Maisie parked outside the main gates leading to a red-brick neo-Georgian mansion that stood majestically in the landscaped grounds beyond an ornate wrought iron gate.
"D'you reckon someone'll come to open the gate?" asked Billy.
"Someone's coming now." Maisie pointed to a young man wearing plus fours, a tweed hacking jacket, woolen shirt and spruce green tie. He hurriedly opened an umbrella as he ran toward the entrance, and nodded to Maisie as he unlatched the gates and opened them. Maisie drove the car forward, stopping alongside the man.
"You must be Miss Dobbs, to see Mr. Waite at three o'clock."
"Yes, that's me."
"And your companion is . . . ?" The man bent forward to look at Billy in the passenger seat.
"My assistant, Mr. William Beale."
Billy was still dabbing his nose with Maisie's handkerchief.
"Right you are, M'um. Park in front of the main door please, and make sure you reverse into place, M'um, with the nose of your motor pointing toward the gate."
Maisie raised an eyebrow at the young man, who shrugged.
"It's how Mr. Waite likes it done, M'um."
"Bit picky, if you ask me," said Billy as Maisie drove toward the house. "'Reverse in with nose pointing out'. Perhaps that's 'ow I should walk in there, backwards, wiv me nose turned away! I wonder who 'e thinks 'e is?"
"One of the richest men in Britain, if not Europe." Maisie maneuvered the car as instructed. "And as we know, he needs something from us, otherwise we wouldn't be here. Come on."
They strode quickly from the car toward the main door where a woman waited to greet them. She was about fifty-five, in Maisie's estimation, and wore a plain slate gray mid-calf length dress with white cuffs and a white Peter Pan collar. A cameo was pinned to the center of her collar and her only other adornment was a silver wristwatch on a black leather strap. Her gray hair was drawn back so tightly that it pulled at her temples. Despite her austere appearance, when Maisie and Billy reached the top step she smiled warmly with a welcoming sparkle in her pale blue eyes.
"Come in quickly before you catch your death! What a morning! Mr. Harris, the butler, has been taken poorly with a nasty cold. I'm Mrs. Willis, the housekeeper. Let me take your coats." Mrs. Willis took Maisie's mackintosh and Billy's overcoat, and passed them to a maid. "Hang them on the drier over the fireplace in the laundry room. Mr. Waite's guests will be leaving in-" she looked at her watch "-approximately thirty-five minutes, so get the coats as dry as possible by then."
"Thank you very much, Mrs. Willis," said Maisie.
"Mr. Waite will join you in the library shortly."
Maisie sensed a mood of tension that pervaded the house. Mrs. Willis's pace was hurried, urging them forward. At the library door she checked her watch as she reached for the brass door handle. A door opened behind them and another woman hurried to join the trio.
"Mrs. Willis! Mrs. Willis, I will take over from here and show Mr. Waite's guests in to the library," she panted.
Mrs. Willis relinquished them, frowning with annoyance. "Certainly, Miss Arthur. Please continue." She turned to Maisie and Billy. "Good morning," she said as she stepped away without looking at Miss Arthur again. Unfortunately she was prevented from making a dignified exit as the door opened once more and a rotund man strode toward them, consulting his watch as he approached.
"Right then, it's three o'clock. We'd better get on with it." Barely looking at Maisie and Billy, he strode into the library.
Billy leaned toward Maisie and whispered, "It's like a three-ring-circus in 'ere!"
She responded with a brief nod.
"Sit down, sit down," Joseph Waite pointed to two chairs on the long side of a rectangular polished mahogany table and immediately seated himself in a larger chair at its head. His girth made him seem short, though he was almost six feet tall and moved deceptively quickly. According to Maurice's notes, Waite had been born in 1865, which meant he was now sixty-five. His navy blue pinstripe suit was doubtless constructed at great expense by a Savile Row tailor. It was complemented by a white shirt, light gray silk tie, highly polished black shoes, and light gray silk socks that Maisie could just see as she glanced down at the floor. Expensive, very expensive, but then Joseph Waite reeked of new money and of the large Havana cigar that he moved from his right hand to his left in order to reach out first to Maisie, then to Billy.
From Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear. Copyright Jacqueline Winspear 2004. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Soho Press.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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