“I pray you, Madam, believe that Lord Creswel is recruiting men-at-arms to take Castle Askerton. My scouts report his intention is that you ‘accidently’ are killed during the attack.”
Lady Allith closed her book and shot her protector an arch look. “M’Blaine, my brother-in-law has many faults but being a conspirator is not among them. Your concern for my safety is appreciated but understand that I am well aware of Creswel’s plans.”
The grizzled knight shifted on his seat, armor clanking. “My lady, if you find me inadequate to the task . . . “
“Do not try my patience, M’Blaine. I have entrusted my life to you since the day I wed Lord Askerton. The gods know how many times he told me I could rely on you in any situation, fair or foul. Its something I have always believed.”
“My thanks, Lady Allith.” M’Blaine got slowly to his feet and bowed. “It is a joy to know that I retain your confidence. Excuse me: I must oversee the change of the castle guard.”
Allith’s smile faded as the door closed. Crossing the room she opened the book, against whose spine nestled a piece of parchment. She removed and unfolded it. No matter how many times she read it, the words inked on it chilled her heart.
* * *
Standing on the front step of the block of flats Semple straitened his jacket, ran a comb through his hair and pressed the bell. The fact that the address was in the smarter section of town surprised him. Who would have thought that someone who worked in . . .
The door opened, bathing Semple in a rectangle of warm light.
“Do come in.” It was obvious that Tacy Bronwell had taken care in preparing for his visit. She was dressed in a knee-length, emerald-green dress whose shade was a close match for her eyes. Her curly black hair was drawn back, displaying copper earrings shaped like seashells. She extended a hand toward the parlor. “Please come through, Mr. Semple.”
The room into which Semple stepped was a further reflexion of its owner. The furnishings were simple but not plain. Care had been taken to coordinate the color scheme of the furniture with the large tapestry and framed prints adorning the walls.
“Do you approve?”
Semple looked down, trying to hide the impact of his hostess’s mirth.
“Forgive me, Miss Bronwell. It’s not my habit to scrutinize my surroundings.”
“I might scream if you don’t start calling me Tacy. Then too, I will scream unless you tell me your name.”
“My Christian name is Peter, Miss, er, Tacy.”
“Everything is ready, Peter, so why don’t we eat? Don’t worry: tonight bangers and mash aren’t on the menu.”
The meal wound its pleasant way through the soup (leek and potato), starters (goat’s cheese, red onion and tomato tarts) and main course (prime roast beef with onion gravy and Yorkshire pudding). The cooking was solid and tasty but otherwise unremarkable. Despite this Semple took seconds of everything.
Peter followed Tacy back to the parlor. He settled onto the flower-patterned divan to await delivery of the coffee and lemon tart. Semple was never good at small talk, and the months of solitude since Emma’s passing hadn’t added to his conversational arsenal. After several false starts he lapsed into silence.
“Peter, I intuit that something’s on your mind. Do you care to illuminate me?”
Foolish though Semple felt in doing so, he laid out the history of odd behaviour and mysterious events that had marked Miss H-V’s tenure as his housekeeper. In light of his audience’s faintly amused expression Semple’s voice trailed off. Putting down his cup he began to rise but Tacy rested a hand on his knee. She refilled his cup.
“Don’t go, Peter. What you have told me came across as slightly nutty but your sincerity shone through. If the young woman is that strange should you consider dispensing with her services?”
Semple opened his mouth to reply then shut it. He leaned forward, clasping his hands.
“The thing is, Tacy, I find that impossible. Every time I make up my mind to cut Miss H-V loose, words fail me. Silly as it sounds, its as though she holds a power over me.”
“Now you sound nutty.” Tacy escorted Semple to the door. “Anyway, I was happy to hear you out. Perhaps I can meet this person, to confirm for myself what you’ve told me. What do you think?”
Semple didn’t answer, for he was struggling to bring to mind what he’d read on the Internet about modern etiquette concerning social interactions—he couldn’t bring himself to call it a “date.”
“Ah, I can see the wisdom in that. Let me give it some thought.”
Then they were on the front step. After an awkward moment Semple extended his hand. Tacy took it in a firm grasp.
“Thank you for a very nice time, Peter. I hope to see you again very soon.”
Semple bobbed his head and walked into the night.
* * *
It was Monday again. Semple pushed his breakfast around the plate, for he was still full from the previous evening’s feast. Had he made a pig of himself in front of Tacy Bronwell, unconsciously hoping to curry her favour? Disgusted, he left the table and went to the aerie.
The hours flowed by profitably. When the time for tea and biscuit approached Semple saved his workfile and crossed to the door. At a rustling sound in the hall he opened the door but he hoped not so quickly that it would startle Miss H-V.
The housekeeper stood, the long green skirt swirling about her legs. There was no sign she had been taken unawares. The tray with cup, saucer and biscuit awaited him on the carpet runner. Miss H-V studied her employer with pursed lips.
“You often seem intent on catching me out when I’m bringing your snack, Mr. Semple. Is this some kind of game?”
“No, it is nothing like that. Today I simply wish to alert you to the fact that I might be inviting a guest to supper in the next week or so. I thought that in preparation for the event you and I could discuss the menu. Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to serve the meal.”
Miss H-V crossed her arms, weighing the merits of the request. At last she gave a brief nod of assent.
“Excellent. I will let you know when I am ready to talk about the arrangements.”
Semple picked up the tray and closed the door with his foot. Setting the tray on the desk he noticed that a folded slip of paper rested on the saucer. It read:
When you decide against eating my cooking please do me the favour informing me before I go to the trouble of preparing it.
[© 2019 Robert Edwin Stone, II]