The particularity of Orchard House wasn't so much the number of people living there, or even the fact that the residents weren't related through blood. Dan had told, and Sally had witnessed, enough to realize that there were far more living arrangements all over the city that didn't fit the mold of the bourgeois family than Sally had previously been aware of.
It was that it was inhabited by four people exerting four different professions and – that was the sticking point – three of them either considered Orchard House their professional address or were in the habit of having their jobs follow them home. Sally didn't mind; any of Dan's contacts that rang here were welcome on principle, and she'd gotten used to the sight of Jim's would-be customers.
Jim's latest case had taken him to Scotland, and unfortunately the woman who'd come to find him didn't look like her business could wait.
“I'm sorry,” Sally added.
For a moment, the woman looked distraught.
Ellie had introduced her as Mrs Hamber; her clothes, tastefully fashionable for a woman in her mid-forties, spoke of enough money to fit in society, as had her accent when she'd returned Sally's greetings. Her graying hair had been pulled in an elegant bun by a maid; as for jewelry, she was wearing a lone cameo of gleaming ivory.
Sally cast for suppositions why such a woman might be querying after Jim's services: thought of Mrs Hamber's husband having an affair, pursued on to the unpleasant position of a married woman who knew her husband was unfaithful, and discarded the chain of fancy. If Jim were here, he'd already have twenty ideas of Mrs Hamber's secret tragedy. Certainly, his theories were more suited to the dime novels he wrote than to real, actual life, but Sally's own life had occasionally taken such swerves into the improbable that she had to concede the point.
“Why is it that you wanted to see him?”
Mrs Hamber looked at Sally, opened her mouth, seemed to take a silent, bracing sigh, and spoke up.
“It regards my husband.”
Sally blinked, startled that her lazy inkling might turn out to be true.
“Mr Hamber--” it came back to her, suddenly, “the MP?”
“I'm afraid he's being blackmailed.”
“Why would you think that?” Sally's mouth asked, while the rest of her brain went: hmm, I should take a look at his accounts. Still, Dan doesn't speak of him as though he suspects the man of being corrupt.
Since her awakening to socialism, Sally had started tracking politics with more attention than before. She agreed with Dan that neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives could be trusted with taking care of the problems – they embraced capitalism with far too much enthusiasm to pay enough attention to the people the system crushed – but she considered the former the lesser of two evils. Hamber was one of the Liberals' most popular orators, and more than that, one of their best thinkers.
The corner of Mrs Hamber's lips twisted, wryly.
“Why, he told me. What you must understand, Miss Lockhart,” she added, off Sally's expression, “is that my husband and I share a very-- profound friendship. We have no secrets for one another. With his political career, the risks that someone might attack him through me would be too great if we didn't know we could trust each other blindly.”
Sally nodded along with the last sentences. A united front would always be more solid than isolated islets, experience told her.
“Then he knows you were looking for Jim,” she guessed. “Are you here on his behalf?”
The woman's lips pursed, as though she was reluctant to see her efforts subsumed into an errand for her husband. In a flash of clairvoyance, Sally felt a surge of sympathy for this woman.
“This was my idea. Mr Taylor helped solve a problem the nephew of a friend of mine ran into a couple of years ago – nothing comparable to this scope, but I knew his name, and – I hope you won't mind me admitting that I did my own research before coming to you, Miss Lockhart.”
Her tone was clear, her eyes steel-grey; Sally stiffened. Harriet. It was silly; Ah Ling was dead, Parrish in no position to hassle her again, Harriet had been officially recognized as Sally's daughter, and Sally's name cleared, all charges dropped. Were it not for Daniel, and for her change of political opinions, what she'd endured a few months ago could've been a bad dream. Nothing more than a nightmare, suffocating in sleep, gone like wisps of smoke in the morning.
“Oh no, no, Miss Lockhart, nothing like that!” Mrs Hamber hastened. Sally's own distress was reflected in her eyes. “Of course you would think-- I didn't mean--”
Paradoxically, her floundering had a calming effect on Sally. Watching Mrs Hamber confound herself in stricken, if confused, apologies made Sally's breath come easier. No. This woman didn't mean her family any harm.
“To tell the truth, your personal history is one of reasons I'm trusting you with this. You can see my meaning, don't you?”
An unmarried young lady with a child, living in suspiciously decadent-sounding arrangements with two bachelors, and a gentleman friend who was a socialist and a Jew. Yes, she was aware.
It was a bit closer to a threat than Sally felt comfortable with. She glared at the visitor.
“If you've looked into my personal life, you'll know I'm not a suspect of anything.” And if you try to threaten me to get to Dan, or Dan to get to me, you don't know us half as well as you think you do.
“But you have been the subject of unfair and unfounded accusations. You and Mr Goldberg know what that's like, being hounded for-- petty, asinine reasons.”
Mrs Hamber was leaning forward, her wrists like sparrows on her knees, and her eyes filled with sudden, meaningful intensity. Her dress and her hat, her hair and the obvious comfort she lived in, she didn't look like a woman who would know much about being hounded. But there was more than one kind of hunt, Sally knew too well. Poverty was one kind, authority was another, guilt too, that she'd met after the first two had taken a bite out of her.
“I'll ring for tea,” Sally announced as an offer of armistice.
“You'll never guess who visited us this afternoon,” were Sally's first words to Dan when he came home. She'd been pacing; her cheeks were flushed, and strands of blond hair frizzed around her face as though she'd passed her hands over her head, the way she sometimes did when she was thinking. Abruptly, she came to a stop mid-pace, turned to face him, and smiled at him. “No, first tell me about you.”
Her smile was luminescent; her dark eyes, under the halo of her fair hair, were shooting sparks.
Dan felt the corner of his lips pull up in a responding smile. “That, too, can wait.”
There was a sofa nearby, upon which a newspaper lay unfolded. Dan didn't pay attention to the protests of the crinkling paper when they sat down, and aside from the curious sound when either of them would tilt this way or that, rustles in their kiss, the sofa served their purpose admirably.
Ever since the first time they'd kissed – unengaged and in front of witnesses, all around Dan was certain it must have been fairly scandalous – kissing had become their usual way of saying goodbye and hello again. Parting when their lips parted, finding each other again when their mouths did; it sounded trite and facile, like the bad poetry Dan used to critique, when he tried out the words in his mind. He counted it lucky that Sally didn't care much for poetry anyway, whether bad or good. Kissing was as unavoidable as the sun rising, and acknowledging it as routine was the only sensible way to deal with it.
It wasn't quite like finding one's bearing after hunger dizziness. Rather it was orbits, and eclipses. Planets running their course that would meet across their paths and go again. It was less falling into place than realizing that together, they were into place.
When their lips had mapped enough of each other's face for reconnaissance, they broke apart. Sally, catlike, curled up against him, her elbow still hooked behind his neck as she looked at him.
“What happened at The Illustrated London News?”
“Well, I've infuriated Lash for the last time, and he kindly requested me to take my dirty socialist germs and refrain from spreading them all over his front page.”
Sally cocked an eyebrow at him. “Will that hold?”
He shrugged. “They won't run out of terrible things happening to families to fill their pages, that's for certain. I count myself lucky if they publish even one article that digs deeper than the usual tear-jerkers. Not that there's much chance of it, Lash is unlikely to change his stripes. Sensationalism sells better. Still, as long as I can use it to make more people aware of what's going on, even if it's through only one family's drama. If I can make one miserable family into persons to whoever is reading, I won't have been writing for nothing.”
“It's easier to see what we're doing when the victims have names.” Sally muttered. She blinked, and the faraway look dropped from her eyes, focusing on him. “MP Hamber's wife dropped by this afternoon. She was looking to employ Jim's services.”
“I don't suppose it was because some necklace of hers has disappeared.”
“Indeed it isn't. Her husband is being blackmailed. According to Mrs Hamber, it's purely political. She's brought me their account books,” Sally added, “and if they've been cooked I want in on the recipe. But I don't think they have.”
“So they want his politics,” Daniel deduced. It made sense; the Hambers were well-off, but their fortune didn't compare to that of many of his colleagues. Most of his wealth came from his wife's heritage, as the daughter to the owner of the Morning Chronicle. “Is the Chamber debating a new bill, or does someone want to destroy his credibility?”
Sally straightened, her eyes glinting as she took a breath.
“They've been discussing the issue of married women and legal property. I've been given to understand that my name came up during the proceedings; from what Mrs Hamber told me, my story seems to have struck imagination.” Sally allowed herself a grim little smile.
Dan nodded; they shared a smile of complicit derision, knowing that the only reason why her misfortune hadn't been publicized more was because she was unmarried and unashamed.
Even this had been turned – Daniel had been both amused and disgusted to see – into a syrupy tale of uplifting morality about a young woman repentant for mistakes she'd made as a girl, pursued by adversity, who had fallen prey to the machinations of demonic, cackling men of power, before truth's last-minute triumph.
The accounts he'd encountered made a big deal out of Sally's beauty, the daintiness of her silhouette, and her angelic blondness. It all conspired to make Sally's story into a simple one, the ingénue wounded by the evil of man's new world. The capitol as the ruin of innocence. Sally's grace, and her perfect English, lent themselves to appropriation by all kinds.
All in all, far better that the Liberals cannibalise this anecdote as the impulse behind this reform than she be brandished by the likes of Arthur Fox.
“It enters second-reading phase next Monday,” Sally continued. “And whoever is blackmailing MP Hamber, they're trying to kill it; it's largely his brainchild, and they want him to vote against it.”
“Entailing considerable unrest and disorganization within his party. Yes, I believe I see.”
“Just so. Now, given the nature of their demands, Mrs Hamber couldn't give me the name of the blackmailer, but she thinks that the Conservatives are behind it.”
“Sounds logical so far. Do we have any way of narrowing it down?... Did you get why he's being blackmailed?”
Obviously, if Sally had, their line of reasoning would be much sharper. But getting someone to reveal what kind of social sin they'd given into for some vulture to feed on wasn't easy, and it was even more difficult to obtain in England, Daniel had found, than in Catholic countries.
A fellow socialist in France had suggested that maybe confession was doing some good there, at least as far as making honesty into a habit went; Daniel personally found a deeper relief could be achieved by exposing a detailed case and receiving counsel than with trusting a fellow human being to pass on God's forgiveness in exchange for prayers said. Not that he had much first-hand experience to go by.
He'd also never noticed much of a difference between Catholic and Protestant countries as far as integrity was concerned, and if the sionist movement succeed and his people had a nation, he carried no doubts that the general level of such would be the same as everywhere else.
Fear of judgment and hypocrisy grew wherever people let themselves be cowed, tempted, or tamed by the bourgeoisie's empty codes.
Sally's lips pursed narrowly as she nodded.
“Personal letters; he's having an affair. Maybe Mrs Hamber was exaggerating when she spoke, or maybe she was afraid I'd repeat it, but she stressed that-- well, I have the feeling that whoever his mistress is, the liaison, or the person, is thoroughly socially unacceptable. Career-annihilating, as she put it.”
The flames had shrivelled to flickering embers in the fireplace. At times a burst of sparkles cast a frown on Sally's profile.
“A scandal wouldn't spare her,” Dan observed. “It's no wonder that she'd rather call upon a detective to solve the issue out of the public's eye.”
“I suggested denying the letters were genuine, but she wouldn't hear of it. She affirmed even a whisper of this, if it leaked out, would destroy them,” Sally muttered, pensive. It would call back memories. “I can't blame her. Some days I think gossip and ignorance are the worst things in the world.”
“It's unlikely that she's the one blackmailing her husband; if she only searched to scare him or punish him for his indiscretion, she would've asked for money, not his vote. With secret money, she might have run – leave for America and let him deal with the shambles of his reputation. You saw her. In your opinion, do you think it's possible she had an accomplice – someone who'd hold the letters for her, for instance – and that the other then double-crossed her?”
“She did insist upon the fact that there are no secrets between her husband and her; she claims her husband told her when the affair started. It was fifteen years ago; I don't see why she'd wait to spring such a trap on him, after so long. It's not for money. Even if that woman is pregnant, MP Hamber can't possibly divorce his wife without losing his career, losing everything. And Mrs Hamber strikes me as an intelligent woman, she must know all of this” She shrugged. “For what it's worth, I believe her. She wasn't resentful when she spoke of the affair, not even once. But she was worried half out of her mind.”
Jealousy, money, none of the obvious motives seemed to apply, except for the one Mrs Hamber had singled out for them.
Daniel heaved a sigh; the murky waters of the Parliament power-games were awaiting. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sally's lips curl into a wry smile, and knew she'd achieved the same conclusion.
“I'll see with people I know, see if I can't narrow the list of suspects down.” Probably some on the less legal side of things too, though it was doubtful he could argue the case passionately enough with Kid Mendel for him to spare enough of his men that they might root through the personal apartments of every member and known associate of the Conservative Party before Sunday night.
Sally nodded. “I'll try and find who stole the letters. There's bound to be a connection somewhere; if we start from one end each, we might find it faster.”
They'd have to. They had less than a week before the vote.
The next two days passed in a intense swarm of foraging and cross-referencing, on Sally's side.
She employed the morning of the first day to explain to Margaret, in few words, what problem had befallen them that they had to solve. The two women concurred that the threat to such a law was an emergency, and Margaret offered to cover the two meetings with customers Sally had planned. Sally hesitated, but the truth was, since the threat on Harriet and her subsequent realization that she was letting much of her daughter's childhood pass her by, Margaret had taken more and more responsibilities at the practice.
For the time being, Sally was taking a step back, seeing her life's work differently now; her epiphany had been two-fold, and Sally knew, as sure as blood ran in her veins, she would never be able to carry on her work the way she had, before she learned what the investments she advised so merrily to her costumers entailed. She would have to find a new way to do things.
The two clients were files Margaret hadn't had the opportunity to work with yet, but Sally quickly explained to her associate what she was planning to do, and pulled out half-a-dozen references of similar cases that Margaret had also helped build. Once she was reassured that her friend wouldn't hold this new emergency against her, Sally turned to the digging in Mr and Mrs Hambers' household.
For reasons of privacy, they'd agreed that not moving the papers Mrs Hamber had brought over was safest, and Sally was thus going to spend the better part of her day at home. Today still wasn't going to be the day when she could give Harriet all the attention she wanted, Sally thought with a regretful pang, but it couldn't be helped.
At intervals, Ellie would bring something to eat, and on two occasions Sally had to pull away from her work to gently remove Harriet from her self. Balancing a household had never been her favorite part of mathematics and finances, though she'd prided herself on being able to afford a household simply on her own work, but sifting through someone else's was even worse.
After she'd made sure that the household's accounts were solid, Sally attacked the servants' register.
As Louisa Kemp, she'd been astounded to realize how vulnerable masters could be to their servants; servants were at the most supposed to be seen – thus why maids were chosen to be pretty and footmen to be handsome – but they were understood not to see things, not to hear, and certainly not to remember. There was gossip between domestics, of that there could be no doubt, and they were a world apart to that of the people they served, parallel and, she'd begun to think after talking with Daniel and going through the remarks that had been addressed to her as Louisa, co-dependent.
The Tzaddik kept his domesticity apart from him, with byzantine hours and rooms they weren't supposed to enter; but though not one servant would've questioned him, it was agreed downstairs that such rules were so bizarre as to be nearly unheard of. Ah Ling only kept it so because it added to his aura of mystery, because he wouldn't want people to see him as Sally had left him, and, she suspected, because it appealed to his love of theatrics.
She'd already done the easiest part before telling Dan about it, and now she was only left with the human details: years of life of a full house, from Mr Hamber, MP, to the smallest reference of the lowest scullery maid.
There were letters from previous employers, and the meticulous retelling of every incident by the housekeeper, as well as the dates of entry and departure of every domestic. Recalling what she'd been told of maids being fired after becoming pregnant, she paid special attention to the details surrounding the departures of any young women.
Louisa Kemp had wanted to avenge her cousin, who'd been fired just that way; surely it wouldn't be too unlikely that someone else might do it for real.
But there weren't any unexplained departures of young women; the housekeeper studiously recalled under what circumstances each of the servants had left.
There were a few thefts, one imprudent maid had had her beau come up to her room, and a couple footmen for being caught drinking the master's wine. Another, Sally noted with interest, had been fired after several, insistent complaints from the female staff. This could be grounds for revenge.
She tapped her pen against the table.
There was no glaring hole that she could find. Then again, stories that seemed too perfect to be true usually were.
Maybe firing someone without so much as an explanation would attract attention, given the social balance of power between wealthy Londoners looking for servants and poor people looking for jobs it seemed unlikely, but if anyone knew better than to trust a gift-wrapped, fool-proof, too neat story, Sally Lockhart did. Documents could easily be made to lie.
Was there any tale that came up a little too often? A good excuse was hard to come by; if Mr Hamber wanted to get rid of his pregnant maids, the cover-story might be repeated. She knew how patterns worked, it was the same in finances, when someone wanted to disguise failing benefits.
She searched, with that in mind. There was none.
As she grew ensconced in the daily life of the Hamber household, becoming used to her subject, tweaking her methods to fit her new field, yield the best informations in a minimum of time, her thoughts started to wander. She hoped Dan was having some luck on his side, she wondered what some of his socialist friends might say to his apparently aiding the Liberals, and she pondered the law that was in the balance.
She spent less time dwelling on what-might-have-been if it had been passed a year ago than thinking about the unfairness of it. A woman's accomplishments should remain her own, whether she was married or not; that was one of the ideals Sally knew her life stood for.
Such a law was freedom, for women who'd be like her, the only difference between her and them their marriage. Such a law might let them divorce an abusive husband, would give them an asset in the balance of power of rich alliances. Such a law let ladies exist as economic forces of their own. It made them potential players in a world where to possess money, to be able to do with it as one wanted, was key.
Money was key. What good would that law do to women who owned nothing but the dress on their back? What would it change for them, that the money they earned was legally their own, if it wasn't enough for a family to dine on, and pay the rent, and pay for coal? Would it prevent their husbands, or themselves, from finding comfort and heat in liquor?
It would set the ladies free, and not do one thing to change the condition of people who didn't have the money to count.
On mid-afternoon of the third day, they struck gold.
Dan had called all the channels he could think of as discreetly as possible to try and find something, guiding himself when he could with Sally's first conclusions, but hadn't found anything that raised suspicions; Sally, after a quick detour by the office to ensure everything was doing well, had opted to join him for the rest of the afternoon. Harriet's play-date with a little girl her age higher in the street had been canceled; her friend was running a fever, and it was unwise that the two children spend time together.
So, Sally explained, she'd been untenable the whole day, an exhausting mix of excitation and disappointment. She had escaped for the afternoon, bringing with her her notes and a case of account books.
It was an opportunity to cross-check their findings, and Dan had discovered that Sally didn't dislike the atmosphere of the Soho boarding house. She didn't come by too often, and when she did she couldn't take part in all the conversations, as she spoke neither German, Polish, nor Yiddish.
But she drank in the various perspectives, and when she intervened she backed up her opinions with the kind of arguments that might win them this war, practical, courageous, and unfailingly upright.
Every time he saw her there, he became convinced anew that she was truly one of a kind, the brightest woman – the brightest person – he had ever had the honor to meet. Her discovery of socialism was only a matter of a handful of months, and when she spoke to others, visitors from European countries exchanging ideas, new-fangled men of the Democratic Federation, they were the ones who had to keep up.
In this instance, they'd retired to Daniel's writing office. He'd made piles of the articles, bits of research, drafts and notes for a manifesto he was planning on, and put them in stacks by the walls, so they could work unhindered on the desk – and spread as wide as they wanted.
“I looked through the most recent personnel, but there hasn't been anyone new in six months, and nothing popped out about the girl they got. She's a kitchen maid, anyhow, so she wouldn't have much access to Mr and Mrs Hambers' private rooms. Though I imagine that would explain why it might have taken her so long to steal the papers,” Sally mused. “But it's not likely.”
“If they knew there was something, they'd have wanted to get it out as quickly as possible,” Dan agreed. “And if they didn't, what are the chances a kitchen maid would run across something valuable?”
“So, I put together a list of servants who might have either a motive for revenge or need for money.” She pulled out a sheet of paper, and gave it to him. “I had no idea there was so little privacy between servants and the intendant,” she continued. “The records don't show everything, but there are notes keeping track of the rest. You would be surprised how much of one's servants' life it's possible to control.” She stopped, and smiled. “No, you wouldn't. But I was. I'd never realised how intrusive the relationship between servants and masters really is.”
Moving his finger down the list, one of the names caught Daniel's attention. “This one. Robert Steven.”
Sally straightened, watching as he dipped through his piles, not on the desk but against the walls.
“I did some delving a while back,” he explained, “about gambling circles. They come in all flavors, and though there's less publicity about them than alcoholism and prostitution, they can be just as much of a nuisance, for the people unlucky enough to get caught without money once. They borrow some quick cash from the friendly owner, and soon they find themselves owing interests that go far beyond the amount of their first loan. That's without going into the simple effect gambling can have on some people, the thrill, the pleasure of the company; it's really comparable to alcohol. Ah, there he is.”
An index card between his fingers, he turned to face Sally. “Robert Steven is into a debt for seventy pounds. It's the same man; I wrote down, he's a footman in a well-off London house. It's four times the amount he would make in a year.”
Springing to her feet, Sally seized the card, reading the name over and over hungrily as she wrapped her other arm around him.
“Yes. That is him.” Flames were dancing in her eyes.
“What we need to do now is question him to obtain the name of the person who offered to buy his debts.”
“And once we do,” Sally completed, “we'll retrieve the letters.”
They exchanged a satisfied smile. Their kiss was passionate with the tingle of victory.
Before they left the carriage, Colonel Curtis wanted to know if Sally was worried.
She looked away from the small window, through which she'd been scrutinizing the porch of the Mudfords' house, raised a hand to feel once more the intricate bun Mrs Hamber's maid had worked her hair into, brushing against the earrings and necklace she'd been lent for the evening, and shook her head. Colonel Curtis himself looked strained, but his severe expression gave way to a smile when Sally remarked that worry would not help her.
When they'd drawn their strategy earlier on, he'd been calm and composed enough, and was able to fill them in about many of the questions they'd ask. There was little danger his nerve would fail him now, when he had personally as much at stake as the Hambers. His role was limited to getting Sally into the house, and providing her with a cover for as long as her hunt lasted.
After Daniel and she had discovered who was responsible for the letters' theft, confronting the man had been child's play.
Mrs Hamber had been grimly unsurprised to learn the name of the person who'd masterminded the plot to blackmail her husband. A Conservative, Mr Mudford was tangentially related to the Hamber household, Mrs Hamber had delicately explained. Mr Hamber's unavowable affair was with a cousin of Mudford, (She'd paused) Colonel Curtis.
As luck had it, she'd gone on, Mr Mudford was giving a reception at his house the day before the vote, presumably to celebrate victory in advance and to rally some last-minute support. Mr Mudford's cousin Colonel Curtis would be Sally's escort into the house. He would introduce her as his fiancée; hopefully Mudford would assume his cousin was distancing himself from Hamber, and buying a front of respectability in the form of a pretty wife.
Sally had observed Mrs Hamber's face as she spoke, but found no sign of bitterness. If she'd ever resented her husband, the feeling was long gone, replaced with the friendship she'd mentioned first. It was a bond many women wished they could find in their spouses, Sally knew. With a glance Dan's way, she'd thought then that it must be possible to enjoy both friendship and romantic love from one's partner.
Cabs were pulling away in front of them; they were certain not to be the first ones arrived.
“We should go before we draw attention,” she said.
Colonel Curtis took a breath, squaring his shoulders. “Yes. You're right.” He smiled at her, pale. “This can hardly be riskier than the Ashanti war. Let us go, soldier.”
She accepted his hand to saunter down and gave her skirts a tap to smooth wrinkles off. The dress seemed to catch the light as Sally took Colonel Curtis's arm and they made their way to the porch. When the door opened and a valet in livery greeted them, Sally spared a moment to wish, for a flicker, she could have Dan by her side. But a young woman was more easily sneaked in here than known socialist Daniel Goldberg.
As the valet stepped aside to let them in, she didn't look over her shoulder, though Dan would be there, hidden in the shadows, waiting for her to return with the letters; her mission was inside, and she'd meet it straight on.
Inside, she was duly introduced around as Miss Kemp, Colonel Curtis's fiancée. She held the role gracefully; a genteel young woman was less of a stretch an imitation as a servant. The traits that had made her stand out when she'd wanted to disappear in the East End, and when she'd infiltrated Ah Ling's household, her accent and her poise, served her well here. The colonel didn't lose his nerve, and if the first time he said her name he had stammered somewhat, Sally hoped it could be discounted as romanticism, or the jitters of a star-struck man who didn't believe his own luck. Their engagement had been so very sudden, a surprise to everyone they talked to, though no-one was rude enough to say so to their faces.
There was only one introduction Sally would've wished to do without: the master of the house, the one person who knew better than to believe in Colonel Curtis's sudden feelings for Miss Kemp.
He was sipping from a glass of sparkling wine in the company of several of other Conservative MPs, who had all abandoned their wives among other groups of chatting guests, and, if Sally had to hazard a guess, she would've said they were congratulating themselves in advance over their victory of the next day.
“My cousin. I'm very pleased you could be with us tonight.” Square, controlled, and ultimately menacing, Mudford resembled a bank. “And with such charming company to boot.” Despite his words, Mudford had only given Sally a glance before dismissing her.
“Cousin, my fiancée, Miss Kemp. Dear Louisa – my cousin, Gerard Mudford.”
“Fiancée.” His tone registered no surprise, but his gaze lingered on her, taking up her measure as an asset – putting a price on the dress and the jewels she was wearing, and a value on her self. No recognition or hesitation lit his glance; it was habit to him. Sally was glad she'd let Mrs Hamber's maid dress her.
She smiled and murmured a pleasantry as though she was unaware the man had just reduced her worth to the features of her face and the estimated value of her family's fortune. “Yes, it was very recent. Colonel Curtis was eager I should meet you; your cousin holds you in high regard, Mr Mudford.”
At that, Mudford sent Colonel Curtis a quick, piercing glance. His arm tensed under Sally's hand; around them, the brouhaha of people chatting one over the other went on, unmindful of the scene that was playing out. Sally kept on smiling. Mudford was thinking her a lovestruck heiress whom Curtis had caught out of desperation, and was now parading to his relations so that his secret wouldn't be revealed, his reputation spared, and – Sally posited – to gain himself an ally with the loss of MP Hamber's household.
It was abhorrent. Sally had heard the tales of families turned on the streets for failing to meet their rent; she'd seen with her own eyes the riots among workers for one lonely opening on the docks while the foremen laughed. The revulsion that filled her when Mudford detailed them, first Colonel Curtis, then her, was apparent to the one that had filled her then. This was begging, as surely as the other scenes, in front of someone who would deny the rank of humanity to anyone forced to do so.
“Well, I'm delighted my dear cousin found someone at last he thought was worthy of becoming his wife. Mrs Mudford was telling me just last week Curtis must be concerned about his being bachelor, and that was the reason he'd been avoiding us; we were starting to think he'd stay an old bachelor his whole life.” The corner of his lips went up, but didn't reach his eyes.
Unaware of the second, threatening meaning Mudford's words implied, Miss Kemp gave her fiancé a playful tap with her closed fan. “No-one is more delighted than I am,” she declared lightly, “but I am content to find you such a good friend to Colonel Curtis's interests.”
Having firmly established Miss Kemp in their enemy's mind as an energetic airhead, they were then free to stroll away.
Colonel Curtis and MP Mudford's kinship had been distant for years, so much that it had been easier for Mudford to resort to buying one of his political opponent's servants than to purloin compromising letters from his cousin himself. Colonel Curtis's primary usefulness to Sally didn't go further than procuring her with an excuse to be there at all. Ideally, it shouldn't, though she knew he would help however he could, if things went awry somehow. After the last moments in the carriage, he'd regained his calm, meeting the situation without outer sign of nervousness. Maybe he was treating it as a battle.
Most of the conversations surrounding them made Sally's blood boil, and more than once she regretted Daniel wasn't here.
Under other circumstances, the evening would've been a challenge that she'd have tackled with gusto. She heard the same ignorant lies spewed regarding workers as she'd herself honestly believed only a few months ago. Some of the attendants, she knew, would know the truth and cynically, selfishly, took advantage of it; but the others might change their mind, if they were made to see the truth.
She had an image of seizing them by the arm and dragging them forcibly to see the world as they'd made it – their house standing on a mountain of bones, their fortune the systematic theft of the workers' work.
Tonight her only concern was to eschew suspicions, and when the opportunity arose, to steal into the master's rooms and recover the letters. As she mingled and the same reasonings struck her ears again, she engaged with the other guests. She couldn't let these views go unchallenged. And if these people should remember her, if her words should strike their minds, well, so much the better.
“Morality isn't so well-served in other social classes,” she slipped after a portentous man in a black suit shook his head at the rampant immorality among workers, especially those whose wives worked themselves, “I don't think.”
“Even the royal family isn't beyond reproach,” another woman added. “Prince Edward set a dreadful example. Strutting around with that Langtry, that actress...”
Everyone seemed to convene that virtue appeared to be the property of the sole bourgeoisie. Sally smiled thinly, and spoke up again, before the discussion was diverted entirely on what a terrible spectacle of himself the Prince of Wales was making, and how the aristocrats and the poors, as foolish children unable to think about building a future and more concerned with their immediate pleasure, needed the model of the bourgeois to follow.
“And I should think his is merely the most blatant breach,” she said, encompassing everyone she was talking to in a circular look. “Morality is assailed from every side, in our own class; where is the justice in that? We accuse the workers of being immoral and say their poverty is a fit punishment, but there are those among us that act no better and savor all possible comforts.”
Mudford was on the other side of the room, and Colonel Curtis seemed to be catching up with another military man, there was no-one to find another meaning to her words. She'd have been sorry if Curtis had taken her words to heart; she wasn't talking about that sort of morality.
“There's no morality in that injustice, not the shadow of it.”
“Oh, well said,” a woman breathed, nodding.
Her neighbour, a Mr Giffard of Hyde Park Square, smacked his lips in disapproval.
“My dear Miss Kemp,” he said affably. “It's a commendable belief for a young woman to have; you will raise your children into fine, honorable men with such admirable teachings. But these people are not the same as we are. The world is a much more complicated place than you may grasp.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Sally could see another nod, sagely, and it was as though she could see all the good her words could do dimming away. Of the women in the circle, one looked down, her lips pinched, and another sent the man who's spoken a look of furious, helpless contempt that went unnoticed.
“Surely morality and justice aren't that complicated concepts.” The woman who was glaring – she'd been introduced as Mrs Dudley – retorted.
Mr Giffard looked surprised a woman contradicted him. “Well, not as ideals. We can all agree about that. But their application, ah, their application requires careful—compromises.” He said vaguely.
“And even then, I'm not sure some of these immigrants care about what's right the way we do. I've heard the most appalling things.” A lady shuddered.
“True, true.” Mr Giffard nodded his head like a sinister Jack-in-the-box.
Sally had a momentary, glorious vision of Daniel in that assembly.
There wasn't anyone in the Parliament who'd say things the way they had to be said. The world had to be changed, and for that they had to change their way of looking at it. Socialism couldn't get into Parliament, but by all that was right Daniel should get into these places. The less people were willing to listen, Sally had noticed, the more they needed to.
“I don't consider soap a measure of righteousness,” Sally said after the first mention of how dirty immigrants were, entirely beast-like, really.
A man chortled, clapping. “Got you there, Giffard.”
“Otherwise we should just pay them in soap,” another added, “but they might swap it for liquor.” He gestured at one of the serving staff for a refill of his glass.
“Cleanliness and godliness,” Giffard quoted, head nodding infernally, as though it was some ritual that would solve all mysteries and make all mistakes disappear.
“I'm more concerned with the morality of leaving people to live in such conditions,” Sally couldn't help but say. It was a risky position to take, too radical for the attendance, and yet not radical enough; she was far less concerned with the morality of it than with the justice. Giffard might dismiss it as a young woman's impractical wish, and it wouldn't go any further, and there was the paradox; hoping her words might shake them out of their complacency meant they'd also realize how badly she stuck out.
She retired from the discussion shortly thereafter. Causing a commotion wouldn't be in anyone's best interests. Some of the people she'd talked to smiled at her warmly when she excused herself under the pretext that she saw her fiancé looking for her, one of them the lady who'd made the remark about morality and justice. Maybe this evening would do good on more than one front.
As the evening went on, Sally felt her vigilance sharpen. Wasn't Mudford's last glance her way more insistent than it should be? Had she betrayed herself by taking part in the conversation?
Servants were coming and going, blocking her way to the doors. Her dress and the elegance Mrs Hamber had commended earlier, remarking it would be easy for her to pretend to be a true guest, seemed to make her stand out. The glances weren't invasive, she wasn't under watch because Mudford suspected her, but the results were the same: she couldn't disappear as swiftly as she'd planned to.
It was out of the question that Colonel Curtis retrieve the letters himself; he was doubtlessly being watched. According to him and Mr Hamber, there was no doubt Mudford was arrogant and sadistic enough that he'd want the letters under in his own roof, but he would be cautious enough to keep Curtis within his sights. The timing was too suspicious – desperate and miraculous all at once – for him not to be.
Staying separated was their best chance of fulfilling the mission. As long as Sally didn't catch Mudford's attention, she still had a chance.
Lost in her contemplations, she didn't notice at once Mrs Mudford was talking to her.
“I beg your pardon,” Sally came out of her daze.
“I wondered whether you were quite well, dear,” Mrs Mudford asked, frowning. “You seem pale.”
“A slight headache.” She raised her hand to her head and paused in mid-air, as though simply touching her temple would've applied painful pressure. “Nothing a few moments of quiet won't cure,” she assured her hostess, with a strained smile.
Mrs Mudford didn't seem convinced; Sally sent her silent thanks to Rosa, for showing how an actress could subtly mimic tiredness. “Are you quite sure?”
“I'm afraid to impose,” Sally confessed, “but if I might lay down for a few moments... I think meeting my fiancé's family, emotionally...”
Spontaneously, Mrs Mudford rested her hand on Sally's arm. She doesn't deserve to be married to a man such as Mudford, Sally thought. “Oh, but of course! It must've tired you out! I understand. I'll ask Millie to show you to my room, it'll do more for your headache than stay here and hope the old drones stop screeching their opinions,” she whispered with a complicit smile. “Stay there as long as you need to, I'll tell Colonel Curtis not to worry about you.”
“That's lovely of you, Mrs Mudford, but please don't bother my fiancé or your husband. I'll be better very soon, and I wouldn't want my momentary indisposition to ruin everyone's evening.”
Mrs Mudford seemed to weight her options; Sally held her breath.
“Well, I'll let him know if I see him looking for you,” she finally said. Her expression didn't return to the same happy openness it had before mention of her husband.
“You're a good woman,” Sally said, with Louisa Kemp's fervor. It wasn't the lie you're a good friend would've been.
Mrs Mudford accompanied her to the door and left her in the capable hands of the maid, Millie, with instructions for Millie to help Miss Kemp however she asked and answer her calls whenever they came. Sally was led to a richly decorated bedroom with a four-poster bed. The mattress, when she sat down, was good quality; the bedspread, thick and comfy, in a style Sally recognized from her own childhood, its colours faded with time but obviously a source of pride, given its place on the mistress' bed. Probably a piece from her trousseau.
She accepted the maid's offer of a glass of water, not wanting the servants to question her strange headache. As she waited for Millie to return, she let her gaze float around the room. Mrs Mudford must have decorated it herself; some articles of furniture were in the Indian fashion made popular by the Universal Exposition. There were two well-executed paintings of bouquets on the walls, in the same colours as the bedspread, maybe from Mrs Mudford's hand.
Feigning a headache gave her the perfect excuse; the way of reaching the private apartments of Mr Mudford's taken care of, Sally now had to locate the letters.
Not in his wife's room, Sally decided at once, and after reassuring Millie that she'd ring for anything and waiting a minute for the girl’s steps – muffled by the corridor's carpet – to fade, Sally tiptoed out of the room.
There were doors on either side of the corridor. Sally thanked her lucky stars Mr and Mrs Mudford's children were both grown adults who'd moved into their own households years ago; at least she didn't have to worry about waking a child up and facing difficult questions when she was found snooping through their father's things.
Trying out the first door handle to her right, she thanked them again when she found it wasn't locked. Unfortunately, neither was it the room she was looking for: Mr Mudford's office. The next door was it though, and Sally hurried inside, shutting the door behind her.
If Millie came back, Sally wouldn't hear it, but neither would the noise she was bound to make draw attention from the corridor.
The last time she had entered a house under false pretenses, she'd been caught in a cave-in and almost drowned. This instance couldn't possibly end more disastrously. On the other hand, Sally was reminded as she rifled through Mr Mudford's papers, there hadn't been a law at stake then.
Only her daughter.
Sally grit her teeth. The letters weren't stored with the other correspondence, she could tell that much. Sudden dread caught her, and Sally turned around and checked behind every painting in the room to make sure there wasn't a safe – a marine, a horse racing, and a serene scene depicting British troops on their way to victory, which made Sally wonder if Mr Mudford might be in any way jealous of his cousin's career.
Colonel Curtis had affirmed that his cousin, in private, made fun of people who used home safes for other things than their wives' jewelry, but it wasn't impossible that he'd lie, or simply change his mind on the subject. It was entirely conceivable that there had been a time when Mudford hadn't been a blackmailer, after all, and didn't have anything more precious to conceal than diamonds and pearls.
There was no safe. Without breaking her speed Sally returned to the desk, a solid piece of furniture in glossy red wood. Though it carried the marks of long care, it hadn't been waxed recently; Mudford must have told the servant whose job it was to clean the room to leave the desk alone since he'd acquired the letters. He'd have put them here, where he could access them every day. Savor his victory. Of all the prideful, sadistic...
The first drawer on the right didn't open when Sally wrenched on the handle. Locked. Yes; the easiest place where to put the letters, the easiest where to re-read them when he wanted to gloat.
Would he keep the key on his person?
Again, Sally swiftly rooted through the pencil boxes on the desk. No; there it was. The key was only intended as a measure against nosy servants. Was Mudford really so arrogant that he didn't think his opponents would try to get the letters back? Was he so prejudiced, so blind, that he thought merely because Hamber had a man for a lover he would truly be as weak and unresourceful as Mudford needed, for his heinous plot to succeed?
She put the key in the lock, turned – and bit back a gasp of disappointment when it didn't open.
A second inspection yielded no better results.
Well. She'd been prepared for that eventuality; Kid Mendel and Daniel had spent the last evening grooming her about the best way to pick locks. Sally wished she'd paid better attention to Jimmy's explanations over the years – that was certainly one of the skills he'd had to develop as a private investigator – but as long as she wasn't faced with anything too difficult, Kid Mendel had finally decreed, she would do just fine.
Crouching in front of the desk, Sally examined the lock. The metal plate was intricately cut, smoothly black against the red wood. It had to have been designed for aesthetic purposes rather than security.
The lock-picks were in the bodice of her dress; she'd practiced getting them out and in before riding the cab with Colonel Curtis, and had no difficulty in accessing them.
Trying to keep her wrists supple but her fingers firm, as she'd learned, Sally inserted the two thin metal pins in the lock, and felt around.
There was less resistance than in the box she'd practiced on the evening before, which was at once a relief and – after the third time she'd attempted to push the lock open from the inside, only for the metal pin to slip – a hindrance. If only she could've just done as robbers did; use a knife, or a metal ruler, stick it between the drawer and the desk, and crack the lock from the outside. Kid Mendel had said it didn't require more strength than a child's, and Sally had no reason to doubt him; unfortunately, it'd fracture the wood, making what had happened obvious.
She took a breath, and braced herself for another assault, when suddenly she stopped. Had there been a noise in the corridor?
For long seconds, Sally didn't move, tense. Her whole being was reaching out to the door, to the corridor. Her blood was racing, and she didn't know if what she'd thought she'd heard was a person or a trick her mind played on her, mistaking her own heart pounding with a man's steps.
The tension was wracking her hands; Sally didn't dare remove them, not even to hide the bit of skirt that was peeking out from behind the desk. She stared at her fingers holding the lock-picks in place and dared them to start shaking.
She was saving a law, tonight, and she'd be cursed if she let some puny desk whose primary use was to look pretty destroy this step on the way to equality.
Finally the lock gave. Sally pulled it open.
There were the letters, in a neat bundle bound together by a ribbon, so classically romantic and looking so undisturbed that the inane question flashed through Sally's mind whether Mudford had even opened or read them since he'd had them stolen.
Her hands didn't tremble as she counted them; all seven of the letters Hamber had said were missing were there, bound together. It was such a small thing, the reputation of a good man, Sally marvelled as she stashed the letters in the pocket of her petticoat designed for them. Something so inconsequential as love letters could ruin a law, which in turn would deny Mrs Mudford or Mrs Hamber the right to rule their own wealth; deny any woman – any lady – the possibility to leave their husbands with an easy mind; or even tear apart a child and mother, as if children were nothing more than their fathers' properties.
She pushed the drawer back into place; there wasn't anything she could do about the lock, but at least it wouldn't be visible at first glance. Mudford wouldn't dare report the theft anyhow.
When she rejoined the party, she caught Colonel Curtis's eyes; his face broke into sharp relief, immediately covered. Mrs Mudford's face cleared when Sally walked in.
“Are you feeling better, dear?”
Sally smiled, and thought of the letters in her skirt; of the law that would pass; of Daniel, whom she trusted beyond all others and who trusted her back. Of the future.
“Yes,” she said, sincerely. “I am.”