Everyone knew Lady Isobel much preferred giving balls and dinner parties in town to hosting weekends in the country. The rumour also was she hated hunting, being afraid of horses though otherwise fearless and was out of sympathy with the male passion for shooting birds. This year the shoots had been let out to neighbouring estates. And also his Lordship had found himself obliged to spend more time in the House of Lords since the trouble in South Africa had flared up. Apparently he had business interests in the area. Neither Mr Neville the butler, nor Reginald the footman had discovered quite what these were: short of steaming open letters when they arrived (which Reginald wanted to do but Mr Neville forbade, for in his view reading letters left around was legitimate, steaming was not) there was no way of finding out. Mr Baum the lawyer carried documents away with him, or his Lordship locked them safely in the safe. And Elsie had overheard his Lordship say to her Ladyship that he could not forever be travelling up and down from Hampshire to attend the House, so they would stay in London until the New Year.
Elsie, personally, thought the smart new gambling dens in Mayfair and the company of his new friend the Prince of Wales was probably a greater attraction for his Lordship than politics. Elsie had been with the family for some fifteen years and knew as well as any what went on.
'Three monkeys, three monkeys!' Mrs Neville would urge 'hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil' in an attempt to tamp down the servants' hall gossip, though in fact she was as bad a culprit as anyone. And Grace, her ladyship's personal maid, would point out that since upstairs saw so little need to preserve their privacy in front of the servants, any more than they did in front of their dogs, they hardly deserved any. All wished Grace would not say this kind of thing; it smacked of disloyalty and the servant's hall, no matter how much it grumbled and complained, knew that by and large it was well off, and happy enough.
Elsie was not prepared to open the front door, no matter how hard and repeatedly the caller pulled the bell: there was smut on her face and she was not yet in her cap and apron. Anyway it was Smithers' job. Elsie would wait for a direct instruction from someone higher in the hierarchy. This overlong stay in London meant she missed her sweetheart. Alan was a gamekeeper on the Dilberne estate; they were saving to be married. The sooner that happened the better if she was ever to have children. On the yearly trips to London, as it was, Alan, back in Hampshire, consoled himself with drink and frittered the money away. By the New Year there would be precious little left. Elsie was not in a good temper these days, and she was tired of working in a cloud of ash.
There were few cabs about at this early hour, and since receiving the morning telegrams from Natal, Baum had taken a bus, but half-walked, half-run much of the way between Lincoln's Inn Fields where Courtney and Baum had their offices, and the Square. He did not grudge the effort, since on the whole he wished the Earl of Dilberne well, and had certainly lent him enough money in the past to want the debt repaid, and the sooner his Lordship's affairs were in order the sooner that would happen. But while Eric Baum pulled and pulled the bell and no one came, he began to feel aggrieved.
Copyright © 2012 by Fay Weldon
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