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We all make mistakes, of course, even the best of us. Some of us are famous for them. We make big ones, small ones, messy ones, boneheaded ones, spectacular ones, and occasionally deadly ones. Take the fellow in a hurry, who steps off the curb into the path of an approaching omnibus. Something had happened that morning to throw off his schedule, and one by one, events had toppled like standing dominoes until he took the fatal step, which had seemed perfectly reasoned at the time. In one instant, his life became encapsulated in a brief article in The Times.
Even those who have a reputation for not making mistakes make them all the same, just not as often or as visibly, but when they do, they can be real crackers. One can fool Mother Nature only so long before she must have her due, and she can be a contentious old biddy when she wants to be.
“What’s the name of this place again?” I asked Cyrus Barker as I trotted south beside him in Whitehall Street. The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey were ahead of us, and across the street lay the Colonial Office, just past the Horse Guards who were passing in their shiny helmets. Sometimes I forget what an important street I am fortunate enough to work in.
“The Royal United Service Institution,” he supplied in his raspy voice. “Are you having trouble assimilating the name?”
“I am. It sounds like a thousand similar departments in the area. What sets it apart from the others?”
“It was founded by the Duke of Wellington himself in 1831. Its purpose is to monitor other nations both politically and militarily, and suggest policy to the government. Their recommendations are taken very seriously.”
“What sort of policy?” I asked, as Barker’s long strides ate up the pavement.
“Suppose the Russians start building their navy and begin maneuvers in the North Sea. The Royal United would keep track of their movements and suggest a diplomatic warning and patrols of our own in the region.”
“I see,” I said.
“The organization is made up of diplomats, historians, and military strategists. They include some of the top minds in the country.”
“Then why have I not heard of it before now?”
“You’re not supposed to. They don’t call attention to themselves.”
“How do you know so much about it, then?”
“I try to keep abreast of the various agencies in the immediate vicinity, in case we might be of some use to them.”
“Which, apparently, we are.”
A telegram had arrived in our chamber that morning requesting our presence. It wasn’t the kind of request one refused.
“That is it, there. The White Building.”
I stopped and pointed. “That building? Sir, that’s the Royal Banqueting Hall. It was built by King Henry VIII as part of the Palace of Whitehall. Are you sure that’s the one?”
“Aye, it is. Now, come along.”
We’re like that, Cyrus Barker and I: chalk and cheese. If something interests one of us, it probably won’t interest the other. Somehow, between us, we manage to know an awful lot of information that the general public has never heard of. I began walking again.
“You do know that Charles I was beheaded here. That’s why the statue beside our offices faces this way.”
“I hadn’t,” the Guv said, sounding about as bored as I did when he described the purpose of the Royal United Whatever-it-was.
“How did a palace sink to the level of being used as a mere government office?”
“You should consider it fortunate the building is standing at all. Space is at a premium in Whitehall. Shall we step inside?”
We did. I removed my bowler and looked about at what was left of Henry VIII’s dream of the “greatest palace in Christendom.” I found a once breathtaking building in poor repair, and crowded with modern furniture that in no way matched the décor. At least I could take in the magnificent ceiling.
“Rubens painted that,” I said. “Peter Paul Rubens. Inigo Jones brought him here all the way from Antwerp, with the offer of a knighthood. Now look at it!”
The ceiling was decidedly sooty, probably the result of tobacco smoke. Everyone I saw in the bustling offices seemed to have a pipe, cigar, or cigarette in his mouth. The pantheon of gods overhead looked down wearily, as if contemplating a move to a healthier clime.
“We’re here to see Lord Hargrave,” Barker said to a guard, handing him the card we’d been sent.
The guard clapped a small bell sitting on his desk and an aged porter came along and led us up a staircase built for royalty to the first floor. The few doors that were open revealed either shelves containing books and files, or walls full of maps. People seemed to be lounging about. One fellow was actually seated on his desk rather than at it. Every desk had a full ashtray and a cup of tea on it, or the dregs of one. Men were talking, even gossiping, but no one looked particularly occupied. I still had trouble working out what they did here. They came to conclusions and made recommendations on matters of security. Based on what? Innumerable cigarettes and map reading, it would appear.
We came up to a door which the porter entered without a by-your-leave. There was a desk in this room, a substantial one, but it shared space with more shelves, books, boxes, and maps. Behind the desk was a gentleman approaching his sixtieth year, but doing so with squared shoulders and an authoritative manner. His hair was crisp and iron gray, and he had the kind of mustache that military men favor. When he looked at us, I saw a twinkle in his eye, as if there were a private joke to which we were not privy. He rose slowly but gracefully enough, and offered a hand, which Barker took. Meanwhile, the porter slunk out without comment or introduction.
“Mr. Barker,” our host said.
“Lord Hargrave. This is my assistant, Thomas Llewelyn.”
He shook my hand. His was dry and callused enough to crack a walnut with. He gestured for us to sit in the two chairs in front of his desk and lowered himself into his own.
“Gentlemen, are you aware of what we do here?” he asked.
“We are,” Barker rumbled.
“There is an event which shall occur at my estate tomorrow, a private but important meeting with the French ambassador, Henri Gascoigne. Our purpose is to dictate policy between our governments. You may be aware there has been some friction between our colonies in Africa. It is hoped by our government that a treaty might be brokered between us. Henri is an old friend of mine, and we’ve both been entrusted with concessions if an agreement can be reached. You understand that I am taking you into my closest confidence. Even the Prince of Wales has not been informed of this meeting.”
“How may we be of service, your lordship?”
“You have been recommended to me for security.”
Barker held up his large hands, palms upward. “Alas, sir, you are looking at my entire operation. If challenged, I could extend it to five or six men, but not a sufficient number to cover such an event.”
Lord Hargrave sat back in his chair, unfazed by Barker’s refusal. “There is a second element to the negotiations. As I intimated, they are completely clandestine. In fact, they will be shrouded by another event at our estate, a house party. So far, none of my children have wed, and my wife has devised an event which she hopes may kindle a spark or two in that direction. It is hoped the talks may occur informally during the party.”
“Which came first, sir?” I asked. “The plan or the party?”
“They both evolved concurrently, but it was I who put them together. You see, Henri and his wife are godparents to my daughter. It would be suspicious if he made a diplomatic mission here to London, and would raise questions at home. Attending a party at my estate would be another matter.”
“May I assume that our presence there as security agents would be sub rosa?” Barker asked.
“Precisely. As long as you are not needed, we shall let the guests believe you are one of them.”
Barker’s brow curled in perplexity. “I don’t think the lad here has much in his favor to suit Her Ladyship as a possible son-in-law. How are we to explain our presence?”
Hargrave chuckled. “As it happens, you are both already on the guest list,” he said.
“I? How so?”
“You will be accompanying Mrs. Philippa Ashleigh. She is my wife, Celia’s, closest friend, and she is helping to coordinate events. The invitations are already in the post. So you see, your presence is completely plausible, since you are already invited.”
Barker crossed his arms and frowned, considering the matter. Of all the services he offered, security work was his least favorite. Too many unexpected things could happen. His Lordship had finessed that rather well, the old diplomat. Philippa, Barker’s companion ever since I’d known him, had tried unsuccessfully for years to trap him into one of these week-long house parties, but he was as difficult to corner as a wounded badger. I wondered if the French alliance were a ruse merely to get the Guv into his evening kit at a social function, and at her side for an entire week. Barker turned his head, studying me suspiciously from behind his dark-lensed spectacles, as if determining whether I was somehow part of this conspiracy. I took the opportunity to scrutinize a painting over the fireplace.
“She has not informed me that I would be accompanying her,” he went on, mustering some sangfroid. “Pray tell me more about the party. Where shall it be?”
“On the Isles of Scilly. Ours is called Godolphin Island, after the family house. It is about one kilometer square. There is a jetty at the north end and a lighthouse at the other. Beyond that there is the house, a few outbuildings, and an old cannon left over from old Boney. It’s secluded, but we prefer it that way. A launch brings supplies and visitors to the isle. Once it leaves, we will be alone with only each other for company.”
“How is the launch summoned when needed? Is there a telephone cable?”
“Oh, dear me, no. Nothing as modern as that. There is a pole by the jetty. We run a red flag up it and the first boat that spies it and docks knows they will receive a gold sovereign for their labor.”
“How many guests shall be there?”
In answer, His Lordship reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and handed a folded slip of paper to my employer. I leaned toward him and glanced over his shoulder at the list of names. There were at least a dozen of them there.
“This is quite a houseful. Have you any reason to suspect something might occur?”
“No, nothing at all. There have been minor border disputes between our countries in Africa, but I suspect the enmity between us since the Hundred Years War is finally at an end. We have mutual enemies in Russia and Germany. I would deny that they are our enemies in public, of course, but I want us to understand one another.”
Barker crossed his arms, then raked his nails under his chin, a gesture he often made when he was thinking.
“What sort of staff is on the island?”
“There are the usual lot of servants in the house, plus a gardener. There is also a lighthouse keeper named Noah Flannen, but he rarely comes to our side of the island. He prefers his own company. A man of few words, but a good keeper. That’s the lot.”
“How many servants altogether, would you say?”
“Fifteen at most.”
“That is almost two dozen people who might have reason to want the house party to fail. If I might make a recommendation to you, it would be to hire a full detail of guards, even if they are not needed. There is too much that could go wrong.”
“The French ambassador insists upon privacy. He wishes to come and see how his favorite goddaughter is doing, and has no desire to see the island full of British men in uniforms.”
“How astute is he? Would he notice a few extra footmen or undergardeners?”
“Too astute to trick so easily.”
“What are my duties, precisely? To protect M. Gascoigne, he and you together, or the entire party? Each addition becomes progressively difficult.”
“I’m concerned with Henri alone, of course, but if something were to occur to someone else and you can help without jeopardizing his safety, I hope you would consider lending your skills. I had considered doing without security entirely, but my natural inclination toward safety made me look for a few men I could trust. I have been told you are those men.”
“I won’t ask who provided the recommendation.”
“That is good, because I will not give it. Do you accept the assignment or not?”
“I am caught in a snare of my own making, but I need not trouble you about that. Mr. Llewelyn and I accept the assignment.”
His Lordship beamed a smile at us both. “Good man. Philippa, that is, Mrs. Ashleigh, has all the details. You’re to be at the ferry in Land’s End tomorrow at eleven. From there, you’ll board a launch that will bring you to the island.”
“The event will take a full week?”
“Six days and seven nights, yes. But the talk will take only a few days.”
“Very well,” Barker said. “Have you a sovereign?”
Lord Hargrave fished in his pocket for the required coin and put it in the Guv’s hand with a questioning look.
“Thomas,” my employer said, handing it to me. “This is a retainer for our services. Pray write up a contract and run it over here for a signature.”
Barker stood and nodded at His Lordship. “We won’t take up any more of your time, sir. Come, Thomas, we have plans to make. Sir, if I have any further questions, will you be in Whitehall to answer them?”
“I fear not, I’m leaving within the hour.”
“Good day, then.”
Barker bowed and I clapped my bowler on my head, then we returned to the ground floor. I got another look at the Rubens. Who knew when I’d see it again?
“Damn and blast,” Barker rumbled. “Philippa has trussed me like a Christmas goose.”
“Surely it’s not as bad as all that. It’s only a party.”
“A party lasts a few hours. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This kind of event goes on for days. Everyone gets to know everyone else. One cannot go anywhere without being questioned about everything. One is asked about one’s relatives, one’s political views, private history, and personal references. One engages in small talk. Do I look like the sort of person who enjoys engaging in small talk?”
“No, sir. I know you don’t. But why did you accept the assignment, then?”
“I put off Philippa’s last request. I cannot turn down another. Come to think of it, she took my refusal rather easily. I wonder if I’ve been tricked.”
“Oh, no, sir. I’m certain Mrs. Ashleigh would never do such a thing.”
We reached Craig’s Court just as the old bell in the tower of the Houses of Parliament rang nine times. Barker opened the door, stepped inside, and jammed his walking stick into the stand as if he were a matador performing the estocada upon a hapless bull. Filling a pipe from his cabinet, he was soon puffing angry plumes of smoke toward the ceiling.
“This had better be worth my while,” he said. “If I have to endure a week of sweetmeats and polite conversation, I’m liable to set back Anglo-French relations all by myself.”
Copyright © 2016 by Will Thomas