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.
The dining table was full, a score of places filling the length and the carver chair at the head taken by the footman who had greeted him on his arrival. Straker stood in the doorway, arms folded, letting his uniform tell its own story while he waited for the muttering to cease.
‘Mr Straker? Good to meet you.’ An older man stepped through from the kitchen, pock-marked face and big hands, an air of kindness and a genuine smile. ‘I’m the chef, Freeman. Welcome to the Hall.’
A rare thing, to find a male cook in a house of lesser size, but the kitchen was impeccably clean and the man clearly accomplished.
‘Mr Freeman.’ A nod of approval and then Straker walked into the room, heading for the seat at the head of the long oak table. ‘Jeremy. Am I right?’
‘Yes.’ The man shifted in his seat, face reddening under the unaccustomed attention.
‘I believe that seat is reserved for the most senior member of staff, don’t you agree? Unless of course you consider yourself ready for such responsibility?’ He waited, aware of silence falling.
‘Sir. No. Mrs Fraser said I … I mean…’ Chair legs scraped on the flagged floor as the man stood, a slight bow of respect before hurrying to a seat lower down the table. ‘I apologise, Mr Straker, of course that is your place.’
He gripped the back of the chair and regarded the assembled staff. Fewer than a house of this size warranted and yet another responsibility to be faced and overcome. ‘Shall we begin?’ The chair was well-cushioned and solid, and he let himself relax while the meal was served, the condiments passed without a word, hostile glances cast in his direction from the housekeeper, curious glimpses from the few servants still in the kitchen. It would have been unpleasant had Mr Freeman not broken the silence by talking about the long spell of fine weather and the excellent vegetables from the kitchen garden until gradually, one by one, the rest of the staff joined in and the atmosphere lightened enough for him to finish his meal with genuine enjoyment.
The plates were cleared away, the table wiped clean and he stood, nodded his approval to the chef and waited until the lesser staff arrived and he had everyone’s attention.
‘General Henderson has placed me in charge, so I am assuming the responsibilities of butler as from right now. Mrs Fraser?’
She was sitting at the far end of the table, her face ugly with disdain and apprehension and he wondered what she was hiding.
‘Have the housekeeping books ready for me tomorrow at eleven. All of them including the complete inventory.’ He was tempted to say more, perhaps a few words of reassurance or appreciation, but the memory of her unfriendly welcome was sufficient to make him push his chair under the table and walk out, his steps echoing in the sudden silence as he headed for the main staircase up to where his General was waiting.
The invalid was still in his chair, an untouched tray beside him on a side table.
‘May I get you anything else, sir? You haven’t eaten very much.’
‘Hmm?’ The soldier looked up from the book he was reading. ‘No. Nothing else, thank you. Well. Maybe another brandy?’ He closed the book and put it aside. ‘I don’t seem to be very hungry right now.’
Straker lifted the tray. A meat jelly and a baked custard. Unsatisfying and only fit for invalids. No wonder the man looked pale and listless. ‘If you will excuse me for a moment, I will endeavour to find you something more palatable.’
The kitchen was deserted when he returned with the tray, putting it down on the table with more force than was necessary. The chef was in the pantry, going through the shelves and checking bags of flour for weevils.
‘Mr Freeman, could I ask you to prepare a fresh tray for the General. Something a little more robust perhaps?’
‘Is that wise, Mr Straker? I mean…’ He turned round, dusting flour from his hands. ‘It’s just that Mrs Fraser insisted I give him foods more suited to invalids and she gave me a list of things he was allowed. I knew he wasn’t eating much but when I told her she said his digestion couldn’t cope with anything richer.’
‘Trust me, Mr Freeman, the General needs proper nutrition if he is to regain his strength. See what you can do for tonight and tomorrow we’ll sit down and discuss a more suitable menu. I suspect you will have some excellent suggestions. For tonight though, maybe a bowl of that good soup from earlier, a few slices of the roast beef, some cheese and fresh bread and butter? And if there’s any fruit from the greenhouses, I’m sure he would appreciate it.’
‘Very good, Mr Straker. If you give me ten minutes I’ll have something proper ready for you to take up.’ Freeman pulled off his waist apron and put it on the worktop. ‘As for the General, it’s not my place to speak out but …’
‘Well, it’s just that he doesn’t have a valet. Not a proper one, like he should have. Jeremy does his best but it’s not the same is it, especially as he’s stuck in those rooms all the time. There’s no one to take responsibility for his well-being, make sure he’s getting the right attention and his clothes are properly seen to.’
‘No, there isn’t. Thank you Mr Freeman. Leave it with me and I’ll speak to him later. I may need your assistance with some duties in the morning if that won’t be an inconvenience?’
‘Of course. I’ll be glad to help with anything. Just let me know.’
The chef went into the kitchen to start on the soup, leaving him alone in the cold pantry. A sprinkle of flour marked the surface of the worktop and he tied Freeman’s apron round his waist before picking up the next bag and opening it for inspection.
The General finished the last slice of ripe, hot-house peach and dabbed his lips with the napkin. ‘I feel much better for that. Thank Mr Freeman for me will you?’
‘I will, sir. He’ll be pleased to know you enjoyed it.’ He put the tray aside. ‘If I may, I understand you are currently without a valet. Might I be permitted to perform those duties?’
‘A valet? I don’t need a valet, just someone to help me get dressed and undressed and so on. It’s not as if I’m going out anywhere.’ He grimaced. ‘Chance would be a fine thing. Mrs Fraser insisted I should be in these rooms. Out of sight and out of mind I suspect.’ He turned to stare out of the window at the lawns and formal gardens. ‘The gardens look lovely right now.’
The room was untidy, the air heavy and unrefreshed and Straker pushed open one of the windows and moved around the room, tidying papers and folding clothes left lying on chairs and the end of the bed. A competent valet would have seen to all that and more, and from the state of the room not even the chambermaids made much effort. He carried on, quiet tasks that brought order to the room and made it more comfortable though there was little he could do about the obvious distress in the man’s voice.
It was only natural to progress from folding clothes to the more intimate business of preparing Henderson for bed, wheeling him into the bathroom and then once the evening ablutions complete, back into the bedroom to remove shoes and then socks. He put the creased suit aside to be cleaned and pressed, set pyjamas to warm in front of the fire and it was not long before the General was settled on freshly fluffed pillows, with a book to read and a nightcap close at hand. They had hardly spoken to each other, the merest of instructions from Straker, the sigh of relief from his charge at the quiet order and efficiency. A final adjustment of the bedspread and then he was closing the door and heading for the cold silence of his room.
It took just a few minutes to light the fire and once the tinder was burning he undressed, found his pyjamas and dressing gown and sat in the armchair, warming his hands and going through all the things he would have to do in the morning. Fraser was likely to be a problem - a woman out for whatever she could get and resenting anyone who was more successful. A troublemaker from the looks of things, and Straker didn’t like troublemakers; they disrupted the calm order of his life. And Jeremy was another concern. The lad was eager enough but he needed guidance and support from a more experienced footman if he was not to be dismissed as incompetent. He rubbed his hands together as the heat eased the ache in his bones.
Sheets, blankets, pillows. A well-used mattress, but good enough, and he undressed and lay down, wrapping himself in the covers and listening to the sounds outside. By rights he should be on duty until the house was quiet but he had only one night to prepare himself for the task ahead and for some inexplicable reason he was desperately tired. It would be an early start in the morning, and the first of however many long days filled with vital work, and with a sense of relief at being back where he belonged, he closed his eyes.
He was up well before any other member of staff, familiarising himself with the butler’s pantry before it was time to wake the General. A busy morning, the routine tasks of ironing the daily newspaper and sorting the early mail in order of priority, then the satisfaction of making sure his employer was properly shaved and attired as befitting a man of his importance. The breakfast trays with their rich assortment of dishes met with both men’s approval: bacon and sausage and kidneys, kedgeree and kippers, a silver pot of fresh coffee. He stepped aside to give the illusion of privacy while Henderson ate a few tentative bites and was gratified and more than a little relieved to see him finish the rest with what could only be described as real hunger.
A quiet step forward to take the plate and replenish it. Coffee poured, the toast rack within reach, moving forward to retrieve the empty plate and whisk it away. Small tasks as natural as breathing to him.
‘Will that be all, sir?’
‘Yes.’ A pause. ‘I was wondering if it might be possible to have some flowers brought up. Something from the gardens perhaps?’
‘Of course. My apologies, I should have made sure of that before. I’ll speak to the gardener and ask him to find something suitable. Roses? Or perhaps chrysanthemums?’
‘Anything. I don’t mind. Just something to brighten this room.’
‘Very good, sir. I’ll see to it. Jeremy will be on duty this afternoon, but I will be available should you require anything.’
‘I have some arrangements to make downstairs but once those are complete, I will be completely at your command.’
‘Very good Straker. Now, you have more important things to do than stand here listening to an old invalid. Off with you.’
‘Very good, sir.’
The door closed behind him and he took the trays back to the kitchen, wondering how difficult it would be to bring the general downstairs each morning. Not an unmanageable task but time consuming and also embarrassing for the invalid. But it was a problem, and one he intended solving, if possible.
Mrs Fraser would have to go. It was not just the lack of care in maintaining the rooms - though that by itself would have been enough to warrant her dismissal - but the moment he opened the first book he could see the inconsistencies, the fudged accounts where monies had been filtered from the household no doubt to line her own pockets. Less observant eyes than his might not have seen the fraudulence, but he knew his duties and these were not just the usual perks of the housekeeper’s job; these went beyond the small sums paid by the butcher or greengrocer as reward for continued custom. The inventory showed items missing from linen cupboards and wine cellar, not that any casual inspection would have revealed the loss, but he had been thorough in his auditing earlier in the morning, going through storerooms and cupboards well before the chambermaids were awake. He closed the book with a thud and went through to find her.
A curt conversation, her excuses and then her pleas for another chance turning to curses and contempt as he stood there, arms folded against her spiteful onslaught. In the end she sat down, sullen and wordless.
He unfolded his arms. ‘A month’s pay in lieu of notice. There will be no reference, but neither will I inform any other houses of your deficiencies. You have only yourself to blame; the General trusted you, Mrs Fraser and you failed him. Had you shown any loyalty to the house and the rest of the staff then nothing would have been said, but the running of the Hall is now my responsibility and I cannot have a housekeeper who is unable to perform the most basic duties. Pack your belongings and you can wait in the servants’ hall for your wages.’ He held out her coat, but she refused to take it an in the end he tossed it onto the table and went to his own room to collect the monies owed her.
The house seemed to breathe again as the housekeeper marched away, her black skirts rusting against the gravel. A long walk to the gatehouse, but she had refused the offer of a ride, or of any assistance, though he suspected that was pique more than pride. A foolish woman. Her lies and larceny would have been discovered soon enough. He closed the servants’ door and went back into the kitchen to discussing menus and the General’s health with Freeman.
‘There’s a ground floor suite of unused rooms in the East Wing.’ Straker put aside his notes and leaned back in his chair at the head of the table. The servants’ hall was empty, everyone busy elsewhere apart from the two of them and it was unlikely that they would be disturbed for some time. A rare chance to relax, the menus for the next week agreed and Mr Freeman proving to be more than just a chef - a reliable man and knowledgeable about more than just food. ‘What can you tell me about them?’
‘The Rose Suite? As far as I can recall it’s been empty since before the previous owner died. His sister lived there for a few years; an elderly woman, and she found the stairs difficult. What of them?’
‘The General could have those rooms. There’s more than enough space to provide suitable accommodation. Bedroom, dressing room, bathroom. Even a sitting room and study. Everything he might need.’ He tapped on the table with his pen, wondering if he might encounter even more resistance from Freeman.
‘You’re thinking of moving him downstairs?’
‘I am. Temporarily.’ He put the pen down. ‘He needs somewhere to work as well as oversee the running of the house. At the moment he has nothing to occupy him other than the little he can do in that room and that can’t be much. And he would be able to get into the gardens from the French windows. He has the look of a man who has been locked away for too long.’ He leaned back in his chair, opening his cigarette case and tapping one into his hand before passing the slender case across to the other man. ‘Your thoughts?’
Freeman took a cigarette, rolling it in his fingers with a surprisingly delicate touch. ‘Could work. He’d have access to the library and the rest of the reception rooms, as well as have guests for dinner, hold meetings and so on. I know he was worried about not being able to keep an eye on things.’
‘He hasn’t been here long has he?’
‘The General? No. He inherited the estate from his cousin last year - he kept some of the staff on but never had time to visit until a few weeks ago. And the accident happened while he was in the area so it was only sensible for him to be come here to recuperate. I don’t think he had much idea what state the house was in before, otherwise he’d have done something about it. If you can bring him downstairs it’ll help his recovery as well.’
Straker bent down to crack a match across the sole of his shoe before holding the tiny flame out to light both cigarettes. A long and satisfying drag, the tip glowing cherry-red. He rubbed the back of his neck aware of a lingering headache and a touch of stiffness. ‘I agree. It’s going to need planning and a lot of work, but I think it’s important to get him down here. At least that way the staff know he’s more likely to be aware of what’s going on downstairs. How many people work here? Over two dozen including the grounds people? If we get everyone involved then it should be enough for what we need to do today.’ He looked up at the chef. ‘All we need now is a competent housekeeper.’
‘Josephine Fraser won’t be missed, I can tell you that. And if you’ve no one in mind, I think you should give Sally Ealand a chance. It was her afternoon off yesterday so you didn’t get to meet her but I think she’d do an excellent job. She’s the senior chamber maid; hardworking and capable and the rest of the staff get on well with her. You won’t have any problems in that respect.’
‘I’ll speak to her later then. Anything else?’ He deferred to Freeman, aware that the chef had more experience with the current staff. He would make his own mark on the hall later, but for now his priority was to ensure the comfort and wellbeing of his employer.
‘Perhaps another footman? You must have realised Jeremy isn’t up to the task. He does his best, but you need a more experienced man who can take over as butler if needed.’
‘Anyone in mind? There’s no one I’d consider right now, not without a great deal of training, and there isn’t enough time for that, not if the General’s correct and we’re going to get a visit in the next week or so.’
‘I know of someone who might fit the bill. Paul Foster. Good man, has all the right qualities. He’s working nearby and he’s looking for a step up, something more challenging. I can get in touch with him if you want? He could be here by morning.’
‘Do that. Now I’d better speak to Sally.’ He blew a last smoke ring before crushing the stub of his cigarette in the ashtray and pushing back his chair. ‘Contact Paul to come here will you? And don’t say anything to Jeremy. Not yet. I’ll tell him later, but somehow I think he’ll be relieved.’
It was late afternoon before the ground floor suite passed his exacting standards. Everyone had been pressed into service: the gardener and his lads carrying furniture outside to be scrubbed and polished, the chambermaids tasked with wiping walls and taking hangings outside to shake. He instructed Jeremy to carry carpets onto the lawns and beat them free of months of accumulated dust. Jackson arrived from the gatehouse, rolled up his sleeves and set to work polishing the windows, even the scullery maid came through from her sink to scrub fireplaces instead of pots.
And then it was finished and everything restored, the staff weary and dirty and he sent everyone down to the servants’ hall for a rest and a well-earned cup of tea before they tackled the dining room. He managed a quick word with Mr Freeman about the evening meal and another word with the gatekeeper about security. Jackson assured him the Hall was as safe as anywhere, as long as he was gatekeeper, and Straker took the slender man at his word, reassured by the man’s quiet calmness. He was in his shirt sleeves, checking the blue dinner service ready for the evening meal when Jeremy knocked on the door and held out a sealed envelope. A letter addressed to the General.
‘Mr Straker? This just arrived. What should I do with it?’
‘Thank you Jeremy, I’ll take it upstairs in a moment.’ He tilted his head at the lad. ‘Tell me. Why are you working here? Do you like being a footman?’
The lad blushed. ‘Not really. To be honest Mr Straker, I wanted to work in the gardens, but Mrs Fraser insisted I should be a footman. She said I looked good in the uniform and that was all that mattered, but it isn’t is it?’
‘No, it isn’t. Do you still want to be a gardener? It’s not easy, you know.’
The lad held his hands out. ‘I’m not a good footman, everyone knows that. I like getting my hands dirty and growing things. And the gardener lets me help him when it’s my half-day.’ He shrugged his shoulders.
‘Very well. I’m seeing someone in the morning with a view to him becoming first footman. If he works out you can start in the gardens as soon as things are settled in the house, but until things are sorted out in the house you stay with me and I’ll help you as much as I can. Is that alright with you?’
It was clear from the lad’s expression that it was.
‘Good. Now, take the rest of these plates down for me.’ He put his morning coat on, placed the envelope on a salver and carried it upstairs, with a last warning to the lad not to drop anything.
‘This arrived just now, sir.’ The salver held out. He could see a brightness in the General’s demeanour, no doubt due to the fortifying breakfast and the prospect of a proper meal later. An arrangement of crimson and golden chrysanthemums stood on a side table, bringing a splash of early autumnal colour to the drab room.
‘I thought you were busy - Jeremy could have brought this.’ Henderson slid a finger under the flap and pulled out a single sheet of paper. ‘Hmm. Straker? You need to read this.’ He held the paper out.
‘Sir?’ It was an unheard-of thing to read an employer’s private correspondence.
‘Read it man. That’s an order.’
The paper was thick and crisp, the seal of the House of Commons at the top of the page. A terse message in distinctively masculine writing, the signature instantly recognisable. He scanned it once and a second time then handed it back without a word.
‘Can you do it?’ General Henderson was watching him. ‘It’s very short notice. I don’t know how you can get things ready in time and to everything’s going to ride on the outcome of this meeting, more than I’d like to admit. I need to get these men on board and if they think I’m incapable then they won’t support me.’
‘Leave it with me, sir.’ A delegation of foreign ministers arriving the day after tomorrow. Formal talks with the General, an official dinner in the evening, and the house was in chaos.
‘Get more staff in if you have to. Mrs Fraser should be able to recommend some girls.’
‘I regret to inform you that Mrs Fraser is no longer employed in the Hall. I saw no reason to bother you with the details but I’ve spoken to Sally about the duties and she is happy to take on the responsibility. I have every confidence in her ability, however I will be monitoring until such time as she has proven herself.’
‘I can’t say I’m sorry to see the back of Mrs Fraser. She seemed to take delight in making things as difficult as possible for me. Sally eh? Nice young woman. Always has a smile and something to say. She should do well, I think. I’ll leave everything up to you. Just keep me informed will you? Now. Tell me what you were up to earlier? All that to-do on the lawn?’
‘I beg your pardon sir, but I took the liberty of preparing a suite of rooms for you downstairs. If you wish, you can move there this evening. All that is required is to transfer your personal possessions and I can do that myself.’
‘Downstairs? Where? I mean…’
‘The Rose Suite in the East Wing. Mr Freeman informed me it was used by the previous owner’s sister. You would have your own private bathroom as well as several interconnecting rooms, one of which has access to the gardens. And of course you would be able to meet your visitors with the proper decorum on the ground floor.’ He waited, unsure of the General’s reaction and wondering if he had, perhaps, gone beyond the scope of his duties.
Henderson gave him a brief smile. ‘I knew you were the right man for the job. What do you need me to do?’
‘Nothing. Mr Freeman and I will assist you to your rooms while the rest of the staff are at evening meal. Too many people will only cause unnecessary delays.’ He didn’t say that it would also lessen the indignity of being carried downstairs but it was clear by Henderson’s expression that the man understood. ‘Will seven o’clock be acceptable? That will give you sufficient time to prepare for dinner at eight.’
It was, and he began emptying the armoire: suits and coats laid out on the counterpane to be inspected and given a brisk assault with the clothes brush before he carried them away to their new home.
It was gratifying to be able to serve dinner in the dining room. In the short time available to her, Sally - now known as Mrs Ealand - had restored the table and its immediate surroundings to their former splendour, though the candlelight and soft shadows hid the rest of the room’s disarray. He stood in the background, not too far from the table and its sole diner, but neither close enough to be a distraction. Silent and unseen, watching to ensure that everything was as it should be. As with breakfast his duties were simple: a quiet step forward to pour a glass of wine or hold a serving dish, to remove an empty plate and serve the next course, to offer the port decanter afterwards. A comforting meal for both of them, no other person allowed in the room, no conversation or embarrassment, each knowing their place and the boundaries therewith. And the rest of the evening was spent in other familiar duties until at last his General was settled in the Rose Suite bedroom and resting. A good day’s work. He made a final tour of the house after midnight to check all was secure before retiring to his own room and checking his watch. The General had been optimistic in his evaluation - more like eighteen hours a day and he was nowhere near getting the job finished. He hung his clothes up to air, put his shaving set ready for morning and lay down. Less than four hours before the start of another day.
A mass of casual workers were busy in the downstairs rooms when he came back from serving breakfast to the General. He wasted a few precious minutes observing them at work: the smell of beeswax and vinegar, the touch of silky clean wood beneath testing fingers. And there were more workers outside in the gardens, mowing and pruning and digging weeds out of the gravel. One of the under gardeners was bringing a trug piled high with flowers from the greenhouses and he saw Jeremy intercept the man and hurry downstairs with the blooms. Upstairs all seemed to be chaos, at least to a casual observer, but he could see the organisation behind the hurly-burly of cleaners and sweepers and the maids brushing past him laden with clean linen and towels and he left Mrs Ealand to her work and went down to interview the new footman.
Foster - Paul as he would be called in the house - was older than Freeman had intimated, but even so Straker could see the gleam of interest in the man’s eyes at the prospect of a move to the Hall and promotion to first footman. He held his hand out, a firm handshake, a wide smile. ‘It looks as if you could do with my help.’
‘You’ll act as first footman and provide cover for me if for any reason I’m not available. Is that agreed?’ Straker signed the paper and slid it across for Foster to add his own name.
‘Yes, Mr Straker. I can start now if that’s any help? My employer is away in Europe and the house vacant so I’m not leaving them in the lurch.’
‘Perfect. Today all the staff are spring clean the rest of the house and tidy the garden. I’m afraid you’ll be taking your orders from Mrs Ealand at least until the work’s been completed.’ He frowned, aware of the return of his headache. ‘General Henderson received a letter from the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon. A foreign delegation arrives to hold a conference here tomorrow. They’ve been meeting with the Prime Minister and now they need to speak to the General and discuss his plans. We’re going to be working with very little time and not much in the way of staff but we’ll manage. We’ll have to.’
‘How many guests?’
‘Seven. All international statesmen. You know what that means - an official welcome and the trappings of a state dinner, though not a banquet fortunately. They’re due at noon, so we’ll serve luncheon in the library and they’ll remain in there for however long the talks last. The plan is to have dinner at eight if they’ve finished. If not? We might have to provide accommodation for them.’ He shrugged. ‘We’ll deal with that if it happens. Mrs Ealand is in charge of the bedrooms so if you have any questions regarding that, direct them to her. I just wish we’d had more notice but these things happen. You’ll have an inexperienced footman helping you and I doubt if you’ve had to deal with an event as vital as this so any chance I get, I’ll be giving you both some training.’
He let one of the housemaids show Paul to the footmen’s rooms and he went into the butler’s pantry to survey the silverware and take down the candelabras ready for cleaning later.
A whole day of cleaning and washing, checking every last detail, being called into the library to talk with the General about the arrangements, finding a better fitting coat for Jeremy.
By early evening the reception rooms were ready, but the formalities of such an official meeting required more than just spotless rooms. Place settings had to be prepared, the household silver displayed, vases filled with the best the gardens had to offer. He needed to speak to Freeman about the timing of the meal and the final menu and select the correct wines, choose the dinner service - the Minton might be more fitting for a group of gentlemen - and set the table to the precise requirements of such an occasion. Mere formality would not suffice, not with such prestigious visitors expected and it was his responsibility to uphold the reputation of the Hall and its owner. And all to be achieved in less than thirty-six hours. An impossible task but it would be completed.
By the time the last of the casual staff had gone home for the night the clocks were striking ten. A long day and an even longer one tomorrow, but the house was ready: huge vases of chrysanthemums in the saloon, roses and greenery in the drawing room, the library table laid for luncheon and the dinner menu well in hand. He sent the staff up to bed with instructions to be early in the morning and he took a lamp and went into the pantry to start on the salt cellars. It was after two before the lamp guttered, and he put the polish down and went through to his bedroom to catch a couple of hours sleep.
Five am. The rest of the house already working, the first of the temporary staff making their way down the driveway. A dry day and sunny, which augured well for the visitors. The garden looked impressive, the gravel clear of stray leaves and the borders a blaze of colour. He brushed a speck of pollen from the linen tablecloth and turned to the two men with him.
‘Twenty-four inches exactly. No more, no less.’ He handed the butler’s stick to Paul. ‘Measure each setting again, please. Jeremy? The glasses need to be in a precise formation - like so.’ He picked up a water glass, gave it a quick polish in his gloved hands and replaced it. ‘And make sure the napkins are perfectly aligned.’
There was no real need for the work - he had prepared the table with his usual attention to detail - but it was essential to ensure both men knew the protocols and to familiarise Jeremy with the layout of the place settings. The lad was doing a good job, keeping close to Paul and looking more confident with each passing minute.
The grandfather clock struck a quarter to midday and he beckoned the footmen and went outside in anticipation of the visitors, the sun hot on his shoulders as he waited on the scrubbed stone steps. A tremendous responsibility, though the real work lay ahead. If the delegates went home unhappy all the General’s work would have been in vain. He clenched one fist and then breathed out, allowing himself to relax enough to lessen the persistent ache in his shoulders.
As the clock began chiming the hour the first of the carriages appeared and he had time for one reassuring look at his companions before stepping forward. A flurry of formal welcomes, the ritual of taking coats and hats and gloves, Mrs Ealand curtseying as the delegates made their way into the Hall to where the General - all military bearing and stern expression - waited to greet them.
The luncheon was served without mishap and then they were dismissed and he closed the door.
‘Thirty minutes for lunch both of you. Quick as you can, and then come straight back. And very well done, both of you.’ He was rewarded by a hesitant and grateful smile from Jeremy and a nod from Paul and then they were hurrying away to get their meal while there was time. He waited until they were out of sight before he leaned against one of the marble pillars, the cold stone soothing his aching shoulders. Voices from the library filtered into his hearing, foreign accents and loud words and the start of an argument and he pushed himself away from the cool comfort and moved to the other side of the hallway. There was no time to indulge himself in indolence, there was work still to do: a final check of the dining room table, the selected bottles of wine to be decanted to allow them time to breathe, the footmen to be given clean gloves and their final instructions. It was cool in the hall, the sounds from the library muted now and he composed himself, knowing he had done all he could.
The footmen returned and he left Paul on duty in case the delegates needed anything and he took Jeremy back into the dining room to work on his serving skills, and so the day went by, the sun lowering in the sky, the kitchen staff busy at their own work and his footman working together in perfect harmony. A good team. He would be sorry to lose the lad, but if his heart wasn’t in the work, it was better he find his true vocation instead. Working in a great house was not for everyone, but he had always wanted this, a life spent in the service of others. The house was quiet now, everyone busy downstairs in the last frantic rush to finish, but he had no doubts as to the success of the meal. In the last couple of days he’d come to know Freeman as well as any man could and he had no doubts as to his competency, nor that of Paul. And with a jolt of surprise he realised that this was a good place, somewhere he would be content to spend the rest of his life. It was close to eight o’clock when the library door opened. He hurried forward.
‘Straker? We’ve finished for now. Inform the staff we’ll dine in thirty minutes.’
No hint as to the outcome of the talks, the delegates stony-faced and silent as they were led upstairs to get changed. He assisted the General into his evening wear and took him back to the drawing room for drinks before dinner.
‘Anything?’ Paul was waiting in the saloon.
‘No. Is everyone set?’ He held his breath.
‘Just waiting for the word.’
A last check, a final word to Jeremy and they were ready and he grasped the handles of the invalid chair and took his General through to the splendour of the dining room.
‘It’s been approved. Unanimously. Ha! You’ve done a great job Straker. They were impressed by you.’
‘The way you handled things. Couldn’t have done it without you. The most vital part of the household.’
He stood there, mute.
‘Now. Once I’m up and about again I’m going to be working in London. Would you come with me? As my aide? I’m going to need a good man to help keep things running smoothly.’
To give this up? The sense of order and knowing his place, of holding to the traditions and proprieties, of helping others.
‘I don’t know. I hadn’t …’
‘Would you? Please? It would be a great help to me.’
A deep breath. ‘I will give it my consideration, sir.’ A different service, but still service.
‘Good. Now. Help me get into bed and then you need to find your own. You’ve had a long hard day but, believe me, it’s been worth it.’
After the stress of the last couple of days he was too wound up to sleep despite the relief of knowing his efforts had been successful. And there was his future to consider. He could not imagine doing anything other than this, and there was the underlying fear that he might not be good enough. Would he fail his General and in doing so maybe fail his country?
In the end he went out into the grounds by the small servants’ door and walked down the gravel path in the bright moonlight, looking for a sign - anything that might guide him in his decision. Whether to stay here as butler or leave the safety of this place and face the world on the other side of the tall iron gates.
Jackson’s cottage had a lamp lit in the window, as if the man was waiting for visitors and he tapped on the door, half-expecting a rebuff. It was not to be.
‘Mr Straker. A very pleasant surprise. I am delighted to see you here. Come in, please.’
The cottage was well lit and warm and welcoming. He found himself sitting on a soft couch while the gatekeeper puttered around, boiling the kettle and making tea for both of them. He took the mug and held it. Steam rose from the surface, the liquid swirling round. He could smell an undercurrent of citrus or spices.
‘So why are you here Mr Straker?’
He leaned back against the back of the couch. ‘To be honest? I don’t know. I couldn’t sleep for some reason even though I’m tired. Perhaps it’s just the aftermath. A busy couple of days. What about you? I wasn’t expecting anyone else to be awake at this hour.’
‘I told you when you arrived. If you need my help, whatever the time, I am here. And it appears that you do.’
‘I shouldn’t have come. I had no right to disturb you like this.’
‘I’m glad you did. Please, drink your tea.’
He took a tentative sip. It was soothing and sweet and he felt his headache ease. ‘The General wants me to work for him. In London.’
‘And you don’t want to?’
‘I hadn’t considered anything other than this - this life. I don’t know.’
‘You are scared of the future?’
‘Perhaps.’ He took another mouthful. The taste of honey and something else. ‘No. I mean, yes, I am scared. And I don’t know why. It’s as if I can sense something out there waiting for me - beyond the gates. Something far more important than the Hall and my work here. A much greater responsibility and I don’t know if I’m strong enough to deal with it, whatever it is. Does that make any sense?’
‘Somewhat.’ Jackson sipped his own tea and regarded Straker over the edge of his mug. ‘The Hall has a reputation for being somewhere people come to recover from illness or injury or in some cases to hide from the world. To flee from overwhelming terrors. Perhaps that is what called you here?’
He thought back to his arrival; the card in his hand and wondering where he had come from but the memories had flown and he was left with nothing, just that first moment of standing at the tall iron gates. ‘I don’t know. I thought … I can’t remember.’
His hands began to shake and he put the mug down on the small table before he dropped it, only for Jackson to pick it up and hold it out to him.
‘No need for concern, your memory will return soon. Put it down to tiredness, the stress of the last few days. Now. Finish your drink, please?’
A last swallow and he handed the mug back and leaned back again.
‘Now. You have come back here and you need to trust me. Can you?’
He nodded. It was hard to talk for some reason, but he was no longer afraid.
‘Very well. I want you to try to rest and listen to my voice, just my voice. Will you do that?’
Another nod. His headache had gone and all he wanted to do was to sleep. He would give the staff a half day tomorrow, as a reward for their excellent work.
‘Relax and try to sleep. All will be well soon.’ A hand was on his wrist, fingers against his pulse. The voice was soothing and hypnotic and he did as he was told and closed his eyes, breathing out as the voice continued. ‘It’s all right …’
‘… Commander, it’s all right.’
The light was bright and for a moment he thought he was back on the path and walking out into the sunshine. He flinched, lifting a hand in an attempt to shade his eyes, only to see a familiar figure standing next to him. And his General was there as well, no longer sitting in the invalid chair. ‘Where…?’ And then he knew.
Not the Hall or the gatekeeper’s small cottage. This was SHADO’s Medical Centre. He closed his eyes again, turning his head away from the doctor and the needle and the pain in his arm and the memory of a house and the comforting touch of a wing-tip collar against his throat.