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It was a sunny, icy late morning in February of 1878, and a solitary figure, lost in thought, strode along one of the pale paths winding through St. James’s Park in London.
He was a lean gentleman of middling height, with a walking stick clasped behind his back. Aside from him the park was empty, its grass frozen a stiff whitish arctic green, and the ruts in its muddy pathways—made by carriages during a thaw the week before—hardened into solid relief. For a moment he paused to gaze at these random tracks where they had frozen in place, and it occurred to him that human affairs, too, could unexpectedly take decisive shape just when everything seemed to be in flux.
The person’s name was Charles Lenox, and at that moment he was probably the preeminent detective in all of England, professional or amateur. It was this fact that he had been unhappily mulling during the chilly stroll from his house in Mayfair toward his destination, which was Parliament. The buildings of Britain’s seat of government rose unobstructed before him, the splendor of their honey-colored stone lofted above the softly curving flower beds and handsome empty trees of the park.
He might have come by carriage; certainly it would have been warmer. But he had chosen to walk. He wished to have a clear head before this meeting. Much of the last two months of his life had been dedicated to a dark, violent, and unpleasant investigation, and now that investigation was at its endpoint, and it was his duty to gather its threads into his fingers.
Numerous days had passed during that period in which he saw nothing of his family—not his wife, Lady Jane, upon whose clear-eyed intelligence and unflappable good sense he relied so deeply in the general course of life, nor his older brother Edmund, and never for more than a minute or two in the evenings his two beloved daughters, Sophia and Clara.
Edmund, at least, he knew he would see shortly. For once the prospect brought him little joy.
At one o’clock exactly Lenox arrived at a small wooden door, faded and scored, a humble detail in the vast, imposing design of Parliament. This was the Members’ Entrance. Lenox had once been a Member of Parliament himself—a fling of some five years or so with politics, following which he had rededicated himself to the study of crime—and was thereby entitled to use it for the remainder of his days.
It was Canfield, one of the post’s familiar old porters, who greeted him.
“Mr. Lenox!” said Canfield, standing up from his stool. “How do you do? Come in.”
“Very well, Canfield—how are you?”
“Cold as charity, sir.” Canfield smiled good-naturedly. He was an open-faced Londoner, cheerful, tall, and strong. “Though come to think of it, why must charity be cold? Still, my mother always said it on days like this. Cut right along this way, sir, please, and I’ll follow along.”
Lenox looked at the porter with surprise. “Oh, I know the way.”
“Of course, sir, but I must take you.”
Canfield’s attitude was polite but definite: He would go. Lenox hesitated for a moment, then merely nodded. The porter removed a ring of keys from a drawer and used one to lock the door to the Members’ Entrance from the inside; anyone who wished to come in would have to wait in the cold, very annoyed, Lenox thought, or else go round to the public entrance. They would be put out—being a population, the Members of Parliament, who were not as a rule much habituated to inconvenience.
Canfield hooked the keys into the inside of his gray wool jacket, where they hung next to a match safe. They were careful with fire here, Lenox remembered with a quick feeling of both amusement (the recollection of Guy Fawkes might make anyone a little cautious with matches) and of—well, what? Sanctuary, perhaps. It had been an arduous new year thus far, 1878, but after these weeks of hard exertion he found himself taken in by Parliament, and it was a more powerful relief than he would have expected, the large, slow-moving, well-ordered ship of state, as unchanging as the tides, welcoming him home.
He should have known that whichever porter he’d found here would accompany him, of course. For he was at Parliament not on any humdrum business, but to see perhaps the second most important personage in Great Britain, after the Queen: her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.
With sure footsteps, Canfield led him through the complicated corridors of the building, up a stairwell, and past the bar. It always gave Lenox a queer feeling to be in these halls again, a bit like being back at school. The place very familiar, but no longer quite so intimate as it once had been.
Though Parliament was in recess, a few gentlemen sat here and there, sipping glasses of hot cream whisky and negus, some reading, others conversing in low tones. Lenox spied Lord Whiston and the two exchanged friendly nods. The barman, too, bowed slightly; one remembered a tipper.
At last they stepped into a quiet hallway with shafts of light slanting down across its stone floor from a row of mullioned windows.
“Had a good Christmas, sir?” Canfield asked.
“Very good,” Lenox replied automatically. Christmas seemed like an event from years before, though it had scarcely been six weeks. “And you?”
“Oh, yes! Nice for the little ones. They love to decorate the tree.”
“How many have you now, Mr. Canfield, if I may ask?”
“Nine! Gracious me. A large family.”
Canfield smiled faintly, as if to say that perhaps that understated the affair.
“So it is, sir,” he said. “And busy work they make for us, too, but we’re happy. Eliza, our eldest, will be sixteen next week. Perhaps you remember her from the staff party, many years ago—though perhaps not. She would have been nine then.”
“Of course I remember her. Please send her my regards.”
“And I have heard your good news, sir. A second daughter?”
“Oh! Yes. From Edmund, I suppose? I thank you.”
The truth was that Lenox barely knew Clara, his new daughter, at all—only as a roly-poly bundle of warm, wriggling, happy life in this wintry world. She was still shy of five months old, awaiting her first summer, full of urgent hungers and curious little cooing smiles. She was sturdy, as he had heard second children tended to be; easily made happy by sleep and milk.
He loved her, of course, but at Canfield’s comment he reflected, tiredly, that he would like to know her as well.
They came to the end of the long hallway. It was colder here, with only the calls of a few winter songbirds from the courtyard breaking the silence.
The porter knocked at the door. A smartly dressed young secretary opened it and bowed to them with military brevity. Canfield, his duty completed, bid Lenox good day.
“A pleasure to see you, sir,” he said.
“And you. Try and stay warm at your post!”
“I shall certainly try, sir. Now and then the kitchen staff brings down hot irons to keep by our feet.” He grinned. “And a tot of rum if we’re good. Good day, sir. I hope to see you again soon.”
The porter took off back down the hallway, and the young secretary—Jones, was it?—led Lenox into a spacious, well-lit room in which several desks were occupied by a dozen nearly identical young men, all similarly dressed in sober gray twill suits, all with hair smoothed brilliantly down. This seemed peculiar. Disraeli himself was a rather unkempt fellow, respectably turned out to be sure, but with tobacco in his cuffs and usually a day past needing a shave and haircut.
Lenox trailed the secretary toward an imposing arched doorway. The Prime Minister’s own office.
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