls bouncing around my face untamed by brush and brilliantine.  I'd rather left off exercising while living in London over the summer, never going riding or playing cricket or swimming, as I had done most of my life up until then; I hadn't realized that this sedentary behaviour, mixed with too many late nights and too much rich food, had loosened my figure and dulled my complexion.  I would have to hunt up a swimming-bath in my neighbourhood, and buy a horse to ride in Hyde Park, when I got back to Town.

"Sorry, old man, can't wait," Claude Chatroy burst into the little room, lifted his nightshirt, and dropped down onto the commode with a sigh of relief. Pond and I stared, frozen with shock and more than a little disgust at the ensuing sounds and smells.

Claude, you may remember, is the cousin of my fiancée, Lady Caroline Chatroy (known by me and all her family as 'Caro'), the eldest son of her father's youngest brother, if you follow me; I'd recently rescued him from a white-slavery ring, only to drop him off on a dominatrix of my acquaintance when I discovered he liked that sort of thing.

He is a gorgeous young man, dark and lively and very like something you'd see in the Græco-Roman wing of the British Museum; but he's not very bright, and has a tendency to overlook the niceties of civilized life — like properly addressing his elders, thinking before speaking, and preserving his own and others' privacy.  But he was raised eccentrically, with no governess, no formal schooling, no sisters to temper the wildness of four boys born so close together they were practically quadruplets, and very little interference from his woolly-minded-scholar father and his overindulgent Italian mother.  One has to make allowances for such a deprived childhood.

"Thanks, Foxy," he said when he'd finished, going over to the sink to wash his hands and face, "I waited too long, and then it was too late to go anywhere else."

"Think nothing of it," I said airily with a wave of my sponge, though I could see out of the corner of my eye that Pond was still as stiff as a very offended board, his eyes bugging out just the tiniest bit and his mouth an anatomical illustration of disapproval.

"I say, Foxy," he ambled over and perched himself on the side of the tub, reaching down to dabble his hand on the surface of the water, "I wonder if I could cadge an invitation from you?"

"You want to come to Foxbridge?" I hadn't thought to invite him; at seventeen, he was a good deal younger than the rest of my friends, and those guests who were not my particular friends would be older still, "What for?"

"Lady Beatrice is going to be there," he said a little bashfully, like a child revealing a secret wish to a department-store Father Christmas, "I miss her since we came back to the Castle."

"Of course, dear boy," I grinned wickedly: Lady Beatrice Todmore is the aforementioned dominatrix, who had been trying to beat some discipline into the boy but was forestalled by the Duchess dragging the entire Chatroy clan away from London at the end of the Season, "You're more than welcome to join us."

"Oh, thank you, Foxy!" he gushed, grabbing my chin and kissing me on the mouth; the kid was just one inappropriate gesture after another, "I'll go pack."

"That goof is trouble on toast," Pond observed in his non-valet voice once Claude had left us.

"At least he's decorative," my shrug didn't show above the water, "I'll shove him in next to Bunny, he'll love  sharing a bathroom with someone whose sense of decency is so rudimentary."

"I'd have thought you'd want him handy to Lady Beatrice," Pond smirked, still in his informal persona.

"Aunt Em would have kittens if I put a bachelor adjacent to a married lady," I laughed, "She believes in the separation of the sexes.  Boys go in the keep, girls go in the south wing, and married couples in the central block, with plenty of corridors and stairways in between."

"I look forward to meeting her ladyship," Pond was suddenly back in valet-form, scrubbing my back a little too briskly with a long brush, "It will be a pleasure to be part of a well-run household again."

"Do you miss working in a big establishment?" I wondered.  I'd never before thought about what a wrench it might have been for Pond to come from a great house where he was one of a platoon of servants, valeting a sober and magisterial baronet, to living in a hotel and doing triple duty as valet, butler, and even nanny to an  impetuous and (I must admit) often silly peer's son fresh out of University.  But then, I didn't mind him having it on with gamekeepers or coachmen, while his former employer had been somewhat hidebound on the subject, so I'd assumed he was happier with me.

"London life has been a bit of an adjustment, my lord," he admitted to me, "I'd been in service in a country-house since I was a child, and my parents and grandparents before me.  But I always traveled with Sir Eustace, so I am quite accustomed to hotels."

"Well, you'll love Foxbridge.  It's very pretty, and the staff are particularly agreeable.  And there will be a lot of new faces.  I authorized Coldicott to hire twelve new servants, so you won't stand out as the only newcomer."

"I am sure it will be quite pleasant, my lord," he bowed a little and then held the towel out for me to step into.  I preferred him to leave me alone in the bath, as he had a tendency to handle me like an infant if I let him; but he didn't like being out of earshot of me at that most crucial time of his workday, and my bedroom was about a quarter-mile from the bathroom, so I let him stay.  I'd have to break him of the habit again when I got home — or habituate myself to his presence, one or the other.

I ran as fast as I could from the steamy bath to my cozy room, but my feet were frozen by the time I got there; I collapsed into an armchair and thrust my toes into the fireplace to warm them as close to the hot little coal fire as I could get without burning myself.

"Your lordship forgot his slippers," Pond remonstrated mildly as he entered the room a few moments later, my empty coffee-cup in one hand and my warm velvet slippers in the other, making me feel a bit of an idiot.

"Slippers are for women," I replied loftily in a weak attempt to save my dignity, "Don't stand around like a statue holding the silly things, let's get me into my tweeds."

"Yes, my lord," he laughed at me, without making any sound or changing his face at all.  It was all in the tone, but I was learning his language: I could hear the laugh clear as a bell, and it humbled me just a bit.  I suppose it was good for me, though.  I liked to think of myself as terribly clever, and mostly I was; but as I said, I could also sometimes be very stupid.  Running damp and barefoot down twenty yards or so of uncarpeted stone floor was but one example.

Pond got me into my salmon-and-wheat herringbone tweed suit, which was fast becoming my favourite: beautifully cut and tailored for me at Anderson & Sheppard of Savile Row, though the fabric was from one of the great ducal estates in Scotland, which I'd found in a little shop of Scotch wares in Piccadilly.  It was much softer than new tweed usually was, silky smooth, warm but not heavy.

Once I was dressed, I went down to the stately dining-room for breakfast; I was so late getting out of bed that I was the last one down, and only Claude was still eating, bolting his food in that savage way he had.  Caro was sitting across the table from him, sipping her tea and reading a newspaper, glancing indulgently at her cousin over the top.  She looked terrifically pretty with her gleaming spun-gold hair pinned back with a pearl comb, her dark blue shantung dress trimmed with Battenburg lace, her face artfully painted to look entirely unpainted — one would never guess, looking at her, that she could be so ravishingly handsome when disguised as a young man.

"Foxy, darling, you're finally up," Caro called out when she saw me come in, "Claude finished the eggs and the sausages, the greedy pig.  And the toast is stone-cold, but there's plenty of kedgeree left."

"It's a good thing I'm particularly fond of kedgeree," I dipped to kiss her on top of her head as I passed on my way to the sideboard, "It's all that's ever left when I drag myself out of bed."

"You aren't going to be the first one down when you get home?" she teased me, "The head of the house is supposed to greet his guests at breakfast."

"Aunt Em is still the head of the house, as far as I'm concerned," I replied, sitting down next to her with my bowl of kedgeree and tucking in, "She's very excited about having a party again after so long.  She'll be in the breakfast-room at the crack of dawn, waiting for you all to come down."

"You have a separate room for breakfast?" she looked at me oddly, "What's wrong with the dining-room?"

"Mummy thought it was too gloomy in the mornings.  She was American, you remember, breakfast-rooms are very common there.  It used to be called a solarium, though it's really just a glorified landing of the Great Stair, and nobody ever used it for anything before."

"How very peculiar," Caro shook her head and stood up, tossing her newspaper onto the table, "When we marry, I may have to make some changes.  And not to be indelicate, but why does Lady Emily keep up your late mother's traditions?  She's chatelaine, now, after all."

"Aunt Em loved Mummy very much, she does it to keep her memory alive.  And she doesn't need to assert herself by making changes.  She was born at Foxbridge, she didn't marry into it.  It's when you marry in that you have to change things.  Ask your mother."

"Mamà didn't change anything here," Caro hoisted herself up onto the table by my elbow.

"How do you know?  You weren't born yet," I laughed up at her.

"I know because she hasn't redecorated a single solitary room in this Castle.  It's all so dreadfully out-of-date.  All those flimsy little occasional tables covered with cheap bric-à-brac, folding screens in the corners and potted palms in the windows.  I'd have cleared it all out, if I was her."

"Well, then, she must be the exception to the rule.  We're not overburdened with occasional tables or palms, but I'll expect you to redecorate extensively when you become Countess."

"Wait a minute," Claude interrupted us; I'd quite forgotten he was there, "You two are getting married? When?"

"Not for ages, yet, dumpling," she draped herself across the table and ruffled her cousin's hair, "And not a word out of you to anyone, hear?  It's not to be public yet."

"Why not?" the boy looked puzzled, which one has to admit is a becoming look on him.

"Because I don't want it to be public yet," her hair-tousling became a peremptory tug that made her cousin yelp, "So shush, or I'll scalp you.  I'm going to go annoy my sisters for a little while before we go, I'll see you both when we set off for the station.  Claude's told me he's joining us."

"I'll pick up a couple more tramps and strays on the way, no doubt," I winked at Claude to show I was kidding, not sure he'd know a joke if it bit him, "I'd better go take my leave of the Duchess."

Caro and I parted in the great hall, which was absolutely cavernous, its high walls glittering with a dazzling array of armour and weapons (including a pair of taxidermied warhorses, caparisoned for battle, flanking the room-sized fireplace), she toward the family wing and I toward the Duchess's morning-room in the opposite direction.

The 'State Rooms,' which all look out over the valley across the Beve River from enormous arched windows cut into the outer wall, were lined up one after the other like huge railway carriages; the room in which Her Grace spent the mornings writing letters and receiving visitors was at the very end of this enfilade.  She could have chosen from a dozen other rooms for this purpose, more convenient to her own rooms in the family wing and to the servants' wing; but I suspect she liked walking through all those other grand and impressive chambers, some of which were quite beautiful, on her way from breakfast.

The morning-room is small compared to the great salons one passes through to achieve it, but is still quite grand, with a beautiful oriel window, white-painted paneling set with peach-colour damask, and overfurnished in that late-Victorian fashion Caro so disdained with dainty French pieces that had once belonged to Madame Pompadour; but it still managed to be graceful and welcoming, and perfectly suited to the very Edwardian-styled Duchess of Buckland, with her piled-up Titian hair and her morning-dress dripping with cream lace and pearls.  The Duchess was enthroned at one end of an overstuffed settee in the middle of the room, her feet up on a fussy little pouf, a golden lorgnette held before her eyes as she read her second newspaper of the day.

"Dear Sebastian," Her Grace crooned as I bent to kiss her hand, "We are going to miss you when you go."

"It has been a great pleasure to stay with you, Duchess," I replied, taking a seat on an elegant little chair close by, facing her.

"I hope you'll come and stay more often, now that you and Caro are to be engaged."

"How in the world did you know about that?" I gaped at her.  Our engagement-to-be-engaged was becoming the worst-kept secret in Leicesteshire.

"Oh, I always know what's going on with my daughters," the Duchess twinkled at me, "I've set them to spy on each other since they were in the nursery.  Each one thinks she's the only spy, earning special treats at her sisters' expense, so dares not tell the others...which prevents them from uniting and conspiring."

"How brilliantly devious," I said admiringly.

"Not my own idea, I'm afraid," she patted my hand confidentially, "My mother did the same with me and my sisters.  One has to be so careful with girls, their reputations are so fragile and their mistakes so catastrophic.  They can't be allowed to have secrets of any kind after the age of twelve."

"I'd have thought the modern age would have relieved mothers of so much worry," I suggested.

"With middle-class girls, certainly, and working-class girls," she folded up her lorgnette and let it dangle on its chain, "They have so many more opportunities now to make their own way.  But our sort are still in the age of Austen, regardless of having the vote."

"Well, I hope you'll approve the match," I smiled at her with all the charm I have, which is not inconsiderable, "when the time comes for us to announce the engagement."

"Oh, absolutely," she grasped my hand again, "I don't mean to be gauche, but aside from you being so nice and so good-looking and having such an old name, you're quite rich.  You'll be less likely to kick if we stint a bit on the dowry.  With four girls to marry off, one has to be economical."

"I hadn't thought to ask for a dowry," I frowned thoughtfully, "It's not really the done thing, anymore, is it?"

"I suppose not," she conceded, leaning back again, "But a girl should always have a settlement of some kind, in case things don't work out."

"I wouldn't dream of being so caddish as to toss her out without a bean, no matter the provocation," I said airily, though I meant it very seriously.

"No, I don't suppose you would," she looked at me appraisingly, her head to one side, "But you are aware of Caro's — how shall I put it? — romantic inclinations?"

"Oh, yes," I assured her, wondering exactly how much she knew about her daughter, "There are no secrets between Caro and me."

"I know I'm prying most dreadfully, but... are your inclinations similar?"

"If I take your meaning," I said carefully, "Yes, it's something that we share in common."

"Oh, good," she relaxed visibly, "I thought as much, but you're not at all girlish so it's hard to be sure.  One more uncomfortably rude question, which I know you'll forgive since it's my daughter's happiness we're discussing: you don't suppose there will be any difficulty about providing heirs?"

"I don't think so," I felt my face go red.

"Good, I am glad," she leaned forward to pat my hand again, beaming, "Now tell me, does Lady Emily prefer marmalade or jam?  I wanted to send something from my stillroom with you, but I didn't know what she'd like best.  We put down some excellent jams this year."

"She's partial to strawberry jam," I said, relieved to be out of that particular conversational minefield, "We don't get very good strawberries at Foxbridge, too much iron in the soil."

"Oh, wonderful, I'm especially proud of my strawberry jam.  I'll send some along with your luggage.  Oh, you'd better get going, the car will be out front to take you to the train in twenty minutes.  You don't want to be late, it's the only westward train out of Beverborough today."

"Thank you, your grace," I stood and bowed formally, kissing her hand again (it was my favourite new affectation, kissing ladies' hands).

"Good journey to you, dear boy," she waved me off, reaching over to pick up the old-fashioned speaking-tube that would connect her to the servants' hall.

Having done my duty to my hostess, I climbed the stairs to my own room to check with Pond that I hadn't forgotten anything.  I knew he wouldn't have left anything behind, but I might have left something tucked away somewhere he wouldn't think to look.

"Oh, I forgot the tips!" I cried when I got to the room and found Pond there waiting for me, his sober black suit reminding me of the Castle servants, "It used to be a half-crown for the butler and a bob for the stableman, but that's when I was in University.  I'm expected to tip more, now I'm of age, aren't I?"

"I already distributed tips on your lordship's behalf," Pond said, unruffled, rising from the hard chair by the dressing table where he tended to perch when I wasn't in the room.

"Generously, I hope," I relaxed.

"Generous, but not lavish, my lord," he stepped close to me in order to rearrange the handkerchief in my top pocket, which I had stuffed untidily back after using it to blot my brow during the long hike upstairs, "Your lordship will no doubt be visiting Castoris frequently in the coming years, it would not do to raise expectations below-stairs too high."

"Quite," I agreed, though it's not what I would have done, if left to myself: I like throwing money around, it's great fun.  But Pond always knows best, and I'd stopped fighting him over such trifles by then.

"Your lordship left this under the bed, I found it when I sent down the luggage," he handed me my little morocco-bound diary; I thought I'd put in the bedside table, but I must have missed my aim.

"I don't mind you reading it, you know," I told him as I took the volume and shoved it into my coat-pocket; I knew he'd already read the thing, but I wanted to give him permission so that we could discuss its contents without me having to explain myself first, "It's not meant to be secret."

"I thank your lordship for the confidence, but I do not wish to pry," he lied again with such grace that I'd have believed him, if I didn't already know him to be as inveterate a snoop as myself.  I'd have to take lessons from him: I was terrible at lying with a straight face, I was always being caught out.

"Well, then, I guess there's nothing to do but go downstairs and wait for the car," I shrugged, glancing around the pristine room, which was a good deal neater-looking than when I'd arrived.  I suspected that Pond had rearranged the furniture slightly, he tends to like things lined up to strict geometric angles — the circular room must have made him uneasy, and I wouldn't put it past him to go over the place with a compass and a ruler.

We went down by our separate paths, he to the kitchen-yard where he would get into the van with the luggage, I to the great hall to wait for the car that would take me, Caro, Claude, and Lady Heard to the station.

Lady Heard, by the way, is the fourth female Member of Parliament ever, and as such something of a celebrity.  The widow of the incumbent Member for her district, she had followed in the Viscountess Astor's footsteps and run for her husband's vacant seat in a by-election.  Unlike Lady Astor, though, she was in deep with the suffragists' movement, had once been arrested at a march on Westminster, and had a great deal of support from women's groups in London as well as in her home district; sadly, she also lacked Lady Astor's eccentric style, and had yet to be quoted in any of the papers.

I really hadn't seen much of her at Castoris, as she was a very serious-minded person and spent most of the day in the library, shouting at Westminster over the telephone and writing dozens of letters, while the rest of us were frivoling about in the gardens and park.  At dinner, she spoke of nothing but politics, and as the widow of a knight was placed pretty far away from me, the heir of an earl, so I didn't even hear much of it; afterward,  in the drawing-room, she was about as entertaining as a stump of wood, playing neither cards nor piano but just sitting there watching the clock and wishing she could be doing something more important elsewhere

Nevertheless, Caro absolutely worshiped her, and had insisted I invite her along when I went home.  I supposed Lady Heard would prefer Foxbridge to Castoris, anyway, since we have telephones in the bedrooms (another of Mummy's American modernisations) and she could shout at her secretary in greater privacy and comfort.  I hoped Aunt Emily and Nanny would be a civilizing influence on her, being her own age and more interested in politics and social questions than the Duchess of Buckland would pretend to be.

All the way to the station, and then all the way to Gloucestershire on the train, she read a book and said not one word to any of us as she devoured its closely-printed pages. It was a very thick book with one of those impossibly long titles that don't make any sense, but she made pretty good headway through it in the four hours we were stuck together.  And Caro was just as quiet, though she consented to play cards with me so long as we played something simple that required little concentration: she stared, rapt, at the lady MP the entire time, studying her movements and mannerisms.

I prayed she wasn't going to become a dour lump like Lady Heard, but I understood her need for an older role-model; someone who combined a somewhat mannish personality with a very feminine outer layer (she was just as lacy and matronly in the pre-War manner as the Duchess, though her silver-gray hair was fashionably shingled) would be an interesting model for a young lady of fashion who dressed as a man in her spare time.

Claude wasn't much companionship, either:  he went to sleep the minute the train started.  I was sorely tempted to toss things into his open mouth, as one would flip cards into a hat, but I didn't want him to choke to death on a salted nut.  It was one of the most boring journeys I'd ever endured.

Eventually, we found ourselves disembarking at Falksbrook, the town that lies some five miles downriver from Foxbridge village, which in turn stands at the other side of the ancient Roman bridge from Foxbridge Castle.  Most of the towns and villages along the Fox River were named Fox-something, though the 'fox' part was spelt in many ingenious ways: Falksbrooke, Fockston, Fawkesford, etc.

Mummy's old green Packard was there waiting for us, one of those big boat-like touring cars with a tiny bonnet that were the fashion before the War.  It was in perfect repair, though, and quite comfortable, though rather noisy and bumpy. It was chauffeured by one of Foxbridge's oldest servants, Grimmett, who'd been my great-grandfather's stable-boy and then my grandfather's coachman, and had been running the stables (and later the garages) ever since.  He looked like he was ready to chauffeur my children and grandchildren, too: he was one of those gnarled but hardy old creatures one finds in the country, like a scrubby little oak tree that could cling to the side of a weatherbeaten cliff for centuries.

I frequently make jokes about Foxbridge Castle, particularly about it's fake Victorian castellations, but I am nonetheless inordinately proud of the old place, and my chest swells with an almost painful joy when I catch sight of it across the long meadow as we cross the bridge.  It had been standing there for three and a half centuries, and my ancestors had been on that land for three centuries before the house was built.  When I was at Foxbridge, I felt part of the great stream of human history — more than a mere individual, I was a length of fabric in a tapestry that would run for a thousand generations.  It made me feel immortal.

But that day, having already taken on the housekeeping expenses as well as hosting my very own house-party, I looked at it from a slightly different point of view: I'd always known in an abstract sort of way that Foxbridge would one day be mine, to care for and preserve for future generations; but coming up on it that lovely September Wednesday, I saw it as something more — something that was going to cost me a packet to keep up, something that would claim my fortune and my time, something that would tie me down to the earth until I was swallowed up by it and filed away in the chapel crypt with my ancestors.

It was rather a sobering thought, but also comforting.  Foxbridge was a heavy burden, but it would give my life a purpose one day, and could give my life pleasure now.  Besides, Pater was only fifty-something and looked good for a long run, so I wouldn't have to take up that mantle for a while yet.

When we pulled up into the courtyard, I saw Aunt Em had rolled out the red carpet and mustered the entire staff, indoor and outdoor.  When I'd told Colidicott (a handsome old soldierly type who stood at the head of the line one step below Nanny) to hire twelve new servants, I hadn't thought of what the grand total would look like, ranged at a diagonal from the front steps.  Twenty-three people in black livery, white uniforms, or green coveralls made quite an impressive display (twenty-four counting Grimmett, who joined the line as soon as he'd handed us out of the car).  I nodded to each one as I passed, noting the new faces and grinning at the familiar ones as they bobbed before me in their bows and curtseys.

"Bassie, my love," Aunt Em embraced me ebulliently, using my childhood nickname (which I knew Caro was going to tease me about later), "I'm so glad to see you!"

"Hullo, Auntie," I replied, kissing her on both cheeks and lifting her up off the ground a little to demonstrate how much taller I was, then reached out my hand to shake with Nanny, "Hullo, Nanny!"

"You're looking thin, Sebastian," she said severely, but with a smile, grasping my hand firmly.  One does not hug or kiss Nanny, she doesn't like it.

I should by rights be calling her 'Miss Ingleby,' as she was now my aunt's secretary, and had been since I went away to Eton.  But Aunt Em became habituated to calling her Nanny when I was little, as had the rest of the household, and Nanny was so good-natured that she allowed it to go on after her change of situation.  You'd never have guessed she was so soft inside, though, from looking at her: she resembled one of Dickens's meaner villainesses, a perfect Mrs. Squeers or Miss Murdstone with her angular figure, narrow face, and prim features, intensified by her customary black bombazine dresses and her dark hair pulled tight into a bun at the back of her head.

"Introduce me to your friends, Bassie!" Aunt Em insisted, dragging me back down the steps with her usual breathless enthusiasm.  She gushed all over Caro and Claude, and only damped down the gushing a little bit when she was introduced to Lady Heard, taking that august lady somewhat by surprise.  Hooking herself to Lady Heard's elbow, she led the way into the house, chattering all the time like a happy magpie.  She pointed out some of the notable features of the great hall and staircase before we fetched up in the family drawing-room on the ground floor (our formal rooms were on the upper floors, in the usual Elizabethan manner), where tea had been laid.

There hadn't been a dining-car on the train, and though we had a basket thoughtfully packed by the Duchess's housekeeper to keep us from starving, I fell on the hot muffins and scrambled eggs as if I'd not been fed in weeks.  Our cook, Mrs. Stinchcomb, baked the most incredible muffins in all Britain (in my opinion, anyway), and I made quite a pig of myself, cramming them into my mouth like a child — though I slowed down to a more civilized pace when Nanny quelled me with one of her patented gimlet stares.