MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
London was silent with snow; soft flakes of it dropping evenly into the white streets; nobody outside who had somewhere inside to be. It was the third day of the year. Already the light was fading, though it was scarcely past two o’clock in the afternoon, and in his study in Mayfair, Charles Lenox allowed his watchful eyes to rest upon the large set of windows at the opposite end of the room, the long room, far from the dying fire by which he sat.
He was alone in the house but for servants. His wife, Jane, and their four-year-old daughter, Sophia, were still at her brother’s house in the country, but business, on behalf of the detective agency of which he numbered one of the three partners, had drawn him back to London earlier than he had anticipated.
But not enough business, alas, to keep him occupied for more than a few hours the previous afternoon, so that on this lonely and endless Sunday he had already reorganized the long rows of books that lined the walls, had gone through several pots of tea—and above all had waited, waited, waited, all the infinite day through, for a certain visitor to come.
And still no sign of him.
Lenox hadn’t looked at the letter heralding this visit since late that morning, but he was conscious at every moment of just where it sat on his desk in its long, crisp envelope, its cryptic contents never far from his thoughts. Out of sheer nervous energy he wanted to open it again. But if he closed his eyes he could probably recite it.
It was on the stationery of the hotel from which it was addressed.
3rd January 1877
I am writing in some haste—too much haste, certainly, to set down the reflections I wish I could of our distant friendship. As you can see, I am in London at the moment. Only briefly, however. Your address (I hope it may still be the correct one) was in the school directory.
It comes to this: I am in trouble. And yet I am not even quite sure how I am in trouble. I think it may be connected to that business that you and I once
Here the letter broke off abruptly.
It began again after some space on the page, with the darkness at the outset of this new passage making it clear that its author had taken a fresh nibful of ink—had resumed his communication after being momentarily drawn away from it.
I must go. No time to explain further. Send word by return post and I will call upon you there in Hampden Lane, most likely after three o’clock.
Even in such circumstances I will be pleased to meet again. Until then believe me to be, in sincerest regards and fondest remembrances, your friend,
Gerald R. Leigh
The carriage clock on Lenox’s desk had just swung its small bells to tap each other together once, which meant it was two forty-five. Sitting motionless in his armchair, after his restless day, he felt an irrepressible urge to do something—to act. But there was nothing to do, and no act to perform. He had forbidden himself another examination of the letter.
Which of course meant that at 2:48 he found himself, not quite consciously, standing up out of his chair and striding across the room to examine it again.
The hotel’s stationery revealed precious little. Lenox was forty-seven now—a tall and thin man, with a close brown beard and a thoughtful, kindly, but undeceived face—and had been a detective since roughly the age of twenty-two, first as a private investigator, now as a professional in the agency he had founded with two close friends. (For several years between these stages of his career, he had been in Parliament, the ancient family game, but that was in the past now.)
Across that long period, one of the few things he had very definitely learned was how to look at a letter. Some of the most innocuous among them had also been the most decisive—in an early case, he recalled, the Hoxley silver thief had been sent away for life on the strength of a note to his partner that said “A bit peckish”—but this one stubbornly refused to reveal anything to him.
The Collingwood was a first-rate hotel. That was just faintly surprising, perhaps, since Leigh was an unpretentious soul.
His handwriting here had a ghost of familiarity to it, long-ago familiarity, dormant now for nearly thirty years. (Gerald Leigh, no less! Well, he could marvel at this reappearance at his leisure. For now he must concentrate.) There was one obviously notable thing here, the letter’s sudden interruption and its reference to Leigh’s trouble. And one more subtly interesting clue: He had sealed the envelope with a signet ring, and Lenox could just make out that its looping intertwined initials were not Leigh’s own.
RSR, he thought. Or perhaps, upon closer scrutiny, BSB. Maddening, the artistic freedom these jewelers felt it within their rights to take with the alphabet.
Lenox stood up from his bent position, tapping the envelope thoughtfully against the desk, a hand thrust in the pocket what his wife had named his study-jacket. Brushing its torn lining with his fingers he felt, just somewhere in the back of his consciousness, a pang of anxiety about Lady Jane, and a puzzlement, too.
Study-jacket, that was her all over—a denomination designed to remind him, not especially gently, that it was a garment unwelcome in any other room of the house, the jacket being a deeply injured old quilted blue smoker, covered with burn marks and the stains of innumerable spills from coffee and teacups, its wrists singed and smudged.
But she also knew it was the jacket he thought best in—he didn’t care if that was silly; a detective needed superstitions—and as a consequence made certain, in her loving way, that it was always on its hook, brushed as clean as it could get in these latter stages of its life, and with a charcoal pencil in the pocket in case Lenox needed to jot something down.
He hoped they were all right, he and Jane. They had to be, of course.
The hands of the little clock on the desk ached forward. Two fifty-four, two fifty-five. Outside, the snow fell. The little bookshop across the way had a drowsy low fire in its window, and Lenox knew that its proprietor, a friend of long standing, would be sound asleep in his armchair with a book open across his belly. The image made him consider what could have brought Leigh to London, and what problem (or what “trouble,” to use his word) could have driven him out of doors on a day such as this one.
That business that you and I once.
This was the sentence that had kept its hooks in Lenox throughout the day. For he knew full well, or thought he did, to what it referred: his very first case as a detective, in a way.
The clock took Lenox past the hour and he went to sit in the cushioned window seat that looked across Hampden Lane. The panes were very cold to the touch; the snow was relentless, reckless with the plans that Londoners had made.
Three-fifteen and the bells touched once; three-thirty and they did it again, twice now.
At four, Lenox began to worry.
It was at five o’clock, having spent the hour in no more fruitful activity than willing it to pass, and, now that it had, having nothing to show for it, that he cried out “Kirk!” in a loud, irritated voice.
After a long beat the house’s phlegmatic, pear-shaped butler appeared. “Sir?”
“You can tell Rackham to get the horses ready. Ten Arlington Street—the Collingwood.”
Kirk raised his eyebrows very slightly, which was the equivalent in him of asking outright whether Lenox had gone insane, and perhaps needed to check into a sanatorium known for its particular specialty in madness, and should he call a doctor.
“Yes, sir,” he said.
“It’s no use giving me that look. I don’t want to go out any more than Rackham does, or in all likelihood the horses for that matter.”
“Yes, sir. You would not care for the footman to call you a cabriolet, sir.”
“No, I wouldn’t care for the footman to call me a cabriolet, Kirk, because I might need to make several stops and you never know where the next blasted cabriolet will come from in weather like this, unless you want the footman to follow me around London stalking cabriolets for the next several hours.”
“I see, sir.”
“Cabs, you know, is what we started calling them at the advent of the modern period, oh, a thousand years ago.”
Lenox was rarely in such an acid mood, and Kirk inclined his head deferentially to the celebrity of the moment. “Of course, sir. It will be heavy sledding, but I’m sure Mr. Rackham won’t mind.”
“Ha, ha,” said Lenox bitterly.
“Will there be anything else, sir?”
Lenox said no, there wouldn’t be, but then remembered to ask Kirk to fetch him a proper jacket, too, after he had gone to alert the groomsman that his services were required.
When Kirk had withdrawn, Lenox looked out the window at the weather. It was night out now. They said the year was lengthening, but on the present evidence he doubted it. Barely five and dark as pitch, except for the eerie black-violet light that a snowy street colored back up into the sky.
He sighed. But then, Gerald Leigh: a very old and deep call upon his loyalties, one that would have drawn him into taking far greater troubles than this one; and might yet, he thought. For he felt a real uneasiness about that letter.
Copyright © 2016 by Charles Finch