"My lord?" my valet responded distractedly as he took away his tray and started picking up the things I'd left on the floor.
"This is the room I want," I clarified, taking a sip of the deliciously Stygian brew. I'd been at Foxbridge for almost a week, now, and each night I'd slept in a different room. I wasn't sure which one I wanted, you see, when I moved out of my old nursery room; and rather than commit myself to an unknown quantity, I was auditioning them one at a time.
"Is your lordship quite certain?" he turned and looked at me, his neat ferrety face narrow with suspicion, daring not hope. While I'd been bed-hopping all over the house, he'd been keeping my things in the room Aunt Em had prepared for me, one of the family bedrooms in the north wing, which I decided after one look was unsuitable: it was nice enough, airy and comfortably furnished, but it had no view—unless you count a blank wall draped in ivy across the front courtyard a view. Even my nursery room faced east with a view over the lawn and the lake to the forest. What's the point of being in the country if you can't see it?
And so rather than settling into a nice soothing routine, poor little Pond was running back and forth with my bath things and my clothes and my coffee. He agreed that it would be easier to carry my things around than to unpack into a different room every night until I made up my mind, but he still chafed at the uncertainty, having to remember where I was and wearing his legs shorter by inches.
"As certain as I ever am," I conceded, "I'll spend another night here, and if I don't change my mind before luncheon tomorrow, you can move me in properly."
"Very good, my lord," he said dismally, expecting the worst.
The room in question is called the Tapestry Room, one of the quite regal chambers on the first floor that in the old days were called the State Bedrooms, set aside for when royalty used to come visit. More recently, it had been my grandmother's room, and she'd completely lined the place with tapestry, a mix of rescued scraps and priceless antiques as upholstery on the furniture and in the wall-panels, the curtains and bed-hangings, even the counterpane and cushions.
The place was absolutely delightful, large but not vast, facing west with a view of the courtyard, the long meadow, and the Roman road, with the village tucked beside the river on the left and the old castle on its headland to the right. It was completely unfamiliar to me, too, since it had been off-limits to children while Grandmother was alive and had been closed up since she died; with all the green of the tapestries, one had the illusion of being outside in the forest, and there were startling little views of distant towns and castles, and people or animals peeking out of unexpected corners.
The furniture was dark and heavy Jacobean stuff, much of it original and the rest reproductions. The bed is particularly interesting, its bulbous posts writhing with carved people and animals, its headboard set with marquetry medallions of well-known mythological couples, its low heavy canopy larger than the bed itself so that when the curtains were closed it became its own little chamber. Grandmother had feminized the room with dozens of little bibelot-laden tables scattered about and potted palms in the corners, in the fashion of her day; I intended to get rid of most of them, since the bibelots didn't mean anything to me and the palms were full of spiders, but otherwise the room would require no alteration.
The other rooms I'd tried all had something wrong with them. The Landseer Room that Aunt Em tried to palm off on me, so-named for the goopily sentimental animal portraits on its walls, faced south and had no direct light and no view. The Queen's Room, the grandest of the State Bedrooms, was too much a museum-piece, having remained almost entirely unchanged since Elizabeth visited last in 1497. The Gold Room, draped in vivid gold damask and crowded with blindingly gilded Regency furniture, got far too much sun in the morning; waking up there with rosy-fingered dawn flashing loudly on every surface was quite jarring.
After that, I tried a couple of the bachelors' guestrooms in the tower keep, each of which is named for the deceased beastie that provides the centrepiece of its decor. All of the creatures had been supplied by my great-uncle, the third Earl of Carton, one of the greatest big game hunters of his day: his wedding-gift to his sister, my grandmother the ninth Countess, was exactly one hundred trophies, ranging from Russian bears to Brazilian jaguars, American buffalo to African lions, Scottish elk to Indian tigers. He didn't stop there, either, and sent new trophies after every hunt of his surprisingly long life; as a result, we had enough taxidermy to start our own natural history museum.
Though the rooms are extremely comfortable, soft and warm with fur pelts, they are rather dark due to the small windows, and eerie with strange echoes due to the vaulted stone ceilings; worse, the glassy eyes of the animals stared at me disconcertingly. I started off in the Bear Room, the largest one on the first floor, but had nightmares about being mauled; then I tried the smaller Stag Room, thinking that herbivores would be less frightening, but they all looked so sad—and you just don't know discomfort until you try to read a book perched on a chair made of antlers.
I was becoming impatient with myself by the time I got around to the Tapestry Room, which Aunt Em was reluctant to let me have—it was her own mother's room, after all, and had memories attached. But I cajoled her, and promised to not make a lot of changes, so she gave in after a token fuss. I don't think she expected I'd really settle in there, since my bedtime peregrinations had become something of a running joke in the house, estimating how long it would take me to sleep in every unoccupied room in the place (I estimated three weeks); there was even a betting pool on in the servant's hall.
"Who wins if I stay here?" that last thought prompted the question.
"My lord?" he started at the non-sequitur, though the stream of coffee he was pouring into my cup didn't waver.
"The betting pool on which room I choose," I explained, "Who drew the Tapestry Room?"
"William, the footman, my lord," he said a little severely, rousing my curiosity in another direction: was it my question, the betting, or the footman he disapproved of?
"Which room did you get?"
"I was barred from the pool, my lord," he laughed, so it wasn't me that caused that tone, "It was thought I would influence your lordship's choice."
"You probably could, if you put your mind to it," I opined, knowing how insidiously persuasive he could be when he wanted something, "Which room would you have preferred, though?"
"This one does very nicely, actually," he said informally, dropping the my-lords and talking man-to-man, which he was doing more frequently these days, "It's very convenient to the back stairs and the dumbwaiter, and the wardrobes in the dressing-room are more commodious than the Landseer Room or the Stag Room, which were equally close to the stairs."
"Well, that settles it, then!" I cried out delightedly, "If you're happy, I'm more likely to be happy, what?"
"Your lordship's happiness is of greater importance than my convenience," he lied with that tiny, nearly-invisible little smirk he does that makes me laugh.
"Well, then, get me into my riding gear, I'm famished for my breakfast."
"Very good, my lord," he intoned solemnly, gliding out of the room toward my trunks in the Landseer Room.
The bedrooms at Foxbridge aren't single rooms, for the most part: they're suites of rooms, each with one or two nice-sized side rooms, called 'closets' when the house was built, which have come to be used as dressing-rooms and second-bedrooms for husbands or nurses, as well as spacious clothes-presses that have been converted to box-rooms and bathrooms.
The Tapestry Room had two 'closets': one was set up as a dressing room with built-in wardrobes and a large bathroom adjacent, terrifically frilly in pink and blue satin; the other, large but oddly-shaped with its half-octagonal turret alcove and corner fireplace, was set up as a second bedroom, with a narrow bed set against the wall and a medium-sized wardrobe, its own bathroom, and a door into the corridor. This had been my grandfather's bedroom when he was alive, but Grandmother stashed her secretary-companion in there after he died, and that lady had left no personal stamp on the room.
It was rather grim, actually, with its bare plaster walls and meagre appointments, and I suddenly longed to do something with it. I imagined turning it into a laboratory and conducting Holmesian experiments with poisons and cigar ash, but I didn't know anything about chemistry and hadn't the patience to learn it. I could turn it into a study, with books and comfortable chairs, but there were already both a study and a library in the house, each lined floor-to-ceiling with books.
"Does your lordship wish to dress in here?" Pond was somewhat taken aback to find me mooning in the doorway when he entered from the corridor.
"What can I do with this room?" I asked him, stepping out of the way so he could pass through with my riding clothes over his arm, "Its emptiness annoys me."
"Your lordship might use it for some kind of handicraft," he said thoughtfully, turning to examine the space, "My former employer had a room much like this in which he built miniature ships in bottles."
"Ships in bottles?" I gaped at him in astonishment, "Can you actually imagine me doing something so... so fiddly?"
"Perhaps collecting might be more to your lordship's taste?" he said seriously, and I realized he was actually considering it an important question, "The research, tracing provenance, the hunt for the unusual and rare, might be interesting."
"Like snuffboxes and cameos and things?" I looked around the room, imagining it filled with shelves and drawers of precious little objects. It was a pleasing thought.
"Your lordship might be more interested in small antiquities," he replied, moving on toward the dressing room, apparently satisfied with the solution, "Artifacts related to crime, perhaps? Or objects belonging to notable gentlemen of our sort in history?"
"Now, that is an idea," I said as I followed along behind, visualizing it, "Oscar Wilde's ink-well and King Ludwig's spurs? Expensive, difficult, and I've never heard of anybody else doing it. I like it."
"I am gratified your lordship is pleased," he bowed formally, then pushed me in front of the looking-glass while snatching my dressing-gown off me, and went about his meticulous business of dressing me for the morning as if I were a department-store mannequin.
Since I had nothing to do for the next fifteen minutes except lift an arm here or a chin there, I occupied myself with my own reflection. I suppose it would be fair to say that I am exceptionally vain of my looks, but it would be equally fair to say that I have plenty to be vain about: my face is extraordinarily pretty, an exquisite oval with a delicate nose and large, lively chestnut-brown eyes, a scarlet mouth and blushing cheeks livid against milk-white skin, all framed in a halo of rich auburn curls; my figure is quite nice, too, slim and elegant but as well-knit as any classical statue's.
However, as much as I enjoy my looks, I don't rely too heavily on them because I don't expect them to last. Like my father, I am pretty rather than handsome, and prettiness is as fleeting as the bloom of a rose. In youth, Pater looked like one of those porcelain cavaliers in a Fragonard pastorale; now, at fifty, he looks like a plucked vulture with dyspepsia. I was only twenty-one, but already acutely aware that this treasure was mine but for a season, and that I'd have to develop something fairly substantial in the way of character and personality as a replacement for beauty before the dewy blush went off.
Perfection achieved, and dapper as any fashion illustration in my blue serge jacket and perfectly-pressed white breeches, my black boots and beaver hat as glossy as spilt ink, I clattered happily down the Great Stair to the breakfast-room on the half-landing.
"Morning, Auntie, morning Nanny," I chirped as I dropped my hat and gloves on a table and applied myself to the covered dishes on the sideboard.
"Is it still morning?" Nanny looked at me severely but not unkindly over the silver rims of her pince-nez.
"It's only nine o'clock," I filled my plate with kedgeree and set myself down at the breakfast-table just as Coldicott brought me a fresh cup of coffee and a rack of nice hot toast. Coldicott has been our butler since my father wore nappies, and must be about a hundred years old, but he was as quick with the necessaries as any spry young waiter at the Ritz, "I'd still be in bed if I was in London."
"Is it nine already?" Aunt Em asked vaguely, not looking up from her newspaper, "High time we were in the morning-room, isn't it, Nanny? I have letters to write."
"You wanted to wait for Sebastian," she replied, consulting the tiny watch pinned to the lapel of her plain black suit.
"Oh! Good morning, Bassie, when did you get here?" she turned her big watery-blue eyes on me. Where Nanny is spare and dark, Aunt Em is fluffy and pale, her silver-gilt hair floating cloudlike around her delicate face, invariably dressed in fussy lace and old cameos, "You're looking awfully smart this morning. Well worth the wait."
"I'll tell Pond you said so," I reached over and took her hand to kiss, "It seems a lot of effort when nobody but you and the horses will see it."
"Well, I do like a smartly dressed young man at my table," she smiled sweetly, then dropped her newspaper on the floor and stood up, groping on the table for her lorgnette, "Coming, Nanny?"
"Coming, Emily," Nanny retrieved the paper and removed her pince-nez, looping the cord under a button before inserting it into her top pocket with military precision. She stood and followed my aunt out of the breakfast-room with a short nod in my direction.
Those not familiar with my little home circle might be confused by the names we call each-other. Nanny, for example, hasn't been my nanny since I left for Eton nine years before; she was now my aunt's secretary, and should by rights be called Miss Ingleby. Nanny, in turn, should properly address my aunt as Lady Emily. And both of them should be calling me Foxbridge or some derivative thereof, as is traditional with the heir.
But one of my mother's legacies was a degree of informality around the Castle. She wouldn't let anyone call me Foxbridge, insisting on calling me Bassie, which Aunt Em picked up. Denied her proper form of address and not willing to use a nickname with me, Nanny always called me Sebastian (as did my father). And then Aunt Em was so accustomed to addressing my nanny as Nanny, she couldn't be made to change when Nanny became her secretary; Nanny responded by addressing her as plain Emily.
I often wondered why Aunt Em needed a secretary in the first place, as she didn't entertain much and her correspondence wasn't all that extensive. But I suppose she didn't want to be alone in the house after I'd gone to school. Of course, I also wondered why she stayed in the house at all, instead of moving to the dower house; but I supposed she loved Foxbridge Castle, even with most of it shuttered and covered with sheets, and would never think to go elsewhere.
After breakfast, I went for my ride, meeting Young Grimmett (the head stableman, who's not at all young, but younger than his grandfather Old Grimmett, the coachman) in the courtyard with my favorite mount, Pippin, a high-stepping bay gelding bred from the small herd of riding and show horses, called Narragansett Pacers, that Mummy brought with her from America.
I went out through the decorative gatehouse attached to the house, onto the Roman road, and took off at a gallop toward the real gatehouse at the bridge into the village. It was a little over a mile, the first leg of a three-mile path that followed the river along to the little watermill and then skirted the edge of the forest on the way back. When I got to the bridge, I considered crossing over and having a ramble through the village, but decided against it: living in colleges and clubs and London, I'd become all too accustomed to being a face in a crowd, treated as an equal, addressed as "my lord" only by servants and shopkeepers, and even then only after I'd dropped my name; but in the village, everyone already knew who I was, and they went all feudal and deferential at the sight of me. It was rather embarrassing.
As I cantered easily alongside the river, I thought I should go into the village later, on foot or in my motor—my overly-smart riding-clothes reinforced the image of the local lord, so perhaps in a plain Norfolk suit and a cloth cap I could blend in a little better. An afternoon at the pub, meeting the locals in an informal setting, I might grow on them as a chap instead of a viscount.
I also had a better chance of making new friends. The thing I missed most by being in the country was meeting new men, or running into old men-friends, which was always a feature at college and in Town. I had an itch that needed scratching, which hadn't been scratched in the last week, and it was making me edgy. It would be unspeakably gauche to have it on with a servant, at least three of whom Pond had discovered were Our Sort, and there was nobody on the estate except servants. I'd have to go to the village for relief, if there was any to be had—and I've never yet encountered a village where there was none.
On the other hand, it could be dangerous so close to home, where I am so well-known. One never knew when one would come across a young man with a mind to blackmail. I'd never encountered it, myself, but one hears stories all the time. I couldn't imagine how a village man could hope to get away with blackmailing his landlord's heir, but then I never imagined a lot of the scrapes I'd got into lately, and that hadn't stopped them happening to me.
After returning to the Castle and getting out of my riding-clothes on my own, I got into a hot bath and had a good long soak, blunting my edginess a little with a nice comfortable 'one off the wrist' (as we used to say in school); I came out of the bath relaxed and steamy, rubbing my head with a towel and nearly tripping over Pond crouched on the floor.
"Your lordship is aware that the chairs in the dressing-room are here to have clothes lain over the backs of them?" he scolded me, patting the floor gingerly to hunt for my tie-pin. The carpet was one of those dainty French things with flowers and ribbons and cherubs all over, rendering small objects impossible to see on the pattern.
"My dear Pond," I replied in as comically pompous a tone as I could manage, "You must realize that dropping things on the floor, in sure knowledge that someone else will pick them up, is one of life's headiest pleasures."
"Indeed, my lord?" he arched an eyebrow at me and smiled, "I'll have to try it sometime."
"You're already moved in?" I glanced over at the wardrobe as I slipped into the underclothes he'd laid out for me on a chair, and noticed suits hanging on the rod.
"As your lordship has been auditioning bedrooms," he explained, then snatched up the errant tie-pin with a triumphant ha! "I have been auditioning wardrobes. It's difficult to gauge how well our clothes will fit unless I put a few of them in."
"You always have such practical ideas," I said with some admiration, walking over to inspect the wardrobe, "Is there a draught in here?"
"Is your lordship cold?" he looked surprised. The porcelain stove was burning and the window closed.
"No, but the suits in here are swaying a bit as if there's a draught. Is there a ventilator or something in the wardrobe?"
"I shouldn't think so," he followed me over to the wardrobe in question, "There are grilles in the doors, there's no need for more air than that."
"In books, unexpected draughts always lead to secret rooms," I said excitedly, rapping at the back panels behind the clothes-rack, "I spent much of my childhood searching this house for secret passages without any success."
"I'm surprised a place as big and old as this isn't riddled with them," he said, leaning over me and waving his hand slowly through the empty space in search of the draught.
"You can imagine my disappointment," I couldn't hear any difference in sound from one part of the wardrobe or another, so started looking for knobs or pressure-points, pushing and prodding methodically from bottom to top, "But I was never allowed in here, so there might be one that I'd not found."
"The grain of the wood is slightly discoloured just there, my lord," he pointed to a spot I couldn't see near the join of the panels. Trust him to spot a minor stain in a shadowy recess. I reached up to the spot he indicated, pushed, and was rewarded with a bone-thrilling click.
"Oh, golly, it's a secret door!" I squealed like an excited pig, pulling the panel open to reveal a very black emptiness that smelled of old paper and dried wood, with just a hint of mildew and mice, "Quick, Pond, get a torch or a candle or something."
He dashed out and came right back with a big battery torch, the kind one keeps in a motorcar, which throws out as much light as a headlamp. The space revealed was about six feet wide, ten feet deep, and eight feet high, but disappointingly empty: it was the underside of the first flight of stairs that lead up to the second floor, nothing but unvarnished wood and cobwebs.
I stepped into the space, realizing when I felt the powdery softness of dust under my bare feet that I was wearing nothing but my drawers, not the best choice of garb for this kind of adventure. But I was too fascinated to go back and get dressed, so I just kept going.
"I don't think anybody's been in here for decades, at least," Pond studied the floor under the strong light, where no footsteps but my own marred the snowy perfection of the dust.
"I wonder if my grandmother knew this was back here," the room was so completely empty, Pond's roving beam revealing not so much as a box of old candles on a shelf or a stray newspaper in a corner, that I had a hard time imagining why anybody would bother to build a hidden door to it.
"These spaces are usually housemaids' cupboards," Pond told me, "I would expect there to be a hidden door in the staircase paneling, not in the wardrobe."
"Perhaps this is a passage rather than a room, get that beam over here on the walls and let's see if something looks like a door."
Pond started at the obvious place that a housemaids' cupboard would be concealed, but that was solid wood. However, once he got onto the next wall, against which the half-landing was built, there was a place where the beams holding the lath and plaster were closer together than in the rest of the space, with a sort of wooden peg sticking out halfway up. I pushed and then pulled on the peg and the door clicked open, swinging forward into another empty black space.
"It's a clothes-press!" I marveled as Pond's torch light played over brass hooks in the cedar walls, chests of drawers, and a rack for hangers.
"The Bronze Room, my lord," he said, passing me and opening the door into the bedroom.
"I need to find the floor-plans to this house," I followed him out into the bedroom, situated in the clock-tower and opening off the minstrel's gallery; it is liberally decorated with bronze figurines and hung with bronze-coloured velvet, hence the name, "I should have known this is where we were going."
"There are detailed plans framed on the wall in the servant's hall, to help visiting servants orient themselves. I can ask Mr. Coldicott to supply your lordship with copies."
"That would be lovely, thanks. A rather boring destination for a secret passage, though, what?" I poked around in the corners grumpily, and went to stand in the high oriel window overlooking the courtyard, with the same view as my windows, "Why would anybody connect a wardrobe to a clothes-press with secret doors?"
"Perhaps it is the bedrooms, not the wardrobes, that are meant to be linked," he pointed out with his usual practical intelligence.
"Oh, ah! Allowing secret night-time trysts without braving the corridors."
"Just so, my lord."
"I wonder if my grandmother had a secret lover?" I went back through the press and into my own dressing-room, where I caught sight of myself in the tall glass, as besmeared as a half-nude chimney-sweep.
"Possibly," he came behind me with a little broom, sweeping up my dusty footsteps as I tracked them across the carpet to the bathroom; and though he'd been in the same dusty passage as I had, his black suit was spotless, "Though judging by the dust I'd suppose an even earlier occupant. I shall bring a proper sweeper and duster up, and clean out the passage for your lordship."
"Whatever for?" I turned to look at him in the doorway.
"I naturally assumed your lordship would wish to have Sir Oliver lodged in the Bronze Room when he comes to visit."
"Oh! I hadn't thought of that!" my imagination lit up like Guy Fawkes Night; Twister, as he is known to me and a few close friends, is known to readers of Debrett as Sir Oliver Paget, 15th Baronet, and to the rest of the world as Sergeant Paget of Scotland Yard; only Pond knew that we were lovers, "Aunt Em would ordinarily put him in the keep, but I could find some excuse to have him put here instead."
"Perhaps if your lordship tells her ladyship that Sir Oliver is an antivivisectionist, and the taxidermy will upset him?"
"You know, you should be running the country, Pond," I gaped in amazement, which was becoming something of a habit. The man is a genius.
"I believe your lordship's affairs are easier to manage than Britain's," he bridled at the compliment.
One of the drawbacks to living in the older part of the house is that the water is heated in a tank in the bathroom with a coal fire under it; and since I'd already had my bath, there was no hot water left, and the housemaids wouldn't relight the heater until teatime. Rather than take a cold plunge, which is a feature of Eton I do not miss one little bit, I swabbed the dust off me with a wet cloth. It was still rather chilling, so I was grateful to get into into my tweeds for the day.
When Nanny and Aunt Em are alone, as they are most of the time, they have their luncheon on a tray in the morning-room; but since I was there, Aunt Em felt like making a bit more of an effort, and so ordered luncheon served in a different place every day. I could ask a servant where to go, of course, but I found it more fun to go hunting for it. That day, I found them in the center of the privet maze, at some distance from the house but just on the other side of the kitchen garden. The maze isn't much of a maze, since there are no blind alleys, and every route leads to the center; but it is a pleasant walk and a lovely spot for luncheon al fresco.
"I accidentally opened one of your letters, Bassie," Aunt Em admitted a little shamefacedly, "I saw the Chatroy crest and assumed it was for me. The Duchess is one of my regular correspondents."
"Quite alright, it's all in the family," I assured her, patting her hand on the table; nobody commits indelicate secrets to the post anymore, and none of my special friends would make declarations on paper that my aunt shouldn't see. I opened the letter and scanned its contents, which were as brief as a telegram, "Lady Caroline wants me to come to Castoris for a fortnight, before she comes here."
"Oh, how sweet," Aunt Em said, "But that means you'd want to leave tomorrow. Won't it interrupt your choosing a room?"
"I've chosen already. I'm completely in love with the Tapestry Room," I made a business of glancing through the rest of my letters but watched her closely out of the corner of my eye, "It's quite simply perfect. Except for some of the small tables, and the potted palms; you won't mind if I have those taken out, will you?"
"No, I suppose not," she looked slightly disgruntled, but only slightly, with the tiniest hint of disappointment around the corners, as she poked a little pettishly at her iced shrimps.
"You'll want the dressing-room done over, as well, won't you?" Nanny suggested, "I recall it being rather shockingly feminine."
"Actually, I kind of like it, though the pink doesn't quite suit my colouring," I responded airily, earning an amused smirk from Nanny, "And I do want to redo the small bedroom as a study. I'm thinking of starting collecting things."
"If you'll give me some ideas, I'll have them both redone before you come back from Castoris. We can look at some decorating books together after dinner," Aunt Em said happily, her dislike of having her mother's things disturbed overwhelmed by her love of redecorating, a love that she had not had much occasion to exercise in the last several years.
"But, Auntie, you have enough work to do, unshrouding the house," I protested.
"Nonsense," she waved away my objection with her lace handkerchief, "The central block is already finished, all we have left are the Great Chamber and the Long Gallery. And of course the third floor bedrooms, but I don't think we'll need them for the party you've proposed. Perhaps if we have a Hunt Ball, or if you invite a larger party over Christmas. It's much easier to open a room than to close it up."
"Oh, that reminds me," I turned to a hovering footman and beckoned him over; it was a little rude, but I couldn't remember any of their names nor even tell any of them apart. All four of the footmen had been hired very recently, at my request and expense, as well as two housemaids and four parlourmaids, miscellaneous kitchen personnel, and a few extra men in the stables and grounds, "I'm sorry, I haven't got all of your names yet."
"I'm William, my lord," he replied with a bow.
"Oh, then you've won the pool!" I exclaimed.
"My lord?" he was confused. He was very tall and quite good-looking, as footmen are supposed to be, with shiny dark hair and a curiously open expression on his face.
"The bedroom sweepstake. I decided on the Tapestry Room today."
"Oh, I see," he said cagily, glancing sideways at the ladies, who might disapprove of servants betting; but they were too interested in the next course to pay attention, "Thank you, my lord."
"My pleasure, I'm glad I got to be the one to tell you," I smiled warmly and saw an answering flicker of interest in his eyes. I surmised he was one of the 'fellow travelers' below-stairs Pond had told me about, "William, would you please run up and tell Pond to not unpack into the Tapestry Room yet? We're going to Castoris Castle tomorrow, he'll need to pack up instead. We're going for a fortnight."
"Of course, my lord," he bowed smartly and trotted off at speed. I watched him go, thinking that though he moved very gracefully, there was an odd sort of staginess to his motions, more like an actor playing a footman than your average everyday footman. I mean, I don't think I'd ever seen a footman trot before. But I know men of our sort are often given to dramatics, and so put it down to his queerness shining through. Goodness knows I'm prone to unnecessary theatrics, I certainly couldn't blame William for them.
After luncheon, I went back upstairs and found Pond packing in the Landseer Room; I realized that if I was going to Castoris the next day, this afternoon was the only chance I'd have to go into the village for a pub-visit for quite a while: when my guests were here, I would be engaged in entertaining them, and we'd be into the harvest season before I got another chance to sneak into the pub alone.
And though my tweeds are not as ostentatiously smart as my riding clothes, they were still a little too lordly for the type of company I wished to keep. Pond was very reluctant to put me into my oldest Norfolk suit and a pair of leather gaiters, but he understood my wish to do so, and complied with as good of grace as he could manage under the circumstances—I know it galls him to have people he knows see me in anything less than sartorial perfection.
I took along a birding rifle as well, to give my visit the look of a spur-of-the-moment idea rather than a planned invasion, as if I was out shooting and decided on a whim to cross the river for a pint. I couldn't complete the picture with a faithful retriever, though, since I didn't know any of the dogs well enough to make it sit outside unattended. Since I generally went out with a gamekeeper, I'd never bothered to closely acquaint myself with the canine element.
It had been a long time since I'd walked to the village, and I'd quite forgotten how far a mile is on foot. It was a warm day, too, so I was feeling pretty hot when I got to the bridge and fetched up in the shade of the gatehouse to rest a moment.
"Afternoon, m'lord," a disembodied voice came out of the shadows somewhere, startling me not a little.
"Good afternoon?" I responded, squinting my eyes against the darkness after twenty minutes in bright sunlight. I eventually made out the rather gnomelike little man who was leaning out of the window inside the arch, whom I supposed must be the gatekeeper. I didn't know we still had a gatekeeper, which shows just how long it had been since I'd left the estate on foot; but a quick shuffle through the old mental filing-cabinet supplied the name, "How are you, Mr. Hayward?"
"Well as can be expected at my age, m'lord," he grinned jovially, revealing a surprisingly strong-looking set of choppers that gleamed like pearls in the dimness, "I'll be ninety come Michaelmas."
"Still fending off the hostile hordes for us, though," I smiled back at the man; he was the head-gardener's grandfather, and had been the head-gardener himself a couple of decades back, before the arthritis practically crippled him.
"Traveling salesmen as don't know their place, mostly," he frowned ferociously at the effrontery of men trying to sell at the door of an earl's house, "Though I 'spect I'll be running off reporters when your lordship's guests come. Heard tell there would be some famous folk at the Castle again."
"Not properly famous, like the people who came in Mummy's day," I shrugged, wondering who had been talking about the guest-list, "Just the sort of society types you might've seen in the illustrated papers."
"Not I, to be sure," he seemed offended by the implication that he would read a society rag, though not apparently offended at me for implying it, "Such stuff is for women."
"Well, I'll be getting along. I'm going to the pub for a bit, can I send someone back with a pint for you?"
"Your lordship's very kind to think of it," he tugged his forelock as I passed by, "I surely wouldn't say no to a glass of stout this time of day."
I strolled over the bridge and into the village, which was bustling with life in that last burst of business in between luncheon and tea; people nodded at me, and a few greeted me, but I didn't feel nearly as conspicuous as the last time I'd come on horseback. I turned at the village green, a large grassy oval bisected east to west by the Roman road (called Castle Street in the village) and north to south by the High Street that was part of the highway connecting all the towns and villages along the river.
There are two pubs to choose from in Foxbridge, each named after a feature of the Saint-Clair crest: the Vixen's Head on Castle Street is the oldest and closest to the bridge, and therefore the one most frequented by the servants and farmers on the estate; the Four Lilies on the High is more frequented by travelers passing through. I of course made my way to the Four Lilies, not wanting to encounter our servants during their off-time—and, of course, certain that travelers would be a better bet for an afternoon's adventure than people who live on our land.
When I got there, I found the public room rather empty, with a few surly-looking old men in the darker corners; but the saloon bar had several men of varying ages scattered about, all dressed in fairly natty suits, whom I supposed were a representative selection of the traveling salesmen that Old Hayward liked to turn away from the gate.
"Afternoon, sir," the woman behind the bar said to me, thrilling me to the core: she had no idea who I was! From her accent she was Welsh, so I imagined she was a recent addition to the village, "What can I get you?"
"A whiskey and soda, please," I smiled happily, "And could you send someone with a pint of stout over to the Castle gatehouse? I promised Mr. Hayward a drink."
"You're sending a drink to that gargoyle on the bridge?" the man beside me at the bar asked incredulously, "I barely survived my encounter with him. What's your secret?"
"I'm local," I smiled at the man, who was not bad-looking but neither was he a stunner; about forty and fair-haired with a sort of ordinary face and very trustworthy brown eyes, "I've known Old Hayward since I was so high. He's an absolute lamb, so long as you're not trying to sell something."
"I'll not make that mistake again, I assure you," he said very seriously, "That man had the nerve to call me a Gypsy!"
"Well, that's who sold things at the gate when he was young, two hundred years ago," I laughed, and put out my hand, "I'm Sebastian, by the way."
"Harold Melton," he gripped my hand in a very firm, warm fist, "What do you do here in Foxbridge, Sebastian?"
"Nothing much; a professional idler, you might say. Yourself?"
"Commercial traveler," he said with some pride, pulling a calling-card out of his waistcoat pocket and handing it to me the way a new father hands out cigars, "representing Tappet and Alkind, Wholesale Parfumiers."
"Why would you try to sell wholesale perfume at a country-house?" I wondered, fascinated as always by other people's work.
"Ah, that's the thing, I don't. What I do is hand out samples to the lady of the house, and in big houses I go for the maids as well. I get their names and find out their favourite scents in my range, and then I toddle 'round the shops and tell them that Mrs. So-and-so at Such-and-such Cottage was very interested in our Verbena Vale line of ladies' toiletries, and I'll just leave you with some order blanks in case you want to stock it in for her."
"That's brilliant," I admitted, impressed by the cunning of it.
"Not my own invention, more's the pity," he said, though he still preened a bit at the compliment, "It's our standard operating procedure."
"So, are you a married man, Harold?" I smouldered a little bit at him to see if this was going where I wanted to go.
"I am!" he grinned happily and pulled out one of those wallets that people fill with photographs of their children, and seaside family holiday snapshots, so I settled in for ten or fifteen minutes of boredom. I guess I can't expect to 'pull' right off the bat every time.
After standing Harold a drink out of politeness, I widened my net to include the rest of the gents in the saloon bar, and even dragged in a couple of young men on their way to the public bar while I was at it, standing drinks all around and playing darts with all comers. I'm terrible at darts, but it has been my experience that most men like me better if they can demonstrate their superiority, and give hints and tips to an enthusiastic novice, so I was everyone's new best friend within the hour.
Sadly, none of them wanted to be more than just friends, or were simply unable to read my hints properly. I went home at about six, having had a good time but still with my edge on, missing my tea and rather the worse for wear from whiskey; wobbling up to the gatehouse, I asked Old Hayward to call the garage and have someone come fetch me—there was no way I could make it all the way back up the drive under my own steam.
I didn't expect Old Grimmett to come himself, but a few minutes later there was our ancient coachman in my mother's ancient green Packard, one of those big boat-like machines with a tiny bonnet that were the fashion before the War. He ushered me into the back, where I had to concentrate really hard on my own breathing in order to not be sick as the old-fashioned motor bumped up and down like a cantering horse all the way back up the drive. But it was certainly better than walking, so I thanked him profusely when he let me off at the base of the clock tower, then staggered into the house and up to my (new) room.
"I take it your lordship didn't pull?" Pond smirked at me with a mixture of amusement and pity.
"How can you tell?" I wondered. After all, I'd been gone long enough to get up to plenty of shenanigans.
"I can tell, my lord," he assured me, tapping the side of his nose, "Your lordship smells of nothing but whiskey and cigarettes."
"Really? What should I smell like?"
"Garlic, mostly, with a touch of lime and the tiniest hint of cheese-rind," he said, very precisely.
"Huh!" I marveled at this knowledge, "Perhaps you'd better bring me some coffee while I take a bath. I don't want to go down to dinner reeling into the furniture like an old sailor."
I had another nice soak, though not as long as my morning bathe, then gratefully sucked down two cups of strong black coffee while Pond put me together for the evening in a snappy new dinner-suit. I was feeling a little more myself as I went down to the Great Hall, where Aunt Em and Nanny were enjoying a glass of sherry before dinner. I told them about my visit to the pub, since there was unfortunately nothing to censor out, and they were both intrigued by the lore of the commercial traveler that I had picked up from my afternoon's companions.
After dinner, we went into the library and pored over magazines and catalogues for ideas about how to redecorate my dressing-room and study, and I started to get excited about the prospect. I decided that I didn't want anything too modern, which would jar the senses as I came out of my heavily Jacobean bedroom; but then I didn't want to go full-on period room, either. I suggested something along the lines of the furniture in a club, traditional but of no particular period, with warm rich colours and an eye more to comfort than style. The rest I left to Aunt Em's imagination.
All in all, a very pleasant evening, topping off a very pleasant day, and I looked forward to another quite pleasant day tomorrow when I would take a train to Leicestershire to spend a couple of weeks with old friends in one of the pleasanter corners of this green and pleasant land.
If only I had Twister with me, it would be perfect. After getting into my enormous bed in my huge room, I felt rather acutely alone.