"My God, it is vicious out there," Phineas Hardheart called, letting himself in the front door. He blinked, standing in the foyer, letting the warmth seep through his body.
Carrier, who of course knew Choir's agent, greeted him familiarly on his way back to inspect the pantry. When he returned, Hardheart was laying various papers on the credenza.
"His Lordship coming back tomorrow?" Hardheart asked, not looking up.
"Yes. At Paddington. I had a wire. From Paris."
"As I did. What about Finch?"
"Mr. Finch wired me this morning. From Switzerland."
Hardheart cocked his head, nodding as if that made particular sense.
"What is all this?" Carrier asked, referring to the papers he was aligning neatly in different piles.
"Agreements awaiting His Lordship's signature. His affairs are...pressing, at the moment, what with his having been away and all. Creditors," he said more succinctly. "This latest development could not have come at a better time. He really has pulled it off, I must say."
"What are you talking about?" Carrier asked.
"Haven't you seen the Times of two days back?"
"No." There was no reason why he should read the Times on mornings when he need not, at six AM, purchase and iron its pages for the gentlemen. Egan had introduced him to a small smudged periodical that more directly addressed the workingman's needs, though at present it was available only from a small shop in Brixton. "Was there something in the Times concerning the Earl?"
"I should say there was," Hardheart replied, and unfolded the large pages of his copy.
"Ah yes, Crystal Palace has maintained their lead over Manchester United. That would perhaps be of more interest to Mr. Finch. He is the one who follows the football scores."
"Not that. Over here."
It was the Engagements column. In the small, yet irrefutable print of the Times, slightly enlarged and darker to indicate its relative importance, ran the headline: JEFFREY, EARL OF CHOIR, AND LADY TABITHA DE BOURNEVILLE TO WED, followed by the briefest of announcements mentioning only that nuptials were to be held "in Westminster Abbey."
"You will not be in charge of this happy household too much longer," Hardheart said, watching Carrier read the text.
"No," Carrier murmured. "I suppose not."
"What will happen, do you think? To you, I mean. You are like that baby in the bible, the one King Solomon had torn apart,"
"He did not have him torn apart," Carrier said irritably. "He only threatened that, to see who loved the child more."
"And who loves you more?" Hardheart wondered aloud. "Have you a preference, Mr. Carrier? Whom should your future master should be?"
"If I had a preference I would keep it to myself." Carrier thrust the folded-up newspaper back at Hardheart. His gaze returned to the window, where a group of constables had now gathered around the dead woman. Thinks he killed her? Carrier asked himself, noting the initial culprit standing off to the side, apart from the rest, patting his truncheon still, like a trusty cricket bat. Looks troubled. Should I go out and tell him? Tell him she was already dead? No. Best not get involved. Especially after... His hand stole to his cheek, which, though outwardly healed, still throbbed from the toe of a well directed boot.
"Mind you, if I was given the choice," Hardheart droned on behind him, still arranging the many dunning notices and out-of-date promissory notes, "I would go with Mr. Finch. No matter how much of a fortune young Choir lands himself, he will run through it. It is the running through he likes, more than the having."
"I may very well not continue in service at all," Carrier heard himself say, turning from the scene and briskly resuming his duties.
"What? You, Mr. Carrier? But you are a valet."
"At present, Mr. Hardheart. At present."
He touched the mantle, checking it for dust. Some old invitations were still ranged along the marble. He replaced them with the more recently received, including, centrally displayed, a pair of summonses to the Royal Ball.
"Eight, I think, is the perfect number," the Duchess Middleton said. She held a small gold pencil, its shaft tilted inquisitively over a sheet of paper, and waited. Tabitha, however, did nothing.
"An engagement party is expected," the older woman went on gently, "if you do not want people to talk."