The name broke through the silent morning, disturbing the young Scottish woman's thoughts as she placed the decadent breakfast on the elaborate silver serving tray. It was on of those brisk English mornings where laziness is encouraged simply by looking out the window and glimpsing the azure sky and lush green hilltops.
One of those days so easily marred by the arrival of unexpected surprises.
A faithful servant always understands that her lady comes first - even at five in the morning. Heaving the laden tray, Mary Maceachran walked purposely towards the bedchamber of Constance, Countess of Trentham, ignoring the snippets of self-doubt that seemed to be biting her so frequently and recently.
She could hear her Mam's voice, resonating through her brain like a timpani drum. "A faithful servant never lets her own problems seem more important than those of her Lady..."
"Mary! Mary, where are you, girl?"
Half past six, and Constance Trentham was getting anxious. Moving down the hall, her small frame supporting the tray easily, Mary's mind wandered briefly to what had kept her up until the wee hours the night before.
The letter laid unopened on her bureau, having arrived late yesterday along with numerous RSVPs and dressmaker bills, it's creamy envelope seemingly unthreatening in the milky sunset. She'd been confused - her Mam's letters were often sent in envelopes of pale blue and no other correspondence was she expecting. With a flick, Mary flipped the paper over.
R. Parks, read the sender's address. C/O The Stockbridges, `Hamilton Place'.
She'd dropped it like it were hot coals. Her palms began to sweat as that night, one year ago, came back to her with the force of a thousand summer storms. Carpe Diem, Elsie said.
One Year Previous
His door was not unlike the others; except behind it potentially stood a dirty secret - something she was becoming all too familiar with. Summoning all the courage she could, she'd raised her hand; a knock on the door, and in she'd swept, ready to confront the valet with what she thought she knew.
He stood, surprised, his society-enforced image shattered as he presented himself in little more than a singlet and pants, a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a small book of poems clutched in his hands. Simple, easy, everything black and white - she saw no knife pressing into his palms, nor a vial of poison decorating the bureau.
From one moment, she'd lied to herself. To the next, she'd switched sides and illuminated his motive and opportunity.
"Your heart never rules your head," her Mam had often said. But why take advice from a woman who married a Scottish farmer at sixteen and never looked back? One blessed saying, one regular proverb. An answer for everything in a string of seven or less words.
She confronted him, and he nary denied it. But even so, how could a son kill his own father? And why would he poison Sir William and then stab him so coldly? He watched her, his dark eyes thoughtful in the dull light. He could see right into her soul, she'd irrationalised, he could see who she was and what she was thinking. What she was feeling.
"I didn't poison him." "What?" "I didn't poison him."
Overwhelming joy. He didn't poison him; he didn't kill him! The rest, the stabbing, the blatant confession, the seemingly cold manner in which they'd come to be there that moment, were irrelevant in face of that one fact - he didn't administer the fatal method. He wasn't the killer. He wasn't a killer...
As if to blind her thoughts, he'd wrapped himself around her and kissed her. No kiss she'd ever received - of the two before and the many after - would or could equal to this. Pure, blind passion. And under any other circumstances, if the giver and receiver of the kiss hadn't of been a murderer, Mary's fate would have been sealed.
They'd broken apart, and again he'd gazed at her. A million words could have passed through their mouths in the time they'd spent that weekend, looking. Staring. Communicating, as if they were the only ones upstairs who mattered. A part of her felt as though her trust had been violated. Shattered.
But mostly, she felt heartbroken. What they could have had couldn't be, gauged against their positions in modern nineteen thirties hierarchy. The Valet and The Maid, The Housekeepers Son and The Dead Master's Sister's Confidant - too messy, too understandably indecent to be kept quiet, clean and proper.
"I'd been wanting to do that since the moment I saw you." His expression was one of humour mixed with something else she couldn't quite pick. What to do? Stand, and let it go further? Or protect what was left of her naivety?
Her hands feeling like irons, she'd fumbled for the door and chose the latter. A heart beating from one dalliance was better than one stopped by a murder. But as she hurtled down the corridors to her room, the tears pricking at her eyes, Mary wasn't quite sure anymore.
She didn't want to dredge that all up again, despite thinking about it and him everyday since. Their goodbyes had been almost farcically simple considering what had gone on. "Don't worry - it's over now." A touch to the cheek, and she'd never heard from him again. Until now, with this potentially dangerous letter that was now positioned in her hands, staring back at her with malice and most frighteningly enough, hope.
Laying the fine envelope to rest on the top of the bureau, Mary knew that whatever was inside that letter could not be good. Robert Parks, a potential killer, had written it knowing all too well she was the only one who knew his dirty little secret.
Of course, other than his mother.
With the anticipation clawing at her heart, Mary had decided that it was best she didn't read the letter. The police had still not solved the murder of Sir William McCordle, although it was expected both Mary and Constance would be called on to testify if - when - a suspect was named.
Mary knew too much, and that's why she couldn't read the letter. "A faithful servant never tells", unwavering.
Then again, a faithful servant would never have ventured into a valet's room to begin with.
With that thought running through her mind, Mary reached Lady Trentham's room. Balancing the tray on one knee, she raised her hand to knock gently and waited patiently.
"Come in, come in, Mary. Quickly!" Pushing the door open with her elbow, Mary entered the room to address her employer. Lady Constance Trentham, aunt to Sylvia, Lavinia and Louisa, an old fashioned lady from her top to her finely enclosed toes. Mary had come to work with her upon recommendation from her cousin Elizabeth, another lady's maid who worked in the centre of London with Lady Trentham's dearest friend, Lady Westworth. Their relationship was much like any employer and employee, with the added perk of being Lady Trentham's eyes and ears whenever they travelled.
Needless to say, they had shared some juicy gossip in their time and had become quite close given their social standings. With a hefty pay rise in the face of Sir William's death, Mary's position was solidified at the same time Lady Trentham's allowance was secured. How could her allowance be cut off when the man who paid it suddenly gets murdered?
"Sorry, your ladyship, there was a hold up in the kitchen." Lady Trentham's mouth slid into a thin line. "Something to do with fresh eggs, I believe."
"I'm the only person here, Mary, and I expect my breakfast at six fifteen every morning. A fact you are all too aware with, I assume, after a year and half of being in my service." She lifted one of the trays and sampled the scrambled eggs. "But you do bring a lovely spread, my girl, so perhaps I can forgive you." A slight smile creased the corners of the old lady's mouth as she began to eat.
"What are your plans for today, m'lady?" Mary walked over and opened the expansive closet, overwhelmed as always by the lush silks and furs that decorated her employer's wardrobe.
"I think I may see Mrs. Dillon for tea, Mary. I believe we need to discuss my outfitting for the London Trust Ball next month. You will make the phone call to invite her?"
"Of course, m'lady. What would you like to wear?"
"Just a day outfit, Mary. Something I can move in. Heavens knows Mrs. Dillon is hardly worth wearing silk or fur for. For a dressmaker, she is exceptionally out of style, the poor dear. Get something in blue out, will you?"
Nodding, Mary took out a pale blue day skirt and white shirt, holding them out for Lady Trentham's approval. "Yes, they'll be fine. You can come back in half an hour to help me dress. In the meantime, be a dear and call Mrs. Dillon."
Mary smiled and nodded. "Of course m'lady. Two o'clock is fine?"
"Yes, yes. Off you go." With a small curtsy, Mary turned and exited the room. The day was sizing up to be most boring, with Lady Trentham most likely to read until the dressmaker, Mrs. Dillon, arrived. Even then, Mary wouldn't be needed - the old woman liked to treat Mrs. Dillon much like a servant, albeit a well-paid, talented servant.
She picked up the telephone and quickly made the call, informing the dressmaker to be on time, "you know how she feels towards promptness." Five minutes later, Mary found herself headed towards her room and towards Robert's letter. Smiling and saying hello to the other servants along the way, her inwards were constricting with apprehension and nervousness.
I can't read it, she thought frantically. I'd be his ally then. But ultimately, wasn't she already? Wasn't she already in bed with the Devil for not telling Inspector Thomson, the bumbling idiot in charge of the case, about what she knew? Within seconds, she was inside her quarters, the light streaming into the well-windowed room, creating patterns along the floor boards.
It still sat on the bureau, messy hand scribing Miss Mary Maceachran, C/O "Trentham Manor", Lord Dustin Road across the front of the envelope. He even spelt my name properly, she thought, and allowed a slight smile to cross her face. The paper was fine, thick parchment, far more expensive than what he could afford on valet's wages. Still, she knew Robert and his employer Lord Raymond Stockbridge enjoyed the same tastes and he could have easily have lifted the paper from Stockbridge's study.
As easily as stabbing a corpse in the chest, she wryly thought, turning the envelope over in her hands.
The thought pounded in her mind as she fingered the elaborate seal. This is ridiculous! It's just a letter! You deserved to read it and what harm could it possibly do? she cajoled herself. It's not like he means anything to you, after all. He's just a valet of a family friend, nothing more.
Like that decided it, she slowly slid her finger between the paper and seal and pulled the thin letter from its packaging. The paper matched the envelope, it's body folded in half once and dotted from where the ink had slightly run. For something so innocent looking, it was the most unsettling thing she'd ever seen.
Dear Mary; it began.
Oscar Wilde once said,
"Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are cultivated. For these, there is hope."
No threats. No declarations. The letter fluttered to her lap, and settled in the folds of her apron. A quote? From a scandal-ridden author? 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'? Confused, considering, contemplating, she faintly heard Lady Trentham's voice calling her name. Flustered, she slid the letter inside her desk draw and walked towards the door.
Whatever the circumstances, Mary knew she could not reply to that letter.