It was very rainy that October, and Aunt Em's travelling al fresco luncheons had to come indoors: I suggested we simply move luncheon into the great conservatory, just like being outdoors but without the weather; but her conscience couldn't allow making the servants walk all that way every day, so the big bay window of the great hall became our luncheon-spot.
"Look at this!" I exclaimed over an unexpected envelope in the pile of post beside my plate, "A letter from Verevale Court!"
"Really?" Aunt Em snatched the thing out of my hand in disbelief, studying the crest and address through her lorgnette, letting her own letters fall in her excitement, "Well, I never! Whatever can they want?"
"You'll likely find the answer inside the envelope," Nanny pointed out drily without looking up from her own letters.
I took the envelope back and tore it open, savaging the paper in my haste, and quickly scanned its contents, "They want me to come stay!"
"Who are 'they'?" Caro asked, amused by our shock.
"The Levondales," I answered as Aunt Em took the letter away to read for herself, "Lord Levondale is the tenant at Verevale, our other seat."
"And why is it so surprising they'd write and invite you to stay?" she pursued.
"They never have!" Aunt Em said breathlessly, "They've never written to us, not in three generations. Not even a Christmas card."
"But they're your tenants?" Caro frowned.
"I think that's why," Aunt Em opined, "I think they're embarrassed that they don't own their own home, they're just tenants. So they pretend we don't exist."
"That's horrible," Caro was offended on our behalf. As we spent more and more time together, with just family around us, Caro and I were coming to feel like we were already married, and members of each others' families: an insult to the Saint-Clairs was an insult to the Chatroys.
"That's not really why," I told Caro, wanting to share knowledge that I had gleaned by eavesdropping on my parents years and years ago but not sure I should mention it in front of Aunt Em, "My grandfather insulted the first Lord Levondale, and there has been a certain coolness ever since."
"Who told you that?" Aunt Em looked at me sharply.
"I heard it from Pater," I extemporized: though he certainly didn't tell me about it, he told Mummy about it, and I heard him from my hiding place behind the drawing-room curtains.
What happened was this: when my grandfather, the ninth Earl of Vere, acceded in 1880, he found he couldn't afford to live at Verevale Court and Foxbridge Castle, as well as Vere House, all at the same time; he also needed a substantial infusion of cash to keep the estates solvent under the load of debt left by the eighth Earl; he therefore had little choice but to let Verevale Court. The newly-ennobled Baron Levondale, an obscenely rich gem-merchant and banker, could have afforded to buy Verevale outright (if it hadn't been entailed); but he didn't want a whole estate, he just wanted a stately country-house with a sufficiency of parkland.
So he bought the hundred-year lease on Verevale Court, paid in advance (which was still cheaper than buying the whole estate: old Levondale didn't get rich by paying more than he had to for anything), and retired to Sussex to take up the life of a landed aristocrat; the ninth Earl paid off a lot of debt and bought a great many diamonds for his new bride; everyone was happy.
One would think this a very straightforward transaction, and perfectly opportune for both parties; but though the ninth Earl had no cause to complain of the money, he really would have preferred to have had more, and so took it into his head that Levondale had cheated him on the price. One night, in his cups at a ball, he loudly referred to Levondale as "that damned dirty Jew."
Ordinarily, nobody would have paid the slightest attention to the anti-Semitic babble of a drunken young earl. However, Lord Levondale's son, a rather hot-headed young man aptly named Lionel, happened to be in the room at the time and took some exception to the comment: though Lord Levondale was originally a Jew (born Leventhal, he Anglicised his name when he was baptised) he'd converted to Christianity at the time of his marriage; he was also famous for his mania for hygiene, and only God could judge the state of his soul.
The Honourable Lionel Levondale, who later became the second Baron Levondale, actually slapped the ninth Earl with a glove at that ball; but dueling had rather gone out of fashion by then, so he had to be satisfied with questioning the earl's honour and intelligence all over London; to make matters worse, it got into the papers during a slow news week — resulting in suits and countersuits of libel, and a relatively vicious Society feud that was the highlight of three Seasons.
Though Lionel's son, the current third Baron Levondale, did not keep up the feud, neither he nor his wife had any reason to end it; consequently, no Saint-Clair living had ever set foot in Verevale Court, the house our ancestors had built and occupied for two centuries.
"Do you know the Levondales, Caro?" I wondered. She seemed to know everyone, I wondered if she'd had anything to do with the invitation.
"I've met them, of course, but I can't say I know them very well. They're Social, but not quite Fashionable."
"Lord Levondale's son Michael was one of Papa's freshers last year," Claude said, unexpectedly joining the conversation. He had become very quiet since the murder, and seldom ever spoke unless addressed directly, "He came over for tennis sometimes. He played very well."
"I wonder what prompted the Levondales to reach out to you now, after all these years?" Nanny took the letter from Aunt Em to peruse its contents. Visitors have often been shocked by the way we pass our letters around at luncheon, it seems that most people think of their post as sacrosanct and private; but Aunt Em and Nanny have always read each-others' letters, and when I came back to live at Foxbridge, I naturally joined in with the practice — as I've said, my private affairs are of the sort that nobody in his right mind would commit to paper, unless one wants to be blackmailed, so I had no reason to hide my correspondence.
"Lady Levondale mentioned mutual friends," I said, "but not which ones. I suppose it could be anybody. I'll have to find out when I get there."
"You're going to accept, then?" Caro frowned.
"If for no other reason than sheer, raw curiosity," I answered, tucking into my fillet of sole, "I'm mad to know what prompted Lady Levondale to write. And I'm dying to see Verevale Court, I may never get another chance. I'm sure to be dead and gone before the lease expires."
"I'm not so sure I'd be willing to let a three-generation feud go so easily," Caro considered, resuming her examination of her own letters, "After that long, it rather becomes a tradition, doesn't it?"
"If the injured party extends the olive branch, it would be caddish to not accept," I explained.
"The lease expires in 1982, Sebastian," Nanny corrected me, "You'll only be seventy-six years old by then, I'm sure you'll still be up and about and perfectly capable of seeing to your estates."
"Seventy-six!" I gasped, shocked by the idea, "That's frightfully old, I can't imagine living that long."
"There are plenty of septuagenarians running about these days," Nanny looked at me over the top of her pince-nez, "With medicine advancing at its current rate, it's expected that living to a hundred will soon become quite commonplace."
"That will be rather hard on the heirs, won't it?" I laughed, "Waiting around for a hundred years to come into one's inheritance?"
"Perhaps it will inspire young men of privilege to make something of their own lives instead of just waiting around for their fathers to die."
"Something in that," I agreed, intrigued by the idea. Very few of my male ancestors had lived much past sixty, and most had acceded to the title fairly young; very rarely did anyone marry before acceding, and it was almost unheard-of for a Saint-Clair to know his own grandfather. One wonders what might have happened if they'd had more opportunity to make their own way in the world before taking on the responsibility of the earldom.
If my father lived to be a hundred, I'd remain Viscount Foxbridge until I was nearly seventy; and if I married Caro in the next three or four years, as I intended, it was quite likely that I would have children and grandchildren before Pater fell off his perch. I'd also have plenty of time to do all sorts of interesting things before taking on the estates and Parliament. It made for a rather dizzying prospect.
"When are you asked?" Aunt Em wondered, reaching out a hand for the letter, which Nanny had passed to Claude, who looked at it as if it were written in hieroglyphics before passing it along.
"November fourth, to stay at least a fortnight," Nanny replied for me.
"Oh!" Aunt Em exclaimed in disappointment, "You'll miss the first hunt of the season! I was especially counting on you being here for that."
"But Auntie, I haven't been to the first hunt at Foxbridge since I went to Eton."
"Exactly, you've always been stuck at school for the first hunt, I wanted to have a hunt ball here now that you're home."
"I suppose I could put Lady Levondale off until the following week," I conceded.
"No, don't do that," Aunt Em sighed, "If she invited you for their first hunt, it would be cruel to disappoint her."
"I'll be absolutely sure to be here for the first hunt next year," I took her hand and shook it about on the table, "And the year after that. And so on and so on, I'll be around a while yet."
"Unless there's another war," she shrugged sadly, poking at her food.
"What makes you think there'll be another war?" I gaped incredulously. Wasn't the whole point of the Great War to prevent future wars?
"I didn't think the last one would happen, did I?" she said, her voice strange and hollow, "But it happened anyway. And if I learnt anything from the experience, it's to not put things off for a future that may never come. So many young men with their lives ahead of them, bright lovely boys like you, all dead now, all their tomorrows taken away."
"Now, Emily," Nanny said sternly, "Don't talk like that."
"I wonder what the riding is like in Sussex," I hastily changed the subject, not liking the haunted look in Aunt Em's eyes, and rattled by thinking of both living to a hundred and dying young during the same course of one meal, "I've never hunted there before. D'you suppose I ought to take my own horse?"
The rest of the meal passed with inconsequential topics related to hunting and riding, and afterward I went up to my little study to delve further into the life of Louis XIV's younger brother, Philippe, le Duc d'Orléans, the first research subject for my embryo 'Saint-Clair Collection of Queers in History.'
I'd found this obscure and untidy bookshop in SoHo run by a funny little gnome of a man, a former professor of history at Cambridge who'd been sacked for repeated indiscretions with undergraduates; he was helping me with my research, sending along biographies of, and literature by, gentlemen of Our Sort to give me some ideas of what to look for by way of artifacts. He'd started me off with Monsieur (as the duke was known all his life), the Emperor Hadrian, and Edward II, and was sending along more whenever I finished with those three.
While I read, I took up my other new hobby, smoking a pipe. I'd snitched one of Pater's from the rack he left behind in the business room, and was busily practicing with it: smoking a pipe is a lot harder than it looks, there's a great deal of skill involved in packing the bowl just right so it stays lit; as a novice, I of course spent more time tamping and lighting than I did actually drawing smoke, but it gave me something to do with my hands (if I sit too still while reading, I fall asleep) and made the room smell nice.
I was startled from my pursuits by a knock on the door into the corridor. Pond was the only one who used that door, as I generally entered from the bedroom, and nobody else ever came into that room except the servants to clean and build the fire when I was still asleep. So bemused was I that my caller had to knock again to stir me from stupor.
"Come in?" I ventured, a note of uncertainty breaking my voice.
"So, this is where you hide all afternoon," Caro came strolling into the room, looking around her in interest, "What are you up to?"
"Reading," I said simply, strangely shocked to see her in all her fluffy femininity moving around in my terrifically masculine sanctum sanctorum.
"You look quite ridiculous with a pipe," she settled down in the chair opposite me and gave me that superior smile of hers, a smirk I'd have found annoying on anyone else.
"I know, like a child playing dress-up," I admitted, knocking the smouldering tobacco out into the fireplace, "That's why I haven't taken it out of this room. What brings you by?"
"Claude got a letter from his mother today, she wants him to come home now that everyone's over the measles. Apparently his brothers are pining for him. They've never been apart this long before."
"Perhaps going home might bring him back to himself somewhat," I said, repacking the bowl of my pipe, "He's been so sad since William was killed."
"I don't know," she took a cigarette from the box beside her chair and lit it with a long wood match, which she handed to me when she was done, "I think it might be hard for him to go back to his old life, after living as much as he has the last few months. First the kidnapping and Lady Bea, and now William and the murder. I'm afraid he may have lost his innocence for good, poor lamb."
"Does losing your innocence automatically make your family tedious?" I wondered; having never had siblings or even cousins of my own, I was genuinely curious.
"You don't feel like you belong, anymore," she said after a thoughtful pause, "You know about something they don't know about, and you can't tell them about it. It makes you feel divided from them."
"That sounds sad," I said, "I guess it's just as well I didn't have brothers or sisters."
"And that you're still innocent," she smirked again.
"Me?" I must have looked a picture of comedy, the poorly-lit pipe hanging out of my gaping mouth, "By what definition can you call me innocent?"
"Loss of innocence isn't just discovering carnality," she explained, "Nor even pursuing it with the abandon and enthusiasm you do. It's more a matter of trust and wonder. You still think the world is a lovely place."
"Isn't it, though?" I smiled at her superiority, "For the most part, anyway?"
"When your heart gets broken is when you lose your innocence," she said, "When you're betrayed by love. I hope it never happens to you."
"Who broke your heart?" I wondered.
"The Honourable Miss Sarah Seton," she said in a strange tone, somewhere between a sigh and a snarl, "My second year at Roedean."
"What was she like?"
"Exquisitely pretty," she got up and threw her cigarette into the fireplace, going to look out the window at the courtyard, "and unbelievably sweet. Like a Dresden shepherdess made of sugar. I fell in love with her the first time she spoke to me. But it was just a game to her, getting girls to fall in love with her and then setting us at each-others' throats for her own amusement, like gladiators. I very nearly murdered Sylvia Cattermole before I caught on to the game."
"Not very nice," I said to fill the sudden glowering quiet.
"No," Caro turned back, her composure back in place, "Not very nice. But to return to the reason for my visit, I think we should go with him."
"Whatever for?" I frowned.
"You and I have been away to school, and he hasn't; we have experience of coming home, experience we can share with him. Besides, it's fun there."
"I can't very well just drop in on Claude's people, can I?"
"Of course you can," she laughed, "There's no formality at Bourneham Manor, I have a standing invitation to come and bring friends whenever I like. Come spend a week before you go to Verevale."
"Alright," I agreed, knocking another wasted nugget of scorched tobacco into the hearth and giving up on the enterprise, "I'll have Pond pack us up."
"You may want to leave Pond behind," she perched on the arm of my chair and picked up my pipe to examine, "He might not like the informality. The family eat in the kitchen, there."
"Oh!" I was stunned, "Like farmers or something? Will I like it?"
"It's not a hovel, Foxy, it's a country-house, quite comfortable if not as luxurious as Foxbridge. But, more importantly, you won't have to put on a necktie except for church," she said in a wheedling tone, "Imagine a whole week without a collar on."
"Do you bring Partridge?" I wondered what Pond would do without me for a week.
"Yes, I'm incapable of dealing with my own hooks anymore. But remember, she's got a theatrical background. Pond is a hereditary professional servant. You couldn't ask him to eat with you any more than you could ask Lady Emily to perform onstage at Covent Garden."
"Yes, I see," I got out of my chair and reached for the bell-pull, "I'm sure he could use the rest."
"Good, I'm glad," she kissed me on the cheek on her way to the door, "I'll let Claude know, and telephone to Bourneham so they expect us."
Pond was reluctant to let me go to such an unconventional house, and even more reluctant to let me go with a suitcase full of jumpers and old tweeds; but the promise of a week's holiday in Plymouth, taking the sea air (surrounded by His Majesty's Navy), eventually swayed him. Two days later, I was bowling along the Cambridge Road with Caro at my side, Partridge and Claude in the back seat, and an amazing amount of luggage in the boot of my Rolls (Claude and I could travel light, but Caro was Caro no matter where she went).
Just as the spires of the great university came into view on the horizon, I was directed off the main road toward Bourneham, a sleepy little hamlet cuddled beside the Cam about four miles from the city. On the far side of the hamlet, we turned through the tumbled remains of a stone arch and drove along a heavily wooded lane for several minutes. Then the wood parted and Bourneham Manor hove suddenly into view, a great rambling stone pile of gables and chimneys, coated in ivy and glittering with leaded windows.
"Pull up to the Gothic porch," Claude directed me from the back, "Not the Norman one."
"Is that the pointy one?" I asked, not sure what he meant. The house had obviously been added onto over several centuries, and displayed a number of different styles, with wings and porches and oriels poking out of it in every direction.
"Yes, the pointy one is a Gothic arch," Claude laughed patronizingly, obviously thrilled to know something I didn't know. When I came to a stop, he leapt out of the car and called into the house at the top of his lungs, "Mama! We're here!"
"Claudio, mi bambino," a shockingly beautiful woman came out of the porch, her arms spread wide, and threw herself around Claude's neck, peppering his face with big smacking kisses.
"Brace yourself for some Italian enthusiasm," Caro whispered to me before stepping forward to greet her aunt.
"Carina!" the woman detached herself from Claude and latched onto Caro, "Che bellissima! But so thin, we will have to feed you up."
"Hello, Zia Chichi," Caro took the woman by the elbows after suffering herself to be kissed briefly, then pushed her a little away and turned her toward me, "This is my friend, Lord Foxbridge."
"So nice to meet you, Donna Cecilia," I put my hand out to shake. Ordinarily I'd have addressed her as Lady John, but I'd learned from Debrett that she was the daughter of an Italian count and so should be addressed as Contessa or Donna Cecilia.
"Oh, no, you must call me Chichi, everyone calls me Chichi," the woman objected, grabbing the hand I'd proffered and reaching for the other, then pressing both of them together and clutching them to her bosom, "And how can I call you? Your name is so hard for me."
"My friends call me Foxy," I admitted weakly, overwhelmed by her personality. She was even more beautiful up close, though she can't have been much younger than forty, an alabaster Madonna with long raven hair and huge liquid black eyes.
"Foxy!" she laughed delightedly, "Like a little red animal? La volpe? Così adorabile! Now come inside, all of you. We have something to eat."
Donna Cecilia led the way through the porch and into the great hall, vast and ancient but crowded with sofas and tables like a college common-room; the procession turned right and through a wide arched door and down a few worn concave in the center.
The great old kitchen was obviously as old as the hall, and nearly as huge, but with a lower ceiling and lots of cabinets and dressers against the walls, and shelves and hooks and things in the gaping hearth. The center of the room was dominated by a perfectly colossal wooden table, its scrubbed surface scattered with vessels of china, copper, and glass, with a motley collection of chairs clustered around it.
"Sit, sit!" our hostess flapped her hands at the chairs, "You'll have tea, Carina, but what of you, Foxy? Do you like tea, or coffee, or perhaps some vino?"
"Tea would be lovely, thank you," I settled into a chair next to Caro, who was investigating a covered crock in front of her.
"I have lived in England almost twenty years, and I still cannot drink tea," she said as she poured two cups from a big copper urn on the nearest sideboard and put them on a lacquer tray with little crocks of cream and sugar, then added a large glass of wine and an even larger glass of milk, "I will never understand the allure of it. Carino, that crock is just plain biscotti, there are some good cheese rolls in the other one, the yellow one. Get some out, yes?"
Over the next hour, I drank three cups of tea before being made to drink two glasses of chianti wine, and consumed seven different kinds of Italian pastry, one after another: as soon as I'd eaten one kind, Donna Cecilia was pushing another kind at me, so proud of her cookery that she couldn't let us go without sampling everything she'd made in the last couple of days.
While I gorged, I answered questions as Donna Cecilia peppered me with inquiries, wanting to know everything about me all at once, from my ancestry to my parents to my schools to my clubs. It was entertaining but a little wearying, and I was frankly grateful when we were interrupted by a small horde of women coming in from the garden at once.
"Oh, it's time to make dinner already?" Donna Cecilia clapped with delight on seeing the women, who were unmistakably servants though they wore no uniforms, "You had better get out of the way, little ones. Go have a nice wash and change your clothes, you'll come back in an hour and we'll eat."
"How could I possibly eat in an hour?" I asked Caro as we left the kitchen, which was stirring into a little hive of activity as the servants took up their tools and the lady of the house flitted from one to the other with instructions and advice.
"You'll have to get a lot of exercise while you're here," she replied, threading through the cluttered great hall, toward the stairs, "Or else you'll get terribly fat."
"Where do we gather before dinner?" I mounted the stairs behind her, "How do I know which room is mine?"
"There is something to be said for formality, after all," she laughed, preceding me down a strangely crooked corridor, "You'll be in the front bedroom, I expect. The men will have brought up your suitcase."