By Anne Perry
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1983 Anne Perry
All rights reserved.
Charlotte Pitt took the letter and looked at the errand boy in some surprise. He gazed back with round, intelligent eyes. Was he waiting for a financial reward? She hoped not. She and Thomas had only recently moved from their previous house into this larger, airier one, with its extra bedroom and tiny garden, and it had taken all their resources.
"Will there be a reply, ma'am?" the boy said cheerfully, a trifle amused by her slowness. He was generally employed in a wealthier part of the city; people in these streets ran their own errands. But this was the sort of place he aspired to one day in the dim, adult future: a terraced house of his own with a clean step, curtains at the windows, a flower box or two, and a handsome woman to open the door and welcome him in at the end of the day.
"Oh," Charlotte breathed out in relief. "Just a moment." She tore the envelope, pulled out the single sheet of paper, and read:
12 Rutland Place, London.
23rd March, 1886.
My dear Charlotte,
A curious and most disturbing thing has happened here lately, and I would value your advice upon it. In fact, knowing your past skill and experience with things of tragic or criminal nature, perhaps even your help? Of course this is nothing like the unspeakable affairs you have unfortunately been drawn into before, in Paragon Walk, or that appalling business near Resurrection Row, thank heavens—simply a small theft.
But since the article I have lost is of great sentimental value to me, I am more than a little distressed over it, and most anxious to have it returned.
My dear, would you help me in this, at least with your advice? I know you have a maid now who can look after Jemima for you in your absence. If I send the carriage for you tomorrow about eleven o'clock, will you come and take luncheon with me, and we can talk over this wretched business? I do so look forward to seeing you.
Your loving mother, Caroline Ellison.
Charlotte folded the letter and looked back at the boy.
"If you wait just a moment I shall write a reply," she said with a little smile, and then, after a small interval, returned to hand him her acceptance.
"Thank you, ma'am." The boy nodded and scampered off. Apparently he had not expected more; his reward no doubt customarily came from the sender. Anyway, he was far too worldly wise not to know precisely who was worth how much, and who would or would not part with it.
Charlotte closed the door and went back along the corridor to the kitchen where her eighteen-month-old daughter Jemima was sitting in her crib chewing a pencil. Charlotte took it from her absentmindedly and handed her a colored brick instead.
"I've asked you not to give her pencils, Gracie," she said to the little maid, who was peeling potatoes. "She doesn't know what they're for. She only eats them."
"Didn't know she had it, ma'am. She can reach ever so far between those bars. Leastways, it keeps her from getting into the coal scuttle or the stove."
There was an abacus of bright wooden beads set into the railings of the crib, and Charlotte knelt down and rattled them lightly. Jemima was immediately attracted and stood up. Charlotte began to count them out for her, and Jemima repeated the words, concentrating hard, her eyes going from the beads to Charlotte's face, waiting after each word for approval.
Charlotte was only half alert to Jemima. Most of her concentration was on her mother. Her parents had accepted it extremely well when she had told them she was going to marry, of all things, a policeman! Edward had prevaricated a little and asked her very soberly if she was perfectly sure she knew what she was doing. But right from the start Caroline had understood that her most awkward daughter had found someone whom she loved, and the trials of such a radical drop in both social and financial status would be far less difficult for her than a politely arranged marriage to someone she did not love and who could not hold her interest or respect.
But in spite of their continued affection, it was most unlike Caroline to send for Charlotte over something as trivial as a petty theft. After all, such things did occur every so often. If it was a trinket, it was probably one of the servant girls borrowing it to wear for an evening out. It might well turn up again, if a few judicious hints were dropped. Caroline had had servants all her life; she ought to be able to cope with such a matter without recourse to advice from anyone.
Still, Charlotte would go; it would be a pleasant day, and she had been through a time of hard work getting the house into the order she wished.
"I'm going out tomorrow, Gracie," she said casually. "My mother has invited me to take luncheon with her. We can leave doing the landing curtains until the day after. You can look after Jemima and scrub this floor and the wooden cupboard in the corner. Get some good soap into it. It still smells odd to me."
"Yes, ma'am, and there'll be some laundry. And shall I take Jemima for a walk if it's fine?"
"Yes, please, that would be excellent." Charlotte stood up. If she was going to be out for most of tomorrow, then she had better get on with the bread this afternoon, and see what her best day dress looked like after hanging up in a wardrobe over the winter. Gracie was only fifteen, but she was a competent little thing and liked nothing better than caring for Jemima. Charlotte had already told her that in six months' time there would be another baby to care for. And it was part of the terms of Gracie's employment that she should do the heavy laundry that another child would entail as well as the usual kitchen and household chores. Far from being daunted by the prospect, Gracie appeared to be positively excited. She came from a large family herself, and she missed the constant demanding and noisy companionship of children.
Pitt was tired when he came in from work a little before six. He had spent most of the day in the profitless pursuit of a couple of dragsmen, thieves who stole especially from carriages, and had ended up with nothing more for his exercise than half a dozen descriptions that did not match. An inspector of his experience would not have been called to deal with the affair at all had not one of the victims been a gentleman of title who was loath to have anything to do with the police. The man had lost a gold pocket watch inherited from his father-in-law, and did not care to have to explain its absence.
Charlotte welcomed him with the same strange mixture of excitement and comfort she always felt at the sight of his untidy, skew-collared, rumple-coated figure. She hugged him for several long, close minutes, then presented him with hot soup and his dinner. She did not disturb him with so trivial a matter as her mother's mislaid item.
The following morning she stood in front of the cheval glass in her bedroom and adjusted the lace fichu at her neck to hide the place where she had taken off last year's collar. Then she put on her best cameo brooch. The effect was entirely satisfactory; she was three months with child, but there was not yet any observable change in her figure, and with the customary whalebone corseting that laced even the most recalcitrant waist into elegant curves—uncomfortable though it was for the more generously made and almost crippling for the plump—she looked as slender as ever. The dark green wool was becoming to the warmth of her complexion and the richness of her hair, and the fichu took away from the severeness of the dress, making it a little more feminine. She did not wish Caroline, of all people, to think she had become dowdy.
The carriage came at eleven, and before half past it had crossed the city, trotted along the sedate length of Lincolnshire Road, and turned into the quiet, tree-lined elegance of Rutland Place. It stopped in front of the white portico of number 12, and the footman opened the door and handed Charlotte out onto the damp pavement.
"Thank you," she said without looking around, as if she were perfectly accustomed to it, as indeed she had been until only a few years ago.
The door opened before she reached it, and the butler appeared.
"Good morning, Miss Charlotte," he said, inclining his head a little.
"Good morning, Maddock." She smiled at him. She had known him since she was sixteen and he had first come as butler when her family lived in Cater Street, before the murders there during which she had met and married Pitt.
"Mrs. Ellison is in the withdrawing room, Miss Charlotte." Maddock moved easily just before her to push the door.
Inside, Caroline was standing in the middle of the room, a bright fire burning behind her against the chill spring, a bowl of daffodils spilling gold reflections all over the polished table. She was wearing a gown of pink peach, as soft as an evening sky, which must have cost her a month's dress allowance. There were not more than a dozen threads of gray in her dark hair. She stepped forward immediately.
"My dear, I'm so glad to see you. You look extremely well. Do come in and warm yourself. I don't know why spring is so cold. Everything looks marvelous, bursting with life, but the wind is like a blade. Thank you, Maddock. We'll take luncheon in about an hour."
"Yes, ma'am." He closed the door behind him, and Caroline put her arms round Charlotte and hugged her hard.
"You should come more often, Charlotte. I really do miss you. Emily is so busy these days with all her social circle, I hardly see her."
Charlotte tightened her arms round her for a moment, then stood back. Her younger sister Emily had married into the aristocracy and was enjoying every opportunity it afforded. Neither of them spoke of her other sister, Sarah, who had died so dreadfully in Cater Street.
"Well, sit down, my dear." Caroline arranged herself elegantly on the sofa and Charlotte sat opposite in the big chair.
"How is Thomas?" Caroline asked.
"Very well, thank you. And Jemima." Charlotte dealt with all the expected questions. "And the house is very comfortable and my new maid is working out most satisfactorily."
Caroline sighed with faint amusement.
"You don't change, do you, Charlotte? You still speak your mind the minute you think it. You are about as subtle as a railway engine! I don't know what I would have done with you if you had not married Thomas Pitt!"
Charlotte smiled broadly.
"You would still be shuffling me round endless polite and disgusting parties hoping to persuade some unfortunate young man's mother that I am really better than I sound!"
"What have you had stolen, Mama?"
"Oh dear! I simply can't imagine how you ever detect anything. You couldn't trick a policeman into telling you the time!"
"I shouldn't need to, Mama. Policemen are always perfectly willing to tell you the time, in the unlikely event they know it. I can be devious if I wish."
"Then you have changed since I ever knew you!"
"What did you lose, Mama?"
Caroline's face changed, the laughter dying out of it. She hesitated as if trying to choose exactly the right words for something that was surely simple enough.
"A piece of jewelry," she began. "A small locket on a gold bow. It is not of especial value, of course. It's not very large, and I don't imagine it is solid gold for a moment! But it was very pretty. It had a little pearl set in the front, and of course it opened."
Charlotte voiced her first thoughts. "Do you not think one of the maids could have borrowed it, meaning to return it immediately, and forgotten?"
"My dear, don't you imagine I've thought of that?" Caroline's tone was more anxious than irritated. "But none of them had an evening off between the time I last saw it and when I missed it. And quite apart from that, I really don't believe any of them would. The kitchenmaid would have no opportunity—and she's only fourteen. I really don't think it would occur to her. The parlormaid"—she smiled a little bleakly—"is as handsome as most parlormaids are. I did not realize Maddock had such excellent taste in employing our staff! Nature has endowed her quite well enough not to need the assistance of stolen jewelry, with all its risks. And my own maid I trust absolutely. I've had Mary since we moved here, and she came from Lady Buxton, who'd known her since she was a child. She's the daughter of their cook. No." Her face creased in distress again. "I'm afraid it is someone outside this house."
Charlotte tried the next avenue. "Are any of your maids courting? Do they have followers?"
Caroline's eyebrows rose. "Not so far as I know. Maddock is very strict. And certainly not inside the house, with access to my dressing room!"
"I suppose you've asked Maddock?"
"Of course I have! Charlotte, I'm perfectly capable of doing the obvious myself! If it were so simple, I should not have troubled you." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, shaking her head a little. "I'm sorry. It's just—the whole affair is so wretched! I can't bear to think one of my friends could have taken it, or someone in their households, and yet what else is there to think?"
Charlotte looked at her unhappy mother, her fingers knotted together in her lap, twisting her handkerchief until the lace threatened to tear. She understood the dilemma now. To institute inquiries, even to allow the loss to be known, would sow doubt among all her acquaintances. The whole of Rutland Place would imagine Caroline suspected them of theft. Old friendships would be ruined. Perhaps perfectly innocent servants would lose their jobs, or even their reputations. The rebounding unpleasantness would be like ripples in a pool, troubling and distorting everything.
"I would forget it, Mama," she said quickly, reaching to touch Caroline's hand. "The regaining of a locket would be far less valuable than avoiding all the pain inquiry would cause. If anyone asks, say the pin was loose and it must have fallen out. What did you wear it on?"
"The coat to my plum-colored outfit."
"Then that's easy. It could have fallen anywhere—even in the street."
Caroline shook her head.
"The pin was excellent, and it had a chain with a small extra safety catch, which I always fastened as well!"
"For goodness' sake, you don't need to mention that—if anyone should ask, which they probably won't. Who gave it to you? Papa?"
Caroline's eyes moved slightly to look over Charlotte's shoulder out the window at the spring sun dappling the laurel bush.
"No, I would explain it to him easily enough. It was your grandmama, for last Christmas, and you know what a precise memory she has when she chooses to!"
Charlotte had a peculiar feeling that some essence had eluded her, that she had heard something important and had failed to understand it.
"But Grandmama must have lost things herself," she said reasonably. "Explain to her before she misses it. She'll probably be a bit self-righteous, but that's not unbearable. She'll be that sometime or another anyway." She smiled. "This will only give her an excuse."
"Yes," Caroline said, blinking, but a certain tone in her voice belied any conviction.
Charlotte looked around the room, at the pale green curtains and soft carpet, the warm bowl of daffodils, the pictures on the walls, the piano in the comer that Sarah used to play, with the family photographs on it. Caroline was sitting on the edge of the sofa, as if she were in a strange place and were keeping herself ready to leave.
"What is it, Mama?" Charlotte asked a little sharply. "Why does this locket matter so much?"
Caroline looked down at her hands, avoiding Charlotte's eyes.
"I had a memento in it—of—of a quite personal nature. I should feel most—embarrassed if it should fall into anyone else's hands. A sentimental thing. I'm sure you can understand. It is not knowing who has it! Like having someone else read your letters."
Charlotte breathed out in relief. She did not know now what she had been afraid of, but suddenly her muscles relaxed and she felt a wave of warmth ripple through her. It was all so easy, now that she understood.
"For goodness' sake, why didn't you say so to begin with?" There was no point in suggesting the thief might not open it. The first thing any woman would do on finding a locket would be to look inside. "Perhaps that day you forgot to do up the safety clasp, and it really did fall off? I suppose you've looked thoroughly in the carriage?"
"Oh yes, I did that immediately."
"When do you last remember it?"
"I went to an afternoon party at Ambrosine's—Ambrosine Charrington. She lives at number eighteen, a most charming person." Caroline smiled fleetingly. "You would like her. She is quite markedly eccentric." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Rutland Place by Anne Perry. Copyright © 1983 Anne Perry. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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