Tall iron gates formed a barrier against uninvited travellers or casual tradesmen and he paused, wondering whether he had made a mistake coming here after all. Too late, the stillness broken by the creak of a door opening and footsteps approaching from behind the thick hawthorn hedge. The gatekeeper perhaps. He put his case down and waited. If the man refused him entry, then he would have to find somewhere else to stay and this was his last hope, his only hope at the moment.
‘Can I help you?’ A foreign accent, the man slender and thin-faced, a tilt to his head as if analysing every aspect of this unknown arrival.
‘General Henderson sent for me.’ Though he was unsure. It had all happened in such a short moment of time, leaving him confused and disorientated. But the General would put him straight; he had no doubts about that.
‘And your name?’
‘Ah yes. Mr Straker. You are expected. You know the way to the Hall?’
‘I think so. Straight ahead?’ There was no other direction, no other possible route unless he was wrong. But he had been wrong before.
‘Correct. A little more than half a mile will see you to the house itself. Follow the drive until you get to the fountain.’ The man looked at him with some concern. ‘You do realise it’s not too late to change your mind?’
‘Thank you, but the General will be waiting for me, Mr …?’
‘Jackson. As you have no doubt gathered, I am the gatekeeper here. It is my job to guide those who wish to visit the Hall, not that there are many.’ He tilted his head and regarded Straker with half-closed eyes. ‘Most people turn back at this point. A wise decision if I may say so.’
‘I’m here now. I may as well continue.’ But he could feel the chill in the air, a sense of unease as he wondered why he had been called to this place.
‘Very well, but remember I am here should you require my assistance. At any time or for whatever reason. The gates are always locked and I am the only one who has the key to the outside.’
There was no response to that so he touched the brim of his hat in salute and walked on, following the roadway between overgrown trees that formed a long and shadowy tunnel. A dark and silent passage, but he carried on, feet crunching on the loose gravel before he came out of the dark tunnel of overhanging branches into sunshine so bright he had to let his eyes adjust to the glare. The fountain was just ahead, delicate sprays sparkling in the light and the Hall itself stood some three hundred yards ahead.
A larger house than he expected, though still not one of the great houses with which he was more familiar. It loomed over the grounds; a tall bulwark of weathered stone blackened by the centuries, its design calculated to appear imposing to any casual visitor. Dark windows lined the façade, deep crenellations provided vantage points on the roof, massive chimneys pointed upwards. More defensive stronghold than stately home. He walked on, keen to get out of the blinding sunshine. The steps up to the entrance were - for the most part - moss free and the brass knocker polished, though to an insufficient shine for his liking.
Unlike the gates, no one waited here to open the door and it was tempting to turn and walk away, but he had made his choice a long time ago. He tugged his jacket straighter, pulled the bell once and stepped back, counting the seconds and frowning at the clutter of birds’ nests in one corner of the portico.
One thousand six, one thousand seven, one thousand …. He tugged off his hat, resisted the temptation to ring again and then the door swung open to reveal a footman, his coat a touch too large for his gangly frame and his hands shaking nervously.
‘Edward Straker. General Henderson is expecting me.’ He held out the precious card for inspection. The footman’s gloves were dirty. Grey smudges discoloured the fingertips, grime round the cuff of his sleeve as well. He could see the uncertainly on the youth’s face, a swift sideways glance as if looking for guidance, but there was no one else and in the end the lad - for lad he had to be and still a callow youth - swallowed and forced out a response. ‘Wait there.’ A nervous pause. ‘Please?’
The door closed, leaving him on the step like some common tradesman. Except this was not the tradesman’s entrance, this was the main door. Perhaps he should have gone to the back door but the card was a direct summons from the master of the house himself and required him to present himself at the main door. He put his valise down, rubbing one hand over the bruise on the inside of his arm. He could not remember injuring himself there, in fact once he thought about it, he could not remember much other than being needed here, urgently. And from what he had seen so far, there was a great deal of work to do.
He turned round to look down the long path: the gravel under the trees, the stonework of the fountain. The sun glinted in his eyes and he flinched, aware of his headache returning with a vengeance.
The door opened and he turned round, seeing the same footman, the same anxious expression.
‘This way please.’
He put his bag down and followed. The foyer was cold and unwelcoming and he followed up the stairs to the first floor and along a wide corridor. Not a word of explanation as they passed bedrooms and closets, an open door revealing furniture swathed in dust sheets.
The General’s room turned out to be part sitting room, part bedroom: dark furniture and wallpaper, heavy drapes and thick carpet underfoot. The bed took up one half of the space, a couple of armchairs were against one wall, untidy stacks of books littered the thick carpet. A desk stood against the window, its surface covered with papers and inkstands and the trappings of work. He could see the man sitting in front of the fire, a glass of brandy in one hand and a blanket over his knees. And then he saw the invalid’s chair and it all became clear: the need to meet here in a suite of private rooms, the transformation of a bedroom into a combined library and sitting room. The man looked old - broken and defeated, grey-haired and a look of weariness on his face. He paused to reassess the situation.
‘General.’ A deft nod in lieu of a salute. He was used to dealing with high ranking officers, and this man deserved his full deference. Experience and intelligence combined in this one room with its dusty furniture and smeared windows.
‘That’s all, Jeremy. Give us ten minutes and then ask Mrs Fraser to come up here will you?’ The door closed. ‘Straker? Sorry to call you up like this.’
‘I’m at your service, General.’
‘Take a seat. I suspect you know why I’ve asked you here.’
He inclined his head, the merest tilt as required in such circumstances. ‘Thank you, but I prefer to remain standing.’
‘Someone not afraid to speak out, I see. Good. I like that. Too many people don’t understand it. Think they should be ‘yes’ men, and I have no time for yes men, not in my line of work. Now. I’ve heard a lot about you, Straker, most of it good though you’ve managed to ruffle a few feathers here and there. Seems you’re not afraid to do whatever’s necessary to get things done.’
Another silent incline of his head.
‘Well, it’s a bad job to tell you the truth. Apparently I’m stuck in this chair for another couple of months. Things are changing in the world and a lot is going to happen right here in this house.’ He dropped one hand to a wheel and jostled the chair a couple of inches, giving up in frustration as the chair creaked and shuddered to a halt. ‘There’s a meeting of a special committee to consider a defence proposal of mine, and they’ll have to come here to discuss it with me, as I can’t travel yet. You’ve seen the state of this place haven’t you? I can’t have foreign delegates visiting until the house is respectable, can I? They’ll think I’m not capable of running a house, let alone the organisation I have in mind.’ There was more than a hint of concern in his voice.
‘It would be inadvisable, sir.’
‘So. That’s the reason you’re here. I need someone to put everything right as quickly as possible. You come highly recommended but I can understand if you don’t want the job - it’ll mean working sixteen hours a day or longer until the Hall’s ready, but this has to be done as soon as possible.’ He leaned forward in his chair, the tartan blanket sliding off his knees, unnoticed. ‘You can always refuse, but if you do, it’s got to be now; there’ll be no turning back later. Do you understand?’ He scowled at the empty glass in his hand.
Straker cast around for the misplaced decanter - on the sideboard instead of the tray close at hand - picked it up and poured a measure into the snifter, twisting the decanter with a deft hand to prevent any drips.
‘I do, sir. Will there be anything else?’ He put the decanter down within reach and stepped back, hands behind his back in the proscribed stance despite his regretful lack of uniform.
A sigh of relief. ‘No. Thank you, Straker, I’ll leave it all in your hands. I expect you’ve already got a good idea of what needs doing to bring everything up to scratch otherwise I’ve made a mistake bringing you here. And I don’t make mistakes. I’m not going to lie - a lot of things are going to fall on your shoulders, but as I understand, you’re the right man for the job.’
‘Very good, sir.’ The words slipped from his tongue with ease. He had forgotten the quiet satisfaction of doing this work, of bringing order to chaos and ensuring everything was achieved according to the rules.
‘The housekeeper will show you to your rooms. I want you to supervise her duties as well, see what changes are required. Do whatever’s necessary to get things running properly, but give me daily reports will you?’
‘Sir.’ A last nod of his head, the door behind opening to admit an older woman in the dark uniform of housekeeper.
‘Ah. Mrs Fraser? This is Straker. Show him to the butler’s rooms will you? And then if you could give him a tour of the house?’
His valise was still in the entrance hall and he walked over to collect it, aware of the housekeeper’s scrutiny and the hint of disdain in her voice. ‘You’re the one we were told to expect?’
‘You’d better come this way then.’ She walked off in a stiff rustle of black bombazine.
His rooms - a more than adequate sitting room as well as bedroom - were as expected: cold and unwelcoming, the fireplace bare, the bed unmade. He’d had worse. But there was a decent sized desk in the sitting room and an armchair near the fireplace, whitewashed walls, the plasterwork rough and unfinished, bare boards underfoot. Someone had put a rag rug on the floor - a random pattern in orange and black and white. The butler’s pantry was locked and he asked for the keys and waited while she pulled them off the heavy bunch at her waist and held them out. His inspection of the pantry could wait until later, when he was alone.
‘I require linen, pillows and blankets. Have those brought here and the fire made up.’ He kept his voice calm, but this was a deliberate insult. Common courtesy demanded a warm room for any traveller as well as the offer of sustenance. He removed his greatcoat and handed it to her. ‘Have this brushed down for me and I will speak to the staff later so ensure everyone is present after the evening meal.’ The sooner he made his mark here, the easier his job would be.
His uniform was in the valise and, ignoring her obvious irritation at the delay he took it out, inspecting each item as he hung them in the wardrobe. He flicked open his fob watch. ‘Time for a tour of the house. Shall we go?’ He could feel her resentment, the quiet fury that he was here and about to commandeer her misplaced authority. A woman scorned. He shrugged his shoulders. He had his orders however difficult, and he would do his duty.
It was not long before the tour ended, Mrs Fraser hurrying through the main rooms in an effort to hide the neglect from her unwelcome companion. But he had seen the inattention to housekeeping, the dirt and dust, furniture unpolished, banisters sticky beneath his fingers, and he gave her a curt acknowledgement and went to his room to wash and prepare for his next trial. Dinner in the servant’s hall. Someone had put a pile of linen on the bed and he put it aside and lay down for a few moments, closing his eyes against the persistent headache. Footsteps hurried along the corridor outside and he sat up, heart thudding with inexplicable fear, wide awake again.
It would be easy to take sanctuary in his rooms, to hide away under the pretence of checking the silver, but that was the coward’s way and he locked the door of his bedroom and stripped off, hanging the plain suit away before lifting out his uniform. The warmth of fine wool against skin as he stepped into grey pinstripe trousers, the coolness of buttons under his fingers as he fastened them, feet sliding into polished shoes and laces fastened with neat economy of movement so as not to crease the perfect line of the trousers. Anyone passing by might just have heard a faint rustle of starched cotton and the hiss of concentration needed to fasten cufflinks and then straighten the wing-tip collar, the black tie knotted just so. More sounds: silk slurring against cotton as he shrugged into the matching waistcoat, the chink of a silver fob watch and chain, a final whisper as he eased the morning coat over his shoulders and pulled it into place. A tug of cuffs, a twist of the fob chain and he was ready. He ignored the bleakness of his room and the chill and the unmade bed and he unlocked the door and walked out. Time to meet the household.