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A Stranger in Mayfair
By Charles Finch
Minotaur Books Copyright © 2010 Charles Finch
All rights reserved.
For an Englishman it was a strange time to be in France. During much of the century a strong enmity had existed between the countries' two governments, first because of Napoleon's rather uncouth attempt to conquer Europe, then because of the lingering hostility born of that time. Now, though, the emperor's nephew ruled France and had shown himself more liberal than his uncle—he had freed the press and the government from many of their previous restrictions—and an uneasy peace had sprung up across the Channel.
Even during the worst of times, just after Waterloo, for instance, there had been civility among open-minded French and Englishmen, and now a man like Lenox, who loved so much about France—its coffee, its food, its wine, its architecture, its countryside, its literature—could visit the place with open admiration. There were republican rumblings in the capitol, however, and many Frenchmen, whose grandfathers had survived the revolution, felt fearful of what the next years might bring. Both Lenox and Lady Jane were happy that they had come when they did. Who knew what changes another shift in regime might bring? Who knew whether they would ever be able to visit again? And since that was the case, they had done all they could. Lady Jane had ordered dresses by the dozen (the seamstresses here being so infinitely preferable to English dressmakers—even at the height of the war fashion had been smuggled from one country to the other), while Lenox had spent his days closeted with a dozen different politicians, all of them sympathetic.
For he was in fact the newly minted Member of Parliament for Stirrington—had been elected not six months since. In that time he had barely entered the great chamber, however. He and Lady Jane had married in the Whitsun Recess, and now, in the Summer Recess, they were on their honeymoon. Paris was their final destination. They had spent three weeks traveling through the beautiful lake towns of the Alps, then another two in the French countryside.
In truth, as wonderful as it had been, both longed to be home. They missed London, missed their friends, and missed the little street off Grosvenor Square, Hampden Lane, where they had lived in side-by-side townhouses for the better part of two decades. When they returned the two houses would be one: Over the past months an architect had supervised the demolition of the walls between them and seamlessly joined the buildings' rooms to create one large house. It gave Lenox a good deal of private pleasure to contemplate this physical symbol of their union. For long years Jane had been his closest friend, and he could scarcely believe that he was lucky enough now to be married to her. Their births were close enough (hers slightly higher), and they had grown up together, but within London society she was one of the brightest stars, and while he was welcome everywhere and had a great variety of friends, he was viewed as idiosyncratic because of his career. Perhaps his marriage and his admission to Parliament would change that. He hated to admit it, but he wouldn't mind. It had been hard to go it alone for so long in the face of everyone's polite disapproval of his vocation.
That evening they were in their sitting room at the Crillon. She was at a small carved desk, writing her correspondence, and he was sitting in an armchair, reading. A cool summer breeze blew in through the window.
As if she were reading his mind, she looked up and said, "To think—in three days we'll be home!"
"I can't wait," he said quietly and ardently.
"I've had a letter from Toto. She's simply enormous, she says, and she and Thomas seem to be quite content together—what does she say? Here it is: Thomas and I sit together in the evenings. I knit and he reads, except when we both stop and talk about baby names and what room to give the child and, oh, everything. That sounds like Toto, doesn't it? She writes just the way she speaks."
Bess Telford's facts had been mingled with rumors—Thomas McConnell was a doctor and occasionally did drink too much. A talented surgeon from a family of minor nobility in Scotland, he had come to London to practice in Harley Street and shortly thereafter, almost to his surprise, married one of the most admired young women in the city. Lady Victoria Phillips was born with beauty and immense fortune, and in personality she was entirely winning—effervescent, affectionate, gossiping, and slightly silly—but she was also young. While their marriage had been happy for three years, after that it had become first an acrimonious and then a terrible one, full of fights and cold silences. For a period of two years the couple barely spoke, and Toto spent much of her time at her parents' house in the country. It was during this time that Thomas had begun to drink. Shamed by his wife's family into selling his practice for a song to a Phillips cousin (it wasn't considered fitting that the husband of Toto Phillips should be a professional man) his subsequent aimlessness had been cruel to his spirit. It was only within the last year or two that Toto and Thomas's relationship had healed, and her pregnancy—which was why, eight months in, she could describe herself as enormous—was just the final bond they needed to restore them to happiness.
The trouble between them had been terrible to Lenox and Lady Jane. Thomas was Charles's medical assistant when a case demanded it, and besides that a close friend, and as for Jane, Toto was a cousin of hers, and more like a niece than any of Jane's actual nieces. The couple's renewed closeness was a massive relief. Toto's series of letters had been more and more happy with each one, as the birth of her baby came closer and closer.
"Where will she go for the birth?" asked Lenox.
"I believe they intend to stay in London."
"I would have thought they might go to her father's house."
"In a way I'm glad they won't. It's always been too easy for Toto to flee to her family. Perhaps it's a sign that she's growing up."
Lenox stood. "Shall we go to dinner soon?" he asked.
"I'd rather just stay in, if you don't mind?"
He smiled. "Of course."
The next morning was August 25, the day in France of the Feast of St. Louis. By more than a century's tradition it was also the day the famous Salon opened at the Louvre palace, and the greatest artists of France and indeed the world displayed their year's work. Lenox and Lady Jane went early, heard Napoleon III speak, and spent a long day looking around. People surrounded a painting by Manet and another by Whistler, and while Lenox admired these profoundly he soon found himself steering away from the crowds and toward the back rooms. Here he found in one dim corner a series of three extremely blurred, thick-painted canvases of sunrise, even less distinct than Manet's. They seemed to be little more than evocations of figure and light. He stared at them for half an hour and, after consulting his new wife, bought one, the littlest one, which was blue and orange.
That evening they dined with Bess and Clara, and the next day they took a trip to the country and toured a small town with one of the politicians Lenox had met, who represented the district the town belonged to.
Then, just like that, it was all over. They had to wake very early the next morning to finish the packing their servants had begun and send their luggage off. By nine o'clock they were in a carriage on the way to Calais, and by noon they were aboard their ferry.
It was summer, but for some reason the Channel was extremely foggy, and as they stood on deck a wet, gray wind swirled around them.
"It seems like a dream, doesn't it?" said Lady Jane. "I feel as if we left yesterday. But think of all those beautiful Swiss villages, Charles! Think of that hundred-foot waterfall!"
"We ate in that restaurant on the mountainside."
"And our guide when we went up there!"
"It was a wonderful trip," he said, leaning on the rail, "but I'm glad we're going home. I'm ready to be married in London now."
She laughed her clear, low laugh and said, "I am, too."
He hadn't been quite joking. He stole a glance at Jane, and his heart filled with happiness. For years he had thought himself a happy man—indeed had been happy and fortunate in his friendships, his work, his interests, his family—but now he understood that in that entire time something vital had been missing. It was she. This was a new kind of happiness. It wasn't only the mawkish love of penny fiction, though that was there. It was also a feeling of deep security in the universe, which derived from the knowledge of an equal soul and spirit going through life together with you. From time to time he thought his heart would break, it made him so glad, and felt so precarious, so new, so unsure.
A mild, wispy rain started to fall when they were nearly across the water. Jane went inside, but Lenox said he thought he might stay out and look.
And he was lucky to have done so. At certain times in our lives we all feel grateful for one outworn idea or another, and now was one of those times for Lenox: As the fog cleared he saw much closer and bigger than he had expected the vast, pristine white face of the cliffs of Dover come into view. It made him feel he was home. Just like Jane did.CHAPTER 2
It was fortunate that the man who had designed and built the ten houses along Hampden Lane in 1788 had built them to the same scale, albeit in different configurations. Lenox's and Lady Jane's houses both had twelve-foot-deep basements where the staff could work and live, eight-step front stairs that led to broad front doors (his was red, hers white), four floors of rooms, and a narrow back garden. It meant they fit together.
Still, to join them had taken a great deal of ingenuity on the part of a young builder named, aptly enough, Stackhouse. On the first floor he had knocked down the wall between their two dining rooms, creating a single long hall, which could now entertain fifty people or so. More importantly, it had left intact the two most important rooms in the house: Lady Jane's sitting room, a rose colored square where she entertained her friends and took her tea, and Lenox's study, a long, lived-in chamber full of overstuffed armchairs, with books lining every surface and a desk piled under hundreds of papers and trinkets. Its high windows looked over the street, and on the opposite end its fireplace was where Lenox sat with his friends.
Upstairs there was a large new bedroom for them, and on the third floor two small parlors became a very nice billiard room for Lenox. In the basement the builders only made a slim hallway between the houses, firstly so as not to tamper with the foundation and secondly because the couple didn't need as much space down there. They were reducing their staff. They only required one coachman now, two footmen, one cook (Lenox's, Ellie, was foul-mouthed but talented), and one bootboy. Lady Jane's cook gave notice, explaining that it was excellent timing, since she and her husband had always hoped to open a pub and now had the money. Still, it would leave four people out of work. Fortunately Lady Jane's brother always needed servants, and those who wanted to move from London to the country received their new billets happily. Three of them took this offer, and the fourth, a bright young lad who had been Lenox's coachman, took two months' pay and set out for South Africa to make his fortune, with a letter of introduction from his now former employer.
All of this still left one enormous problem: the butlers. Both Lenox and Lady Jane had long-serving butlers who seemed half part of the family. In fact it was unusual for a woman to have a butler rather than a housekeeper, but Jane had insisted on it when she first came to London, and now Kirk, an extremely fat, extremely dignified Yorkshireman, had been with her for nearly twenty years. More seriously, there was Graham. For all of Lenox's adult life, Graham had been his butler, and more importantly his confidant and companion. They had met when Lenox was a student and Graham a scout at Balliol College; special circumstances had bound them there, and when Lenox left for London he had taken Graham with him. He had fetched Lenox his morning coffee, yes, but Graham had also helped him in a dozen of his cases, campaigned for him in Stirrington, and traveled with him across Europe and to Russia. Now all that might change.
So when Lenox returned to London, he went over the new house with an awed, pleased eye—it was just as he had imagined it being—but with the consciousness as well that he had to confront the problem of Graham. The next morning he had a rather radical idea.
He rang the bell, and soon Graham appeared with a breakfast tray laden with eggs, ham, kippers, and toast, a pot of fragrant black coffee to the side. He was a compact, sandy-haired, and intelligent-looking man.
"Good morning, Graham."
"Good morning, sir. May I welcome you back less formally to London?" The previous night the servants had lined the hall and curtsied and bowed in turn to the newlyweds, then presented them with the wedding present of a silver teapot.
"Thanks. That's awfully kind of you—it's a wonderful pot. Graham, would you sit down and keep me company for a moment? You don't mind if I eat, do you? Fetch yourself a cup to have some of this coffee if you like."
Graham shook his head at the offer but sat down in the armchair across from Lenox, an act that would have drawn gasps from many of Lenox's acquaintances for its familiarity. They made idle chat about Switzerland as Lenox gulped down coffee and eggs, until at last, sated, he pushed his plate away and sat happily back, patting the crimson dressing gown over his stomach.
"How long have we known each other, Graham?" asked Lenox.
"Twenty-one years, sir."
"Is it really that long? Yes, I suppose I was eighteen. It scarcely seems credible. Twenty-one years. We've grown middle-aged together, haven't we?"
"I just got married, Graham."
The butler, who had been at the wedding, allowed himself the ghost of a smile. "I heard something of it, sir."
"Did you never consider it?"
"Once, sir, but the lady's affections were otherwise engaged."
"I'm sorry to hear it."
"It was many years ago, sir, when we still lived in Oxford."
"Have you been happy in your employment?"
"Yes, sir." Graham was an understated man, but he said this emphatically. "Both in my daily duties and in the less usual ones you have asked me to perform, Mr. Lenox."
"I'm glad to hear it. You don't fancy a change of work?"
"No, sir. Not in the slightest."
"You mustn't look so stony-faced, Graham. I'm not firing you—not by a long shot. Remind me, what papers do you read?"
"What newspapers do you read?"
"The house subscribes to—"
"No, Graham, not the house—you."
"Below stairs we take the Times and the Manchester Guardian, sir. In my spare hours I usually read both."
"Does anyone else read them downstairs?"
Graham looked discomfited. "Well—no, sir."
"You know as much about politics as I do, or very nearly," murmured Lenox, more to himself than his companion.
"May I shock you, Graham?"
"I want you to come work for me."
The butler very nearly laughed. "Sir?"
Lenox sighed, stood up, and began pacing the study. "I've been troubled during all my time on the Continent about the business of a secretary. I interviewed eight candidates, all young men just up from Cambridge or Oxford, all of them of excellent family and eager to be personal secretary to a gentleman in Parliament. The trouble was that I felt that each one of them was sizing me up to decide when he could have my seat. They were all too ambitious, Graham. Or perhaps that's not it—perhaps it's simply that I didn't know them, and I didn't want to risk getting to know them as they worked for me."
"You cannot be suggesting, sir—"
"You read more than half the men sitting in Parliament, Graham. More importantly, I trust you." Lenox walked up to the study's row of high windows, his slippers softly padding the thick rug. He stared into the bright, summery street for a few moments. "I want you to come be my secretary."
Graham stood up too now, quite clearly agitated. "If I may speak freely, sir—"
"It is an utterly impossible request. As gratified as I am at your consideration, Mr. Lenox, I am in no way suited to such a role—a role that belongs to someone—someone from the great universities, someone with far more education than I possess, and ... if I may speak frankly, sir, someone of your own class."
Excerpted from A Stranger in Mayfair by Charles Finch. Copyright © 2010 Charles Finch. Excerpted by permission of Minotaur Books.
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