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It was mid-february and growing dark outside. Pitt stood up from his desk and walked over to turn the gas up on the wall lamps one by one. He was becoming used to this office, even if he was not yet comfortable in it. In his mind it still belonged to Victor Narraway.
When he turned back to his desk he half expected to see the pencil drawings of bare trees that Narraway used to keep on the walls, instead of the watercolors of skies and seascapes that Charlotte had given him. His books were not so different from Narraway’s. There was less poetry, fewer classics perhaps, but similar titles on history, politics, and law.
Narraway had of course taken with him the large, silver-framed picture of his mother. Today, Pitt had finally put in its place his favorite photograph of his family. In it, Charlotte is smiling; beside her stands thirteen-year-old Jemima, looking very grown-up, and ten-year-old Daniel, still with the soft face of a child.
After the fiasco in Ireland at the end of last year, 1895, Narraway had not been reinstated as head of Special Branch, though he had been exonerated of all charges, of course. Instead, Pitt’s temporary status as head had been made official. Even though it had happened several months earlier, he still found it hard to get used to. And he knew very well that the men who had once been his superiors, then his equals, and now his juniors, also found the new situation trying at best. Rank, in and of itself, meant little. His title commanded obedience, but not loyalty.
So far they had obeyed him without question. But he had had several months of very predictable events to deal with. There had been only the usual rumblings of discontent among the various immigrant populations, particularly here in London, but no crises. None of the difficult situations that endangered lives and tested his judgment. If such a crisis were to occur, it was then, he suspected, that he might find his men’s trust in him strained and tenuous.
Pitt stopped by the window, staring out at the pattern of the opposite rooftops and the elegant wall of the nearby building, just able to discern their familiar outlines in the fading light. The bright gleam of streetlamps was increasing in all directions.
He pictured Narraway’s grave face as it had been when they last spoke: tired and deeply lined, the effect of his difficult escape from total disgrace and from the emotional toll of his experiences in Ireland. Pitt knew that Narraway had accepted, at last, the existence of his feelings for Charlotte; but as always, Victor’s coal-black eyes had given little away as they talked.
“You will make mistakes,” he had said to Pitt in the quietness of this room, with its view of sky and rooftops. “You will hesitate to act when you know it could hurt people or destroy a life. Do not hesitate too long. You will misjudge people; you’ve always thought better of your social superiors than you should have. For God’s sake, Pitt, rely on your instincts. Sometimes the results of your decisions will be serious. Live with it. The measure of your worth is what you learn from the errors you make. You cannot opt out; that would be the worst mistake of all.” His face had been grim, shadowed by memories. “It is not only the decision you make that counts, but that you make it at the right moment. Anything that threatens the peace and safety of Britain can come under your jurisdiction.”
Narraway had not added “God help you,” though he might as well have. Then a dry humor had softened his eyes for a moment. Pitt had seen a flicker of compassion there for the burden that lay ahead, and also a hint of envy, regret for the excitement lost, the pounding of the blood and the fire of the mind that Narraway was being forced to give up.
Of course, Pitt had seen him since then, but only briefly. There had been social events here and there, conversations that were polite, but devoid of meaning beyond the courtesies. The questions as to how each of them was learning to bend, to adapt and alter his stride to a new role, remained unspoken.
Pitt sat down again at his desk and turned his attention to the papers in front of him.
There was a brief knock on the door.
“Come in,” he said.
The door opened at once, and Stoker entered. Thanks to the events in Ireland, he was the one man in the Branch that Pitt knew for certain he could trust.
“Yes?” he said as Stoker came to stand in front of Pitt’s desk. He looked worried and uncomfortable, his lean face more expressive than usual.
“Got a report in from Hutchins in Dover, sir. Seen one or two unusual people coming over on the ferry. Troublemakers. Not the usual sort of political talkers—more like the ones who really do things. He’s pretty sure at least one of them was involved in the murder of the French prime minister the year before last.”
Pitt felt a knot tighten in his stomach. No wonder Stoker looked so worried. “Tell him to do all he can to be absolutely sure of their identities,” he replied. “Send Barker down as well. Watch the trains. We need to know if any of them come up to London, and who they contact if they do.”
“It may be nothing,” Stoker said without conviction. “Hutchins is a bit jumpy.”
Pitt drew in his breath to say that it was Hutchins’s job to be overcautious, then changed his mind. Stoker knew that as well as he did. “Still, we should keep our eyes open. We’ve enough men in Dover to do that, with Barker.”
Stoker turned and left. Pitt sat without moving for a moment or two. If it really was one of the French prime minister’s assassins, would the French police or secret service get in touch with him? Would they want his help, or prefer to deal with the man themselves? They might hope to get information about other anarchists from him. Or, on the other hand, they might simply contrive for him to meet with an accident, so the whole matter would never reach the public eye. If the latter were the case, it would be better if the British Special Branch pretended not to be aware of the situation. Pitt would have to make the decision about whether to involve the Special Branch, and to what extent, later, when he had more information. It was the type of decision Narraway had referred to: a gray area, fraught with moral difficulties.
Pitt bent back to the papers he had been reading.
There was a reception that evening. A hundred or so people of social and political importance would be gathered, ostensibly to hear the latest violin prodigy playing a selection of chamber pieces. In truth it would be a roomful of people attempting to observe and manipulate any shifts in political power, and to subtly exchange information that could not be passed in the more rigid settings of an office.
Pitt walked through the front door of his house in Keppel Street just after seven o’clock, with plenty of time to get ready for the reception. He found himself smiling at the immediate warmth, a relief after the bitter wind outside. The familiar smells of baked bread and clean cotton drifted from the kitchen at the far end of the passage. Charlotte would be upstairs dressing. She was not yet used to being back in the glamour and rivalry of the high society into which she had been born. She had found it shallow when she was younger, and then, after marrying Pitt, it had been out of her reach. Now he knew, although she had never once said so, that at times she had missed the color and wit of it all, however superficial it was.
Minnie Maude was in the kitchen preparing Welsh rarebit for him, in case the refreshments at the event were meager. Her hair was flying out of its pins as usual, her face flushed with exertion, and perhaps a certain excitement. She swung around from the big stove as soon as she heard his footsteps.
“Oh, Mr. Pitt, sir, ’ave yer seen Mrs. Pitt? She looks a proper treat, she does. I never seen anyone look so?.?.?.” She was lost for words, so instead held out the plate of hot savory cheese on toast. Then, realizing the need for haste, she put it on the kitchen table, and fetched him a knife and fork. “I’ll get yer a nice cup o’ tea,” she added. “Kettle’s boiled.”
“Thank you,” he said, hiding at least part of his amusement. Minnie Maude Mudway had replaced Gracie Phipps, the maid who had been with the Pitts almost since they were married. He was still not entirely used to the change. But Gracie had her own home now, and he was happy for her. Minnie Maude had been hired on Gracie’s recommendation, and it was working out very satisfactorily, even if he missed Gracie’s forthright comments about his cases, and her loyal and highly independent support.
He ate in silence, with considerable appreciation. Minnie Maude was rapidly becoming a good cook. With a more generous budget at her disposal than Gracie had ever had, she had taken to experimenting—on the whole, with great success.
He noticed that she had made enough for herself, although her portion was much smaller. However, she seemed unwilling to eat it in front of him.
“Please don’t wait,” he said, gesturing toward the saucepan on the stove. “Have it while it’s hot.”
She gave an uncertain smile and seemed about to argue, then changed her mind and served it. Almost at once she was distracted by a stack of clean dishes waiting to be put away in the Welsh dresser, and her meal went untouched. Pitt decided he should speak to Charlotte about it; perhaps she could say something to make Minnie Maude feel more comfortable. It was absurd for her to feel that she could not eat at the kitchen table just because he was there. Now that she had taken Gracie’s place, this was her home.
When he had finished his tea he thanked her and went upstairs to wash, shave, and change.
In the bedroom he found Jemima as well as Charlotte. The girl was regarding her mother with careful appreciation. Pitt was startled to see that Jemima had her long hair up in pins, as if she were grown-up. He felt proud, and at the same time, felt a pang of loss.
“It’s wonderful, Mama, but you are still a little pale,” Jemima said candidly, reaching forward to straighten the burgundy-colored silk of Charlotte’s gown. Then she flashed Pitt a smile. “Hello, Papa. You’re just in time to be fashionably late. You must do it. It’s the thing, you know.”
“Yes, I do know,” he agreed, then turned to look at Charlotte. Minnie Maude was right, of course, but it still caught him by surprise sometimes, how lovely Charlotte was. It was more than the excitement in her face, or the warmth in her eyes. Maturity became her. She had an assurance now, at almost forty, that she had not had when she was younger. It gave her a grace that was deeper than the mere charm that good coloring or straight features offered.
“Your clothes are laid out for you,” Charlotte said, in answer to his glance. “Fashionably late is one thing; looking as if you mistook the arrangements, or got lost, is another.”
He smiled, and did not bother to answer. He understood her nervousness. He was trying to counter his own anxiety over suddenly being in a social position that he had not been born into. His new situation was quite different in nature from being a senior policeman. Now he was the head of Special Branch and, except in the most major of cases, entirely his own master. There was no one with whom to share the power, knowledge, or responsibility.
Pitt was even more aware of the change in his circumstances as he alighted from the hansom and held out his arm for Charlotte, steadying her for an instant as she stepped down. The night air was bitterly cold, stinging their faces. Ice gleamed on the road, and he was careful not to slip as he guided Charlotte over to the pavement.
A coach with four horses pulled up a little ahead of them, a coat of arms painted on the door. The horses’ breath was visible, and the brass on their harnesses winked in the light as they shifted their weight. A liveried footman stepped down off the box to open the door.
Another coach passed by, the sound of iron-shod hoofs sharp on the stones.
Charlotte gripped his arm tightly, though it was not in fear that she might slip. She wanted only a bit of reassurance, a moment to gather her strength before they ventured in. He smiled in the dark and reached over with his other hand to touch hers for an instant.
The large front doors opened before them. A servant took Pitt’s card and conducted them to the main hall, where the reception had already begun.
The room was magnificent. Scattered columns and pilasters stretching up to the painted ceiling gave it an illusion of even greater height. It was lit by four massive, dazzling chandeliers hanging on chains that seemed to be solid gold, though of course they weren’t.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Pitt whispered to Charlotte.
She turned to him with a wide-eyed look of alarm, then saw that he was deliberately teasing her. He was nervous. But he was also proud that this time she was here because he was invited, rather than because her sister, Emily, or her aunt, Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, had been. It was a small thing to give her, after all the years of humble living, but it pleased him.
Charlotte smiled and held her head a little higher before sailing down the small flight of steps to join the crowd. Within moments they were surrounded by a swirl of color and voices, muted laughter, and the clink of glasses.
The conversation was polite and most of it meaningless, simply a way for everyone to take stock of one another while not seeming to do so. Charlotte appeared perfectly at ease as they spoke to one group, then another. Pitt watched her with admiration as she smiled at everyone, affected interest, passed subtle compliments. There was an art to it that he was not yet ready to emulate. He was afraid he would end up looking as if he were trying too hard to copy those born into this social station, and they would never forget such a slip.