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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Last Passenger

A Charles Lenox Mystery

Charles Lenox Mysteries (Volume 13)

Charles Finch

Minotaur Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

CHAPTER ONE


On or about the first day of October 1855, the city of London, England, decided it was time once and for all that Charles Lenox be married.

Lenox himself didn’t even necessarily disagree. He lived a happy life as a bachelor in the passage through Mayfair known as Hampden Lane, but for the first time had reached a stage when he could admit that a wife might settle his days into a still more contented rhythm. Nevertheless, the city’s vehemence in its new convictions about his future came as a surprise.

On the second Tuesday of the month, at an evening salon at Lady Sattle’s, a footman discreetly handed him a note:

Mary Elizabeth Sharples

Throw into fire

He studied this epistle for a moment. He knew the handwriting. He looked over at Mary Elizabeth Sharples, holding a tiny glass of almond brandy across the room, a violet shawl around her shoulders.

She was a handsome woman in her third London season, Kentish, immensely rich, and also a fair four or even five inches above six feet tall—and, of greater significance than any of that, was helplessly in love with the gentleman standing next to her at just this moment, Mark Blake. It seemed doubtful that Blake himself knew anything about it. Lenox had been familiar with him at Oxford. He was a virtually penniless fellow of good birth, so short in stature that there were carnival rides to which his successful admission would be an uncertain matter, and whose only subject of conversation, whose exclusive interest, was Dutch silver.

He did have a fine head of gleaming black hair, however; that had to be owned.

Lenox glanced across the room toward his friend Lady Jane. It was she who had passed the note by the footman. She was now in the midst of an animated conversation with her husband, James, and two gentlemen from his regiment in the Coldstream Guards.

He managed to catch her eye, however, and she returned his gaze queryingly.

Lady Jane and Lenox had known each other since they were children. She was perhaps a year younger than Mary Elizabeth Sharples, and a good ten inches shorter. She was a plain but pretty person, with dimpled cheeks, kind gray eyes, and hair that fell in soft dark curls. This evening she wore a wide blue crinoline.

He crossed the room toward her, an icy pewter cup of punch in hand.

When she was just loose from the group’s conversation, Lenox said, “Hello, Jane.”

“Ah! Hello, Charles,” she said innocently.

Lenox leaned close. “Shall I really throw her into the fire?”

“Excuse me?”

“I will do it if you insist, but I feel people would notice. I am almost sure.”

Lady Jane looked at him crossly. “What are you talking about?”

He consulted the note. “You write, Mary Elizabeth Sharples,” he said in a quiet voice, though the lady in question was some thirty feet away. “Throw into fire.”

A look of wrath came onto Jane’s face. “The note, you fool. You’re to throw the note into the fire.”

“Oh, the note!”

“Yes, the note, as you very well know.”

“I was going to eat the note,” he said.

She shook her head. “How I hate you.”

He smiled. “I could ask her to marry me in front of all these people and it wouldn’t make a whit of difference, Jane. She is going to marry Blake, whenever he stops talking about sterling cow creamers long enough to notice that it is possible. I imagine they will be transported to the church in a carriage of Dutch silver.”

“I think her a very agreeable person,” said Jane stiffly, not just yet prepared to laugh at her suggestion. “And I am not at all convinced that her affections are as settled as you say. But you may suit yourself.”

Lenox held up the note. “I must go to the hearth, now that I understand your meaning. Be good enough to watch my back, please. For enemy action.”

“I hope you fall into the fire,” she said, and turned back to her husband and his friends.

So it had been for weeks, mysteriously. Ancient, distant, respectable cousins had dropped in on Lenox after years of silence, mentioning their friends’ grandnieces. Peers from his schooldays delicately proffered their sisters. Even his close friends, Lady Jane, for instance, and his brother, Edmund, seemed to think he was in desperate want of a wife.

Part of it was no doubt that the season had just begun. After the long summer, in which those who could mostly retreated from the city into the clearer air of the countryside, all had returned, and every night there was a different salon or ball. The next night these same people would be crowded into Mrs. Wilcott’s immense ballroom in the guise of either “lions” or “lambs,” however they chose to interpret that directive. (Lenox hadn’t chosen. He dreaded it.)

Still, this was his sixth autumn in London, and the assaults upon his liberty had never been this concerted or numerous.

He was, after all, an unusual match. It was true that he had a good deal to recommend him. He was a slim, eligible young man of twenty-seven, always well dressed, with a thoughtful face, hazel eyes, a short hazel beard, and an easy smile. In his manner there was a simplicity that perhaps derived from his background in the Sussex countryside. He had been born the second son of a baronet there—sometimes a tricky position—but was fortunate enough to have means of his own. He had a good character, lively, happy friendships, and a family respected on both sides.

What’s more—though perhaps he did not see this for himself, bound like all men and women in the intense, confused impressions of his own inner world—he was an appealing young fellow. It was hard to say precisely why. Perhaps primarily because he was that most fortunate creature, from whatever class one might pick: the child of two parents who loved him.

“Lenox!”

He had just tossed Lady Jane’s note into the fire, and now turned. It took him an instant to place Robert Dudding, a fashionable clubman of roughly forty-five.

They only knew each other remotely. “How do you do, Dudding?” said Lenox, surprised at the enthusiastic greeting.

“Oh, fine, fine. I had a bad Goodwood, you know. After that I stayed off the turf. Dull without gambling, life. But a decent summer still. See here, though—I particularly want to introduce you to my sister’s ward. Miss Louise Pierce, this is Charles Lenox.”

Only then did Lenox notice a young woman standing next to Dudding. He bowed to her.

“How do you do?” she asked, curtsying.

How indeed?

Many hours later, as he rode home in his carriage alone, it occurred to Lenox that Dudding’s friendliness was the best representation yet of this unexpected new element in his life.

He would have felt by no means sure of the man’s handshake even three months before. Dudding was a snob, and Lenox, though he had nothing to be shy of concerning his parentage, was something of an odd figure, ever since, upon his graduation, he had come to London and taken the unexpected step of becoming a private detective.

It was a decision that had, whatever his connections, immediately disqualified him from certain parts of the best society. Bad enough that he should work in some field other than the clergy or the military, traditional realms of the younger son—but outrageous that he should become … well, what? Nobody seemed sure. At times, Lenox himself was least sure of all. It was a profession he was designing on the fly, like a railroad thrown down a few desperate ties at a time ahead of the train.

His motivations had been complex. A mingled desire to do right and to do something unique, a sense of adventure, and an unbecoming kind of inquisitiveness to be sure—all alongside, crucially, a fundamental and irresistible fascination with crime. Murder was his own version of Dutch silver. His interest in it was intense and long-lasting, galvanized when he was a boy by penny magazines and consolidated, since he had arrived in London, by a serious and comprehensive study of all the endless, multifarious crimes that occurred here.

He was convinced that it was a subject worth close attention. Most people were not. Men and women who would have eagerly solicited his good opinion had he chosen to remain utterly idle, living off his income and staring at a few hundred hands of whist a week, had cut him again and again in the past few years, some even going so far as to bar him from their doors.

Their stance wasn’t universal. His friends remained staunch, and the great majority of people didn’t have the energy to care much, viewing him more as eccentric than ruined. But men like Dudding, conscious at every moment of status …

The only thing Lenox could think was that there must be some shortfall of unmarried men this year.

As he stepped out of his carriage at home, he sighed. At times he wondered whether this profession was even worth his time. The fact was that his progress as a detective had been halting: one or two notable successes, but also long periods of stagnation, and the derision of his class and of Scotland Yard. A less stubborn person might have given the folly up.

But if he kept at it—would it not be nice to return to a comfortable hearth, bedecked with a lady of sweet disposition and aspect, and perhaps even one or two small humans, playing blocks in that mood of intense concentration he had noticed in the visages of his friends’ children?

“Graham?” he called, entering the house.

“Good evening, sir,” said Graham, the house’s butler, standing up from a chair in the small alcove in the front hall, which served as his version of an office. “A pleasant evening?”

Graham was, though a servant, one of Lenox’s closest confidants, a compact, sandy-haired, gentlemanly person of about Lenox’s own age, attired in a subtly faultless suit of clothes.

“I was married off twenty times or so. Other than that it wasn’t so bad.”


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