Authors: Kate Kingsbury
A Manor House
By Kate Kingsbury
Copyright 2004 by Doreen Roberts Hight
Cover by Rachel High
It all began with Martin's spectacles. Or, to be more precise, the absence of them.
Lady Elizabeth Hartleigh Compton had been late in rising that morning, thanks to a restless night filled with disturbing dreams. She was not in the mood to deal with one of Violet's tantrums.
Her volatile housekeeper was in a tizzy, as usual, about Martin's lack of common sense. Since Martin had long ago exhausted his capabilities as a butler in the vast Manor House and was fast approaching senility, it seemed to Elizabeth that to expect any amount of sense from his addled brain was being somewhat optimistic.
Martin had his moments, true, but by and large he was more a responsibility than an asset. Violet was well aware
of that and had agreed to overlook the old gentleman's shortcomings. Indeed, both she and Elizabeth went to great pains to assure Martin he was still in complete control of his faculties—not an easy task at times. Then again, nothing in these war-torn times was simple anymore. Which was why Elizabeth felt that Violet overreacted when Martin wandered into the kitchen that morning wearing his customary vague expression.
It had taken Elizabeth a moment or two to realize why he looked different. Violet had her back to him at first, and hadn't noticed that anything was amiss. Elizabeth stared at him, while he stared back at her, seemingly unaware that she was scrutinizing him.
"It's your glasses!" Elizabeth snapped her fingers in her butler's face, making him sway backward in alarm. "That's what's wrong."
Violet, busily stirring something at the stove, demanded without turning around, "What's wrong with his glasses? Don't tell me he broke them."
"Well, he's not wearing them." Elizabeth reached out a soothing hand and patted Martin's shoulder. "It's all right, Martin. You probably forgot to put them on this morning, didn't you?"
Martin stared down at his legs in dismay. "Good Lord! I did?" He shook his head. "You must be mistaken. I appear to be properly attired."
"Not your trousers," Elizabeth said patiently. "Your glasses." She tapped his wrinkled forehead. "They're not there." She had to smile. She was so used to seeing the gold-rimmed specs perched on the end of his nose. Although he never looked through them, preferring to peer over the top of them, they had been an integral part of his face for as long as
she could remember. Without them he looked rather like an aging goldfish with eyebrows.
Violet spun around, the wooden spoon in her hand shedding tiny bits of the mess she liked to call scrambled eggs. Lacking the real thing, the housekeeper was forced to use dried egg mixed with milk for Sunday breakfast. While Elizabeth valiantly declared the result every bit as good as real eggs, Martin had no compunction in denouncing the rubbery concoction an insult and a threat to his digestive system. Violet's harsh reminders that there was a war on and they had to make sacrifices fell on deaf ears. Martin grumbled with every mouthful.
"What the blue blazes did you do with them?" she demanded, glaring at poor Martin as if he had committed a mortal sin. "You only have two places to put them—your dresser and your nose. Surely you could manage to find one of them without buggering it up."
Martin's frail hand wandered to his nose. "Glasses? Where are they? I'm sure I had them on this morning. I distinctly remember greeting the master in the great hall, and I know I had them on then."
Violet's eyeballs rolled up toward the ceiling. "Here he goes again." She waved her spoon at him. "How many times do I have to tell you, you silly old goat. The master is dead. One of Hitler's bombs got him in the Blitz. Him and madam. They're both dead as doornails, so you couldn't have seen either one of them." She glanced at Elizabeth. "Sorry, Lizzie."
Elizabeth nodded affably. Saddened as she had been to lose both her parents in a bombing raid, she had learned to accept Violet's somewhat blasé references to their demise in the spirit they were uttered—not as a demonstration of
disrespect, but as an earnest endeavor to convince Martin of their passing. The fact that Martin stubbornly insisted he not only saw Elizabeth's father, but chatted almost daily with the late Lord Wellsborough, did nothing to deter Violet from her appointed task.
Violet, in fact, enjoyed a unique position in the late earl of Wellsborough's household. Normally, any such familiarity with the mistress of the Manor House would not have been tolerated from a lowly housekeeper. But the Second World War, the changing times, and Elizabeth's fondness for the woman who had been a part of the household since her childhood, eliminated old-fashioned proprieties and Violet was allowed indiscretions that would have caused Elizabeth's parents to roll over in their graves.
Right now, she stood frowning at Elizabeth, while the yellow mess continued to drip from her spoon. "I don't know what he'll be up to next. Proper nitwit, he is. He's probably left them on the dresser. I'll have to send Sadie to look in his room. She's cleaning the bathrooms, but she'll be finished soon."
Reluctant to divert the housemaid from her appointed tasks, Elizabeth shook her head. "Never mind. I'll have Polly look for them this morning. It's not as if he needs them." She drew out a chair from the table and sat down.
Martin hovered at her side for a moment then said a trifle pompously, "May I have the pleasure of joining you at the table, madam?"
"You may, Martin."
"Thank you, madam."
She watched him drag a chair sideways, then lower his creaking bones onto it. Finding that he was facing away from the table, he tutted irritably, got painfully to his feet, twisted the chair toward the table, then squeezed into the
narrow space he'd left himself. Thus seated, he lifted his hand and scratched his nose.
Guessing what was coming, Elizabeth waited.
A dazed expression crept over Martin's face. "Great Scott," he muttered. "Someone has stolen my glasses. No doubt it's one of those damn Americans. Pardon my impertinence, madam, but I did warn you that there would be trouble if you allowed those savages the run of the manor."
Elizabeth's tolerance vanished. In view of Martin's advanced age, she often made allowances for him, but one thing she would not stand was any derogatory comments about the American airmen billeted in the manor. "Martin," she said tartly, "our American guests are not savages. They are extremely courageous men sacrificing their lives to help fight our war and save our country. The very least we can do is offer them our hospitality. We owe them so much more than that."
"I don't remember you offering them hospitality," Violet said over her shoulder. She had turned back to the stove and couldn't see Elizabeth's expression. "I seem to remember the war office demanding that we put up with them."
"I didn't hear you complaining when Major Monroe brought you all those extra rations from the airbase."
"Oh, so that's what's got you all ruffled up this morning." Violet turned, a steaming plate in each hand. "You're pining for that major, that's what."
Elizabeth gritted her teeth. "I'm not pining for anyone, Violet, and please refrain from inferring that there's anything personal in my relationship with Earl Monroe."
Violet dumped a plate in front of her. "Just saying what I see, that's all. You can argue until you're blue in the face about it, but I know what's what between you two. I've seen the way he looks at you, and how you get all in a
dither whenever he's around. Never was like that with your Harry. Not that I can blame you. Always knew Harry was no good. I don't know why you married him in the first place, and that's a fact."
"Not that it's any of your business, but for want of a better reason, I suppose I was young and silly." Elizabeth stared in distaste at the grayish yellow mound on her plate. Even the addition of fried tomatoes and mushrooms failed to make the dish look appetizing.
"Right, and look where it got you. Lost your entire inheritance because of his gambling. If you hadn't divorced him when you did you'd have lost the Manor House as well."
"That might still happen if we don't get some of the bills paid soon."
"If you'll pardon me for saying so, madam," Martin said, blinking owlishly at her with watery eyes, "arguing at the table can cause serious problems with your digestion."
"Quite right, Martin." Elizabeth picked up her knife and fork. "I think we've had enough of this conversation."
"Where's the major been, anyway?" Violet carried a third plate to the table and sat down. "Have you heard from him lately?"
"No, I haven't." Elizabeth chewed on a mouthful of the eggs and swallowed it down. "Nor am I expecting the military to inform me of the major's whereabouts so there's no point in asking."
"All right, no need to get uppity about it. I was just wondering if any of the other lads had mentioned where he might be. Not like him to stay away without a word as to when he'd be back. I hope he isn't poorly like those Yanks who died. Four of them, the paper said. All of them died of the same thing and none of the doctors know what they died of. Blinking scary if you ask me."
"I'm not aware that anyone asked you anything," Martin mumbled.
Elizabeth gave up trying to avoid the subject. "I think we'd know if the major was ill. After all, his quarters are here in the east wing. Someone would have let us know. I imagine he's on a mission. You know very well the men are not allowed to talk about missions."
The ominous silence that followed her comment sent a chill through her bones.
"Well," Violet said at last, in a voice that was obviously meant to sound reassuring, "I'm sure we'll be hearing from him before too long."
That was the problem, Elizabeth thought, as she nudged some tomato onto her fork, no one could be sure of anything. Although Earl made a point of avoiding any real discussion of the missions he flew, Elizabeth was painfully aware of the dangers. If anything happened to him, she knew without a doubt that her world would never be the same again.
It didn't seem to matter that such thoughts were forbidden, never to be voiced. Major Earl Monroe was married and had a family waiting for him back home in America. She had long ago stopped obsessing about her guilt, however. She couldn't help her feelings, and as long as she kept them to herself, she could see no harm in indulging in a fantasy now and again. Though lately the fantasies had become a trifle risqué to be dwelling in the mind of a lady.
Martin interrupted with a snort that startled her out of her thoughts. "It's not proper. That's what I say."
Violet raised her skimpy eyebrows. "What's not proper?"
Elizabeth stared at him in apprehension, wondering wildly if he somehow acquired the ability to read her thoughts.
"It's not proper that madam eats here at the kitchen
table with the servants. I know the master would be most displeased if he were to catch us like this."
"The master's not going to catch anything, you blubbering fool," Violet said, raising her voice. "Not unless he can fit all the blown-up pieces of himself together again and climb up out of the earth."
This was a bit much, even for Elizabeth. "I think I'll take the dogs for a walk," she announced, pushing her chair back from the table. "It's a lovely day out there. They'll enjoy a run along the cliffs."
"Too bad you can't take them on the beach." Violet scraped the last of her eggs onto her fork.
Martin looked up. "That's a marvelous idea. A walk on the beach would be very nice."
"You can't walk on the beach, can you, nincompoop." Violet glared at him. "It's mined, isn't it. One wrong step and you'll be in as many pieces as the master."
Martin glared back. "I have no intention of walking on the beach. I was, however, rather hoping that you would."
"Well, I'll be blowed." Violet bristled, her gray frizzy hair seeming to stand on end. "Of all the sauce."
Elizabeth left them to their argument, secure in the knowledge that disagreement had become something of a sport between her butler and her housekeeper, each trying to outdo the other with their insults. Normally she tolerated their spats, and sometimes even enjoyed them, but right now she was in no mood for it.
It had been over a week since she had seen or heard from Earl, and she was more than a little concerned. News of the outbreak of a deadly illness that had already taken the lives of four Americans on the base only compounded her fears for his safety. The last time she'd seen him he'd
hinted at an important campaign in the near future, but she had expected more warning than a vague hint.