Charles Lenox sat in the study of his town house in Hampden Lane—that small, shop-lined street just off Grosvenor Place where he had passed most of his adult life—and sifted through the papers that had accumulated upon his desk, as they would, inevitably, when one became a member of Parliament. In fact now they were like a kind of second soul that inhabited the room with him, always longing for attention. There were outraged letters about the beer tax from his constituents in Durham; confidential notes from members of the other party, inviting his support of their bills; reports on India, anarchism, and the poor laws; and oh, any number of things beside. It hadn’t been an easy year so far, 1874. As his stature within the House increased, as he progressed from the backbenches to the front—aided, in part, by the knowledge of international affairs he had gained on a trip to Egypt that spring—the amount of work increased commensurately.
While he organized his correspondence, Lenox’s mind worked over each problem the papers presented in turn, going a little ways on one, then turning back to the start, then going slightly farther, like a farmer plowing a furrow, setting out to break still newer ground. If he could get Cholesey and Gover, of the Tories, to agree to vote for the Ireland bill, then he might just permit Gover and Mawer to let it be known that he would stand behind the military bill, in which case Mawer might—so his thoughts ran on and on, ceaselessly formulating and analyzing.
Eventually he sighed, sat back, and turned his gaze to the thin rain that fell upon the window. Whether he knew it or not he had changed in the past few years, perhaps since his election, and would have looked to someone who hadn’t seen him since then indefinably different. His hazel eyes were the same, kind but sharp, and he was still thin, if not positively ascetic, in build. His short brown beard had been clipped only the evening before to its customary length. Perhaps what was different was that he had developed the air of someone with responsibility—of multiple responsibilities, even. Thinking of one of them now, however, his face changed from discontent to joy, and though his eyes stayed on the street a great beam of a smile appeared on his face.
He stood. “Jane!”
There was no reply, so he went to the door of the study and opened it. This room of his was a long, book-filled rectangle a few feet above street level, with a desk near the windows and at the other end of it, around the hearth, a group of comfortable maroon couches and chairs.
“Keep quiet!” a voice cried back in an urgent whisper from upstairs.
“Is she asleep?”
“She won’t be for long, if you hullabaloo about the house like an auctioneer.”
He came out to the long hallway that stretched from the front door to the back of the house, rooms on either side and a stairwell near the end of it. His wife came down this now, her face full of exasperation and affection at once.
“May I go up and see her?”
Lady Jane reached the bottom of the stairs. She was a pretty woman, in rather a plain way, dark-haired and at the moment pale, wearing a gray dress with a pink ribbon at the waist. Above all the impression she left on people was of goodness—or perhaps that was the impression she left primarily on Lenox, because he knew her so well, and therefore knew that quality in her. For many long years they had been dear friends, living side by side on Hampden Lane; now, still to his great surprise, they were man and wife. They had married four years before.
Better still, to add to his great happiness and evergreen surprise, at long last they had received a blessing that made him stop and smile to himself at random moments throughout every day, as he just had in his study, a blessing that never failed to lift his spirits above the intransigent tedium of politics: a daughter, Sophie.
She had been theirs for three months, and every day her personality developed in new, startling, wonderful directions. Almost every hour he snuck away from his work to glimpse her, sleeping or better yet awake. Granted, she didn’t do much—she was no great hand at arithmetic, as Lady Jane would joke, seldom said anything witty, would prove useless aboard a horse—but he found even her minutest motions enchanting. Babies had always seemed much of a muchness to him, but how wrong he had been! When she wriggled an inch to the left he found himself holding his breath with excitement.
“Hadn’t we better let her sleep?”
“Just a glance.”
“Go on, then—but quietly, please. Oh, but wait a moment—a letter came for you in the post, from Everley. I thought you would want it straight away.” Lady Jane patted the pockets of her dress. “I had it a moment ago. Yes, here it is.” She passed him the small envelope. “Can you have lunch?”
“I had better work through it.”
“Shall I have Kirk bring you something, then?”
“Yes, if you would.”
“What would you like?”
She laughed her cheery, quiet laugh. “I doubt Ellie will surprise you very far.” This was their cook, who was excellent but not much given to innovation.
He smiled. “Sandwiches will be fine.”
“I’ll go out for luncheon, then, if you don’t mind. Duch invited me to come around. We’re planning the Christmas ball.” Lady Jane, rather more than Lenox, was one of the arbiters of Mayfair society, much sought after.
“I shan’t see you for supper, either.”
“Yes. But we’ll put Sophie into bed together?”
She smiled, then stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. “Of course. Good-bye, my dear.”
He stopped her with a hand on the arm, and leaned down to give her a kiss in return. “Until this evening,” he said, his heart full of happiness, as so often it was these days.
After she had gone downstairs to arrange his lunch with the butler and the cook, Lenox remained in the hall, where he opened his letter. It was from his uncle Frederick, a relation of Lenox’s late mother.
Please consider this a formal invitation to come down for a week or two, with Jane of course and the new Lenox; I very much want to meet her. The garden is in fine shape, and then, Fripp is very anxious to have you for the cricket, which takes place Saturday week. I haven’t seen you in more than a year, you know.
Yours with affection &c,
Postscript: To sweeten the pot, shall I mention that in town, recently, there have been a series of strange vandalisms? The police cannot make head or tail of them and so everyone is in great stir. Perhaps you might lend a hand.
Lenox smiled. He was fond of his uncle, an eccentric man, retiring and very devoted to his small, ancient country house, which lay just by a village. Since the age of four or five Lenox had gone there once a year, usually for a fortnight, though it was true that the stretches between visits had gotten longer more recently, as life had grown busier. Still, there was no way he could leave London just at this moment, with so many political matters hanging in the balance. He tucked the note into his jacket pocket and turned back to his study.
Ah, but he had forgotten: Sophie! With soft steps he bounded up the stairs, past a maid carrying a coal scuttle, and toward the nursery.
The child’s nursemaid, Miss Taylor, sat in a chair in the hall outside it, reading. She was a brilliant young woman, accomplished in drawing and French—both useless to the infant at the moment, but fine endowments nevertheless—who had a reputation as the most capable nursemaid in London. She cared for a new child every year or so, always infants. Jane had acquired this marvel for them, at great expense, to Lenox’s derision—yet he had to admit that she was wonderful with Sophie, with a gentle comprehension and tolerance for even the child’s worst moods. Despite her relative callowness—she was perhaps two and thirty, though her complexion retained to an unusual degree the bloom of youth—Miss Taylor was an imperious figure; they both lived in frank terror of offending her. Still, she was used to Lenox’s frequent interruptions and indulged them with less severity now than she had at first.
“Only for a moment, please,” she whispered.
“Of course,” he said.
He went into the room and crossed the soft carpet as quietly as he could. He leaned over the child’s crib and with a great upsurge of love and joy looked down upon her. Such a miracle! Her serenely sleeping face, rather pink and sweaty at the moment, her haphazard blond curls, her little balled-up fists, her skin as smooth and pure as still water when you touched it, as he did now, with the back of his fingers.
It was joy beyond anything he had ever known.
Copyright © 2012 by Charles Finch