DREAD. That was the feeling James Lionel Falconer was experiencing as he sat at his desk in his office at the Malvern building in Piccadilly.
It was Wednesday, September 25, 1889, and that afternoon a packet of documents had arrived by courier from Paris. James had opened the packet eagerly and read them immediately, shocked to the core by the bad news they contained.
James looked down at his hands resting on the pile of documents, a chill running through him at the thought of giving them to Henry Malvern, who was an ailing man. Rocked by his daughter’s breakdown and his brother Joshua’s stroke and lingering death, his employer had been unwell all summer with a debilitating fatigue. But James had no choice. The head of the company had to know everything.
A deep sigh escaped him as he opened the top drawer of his desk, placed the documents inside, locked the drawer, and pocketed the key.
Taking out his watch he saw that it was almost seven o’clock. At least he didn’t have to face Mr. Malvern until tomorrow morning, by which time his friend and colleague Peter Keller would be in his office next door, if James needed him. Keller was stalwart and had become a close friend, with shared interests. And Keller worked in the wine division and might be able to help solve this mess. Though no one would be able to solve the fact that it now turned out that Percy Malvern, Mr. Malvern’s cousin, was not only a thief who had stolen millions from the wine division in Le Havre, but also a bigamist.
Striding across the room, James put on his coat and left his office.
* * *
When James stepped outside onto Piccadilly, it was drizzling after a day of heavy rain. The early-evening light had dimmed, and there was a slight mist, but the street lamps were aglow. People were rushing home, dodging in and out and around one another, the pavements wet and slippery. James joined the throng.
He hurried toward Half Moon Street, wanting to get home as fast as he could. The sound of horses’ hooves, the rattling of carriage wheels, and the general bustle of the traffic in the streets grated on him tonight. He turned up the collar of his topcoat and plunged his hands into his pockets. It was not only wet but cold for September.
The moment he opened the door and went into the small flat he shared with his uncle George, a newspaperman, James felt a great sense of relief. The gas lamps on the walls filled the room with a shimmering light and a fire burned in the hearth. In an instant his uncle’s smiling face appeared around the kitchen door. “Supper is almost ready!” he announced. Smiling, James hung his damp coat on a hook behind the door, then returned to the kitchen to help George.
His uncle was deftly carving a large piece of roast beef, and he said, without looking up, “Your grandmother left this for us today, while we were at work.” Laughing, he added, “And these two loaves of freshly baked bread. You see, she dotes on you, Jimmy, lad.”
“And you too, Uncle George … you’re her son.”
A smile slid across George’s face, and he finally looked across at his nephew. “She’s the best there is, nobody like her.”
James nodded, and spotted the small glass pot with a white paper label stuck on it. Horseradish sauce, it read, in his grandmother’s handwriting. He smiled inside. She always thought of every little thing, right down to the last detail.
* * *
Sitting at the kitchen table a bit later, eating their roast beef sandwiches and drinking mugs of hot tea, James was quiet. His mind kept going over the problems dogging the wine division in Le Havre, problems that the documents he’d received today confirmed.
“I dread giving the terrible news from France to Mr. Malvern,” James said, grimacing.
“Just give him the documents and tell him he won’t like what he reads,” George suggested. “You may well be surprised that he’s been expecting bad news anyway.”
* * *
Sleep did not come easily that night. James considered it to be his savior, the key to his health. Yet when it was elusive he did not toss and turn like some people might; instead he lay perfectly still. Reflection and analysis were his special friends during these wearisome, sleepless hours.
He was glad he had his uncle to talk to. He had always been particularly close to George, even as a child, and they had truly bonded on a different level when he moved into the flat on Half Moon Street in Mayfair. Not that they saw much of each other. George was a journalist working on The Chronicle, where his star had risen over the years. His hours at the newspaper changed constantly.
James appreciated George’s wisdom and began slowly to relax, stretching his long legs in the bed, settling himself comfortably on the pillow. The dread had slithered away. Mr. Malvern had to know everything and perhaps he might not be too surprised after all.
However, James was glad that Peter Keller would be in the next office. They had become good friends. Keller knew the wine business; his knowledge and dedication, plus hard work, gave James the freedom to oversee the business’s shopping arcades, which could not be neglected.
Unexpectedly, and much against his will, Alexis Malvern, Henry’s daughter, crept into his mind, and for a split second, he felt a rush of emotion, a sudden desire for her. But he squashed this when he focused on her lack of concern for her father and the business she would one day inherit.
He saw her continued absence as a dereliction of duty. And these thoughts damaged her image in his mind. She just didn’t quite live up to his standards, didn’t fit the bill was the way he thought of her behavior.
Quite unexpectedly, Georgiana Ward came into his mind, and he wondered how she was, how she was doing. He had only ever once asked his cousin William if he had any news of her. William had shaken his head, then murmured, “My mother has only heard from her once, letting her know that she was feeling better away from London fogs. That’s all I know.”
James had remained silent at the time, not wanting to probe too hard. A small sigh escaped as he turned on his side. Whenever he thought of the older woman who had been his first lover, he realized how kind she had been to him, how much she had cared about him.
One day, he thought. One day I will meet someone like her … I know I will. He also missed William, who was far away in Hull, and as he fell asleep his thoughts were only about the importance of family and friends.
* * *
James sat up with a start, as if someone had shaken his shoulder. He was wide awake, and the room was very bright. He blinked as he got out of bed and went over to the window. The moon was riding high in the midnight blue sky, and it was shining into his bedroom because he had forgotten to close the curtains last night. He noticed that the rain had stopped.
He was suddenly restless, wanting to be outside, walking the streets, as he sometimes did, thinking through his problems. And clearing his head. Within minutes he was dressed in his trousers and shoes, and then pulled on a thick jacket for warmth, and slipped out of the flat quietly. All he needed was his uncle to wake up and ask where he was going at two in the morning.
His answer would have been nowhere in particular, because that was the truth. Once outside, he walked along Curzon Street and turned onto Park Lane, heading down toward the Wellington Arch and on toward Buckingham Palace. It wasn’t far away, and as he caught sight of it in the distance he noticed there was no Union Jack flying on its flagpole. Nobody was in residence. Queen Victoria was in Balmoral, and the Prince of Wales, her heir to the throne, lived in his own home with his wife, Princess Alexandra. Now there was a beautiful woman, he thought, one who was elegant and regal. She was deaf, but did not appear to let that bother her. Uncle George had told him she was Danish and that her sister Minnie was married to the Romanov czar of Russia.
As he neared the palace walls, James slowed down and stood staring at the regal building, almost entirely in darkness, only a few lights showing through upstairs windows. During the summer, Princess Louise, daughter of the Prince and Princess of Wales, had been married there.
Married, he thought. I wonder if I will ever get married. He grimaced to himself. The idea did not appeal to him at the moment. He had other fish to fry. His career. He knew within himself that he was doing well, so lucky to work for the Malvern company, to be close to Mr. Henry. Yet he was always aching inside to be on his own, to start his own retail business. Ever since his childhood he had longed to become a merchant prince. Too soon, he thought. It’s too soon.
He sighed under his breath, slowly walking away from Buckingham Palace. He was still too young to go out on his own. He mustn’t be impatient. His grandmother was forever reminding him of that. He headed down the Mall, his thoughts shifting to the days when he worked on his father’s stalls in the Malvern Market. He had been eight years old, and fell into the work at once, loving every moment of the day. Stay calm and keep going. Slowly, he told himself. And one day you’ll get to be where you want to be.
Copyright © 2020 by Barbara Taylor Bradford