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The Fork in the Path

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She’d spent the afternoon in the belly of the Savoy Hotel, observing the suspect from behind The Pall Mall Gazette, ducking beneath a palm when the concierge asked if she’d be more comfortable in the ladies’ lounge; but it was raining now, and she’d left the gloves Mycroft had sent her at the office, and when she squeezed into the Underground carriage at Embankment steam rose from her wet skirts, and she pressed her chapped hands into her underarms to chase the feeling back into her fingers.

She bought a parcel of fish and chips outside South Kensington station and tucked it neatly beneath her hat, so as she walked to her lodgings she felt the grease seeping through the newspaper into her hair. Carriages and barrows and boots and carts and hooves were churning up the surface of the roads, and she kept her eyes on her feet to avoid the worst of the filth. Rain was getting into the warm space between her collar and the back of her neck. A lamp-boy whistled at her, a black fleck against the oblong, white-and-sandstone houses protruding from the dusk like greying teeth; she turned her head, but he’d already vanished, the edges of him made liquid by the rain, dissolving and reforming in each circle of lamplight.

The door was on the latch. She went quietly up the stairs, hoping Mrs Ford wouldn’t notice the prints she was leaving on the carpet, and threw the parcel onto her unmade bed. She unlaced her boots and stood them upside down to drain on an old towel; she drew the curtains and lit the oil-lamp; and finally she could fall upon the food, forgoing plate, fork, napkin, cramming limp chips into her mouth, tearing strips of batter from the fish. She’d drawn her corset so tight the food could hardly go down, but she’d had nothing since breakfast, and Mrs Ford only provided a cold supper on Fridays as so few of the ladies were in to take it. They were at concerts or ballets or engaged for dinner and bridge.

The suspect was going up to his estate in Wistow tonight. He wouldn’t return to London until Monday. Enola sucked salt from a papercut. She’d go into the office on Sunday, wrestle with some paperwork, but tomorrow – a day off. She’d accept no visitors, open no letters. She’d sleep late and have a hot bath and go down for meals in trousers and kick her corset underneath the bed.

“Miss Holmes,” said Mrs Ford from the landing. She rapped on the door. “Miss Holmes.”

Enola balled up the newspaper and threw it into the empty grate. Had she seen the footprints already? None of the other ladies would trail mud up the stairs. They’d leave their boots neatly on the mat in the hall.

“There’s a gentleman for you, Miss Holmes,” Mrs Ford said, once Enola had opened the door.

“Which one?”

Not Mycroft not Mycroft not Mycroft…

Mrs Ford held out a visiting card. Enola took it, turned it over, turned it back. She looked over her shoulder into her room.

“Give me two minutes to tidy up, Mrs Ford, then you can show him up – ”

“I’ve shown him into the parlour, dear. There’ll be no gentlemen upstairs in this house.”

Turning to the mirror above the mantelpiece, Enola saw her mouth was shiny with grease, her hair still damp and coming loose at the back. In the light of the oil-lamp she looked drawn, yellowed. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She needed a wash. She would smell of smoke and fried potatoes and wet horse.

He stood before the parlour window, the long, pale line of his neck stretching between his morning coat and the taper of his hair. Still cut short, but better-shaped now; probably his barber didn’t crop his clients with a knife. He was taller than she remembered, and thinner perhaps, but when he turned around his narrow, angular face still smiled at her boyishly.

“I was expecting to see your bicycle in the hall,” he said.

“I sold it. I was getting conspicuous.”

They looked at each other across the carpet. His gaze dropped to her stained hem.

“You haven’t any shoes on.”

Her stockings needed darning. She could feel the scratch of the carpet beneath her big toes.

“They got wet,” she said.

“Would you like tea, Miss Holmes?”

She had forgotten Mrs Ford was stood behind her.

“I wouldn’t mind something stronger,” Tewky said, smiling again, and she had a glimpse of the young lord winning round Nanny for an extra biscuit, ten more minutes in the garden.

“I keep a dry house, thank you,” Mrs Ford said tartly, and Enola had another glimpse of the young lord wilting under a scolding, his flowers confiscated before he could study them.

“No tea, thank you, Mrs Ford,” she said. She felt a touch at her shoulder.

“I’ll get a fire going in your room, dear. Set those boots drying.”

She closed the parlour door. Behind Tewky’s head a woman passed by the window, bent against the rain; a flash of hair, shawl, pallid skin, then swallowed into the twilight. It was a pleasure to sit at this window on Sunday afternoons, watching, guessing secrets, the other girls embroidering, pretending to listen to Mrs Ford read aloud from the Bible.

“Excuse the togs,” Tewky said. “I came straight from the Lords. Some of the old boys do go on. I was there all night last Wednesday.”

He was looking at her expectantly.

“Have you come to engage my services, Lord Tewksbury?” she asked. “Because you’ll need to make an appointment with my office. I don’t hold consultations at home.”

“No, I don’t wish for an appointment – that is, I haven’t come in a professional capacity.” He touched his collar, tendons flexing in his neck. “May I sit?”

He looked his part; she’d thought that the day of the vote. Slicked, starched, unblemished. She’d held his fingers around the bars of the gate and been proud to have helped fledge this exemplary specimen of the young human male. And now he didn’t move from the window, waiting humbly to be granted her permission, his distance from an unchaperoned single woman respectful and respectable.

She’d clung to him on the floor of his home. She’d wept into his chest.

“Please,” she said, and he waited for her to place herself on the settee before sitting in the armchair.

“I should say I’m not Lord Tewksbury anymore. I’m Lord Basilwether.”

“Have you been – not dethroned – how do you oust a viscount? Unseated?”

Tewky unbuttoned his coat. “Viscount Tewksbury was my courtesy title, until I came of age and became the marquess proper. A marquess ranks higher than a viscount.”

“So you’re just the Marquess of Basilwether now?”

“A senior peer of the realm and she says just.”

“And who’s Viscount Tewksbury?”

“It’s still my secondary title.”

“Need two, do you?”

“It will pass to my son, when I have one, then when I die and he becomes the marquess proper, it passes to his son, and so it goes on.”

“How complicated for you.”

Tewky laughed. “If ever there were a byword for the British aristocracy, I think complicated would be about right.” He leant forward a little. “It’s good to see you.”

Now she was closer, she could see the faint lines grooving the outer corners of his eyes. They deepened when he smiled.

“Did you come all this way to tell me your new name?”

“I went by your office in Earl’s Court.” He sat back. “Your assistant said you were on reconnaissance and wouldn’t be in again today. She gave me this address.”

“She shouldn’t have done that.”

“I told her we were old friends who’d lost touch. Which is entirely true.”

“You could’ve written first.”

“I knew I wouldn’t get an answer.” He didn’t seem angry. “You forget how well I know you.”

Enola’s feet were getting cold. She pushed her toes into the rug. She couldn’t look at him.

“When you stopped writing,” he said slowly, “I thought perhaps you’d met someone else.”

“I’ve been very busy. I hardly have a moment to myself.” She met his gaze. “I never promised you anything.”

You’re not rid of me yet, Viscount Tewksbury, Marquess of Basilwether.

“We were children.”

“So why see me now? Why didn’t you have your landlady send me away?”

After his debut in the Lords, he’d gone back to Harrow for his final year, and Enola had scattered herself across London, pursuing missing persons, solving robberies, snaring blackmailers, hoarding pennies to keep up with the rent, her successes invariably attributed to her brother in the papers. They had written furiously; for advice on cases, for help with Greek prep, swapping gossip and press cuttings, the results of the London Women’s Jujitsu Tournament, and who he suspected had tampered with the ball in the inter-house cricket championship, and which way he would vote on the next bill, and whether he could lend her an old suit for an undercover assignment, and to Enola each letter was a thread connecting them across the city, binding them tighter with every pressed flower Tewky slipped between the pages. But she’d been abroad for his summer holidays, chasing a suspect across the Continent; and then he’d been up at Cambridge, writing to invite her to balls and dinners and boat trips on the Cam, and a house party at Basilwether, and tea with his mother at Fortnum & Mason; and it seemed practical, when she’d saved enough to lease the office, to take new lodgings closer to Earl’s Court, and as the weeks stretched from her receipt of his last letter it became harder to put pen to paper, easier to put the envelope back into the drawer for later.

“I’m very tired,” she said now, rising. “I’ve had a long week.”

He didn’t rise with her. He sank down onto the carpet, and for a wild moment Enola thought he was about to beg her to stay, when she saw the box.

“Get up,” she said, frightened.

The diamond was set in rubies, and in the light of the parlour fire they glowed like blood on snow.

“Miss Enola Holmes – ”

“Get up, you stupid boy.”

“I love you,” he said.

His face held her there, sincere, unguarded, turned up to her, waiting for her answer, and Enola saw how it must have been, checking his pigeonhole at Cambridge, watching the butler at Basilwether bring in the salver of post, finding his own envelopes stamped Return to Sender. She opened her mouth, then closed it again.

He put the open box on the settee and sat back, his coattails dark like oil against the carpet, lifting his face to the ceiling. His shoulders had sagged, so the fine, well-cut clothes seemed suddenly too large. She could go. Ask Mrs Ford to give him back his hat and umbrella and overcoat and to see him out. He wouldn’t be back. He’d take her silence, if that was all she would give him. He’d be married by next summer, and the ring would grace a real lady’s finger. Perhaps his mother already had candidates in mind.

“You must be doing well, if you bought that on a whim,” she said. She sat down beside him, a breath of space between their shoulders.

“I didn’t buy it. It’s been in the family since 1707. Mother gave it to me to give to you.” There was a scar on his neck, right at the top of his collar, silver and delicate like the silk of a web. “But we are doing well. Our new agent understands the land. The farmers seem happy.”

“I’m glad.”

“Did you know I’ve been away?”

She’d seen it in The Times, an inch of text cramped at the bottom of a page: Marquess In Fight for Sikkim. Private Tewksbury, 2nd Battalion Derbyshire Regiment. Not an officer, she’d noted; perhaps so he might live as real men live, be spoken to as the man in the street speaks to his fellow, to see and hear and feel the impact of his votes.

“Always running off somewhere, aren’t you?”

Tewky rested his hands on his knees. “I came down from Cambridge after my second year. I was hopeless. It was exactly like school, only worse, because we were all old enough to know better.” He smiled. “You’d’ve loathed them. Earls-in-waiting, industrialists’ sons, hardly a grey cell between us. I just wanted to walk and be in the air and study the local plants. I came back to Basilwether and took myself down to the recruiting office; like my father always wanted. Signed on for two years. Had a year of being passed around ghastly seaside towns, then they shipped us out to India to drive the Tibetans out of Sikkim.”

“So you haven’t been entirely useless all this time.”

She felt the brush of his shoulder as he shrugged. “My two years ran out and they had me home in time for Christmas. Hardly a glittering military career.” He twisted his hands together. “When I walked back into the Great Hall and saw the tree and my mother and my uncle and the servants it was as though none of it had happened at all. Simply a brief interlude in my social calendar.”

Enola touched her knee against his. “I wouldn’t mind a year in India.”

“You’d’ve minded this one.”

She looked at him, the shadows under his eyes, the tight set of his mouth. “Tell me,” she said.

Tewky shook his head. “Can’t,” he said hoarsely. “I haven’t been – I haven’t felt quite myself since I came back. And before you start, I’m not looking for a healer or a crutch or a Lady-with-the-Lamp – that isn’t why I came. I came because I love you. I’ve loved you since you sheared my hair with your knife. In Sikkim that was sometimes all I had to hold onto. It’s what’s helped me hold on since.”

He turned to her, took one of her hands between his.

“I don’t wish to ask anything of you that you don’t wish to give. If you only want friendship, or the occasional letter, or if you’d like me to go now and leave you in peace… I want you to be my wife, Enola, but more than that I want you to be happy. I want to make you happy, whether that’s by staying or by going.”

His hands were clammy. She turned them over, saw the brightness of the veins lining his palms.

“I’m sorry I stopped writing,” she said. “I was busy.”

“That doesn’t matter now.”

“I thought of your mother,” she said, with difficulty, “her poise, her dignity, I thought of hosting balls and charity luncheons, I thought of organising servants and ordering meals and raising the next little Viscount, and I don’t believe I could bear it. I could do it – ” She touched his chest where the bullet had struck him – “because I love you, and that’s what frightened me, I knew it would blind me. But I want to work, and I couldn’t work and be your wife, so no matter how much I love you I couldn’t truly be happy.”

“You could work,” he said earnestly. He gripped the fingers over his heart. “Of course you could work. Not exactly as you work now, I concede, but there are ways and means. We could spend more time at the London house. I’m at the Lords most afternoons, so I wouldn’t be under your feet. We’d find you an office on the estate, a whole wing if you like. And plenty of society ladies have private secretaries, so you could bring your assistant. Mother could keep on with the social events, hosting and paying calls, the whole circus, and if you didn’t want to run the house and deal with the servants she could keep on with that too. She’d be delighted. The thought of retiring to the dower house terrifies her.”

“And that’s all very practical,” Enola said, “but Marchioness of Basilwether, Private Detective doesn’t quite conjure an image my clients can trust in. It’s hard enough as a woman in this job without being a lady.”

“You can find new clients.”

“Five years building my list and he says find new clients.”

Tewky kissed her palm. “Every fork in every path leads me back to you, Enola. If being Marchioness of Basilwether, Private Detective is what you want, then I’m at your service. I can make introductions. The client list may be different, but the crimes won’t change. Missing persons, robberies, blackmail, everything you excel at. And you’ll have a captive audience; you won’t be sat in Earl’s Court, waiting for a knock at the door. You’ll be the aristocracy’s resident sleuth. You’ll have the edge on Sherlock every time.”

Enola dropped her head onto her knees. “Are you going to talk this much when we’re married?”

She felt him still. “Are you – ”

“I need to think,” she said. He was quivering, like the string of the bow once the arrow has flown. “I’m not surprised you’re popular in the Lords. You make your case well.”

“I know there are people you could help. Ladies too ashamed to see a stranger, or a man – they would speak to you.”

“Mycroft will be pleased.”

“To hell with Mycroft,” Tewky said. “You’re nobody’s ward anymore. Your life is your own.” He took the ring box from the settee and placed it in her lap. “I’m useless without you, Enola. You make me want to run further, run better. So keep this for me, until you’ve decided? I won’t rush you.”

Enola looked down at the ring again. It could come in useful in hand-to-hand combat.

“May I call on you?” he asked. “Just as a friend.”

She wanted to smooth the exhaustion from his face. “Yes,” she said. “You may call on me.”

“Tomorrow? I’ve a standing table at Rules.”

She thought of her lie-in, her bath. “Tomorrow evening,” she said. “Don’t expect me to wear my corset.”

He touched the tangle of hair at the back of her head. “I’m learning never to expect with you, Enola Holmes. You confound me every time.”

He smiled at her again, soft-faced, and when she kissed him she pressed her hands within the folds of his coat, so she might keep him warm.