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Grey Spires

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Viscount St. George narrowed his eyes at his uncle’s retreating back, fruitlessly scanning the pinstriped jacket and carefully combed hair for some sign of ulterior motive. Couldn’t be. It didn’t make sense. To be sure, Mary had married a policeman, but everybody seemed to like the policeman and anyway Mary wasn’t the heir. Besides, Uncle Peter wasn’t given to matchmaking. It was more dangerous than all that detective stuff and besides, it might irritate the Dowager Duchess.

But then again, he could be sure Uncle Peter would be checking to see if he followed up on the instructions. He folded the paper inscribed with the young lady’s name and college and put it away in his pocket.

--

The warm late summer wind wind shrieked through the parapets and out across the blinding green fens into the clear sky. Far below, the postman crawled ant-like across the village of Fenchurch St. Paul, which from the bell tower looked for all the world like a Christmas village set up in the parlor on a green tablecloth.

Hilary Thorpe glanced at her watch and gasped. The car. They were waiting to take her to the station. Probably tapping their toes and glancing at their watches. Her heels clattered against the ancient leaded roof as she made for the stairs. The dark little spiral staircase resounded as she hurled herself headlong round the twists. She took the ladder rungs two at a time through the bell chamber and into the second story, and came out into the transept below

She skidded out the lych gate into the street and paused. All was well. The car had not arrived yet. She crunched across the gravel and across the village to a large red-brick house. The front door stood open, as she had carelessly left it earlier in the morning.

The luggage was waiting in the hall, just a few valises full of clothes, a carton of books, a brown paper parcel containing a brand new scholar’s gown. Hilary wandered into the dining room.

Her satchel was there, with the morning post and a note from the housekeeper. She swept the letters up into the satchel and went to wait on the front step.

--

“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

“In the name of Christ, amen,” mumbled Hilary along with the rest of the assembled Shrewsbury students. She edged to the end of the pew and slid out as soon as the procession reached the rear of the church, clutching an envelope under her gown.

The letter was from Lord Peter. She had discovered it amongst the post in her satchel on the train-ride in. It was mostly full of well-wishings and advice, but with a curious post-script to the effect that she ought, as soon as possible, to go and introduce herself to his nephew. It was hoped, apparently, that she would be a good influence. A second post-script indicated that Gerald Wimsey Viscount St George was to be found at Christ-Church College. She did not know how to get to Christ Church, but she did know which tower it belonged to. Probably she could find it by following the tower.

--

St. George was swept on a tide of freshly-matriculated students out of Christ Church Cathedral, across the quad, and into St. Aldates before he thought of going back to his rooms to get rid of his gown. He fished in his pocket for the little scrap of paper his uncle had given him a few days before.

Hilary Thorpe. He knew that was the name. Was it Shrewsbury College? Near the Balliol cricket grounds. Uncle Peter had been very specific about that.

--

Holywell was crowded on that Sunday morning with freshers exploring the town after the first chapel services of the term and with dons and older students paused inconveniently on corners and in the middle of the street hastily gathering up the post-vacation threads. Hilary dodged a commoner on a rickety bicycle and slid deftly between a lamp-post and a gaggle of dons arguing loudly about phenomenology.

She had been to Christ Church only to hear that the Viscount was out, and could she leave a note in his box so that he would know she had come to call. The porter had had an insinuating manner and a nasty sidelong glance. In spite of herself she had discovered she was explaining to him how she came to be looking for the Viscount in the first place. She had broken off mid-sentence, irritated, and hurried away.

As she was cursing herself for this moment of weakness, her gaze lighted on a person coming toward her along the sidewalk, ambling along abstractedly with his hands in his pockets. She shook her head. No, it wasn’t Lord Peter. This man was much too young and had done better for himself as to chins, although he had the same corn-colored hair and long nose. At any rate, Lord Peter wouldn’t have let his hair tumble down over his brow like that, she couldn’t imagine, and he certainly wouldn’t be wearing an undergraduate’s gown. She stopped.

“Pardon me,” she said as the young man drew nearer.

He started and removed his hands from his pockets, trying vainly to adjust the set of his gown.

“Yes, miss?”

Hilary drew in a deep breath. “Are you the Viscount St. George?”

“I— yes? Oh,” he stammered. “You’re Hilary Thorpe. Please say you’re Hilary Thorpe. If you’re not, Uncle Peter will be cross.”

“I’m Hilary Thorpe.”

St. George at last managed to disengage the corner of his gown from his pocket lining. “Oh thank god. I went to Shrewsbury and they said you were out.”

“I went to Christ Church and got sneered at by a porter.”

“Oh dear. Get some tea?” St. George suggested lamely. “I saw a place as I was coming up Broad Street that looked all right. Oh dear. I feel an awful ass.”

“So do I. Tea would be just the thing. Lead on.”

--

They managed, despite the after-church rush, to secure a spot by the window in a little tea-shop on Broad Street. The waitress floated round almost instantly with two cups of plain black tea. A plate of scones and a pot of jam were ordered. St George and Hilary sat in silence, both gazing absently out the window onto a steady stream of pedestrians.

The waitress’s return disturbed their respective reveries.

“What d’you suppose dear Uncle Peter is up to? Not taken to playing Cupid in his old age, I hope.”

“I’d say it rather looked like matchmaking, except that he can’t mean to be matchmaking,” said Hilary. “I suppose what with the Wilbraham money and such it’s not so bad as it once was, but still, that’s no call to—”

“Well, Aunty Mary married a policeman and no one seems to mind too much. A baronet’s daughter isn’t anything to sneeze at by comparison. But then again I’m the heir, and probably expected to marry money,” St George agreed. “Besides, the Governor’d kill him.”

He leaned across the table and grinned. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t give them a good scare.”

Hilary swirled the tea in the bottom of her cup. “What a conversation to have on one’s first meeting.”

“No fear. It’s what comes of having meddling uncles,” said St. George darkly. “The old boy’s prone to starting things. Bought me a copy of the Cosmographia when I was small and now I see where I’ve ended up. Terrible influence for young people. Since he’s thrown us together I daresay we shall get into mischief.”

Hilary laughed. “Do you know, he thinks I’ll be a moderating influence.”

“Does he now? Shall we prove him wrong?”

“Yes. Lets. Why not start now?” Hilary tossed back the last of her tea and replaced the cup decisively on the saucer. “I have a terrible idea.”

“Do tell.”

“Let’s pinch the key and climb Magdalen Tower.”