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I detest Mondays with all my soul. I always have. They are the thug who clouts you in the alleyway, the friend who stabs you in the back, the offspring who casts you into outer darkness in your dotage. I have reasoned that fully one-seventh of all the terrible events in my life have occurred on that egregious day. No one in the history of mankind has ever uttered, “Oh, it’s Monday! At last!”
The night before, I had enjoyed myself, heedless of what might lie around the corner. Sunday is a gentle respite, particularly for those of us who have but one day free of toil each week. At such a time, a change of scenery is in order: someplace calm, quiet, even contemplative, to consider the eternal conundrum. I’m speaking, of course, about the female of the species. Some men may choose to spend their evenings in public houses, surrounded by other blokes, discussing subjects they know little about. I’d much prefer staring at a pretty face, and trying to discern the mystery behind it.
Let us take Rebecca Cowan, for example. We were to be wed in a fortnight. I wasn’t worried, as most grooms are. Now that our relationship was finally settled, it was a relief. All those years of searching for the right one, the heartaches, the misunderstandings, the outright blunders, they were behind me now. As a husband I would face an equal number of trials ahead, but just then, all was peace and serenity.
I was at Rebecca’s home in Camomile Street, hard by the Bevis Marks Synagogue. We were in the small garden behind her house, and the sun was starting to set. There were beds of roses in their final bloom before the coming fall weather and there were more sturdy holly bushes that would withstand winter. We were ensconced in a circle of basket chairs in a small gazebo, enjoying the cool evening air. Dinner would soon be served, but I would not partake, for propriety’s sake. It would be many a day before I got over the feeling that the bubble would burst and that she would see me for all my faults and drive me off, as any sane woman would. For now I would look at her and listen to her silvery voice as long as I could.
“Baby’s breath,” she said. “We should have baby’s breath.”
“Certainly,” I agreed. “Loads of it.”
Of course, I had no idea what baby’s breath was, but my purpose in being there was to agree to everything she said. Once, I’d made an actual suggestion and she had patted my hand as if I were a five-year-old asking if we could please hold the reception in a sweet shop.
Her aunt Lydia was present as a chaperone, but she and I were already as thick as thieves. Lydia was the only member of the Mocatta family who didn’t feel Rebecca was making a grave mistake in marrying me. Mind you, I had much to recommend me. I was a Gentile marrying into a family of Levites; a former felon, having served eight months in prison for theft; a widower, always a good recommendation; and thoroughly unable to keep her in the manner to which she was accustomed. Then there was the matter of my being a private enquiry agent, requiring me to go about London with a loaded Webley in the waistband of my trousers. I was not entirely certain that she was reconciled with the fact that I was in such a dangerous line of work. In fact, the only point I had in my favor was that Rebecca had also lost a mate and in the tradition of her people could marry whomever she chose. For some reason which even I found inexplicable, she chose me.
“You’re not paying attention,” she said. “I think you’re falling asleep.”
“I’m not,” I replied. “It’s just very peaceful out here. And your aunt Lydia always puts me at my ease.”
“Our aunt Lydia.”
“Darling, you must have some opinions. This is to be your wedding, too!”
“Well,” I said, sitting up in the cane chair, “I like these little flowers here.”
There were several small bouquets at our feet, while the two women considered which they preferred.
“Hopeless!” Lydia said.
Rebecca brought a hand to her head, as if I were giving her a headache.
“Darling, that’s baby’s breath.”
“Oh, that’s what that is! I like it. That’s an opinion, isn’t it?”
Actually, there was one matter in which we differed, and that was my choice of best man. First of all, it was not customary to have a best man at all, but Rebecca, as a concession to our having a Jewish wedding ceremony, had encouraged me to select one. She had anticipated my choosing Israel Zangwill, my closest friend, but instead I had decided upon my employer, Cyrus Barker.
“I like Israel,” I told her. “But if it weren’t for Mr. Barker, I’d have been dead a thousand times over. He took me in when I was at my lowest, gave me a situation, a home, and a reason to live. Why, you and I met during our first enquiry together. We would never have met if it weren’t for him. I owe the man practically everything.”
She was terrified of him, I think, though she had not yet actually met him. His reputation, as always, had gone before him. Even Israel quakes in his boots whenever he is forced to come into contact with the Guv. I admit my employer is imposing. I don’t think Rebecca was looking forward to staring across at him during our wedding ceremony, towering a head above everyone else in the synagogue.
I had a suspicion that Barker was as frightened as she, though he would never admit to it, either. He was afraid of nothing and no one. However, within her slight, demure, five-foot-one frame was the ability to affect his entire world. When we first became engaged, he had sent his ward, Bok Fu Ying, to get her opinion of my bride-to-be. The two women had become close friends, but it had still not allayed Barker’s concerns. Rebecca was an unknown quantity, one of the few things he could not control. With mere words, she could influence how I thought and what I felt.
“What kind of boutonniere would you prefer, Thomas?”
“Whatever kind you would like, my dear,” I told her, smiling. “You’ll be the one staring at it all day.”
The Guv had arranged his life the way he wanted it. It was black and white, right versus wrong. He knew his friends and enemies. Rebecca, however, was neither. She was a shade of gray that negated his entire system. She was right and good, and she made him nervous, something few people were able to do.
“I like your onyx cuff links,” she continued. “They look good with a crisp French cuff.”
“I’ll have Mac polish them for me.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Why should I mind?”
“I really must talk to Jacob soon. We have a lot to discuss.”
“Not if I have any say in the matter.”
There was a second reason why Barker should be concerned about my fiancée. I had been a comfortable impediment to his own marriage plans, but now the prop was being pulled away. Well, perhaps not his plans per se, but Philippa Ashleigh’s plans, which amounted to the same thing. The widow, Barker’s lady friend, wished to bring him to the altar, and she generally got what she wanted. There was a theoretical date for their nuptials set for some time in the future, and he knew it. It was staring him in the face.
Rebecca leaned forward and tucked an errant curl behind my ear. Aunt Lydia raised a brow, but was not particularly scandalized. It was a casual gesture on Rebecca’s part, and that was what I wanted, the casualness of it, the promise that she would still be pushing that errant curl back when it was gray.
I looked at Rebecca and she looked back at me. This was a time when I should confirm her decision about our marriage.
“Are you looking forward to the honeymoon?” I asked.
Both women looked scandalized.
“Palestine!” I corrected. “Will you like Palestine, do you think?”
“Of course,” my fiancée replied. “Old Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the ruins of Nineveh.”
“And Greece and Italy.”
“They are all ruins as far as I’m concerned,” Lydia remarked. “And not particularly romantic.”
“Don’t worry,” Rebecca said. “We’ll make them romantic.”
“If you want old rocks,” her aunt continued, “you need to look no further than that pile by the east wall.”
Intrigued, I stood and crossed to where she had pointed. There was a rock projecting from the ground like a bad tooth. It was totally incongruous with the shrubs and greenery that encircled it, as far as I was concerned, but obviously it bothered Lydia.
“Why don’t you have it pulled?” I asked.
“We tried, but apparently, this is but the tip of it,” Rebecca explained.
I took a jackknife from my pocket and scraped at it. It was not merely rock. I found old mortar as well. Stepping back, I looked up at the edifice of the synagogue beside us and pictured a map of Old London in my head.
“This isn’t a rock at all,” I said. “This is part of the original wall that encircled the City, the very center of London. It is an architectural ruin, just as you said, Aunt Lydia.”
“Marvelous,” she said, waving at it with a handkerchief as if it were a midge. “Just get it out of the garden, where it is making a nuisance. Is he always this academic?”
“Not always,” Rebecca answered. “Sometimes he’s poetic and romantic. Other times, he’s dangerous and almost frightening.”
“Apparently, I am a man of many parts, few of them useful.”
Lydia leaned forward and touched my arm. “Just make my darling niece happy and I will forgive all your faults.”
“I will do my utmost, if only to have you as a permanent aunt.”
She looked at her niece. “Deft.”
There was another matter to concern me. Where were we going to live? Rebecca had a perfectly fine home here in the shelter of the synagogue, not far from her married sisters and parents. It was a solid, attractive house, with a few male touches here and there, but it had belonged to her late husband, Asher Cowan. I knew their marriage had been loveless, arranged by her family in fear that she might become a spinster, despite several offers of marriage. In spite of my disappointment in their marriage, I hadn’t disliked the fellow, whom I had only seen once or twice, giving one of his political speeches. I’d have voted for him had I lived in Poplar. Sitting in a chair that he had considered his was another matter.
He’d hung his hat on that rack, stood before that mirror to tie his cravat, slept in that bed. If I lived there with her after our wedding it would be grasping, as if I had married her in order to acquire the property. I could imagine women sneering at me and men slapping me on the back as if I’d made an advantageous investment, as though Rebecca herself were an appendage to the house. No, I didn’t like it at all. But what was the alternative? I could not cram her into my spartan room in Newington under Barker’s roof and expect her to accept it without complaint. She deserved better.
There was also the matter of Cyrus Barker and my work. He might require my presence at any moment, and were I off in the wilds of the City it might take over half an hour to arrive. In fact, anytime he needed me after hours I’d have to meet him, and there were plenty of cases that would not stay within the bounds of seven-thirty A.M. and six o’clock P.M.
One could say, in fact, that my life was a complete mess, were it not for the fact that I was actually content for the first time in my life. More than content. I was happy.
“I must let you go,” I said.
“You had better not,” she replied. “It took you years to propose the first time.”
I kissed her hand, shook Aunt Lydia’s, and went on my way.
One man shouldn’t be this fortunate, I thought, and then I stopped myself. I really must learn to stop saying whatever I think as I think it. It tempts Fate; but then I’ve always jumped for the gold ring when the brass one was meant for me. The eternal optimist, I expect everything is somehow going to work out for the best.
I forgot Monday was coming.
* * *
The next day began as they generally do. There was nothing visibly ominous about it. Barker was up betimes and out in the garden, consulting with his Chinese gardeners. I was in the kitchen facing the window, slowly consuming a carafe of coffee. Our chef, Etienne Dummolard, was grumbling to himself while flipping an omelet in a copper pan on the Aga. Our factotum, Mac, was buzzing about like a bee, flitting from task to task.
I waited until the Guv donned his morning coat, then bolted toward the front hall. By the time he reached the back door I was waiting, bowler hat on my head and stick in my hand, as if I’d been there for an hour.
His pipe filled and the fire stoked, Barker chuffed out through the front door, under a full head of steam. We soon found and boarded a hansom cab, the great gondolas of London Town.
“How are you this morning, Mr. Llewelyn?” Barker rumbled.
“Quite well, thank you, sir.”
“Did you see her last night?”
Neither of them would use the other’s name. It was as if each thought the other a momentary aberration of mine that soon would pass. Both mildly disapproved of my choices. Not openly, perhaps, and not in any great way, but it was there all the same.
We arrived in Westminster, turned north at the Houses of Parliament, and eventually docked in front of our chambers in Craig’s Court. It seemed a typical Monday, not necessarily good, but not obviously malevolent, either. Something to get through. One wished it were still Sunday.
“’Ello, Mr. L.,” our clerk, Jeremy Jenkins, murmured.
He was holding a wrinkled copy of the Police News, but his eyes were nearly shut. It is necessary to moderate the intake of sunlight between one’s lashes after imbibing freely the night before.
“Good morning, Jeremy,” I said, a trifle too loudly.
“Hmmph,” our employer rumbled as he entered the chambers.
Really, a grown man sulking. Or worse yet, brooding. One can sulk for an hour or so, but brooding can take days. If the grunt were directed toward me, I certainly wasn’t going to give up married life on the grounds that it would inconvenience him. He sat down in his large stuffed green leather chair, and I in my more modest wooden one. We can’t have these assistants comfortable or they’ll get themselves into all sorts of mischief.
We sat and the day began. A potential client entered minutes later with a request for our services. The man was looking for his eldest son, who had disappeared and was prone to melancholy. Mr. Barker promised he would look into the matter, but I sensed he was not enthusiastic. It was not the sort of case that attracted Barker’s attention. Most of the cases he preferred to take had higher stakes or affected society as a whole, such as Irish bombings or the hunt for the Whitechapel killer.
He left after three-quarters of an hour and then we were alone. Unless we had a client, we had little to do, which I found irritating. Barker preferred to be working, up and about, but if need be he could sit in his chair and think for hours. However, an assistant must not be seen as indolent, so I shuffled papers, looked over the accounts, which I had already done the week before, and pulled various books down from shelves in an effort to look industrious.
I had just sat down with Kelly’s Directory in my hand, looking for the office of the young man we were to find, when there was a muffled explosion that rocked the building. It caused a chandelier above the visitor’s chair to shudder. It was as loud as a thunderclap, and for a minute, I lost my ability to hear.
Barker was calling me, but I could only read his lips, no easy feat due to his heavy mustache.
“Scotland Yard!” he shouted.
Years before, our windows had been shattered by a bombing nearby at Scotland Yard, but so far, our windows were still intact this time.
I called back to him. “Downing Street?”
Barker was standing now, and he put a cupped hand to his ear.
Then his desk collapsed through the floor, taking the Guv and his Persian carpet with it. The green leather chair was next, and the visitors’ chairs, dropping into the cellar. Board by board, from the center of the chamber outward, the room began to come apart with a rending of wood that I could hear even with my damaged eardrums. Our entire chamber was disintegrating around and under me. The building which had been bombed was ours.
Have I mentioned how much I despise Mondays?
Copyright © 2018 by Will Thomas