AN OLD BETRAYAL by Charles Finch
Published by St. Martin’s Press,
Hardcover ISBN: 9781250011619, ebook ISBN: 9781250038395
Copyright (c) 2013 by Charles Finch
The long green benches of the House of Commons were half-deserted as the evening session began, scattered with perhaps a few dozen men. It was only six o’clock. As the hours moved toward midnight these rows would fill, and the voices speaking would grow louder to be heard, but for now many of the Members of Parliament were still attending to the chops, the pints of porter, and the ceaseless gossip of the House’s private dining room.
In the front bench to the left side of the chamber sat a man with a short beard and kind, intelligent eyes, rather thinner than most gentlemen who were just beyond, as he was, the age of forty. He wore a quiet gray evening suit, and though by now many along the benches had begun to lounge backward and even, in some instances, close their eyes, his face and posture evinced no rebellion against the more or less limitless boredom that the House was capable of inflicting upon its observers. His name was Charles Lenox: Once upon a time he had been a practicing detective, and though he still kept a careful eye upon the criminal world, for some years he had been the Member of Parliament for Stirrington, and politics now comprised the chief work of his life.
“Lenox?” whispered a voice behind him.
He turned and saw that it was the Prime Minister. In his early days in Parliament an informal address from such a figure would have awed Lenox, but now, having moved by his own industry from the back benches to the front, he was accustomed to Disraeli’s presence–if perhaps not his company. Rising to an inconspicuous stoop, he said, “Good evening, Prime Minister.”
Disraeli motioned him down and sat beside him, then went on, still in a low voice, “I cannot imagine why you have brought yourself here so early in the evening. Not to hear Swick?”
Across the aisle, several rows up, a gentleman was speaking. He was Augustus Swick, a notorious crank. His speech had begun several minutes before, with the comforting assertion that in his view England had never been in a worse position. Now he had moved on to more personal issues. As he spoke, his enormous white mustache shook at its fringes.
“It is 1875, gentlemen, and still I cannot walk across St. James’s Street to the Carlton Club without being harassed by every variety of vehicle, your omnibus, your reckless hansom cab, your landau, your rapid, far too rapid, clarence–”
“Pierpont!” called out a lazy voice from a back bench.
“I am delighted to hear that name, sir!” cried Swick, reddening, his brow set so grimly that this profession of delight seemed less than sincere. “Yes, Pierpont! I had hoped his name might arise, because I must inquire of this chamber, are we all to go to private expense, as Colonel Pierpont did, to install islands in the middle of every road we wish to cross? Do every man’s means extend so far? Can private citizens be expected to bear such a burden? I ask you, gentlemen, where will it end? Will it take a horse trampling me to death in Jermyn Street before the attention of this chamber is drawn to the problem of London’s traffic?”
“May as well try it and find out,” called out the same voice, to mild laughter.
Swick, outraged, drew himself up further, and Disraeli, with a wink, took the opportunity to move to the front bench across the aisle–for he was a Conservative, though he liked to stop in among his foes for a friendly word when the chamber was empty. He was sharp, this fellow. He had turned out Lenox’s own party’s leader, William Gladstone, the year before, but since then he had very carefully won around both sides of the House by tempering his imperial ambitions for En gland with an unexpected social conscience. Just that evening they were going to discuss the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act–a bill that sounded as if it might have come from Gladstone himself.
In fact, this was why Lenox had come to the chamber early. He had a word to get in.
By the time Swick had finished speaking, ten or fifteen more men had filed into the Commons, and the serious business of the evening was near its commencement. The Speaker recognized the only man to stand after Swick–Edward Twinkleton, a midlands glue baron. He began to address Disraeli’s act.
The housing of the poor was a serious issue, perhaps the one to which Lenox had, in recent months, devoted more time than to any other. Only that morning he had driven to the slums of Hungerford to see the problem firsthand.
Despite its origin in his own Conservative benches, Twinkleton stood firmly against the bill and was now making a long-winded argument about the idle poor. When he had concluded, Lenox stood up and, after recognition from the Speaker, began his response.
“The chief issue is not, as my honorable friend presumes, one of the comfort of our poorer citizens, but of their health. May I ask whether he is familiar with the usual, and vile, practice of the builders in these neighborhoods? Commissioned by Her Majesty’s government to construct new edifices, they take the very fine gravel we, the taxpayers, have purchased–for the construction of the foundation–and they sell it on the black market. Then they replace it with something called ‘dry core,’ gentlemen, a mixture of trash, dead animals, and vegetables. It is only March, but in the summer, I am informed, the smell is beyond belief. Can we rightly call this England, if Parliament gives its endorsement, this evening, to such practices?”
Lenox sat down and thought he saw Disraeli incline his head slightly across the aisle in thanks–though perhaps not.
Twinkleton rose. “I commend my honorable friend’s insight into the issue, and yet it cannot be lost on him that these people have always lived in the city, always in suchlike conditions, and that there seem to be more of them than ever! No amount of dry core reduces their number!”
Lenox stood to respond. “The honorable gentleman from Edgbaston neglects to consider, perhaps, the historical context of our time. During the period of the honorable gentleman’s childhood–”
“As I did not receive a card from my honorable friend upon the recent occasion of my birthday, I do not see how he can be so certain of my age.”
This drew a laugh, but Lenox bore onward. “During the period of the honorable gentleman’s childhood,” he said, “or thereabouts, one in five Britons lived in a city. Now it is edging toward four in five. Even to a very dim intellect that must be acknowledged a change.”
There was laughter on Lenox’s own side now, and a diffident round of hissing and catcalling on the other, all very usual, at this slight, and as Lenox sat down upon the green baize bench, smiling faintly, Twinkleton rose up, his face also traced with amusement, clearly raring for battle. Instead the Speaker, chary perhaps of any further devolution of courtesy in the chamber, chose to call for rebuttal on Montague, a Member from Liverpool. Twinkleton would have his chance again in a moment. In the meanwhile, Montague, who had all the charisma and verve of a dying house plant, returned the tone of the House’s discourse to its proper tedium.
When Montague had been speaking for ten minutes or so, Lenox saw that a red-haired boy was approaching him, having darted down one of the aisles. This was Frabbs, his clerk, a bright and attentive lad. He handed Lenox a note. “Just came to the office, sir,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Lenox.
He tore the envelope and read the short note inside. Interesting. “Any reply, sir?” asked Frabbs.
“No, but find Graham and ask him whether the vote on this bill will come in this evening, or if he thinks there will be another day of debate. You can signal me from the door, I shall keep an eye on it.”
Graham was Lenox’s political secretary, his most important ally; it was a position in most instances occupied by some ambitious son of the upper classes, fresh from Charter house or Eton, but Graham was, unusually–perhaps even uniquely–a former servant. For many years he had been Lenox’s butler. A compact, sandy-haired, and shrewd fellow, he had taken to his new position without faltering, and now had more to do with the running of Parliament than fully half of the body’s own Members.
As Montague bore onward, down into the depths of his prepared remarks, Lenox’s eyes kept flitting to the side door where Frabbs would appear. Catching himself at it once too often, he smiled: It was the old internal debate, the mild pleasures of Parliament, the sense of duty he felt to be there, laid against the thrill of being out on the hunt. Detective work.
Lenox’s father had been a great man in the Commons, and now his older brother, Sir Edmund Lenox, stood among the two or three chiefs of the party. For his part, Charles had always taken a great interest in politics, too–had sometimes wished that the seat in the family’s bestowal, which of course Edmund took upon reaching maturity, might have been his–and had been thrilled when he won his own. It felt like an ascent, for in truth many of his class looked upon Lenox’s previous career as a folly, even an embarrassment.
How he missed the old life! Twice in the past two years he had emerged briefly from retirement, on both occasions in singular circumstances, and now he often thought of those cases, their particular details, with a longing to be back in the middle of them. No morning passed in which he did not pore over the crime columns of the newspapers, coffee growing cold in its cup.
He thought of all this because of the note Frabbs had passed him: It had come from his former protege in detection, Lord John Dallington, asking for help on a case. Having read it ten minutes before, Lenox itched with irritation at his position already, eager to be gone from the Commons.
It was true that he had promised Disraeli, and several other men, that he would be an assiduous participant in these debates. Still, he had already exchanged words with Twinkleton once, and for an hour or two’s absence anyway he would hardly be missed. Particularly if the vote was to be delayed beyond that evening.
Ah! There was Frabbs’s head, popping around the doorjamb–and yes, there was the thumb in the air. With a murmured good-bye to the men on his bench, and a promise that he would return just after the break, Lenox stood and made for the exit, happier than he had been since he left the house that morning. A strange circumstance, Dallington’s note had promised. Lenox smiled. Who knew what might await him out there in the great fervid rousing muddle of London?
Astroll up and across Green Park took Lenox to Half Moon Street, where Dallington lived. The address was a fashionable one, popular especially among the young and idle rich, lying as it did close by both their clubs and Hyde Park, where they might ride their horses in the morning. Dallington lived toward the Curzon Street end, almost precisely halfway between Parliament and Lenox’s own house in Hampden Lane, which was situated in the leafy, more sedate precincts of Grosvenor Square.
John Dallington, the youngest son of a very kindly duke and duchess, must have been twenty-seven or-eight by now–but he was fixed in many London minds as a disreputable cad of twenty, who had been sent down from Cambridge in sordid circumstances, then spent the subsequent years making the acquaintance of every gin hall and debauched aristocrat in Mayfair.
This image might have been just once, but by now it was unfair. Lenox knew as much firsthand. Several years before, Dallington had, to the older man’s very great astonishment, expressed an interest in detective work, and though the lad was still prone, in times of boredom, to relapse, visiting with friends from that less seemly era of his life, by and large he had settled into adulthood. His apprenticeship to Lenox had been profitable to both men. Indeed, through his own intelligence and industry he had now succeeded Lenox as the premier private detective in the city–or at the very least trailing just behind one or two other men who followed the same calling.
Dallington inhabited a chalk-colored building of four floors, taking the large second story for himself. At the front door now was the neighborhood’s postman, in his familiar uniform, the scarlet tunic and high black hat. Dallington’s landlady–a redoubtable and highly proper personage in her twenty-fifth month of mourning for her husband, only a little black crepe around her shoulders– answered the door and took the post, then saw Lenox farther down the steps.
“Mr. Lenox?” she said, as the postman touched his hat and retreated.
“How do you do, Mrs. Lucas?” Lenox asked, climbing the steps.
“Are you here to see Lord John, sir?”
“If I might.”
“Perhaps you can convince him to take his toast and water.”
“Has he been ill?” Toast and water was the food considered most suitable for convalescents, at least for those who belonged to the generation of Lenox, of Mrs. Lucas, of Twinkleton–boiling water poured over burnt toast, and mashed into something like gruel. Personally Lenox had never found it palatable.
This made sense of the note, at any rate, which had contained a postscript apologizing that the young lord couldn’t come to him.
“You shall see for yourself,” she said, turning and leading him into the dim hallway.
“Not contagious, is he?”
“Only his mood, sir.”
She lifted a candle from the table in the front hall and led him up the stairs. A boy was sweeping them but made way.
“Mr. Lenox, here to see you,” called the landlady when they reached Dallington’s door, tapping it chidingly with her nails.
“Push him in!” called out the young lord. “Unless he doesn’t like to get consumption.”
“Ignore him,” she whispered. “Good evening, Mr. Lenox.”
“Good evening, Mrs. Lucas.”
By contrast to the shadowy stairwell, Dallington’s rooms were a riot of light, candles and lamps everywhere. Such was his preference. Because of that the air was always tolerably warm there, especially now, in the spring. The sitting room one entered from the hall was pleasant and comfortable, with dog-eared books in piles upon the mantel and one of the sofas, watercolors of Scotland upon the wall, and a cottage piano in the corner.
“How do you do, Dallington?” asked Lenox, smiling.
The young man lay upon a divan, surrounded by discarded newspapers and letters stuffed back into their envelopes. He wore–the privilege of the ill–comfortable clothes, a soft jacket of blue merino and gray woolen trousers, with scarlet slippers on his feet. “Oh, not very badly.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Now–”
“Though if I die I would like you to have my collection of neckties.”
“They’re too colorful for me. It might be that an especially garish meat-pie seller would agree to take possession of the quieter ones.”
Dallington laughed. “In truth it’s only a head cold, but I must keep Lucas on her toes, or she’s liable to come it pretty high. Toast and water, indeed.”
His appearance made a lie of this deprecation, however. Despite his years of drink he was usually healthy-looking, face unlined, hair sleek and black. At the moment, by contrast, his skin was pallid, his eyes red, his person disheveled, and on top of that he had a nearly continuous cough, though he managed mostly to stifle it in a handkerchief. It seemed no wonder that he didn’t feel equal to venturing out upon a case.
“I can’t stay long,” Lenox said.
“Of course, and thank you for coming–I thought perhaps you might not be able to get away from the Commons at all. It’s only that I’m due out to meet a client at eight in the morning, and finally decided two hours ago that I don’t think I can go.”
“You couldn’t reschedule?”
“That’s the damnable bit, I–” Here Dallington broke into a fit of coughing, before finally going on in a hoarse voice. “I have no way of reaching the person who sent the note. An enigmatic missive, too. You can pick it out from the birdcage, if you like, the red envelope.”
This brass birdcage, absent of avian life, was where Dallington kept his professional correspondence. It hung near the window. Lenox went to it and found the letter Dallington meant, tucked between two bars. It was undated.
“The police cannot possibly help me; perhaps you might. If you are amenable to meeting, I will be at Gilbert’s Restaurant in Charing Cross Station from eight o’clock Wednesday morning, for a space of thirty-five minutes. If you cannot contrive to meet me then I will write to you again soon, God willing. You will know me because I am dining alone, and by my light-colored hair and the striped black umbrella I always carry.”
“Please please come.”
“Well, what do you make of that?” Dallington asked. “It is unsigned, of course, which tells us that he desires anonymity.”
“Moreover, he cannot know me very well, to address me as Mr. Dallington. I don’t stand upon much titled formality but I generally receive it anyhow.”
Dallington shrugged. “I cannot see much farther into it.”
“There are one or two telling details,” said Lenox. “Here, for instance, where he says he’ll wait for thirty-five minutes.”
“Why is that odd?”
“Such a specific length of time? Given that he proposes meeting at a train station, it suggests, to me, that he will catch a train shortly after 8:35. Do you have a Bradshaw?”
“On the shelf there,” said Dallington.
Lenox pulled the railway guide down and browsed through it, frowning, until he found the listings for Charing Cross. “There is an 8:38 for Canterbury. The following train doesn’t leave until 8:49. I think we may presume that your correspondent is traveling to Kent.”
“Bravo,” said Dallington. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes,” said Lenox. He paused, trying to define his reaction in his own mind before he told it to Dallington; for the letter had unsettled him.
“It is something in the tone. I don’t know that I can identify it precisely.” He gestured toward the page. “Its despairing scorn for the police, for instance. His carefully generic description of himself.”
“He is being cautious, you mean?”
Lenox shook his head. “More than that. This phrase, ‘God willing,’ and then this rather desperate final line. All of it together makes me believe that the man who wrote this letter is living in a state of mortal fear.”
Just before ten that evening Lenox’s carriage pulled to a slow stop in front of his house in Hampden Lane.
“A great many lights on downstairs for the hour,” he murmured to Graham, who was sitting beside him. “Yet Jane must be done with supper by now.”
Graham, who was reading the minutes of an electoral meeting in Durham, didn’t look up. “Mm.”
Lenox glanced over at him. “Do you never tire of politics?”
Now Graham did pull his eyes away from the paper, lifting his gaze toward his employer. He smiled. “I find that I do not, sir.”
“I sometimes think you’re better suited to all of this than I am.”
“As for the lights, I would hazard that Lady Jane is waiting for you to arrive home. Not Sophia, hopefully. Well past her bedtime.”
Lenox clicked his tongue in disapproval at the idea, though in truth he would have been selfishly pleased to find the child awake. Sophia was his daughter, now nearly two years of age, a plump, pink creature. All of the mundane achievements of her time of life–stumbling around in a mildly convincing impression of upright mobility, speaking fragmentary sentences–were an unceasing enchantment to her parents, and even to hear her name in passing, as he just had, still made Lenox happy. After a lifetime of polite boredom when confronted with children, he had finally found one whose companionship seemed a delight.
Lenox stepped onto the pavement from the carriage, Graham behind him, and started up the steps toward the house. It was a wide one for a London street; before they had married, Lady Jane and Lenox had been next-door neighbors, and by knocking down a few walls strategically they had merged their houses. It had only taken two or three hundred arguments (between two generally mild people) before it was finished to their satisfaction. It was done at last, at any rate, and thank the Lord for it.
With a nod good night, Graham opened Lady Jane’s old door, on his way to his rooms there, while Lenox took the front door to the left, the one that had been his own for so many years.
As he came in, the house’s butler, Kirk, greeted him and took his coat. “Good evening, sir. Have you eaten?”
“Hours ago. Why the hullabaloo?”
“Lady Victoria McConnell is visiting, sir.”
Ah, that explained it. Toto often visited at unusual hours. She was Jane’s cousin and also closest friend, a vibrant, sometimes flighty woman, good-humored, even in her thirtieth year now exceedingly youthful. She was married to an older man, a friend of Charles’s, Thomas McConnell; he was a doctor, though he didn’t practice any longer, such work being conceived as below the dignity of Toto’s great, very great, family.
“Are they in the drawing room?”
This was down the front hall and toward the left, and it was here that Lenox turned his footsteps, walking briskly past the flickering lamps in their recessed sconces along the wall. It was good to be out of the Commons. The debate was still going, and he had spoken several times more after returning from his visit to Dallington, but it had become apparent quickly that there would be no immediate vote–many men had much to say upon the merits and imperfections of the bill–and that the truly consequential speeches, from the frontbenchers, would be delayed until the next evening.
He came in and found Lady Jane and Toto side by side on the rose-colored sofa, speaking in low voices.
“Charles, there you are,” said Jane, rising to give him a swift kiss on the cheek.
“Hello, my dear. Toto, I fear you look distressed.”
She ran a hand through her blond hair. “Oh, not especially.”
He went to the sideboard to pour a glass of Scotch. “Did you have money on Scheherazade in the fourth at Epsom? Dallington lost his shirt.”
It was then, to his surprise, that Toto burst into tears, burying her face in Jane’s quickly encircling arms.
In a woman of slightly lower birth it would have been a distasteful spectacle. Rules soften toward the top, however. It was not the first time Toto had cried in Hampden Lane, usually because of a mislaid necklace or a serial novel without a happy ending, and it wouldn’t be the last.
“Don’t be beastly, Charles,” said Jane. “Toto, you and I shall go to my dressing room–come along.”
Toto, wiping her eyes, said, “Oh, who gives a fig whether Charles sees me cry. I cried in front of Princess Victoria when I was a child after my aunt pinched my neck–to keep me quiet–and had a square of chocolate as a prize, so who knows what good may come of crying in front of people, I say. Charles, come and set yourself upon that couch, if you like. You can hear it all, the whole truth about your horrid friend.”
As he sat Toto gave a fresh sob, and Lenox, having believed it to be another trifle, saw that Toto, whom he loved, was truly upset. Alarmed, he asked, “What has happened?”
There was a long pause. At last, softly, Lady Jane said, “She is worried about Thomas.”
Immediately Lenox’s thoughts flew to drink, and he felt a lurch of worry. There had been a time when McConnell was lost to that vice, in the earlier years of his married life with Toto, when she had been perhaps too callow to support him, he perhaps too weak to handle the disappointment of abandoning his vocation, finding himself lost in so many empty hours.
Matters had improved since that time, especially after the birth of their child, Georgianna–or George, as she was called–but not to the degree that bad news would ever come entirely unexpected.
As it happened, however, his fears were misdirected. Toto, steadying herself, said, “I believe he has taken up with another woman.”
Lenox narrowed his eyes. “McConnell? I can’t credit that.”
“It’s Polly Buchanan, the shrew.”
Lenox lifted his eyebrows. “Ah.”
“I don’t believe she’ll rest until she’s turned Sydenham into Gomorrah, Charles,” said Toto–her voice imploring, as if she wished it to be true, and then for him to believe it. Her doubts about her suspicion stood in the way of her anger, he could tell. Her face was anguished.
Polly Buchanan was a woman of twenty-five, the relict of a dashing and red-cheeked young soldier named Alfred Buchanan, who had married her in the year ’71. The week after their wedding breakfast he had gone out on a hunt in Middlesex wearing neither a coat nor a hat, contracted pneumonia, and almost immediately, with an appalling lack of consideration for his new wife, died.
With the sympathy of the world wholly hers, Polly had used the subsequent three years to flirt with every married gentleman in London, until she had a terrible reputation among their wives and rather a fond one in the clubs of Pall Mall. (“She turns a fine leg” was the sort of thing one portly gentleman at the Oxford and Cambridge might say to another.) Since she had never positively trespassed upon conventional morality and had excellent connections, she was still widely received–though rarely, any longer, much pitied.
“But Toto, dear,” said Lenox, “what cause can you have to suspect Thomas of seeing this woman?”
“They rode together across Hyde Park two mornings ago, three turns, and again, I am reported, this morning, three turns.”
“You were not there?”
“No. I was taking care of Georgianna while he complimented her hideous green eyes, I don’t doubt, the swine.”
There was a moment’s silence, into which Toto sobbed. When he spoke, Lenox’s voice was skeptical. “So based solely upon this rumor you have concluded–”
Toto looked up at him with furious eyes, but before she could reply Jane did. “No, Charles, you have come into the conversation halfway through. Thomas has been a different man for some weeks now.”
“Six weeks,” said Toto with profound emphasis upon the number, as if it were dispositive proof of an unspecifed crime. Then she added, miserably, “He’s never seemed so happy in all the time I’ve known him.”
“Toto, dear, it must be something else. His work, for instance.”
“He’s working less than ever.” McConnell had a variety of scientific interests and an extensive chemical laboratory. “He goes two days sometimes without entering his study.”
That looked bad. “How does he occupy his time?”
“At his club,” said Toto. “Or so he says. I cannot face him to night, Jane. I cannot face a lie from my own husband.”
“You may stay here,” said Charles.
Jane scoffed at that notion. “No, don’t say that, Charles. Toto, we would be pleased to have you, always, but you cannot run from your husband at the drop of a hat. Think, what if he is innocent of these trespasses and you stay away from home? Imagine his bewilderment. And then, is it good for George? You must rein in your imagination, Toto. It is for the best that way. Believe me, I only want you to be happy.”
But Toto, however, determined to deny her cousin this gratification, burst into a fresh sob, and for the next fifteen or twenty minutes said very little and would take no refreshment or consolation. Finally, with only a meager attempt at appearing reassured, she left, promising to call in again the next evening. She might have more information then, she thought.
It was bad, no doubt of that. When they had closed the door behind her, Charles and Jane looked at each other with tight-lipped sympathy, sighed at the same time, and without needing to speak about it to understand what each felt–the sorrow, the doubt, the faint tincture of intrigue–began to walk toward the stairs leading up to their bedroom.
Just before noon each Tuesday, Arthur, a footman belonging to the staff of Lenox’s house, took the London underground to Paddington Station, carrying two pocket watches. Usually with a minute or two to spare he arrived at the terminal and watched, with a feeling of stale drama, as the large railway station clock ticked toward the hour. When it finally struck twelve o’clock, he reset both watches, one in each hand, to the same time.
This accomplished, he returned to Hampden Lane and wound all the clocks to match the hour upon the pocket watches, or at any rate an average thereof, which usually put the house within five seconds or so of British railway time.
So it had been for many years; it was a quirk of Lenox’s, from the days when he had used the rail system at every odd hour of the day, several times each week on occasion, in his detective work, and needed to be absolutely sure of where he stood in relation to the timetables the railways printed. Like the copies of Bradshaw handily situated in half a dozen rooms of his house, it was an essential professional advantage.
When the clock chimed for half past seven the next morning, therefore, Lenox, sitting over a cup of coffee and a plate of toast and eggs, the “Times” kinked just inward in his hands to give it a firm spine, knew that it was precisely 7:30–that he was not, like most London houses, three or four or twelve minutes out, in who-knew-which direction.
He rose, buttoned his jacket, took a final sip of coffee, and went outside, where the horses, warmed ten minutes before, were waiting with his carriage.
It was a crisp, white-skied spring morning, with a firm breeze minutely rearranging the world every few seconds as it gusted, a collar flicked up before it settled again, weak new petals scattered from their branches into the streets. When he was settled on the blue velvet bench of the carriage and the horses had begun to pull, he gazed out of his window at the day. He wondered about the man who had written to Dallington–what troubled him, why he was seeking help.