The Copulist Capers Ch. 04byvoluptuary_manque©
Oberst Manfred Steinhelm, Elde von Storkow was well known throughout the Prussian Intelligence Service as a man of great ability and iron self-control. This earned him advancement and respect but frequently led to his having to deal with issues and individuals that might drive his comrades in the Service into a frothing rage. Today, he thought, was one of those occasions. The man who sat across from him was, in the Oberst's opinion, one of those braying jackasses that occasionally popped up unbidden among the British aristocracy.
Sir Bertrand Fitzwillem, Baronet Windrush, was expounding on one of his favorite subjects, the degeneracy of the "baseborn". The Prussian senior officer, whose father had been a tailor, resented the term and wondered how long this traitor would be useful. As soon as he ceased to be, the Oberst intended to challenge the man to a duel and carve him into cats' meat. However, the idiot's position in the Foreign Service and his great admiration for Prussian practices (applied to other people, of course) made him a valued asset. So Manfred swallowed his indignation and suavely turned the subject to matters more to the Imperial interest.
"So, Sir Bertrand, you were telling me about this new airship design the Royal Air Command is planning. I understand it was laid out with the aid a Babbage engine . . .?"
Sunday services were over, all the parishioners gone home, her vestments were hung back up in the vestry and her husband was waiting at the door with the steam car running. Archrectress Evangeline D'Lourd-Merely settled the fashionable but sober hat on her head, picked up her umbrella and put her arm through his.
"I didn't see Mia this morning, Roger. Is she feeling a bit under the weather or is she off in pursuit of some stalwart peer?"
Dr. Merely chuckled. "The latter, my love. York invited her up to Scotland for a week's angling. At least, that was the excuse. Unless the good duke is made of sterner stuff than most he won't have the energy to lift a rod after she's done with him. Honestly, I do believe the woman could a kill a man, at least one whose heart wasn't of the strongest. Of course, she'd feel terrible about it."
"Any woman would. However, look at the bright side, Roger. Mia is in Scotland, Alexandra is heavily pregnant so Eddie won't let her out of his sight, we have no guests scheduled and the day is unusually sunny and warm. I've got you all to myself for the entire afternoon so I think we should take the dog cart out with a picnic hamper and go find some secluded corner of the estate. A bit of May sunshine on your bottom will do you good."
"Just mine? I should think that if the blanket was sufficiently large we could seriously roll around and get some sun on yours, as well."
"Splendid idea! I shall tell Jean-Bernard we won't be back until dark and that he should keep high tea cold for tomorrow. I know there is some pate', cold sausages, mustard, rolls, chilled Chenin Blanc and whatever else we need in the larder. Should we bring anyone else along?"
"Such thinking from the Archrectress! Naughty Evangeline. Personally, I'd be only too happy if Mrs. Beasley could be convinced but she is firmly married, again, and overly aware of the difference between upstairs and downstairs these days. Pity. I really was in pursuit of her, on Mia's orders, you understand, but then Ewan showed up and the next thing I knew my landlady was my housekeeper and married to my butler. At least she's no longer celibate."
"And a good thing, too! I have come to agree with both Mia and Alexandra. Celibacy is bad for women. It's bad theology, too. The Roman church is so foolish on the subject. But come, let's be home. Mr. Samphat, do keep the speed down, please. Your enthusiasm for this machine is just a bit alarming at times."
Wilkinson, Lord Edward's chauffeur, proudly walked around the new auto carefully removing every spot it had acquired in the drive down from Brasethwaite Castle. His employers, the Viscount and Viscountess Bohun sat in the rear, Lady Alexandra's hands clasped around her expanding belly. The height of the road gave them an excellent view of the construction site below where the foundations were being completed for the Merely's new country home. Wilkinson had no interest. His attention was fixed to the point of obsession with the new machine. It was the first ever built that was powered by the compression ignition engine Lord Edward and his friend Dr. Merely invented and while a bit noisy in the exhaust; it had a turn of speed unmatched by any other in the British Isles.
"You know, Eddie," Alex began, "when I first looked at the final plans for the place I despaired. It looked so plain, hardly the sort of house where smart people would gather. I hoped Evangeline would be a good influence and convince Roger to make some changes but it turned out that she approved. After some thought, I admit I agree. While this new home may not properly reflect Roger's new wealth and standing it most assuredly reflects him."
"Mmm?" Lord Edward was only half-listening. Realizing this, his lady smacked him firmly on the back of the head.
"Eddie, pay attention when I'm talking to you! As I was saying, this new home will probably never see glittering parties with brilliant people all chatting and dancing and plotting discrete affairs but the conversation it does see will be amazing. I probably won't understand a word of it but I'm sure the entire Royal Society will wend its way in and out throughout the year."
"Well, of course," her abashed husband replied, "you know Roger has no interest in politics, gossip, the breeding of thoroughbreds or any of the other things that obsess the smart set. I've seen him at a party or two when those things came up and his eyes glaze over. He'll just mumble agreeably at whatever the others were talking about but I know that his brain had sneaked out the back and is hard at work in his laboratory. This home will provide men (and women, of course) like him with good food, comfortable places to sit and talk, fine wines, and an atmosphere conducive to science and scholarship."
"And naughty countryside hospitality, of course," Lady Alexandra smirked as she spoke.
"Well, of course. It may take a season or so before the word gets out that the Archrectress of Sheffield, despite being an important churchwoman, is also an accomplished country hostess—one who is quite capable of keeping a male guest awake until the wee hours, but in time . . . ."
"Oh, I don't know if it will take that long. Eddie. After all, it is common knowledge that though Roger and Evangeline are a very happy couple, they actually make up two sides of the ménage à trois that includes Mia La Touche. Any man would jump at the chance for an invitation if it included the slightest chance of getting into her pantalettes."
"Only if he were of iron constitution! After she took that voyage around Ireland with the Duke of Beaufort, her reputation as an insatiable copulist has spread far and wide. "
"Oh bosh, Eddie. Any healthy man would consider it a challenge to see if he could keep up with her. And a healthy, well-trained man can. You do."
"Well, yes, but mostly because I think she paces herself so as not to kill me. Besides, she still has Roger and it wouldn't surprise me if old Crivens might not be in her stable as well."
"Now you are being a silly. Crivens is old enough to be her grandfather. A night with Mia would probably be his last, poor man. Anyway, I think we've seen enough. Construction continues nicely. And really, I have come to approve of the plan. Two stories, three wings with a lovely view of the river and decently comfortable staff quarters off to the side. That was a lovely touch, Eddie, giving the servants their own building with all modern conveniences."
"Not servants, Alex, you know how he hates that word. 'Staff' is correct, though it does make me think he considers them some sort of research assistant or junior faculty. Still they adore him and that is important. According to Mr. Holmes in the SIS they are his last line of defense if something horrible happens. Take us home, Wilkinson."
When they were alone after the evening meal, Alexandra put aside her knitting and leaned forward to stare intently into her husband's eyes.
"Edward, now that we're alone I want an explanation for what you said as we were leaving the construction site. What do you mean Roger's staff is his last line of defense if something horrible happens? What kind of horrible?"
The Viscount held is finger to his lips and went around closing curtains and locking doors before retaking his seat. He took a deep breath. "Darling, I should have said nothing, nothing at all. I wish I had so that you would not worry but facts are facts. That dreadful business with your brother's commander, Bookerby, turns out to have nearly been an act of high treason. He had photographed the plans for the Accipiter and intended to sell them to the highest bidder. That way he could pay off his gambling debts and disappear into South America to start a new life. Fortunately, that did not occur. I have my suspicions about what did but no one will confirm them.
Still and all, it is known that the Prussians have taken a great interest in our new engine. They are excellent engineers and I'm sure that they are now in the process of copying one that they have purchased, probably on the black market. Worse yet, they have gotten wind of Roger's latest project, a wireless telegraph."
"A telegraph without wires? Eddie, how is that possible?"
"Don't ask me, darling, Roger's the one for that though I'm sure Mia had a hand in it, at least at the theoretical level. What is important is that this device is of grave national importance. It will allow the fleet to communicate even when ships are out of sight of each other. It will allow airships to communicate back to both capital ships and artillery batteries, giving directions to more correctly aim heavy guns. It will revolutionize war, Alex."
"And dear Roger is in danger because of this?"
"No one is sure, Alex. Mr. Holmes insists that he has no firm word of any threat to the man but he has taken steps. Think, dear. Roger's valet, Mr. Samphat? He is a retired sergeant major of Ghurkas! There are at least two agents from Mr. Holmes' office among the footmen so while it doesn't look like it, Meersbrook is an armed fortress guarding a national treasure and that treasure rides around inside Roger Merely's head. And the fact that his staff will likely fight to the death on his behalf is not just because Dr. Merely is a kind, generous man. I am convinced it is a matter of national policy."
The Merely's butler paused polishing the wine crystal and looked up at their chef, Jean Bernard. "Yes, chef Bernard, is something the matter? You look concerned."
"M. Beasley, this afternoon, after l' petit tea, I was een the pantry making sure there was sufficient for the rest of the week when I 'eard a strange sound, a 'thunk'. I looked out through the crack-ed door and there was a feesh knife vibrateeng in the side of the butchaire block. Eet was buried four centimeters into the solid beech!"
"My word! Who?"
"The onlee person een the keetchen at the time was the new scullery maid, Mme Thistledown? She looked at the knife, somewhat satisfied, pulled eet out, finished washing and drying eet and put eet away. I deed not move from the pantry until she was finished and left the room. I came to you immediately."
"Heavens, man. Have you any idea why she might have done that?"
"I 'am not sure, but I 'ave the impression that she was making sure she still could throw the knife. Tell me, what do we know about thees young lady?"
"She—you know, I have no answer for that. However, you can be sure I soon will! Thank-you for being so alert, chef Bernard. I shall have my wife investigate at once."
Several nights later found Roger in London attending a meeting of the Royal Society. Though he had been officially inducted into the Society based on his work on the compression ignition engine, the subject of his current researches were politely unmentioned. There were rumors that too much interest might bring unwanted attention from the government and so Dr. Merely's presence was largely an occasion for polite socializing and critique of whatever paper was presented that evening.
"I say, Merely," Sir Michael Morningstar greeted him cheerfully, "that is quite a handsome stick you are carryin' there. Genuine blackthorn, ain't it? With a sterlin' head? Very fashion'ble, that man."
Merely blushed slightly. "It's one of my valet's fancies, Sir Michael. He says that it does not do for a commander of Ghurkas to show less courage than the men he leads. And since I am now a commander of one Ghurka, Mr. Samphat sees to it that I spend three hours a week practicing with Colonel Colt's Patent Pocket Revolver and another three learning single stick fighting."
"Good show, that. Marksmanship teaches concentration and single-stick fightin' is good exercise. You've a good man, there, Doctor. Don't let anyone steal him away."
Outside, the subject of their discussion stood on a darkened balcony quietly enjoying a Cuban cigar. He offered one to his taller companion.
"Cigar, Mr. Holmes? These are very fine. Dr. Merely gave me a box of them for my birthday."
"Thank-you, Mr. Samphat, I will." He lit a match between his hands and puffed the Havana into life. "Ah, very fine, indeed. Have you anything to report from Meersbrook?"
"An odd thing occurred, Mr. Holmes. The chef reported that one of the scullery maids, when she thought herself unobserved, threw a common fish knife across the kitchen. She did so with such force that it buried itself an inch and a half into the side of the butcher block."
The tall, lean man stopped puffing his cigar and raised an inquiring eyebrow. "And this scullery maid would be . . .?"
"Her name, Mr. Holmes, is Hermione Thistledown. The chef informed Mr. Beasley at once, of course, and he in turn told Mrs. Beasley. She sent for the young woman's references. Investigations, as they say in the Yard, are proceeding."
"Satisfactory, Mr. Samphat, most satisfactory. When their investigation is complete, do send my brother a copy. And if they seem to need any assistance . . .?"
"Be assured, Mr. Holmes, you will be the first to know! However, it does strike me that a woman who can handle cutlery in such a skilled manner could make a fine match for a Ghurka in his retirement."
His companion smiled whitely in the dark. "Your vision of the feminine ideal, Mr. Samphat, is not one that would be shared by many of the rest of the staff. Should she turn out not to be any threat to the Merelys you should find the path of courtship uncontested."
"Ah, Miss Thistledown." Mrs. Beasley, the Merely's imperious housekeeper smiled at the young woman she had summoned, "Do sit down, my dear. Chef Bernard has sent me a report commending your diligence in the kitchen. He says that none of the other girls can put a shine on his copper as well as you."
Hermione sat with her eyes lowered. "Thank-you, m'm."
" However, I do have a question or two. Tell me, Miss Thistledown, can you still stand on your hands?"
Hermione's head came up with a snap and her jaw dropped, "What? I—I don't . . . ."
"Miss Thistledown, can you still stand on your hands?"
Tears welled up in the younger woman's eyes and her lower lip trembled. "Yes'm," she whispered
"And still walk a tightrope, and do handsprings backwards?"
The answer was barely audible, "Yes'm."
"My dear, when you were hired your name should have struck a bell, Thistledown is uncommon in these parts. I should have known you were the gel who was the only survivor from that awful circus massacre. Poor thing, it must have been horrible."
The hour was late. Most of Whitehall had gone home but in one office, an oil lamp still glowed casting its light onto the report in the center of Director Holmes' desk. He looked up from it grimly, took a sip of single malt whisky and cocked his head at the Crown's Chief Compiler.
"Thank-you for bringin' this to me person'ly, Miss La Touche. I can see that we shall have to pay a bit more attention to Mr. Beasley's hirin's."
Mia nodded in response and sipped her Cointreau. "Fortunately this particular hire may prove most serendipitous. With her entire family dead, poor Miss Thistledown has only two refuges, the Sisters of Perpetual Compassion Hospital where they nursed her back to health, and her position at Roger's home. Mrs. Beasley has taken the child under her wing. Most who know her are hard pressed to imagine dear Beatrice as deeply maternal but she has gathered Hermione up with her stepchildren and treats her with the greatest kindness. She also believes our Miss Thistledown to be completely wasted in the kitchen."
"Possibly, but it says here that that is where she wanted to be. Havin' been so severely traumatized by her experience in the circus, all she desired was a position where she could eventu'ly become head cook. Certainly there could be no better trainin' than at Chef Bernard's side?"
Mia smiled mysteriously, "That's what she thought she wanted. I, for one, believe that the thrown knife was an indication of boredom. You may take the acrobat out of the circus but somehow I am hard pressed to believe you can take the circus out of the acrobat. Besides, there is still the matter of incomplete justice. When the ruffians were slaughtering and setting fire to the circus, Hermione ran to the kitchen and gathered up a handful of knives. One after another she buried them to the hilt the attackers' chests—except for one."
"It appears that a man on horseback was commanding the attack. This was no random riot, Mr. Holmes, but deliberately planned. From what Miss Thistledown remembers of the man's shouting, he intended to exterminate the circus folk, considering them 'baseborn vermin'."
"And she would recognize him again if she saw him?"
"She would. She claims he was one of the gentry."
The Director growled and tossed the remainder of his drink down his throat. "Bloody Hell, excusin' m'language, Miss La Touche. And of course, bein' a toff the bounder no doubt expects that even if he is ever caught, the local magistrate will find an excuse for lettin' him off easy. Fortunately, that kind of behavior is much less common than formerly. Today, if one of the gentry gets out of line he's lucky to be exiled to the colonies on a remittance. More often he's left alone in a room with a revolver loaded with a single round and in a case like this he might well be hunted down by his own class. Does she have the slightest idea who he might be?"
"She does not, Mr. Holmes. She only knows she would recognize him again if she saw him or heard his voice."
"Well, on to the question of what to do with the gel. If Mrs. Beasley thinks Thistledown is wasted in the kitchen what does she propose?"
Mia's teeth glowed in the lamplight and Mr. Holmes thought that it was possibly the most unpleasant smile he'd ever seen. "Mrs. Beasley is even more aware of the 'arrangements' surrounding dear Roger than her husband. She spotted that kukri under Mr. Samphat's coat the first day he moved in and took it upon herself to find out about his background. She has told me that she approves and that in Miss Thistledown we have the possibility for a lady's maid for Archrectress Evangeline made of the same stuff as Mr. Samphat."
"My word. A lady's maid capable of scalin' the walls of a buildin', walking'a tightrope and sinkin' a knife to the hilt in a man's chest from across a room in defense of her lady? She's goin' to need somethin' different in the way of dress, don'tcherknow. We can't have a gel tryin' to get around in a long skirt and such if she's to take up a job like that."