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Late July 1997
Nobody knew where Rob Hillman was.
Curious. Very curious, Sir Gregory thought. With all the staff he had rattling about the place, one would have thought that somebody would have found him by now. After all, young Hillman was conspicuous for many reasons: his height, his clothing, his American accent, and his very novelty--he had only been among them a matter of mere weeks, whereas everybody else at Datchworth had been ensconced there anywhere between fourteen and eighty-two years.
Sir Gregory St. John Bebberidge-Thorpe was feeling his age, which was seventy-three, and also his health, which was intricate and tiresome and ensured that he got every penny he paid in taxes returned to him in the form of free medical care from Britain's National Health Service. Most people in Sir Gregory's tax bracket paid for private medical care, but the Bebberidge-Thorpes were famous for thrift. Not that they were miserly, it was simply that they didn't see any point in paying for something one could get for free. Sir Gregory had never been a snob, and he preferred to spend his money on things that were more enjoyable than going to the doctor.
But at Sir Gregory's age, the list of things one can enjoy decreased with every passing year, and when his time came, he did not plan to rage against the dying of the light. With one white finger he pressed a button on the right arm of his wheelchair. Emitting a well-mannered hum, it rotated decorously until it faced the window, allowing him to gaze from his library out over the formal garden. What a pother that had been!--having it restored to its eighteenth-century perfection. Butworth it. Definitely worth it.
He had done everything possible to prepare Derek, and he was confident the boy was ready. Which was just as well, for at the rate his own health was declining, it wouldn't be very long before Derek would get the baronetcy (which both of them referred to as "the Sirdom") and everything that went with it. Well, almost everything. Possibly. That would depend on Rob Hillman.
Tom Holder was trying to pull the fangs out of the anxiety he was feeling by entertaining himself with it. "I would rather," he muttered to himself, "go unarmed against a homicidal maniac with a black belt, an Uzi and a sinus headache. I would rather eat a meat loaf made of earthworms. I would rather stand naked at the front of the church with the whole congregation watching while I sang the 'Hallelujah Chorus' to the tune of 'Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' "
What he least wanted to do was have the conversation with his wife that he really had to have this evening, because any minute now he was going to have to start packing, and if Louise found out what he'd done before he'd talked to her, it was really going to hit the fan. Of course, it was going to hit the fan anyway, but at least if he told her now and tried to make it sound good, less of it would hit the fan than if he put it off another day. He had already left it until far too late.
You've always wanted to have Flora and the kids come and stay, he would begin. No, he wouldn't. Louise would never swallow that. He might mollify her, after telling her about what he was doing, by saying Flora and offspring could come stay in his absence, but Louise would never believe that was actually the reason he was going. Good news, I'm going to relieve you of my presence for a while, you'll like that. No, no, no. Too close to the bone. How about something more direct? Louise, I just couldn't pass up this opportunity. It may never come around again. That, at least, had the advantage of being true. When you're trying to pull the wool over someone's eyes, it's always comforting to know you're doing it by telling the truth.
James Crumper was trying to decide whether to go over the same ground again in his search for Mr. Hillman, or to try to think of somewhere nobody had looked yet. The cook, Mrs. Drundle, had advised him to give it a rest, have a cup of tea, and wait for the American lad to turn up of his own accord. That suggestion did not recommend itself to Sir Gregory's butler.
Jim Crumper belonged, according to his wife, in another century. Crumper took that as a compliment. He had grown up reading the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer, pressed upon him by his father Albert ("Old Crumper") with the admonition, "Forget all the romance rubbish, that's for women; pay attention to the servants. That's how you're supposed to behave in a house like this." Old Crumper, now in semi-retirement in the south wing, had reason to be proud of his training methods. His son had taken to Heyer's Regency world like the proverbial duck to water.
But the son, cleverer than his dad, had seen the tongue in Heyer's cheek; he knew that when he assumed the mantle of butler at Datchworth, he'd be playing a character in a long-running pageant, part historical re-creation, part comedy of manners. Now, at forty-five, after eight years in the role, he played it very well indeed, and he loved it.
Part of the character of The Good Servant was extreme dedication to The Master. For that reason, Crumper was disinclined to give up searching for Mr. Hillman, because that would mean failing to perform a perfectly simple task that his master had laid upon him. Or at least, it ought to have been simple.
Mr. Robert Hillman was a creature of habit (which had endeared the young American to the staff, since routine was awfully helpful in running a household as vast as Datchworth). Every weekday he took his breakfast with Sir Gregory and Miss Daventry (and Mr. Banner when he was in Oxfordshire); he went to the muniment room at nine a.m. promptly and set to work. He took elevenses at his desk, being careful, of course, to move the manuscripts out of range of his coffee, not that there was much danger of Mr. Hillman spilling anything, as he was always tidy and careful, especially where the manuscripts were concerned.
He invariably came down for lunch within two minutes of being called, and returned to the muniment room precisely one hour later. There his tea was brought to him at four-fifteen; he would eat the thin sandwiches he preferred while drinking his first cup. He would then pour a second cup, and mount the spiral staircase to the parapet, where he would walk along the rooftop and admire the view over the west lawn and the woods. This he did, come shine or showers. When asked why he subjected himself to the worst of England's summer weather, he replied, "Oh, I like rain. We don't get enough of it where I come from."
After tea came the only variable part of Mr. Hillman's schedule. He would either stop work for the day, as Sir Gregory always urged him to do, or, if something had piqued his curiosity among the manuscripts, he might return to the muniment room for another hour before going upstairs to change for dinner.
Since it was just before five o'clock that Sir Gregory had asked Crumper to find Mr. Hillman, the task was slightly more complicated than it would have been earlier in the day. Even so, there were a limited number of places where the young man could reasonably be expected to be. He could be still on the parapet with his cuppa. Or he could be back in the muniment room working again. Or he could have gone back to his room, either to read or to send and receive emails on the laptop he had brought to Datchworth with him. He had told Crumper he liked to keep in touch with his friends.
The butler had silently given the American credit for not adding, "while I'm out here in the middle of nowhere." Crumper suspected that's how the young man felt, because every Friday at four-fifteen he left the muniment room, forsaking his tea (these Americans!), throwing an overnight bag in his little car, and motoring out past the gatehouse no later than four thirty-five, on his way to Oxford for the weekend.
Crumper had not found Mr. Hillman in the muniment room. The tea tray was there, but Mr. Hillman's cup and saucer were not on it. So Crumper had confidently mounted the stairs to the roof and gone out onto the parapet; the young man, however, was not to be seen. Crumper had then sought him in his room, but he wasn't there, either. Of course, Mr. Hillman could have gone for a walk in the grounds, but he usually did that after dinner, taking advantage of the seemingly everlasting daylight of the English summer evening.
Crumper went so far as to go out onto the veranda and gaze across the garden (which appeared to be an American-free zone), but searching the grounds was out of the question. It would take an army. He went though the public rooms of the house, which were sufficiently impressive to move people to pay twelve pounds to see them on open days. Mr. Hillman was particularly fond of the fan vaulting that the third baronet had seen fit to install in the State Dining Room, but he was not to be found admiring it this afternoon. Nor was he in any other of the public rooms. No one on the staff admitted to seeing him since Jenny had taken his tea to the muniment room. It was at this point that Crumper had informed Sir Gregory, with regret, that the young gentleman could not be located. Sir Gregory had kindly told Crumper to let it be, he would see Mr. Hillman at dinner; Crumper had murmured assent, but the butler had no sooner left the library than he recommenced the hunt.
Kathryn sighed. Her mother was, as usual, failing to understand her. Feeling it would be rude to say, "You heard me," she merely shifted the receiver to her other ear and waited.
Mrs. Koerney continued. "With all the money your father left us, I can't imagine what you're doing, taking up a summer job."
"It's not a job, Mom, I volunteered. They aren't paying me anything."
"Then why on earth are you doing it?"
As several people at the church had already asked her that question, Kathryn had a ready answer. "Because I love Oxford. I want to show it to people, show them how to look behind the horrible commercial bits and find the quiet little islands of the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century."
"But Kathryn, people can hire a tour guide to do that. Surely they can afford it, if they can afford the airfare. Why do they have to make you do it?"
Kathryn sighed again. "Mom, they're not making me do it. I want to do it. I'll enjoy it."
It was her mother's turn to sigh, but Mrs. Koerney's exasperation was followed immediately by a short laugh. "Well, you always were a weird child."
Kathryn smiled. "Thank you, Mother dear."
"You're welcome. So tell me about it. Anybody going that I know?"
"Well, you remember the Rector?"
"Exactly. He and his wife are coming."
"How about Tracy?"
"Insufficient funds. If I could figure out how to buy her a ticket and leave her insufferable husband behind, I would do it, but I can't, so I won't. Ben and Celia Smith are coming, which is good, and so are the Folgers, which is not so good."
"Folgers. Have I met them?"
"Probably not, since I wouldn't waste your time bringing them to your notice."
"That bad, huh?"
"That bad. Oh, but back on the good side, my friend Tom Holder is going, and without his awful wife, thank God; I told you about him, the Police Chief."
There was the briefest pause. "Yes, you've told me about him, but you didn't introduce me to him."
"That's because the last time you were in Harton, he was just an acquaintance. It was only last November that we got to be friends, when all that missing-person stuff happened. The next time you're here, I'll introduce you. He's delightful."
"Uh, Kathryn, has your mother ever given you lecture number forty-seven, 'Being Friends with Married Men'?"
Kathryn emitted a laugh of genuine surprise. "Not to worry! Mom, if you could see him; somebody told me he's forty-eight, but he looks fifty-eight, his belly hangs down over his belt, he's going bald--"
"Hey! Who are you trying to fool? This is your mother, remember? Since when have you cared what a man looked like? That Phil what's-his-name was the ugliest--"
"Mother!" Kathryn exclaimed in the vexed tones of a heavily parented teenager. "I grant your point. It doesn't matter what he looks like. But still, Tom's just, he's just not . . ."
"Does he not recognize quotations from Hamlet?"
On second thought, maybe her mother did understand her. "Ouch," Kathryn admitted. "Got it in one."
"My daughter, the intellectual snob."
"But you love me anyway."
"Of course I do. But answer me this: if you're showing all these people around all the time, how are you going to have time to see Rob?"
"Clever planning, that's how. I've told the church group in no uncertain terms that they are utterly on their own on weekends, and Rob has weekends free. He's making all sorts of plans, he informs me; he's reserved a punt for our first Saturday, and we're going to do Oxford's Greatest Hits. You know: Addison's Walk, the Ashmolean, all that stuff. And--get ready to turn chartreuse with envy--Rob has a summer job somewhere in rural Oxfordshire in a castle for heaven's sake which is really a fortified manor house but who cares, sorting out some manuscripts for a baronet, I am not making this up, with the most marvelous name: Sir Something St. John Beverage hyphen Something Else. And I am invited for Dinner, capital D, so I can check out the castle. Not to mention the baronet."
The Baronet was dozing lightly in his chair, exercising a talent younger people rarely have, that of sleeping while sitting upright. His eight-year-old self was playing with his brother Richard in the woods; they were hunting dragons. Great fun, that had been. But something was wrong. Something had happened to Dicky. A shadow of unease fell across the Baronet's dream; somewhere in the distance a woman screamed. Voices. Shouting. People never shouted at Datchworth. Running footsteps.
The library door was flung open, something else that never happened at Datchworth. Sir Gregory awoke with a start. His imperturbable butler stood in the doorway, perturbed beyond measure. One could actually hear the man breathing. In his shaking hands he held some fragments of a china teacup.