MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Once a month or so, just to keep his hand in the game, Charles Lenox liked to go shopping with his friend Lady Jane Grey.
On this occasion it was a warm, windy day in early June of 1853, quiet, the gently sunny hour of late morning before the clerks would fill the streets on their way to take lunch. The two friends were next-door neighbors on tiny Hampden Lane, in the heart of London, and he was waiting on her steps at ten o’clock precisely. At five past, she came out, smiling and apologizing.
They left, eventually turning up Brook Street and walking past the little string of streets that ran parallel to their own, talking.
“Why are you checking your watch every ten seconds?” she asked after they had gone about halfway.
“Oh! I’m sorry,” said Lenox. “I’ve an appointment at noon.”
“I hope it’s with someone you’ve hired to teach you better manners.”
“The joke’s on you, because it’s with a duke.”
“The worst-mannered wretch I ever met was a duke,” Lady Jane said. As they crossed Binney Street, Lenox’s eyes stayed for an extra moment on a man painting an iron fence with a fresh coat of black paint, whistling happily to himself. “Which one is it?” she asked.
“Out of discretion I cannot say.”
“I call that disagreeable.”
Lenox smiled. “It’s a case.”
She turned her gaze on him. It had been a long drought since his last case—more than a month. “Is it? I see.”
Though both considered themselves tenured veterans of London now, anyone observing them would have seen two very young people, as young and resilient as the summer day. Lenox was a tall, slender, straight-backed young bachelor of twenty-six, bearing a gentlemanly appearance, and with, whatever Lady Jane said, a courteous manner. He was dressed in a dark suit, hands often behind his back, with hazel eyes and a short hazel beard. There was something measuring and curious in his face. As for Lady Jane, she was five years his junior, a plain, pretty woman of twenty-one, though she had been married for fully a tenth of those living days, which gave her some obscure right to self-regard for her own maturity. This told in her posture, perhaps. She had soft, dark curling hair; today she wore a light blue dress, with boots of a tan color just visible beneath its hem.
They had grown up in the same part of the countryside, though until he had moved to London, Lenox had never considered her part of his generation. By the time he’d noticed she was, Lady Jane had been engaged.
They neared New Bond Street, where the shops began, as the church clocks chimed the quarter hour.
In truth it was not altogether customary that she went shopping quite so often as she did—in most households like Lady Jane’s, the task would have fallen to a maid—but it was one of the things that she liked, and Lenox liked it for that reason.
The meeting at noon was continually on his mind, even as they walked and spoke. Lenox was a private … well, what word had he settled on! Investigator? Detective? It was a new endeavor yet. Three years could count as new, when the field was one of your own rough-and-ready invention, and when success had been tantalizingly close at moments but remained mostly elusive.
A duke might well bring it close enough to hold with two hands.
This intersection was vastly busier than their peaceful street. She stopped at the corner and looked at a list. After she had been studying for a moment, he said, “What do you need today?”
“Are you going to bother me with questions the whole time?” she said, trying to decipher, he could tell from many years of knowing her, her own handwriting.
She looked up and smiled. She pointed to the window next to which they were standing. It was a barber’s. “Shall we buy you some mustache grease?”
“Oh, no,” he said, looking at the sign that had inspired the question. “I make my own.”
“Yes. Though it puts you in the way of quite a lot of bear hunting.”
“You are in a very amusing mood, I suppose, Charles. There—I’ve made it out. Let’s go to the greengrocer’s first.”
He bowed. “Just as you please, my lady.”
They made their way carefully down New Bond Street, stopping in at every third or fourth shop. Jane was very canny, while Lenox shopped almost at random; at the confectioner, as she was remonstrating with Mr. Pearson over the price of an order of six dozen marzipan cakes she wanted for a garden party she was having, Lenox decided with little prompting to order a cake to be sent to Lady Berryman, who had invited him to the country for August.
“That reminds me,” Jane said to the baker. “I have an odd request. Could I order an eggless cake from you? Vanilla. It’s for my husband’s aunt. I wrote down the recipe she gave me. She’s lord-terrified of eggs, I’m afraid.”
“Why on earth?” said the baker, so moved by this horrible information that he forgot himself.
“Can you think I have asked her, Mr. Pearson?”
“Blimey,” he said. Then amended himself. “Blimey, my lady.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I know. Imagine being married to her.”
“I couldn’t,” said Pearson fervently, which was true for several different reasons.
Lenox was just about to interject that he knew the lady in question, a larger person, and that he would stand on his head if she had ever refused a dessert in her life. But as he was about to speak, Jane threw him a look, and he knew to keep mum.
In the street again, after they’d gone, she explained that she had read a recipe for an eggless cake from Germany and wanted to try it, but didn’t dare insult the baker.
“You could have made it at home.”
“No—no. He has the lightest hand in London, Mr. Pearson,” she said. “Speaking of which, how is Lancelot?”
He made an irritated face at her, and she laughed. Lancelot was a young cousin of Lenox’s on half-term from Eton and therefore in the city for two weeks of what his family had optimistically called seasoning. “I would prefer not to discuss it.”
“Does he still want to come with you on a case?”
“Has he gotten you with the peashooter again?”
“Please leave me in peace.”
They proceeded past the cobblers, then the book stall—BACK IN STOCK, EXCLUSIVELY IN ALL OF LONDON, Uncle Tom’s Cabin! a sign declared excitedly—before arriving at the dressmaker. Here Lady Jane went inside alone to have a word, as Lenox skulked outside, feeling like a schoolboy. Soon, though, he was meditating on the upcoming meeting.
The Duke of Dorset!
He thought of the title with a tightening in his stomach, and then of the letter that contained the entirety of his knowledge of the case thus far: His Grace has discovered that a possession upon which he places high value is missing. He would appreciate your advice regarding its potential recovery.
He checked his watch and saw that it was ten past eleven. They were near the end of their ramble, and he felt a quick flicker of melancholy. When he was with Lady Jane, he generally forgot himself; just at the moment, a welcome oblivion.
If Lenox’s first year in London after moving down from Oxford had been characterized by his tenacious, mostly fruitless search for work as a detective, the subsequent eighteen months had been more complex and difficult. In part it was still to do with the scorn his profession drew from his peers, as they advanced steadily onward in their fields—and in part it was to do with the lonely feeling that all around him his friends were marrying, having children even, while he was still by himself.
But most of all, of course, it had to do with the death of his father. At first he had borne up under this misfortune well, he thought. Fathers were supposed to die before their children, he supposed, and he knew any number of friends who had been orphaned long ago. But recently, especially in the last six months, his grief had shown itself in odd, unexpected ways. He found himself losing minutes at a time on train platforms and in gardens, thinking; he found himself dreaming of his childhood.
Perhaps it had to do with the fact that they had never been especially close. He had loved and revered his father, but the easier friendship had been with his mother. Had he assumed there would be time, later on in life, for their relationship to grow? His father had been only sixty-one when he died; for his second son, it had been, surprisingly, not as if some venerable building in London disappeared, which was what he had always imagined—Parliament, for instance—but as if London itself had.
This past year he felt the loss more keenly with each month, not less, and he was sure that was unnatural. For the first time in his life, he woke each morning with a sense of dejection—a sense that, well, here was another day to be gotten through—rather than happiness.
Copyright © 2019 by Charles Finch