Thomas wished, more than anything, that he’d had a chance to explain things to Jimmy. He couldn’t stand the thought that if Jimmy ever thought of him in future, it would be with the same anger and horror that had filled their last conversation. Confrontation. Whatever you wanted to call it.
Except there wasn’t really any way to explain, was there? Jimmy was angry and horrified because Thomas, because another man, was attracted to him. Loved him, maybe. There wasn’t anything Thomas could say that would make him see that it wasn’t anything to be angry or horrified about.
It was a stupid thing to wish. If he was going to wish anything, he ought to wish that he had never been stupid enough to go into Jimmy’s room in the first place. That way, he’d still have some kind of a job—maybe—or if not that, a reasonably positive reference. And he’d still have his sad little fantasy that maybe Jimmy cared for him. That was the thing to wish for, if he was wishing.
But instead, as he sat there in the cell, huddled in on himself to keep warm and hoping not to attract the notice of the assorted drunks, toughs, and layabouts sharing the cell with him, he kept trying to think of something he could have said that would leave Jimmy thinking of him at least a little bit fondly.
He’d been sitting there for a few hours when a man came walking along the cells, looking this way and that, as if searching for something. His suit was two or three grades above what you’d expect to see on a common-or-garden variety plainclothes policeman. A solicitor, maybe? He stopped in front of Thomas’s cell and stared straight at him. Thomas stared back.
The man in the nice suit went over to the guard and had a short conversation that Thomas couldn’t overhear, even though he tried. It ended with the man saying, “—then get him out of there!”
The guard opened the cell door with a big bunch of keys, pointed at Thomas, and beckoned. Thomas got up and hurried over. Could Lord Grantham have sent the man to help him? It wasn’t Murray, his lordship’s usual legal man. And he really couldn’t think of any reason Lord Grantham would want to help him. But there wasn’t anybody else.
“Do you want him cuffed, sir?” the guard asked.
“No,” said the man in the nice suit, giving him a withering look. “Come on, son,” he added, putting one hand on Thomas’s shoulder and urging him along the corridor.
Personally, Thomas thought that sort of thing might give the wrong impression when springing a man from jail on charges of gross indecency, but he wasn’t the expert.
The man took him to a small room that locked from the outside and had a bolted-down table with one chair on each side. He took the one closer to the door, and motioned Thomas into the second.
“Well,” said the man. “I’m Sentinel Detective Inspector Darrowby.”
Not a solicitor. And not here to spring him. Thomas couldn’t begin to figure out why a police Sentinel would be interested in his case. In the papers, they were always working on murder cases and major robberies, since their heightened senses let them find clues other detectives would miss. There wasn’t really much about his case to investigate. But the Sentinel’s interest couldn’t possibly be good news. “Thomas Barrow,” he said. “Sir.”
He nodded. “Tell me what happened.”
Thomas wasn’t much of a reader, but he had picked up the occasional mystery novel, and he had the impression detectives were usually a little more specific about their questions. “Er,” he said. “Well. There was this other fellow who worked in the same house as me. Jimmy. James, I mean, but he liked to be called Jimmy. I liked him. You know.”
“As more than a friend,” the detective said.
“Yeah. Like that. I figured he probably didn’t feel the same way, because what are the odds? But I wasn’t really sure either way. But another person who worked with us said he did. So I went in his room and kissed him.”
“I see. And then what happened?”
“Then Alfred, the other footman, came in the room and Jimmy started yelling at me to get off him and leave him alone. So I did.”
“Nothing else happened between you and Jimmy?”
“No. Nothing.” He hesitated. “Is kissing somebody really an act of gross indecency?” He didn’t see how it could be. A man and a girl could kiss, and that wasn’t grossly indecent—they did it in church in front of God and everybody when there was a wedding. The other things, all right, maybe they were indecent, although he didn’t really think so. But kissing was just kissing.
“It can be,” said the detective. “This Jimmy, he made the official complaint?”
“He must’ve,” Thomas said. He could hardly imagine it. But Jimmy had been so angry, and had refused to even look at him that morning at breakfast. Thomas hadn’t been able to find a chance to talk to him alone, to apologize, or explain, or…anything, before the police had arrived in the afternoon. “Unless he told Mr. Carson, and he made it.” At least he hadn’t been there to see it when Carson and the others found out, though surely everyone knew now.
“The butler.” But Carson had seemed as surprised as anyone to have the Filth show up, just as he was getting ready to send Alfred and Jimmy up to the drawing room with the tea. Carson would have tried to arrange something more discreet, if it had been him.
Not for Thomas’s sake, but for the reputation of the house.
Thomas stared down at his hands. “That was all that happened. Just that one kiss.” He still couldn’t believe that things had gone so badly wrong, so quickly.
“Right,” said Darrowby. He sat back in his chair. “You said—what House is it you work for?”
“Downton Abbey. The Earl of Grantham’s estate,” Thomas said. “It’s over by Rippon.”
“Not a Sentinel House,” Darrowby noted, as if that was significant somehow.
Perhaps it was—he’d heard that Sentinels had a greater tolerance for those sorts of…goings-on, than regular people. “Right,” Thomas said. “Not a Sentinel house.”
“What is it you do there?”
“I was his lordship’s valet,” Thomas said. “For the last year or so. Before that I was a footman.”
“Why were you working there?”
Thomas wasn’t sure he understood the question. “Because…they were hiring when I was looking for a place?” Thomas said. Suddenly, he realized what Darrowby must be getting at. “His lordship isn’t—he isn’t like that. Like me. There was never anything—God, no. Nothing like that. I’d worked there before the War, as a footman, and then his other valet…had to leave, so I got the job.”
“You served in the War? Where?”
Thomas answered, still confused, “The medical corps. First at a regimental aid post in France, then a hospital here in Yorkshire.”
“You were at the Front? By yourself?”
Now he was even more confused. “No, the rest of the BEF was there, too.” That answer was likely to get him slapped, or at least told off, for being cheeky, but he really didn’t understand the question.
“You weren’t assigned to a Sentinel, I mean,” Darrowby clarified.
“No,” Thomas said. “Why would I be?”
“You really didn’t know?”
Darrowby sounded skeptical, but Thomas didn’t know why. What was he being accused of knowing, or not knowing? “Know what?”
“That you’re a Guide,” Darrowby said.
“I’m not,” Thomas said. But Sentinels were generally believed to know these things—Guides helped them control their senses, somehow, so it made sense that they would know if you were one or not. “Am I?” No, he couldn’t be.
“Yes. Give me your hand.” Darrowby held out his own, across the table.
Hesitantly, Thomas put his hand in the Sentinel’s. A moment later, something happened. There was a sort of pressure in his ears, and a sensation he couldn’t really describe except that it was the opposite of what people called “someone walking over your grave.” Sort of warm and tingly. “What the hell?” He felt a sort of…amused tolerance, from Darrowby’s side of the table, though how he felt it, he couldn’t have said.
“You feel that?” Darrowby asked, dropping his hand.
Thomas nodded, rubbing his hand, which was still a little bit tingly.
“If you weren’t a Guide, you wouldn’t have.”
“Blimey.” Under any other circumstances, this would have been thrilling news. Being a Guide was a fast track to the top of the service ladder, and he’d never have had to worry about finding work again. Guides weren’t quite as rare as Sentinels, but the big Sentinel Houses like to have as many on hand as possible—one to be valet or lady’s maid to each Sentinel in the family, plus a few extras. All that time he’d spent, after the war and the black market disaster, bowing and scraping to get his old place back, and if he’d only known, he could have had his pick of places.
Not only that, but it was legal for male Sentinels and Guides to be lovers. Almost normal, if the salacious novels were to be believed. You still had to be discreet, of course, but you didn’t have to worry about the police knocking down your door.
“You’re certain you didn’t know?” Darrowby asked.
He shook his head. “I didn’t.” How would he know? Lord Grantham’s social circle didn’t include many Sentinels, and ordinary people couldn’t tell.
“Your parents weren’t Guides?”
“No. My dad was a clockmaker.”
“Siblings? Aunts and uncles?”
“I haven’t any.”
“That’ll have to be checked,” Darrowby said. Before Thomas could ask what that had to do with anything, he explained, “It’s not unusual for Guides to get into this kind of trouble when they don’t have a Sentinel looking after them.”
“It isn’t?” Thomas had never heard anything like that before. But then, he supposed it wasn’t the kind of thing they’d put in the newspaper, or even in sensational novels.
“No. Now, if you knew you were a Guide and decided not to work for a Sentinel House for reasons of your own, that’s a different matter. But if the Army and your family history confirm there’s no way you could have known, there might be something that can be done.”
“You mean…I might not have to go to prison?” It was the first ray of hope he’d seen since all this started.
“It would be taken into account,” Darrowby hedged. “I’ll contact the Sentinel Society down in London. They usually send someone to help, in cases like this. Sentinels don’t like to see Guides locked up in prison.”
“That would be…I’d be very grateful. I didn’t…mean to do anything wrong. I really didn’t.”
“Of course not,” Darrowby said. “I’m sure this is very frightening, but try not to worry too much.” Then he told the uniformed policeman outside the door to bring Thomas a cup of tea and a sandwich.
And he did. That was the really strange part.
Once he’d eaten and drunk them, Darrowby said, a little regretfully, that Thomas had to go back down to the cells now. But when they got there, he told the guard, “Put him in Three.”
“Why?” the guard asked.
“Because I said to. And give him back his cigarettes.”
Thomas turned to stare at him. He hadn’t even mentioned to Darrowby that the guard had nicked his cigarettes when booking him in.
The guard handed them over, and Darrowby gave Thomas another pat on the shoulder. “I’ll be back to check on you before I leave in the morning. You’ll be all right.”
“Three” turned out to be a small, private cell. It wasn’t any warmer or more comfortable than the other one, but at least he could try to sleep without worrying about anyone bothering him while his guard was down. A couple of hours later, a different guard came along and tossed him a blanket.
Sentinel Darrowby came back around the same time as breakfast—a bowl of lumpy porridge and weak tea—to tell him that a gentleman from the Sentinel Society would be here before he had to go to court in the afternoon and to urge him again not to be afraid.
The Society gentleman turned out to be a Sentinel barrister called Langley-Smythe, accompanied by a man dressed like a valet, who Thomas supposed must be his Guide. He met with Thomas in a room similar to the one where he’d talked with Darrowby the night before. “My dear boy,” he said. “I hope this isn’t all too terribly distressing for you.”
“I’m all right, sir,” Thomas said. That was two different people asking after his feelings on the same day—he didn’t usually see that much concern and sympathy in a single month. He wasn’t sure he liked it—but if it was going to lead to something “being done” that might keep him out of prison, he’d put up with it and be grateful. “Detective Darrowby has been kind enough to keep an eye on me.”
“Good,” said Langley-Smythe. “You’ll be here a little longer, I’m afraid. Your trial’s been scheduled for Monday next.”
Thomas hadn’t really thought about the fact that there’d have to be a trial. That he’d have to kiss the book and answer questions about what he’d done, in a room full of strangers. Strangers and, quite possibly, Jimmy. Maybe they wouldn’t make him testify, since Thomas wasn’t denying anything. He didn’t know how it worked. Finally he said, “Trial. Right.”
“Most likely, you won’t have to do much more than identify yourself and give your plea,” Langley-Smythe said. “Usually, in situations like this, I can come to an agreement with the Crown Prosecutor beforehand and all we have to do on the day is present it to the judge for his approval.”
That didn’t sound so bad. “What sort of agreement?”
“About your sentence.” Langley-Smythe hesitated. “It may happen that you have to serve some small amount of time. The maximum sentence for this charge is two years at hard labour.”
“I know,” Thomas said. Two years. God. He wondered what they made you do, for the hard labour part. Was it still picking oakum, like Oscar Wilde?
“That won’t happen. At worst, a few months, perhaps. And I’m usually able to have the hard labour provision dropped. Often, in these cases, I’m able to reach an agreement that doesn’t involve a prison sentence at all. If you are sent to prison, the Society will make sure you aren’t mistreated. Someone will come check on you regularly, make sure that you have everything you need.”
Thomas closed his eyes for a moment. A few months. That still wasn’t good—he’d been in jail nearly twenty-four hours now, and while nothing especially terrible had happened, it was still enough to convince him that he’d like to leave as soon as possible. But it was a hell of a lot better than two years. “Thank you,” he said. Although if even they let him go right now, he didn’t have the first idea where he’d go or what he would do. He might as well see about that, while Mr. Langley-Smythe was so eager to help him. “And…after? Might I be able to find a place as a Guide? I’ve never…I mean, I didn’t know, but I’ve been in service all my life. I have skills.”
“That part’s quite simple,” the lawyer said. “You’ll come and work for the Society in London. They run a sort of gentlemen’s club for Sentinels—it’s not quite the same as domestic service, but it’s similar enough. After you’ve been there for a bit, you’ll have the proper training and a reference if you want to look for another place. We make a point of looking after Guides in distressed circumstances, so it’s all quite regular.”
Thomas wasn’t sure what he thought of the assumption that he needed “looking after.” But he certainly didn’t have any better ideas. He might as well see what he could get from the Sentinel Society; if he didn’t like it, he could go back to making his own way. “That’s very kind,” he said.
Langley-Smythe smiled. “That’s it. You’re being quite brave, you know. It’s difficult for Guides on their own. Things will be much better from here on out.”
Gerald Pellinger was in the smoking room, trying to work a crossword puzzle, in the vain hope that it would take his mind off the pain in his leg. Theoretically, taking his mind off it should have helped, since the pain was entirely in his mind—it couldn’t be in his leg, since he’d left that in France.
In practice, though, it didn’t help much. As a fresh spasm passed through his non-existent leg, he balled up his fist and pressed it into the stump. That didn’t help, either—nothing did—but one felt one had to do something.
“Your lordship?” asked one of the Society Guides—Franklin, his name was. “Can I get you anything?”
He shook his head. “Thank you, no.” None of the Guides here could help him; that was the damndest part of it. Gerald was what the Sentinel experts called a “hard match.” Since losing the only Guide he’d ever really been able to work with, he’d tried every single one employed by the Society, as well as dozens of others, and found only a few that he could even manage a weak link with. Without a compatible Guide, he was at the mercy of his heightened senses, and could barely function even within the confines of the Society building, much less in the larger world. “I think I’ll go up to my rooms.” At least there, he could carry on as much as he liked without distressing the Guides.
“Very good, your lordship,” Franklin said, helping with his crutches.
He made the laborious trek out of the smoking room and started down the passage to where a lift had been installed since the war. He wasn’t the only member to have come home unable to manage stairs. Before he got there, though, he caught a scent of…something he couldn’t possibly have caught a scent of. For a moment, he almost thought it was Euan, his old Guide. But he’d been left in the stinking mud of France, along with Gerald’s leg.
The polite thing to do would have been to ignore it. It was a fact of being a Sentinel that one was more aware of smells than ordinary people, but a gentleman pretended he wasn’t. Even the sort of Sentinels who worked for the police department and so on presumably didn’t go around talking about how they could smell what you’d had for lunch if it wasn’t relevant to an investigation.
But this wasn’t what somebody had had for lunch. This was a Guide—a Guide that spoke to him the way Euan had. He couldn’t not follow up on it.
So he followed the scent trail, winding up in the reading room, keeping his eyes peeled for a Guide he hadn’t seen before.
What he found instead was Alistair Langley-Smythe, accompanied as usual by his Guide-servant, Morgan. Morgan and Euan had been cousins, and their scents were similar, but it had been years since Gerald had been fooled by that.
He thought there must be something more to it, but even—or perhaps especially—in the Sentinel Society, one couldn’t go around sniffing another man’s Guide without invitation. Instead, Gerald evaluated air currents for a moment, then took a seat where he could puzzle things out without making a spectacle of himself.
It was hard work sorting out a tangle of scents, particularly without a Guide, but after a solid quarter-hour of sweating at it, Gerald was quite certain that there were scents of two different Guides hanging about Alistair. One was, of course, Morgan. But the other….
Gerald was sure he hadn’t met him, and he was equally sure that he had to. An attractive scent didn’t necessarily mean a compatible Guide, but it was a good sign. Unfortunately, there was absolutely no polite was to go up to another Sentinel and demand to know the details of the Guide he smelled like…but Alistair knew what trouble Gerald had had finding a new Guide. They’d been decentish chums at university, before the war—not bosom friends, but their Guides being cousins made them almost related themselves, in a way. Alistair had even been kind enough, when it became clear that Gerald was going to have no easy time replacing Euan, to suggest that since Alistair himself was a fairly easy match, Gerald had better try Morgan. Nothing had come of it—he could form a weak link with Morgan, but that was no better than half a dozen others—and he was sure Alistair had been relieved, but he had offered.
He would excuse the impropriety. Taking up his crutches again, Gerald limped over to the table where Alistair and Morgan sat poring over a book of Guide lineages. “Hullo, Ace,” he said. “Mind if I sit?”
Morgan jumped up to help Gerald into a chair. “Thank you.”
Going back to his Sentinel’s side, Morgan looked at him inquiringly. “Tea, I think,” Alistair said. “Unless you’d like something stronger?”
“Tea’s fine, thanks.”
Once Morgan had slipped away, Alistair put a marker in the book and closed it. “There’s something on your mind.” It wasn’t a question; as a Sentinel, he could tell.
“Er, yes,” Gerald said. “And it’s dashed impolite, so I hope you’ll forgive me.”
Alistair glanced sharply in the direction Morgan had gone.
“It’s not about him. It’s…well, I’ll just jump in, and trust on our friendship to keep you from knocking my head off for me, all right?”
“Of course,” Alistair said, looking—and smelling—a little worried.
“You were with another Guide today,” Gerald said bluntly. “And I have to ask—you know why—if he might be available.”
“Oh,” Alistair said. “I’m sorry, Pelly—for some reason, I thought it might be something about my sister.” Alistair’s parents were a Sentinel-Guide couple—not terribly unusual for someone of his middle-class background, but rather exotic to Gerald—and his sister was a Guide. Gerald had met her last week, at a big Society dinner. “Not that I would object, of course, but she’s sweet on this Insensate she met in Scotland—it would be deuced awkward, if she turned out to be a match for you. The fellow I met today…well, that could be a bit awkward as well, but nearly as awkward. I met him on Society business, actually. In the York city jail.”
“Oh,” Gerald said. The idea of someone he’d already started, in the back of his mind, dreaming might be his Guide, in jail, was a little disturbing. “On what charge?”
“Gross indecency,” Alistair said. “Kissing another man. A man who was not receptive to his advances.”
“That’s not so bad,” he said, relieved. The Society could usually get Guides off for something like that—provided, that is, they weren’t under the protection of a Sentinel when the offence occurred. “He doesn’t have a Sentinel, does he?”
Alistair shook his head. “Complete dark horse; he had no idea what he was until a Sentinel Detective stumbled across him in his jail cell.” Alistair still didn’t smell quite like he thought everything was dandy, though.
“Has he already been convicted?”
“No,” Alistair said. “The trouble is, after I interviewed him, I went to discuss the case with the CP. He’s not being terribly cooperative. The prosecutor, I mean. Tommy’s being quite cooperative—frightened out of his wits, the poor thing. I’m afraid he might have to spend some time in prison.”
“He’s a bit older than they usually are when we find them. Judges and Crown Prosecutors are much happier about releasing Guides without sentence if they’re young enough to be a bit pitiable, and he’s nearly thirty. He’s also been steadily employed as a footman for most of his adult life, and served in the medical corps during the war.”
“But that sounds perfect,” Gerald said. True, the Guides the Society rescued tended to be a bit younger—the street urchins of the early days of the Society were rare in these modern times, but still, they tended to come to the Society’s attention before they were twenty, if that. And if the Guide who was a match for him was a street urchin, Gerald would be glad to have him, no matter how much training he needed. But one who was already trained, and knew a bit about war injuries besides, was even better.
“For you, yes,” Alistair said. “And I hope he is a match. But the CP thinks that a man who kept himself alive at the Front for two years—”
“He was at the Front?” Gerald said, his attention caught on that detail. “By himself?” He was used to thinking of Guides as being a bit delicate; the idea of one dealing with the horrors of the Front without a Sentinel to look after him was almost unthinkable.
Alistair fought, unsuccessfully, against a chuckle. “Sorry, it’s not funny, but—the SDI asked him the same question, and—according to his notes—your boy said no, he had the rest of the British Expeditionary Force with him.”
A thrill went through him at the words, your boy. “That’s adorable,” Gerald said. He was sure he was grinning goofily, and didn’t much care.
“Yes, rather. I think you’ll like him.” Alistair’s expression sobered. “But, as I was saying, the CP thinks he ought to have known better than to do what he did, Guide or not.”
“That isn’t the point,” Gerald said. It wasn’t that Guides couldn’t understand the law as well as anyone else. But they needed to be cared for, and to have a Sentinel to serve. Even without knowing he was a Guide, Tommy would have instinctively sought after the protection and affection he ought to have had from his Sentinel.
“I know, but the CP doesn’t understand. As yet, he’s insisting on six months without hard labour, or three with.” Alistair gestured at the books piled on the table. “I’m trying to find something else I can use to talk him down further.”
“You have to,” Gerald said. “He can’t go to prison.” It wasn’t himself he was thinking of—Gerald was sure he’d be much better off when he had a properly matched Guide with him, but even if he had been ticking along just fine, the thought of his Guide in a cell, alone and terrified, was nearly unbearable. “He just can’t, Ace. You have to work something out.”
“I’m trying,” Alistair said. Morgan came back with the tea, and Alistair meticulously tidied all of his books and papers out of range of any possible spill as he poured. “Morgan, Lord Pellinger thinks Tommy, from today, might be a match for him.”
“Do you, your lordship?” Morgan asked. “That’s lovely.”
“It makes the matter of getting him released a bit more urgent,” Alistair said, accepting a cup of tea from Morgan’s hands.
“I have to see him,” Gerald said.
“Of course,” Alistair said. “For one thing, I meant to take him a livery before his trial—it makes them look more cared-for, you know. And we must find out if he really is a match. It might help matters with the CP. Do you think you can manage it? Messing about on the train might be a bit much, with your leg and everything, but we could take the motor.”
Gerald would have hopped there on his one remaining leg if he had to. “Of course I can manage it. How soon can we go?”
Alistair looked at him, then down at the papers, then back at him. “I have another meeting with the CP day after tomorrow. Would that suit?”
“If we can’t go any sooner. But first, you must tell me absolutely everything about him.”
Two mornings later, Gerald levered himself, his crutches, and a brown paper parcel containing Tommy’s new livery into the back seat of Alistair’s motor. He’d barely slept, feeling like a child waiting for Father Christmas, but despite that, he felt better than he had in as long as he could remember. Even his damned leg barely hurt—proving, he supposed, that taking his mind off it was the cure.
“I say, old man,” Alistair said as they neared the city of York. “I hope you won’t…that is, you know it isn’t certain that he’s a match for you. I mean, there’s a good chance, but. Well. You know how these things are.”
“I know,” Gerald said. “And I’m trying to be ready for the worst. It’s dashed kind of you to bring me all this way.” He smiled tightly. “I promise I won’t take it out on you—or on Morgan—if it doesn’t turn out the way I’d like.”
“It’ll be a blow, I know, if he isn’t.” Alistair drummed his fingers on his knee for a moment. “It’s been nice, seeing you happy, for a change. I hope this works, I really do.”
“Thanks.” Gerald had nearly forgotten what a good sort Alistair was. He’d pulled away from him a bit, since the war. Not because of Alistair, really, but because Morgan looked—not to mention smelled—so much like Euan. It wasn’t Alistair’s fault, or anybody’s fault, that Morgan had lived and Euan died, but keeping his sense of childish outrage over the unfairness of it all under wraps had been a bit too much of a strain, at first.
The jailhouse and police station was a gloomy, forbidding place. The stench of fear and anger and other unsavory human emanations fairly hit one in the face upon entering; Gerald had no idea how the Sentinels who worked as police detectives could stand it.
He ruthlessly quashed the thought that they, lucky blighters, at least had Guides to help them with it.
“Are you all right, your lordship?” asked Morgan.
Alistair glanced back over his shoulder at them. “Pelly, I should have said—if you need to borrow Morgan, please, do.”
“I’m all right,” he said, gritting his teeth.
Alistair went up to a high desk and announced himself to the uniformed policeman standing there.
“Who are they?” the constable asked, hooking a thumb in the direction of Morgan and Gerald.
“Sentinel Lord Pellinger, another representative of the Society. And my Guide.”
“T’other gentleman needs to sign the book,” the constable said, clearly unimpressed.
Gerald had to lean himself up against the counter to keep his balance as he signed, and as he did, one of his crutches slipped away and fell to the tiled floor with a clatter. Morgan quickly picked it up and tucked it back under his arm where it belonged, but Gerald had a distinct sense that every eye in the room had turned to stare.
Once that was over with, another policeman showed them into a dingy little room with a cracked linoleum floor, heavily defaced table, and a trio of chairs. Gerald sank down into one gratefully, even though it wasn’t very clean. Alistair took the other, and Morgan posted himself behind them, leaving the other, presumably, for Gerald’s new Guide.
For Tommy, he told himself. Thinking of him as his Guide prematurely would only make the disappointment worse if he wasn’t.
Gerald knew better than to put any kind of a strain on his senses, in a challenging setting like this, without a Guide…but he did it anyway, extending his hearing outward, eager to catch the first sound of the Guide he hoped would be his.
It was a good thing he’d at least sat down first, because he became enthralled almost immediately. And he wasn’t even enthralled on the sound he wanted to hear, but on some scrabbling in the walls—mice, maybe, or rats, and wasn’t that an awful thought, his Guide locked up in a building full of vermin?
Gerald didn’t know how long he was out; the next thing he was aware of was a voice. “Sir? If you wouldn’t mind coming back to us—Morgan, are you sure there isn’t something else I’m supposed to be doing?”
“He’s a ‘lordship,’ not a ‘sir,’” Morgan said, his voice slightly tinged with amusement. “But you’re doing fine.”
Blinking as the rest of his senses once again impinged upon his conscious awareness, Gerald looked down at the Guide who was crouched in front of him, holding his hand in one rather grimy paw. “Oh, my, you are lovely,” he said.
“My lord?” the Guide said.
“Tommy, right?” The Guide nodded. “I think you had better call me Gerald, because we’re going to be seeing a great deal of each other.”
Thomas’s first thought was that the new Sentinel must be having some sort of fit. He was staring blankly into nothingness, a bit like a shell-shock patient. The Langley-Smythe Sentinel’s Guide, who’d said his name was Morgan, was fussing over him, but he was completely unresponsive.
“Have Tommy try,” Langley-Smythe said, once the guard had left them.
“Sir?” Thomas said, alarmed. Try what?
Morgan gave him a reassuring smile. “Just take his hand, and speak to him. Ask him to come back.”
If Morgan, who had clearly known he was a Guide for more than two days, couldn’t do it, Thomas had no idea how he was supposed to help, but he figured he had better try, to show willing if nothing else.
And damned if it didn’t work—six words out of him, and the new Sentinel was looking around and talking about how lovely he was.
All right, so maybe he didn’t quite have all of his faculties back—after two days of sleeping in his clothes in a cell with limited sanitation facilities, Thomas was fairly sure that “lovely” was not an accurate description—but he was better than he was, and apparently, Thomas had had something to do with it.
A few minutes later, he was sitting next to…Gerald, he was apparently supposed to call him. Except he was Lord Something-or-other, and nobody had mentioned what, yet. Gerald hadn’t wanted to let go of his hand, and the other two were acting like that was the most terrific thing they’d ever seen in their lives. Thomas knew it was supposed to be all right, since Gerald was a Sentinel and he was—apparently—a Guide, but he couldn’t help keeping an anxious eye on the door. He could just imagine what the police would think if they came in and saw this.
“Do try to link with him,” Langley-Smythe urged.
“I’m sure I can,” said Gerald. Lord Gerald, Thomas decided to think of him, although that was only his right title if he was a younger son.
“Linking” was apparently what Sentinels called the tingling, ear-clogging thing. It happened almost as soon as Lord Gerald spoke. It wasn’t really unpleasant, Thomas decided, just a bit strange. He felt a surge of elation from Lord Gerald’s direction.
“Yes,” Lord Gerald said, with a shaky laugh. “God, that’s marvelous. When can I take him home?”
“Not for a while,” Langley-Smythe said. “Even once he’s released, he’ll have to be trained.”
“I can have him with me in my rooms at the Society, though, can’t I?”
During this exchange, Thomas tried to keep his irritation at hearing himself spoken about like a stray puppy off of his face. If being able to link with Lord Gerald was going to help get him out of prison, he was all for it, but they might at least have remembered that he was in the room.
“I can’t imagine Weatherby would refuse,” Langley-Smythe said. “But we still have to get him out of here, first.”
“I don’t suppose I can stay here with him.” Lord Gerald tried for a sort of joking tone, but the expression on his face as he looked at Langley-Smythe was a little too serious to really pull it off.
“No,” Langley-Smythe said. “I’m sorry. You wouldn’t even have gotten in here to see him today if that oaf at the front desk hadn’t believed ‘representative of the Society’ meant something in particular. I wouldn’t dare try it again.” He paused, and added, “I’m sure this is all a bit confusing for Tommy.”
At least someone had remembered. Even if he was still calling him “Tommy.” Thomas wondered where he’d gotten the idea Thomas was called that, and wished he’d stop.
“Of course,” Lord Gerald said, looking at him and squeezing his hand. “I’m sorry. It’s just very exciting.”
What followed was a long and confusing explanation, interspersed with remarks about how lovely he was, with frequent interruptions by Langley-Smythe and even Morgan. Apparently, a Sentinel couldn’t “link” with just any Guide. Some could link with almost anyone. Most could link with a good half, or maybe a quarter, of Guides they tried it with. No one really knew why, although, according to Lord Gerald, some of the Society’s “scientific chaps” were trying to sort it out. “They think it might be like blood groups, if you’ve heard of those.”
“I have,” Thomas said. It was one of the few things they’d mentioned that he had heard of.
“It isn’t blood groups—that was one of the first things they looked into, once blood groups were identified. But they think it might be similar, something that runs in families,” Lord Gerald said. “A Sentinel who can’t link with many Guides is called a ‘hard match,’ and I may be the hardest match there ever was.”
He went on to explain that he hadn’t had a Guide he could link with properly since his previous one was killed in the war. He’d tried every one the Army, the Sentinel Society, and his family could track down and throw at him. “The boffins are baffled. There’s an analyst who’s convinced it has to be all in my head, like the hysterical paralysis or hysterical mutism some fellows got at the Front. It must be complete rot, though, or this wouldn’t have worked,” he added, holding up their joined hands.
Trying to absorb it all, Thomas said, “I thought a Sentinel couldn’t—” He realized at the last minute that saying, “couldn’t live without a Guide” would be a bit tactless. “That is, I thought a Sentinel needed to have a Guide, my lord.”
“We do,” Lord Gerald said. “I’ve found a few with whom I can make a very weak connection, if I lie very still and concentrate on it. So far, they’ve been able to bring me out of enthrallment, though sometimes it takes quite a while. I was in one for three days once; they thought I might die.”
Enthrallment, Thomas had figured out, was the sort of fit-like state Lord Gerald had been in when he came in. He couldn’t quite imagine spending three days like that. He began to understand why everyone was so excited about him being able to link with Lord Gerald.
“I almost never leave Society headquarters,” he continued. “It’s designed for Sentinels, so there isn’t much for us to become enthralled on, and the whole staff is made up of Guides. It seems to help a bit, having all of them around, even if I can’t link with them. So I’ve managed, but it’s a pretty wretched sort of life.” Lord Gerald smiled awkwardly. “And that’s why I’m so pleased to have found you.”
“I’m glad I can help, my lord,” Thomas said, since his lordship seemed to be waiting for him to say something. It was, he realized, a bit stupid—or else ridiculously trusting—for Lord Gerald to tell him all this. Surely, if he was the only Guide Lord Gerald could use, he could ask for nearly anything he wanted in the way of salary and perqs. Maybe there was something about it he didn’t quite understand.
In any case, the first thing he wanted was to get out of jail, and the fact that Lord Gerald, if it was possible, wanted that even more than he did couldn’t possibly hurt. “I hope I won’t have to keep you waiting too long, my lord,” he said. “Until I can get out of here, I mean.”
“I hope so, too,” Gerald said with a smile. “This can’t be pleasant for you.”
“I can’t say I’m enjoying it, my lord,” he said, “but I’m managing. No need to worry.” The concern had been nice at first, but it was starting to wear on him. No matter what he’d done, he was as much of a man as any of the other prisoners; he didn’t need coddling.
“I do, as a matter of fact,” Lord Gerald said. “You’re my Guide; I get to worry about you. And I haven’t had a chance to for a long time, so don’t spoil it for me.”
His Guide? Thomas wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but it seemed like something he ought to have been consulted about. Did being a “match” for Lord Gerald mean that Thomas had to work for him?
Not that he necessarily objected—Lord Gerald seemed nice enough, and he was a bit handsome, too, in an invalidish sort of way. Not that Thomas should be thinking about that while he was still in jail over charges of gross indecency—but if the salacious novels were at all accurate, it might be relevant. He seemed to be about Thomas’s age, tallish and fair-haired, without much chin, but with alert, sea-green eyes. Thomas hadn’t seen anything to suggest he’d be unpleasant to work for, and he couldn’t argue that having a job lined up was a great deal better than not having one. Still, they seemed to have skipped over the part where Lord Gerald offered him the position and he accepted it.
“It’s all right,” Lord Gerald said, seeming to have noticed that Thomas was upset by his remark. “I was just teasing you. I forgot you wouldn’t be used to it. Talking of worrying about you, though, that reminds me—where did that parcel get to?”
Morgan produced a brown paper parcel, which Lord Gerald handed to Thomas. “Society livery. Ace—Mr. Langley-Smythe—would like you to wear it on the day of your trial.”
“All right,” Thomas said, unwrapping the parcel. The coat was…well, it was clearly very finely made, and he supposed he’d better try to look grateful, but it was…unusual. It was a dark bottle-green frock coat with deep cuffs and a truly excessive amount of gold embroidery on the cuffs, collar, and lapels. The buttons, on both the front and the cuffs, were large and gold-colored. It would be conspicuous anywhere, let alone in jail. He managed to say something appropriately grateful, then went on, “Speaking of my trial, Mr. Langley-Smythe, you mentioned the other day that you were going to talk to the prosecutor….”
“Yes,” said Langley-Smythe, with a glance at Lord Gerald. “I haven’t gotten quite as far as I’d like, but I’m meeting with him again today.”
“What does that mean, not as far as you’d like?”
“Try not to worry, Tommy,” Lord Gerald said. “I’m sure it’ll work out.”
“I think I’d worry less if I knew what was happening,” Thomas said, a little more sharply than was probably wise. He knew he ought not to argue with the people who were trying to spare him a prison sentence, but he was getting pretty sick of being treated like a child—petted and reassured, but told nothing.
Langley-Smythe and Lord Gerald exchanged glances again, and eventually Lord Gerald said, “So far, the best Mr. Langley-Smythe has been able to get them to agree to is three months with hard labour or six without.”
Three months. Or six. All right. It was a very long time. Not as long as it could have been, but longer than he wanted. “I see, my lord.”
“He’s still working on it,” Lord Gerald said, patting his arm. It reminded Thomas uncomfortably of the way he’d touched Jimmy, back when he thought Jimmy liked him. Lord Gerald couldn’t mean anything like that, but—well, he wished he could pull away without giving offense.
“It’s not ideal,” Langley-Smythe said. “But the CP is unlikely to be willing to release you without sentence. I have some other ideas to suggest.”
“What kind of ideas?”
This time, Langley-Smythe actually answered him without looking at Lord Gerald first. “The one I think is most likely is probationary release into the custody of the Society. You’d come and work there, just as we talked about, and we’d promise the judge that we’ll keep you out of trouble.”
Just like they talked about, only Thomas wouldn’t be able to leave if he didn’t like it. Still, he reminded himself, you couldn’t leave prison if you didn’t like it, either. “That sounds…better, sir.” He supposed, in that case, they really didn’t have to ask him whether he wanted to be Lord Gerald’s Guide or not. It certainly seemed like a more pleasant prospect than prison.
“We probably won’t know for certain until Monday,” Langley-Smythe warned him. “Prosecutors usually become more generous the morning of trial, so in order to get the best arrangement I can manage, we’ll need to suffer the uncertainty for a few days.”
Thomas nodded. “I understand.”
Over the rest of the week until his trial, the worst Thomas had to contend with was boredom. The only diversion allowed was a Bible, and it wasn’t exactly gripping reading. Plus someone had broken the spine to fall open at the part about Sodom and Gomorrah, which under the circumstances seemed a little pointed. For the first couple of days, Sentinel Darrowby stopped by a few times, and could be persuaded to lend Thomas a newspaper for an hour or two. After that, he sent his Guide, a man named Davis, and Davis was much less willing to break rules on Thomas’s behalf. Reading the headlines out loud to him was as far as he’d go.
He also found plenty of time to investigate his new livery. The trousers, he discovered, were beige, and had a flap with two rows of buttons up the front. He couldn’t quite bring himself to wear them, and decided that if either of the Sentinels asked, he’d say they hadn’t fitted. The jacket was bad enough.
When the day of his trial came, Thomas spent most of the morning sitting in a small waiting room with Lord Gerald. Being his lordship’s Guide was already showing some benefit—the other prisoners were all crowded onto a bench out in the corridor, where passersby could goggle at them. Here, all he had to put up with was Lord Gerald clutching his hand and reassuring him. He really could have done without the hand-holding, in public, but he didn’t mind the reassurance so much right at the moment, because Langley-Smythe, who was in and out of the waiting room all morning, said things were not going as well as he’d hoped.
“I’ve managed to gain some ground, but not as much as I’d like,” he said on one of these visits. “He’s now agreed to three months, without hard labour, and he’s agreed to stipulate protective custody, but he wants to see Tommy in prison.”
The sentence didn’t sound too bad to Thomas, but Lord Gerald said, “They can’t, Ace, they just can’t.”
Langley-Smythe shook his head. “We might get something better from the judge—but we could also get something worse. We don’t want that.”
They certainly didn’t. “If it comes down to it, I don’t want to risk anything longer,” Thomas said. Not that anyone had asked him, but he had a right to an opinion, didn’t he? Protective custody without hard labour sounded like pretty much the same thing he’d been living with for a week. Three months of it would be—well, it would be pretty rotten, but he was sure he could survive it.
“You can’t,” Lord Gerald said again.
“I’m going to keep trying,” Langley-Smythe said.
And he did keep trying, but without much effect. An hour or so later, Lord Gerald asked if it might help if he spoke to the Crown Prosecutor himself.
“It couldn’t possibly hurt,” Langley-Smythe said, throwing up his hands.
“Sir,” Morgan said suddenly. “There is one way it could help, if his lordship doesn’t mind that it’s a bit…dodgy.”
The three of them had a whispered conference in the corner, and then they all left, telling Thomas to stay there and not worry. Not five minutes later, Morgan came back at a brisk trot. “His lordship’s enthralled,” he announced to both Thomas and the policeman standing at the door. “I can’t bring him out of it. Tommy’s is the only one I’ve seen help him when he’s like this.”
The policeman had to go fetch his superior, who had to consult with Mr. Langley-Smythe, and everyone—except Thomas—had to go over to where his lordship was and stare at him for a while, but eventually, permission was given for Thomas to go to Lord Gerald’s aid.
“Just do like you did the other day,” Morgan told him in a whisper, on the way there. “It’ll be fine.”
The situation looked a hell of a lot more dramatic than it had in the police station. This time, Lord Gerald was sprawled on the floor in a corridor, at the center of a circle of robed and be-wigged gentlemen. As they approached, Langley-Smythe instructed them all, “Please, stand back, and give the Guide space to work. This is a very delicate matter, and any interference could be dangerous to Lord Pellinger.”
“Has he gotten any worse, sir?” Morgan said, his voice tight with anxiety.
Langley-Smythe glanced over at Thomas, biting his lip slightly. “He’s no better, let’s leave it at that.”
That was all a bit dramatic, too. They’d been much calmer in the police station. Either they’d been trying to avoid frightening him then, or….
…Or they were trying to frighten someone now. He looked sharply at Morgan. A bit dodgy, he’d said.
Morgan nodded slightly. “Just like before, Tommy.”
Satisfied that he understood what they were doing, Thomas dithered around for a few moments, fussing over arranging Lord Gerald in a comfortable position and loosening his tie a bit. Last time, it had taken about three seconds to bring him back, and that wasn’t much of a show. Finally, he took one of Lord Gerald’s limp hands in his, and said the magic words.
Thomas rather thought Lord Gerald must have some experience with amateur dramatics. Almost immediately, he gave Thomas’s hand a slight, invisible squeeze, but apart from that, he stayed still until Thomas had repeated his lines a few times. Then he stirred gradually, his eyelids fluttering a bit at first, before opening fully. “Tommy?” he said weakly. “Is that you?”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said.
He closed his eyes again, and brought Thomas’s hand to his lips. After a moment, he opened his eyes and spoke, sounding a bit stronger. “I say, this is a bit embarrassing. I should like to sit up, if you’d help me.”
The crowd started to disperse as Thomas helped Lord Gerald to sit up, leaning against the wall. He insisted that Thomas sit there with him too, tucked up against his side with Lord Gerald’s arm around him.
“Does that happen often?” one of the be-wigged gentlemen asked Langley-Smythe.
“Only a couple of times a day,” Langley-Smythe said.
The man shook his head and sighed. “Perhaps we might be able to come to some sort of an agreement.”
Gerald wasn’t exactly pleased to have made a public spectacle of himself in a provincial courthouse, but he couldn’t argue with the results. By the time he’d gotten back onto his feet—or rather, foot—and Tommy had dusted him off, Alistair came back with a reasonable offer of three months’ probation in the custody of the Society.
“That’s perfect, Ace—thank you,” Gerald said.
“What does that mean, exactly?” Tommy asked.
“It means you’ll come work for the Society, just like we talked about,” Alistair said. “I’m sure you’ll be employed as Guide to Pelly—Gerald, that is.” To Gerald, he added, “I expect you’ll have to keep living at the Society for three months. Or rather, Tommy will, and I gather you’ll want to stay with him.”
“Of course,” Gerald said. “It’ll be just fine. You’ll need a bit of time to learn your new job anyway,” he told Tommy.
Alistair continued, “If you got in trouble with the law, or if the Society were no longer willing to be responsible for you, then you’d have to go to prison and serve the full sentence.”
“But you don’t need to worry about that,” Gerald said quickly. He’d make sure of it.
Tommy nodded. “But if I stay out of trouble for three months, I’m a free man?”
It seemed to Gerald like an odd thing to say, and he hastened to assure Tommy, “You won’t be treated any differently from the other Guides during the probation. You won’t even notice it, really.”
“But yes, after three months, you’ll have paid your debt to society,” Alistair said with a smile. “I’ll tell the CP that we accept, then, and your case should come up before the judge shortly.”
Gerald, too, was a little nervous—Alistair had said that the judge would approve the agreement “more or less automatically,” and what if this happened to be one of the “less” times? But when their turn came, it ended up taking less than five minutes. Then they had to troop down to another room where Alistair signed a few papers, and they were on their way.
The drive back down to London seemed shorter than the one up—and much, much shorter than last week’s return from meeting Tommy. Being able to jump into a motor and jaunt across the country on a whim belonged, in Gerald’s mind, to that far off, mist-shrouded land called “Before the War.” But now that he had a properly matched Guide again, so many things were possible.
He’d been telling the truth when he told Tommy how wretchedly narrow his life had become. He didn’t collapse in enthrallment in public nearly as often as Alistair had implied he did, but that was only because he never went anywhere. Being without a Guide, as well as losing his leg, had made him a cripple twice over. But now—well, the crutches would still be a nuisance, but other men managed. Gerald had seen them, when he’d sat by a Society window, watching the world go by. He wouldn’t be able to walk far, but he could take taxis. He could dine out. He could go to the theatre.
On the approach, the Sentinel Society looked like three large town-houses joined together. Later, Thomas found out there were three more joined on at the corner, but even seeing only half the place at first, it looked quite impressive. Morgan stopped the motor in front of an awning, and they both hopped out to help their gentlemen out.
Getting Lord Gerald out of the back seat and upright on his crutches was a bit awkward, but Thomas supposed he’d work out the knack of it with practice. Two fellows in green tails opened the front doors. Thomas supposed that they would see the gentlemen inside, and he and Morgan would continue around to a servants’ entrance, but instead, Morgan turned over the motor to one of the green-coated men and made to follow Langley-Smythe in the front door. After a second or two of consideration, Thomas decided to copy him—if it was wrong, someone would say so, he figured.
Or he hoped, at least. It was all very well for Mr. Langley-Smythe to say it was just like they had brought him here and given him a job, but it was a job where he couldn’t leave, and if he got sacked, he’d go to prison. He wasn’t particularly eager to get in trouble on his first day.
In the front hall, Morgan helped Langley-Smythe out of his coat and hat, and gave them to yet another man in a green coat. The livery looked a little less ridiculous here than it had in a jail cell, but only a little. “Your coat, my lord?” he asked. He had no idea how Lord Gerald would take his coat off without falling over, but he must manage somehow.
“Hm?” Lord Gerald said, looking over at him. “Oh, I’ll keep it for now; we’re going up to my rooms directly. Peters,” he said to the man in green, “could you have a tea tray sent up for us? Thank you.”
Thomas had expected that when they arrived, he’d be taken off downstairs for some version of the usual new-job business. Not an interview, precisely, but something where he’d be told what his duties were, and perhaps introduced to the rest of the staff. But his lordship seemed to be assuming that Thomas would go up to his rooms with him now.
Perhaps there was someone there who would explain things. Someone must have been doing…whatever it was Guides normally did, during the time that his lordship was looking for a “match.” Whoever that was might have been detailed to fill him in on his new position, much the way he’d had to show Bates around on his first day.
After a few words of parting to Mr. Langley-Smythe, Lord Gerald set off down the passage. There was a grand front staircase, but Lord Gerald bypassed it. “I usually take the lift,” he told Thomas over his shoulder. “It’s rather hidden away at the back of the house, but the stairs are a bit much for me to manage.”
The lift was operated by yet another man in green—although, on closer inspection, this one was more of a boy, fourteen or so. Were all of them Guides? He thought Lord Gerald had said the green coats were for Guides, but maybe he had misheard, and everyone who worked here wore them. There were an awful lot of green coats about; in addition to the four who had provided some service to Lord Gerald or Mr. Langley-Smythe, Thomas had seen at least half a dozen others bustling about. Somehow, Thomas hadn’t thought there would be so many—the Sentinels in novels usually just had one.
“Here we are,” Lord Gerald said, stopping in front of a door bearing a brass plate reading, “Lord Pellinger.” Not Lord Gerald, then—he was either an inheriting son or a peer in his own right. Thomas quickly opened the door and allowed Lord Pellinger to precede him inside.
They were in a small, but airy and bright, sitting room, equipped with a sofa and some comfortable chairs, as well as a small table, suitable for card playing or perhaps an informal meal. There was a door on each side, leading, presumably, to the rest of Lord Pellinger’s private rooms. It was fairly easy to sort out that the next steps were to follow him in, and then to shut the door behind them, but after that, Thomas was at a bit of a loss.
If he were at Downton and he’d just shown a guest into a sitting room, he’d wait a moment to see if there were any other instructions. If there weren’t, he’d return to the servants’ hall or whatever other duties he had. But Lord Pellinger wasn’t a guest; these were his rooms. Thomas could think of no reason at all why he’d have walked into a sitting room at Downton with a member of the family. And he had no idea what other duties he had. So he ended up sort of lingering by the door, until Lord Pellinger said, “Now you can take my coat, Tommy.”
“I’m sorry, my lord,” he said quickly, hurrying over.
“It’s all right. Now, this is a bit awkward, but I’ve found what works is if you take one crutch, and help me out of the sleeve on that side….” It was, as his lordship said, a bit awkward, but Thomas thought he’d be able to do it more smoothly next time. Once it was off, he said, “I’ll show you where to put that, and you can see the rest of the place on our way back. This is—well, it’s a sitting room; I imagine you can tell. Everything else is back this way.” He set off for the right-hand door.
There didn’t seem to be anyone else here waiting to show Thomas what to do, if his lordship was showing him himself. That didn’t give him much of a chance to learn his new duties—if whoever the last man had been was any good, his lordship wouldn’t have noticed many of the things he did.
Still, he had no choice about it, so he followed his lordship through the door and into a short passageway. His lordship led the way, swinging along easily on his crutches. “Here’s my bedroom, and my dressing room’s the next one. The door at the end goes—well, I’m not actually sure where it goes. One occasionally catches a glimpse of people going in and out with laundry and fresh linens and things. I expect Weatherby will tell you all about it.”
Yes, that was precisely the sort of thing he needed to know, if he was to do his job, and naturally his lordship couldn’t tell him anything about it. Still, apparently someone would, eventually. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard mention of Weatherby, but no one had said who he was. The butler, perhaps? Or whatever the equivalent was in a place like this.
The dressing room was quite large, with two sizeable armoires and a bureau, as well as a small desk and a single bed, half-hidden behind a screen. “I think they usually put my coats in that one,” Lord Pellinger said, indicating one of the armoires with his crutch.
Thomas rather thought he ought to brush it before hanging it up, but decided not to argue the point with his lordship standing right there. “You can get my smoking jacket while you’re in there,” Lord Pellinger continued. “I won’t be dressing for dinner; I’m too tired, and it’ll be nicer to have it here in my rooms, anyway.”
Helping Lord Pellinger into his smoking jacket turned out to be a very similar process to helping him out of his outdoor one. It was definitely going to call for more practice, Thomas decided.
“Ordinarily I’d leave you here to get settled,” his lordship continued, “but as you haven’t brought anything with you, I’m not sure how much settling in you can do just now.”
“My lord?” Thomas asked. He wasn’t entirely sure why he needed to “get settled” in his employer’s dressing room, or why not having brought anything with him had anything to do with it.
Lord Pellinger glanced over at him. “Oh! Right, yes, I’m sorry, this is where you sleep. Right there,” he added, pointing to the bed as if Thomas might not have managed to recognize it on his own. “I’d forgotten, they do things a bit differently if it’s not a Sentinel household. It’s just so much more convenient to have a Guide nearby instead of several floors away in the servants’ quarters, you see. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all, my lord,” Thomas said, since he could hardly say anything else. It sounded more than a little strange to him—he couldn’t quite picture sleeping in Lord Grantham’s dressing room. He supposed it made a bit of sense, with his lordship being an invalid and everything, but it sounded like he meant all Guides slept in the dressing room, even if their Sentinels were perfectly healthy. He’d just have to get used to it. It wasn’t as though he’d have any had more privacy in prison.
Besides, he didn’t have a choice about it.
“Good,” Lord Pellinger said. “I’m sure you’ll be quite comfortable, but if you notice anything missing, please don’t hesitate to say.” They went back to the sitting room. “The bath and WC are through there,” he continued, indicating the other door. “And another entrance to the service passages. Explore on your own if you like, I’m going to sit down.”
Thomas didn’t feel any particular need to see the bath or the WC, but he went over and looked at them anyway, since his lordship had suggested it. The usual things were there, as well as hot and cold water on tap, which was certainly convenient. The shaving things seemed to have been left in decent enough order. There were clean towels on the rack, so whenever his lordship decided he wanted a bath, Thomas should be able to figure out how to get it ready for him. Assuming that was his job.
While he was there, he eased open the door to the service corridor, thinking he might see something to give him a hint of what he was supposed to do next.
Instead, he saw another man in a green coat, this one older than any he’d seen so far, carrying a tea-tray and of such a distinctly Carson-like appearance that Thomas feared he was about to be told off for lurking in doorways.
“You must be Tommy,” he said.
“Thomas, if you don’t mind. Nobody’s called me Tommy since I was about four.” He supposed he didn’t have much choice about putting up with it from his lordship, but he wasn’t going to take it from downstairs without a fight.
The man nodded. “All right. That’s easier, actually—we already have a Tommy.”
He supposed he was lucky they hadn’t just decided to give him a completely new name—they did that in big houses, though not at Downton, fortunately. “I’d appreciate it,” he said, and continued, “his lordship told me to have a look round.”
An expression of annoyance passed very briefly over the man’s face. “I’d rather you stayed in his rooms, please, until I’ve had a chance to explain the operations of the house. I’m Mr. Weatherby, the house manager.”
So this was Weatherby. “Good to meet you, Mr. Weatherby,” he said. He hoped he hadn’t already gotten off on the wrong foot with him. “I’d be grateful, if you could tell me about the operations of the house. I have to admit I’m a bit unsure of my duties here.” He might be laying it on a little thick, but Weatherby was one person he’d do well to have on his side.
“Of course,” Weatherby said. “You’ve been thrown into the thick of things, being asked to attend on a Sentinel right from the start. It’s most irregular.”
Thomas had a sinking feeling that Weatherby did not particularly care for anything irregular.
“But I expect the gentlemen have explained something about Lord Pellinger’s situation?”
“Yes.” He wasn’t sure of all the details, but he understood he was being jumped up the ladder—likely over the heads of other, deserving and resentful men—because he happened to be able to link with his lordship.
“He’s a very pleasant gentleman. All of the staff are fond of him; we’ll be glad to see him looked after properly.”
In Thomas’s present state of mind, he thought there was a hint of a threat in Weatherby’s words: if Thomas did not manage to “look after” his lordship properly—whatever that meant—they would not be pleased. “I’ll do my best,” Thomas said, trying to sound more confident than he felt. Unfortunately, given that he had no idea what a Guide was supposed to do, he was far from confident that his best would be enough—particularly given that there might be resentful men eager to see him fail, or to give him a push in that direction if they saw an opportunity.
“And I should be getting your lordship his tea,” Weatherby said. “I’m sure we’ll have a chance to speak more later.”
Thomas certainly hoped so. Mr. Weatherby didn’t seem anywhere near as delighted by his existence as his lordship and Mr. Langley-Smythe were, but he had to learn about his new position from someone. “Are you coming in here?” Thomas asked, indicating the door behind him.
“No, we take tea trays in the front. But you could nip back into his sitting room and open the door for me.”
Thomas did so.
“Oh, Weatherby,” Lord Pellinger said. “Good afternoon. I wasn’t expecting you to come up yourself. I know I ought to have sent Thomas,” he emphasized the name slightly, “but we’ve only just got back from a rather trying day; I hope you don’t mind.”
With a start, Thomas realized that his lordship must have heard his exchange on the subject with Mr. Weatherby. Of course, he was a Sentinel—Thomas ought to have realized. He’d have to guard his tongue more carefully here than he was used to. He was glad, though, that his lordship was going along with his preference.
“Not at all, my lord,” Weatherby said, putting the tea tray on the table. “In fact, it’s probably best not to send him on his own until he’s been shown the house. You might consider when it would be convenient to spare him for an hour or two.”
“Would tomorrow be all right?” Lord Pellinger asked. “I thought I’d just dine up here tonight anyway. After breakfast, perhaps?”
“Very good, my lord. Until then, if you would like to ring as usual for anything you may need from downstairs, that should be very suitable.”
Weatherby was a bit more diplomatic about it when speaking to his lordship, but he must have felt strongly about not having Thomas wandering around on his own until he’d had a chance to tell him what was what. Thomas did wonder what he was supposed to eat, or if he simply wasn’t, since the servants’ hall was clearly not located in Lord Pellinger’s rooms.
“Right-o,” Lord Pellinger said. “Tomorrow morning, say half past nine?”
“I will expect him then, my lord.” Weatherby cleared his throat just a bit. If he’d been a bellman, Thomas would have thought he was hinting for a tip, but surely one didn’t tip the butler of a gentlemen’s club.
“Something else?” Lord Pellinger asked.
“It occurs to me, my lord, that Thomas might be more comfortable if we issued his kit this evening, since I understand he’s brought no luggage.”
“Of course, what a silly ass I am.” Turning to Thomas, Lord Pellinger said, “You haven’t even a toothbrush, have you? Not to worry, Weatherby will see you outfitted with everything you need. Could I send him down after we’ve had our tea?” he asked Weatherby.
Weatherby nodded. “I’ll send a boy up for the tea tray; he can show Thomas where to find me.”
After Weatherby had left, Thomas felt pretty confident that he knew what was expected, for the next few minutes at least. Put a tea tray, a gentleman, and a servant in the same room, and how they all fit together was not too difficult to work out. “Do you take sugar, my lord? Or milk?”
“Just one sugar,” he said. “I’ll have mine here on the sofa; it’s such a nuisance getting up. Did he send along any toast or anything?”
Thomas glanced at the tray. “Muffins, my lord.”
“I’ll have one of those, too. Lots of butter.”
Thomas took him what he wanted, then looked around for a place to put himself. He settled on beside the table, near the tea tray, on the theory that it was a bit like waiting by the sideboard during a dinner. He felt a bit stupid—footmen didn’t usually stand about watching people drink tea—but maybe Guides did.
“Don’t you want any?”
“Tea,” he clarified.
He did, as a matter of fact, but since he wasn’t supposed to leave Lord Pellinger’s rooms, he didn’t see how he was likely to get any. “My lord?” he repeated.
His lordship looked at him for a moment. “Sit down with me and have some tea, if you like—it’s quite usual for Guides, I promise.”
It sounded pretty unusual to Thomas, but he fixed himself a cup and, after a moment’s hesitation, a muffin as well.
Lord Pellinger nodded approvingly. “Sit over here, so we can talk.”
Thomas sat in one of his lordship’s armchairs. Carson’s head would explode, he thought. He hoped his lordship didn’t want to talk about the issue of his name—he’d have to tell him that of course, his lordship could call him whatever he liked, and he knew it would be difficult to sound sincere when he did.
“You’ll always join me when I take my meals in my room,” Lord Pellinger explained. “I suppose that’s different in Insensate households as well, isn’t it?”
“Insensate, my lord?” Thomas asked. He knew what the word meant, but it didn’t quite make sense in that sentence.
“Not Sentinels,” he said. “We don’t usually call them Insensates to their faces, you understand, but one has to call them something, and ‘people who aren’t Sentinels, or Guides, aren’t related to either, and don’t know anything about it’ is a bit of a mouthful.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas agreed.
“I remember now, when I visited an Insensate house, before the war, it was always a terrible struggle to make them understand I wanted my Guide to have his breakfast in my room with me. They always thought there was something odd about it, but it’s just something we do.” He shrugged. “It seems a bit dreary to me, taking meals alone, but I suppose it’s all in what you’re used to.”
“Yes, my lord,” he said again. Of course, the toffs he was used to didn’t usually take their meals alone—they took them with the rest of the family. Again, this detail would have made sense if it was a particular accommodation for his lordship’s invalidity—if moving from the sofa to the tea-table was “a nuisance,” he probably didn’t go down to meals often. But taking meals with his Guide had clearly been a habit of his lordship’s from before his injury.
“And you’re not used to this, I know,” Lord Pellinger added, with a sigh.
Thomas wondered if he ought to apologize for not doing, or being, whatever it was his lordship wanted, but since he had no idea what that was, he decided he’d better not, and instead just drank his tea and ate his muffin.
Around the time they’d finished, Lord Pellinger said, “Oh, there’s the boy for the tray,” and a moment or two later, Thomas heard him coming in through the door near the bath.
He was another boy of about fourteen, and once they were in the service corridor, he introduced himself, in broad Cockney, as Kip.
“Thomas,” Thomas said.
“I ‘eard,” Kip said. “You’re awfully lucky, getting Lord Pellinger on your first day. He’s nice. Most of ‘em are nice, really—it’s not a bad place, as long as you stay on Weatherby’s good side.” Looking Thomas up and down, he added, “Once he’s given you your uniforms, you don’t dare go downstairs what you haven’t got the whole kit on—the tie and everything. He can just about stand it if you’re out of uniform and you nip out here for towels or something, but downstairs, forget it. He’ll dock you a shilling, even if it’s the middle of the night.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Thomas said. He would no more have thought of going downstairs in a state of undress than—well, than sit down with his employer for tea, he supposed.
“He doesn’t like it if you swear, neither.”
That was another thing Thomas would have thought went without saying, but if the Society made a habit of hiring servants out of jail, perhaps it was best to be clear about these things. “I think I can manage that,” he said, trying to conceal his irritation at being condescended to by a child. Did Kip think that, just because he was new, he didn’t know anything?
Kip kept up a constant stream of chatter as they made their way down, occasionally pointing out some useful thing like the location of the laundry chutes or the cupboard where towels were kept, but mostly saying very obvious things, like that one didn’t go up or down the main staircase unless walking with one of the gentlemen, and that jackets and trousers were not put down the laundry chutes. “You carry them down and brush and press them yourself,” he explained, in the tone of one imparting arcane knowledge.
He went on like that until they fetched up outside a butler’s pantry, where he interrupted his monologue about how sometimes the food was a bit strange, but you could have as much as you wanted, to say, “Here’s Thomas, Mr. Weatherby.”
“Thank you, Kip,” he said. “Go and help Mr. Williams in the dining room. Walk,” he added, as Kip started to run off. Once he had gone, Mr. Weatherby shook his head and explained, “He’s new.”
Thomas was glad to hear that, at least.
Weatherby took him along to what served for a livery-cupboard, but was actually more of a store-room. Or practically a warehouse. He supposed it made sense, given the number of servants running around in livery here.
“Most of the new Guides come without much,” Weatherby explained, as he outfitted him with everything from underwear and pyjamas to a set bottle-green tails for evening. “So we’re used to supplying everything that’s needed.”
“Is everyone who works here a Guide?” Thomas asked. He had been wondering, and Mr. Weatherby seemed the person to ask.
“Everyone in a position for the gentlemen to see them, yes. The kitchen, laundry, and some of the outdoor staff aren’t. We employ the greatest number of Guides of any establishment in the British Isles—of course, a great many leave as soon as they’ve gotten a bit of experience, so we need more than we might otherwise. Here, try this.” He held out another of the green frock coats. “It might fit better in the shoulders than the one you have on.”
Thomas slipped out of his jacket as bidden. “That is better,” he said. “If I bring the cuffs up about half an inch, and replace the missing button, it’ll be perfect.” Except for the ridiculous color and the old-fashioned cut, at any rate.
“I agree,” Weatherby said. “You know how to do the alterations?”
“Yes, if it’s something simple like that,” Thomas said. He explained how he’d do them, figuring that even though this wasn’t an interview, Weatherby would want to get some idea of what he already knew. He concluded, “I was a valet before.”
“I’d heard,” Mr. Weatherby said. “So you should find many of your duties familiar, at least. We don’t often get new men with experience in service. That should be of some help, at least.”
That went some ways toward explaining Kip’s irritating helpfulness, at least. If he was new himself, he’d likely been hoping to find someone even more ignorant that he could show off to.
Weatherby went on, “You should find what you need in the first shallow drawer of the bureau in your gentleman’s dressing room. Apart from the button, that is—I’ll give you a spare one; they’re in my pantry.”
The butler’s pantry was a strange place to keep buttons, but Thomas decided not to ask, and just said, “Thank you,” instead. “Should I clean and press the other one before I give it back? There wasn’t anywhere to hang it, so it’s a bit creased.” He’d also been sleeping in it, after folding up his own jacket to use as a pillow, but he didn’t see any reason to mention that.
Weatherby looked at it for a moment. “No, just leave it on the table there—you’ll be busy enough the next few days; I’ll have one of the others do it.”
Gathering up all of his new things, Thomas followed him back to the butler’s pantry. There, Weatherby unlocked the silver cupboard and took out a slim, flat box, rather like a jewel case. Opening the box, he took out a button and handed it to Thomas. “Mind you don’t lose that before you’ve had time to sew it on.”
The button was surprisingly heavy for its size. An explanation for why they were kept locked in the butler’s pantry occurred to Thomas, but—no, they couldn’t possibly be.
“If you ever do misplace one, let me know immediately so we can search for it. And I trust I need not mention that pawning them is expressly forbidden.”
Thomas looked down at the button in his hand, and up at Weatherby. There had been several dozen livery coats hanging up in the storeroom, some looking as though they hadn’t been touched in years, but not a single button showed a hint of tarnish. Nor did any of the ones arrayed in Weatherby’s box. “Really?” he said. “All of them?”
“Please don’t mention it to any of the younger boys,” Weatherby said. “It’s not precisely a secret, but it’s best if they aren’t exposed to the temptation.”
“Every single servant in this place has two livery coats with a dozen gold buttons on each one?” Thomas still couldn’t believe it. “That’s…insane.”
“Every single Guide in this place has,” Weatherby corrected. “Sir William Watkyn insisted on it.”
“The founder of the Society,” Weatherby explained. “It was the tradition at the time to dress Guides in somewhat ostentatious livery, as a sign of their value to the House. Since the Society’s Guides were seen by many as a ragtag group of filthy urchins, he wanted to make it plain that they were valued as much as any others.”
As an explanation, it didn’t really explain much—for one thing, Thomas wondered where filthy urchins came into it—but he didn’t have a chance to ask any more questions, as Mr. Weatherby pointed out that he ought to be getting back to his gentleman. He hadn’t imparted any more information about what Thomas was supposed to do when he got there; it seemed that would have to wait for tomorrow. But at least he was now trusted to walk back to Lord Pellinger’s rooms on his own. He went back in through the same door he’d left, which he realized a moment later meant he had to walk through the sitting room carrying his armload of clothes. Surely the reason that there were two exits to the service passages was so that things could be carried in and out without parading them in front of the his lordship; he ought to have used the other.
Thomas stood in the passage, trying to decide if he should go back out and try to find the other door, and, even more urgently, if he could manage it without dropping everything on the floor.
“Thomas, is that you?” Lord Pellinger called from the sitting room.
That decided that. “Yes, my lord,” he said, getting a firmer grip on his bundle of clothes and going in.
His lordship looked up at Thomas with a smile. “Did Weatherby give you everything you need?”
“Yes, my lord.” After waiting several long moments for his lordship to say what he wanted him for, Thomas at last asked, “Is there something you’d like me to do, my lord?”
“Hm? Oh, no, I just wondered if it was you. Carry on.”
“Very good, my lord. I have a bit of work to do to get my new kit in order, if this would be a good time.” That would also give him a bit of time on his own to collect his thoughts, which would be welcome.
“Of course—if I need you, I shall bellow.”
Thomas might have suggested ringing, instead, but he only said, “Yes, my lord.”
Shutting himself in the dressing room, Thomas set about brushing, pressing, and mending. The work was at least familiar enough to be comforting. He couldn’t help remembering doing the same thing when he’d first arrived at Downton. O’Brien had helped him, since he hadn’t known anything back in those days. He supposed he was lucky she’d taken a shine to him, given the way she “helped” some others—sending them on made-up errands to make them look foolish. He remembered one girl scouring the house for a left-handed buttonhook.
Resolutely, he pushed the thought away. O’Brien certainly hadn’t stuck up for him when he’d needed her most, so what use was she?
Instead, he thought about how the rest of them back at Downton were probably thrilled he’d gotten his well-deserved comeuppance. They were probably picturing him huddled in a dank cell, miserable and ruined, fearing the loss of what remained of his virtue at the hands of a large and violent cell-mate. He’d have liked to see the looks on their faces if they saw where he was instead. There may have been a few things about his new place he didn’t like—not being able to leave, being sent to prison if he failed to satisfy, and green coats topping the list—but he could certainly make it sound like he was knee-deep in clover.
At least, he could make it sound like that if he ever had a chance to tell them, which he wouldn’t. They’d probably cross to the other side if they met him on the street. Jimmy especially.
He wondered if it was worth writing to ask for his things back. Carson might have tossed them out or given them to the deserving poor before the dust of the police car settled in the drive. There wasn’t much he’d miss, but if he wanted to leave the Society once his sentence was up, he’d need his clothes. Other than that, he just had a few photographs that brought back bad memories and a book of Walt Whitman’s poems that the Duke of Crowborough had given him almost a decade ago. How he’d managed to hold on to that through the war, he had no idea, and why he’d held on to it, even less. The inscription was vague—To Thomas, I thought you might find Mr. Whitman a kindred spirit, with no signature. That was probably why he hadn’t taken it back along with the letters. Thomas didn’t understand most of the poems, and hadn’t known Whitman was one of their sort until His Grace the duke had told him.
Still, he would like to have it back, if he could. And he was owed a bit in the way of wages, as well, though he expected he’d have fine luck getting that. He put the question aside and turned to the next dilemma, which livery to wear. The beige trousers were the same either way, but he’d been given both stiff and soft collars, and a handful of white ties as well as two striped four-in-hand ones. The white ties and stiff collars went with the tails, clearly, and the others with the frock coat. It was after five, but Lord Pellinger had said he wasn’t dressing for dinner, so that might mean Thomas shouldn’t, either.
At last, he settled on the tails. If his lordship didn’t like it, Thomas could say he had just put it on to check the fit—he was hardly likely to notice that Thomas’s frock coat was also new—and change into the other.
With that decided, he put most of his things away in a trunk he found under his bed. After a moment’s hesitation, he decided to hang his other coat in with his lordship’s things—if he kept it in the trunk, he’d have to press it every time he changed coats, and likely his lordship would never notice, anyway.
Prancing about in beige trousers and a bottle-green tailcoat with gold buttons without feeling like a complete git was another thing that was going to take practice, Thomas realized as he found himself hesitating before leaving the dressing room. Lord Pellinger was surely used to it, since everyone here wore them, but it still took a certain amount of nerve to make his first public appearance in a costume that would earn him either a swift punch in the nose or howls of riotous laughter from any decent working man.
His lordship looked up from his book as Thomas re-entered the sitting room, now fully dressed in the Society’s livery. “Ah. That looks quite well on you.”
Thomas winced a little, internally, but said, “It’s good of you to say, my lord.”
“I know, it’s awfully old fashioned,” Gerald said. “But it’s only while we’re living here. And at least you’re lucky enough to the right sort of coloring for it. It’s absolutely dreadful on the lads with red hair.”
“I can imagine, my lord,” Thomas said.
“That’s the Society for you, though. Little Davy Watkyn looked good in green in 1754, so I’m sure Society Guides will be wearing it a century hence.”
Thomas wondered who Davy Watkyn was—from the name, he might be some relative of the Society’s founder, but why the livery would be selected with his colouring in mind, Thomas couldn’t begin to guess.
“Did Weatherby tell you about Davy and Sir William Watkyn?” his lordship asked.
“He mentioned Sir William Watkyn and the gold buttons, but nothing about Davy that I recall, my lord.”
“Oh, well, it’s quite a story—sit with me and I’ll tell you.”
Thomas sat, gingerly.
“Sir William was a Sentinel, of course. From the House of…let’s see, Ruthven, I believe. One evening as he was leaving the theatre or a dinner party—accounts vary—he stumbled across a Guide—that would be Davy—‘plying his desperate trade,’ as his memoirs put it, among the street children of London. One assumes it was either prostitution or pick-pocketing, but Sir William never specified.”
His lordship went on to explain how Sir William had made Davy—who’d had no surname at the time—his personal Guide, and told all the other Sentinels he knew about where he’d found him. Apparently, the Sentinels of the time had been shocked to hear that a Guide was living on the streets of London.
“Weren’t there a lot of children like that, in those days, my lord?” Thomas asked. He’d read a bit of Dickens, and he’d certainly seemed to think so.
“Yes, but they got that way because they were orphaned or illegitimate, or their parents were slaves to drink or drugs. The only Guides they knew about were born on Sentinel estates, and if their parents couldn’t care for them, the House would arrange for another family to take them in.”
Apparently, the Sentinels back then hadn’t known that being a Guide could skip a generation or two—“or more, if there’s Guide blood on both sides,” his lordship added. “That may be what happened with you.” When non-Guide children were born to Guide parents, they were encouraged to leave the estate. “And any children they had weren’t presented to their grandparents’ Head of House.”
Whatever that meant. Thomas gathered that the result was that no one knew if they were Guides or not. Until, as his lordship explained, Sir William and his friends started looking for them in the streets and the foundling hospitals.
“Sir William started out intending to take them all into his own home, but it turned out there were far too many for that.” The Sentinel Society had been the answer. Part of it was Sir William’s old house—he and his friends had clubbed together to buy the adjoining ones. It had started out as a sort of training school for Guides; the gentleman’s club part had developed as a way to give the children some Sentinels to practice waiting on.
Thomas supposed it was a nice enough story, but it was with some horror that he realized he, apparently, was considered the modern equivalent of one of those 18th century urchins. Mr. Langley-Smythe had mentioned that he’d be “trained” at the Society, while serving out his three months. Thomas resolved to make it plain from the start that, while he hadn’t known he was a Guide, he knew plenty about being a valet.
“Anyway, we don’t dare change the livery too much,” his lordship concluded. “Sir William might come back to haunt us if we did.”
“I see, my lord,” Thomas said.
“You’re still looking a bit puzzled. I’m sure it’s difficult, being in a new place. Please, ask, if there’s anything you want to know.”
Perhaps one more question might be all right, Thomas thought, before he set about demonstrating how much he already knew. He settled on one of his most urgent ones—why, precisely, the Sentinels had wanted to bring him here even before finding out he was a match for his lordship. But his lordship might find that a personal question, or might realize that he felt unsure of himself, if he asked just that. Instead, he disguised the real subject of his curiosity by asking, “Are Guides so very rare, then? I thought there were about twice as many as Sentinels.”
“There are,” his lordship agreed. “Or a little more. Why?”
That didn’t really tell Thomas what he wanted to know, and his lordship’s had asked, so he ventured a little further. “I just wondered, my lord, why they—Sir William and the others, I mean—went to the trouble of rounding up those Guides, if they didn’t particularly need them.”
“Oh,” his lordship said, seeming a bit stunned. “That’s….well, it’s quite simple really.” He fell silent.
Wonderful. Thomas had, apparently, asked a question so foolish that his lordship couldn’t figure out how to answer it in terms simple enough that someone as stupid as he evidently was could understand.
Finally he said, “Sentinels have a natural instinct to protect Guides. The scientific chappies say it’s because we need them, you know, to control our senses. Evolution and all that.” He pondered for a moment, perhaps wondering if Thomas needed the idea of evolution explained to him. “In any case, it doesn’t switch off if one has all the Guides one needs. Like a mother—if one of her children is ill or in danger, it doesn’t matter how many others she may have.”
Another comparison that was not particularly flattering. “I see. Thank you, my lord.” Perhaps that also explained why they hadn’t asked him if he wanted to be his lordship’s Guide—one didn’t ask foundlings if they fancied being taken in, or if they’d perhaps prefer to starve instead.
Thomas seemed a bit fidgety by the time Gerald had finished telling him about Davy Watkyn, and scampered off to the dressing room when Gerald dismissed him.
It was bound to be hard on a healthy young man, he thought, being shut up in a room with a cripple day after day—but then, he reminded himself, he wasn’t as much of a cripple as he had been this morning. And Thomas was—impossible as it was to believe—actually a year or so older than Gerald was. It was always a shock to look in a mirror and see that he was only the six years older than he had been in 1914 that the calendar declared.
It was this matter of being a war cripple, he supposed. In his mind, those words still meant an old codger who had come back from South Africa or Crimea with a bum knee.
The evening passed quietly. Young Kip delivered dinner, and Thomas served it. As with tea, Gerald had to coax him to sit down and eat. He didn’t actually protest out loud, but Gerald could tell he found the arrangement disconcerting, if not absolutely shocking.
It had been a very long day, and much more full of excitement than Gerald was used to since the war, so after dinner and a bath, Gerald retired early. “You’re welcome to stay up, of course,” he told Thomas as he helped him into his pyjamas. “I don’t usually get up until around eight thirty.” And that only because Weatherby didn’t like sending breakfast trays much later than that—sometimes he went straight back to bed, after.
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said. “Good night, then.”
Gerald smiled. “Good night.”
It wasn’t, of course. The first part was all right—lying there in his bed half-asleep, listening to Thomas moving around quietly in the dressing room next door. It wasn’t entirely new, having someone in there—sometimes one of the Society Guides slept there, if Gerald had been having a hard time with his senses or his leg—but it was different, somehow, knowing it was his own Guide. Sort of cozy and domestic.
But then he fell asleep, and the trenches were waiting for him.
Before the War, he’d always dreamed in black and white. Now he dreamed in black, white, and blood. He was stumbling through the trench in the dark, with Euan clinging to his belt behind him. Shellfire. Screams. Slogging knee-deep through the mixture of dirt, blood, shit, stagnant water, and body parts that they called, for the sake of decency, “mud.”
Then the high explosive shell, right in front of them. Sending up a wagon’s-load worth of mud and shrapnel, cresting like a wave and collapsing down on top of them like the enormous fist of a filthy god. All sound gone then, except the ringing in his ears. Burrowing to the surface, gasping for breath, screaming silently.
Realizing that Euan must have let go, and he’s still in there, somewhere. Can’t hear him, can’t smell him either, but he must be in there. Scrabbling back into the pit on hands and knees—hands and knee and stump, but he didn’t know it then. Clawing through the mud with his bare hands, throat hoarse from screaming Euan’s name, unheard. Finding a limp hand and throwing it aside like a forgotten glove. The hands of his men on his shoulders, dragging him back, their mouths moving soundlessly.
But that wasn’t right; it hadn’t happened that way. He’d found Euan before they dragged him off to the dressing station. His neck broken.
Even knowing he was dead, Gerald couldn’t just leave him there. He twisted out of the restraining grip, intending to plunge back into the shell-hole.
“My lord. If you would just wake up, my lord. You’re dreaming. At least, I hope to hell you are. My lord?”
Gerald slumped back against the pillows, breathing hard. Thomas. His room at the Society. The shell-hole was miles and years away, and Euan was still dead.
“Are you all right, my lord?”
He nodded. “Yes. Thank you.”
Thomas leaned over him, looking endearingly worried for a moment, then pulled away and straightened to attention, his face going blank. “Is there anything you need, my lord?”
“Sit with me, for a minute, if you don’t mind. Since you’re up.” Being woken from a sound sleep by his new Sentinel screaming another Guide’s name could not exactly be nice for Thomas, Gerald realized. Shifting to one side, he patted the space next to him. Thomas sat, gingerly, and Gerald took his hand in his. “Euan was my old Guide. He was killed in the war. An HE shell. I suppose you remember what they’re like. I don’t like to talk about it.” Thomas couldn’t like hearing about it, either. The Front was no place for a Guide; there on his own, Thomas must have been miserable and terrified. Gerald couldn’t even think about it without wanting to go back there, somehow, and snatch him out of it. Ridiculous, since he hadn’t even been able to protect Euan.
“Of course, my lord,” Thomas said. “It must have been very difficult.”
“It was. He’d been my Guide since I left the nursery, and—well. It was wretched. It wasn’t just not having a Guide—I’d lost the one person in the world I was closest to. It would have been--” He groped for a word. “Shattering even if I’d found a new Guide the next day. It’s like losing a part of yourself, losing a Guide.” He smiled humorlessly, there in the dark, unsure if Thomas could see it or not. “And I’d know, wouldn’t I?”
“I suppose you would,” Thomas said.
They sat quietly for a few moments, Gerald listening to the soft whisper of Thomas’s breathing, the reassuring steadiness of his heartbeat. He wished Thomas would lie down next to him. Euan would have. But he couldn’t ask, not when it was only Thomas’s first day, and he had so much to get used to.
Not to mention, given the reasons for his arrest, Thomas might get an entirely wrong impression of what Gerald wanted. Even leaving the other considerations aside, he’d been too ill for too long to be much interested in that.
Thomas shifted his weight and looked toward the window, where the sky was, perhaps, beginning to lighten a bit. Probably wondering if he was going to get any more sleep tonight, Gerald thought—and he couldn’t have been sleeping well in jail; who would?
“I should let you get back to bed,” Gerald said. “I’ll be all right now.”
“If you’re sure, my lord.”
“Yes.” He released Thomas’s hand. “This doesn’t happen often. The nightmares, I mean. When I first got back, it was almost every night but now…oh, not above half a dozen times in the last year, I don’t think.” He tried to smile. “So you needn’t worry about being woken up like that all the time.”
Thomas stood. “Good night, my lord.”
The next morning, Thomas was woken by somebody shaking his shoulder, and a Cockney voice saying, “Thomas. Hey, Thomas. It’s seven-thirty; you’d better wake up.”
It took him a moment to remember where he was, and to recognize Kip, the young Guide he’d met yesterday. “You’d better shut up before you wake his lordship,” he said crossly, opening his eyes. “He had a rough night.”
“Sorry,” Kip said unapologetically. “But you’ll want to wash and dress and everything before I come back with the breakfast. And he usually has it in his dressing gown, but it’s better to set out his clothes for the day beforehand; that way you don’t have to leave him waiting, and--”
“Yes, I know,” Thomas said. “I’ve been a valet before.”
Kip stepped back. “Right. I forgot. I’ll see you later, then.”
He left, and Thomas got out of bed. After giving the matter some thought, he decided he must be supposed to use his lordship’s bathroom. That seemed a bit odd, but nobody had pointed out a servants’ one on their corridor. And it wasn’t quite as strange as sitting down to meals with him—they weren’t shaving and brushing their teeth at the same time, at least, even if they were doing it in the same place.
Once that was done, he took a deep breath and faced down his new livery. It was hard to decide which part of it he liked the least. There were the trousers, which were not only beige, but ridiculously old-fashioned. But those, at least, were not as conspicuous as the bottle-green frock coat with its absurd buttons. Then again, there was also the fact that he was back in livery at all, when as a valet he shouldn’t have been.
If he was a valet. But clearly no-one else was his lordship’s valet, so Thomas thought he must be.
As he finished knotting his tie and slipped into the jacket, Thomas decided that the very worst part was that he had to be grateful he was wearing it and not a prison uniform. He wasn’t sure what those looked like, but surely they were worse.
Shaking off his gloom, he reminded himself that things really were looking up for him. Last night was proof of that. It had certainly gone much better than the last time he’d found himself in another man’s room in the middle of the night. Of course, this time the man in question really had had a nightmare, and Thomas hadn’t—
Well, hadn’t done anything foolish.
He was sorry, of course, that his lordship had had so much pain and grief in his life. Of course he was. But there was something thrillingly intimate about sitting there in the dark, holding his hand and listening to him talk about his love for another man. He’d never known anyone—not even the people he’d actually been to bed with—who would admit to feelings like that.
True, he hadn’t said anything about feeling anything like that for Thomas, but they’d only just met. And his lordship had said he was lovely. Perhaps one day he’d be in his bedroom at night on a more pleasant errand. Not for a while, probably—his lordship seemed rather ill—but once he was feeling better.
That, he knew, wasn’t part of his job—the Sentinels in novels always took great pains to say so, before the fun bits started. His lordship would have to ask, if he wanted him in his bed. And saying yes wouldn’t be any particular hardship. Though perhaps he’d better not say it right away—the Guides in those books were always a little bit reluctant.
Thomas shook his head, calling himself back to reality. He’d had no sign that his lordship was even interested. For the first time, Thomas wished he had paid a little more attention to the parts of those books that weren’t dirty. If he had, he might have a bit more of an idea of how to handle the situations that really were likely to come up today.
He’d been half-dozing, listening to the Guides bustling around in the service passages and, a bit later, to sounds of Thomas getting up and getting ready for his day, but when Thomas came in and opened the drapes, Gerald bowed to the facts and sat up.
“Good morning, my lord,” Thomas said.
“Is it?” He looked around dazedly.
“Your crutches are just here, my lord. Do you need help getting up?”
“Yes,” he said, “but I usually have a cup of tea before I attempt it.”
“Oh,” Thomas said flatly, and Gerald realized that tea was nowhere in evidence.
He was starting to smell a bit distressed, so Gerald hurried on, “No, don’t worry about it. I forgot to mention it earlier.” And, he realized as he woke up a bit more, Weatherby hadn’t wanted Thomas leaving the room on his own until he’d spoken to him, anyway. “I’ll do without it this morning.” He pushed back the covers and shifted himself over to the edge of the bed, putting his foot down on the floor. “Ah, I’ve found it’s easier if I put my dressing gown on before I stand up.”
Thomas gave it to him, and Gerald talked him through the process of helping him stand up. He didn’t particularly enjoy talking so much about his disability—it was so much easier to be helped by a Guide who knew what assistance he needed and could offer it without comment. But this might be the very last time he needed to do so, now that he had Thomas.
After a few minutes in the lavatory—where, fortunately, he could manage on his own—he felt much more ready for the day, despite the lack of tea. And that lack was remedied soon enough, with the arrival of Kip and the breakfast tray.
This time, Thomas just hesitated with his hand on the back of his chair for a moment before sitting down, and didn’t have to be talked into it.
“I hope you slept well,” Gerald said. Apart from the part where he’d been woken up by Gerald’s screaming, that is.
“I did, thank you.”
“Good.” He hesitated. “I wonder if I shouldn’t have said quite so much about Euan.” The screaming nightmares were enough for poor Thomas to have to deal with, without his new Sentinel babbling on about his relationship with his old Guide.
Thomas paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. “My lord?”
“I wouldn’t want you to feel that…well, that you’ve got something to live up to.”
“I don’t quite know what you mean, my lord,” Thomas said, putting his fork down carefully.
Of course he didn’t; Gerald was saying it badly. “I’m not expecting it to be the same, is all I’m saying.”
The sharp scent of distress mingled with the smell of the bacon. “I understand, my lord,” Thomas said.
Gerald was fairly sure he didn’t, since what he’d meant to do was reassure him. He reached across the table for Thomas’s hand, but Thomas pulled it away, hiding it under the table and smelling even more upset.
Not sure what else to do, Gerald changed the subject. “I’ll dress, when we’re through here, and go down to the smoking room while you talk with Weatherby.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said.
Not expecting it to be the same. Thomas wondered if his lordship had guessed what he’d been thinking earlier—or worse, knew, somehow. Sentinels could tell when you were lying; maybe they could tell…well, other things.
Either way, he supposed he ought to be grateful that his lordship had been so direct with him. At least he wouldn’t be the same fool twice. He’d just have to remember to keep a professional distance, despite the unusual intimacies of the situation. His lordship was no different from Lord Grantham; that was the way to think of it.
Except that Lord Grantham hadn’t been interested in men. His lordship wasn’t interested in him.
That means there’s a chance he might change his mind, doesn’t it? Some traitorous part of Thomas’s mind whispered. Maybe, if Thomas was charming and affectionate—
Except that he was terrible at both of those things, and was—if recent experience was any indicator—even worse at distinguishing hard reality from fond hopes. No.
He could take a hint. If it was blatant enough, anyway.
When they went into the dressing room, he began establishing the new routine of professional distance. His lordship already had a habit of touching him—nothing improper, just on his hand or arm, but it reminded Thomas of the way he’d been with Jimmy, and if he kept doing it, Thomas wouldn’t be able to stop himself thinking things he wasn’t mean to think. He only had to step out of the way of his lordship’s hands a few times before he began keeping them to himself. His lordship was cleverer at taking a hint than Thomas was. Thomas almost wished he hadn’t been, but quashed that thought firmly.
After seeing his lordship settled in the smoking room, Thomas went looking for the butler’s pantry. He got a bit turned around, and had to be pointed in the right direction—humiliatingly—by Kip.
“Are you looking for Mr. Weatherby?” he asked in his awful little accent. “’is room’s down this hall and to the--” He paused and glanced down at his hands. “—left. Yeah. Left.”
“Thanks,” Thomas said. “And by the way, while you were blathering at me this morning, you could have mentioned I was supposed to have a cup of tea ready for his lordship when I woke him.”
“You said you knew all about it, didn’t you?” Kip countered before scampering off.
Finally, he located Weatherby, slightly surprised to find his pantry exactly where Kip had said it would be.
“Good morning. Are you settling in well?”
“Yes, thanks,” Thomas said, carefully keeping his recent disappointment off his face.
“I’m glad to hear it. Is Lord Pellinger in his rooms, or…?”
“The smoking room,” Thomas said.
“Good. We don’t need to rush, then, since the duty Guides will see to anything he needs. Ordinarily, if you haven’t any other duties to attend to, you can relax a bit when your gentleman is in the club rooms. You can’t go far, since they’ll need to be able to find you if he asks for you, but there’s the Guides’ hall and sitting room—I’ll point them out when I show you around.”
“All right,” Thomas said.
Weatherby started by telling him a bit about Sentinels. He started with what everyone knew—that their senses were more acute than ordinary people’s. Sight, hearing, touch, even taste and smell. “Acute senses can be quite painful if they aren’t controlled, and having Guides nearby helps Sentinels to control themselves. None of them really knows why, although some of the scientifically-minded gentlemen are studying it. The most important part of our job is simply being there. That’s why Guides stay closer to their gentlemen than ordinary servants—why you sleep in his lordship’s rooms, for instance.”
He went on to explain a little more about enthrallment—apparently, it involved the Sentinel becoming so absorbed in one sense that he lost track of the others. “As you can imagine, it can be quite dangerous in some circumstances.”
Thomas could. The Sentinels had seemed shocked that he was at the Front by himself; personally, he was a bit shocked that Sentinels had been there at all. Going stock-still and falling over could get you killed, there.
“Having a Guide nearby makes it much less likely to happen, and we can bring them out of it by speaking to them—usually quite easily. I understand you’ve done it twice already?”
“Yes,” Thomas agreed. “And linking; I’ve done that, too.”
“Good. Linking is generally used when a Sentinel needs extra control over his senses. Professional Sentinels often use it to increase the acuity of one sense or another—doctors and policemen and so on. Since Lord Pellinger is a gentleman, it won’t come up terribly often. If he’s troubled by a loud noise or strong odour, something like that.”
Just as well, Thomas supposed. It seemed like a strangely intimate thing. It had seemed, with both his lordship and the Detective, like he’d gotten a hint of what they were feeling. But perhaps he’d imagined that, or perhaps it was something you didn’t talk about.
That, apparently, was all Weatherby felt Thomas had to know about Sentinels in particular. His next subject was the Society itself. “A few of our members reside here on a more-or-less permanent basis; your gentleman is one of them. Many more stay for a few days or weeks when they come to Town, if they don’t have a London house or don’t want to open it. And of course the gentlemen who do have residences in London often come in for a meal or part of the day, as in any men’s club. Regardless of for how long they are here, we want our gentlemen to feel at home.”
“We offer the same facilities as any club, with the important addition that the gentlemen are attended on entirely by Guides. There are different roles for Guides here. The first is to attend on the gentlemen in the club rooms; they’re known as duty Guides. They’re typically assigned to a particular room, and they provide anything a gentleman needs while he’s there—drinks, newspapers, that sort of thing—and keep the room in order.” Weatherby smiled. “Clear enough?”
Thomas said that it was, and Weatherby continued, “Others are assigned to the dining rooms. They set the tables, serve the gentlemen their meals, that sort of thing. We call them serving Guides, but the job is really partway between being a footman and a waiter in a restaurant. I usually have the new fellows start off as serving or duty Guides, but there are always some more experienced men on those jobs as well, to make sure everything goes smoothly.”
“I see,” Thomas said. He wondered if he was going to end up waiting at table as well as looking after his lordship; it seemed a bit much for every day.
But Weatherby went on, “You’ll be beginning as a personal Guide—roughly comparable to a valet.”
Thomas had suspected as much, but was glad to have it confirmed.
“Most of our gentlemen bring their own personal Guides with them if they stay overnight or longer, but if they don’t, we assign one. They serve one gentleman exclusively—one Sentinel, I should say; of course, the ladies have them as well. They dress the gentleman and take care of his clothing, wait on him in his rooms, and keep his rooms in order. You aren’t responsible for the heavy cleaning; that will be done when he’s out of his rooms during the day, but you’ll straighten and tidy, make the bed, make sure he has everything he needs, that sort of thing.”
“That all sounds familiar enough,” Thomas said.
“Good. It can be a rather difficult job. You’ll typically be in his rooms, available to attend on him, any time he’s in them. Lord Pellinger spends a great deal of time in his rooms. Personal Guides do not have a great deal of privacy or time to themselves.”
Thomas nodded. It didn’t sound like it. He’d be on duty nearly twenty-four hours a day. Still, he didn’t like that Weatherby sounded dubious that he’d be able to handle it. He could manage as well as anyone.
“It works best when there is a bond of affection and trust between the Sentinel and the Guide. Usually a great deal of care is taken in the selection of a personal Guide. Often they choose someone they’ve known for many years.”
Whereas his lordship had chosen him the moment they met, because he’d had no other options. “I understand,” he said.
Weatherby nodded, looking relieved. “That said, being a personal Guide is considered a highly desirable position. There are quite a few men here who would have liked to have your job, if only they were a suitable match for Lord Pellinger. As I said, he is well-liked. I’m sure you’ll find him pleasant to work for.”
“Yes, he seems very kind,” Thomas agreed. So, he had a job everyone wanted, not because anyone thought he deserved it, but because of the happenstance that he could link with his lordship. It was a bit like how all those years ago Bates had walked into a position as valet because he happened to know Lord Grantham from the war. He had better watch his back. “I’ll do my best.”
“Good. Now, I’ll show you where you can find everything you’ll need.”
The downstairs offices were larger and more complex than Downton, which he supposed was fitting. Even on a slow day before the start of the London Season, there were more gentlemen dining or staying here than Downton would have for any but the largest parties. Mr. Weatherby showed him the kitchens first—there were two, one for the regular cooking, and one for baking and preserving. “Trays ought to be made up for you by the kitchen staff,” Weatherby explained, pointing out the cupboards for silver and china, “but it’s always best to check that everything is as it should be, before you take it up.”
The ironing and mending areas were smaller than Thomas would have expected; Weatherby explained that the personal Guides usually did most of that sort of thing in the dressing room. “You found what you needed, yesterday?” he asked, scrutinizing Thomas’s livery.
“Yes,” Thomas answered. He waited for Weatherby to point out anything that was incorrect about Thomas’s appearance, but he just moved on.
“But never use any chemical solvents—benzene or the like—in the dressing room,” Weatherby cautioned him. “The odor bothers many of the gentlemen, so if there’s a stain to be removed, bring the garment down here to work on it.”
“What about shoes and boots?” Thomas asked. “Do I do those, or is there a boot-boy?”
“Oh, yes, those are done in here,” Weatherby said, showing him into yet another room. “Ordinarily, you leave them here—be sure to attach one of these tags, with your gentleman’s name. Er—I expect you can read and write?”
“Of course I can.” He might be a sodomite, but he wasn’t an imbecile. Or a filthy street urchin, for that matter.
“A few who come here can’t,” Weatherby said mildly, and continued, “Shoes are usually cleaned by the next morning. If he’ll need them sooner than that, it’s better to do it yourself. But do those down here, as well.”
He was also shown the club rooms—the smoking room, where he glimpsed his lordship sitting by a window, and the reading room, the games room, the formal and informal dining rooms, various other sitting rooms.
Next, Weatherby showed him the service passages around the gentlemen’s private rooms, pointing out the linen cupboards and where to get coal and kindling. “The cleaners should bring in the coal and lay the fires, but if you should happen to run out, there’s some kept here.”
Finally, he saw the attics, where luggage and out-of-season clothes were kept. “His lordship likely has some things up here,” Mr. Weatherby said, “but I’d have to check the record-book to find out what and where it is. He’s been in residence for several years now.”
He and Mr. Weatherby arranged to meet again in a few days to discuss any questions that had come up, and Thomas, after checking that his lordship was all right, went to the servants’ hall and flicked through a newspaper someone had left there.
After a while, he became aware the Guide sitting across the table was watching him. Thomas glared back at him a few times, but it didn’t seem to have much effect. Finally he said, “What do you think you’re staring at?”
The other Guide—a sandy-haired, round-faced adolescent—blinked back at him and said, “What?”
“Do you have some sort of a problem with me?”
The boy looked confused, and his face started to crease up, like a child that had skinned its knee and was trying to decide whether to start wailing or not. Thomas looked on in shock and horror as another Guide came over and put his arm around first one’s shoulders. “It’s all right, Sammy.” To Thomas, the other man said, “He doesn’t mean anything by it.”
“Sorry,” Thomas said, as his mistake started to dawn on him. “I didn’t realize he was a half-wit.”
“He’s not a half-wit,” the other man said sharply. “A bit touched, that’s all.”
“Fine,” Thomas said. “Whatever he is. I didn’t know.”
The other man watched him for a moment, then said, “All right, then. I’m Franklin. This is Sammy.”
“Thomas,” he said guardedly.
“You’re the one’s looking after Lord Gerald, right?”
“Lord Pellinger,” Thomas corrected.
“Yeah, him,” Franklin said. “He’s nice. I used to look after him sometimes.”
Good for him. “Did you,” he said boredly, looking back down at his paper.
“Yes. So if you need any help with him….”
Now Thomas looked up. Likely, this Franklin wanted Thomas’s job for himself. He’d just love it if Thomas went to him for advice; that way, he’d have a golden opportunity to make Thomas look foolish or incompetent. “The way I understand it, none of you lot were able to be a proper Guide to him. So I think I can manage.”
“Right,” the other man said, getting up. “Good luck with it, then. Come on, Sammy.”
Thomas watched them go, feeling, somehow, as if that hadn’t gone quite the way he wanted it to.
Over the next few days, Thomas seemed to settle in to his work, but remained a little shy of Gerald himself, inhabiting their rooms like a pale and silent ghost. He usually hid himself away in the dressing room, rarely venturing out to sit with Gerald and not saying much when he did. Gerald wanted badly to comfort him, but he shied away every time Gerald tried to touch him. He seemed most at ease when left to himself, so Gerald resigned himself to doing so.
He was, however, meticulous about his duties. Oddly, given how touch-shy he was, he was unruffled by helping Gerald into and out of the bath—a process that was always a little awkward, given that Gerald was both wet and naked at the time. And he gave Gerald more help than he really needed with dressing and undressing—trousers were, admittedly, difficult, but he’d always done up his own ties and so forth. Thomas seemed to enjoy doing them for him, and usually gave his coats a final brushing after putting him in them, something Gerald found unnecessary, but soothing.
Just having him there eased Gerald’s senses considerably. Before, he’d often struggled with excessive sensitivity—ordinary sounds or smells would suddenly become overwhelming, sending him to his bed to lie very still until it passed. It hadn’t happened once since Thomas came. Even his missing leg seemed to give him less pain than it had before. He’d learned to live with a constant, dull ache that left him nauseous and disinclined to do much of anything; it was only when it faded away that Gerald realized how bad it had been.
He had kept to his usual routine at first, staying in the Club and dining in his rooms, but one afternoon, as he sat at his writing desk below the window, finishing a letter and looking out at the bright, clear day, he decided it was time to begin venturing out a little more. “Are you busy, Thomas?” he asked, sealing the envelope. He didn’t seem to be—he was sitting at the table, looking at a magazine—but Gerald thought it polite to ask.
“No, my lord,” he said, standing up. He nearly always stood up when Gerald spoke to him. Gerald rather wished he wouldn’t; more than once he had bitten back some inconsequential remark because he didn’t want to disturb his Guide.
“Let’s take this down to the pillar box, then,” he said. “I’ll need my hat and coat.”
“Yes, my lord. I could take it for you, if you like.”
“Thank you, but I think I’d like a bit of a walk. Or a bit of a limp, I suppose you might say. We might even take a turn around the park—I’ll see if I feel up to it when we get there.”
It had been about a year and a half since Gerald had last tried leaving the Club for anything other than the most essential purposes. Hopping down the front steps on his crutches, he felt oddly free. “It’s a fine day, isn’t it?” he said as they started down the pavement.
Thomas agreed that yes, it was, my lord.
Well, as a conversational gambit, it was not particularly adventurous. He tried again. “I was just writing my family to tell them a little more about you—they were so pleased to hear I’d found a new Guide.” Thomas didn’t respond—he often didn’t, if Gerald hadn’t asked a question—so he pressed on, “What about your family? I expect they’re glad you’ve landed on your feet.”
Thomas was silent for a moment. “I haven’t any—well, that is, I don’t write to them, my lord.”
“They prefer it that way.” Thomas’s face was expressionless.
“Oh,” said Gerald. “I’m sorry.” He hesitated. “Is that because of the arrest? Because we could try to explain….”
“No, my lord. I mean, it’s because of the same sort of thing, but…years ago.”
“You were in trouble with the law before?”
“No, my lord.” Thomas sounded, for a change, mildly exasperated instead of blank.
“Oh, you mean kissing boys. But why would—” Gerald had been about to ask why Guide parents would reject their son over something like that, but that was the point—they weren’t Guides. “That’s dreadful,” he said instead.
Thomas said nothing and dropped Gerald’s letter into the post box, which they’d just reached. “Did you want to go around the park, my lord?” he asked, glancing across the street at it. He couldn’t have made any clearer if he’d said it that he would not welcome any further questions about his family.
“Yes, let’s,” he said. The crutches were beginning to chafe under his arms, but he the idea of going back to the Club already seemed too depressing for words. “We might find a bench, and sit for a bit.”
The first few benches were in use, occupied by nurses either pushing prams, or keeping eagle eyes on small children playing. By the time they found a place to sit, Gerald was decidedly sore under the arms, and not particularly looking forward to the trek back. He sat, handing his crutches over to Thomas and wishing he wasn’t too much of a gentleman to rub the affected areas in public. “You can sit, too, if you like,” he added, as Thomas hesitated.
Thomas did so. “If you don’t mind my asking, my lord….”
Goodness. Thomas hadn’t asked him anything since his first day. Maybe this walk was worth it after all. “Yes?”
“Why don’t you have a wooden leg, or a Bath chair? It seems like it would be…easier.”
Gerald wasn’t sure precisely what sort of question he had expected, but that wasn’t it. “I have both, as a matter of fact. I just don’t use them. The Bath chair’s cumbersome, and makes me feel like too much of an invalid. The prosthetic leg was quite painful. I developed a sore on my….” He wasn’t entirely sure what to call it. His leg? His stump? “Well, about here,” he said, pointing instead. “So I stopped using it.”
“Probably something wrong with the fit, my lord,” Thomas ventured.
“Yes, that’s what the doctor said,” Gerald agreed. “I was supposed to go back and have it re-fitted once the sore had healed, but I never felt up to it.” Hospitals were difficult places for Sentinels at the best of times, and going to the War Hospital without a Guide had seemed like torture. “But I should go, since I’m hoping to be up and about a bit more, now.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said.
He didn’t venture anything else, and after a few moments, Gerald asked, “Are you settling in all right?”
“Yes, my lord.”
There was a slight hint of anxiety to his scent, so Gerald hastened to add, “I thought so. I hope you’re comfortable.”
“Yes, my lord.”
After a bit more sitting, they made their way back to the Club. On the way in, they met Lord Finsworth, an old friend of Gerald’s. “Boko,” Gerald said. “How nice to see you. I didn’t know you were in Town.”
“Marianne has a cousin she’s bringing out,” he explained.
“Ah,” Gerald said. Marianne was Boko’s wife, he recalled—married hastily before the war, as so many others had. “Well,” he said. “We should dine—except I imagine you’ll be quite busy.”
Boko agreed that he would be, but suggested they dine together that night. “Marianne and Cousin Florence are coming Friday, once we have the house open, so I’m on my own for a bit yet.”
Heartened by the success of his brief outdoor adventure, Gerald agreed to the engagement, and they parted. “Bother,” Gerald said to Thomas as they took the lift back up to their rooms. “Now I’ll have to dress.”
Unsurprisingly, Thomas said, “Yes, my lord.”
“Thomas, do you have a moment?” Weatherby asked, as Thomas passed his pantry on the way back from returning the tea tray.
Thomas supposed he’d better have. Not that he really had anything else to do—with tea over, his lordship wouldn’t want anything else until dinner. At Downton, he would have taken advantage of the lull to have a bit of a natter with Jimmy…or O’Brien, back in the old days…or whoever happened to be around and wasn’t on his active enemies list that day. But here, he’d been holding himself aloof—he didn’t want to get into trouble, or give anyone an opening to make trouble for him. Instead, he occupied himself with his duties. There was plenty to do in his lordship’s dressing room.
So whatever Mr. Weatherby wanted to talk to him about, it certainly wasn’t idling or gossiping. “Of course, Mr. Weatherby,” he said.
Weatherby, it turned out, wanted to ask how he was settling in.
“Fine,” Thomas answered cautiously. First his lordship, now Mr. Weatherby—he wondered if there was some problem he hadn’t noticed. He certainly hoped not. As it was, he couldn’t show his face downstairs without someone asking if he needed help finding something or had any questions. He always said no—he didn’t want to give anyone a chance to trick him with false information, or give them any more excuses to feel superior.
“Do you have any questions, now that you’ve been here a few days?”
“Not really.” If he did, he wouldn’t want to ask Mr. Weatherby anyway, considering he already thought Thomas wasn’t up to his job.
“Are you sure?”
Well…he had been wondering if it was possible to leave the building in Society livery without having things thrown at you, but that question had been answered. Although now that he knew it was safe, he had a few errands he wanted to run. “I was wondering when I might have a chance to pop out to the shops.”
“What do you need?” Weatherby asked.
“Cigarettes, mostly.” Also hair oil, the salve he used on his hand, and stamps, so he could write to Downton about getting his things back, but he decided not to go into detail.
“Most of the new lads just nick them from the smoking room, I believe,” Weatherby said dryly. “I appreciate your restraint. You should be able to nip out while your gentleman is in the public rooms, but in the circumstances, I’d suggest you ask Lord Pellinger first.”
Which circumstances were those, Thomas wondered? Probably the ones where he was here instead of prison. He nodded.
“You have money?” Weatherby asked.
“Yes.” Not much of it, unless Carson could be persuaded to cough up what he was owed, but a little. There wouldn’t be much point in going out to buy things if he didn’t, would there?
“Good. You’ll have to speak with your gentleman about scheduling your half-days, too. I’ll assign someone to look after him while you’re out.”
Thomas wasn’t sure he’d bother with that—there was nowhere he wanted to go, and anyone filling in for him would have a perfect opportunity to undermine him in one way or another. “Thank you.”
Weatherby nodded. “Is that all?”
Was there supposed to be something else? “I think so.”
“You feel that you understand what’s expected of you here?” he pressed.
Thomas could think of no reason that Mr. Weatherby would be asking that question if he were not about to tell Thomas precisely how he had fallen short of expectations. “His lordship hasn’t had any complaints,” he said stiffly. He’d been told his duties; he was doing them. If Mr. Weatherby had left something out, that was hardly his fault.
But Weatherby just said, “Good,” sounding surprised. “In that case, you should probably be getting back to him.”
“I might as well start dressing, I suppose,” Gerald said. The gong hadn’t gone yet, but he knew it would take a while, and he knew Thomas had his things ready—he’d bustled around in the dressing room for almost an hour after tea. “If I’m early, I’ll have a drink in the library first.”
Thomas said, “Very good, my lord,” and helped him up to start the journey to the dressing room.
“I didn’t realize what a dreadful bore it is, dressing for dinner, until I got out of the habit of doing it,” Gerald remarked as Thomas helped him out of his smoking jacket and day clothes. He wasn’t too surprised when Thomas didn’t answer, although nearly any other Guide would have. “Still, I suppose one can’t be a complete hermit.”
“Some gentlemen find the new dinner jackets make a bit of a change, my lord,” Thomas said.
Gerald hadn’t meant the clothes, precisely, but he was glad to hear Thomas venturing a suggestion. Sitting down to take off his trousers and work the evening ones on, he said, “Perhaps a visit to the tailor is in order…after I’ve seen about my wooden leg, I think.” It would probably make a difference in what the tailor thought best. “We might telephone the hospital this week…I have the specialist’s card in my desk somewhere; we’ll have to shuffle through there first, and find it.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said, helping him to stand and fastening the trousers. The waistcoat was next; it hung loosely on him, and Thomas fussed over adjusting the little strap at the back. Gerald must have lost a bit of weight since wearing it last—between the pain and the trouble with his senses, he hadn’t been eating as well as he ought. “Do you have a preference as to links, my lord?”
He didn’t, really. “Just the plain ones, I suppose.”
Thomas put them in, then did up his tie for him. As he was helping him into his tails, Thomas said, “My lord?”
Gerald turned to look at him—awkwardly, since Thomas was behind him, and he had to get his crutches back first. “Yes?”
“Ah—never mind, my lord. It’s not important.”
“You might as well tell me,” Gerald pointed out. Thomas didn’t seem to have quite figured out yet that Guides typically talked to their Sentinels.
“Ah. Well. My lord. I just wondered if it would be all right if I went out to the shops. While you’re downstairs.”
“Yes, of course,” Gerald said, a little puzzled. He wondered if that was really what Thomas had wanted to ask; it didn’t seem the sort of thing he ought to be nervous about.
“Thank you, my lord,” Thomas said.
The clothes-brush rasped against the back of his coat, not at all unpleasantly. Gerald wondered if horses felt like that, being groomed. “Do you have money? If it’s one of the shops nearby, you can have them send a bill in care of the club.”
“I do.” There was something sharp in Thomas’s tone; he softened it with apparent effort and added, “My lord. Thank you.”
“All right. I think I’m ready to go down, then, if you are.”
Thomas hesitated by the door, feeling uneasy. His lordship was fine—settled in the library with a whiskey and soda, and the duty Guide would see him into the dining room when it was time. He had permission to be out, from both his lordship and Mr. Weatherby. And he’d seen the tobacco shop and the chemist’s on their walk, so he knew where he was going. And anyway, it wasn’t as though he’d never been out and about on his own in London before.
Of course, it was the first time he’d done so wearing ridiculous green livery. But he had to do it sometime—if he didn’t buy stamps, he couldn’t tell them at Downton where to send his normal clothes.
He almost wished he could ask someone to go with him. It was possible some of the people constantly asking if they could help him with anything really meant it. But he had no idea which ones, and he wasn’t about to risk giving the wrong person the impression he was afraid to go out on his own.
Particularly since he sort of was.
Taking a deep breath, he went out. It felt like everyone who passed was staring at him, but no one said anything—well, except for the tobacconist, who just asked if he was new.
Thomas said, “Yes,” paid for his packet of Woodbines, and left.
The chemist had stamps and hair oil, but didn’t stock the stuff for his hand. “Could get it in,” the woman said. “Or sumthin’ else. What’s it for?”
“Scar tissue,” Thomas answered. “To keep it supple.”
“Hm. You, or a Sentinel?”
She rummaged around behind the counter for a moment and slapped a tin on the counter. “Try that.”
Thomas supposed he’d better; the hand was getting stiff. “All right.” He handed over more money from his rapidly dwindling supply, waited impatiently as she wrapped his purchases, and started back to the club.
Gerald let his eyes drift shut and listened to Thomas’s footsteps as he made his way back through the service passages. He wasn’t sure if Thomas meant to pop out to the shops tonight or another time—he’d quite lost track of which day they had their evening hours. Euan would have said, as a matter of course, and would have also told him where he was going, and what for, and would have recounted the whole adventure afterwards….
Well, Thomas was different, that was all. It wasn’t as though Gerald needed to know where he was going and what he was buying. And if he tried to find out by listening in on him, likely as not he’d enthrall himself, which would certainly not help Thomas to feel at ease. With an effort, he pulled himself back to the hear-and-now, just in time to see Ace coming in. He called out a greeting, and the other Sentinel came over. “Hullo,” Ace said, slinging himself into the wing chair opposite. “I’m a little surprised to see you out and about at this hour.”
“I’ve a dinner engagement,” Gerald explained. Realizing that he might be too out of practice to carry conversation by himself, he added, “Are you meeting anyone? You ought to join us, if not.”
“No, I’m on my own. I’d be glad to. Things must be going well, with Thomas?”
“Yes, very well,” Gerald agreed. “We went for a walk today.”
“Good,” Ace said, smiling. He started to say, “Morgan mentioned he’s--”
At the same time that Gerald said, “Oh, there’s Boko.” Ace fell silent as Gerald waved the other man over. “You know Ace, don’t you? I asked him to join us.”
“Yes,” Boko said, nodding. “Mr. Langley-Smythe.”
“Lord Finsworth,” Ace said, nodding back.
It was only then that Gerald remembered the two of them hadn’t gotten on, back in their mutual University days. Ace had been part of a much more studious set, one that didn’t have much time for the fellows who were there as a sort of holiday between school-days and adulthood. Boko’s much livelier group of friends had had a similar lack of patience for those they felt took the academic side of things far too seriously. Gerald like them both, but it might have been better to see them separately.
Too late now, though, so as Boko got settled and told his Guide to fetch him a drink, Gerald asked Ace, “I’m sorry, Morgan was saying what?”
“Oh,” Ace said. “That Thomas didn’t seem to have made many friends yet, among the other Guides.”
“Well, he’s in my rooms with me nearly all the time,” Gerald pointed out. He’d made a point of going down for a little while each day, having lunch or just sitting in the smoking room for a bit, to give Thomas a bit of a break, but he still spent a great deal of time in his rooms. He’d hoped that the time together would help Thomas learn to relax around him, but perhaps more time apart would be better?
“Yes, well,” Ace said, with a sidelong glance at Boko. “I gather that when he is downstairs, he hasn’t made it easy for the others to get to know him.”
“He is very…reserved,” Gerald admitted. An unusual quality in a Guide, but Thomas had had rather a difficult time of things, before coming to Gerald. “My new Guide,” he explained parenthetically to Boko.
“Oh—the one out with you today?”
“He’s handsome enough,” Boko noted, casting a look of slight dissatisfaction at his own Guide, who was offering him his drink on a tray.
The fellow was a bit unfortunate-looking, but Gerald thought that was quite un-called for. Ace apparently thought so too; he said, rather sharply, “Looks aren’t everything.” Glancing up at Boko’s Guide, he added, “Gregory’s always been so sweet.”
“Well, yes, of course,” Boko said, finally taking the drink Gregory was offering him, and letting the poor man escape.
“You can’t do that here.”
Thomas paused in the act of lighting his cigarette. “What?”
“You’re not supposed to smoke in here.”
The man speaking was dressed in livery, but not the Society’s, and was even stupider-looking than Alfred. Since he was in the Guides’ hall, he must be a Guide, Thomas thought, but he didn’t work here. “Why the hell not?” He knew he was being more snappish than the fellow really deserved—even if he was stupid-looking—but the strain of having to be respectful and grateful to his lordship from dawn to dusk was beginning to get to him. He was used to having plenty of time belowstairs, where he could vent his temper on those too meek or too far below him in status to do anything about it; here, he had to take his opportunities where he could get them.
“The smoke lingers in your clothes. A lot of Sentinels don’t like it.”
“Mine doesn’t mind,” Thomas answered. At least he assumed his lordship didn’t, since he only left his own rooms to go to the smoking room.
“Some of them do.”
Thomas shook his head and lit up—it had been almost a week since he’d had a cigarette, and he would be damned before he’d let some jumped-up footman, or whatever he was, stop him now.
The other man stared at him for a moment, then left the Guides’ hall. Thomas reveled in his victory for a moment.
But only until Mr. Weatherby came in and said, “Thomas, smoking isn’t allowed in here,” proving that the footman or whatever he was had grassed on him.
“Oh?” Thomas said, standing up and assuming his most innocent expression. “I’m sorry, Mr. Weatherby. I didn’t know. I’ll just--” He glanced down at the cigarette in his hand, genuinely unsure where to go with it. He didn’t think Weatherby would be terribly pleased if he stubbed it out in the saucer he’d been planning to use as an ash tray.
“Outside,” Weatherby said.
“Really?” Driving a man out into the cold—not that it was particularly cold, just now, seeing as it was August—to enjoy a simple cigarette seemed a bit much.
Weatherby’s tone was sharp enough to forestall any further protests. Thomas went, taking only a moment to glower at the footman-or-whatever as he passed him in the corridor.
Outdoors, he found an out-of-the-way spot to lean against the wall and continue his cigarette. Doubtless the visiting footman was telling Weatherby that he’d told Thomas about the smoking rule…but how was he to know that someone who looked that stupid knew what he was talking about? It wasn’t fair.
He’d finished his cigarette and was contemplating a second one when Morgan, Mr. Langley-Smythe’s Guide, came out. “Ah,” he said, selecting a patch of wall near Thomas’s and lighting a cigarette of his own. “There you are. How are things going?”
“Fine,” Thomas said shortly. He’d give almost anything for a day when nobody asked him that. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he could speak freely, but he was afraid that any complaint he voiced would make its way back to Mr. Weatherby, or worse, his lordship. Morgan would be a particularly risky confidante, since his employer seemed to be friends with his lordship. There was no one he could really talk to—but he also couldn’t get a moment’s peace with his own thoughts, except when he was working in his lordship’s dressing room.
“Good,” Morgan said, nodding. “Mr. Langley-Smythe had some business with the club secretary, and he decided to stay and dine,” he explained, and looked at Thomas expectantly.
“His lordship’s dining with someone called Boko.” He didn’t see why it was any business of Morgan’s, but apparently he was expecting some explanation for Thomas’s presence downstairs.
“Ah. That’d be Lord Finsworth to you and me. They were up at Oxford together.”
“I see,” Thomas said.
Morgan smoked in silence for a moment, then said, “You know, Thomas….”
“I understand you’ve been in service before.”
“Yes. I have.” What was it to him?
“But being a Guide is a bit different. I think you’ll find that advice from other Guides can be very helpful, if there’s anything you’re unsure of.”
Was this about the smoking? It was starting to seem like he couldn’t get away with anything in this place. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Good,” Morgan said. “I heard the downstairs dinner is shepherd’s pie tonight; they do it well here….”
Thomas was glad of the change of subject, and managed to keep his ill temper under wraps for the rest of the evening, but it was a relief when he was able to retreat to Lord Pellinger’s rooms.
His lordship said little—just that dinner had been fine, but he was tired—and went straight to bed. Thomas busied himself brushing his evening clothes and tidying the sitting room, then, when it was clear his lordship was asleep, settled down to write his letters.
The first, addressed to Mr. Carson, was very brief and simply asked that his things be sent on, and suggested that the freight charges could be taken out of his wages owed. The second, to Miss O’Brien, required more thought.
He knew he wasn’t exactly in her good books at present. And she had, knowingly or otherwise, instigated that disastrous late-night visit to Jimmy’s room. At times, he thought that she had intended things to go precisely as they had.
But she was also the oldest friend he had, and she’d helped get him out of the trenches. He couldn’t really believe that she’d deliberately set out to destroy him. And she was the only person he could think of who might help him get his things back, if Carson proved unhelpful. So he wrote her a fuller explanation of his circumstances, including a humorous description of the livery he was forced to wear, and wound up by suggesting that she might either intercede with Carson on his behalf or smuggle his things out directly.
He wasn’t entirely happy with the letter, but after several attempts decided it would have to do. Sealing and stamping it, he slipped his jacket and tie back on and took both letters down to the night-porter, to be put into the morning post. Now they were gone, and it was no use thinking about them again until the replies came back.
“Thomas,” Gerald said, as Thomas started clearing the breakfast things.
“Yes, my lord?”
Gerald hesitated. Ever since Thomas had first come in with his morning tea, he’d been trying to think of a way to say, “What on earth is that god-awful stench?” without actually saying, well, that. He felt as though his entire head had been stuffed with camphor and mint. “Are you using some sort of new soap? Or after-shave, or something?”
“No, my lord.”
“There must be something. It’s, ah, rather strongly scented.”
“There’s some salve, for my hand,” Thomas said, putting his injured hand behind his back.
“That must be it.” The stuff did smell vaguely medical, now that Thomas mentioned it. Gerald waited for Thomas to respond, only realizing at great length that he wasn’t going to. “Well, it won’t do,” he said awkwardly. “We’ll have to find something else you can use.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said, and went back to clearing the table.
Concealing his irritation—after all, Thomas wasn’t a trained Guide, and he clearly didn’t understand—Gerald went on, “In the meantime, perhaps you could, er, wash it off?”
Thomas said, “Yes, my lord,” but made no move to do so.
“Thank you,” Gerald said, and continued to look at him until Thomas, finally, got the point.
“You want me to do it now, my lord?”
“If you don’t mind,” Gerald said. Worn out by the whole thing, he added, “I’m going back to bed. Wake me if I’m not up by lunchtime.”
Not even here a week, and already things had gone horribly wrong. Thomas didn’t know why he was surprised—it was just so bloody typical. He made one mistake—yes, he should have listened when the ugly footman told him not to smoke; he realized that now—and everything started fraying at the edges.
He wondered if his lordship had heard about it, and that was why he was making such a fuss about the way things smelled all of the sudden. The salve didn’t smell that much, and it wasn’t particularly unpleasant.
Of course, he didn’t know how things smelled to a Sentinel.
Still, it seemed like a lot of fuss over such a small thing, for his lordship to go back to bed immediately after breakfast without even asking Thomas to….
Well, what he might have asked Thomas to do, Thomas wasn’t sure, but he felt there had to be something pointed in it. Doing his morning’s work in the sitting room while his lordship was right there wasn’t particularly comfortable—but now it seemed like he couldn’t even stand to be in the same room with Thomas.
He washed his hands and threw the salve away, but he doubted it would do much good. Trying to fix things after he’d cocked them up never seemed to help.
Even after washing his hands until they were nearly raw, the mildly spicy scent of the salve seemed to linger. Eventually, he realized that it had seeped into his glove, so he washed that, too, leaving it rolled up in a hand towel to dry as he considered what to do next.
Yesterday, his lordship had said that “they” would have to go through his desk to find the wooden leg specialist’s card. Thomas hadn’t been sure at the time whether this was one of those situation when “they” meant “him.” He’d planned to find out after breakfast. Now he’d missed his chance. The way things were going, when his lordship finally got up, Thomas would be in trouble either for go through his desk on his own or for not doing so.
After staring at the desk for a long moment, he decided, with frustrated petulance, that if nobody was going to tell him what he was supposed to do, he’d simply do nothing. He sat on the sofa—something he’d never quite dared do when his lordship was in the room—and paged through one of the illustrated papers, trying ineffectually to convince himself that he derived some pleasure from this small rebellion.
Gerald woke for the second time groggy and out-of-sorts. Keeping Ace and Boko away from each other’s throats had been more taxing than he’d realized at the time. Apart from the petty disputes of their university days, the only subject of conversation the three of them had in common was the war. They’d fallen back on it frequently, and Gerald had slept poorly in consequence of the memories stirred up.
Thomas’s mood seemed no better—he answered Gerald’s ring of the bedside bell with a “My lord?” that struck him as downright sulky.
“I suppose I’ll get up,” he said. “What time is it?”
“A quarter till twelve, my lord,” Thomas answered, getting his dressing gown.
Plenty of time until luncheon, then.
“Did you want some tea, my lord?”
Now that he mentioned it, Gerald did. “Is there any?”
“I could go down to the kitchen and get some, my lord.”
“No,” Gerald decided, putting on the dressing gown. “If you do that, you’ll be going down for lunch almost as soon as you got back.”
Helping him stand, Thomas said, “You’re having luncheon up here, my lord?” He still sounded sulky.
“Yes.” Gerald accepted his crutches and arranged them under his arms. “That’s not a problem, is it?”
“No, my lord,” Thomas said, trailing him as he started for the dressing room. “It’s just that you’ve been going down to luncheon, the last couple of days.”
“I don’t feel up to it. Just some flannel bags and my smoking jacket, I think.” Thomas had laid out a suit, but that seemed like too much of an effort.
“Very, good, my lord,” Thomas said, whisking the suit away with a faint hint of disapproval.
Gerald sat and watched him do it. There was something a little bit different about him. His hair was slicked back; that was one thing. The effect was much more severe, with the lock that sometimes fell across his forehead in a charmingly boyish fashion brought firmly under control.
It was not an improvement, as far as Gerald was concerned, but he’d better not say so. Now that he’d been awake a few minutes, he remembered that he’d had to speak to Thomas earlier about that ghastly stuff he’d had on his hand—which might explain the sulkiness. No, the hair cream really wasn’t any of his business, even if he didn’t care for how it looked.
The hand salve, though, that they had to get sorted. Thomas seemed to be trying to use his left hand as little as possible—perhaps it hurt him. If so, they’d have to find a substitute quickly. “That stuff you use on your hand; what’s it for?” There were some doctors among the Society membership; perhaps one of them could be tracked down and asked to recommend something.
“Keeps the scar tissue from getting stiff, my lord,” Thomas said into depths of the wardrobe.
“Oh—then the stuff I use on my leg might work.” That would be much easier than tracking down a doctor.
“What stuff is that, my lord?”
“Oh, I don’t know. There’s a tin in the bedside table; try it and see if it suits. Weatherby will know where to get more of it.”
As Thomas was helping him into his trousers, Gerald noticed that he wasn’t wearing the flesh-coloured glove that usually covered his left hand. It was his first chance to look at the mysterious war wound—he knew nothing about it other than that Thomas didn’t welcome questions on the subject.
He’d thought he managed to avoid showing any excess of interest—he didn’t particularly enjoy having his own injury stared at, either—but he must not have succeeded, because once his trousers were on, Thomas held his hand up and said, in a voice with just a hint of steel in it, “Did you want a better look, my lord?”
“Ah,” Gerald said.
Thomas apparently was going to insist on more of an answer than that; he stood there, looking grimly defiant.
Gerald went ahead and looked. There was a perfectly round crater on outside edge of the palm, under the last two fingers. It looks like a bullet had passed straight through; Gerald had no idea how it could have happened, nor how Thomas had managed to keep his hand. “You’re, ah, lucky to still have the use of it, I should think,” he ventured.
“Yes,” Thomas allowed, finally dropping his hand back to his side. “I suppose I am, my lord.”
Then he brought him his shirt and smoking jacket, as though the momentary confrontation hadn’t happened.
Thomas took advantage of the few moments when his lordship was occupied in the WC to fluff the sofa pillows and hurriedly stuff the London Sketch back into the magazine rack. The teacup he’d left on the side table was a little more difficult to deal with in the time allowed; finally, he decided to put it on the dining table and pretend it was left over from the breakfast things. His lordship probably wouldn’t notice it was a servants’ hall one.
Maybe. But he’d have to be blind not to notice that Thomas had left his glove on the edge of the sink. He wasn’t sure where he was supposed to leave it, considering his bedroom was also his lordship’s dressing room. But not there.
If he’d just given Thomas some warning he was getting up, he’d have tidied everything up, and gotten him his bloody tea. What, was he expected to be able to see into the future now? Somehow, it didn’t seem entirely out of the question. He’d been doing his duties as well as he understood them, and by this point had a decent grasp of the routine and knew where to find everything he needed regularly, but he had a growing sense that he was missing something important. His lordship sometimes seemed to look at him as though he was waiting for Thomas to catch on to something—but he wouldn’t just say it, whatever it was.
His lordship didn’t say anything about the state of the sitting room or Thomas’s leaving his things lying about, but when Thomas went down to the kitchen, Mrs. Groach more than made up for it.
“A lunch tray?” From her tone, you’d have thought he was asking for kitten stew. “You said he didn’t want one. We’ve just finished setting them up!”
“You’ll have to set up another one, won’t you?” Thomas answered.
“To keep a kitchen this size running smoothly, I’ve got to plan ahead. How am I supposed to keep anything organized if you lot are all the time making changes at the last minute?”
“His lordship. Changed. His. Mind,” Thomas said, between gritted teeth. “Would you like me to tell him he’s not allowed to change his mind because it inconveniences you?”
“You’ve no call speaking to me like that!”
“Haven’t I?” Thomas was about to say more, but reined in his temper when he saw Mr. Weatherby approaching.
“Is there something wrong? Thomas? Mrs. Groach?”
Thomas managed to get his story in first. “Mrs. Groach is angry because Lord Pellinger wants a luncheon tray.”
“Just now,” Mrs. Groach put in. “At the last minute. And last night, after we made up a dinner tray for him, he said he didn’t want it!”
“As I said,” Thomas said, “his lordship changed his mind.”
“I see,” Mr. Weatherby said. “Mrs. Groach, I’m sure Thomas understands that you like to have as much notice as possible about the meal trays. Don’t you, Thomas?”
“Yes, of course,” Thomas agreed, although he hadn’t given the matter a moment’s thought before she started screeching at him about it.
“And I’m sure you understand that sometimes the gentlemen change their plans at the last moment. I realize it’s an inconvenience, but we must be flexible.”
Mrs. Groach sniffed. “I suppose so.” Turning to Thomas, she said, “What about tonight? Does he want a dinner tray or doesn’t he?”
“I…expect so?” Thomas said. “Probably. He hasn’t said.”
Weatherby sighed. “Ask him, and when you bring the lunch things back down, you can give Mrs. Groach a definite answer. All right?” He looked back and forth between the two of them.
“Yes, Mr. Weatherby,” Thomas said.
“All right,” Mrs. Groach said.
“Good.” Weatherby left the kitchen, shaking his head.
Once the tray was prepared, Thomas made a point of checking it over carefully. Spoiling for the fight that Mr. Weatherby had interrupted, he was a little disappointed that everything was correct.
Gerald was surprised to find that, once his luncheon was in front of him, he was actually a little bit hungry. Usually, sleeping all morning left him without much appetite. Thomas was typically quiet over the meal, but now seemed sad, or perhaps worried, rather than sulky. Perhaps he had been before, as well. Gerald knew he’d been a bit impatient with him, earlier, and regretted it, but it was difficult having a Guide who wouldn’t talk to him.
“Well,” he said, as Thomas cleared the lunch things, “tackling that is probably the next thing.” He nodded towards his desk. He wasn’t eager to do it—he’d been letting correspondence pile up, and he knew the prosthetics specialist’s card would be near the bottom. He’d be lucky to only find half a dozen things he should have dealt with ages ago, on the way there.
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said. “My lord?”
“Will you be going down for dinner tonight?”
Gerald stared at him for a moment. Why on Earth would he?
Smelling anxious and, if Gerald wasn’t mistaken, shuffling his feet a little, “Mrs. Groach, ah, the cook. She likes to know. About the trays.”
“Has she been giving you a hard time?” That would explain Thomas’s questions about his lunch plans earlier.
“She was a bit cross, my lord,” Thomas admitted, looking down at the dishes he was clearing.
Was she, indeed? “That’s not something you need to worry about,” Gerald said firmly. The cook had no right being cross and upsetting his Guide. “I wonder if I should speak to Weatherby.”
Thomas glanced up sharply. “I shouldn’t think that’s necessary, my lord.”
Well, if he thought it would make things worse, he was probably right. Guides usually were, about that sort of thing. “All right. But you may tell her, if she has any further complaints, she can refer them to me.”
“Yes, my lord.” Thomas hefted the tray and left, not seeming noticeably cheered.
Apparently, he’d guessed right about not starting on his lordship’s desk without him. When Thomas returned from taking the lunch things back down, Lord Pellinger had already started on the chore. Thomas’s own role seemed to be to sit next to him and occasionally accept some bit of paper or another that his lordship passed to him, saying something like, “I should answer that; hold on to it.” He also, on his own initiative, kept the large and untidy pile of things his lordship planned to save from getting mixed in with the smaller pile of things that could be taken away and burnt. The former pile included letters, news clippings, advertising circulars, theater programs, and more; the latter was mostly invitations to events that had come and gone months or even years ago.
If he’d felt a bit more confident, Thomas would have tried to engage his lordship in conversation a bit, over the task—perhaps he could ask him about some of those programs and invitations; that way, he could find out more about what his life had been like before the war, and what pursuits Thomas might expect him to take back up as he recovered. But his lordship seemed tense—still angry over that morning’s incident, or over something else that Thomas didn’t know about. He thought it best to keep his mouth shut unless he was spoken to.
“I suppose we’d better pay that,” his lordship said, passing Thomas a tailor’s bill. “I never even picked them up, but I don’t imagine they’ll want to make me a dinner jacket if I don’t.”
The bill was for two sets of replacement uniforms; going by the date, his lordship must have ordered them just before his injury. “Yes, my lord.”
A few layers of documents later, his lordship unearthed a small folder, the sort photography studios used. He opened it; Thomas got a glimpse of two men in Army uniform, one seated, the other standing behind him with his hand on the seated man’s shoulder. His lordship stared at it for a moment, then passed it to Thomas. “Here, d’you want to see how I used to look?”
Now that he had a better look, Thomas saw that the seated man was his lordship, with a rather unconvincing moustache. He looked…younger. Not quite so careworn. The other, in a corporal’s uniform with Guide tabs, must have been Euan.
“We had that taken just before we left,” his lordship went on. “For our mothers, you know. In case we were called on to make the ultimate sacrifice for king and country.” He said the last phrase in a mock-heroic voice, and sighed. “I don’t know whether to hate him or pity him.”
“Euan, my lord?” Thomas asked. Neither sentiment seemed entirely appropriate.
“No. Me. Him,” his lordship added, pointing to his own image in the photograph.
Oh. Thomas wasn’t sure how—or if—to respond to that, and before he could decide, his lordship went on.
“Did you think it would be a bit of a lark, when you signed up? Home by Christmas, covered in glory?”
“Not exactly, my lord,” Thomas admitted. He didn’t think it would be at all wise to say outright that he’d expected it to be bloody awful and had signed up for the medical corps in the mistaken impression that it was the soft option.
“Then you were cleverer than I was.” He stared at the photograph that Thomas was still holding, not sure what to do with it. “Sometimes I—well, never mind.” He took the photograph back and tucked it inside his smoking jacket. “That card won’t find itself.”
He did eventually find the card, after going through nearly everything on the desk. His lordship wrote a quick letter asking for an appointment at the specialist’s convenience, then, after posting it, Thomas started shifting the “keep” pile back, attempting to impose some kind of order as he did so. His lordship sat by the hearth and fed faded invitations into the fire, one by one.
The next morning when he took the breakfast things down, Thomas found answers to his letters in his pigeon-hole in the Guides’ hall. He felt a bit sick, taking them out and looking at the return addresses. Silly of him; he’d never gone in for premonitions.
Still, he took them outside to open them, wanting to face them with a bit of privacy and a cigarette in his hand.
The one from Mr. Carson was what he should have expected—a couple of terse lines saying he wasn’t owed any wages, and if he contacted the house again Carson would inform the police. Disgust dripped from every word.
Naturally. Well, of course he’d be like that. Thomas had had to try, though. He opened the other envelope with shaking fingers.
Seconds later, he dropped the letter, grinding it frantically beneath his foot, as if it had spilled out live spiders. It might as well have.
I had a good laugh hearing about your new livery, she had written. Now maybe you’ll look almost as foolish as you are. I can’t imagine why you think I would help you. I’d send your things to Africa, except that the naked savages might catch something. What you did was against all the laws of God and man. I’m only sorry that you escaped prosecution for your disgusting crimes…
He hadn’t read the whole thing, but what he had was enough. He didn’t think he could be shocked anymore, after Jimmy’s betrayal, but this was, if anything, even worse. O’Brien had always known, about him. There was only one reason for her to come over all shocked and disgusted now—she’d planned this, somehow, to get back at him. Maybe she and Jimmy had even worked together on it.
He felt sick at the idea that the two people at Downton he’d actually liked had conspired to ruin his life. True, he’d never been particularly happy at Downton—but he’d never really expected to be. He’d been there long enough to know the place inside and out, and when he’d been away, during the war, he’d thought of it as home. Being forced out without a second thought hurt more than he’d wanted to admit—but now, faced with this last betrayal, he couldn’t hide that fact from himself anymore. Not one of the people he’d known and worked with for years had stood up for him—and the ones he’d thought he could trust had engineered his destruction.
Had given it their best shot, anyway. If it hadn’t been for the happenstance that he was a Guide, he’d have been ruined. Absolutely ruined. As it was, he was stuck in this damned place where he didn’t know how anything worked, surrounded by charity cases who couldn’t take care of themselves but felt they had a right to teach him his job. It was utterly sickening, and all O’Brien’s fault. And Jimmy’s. If Jimmy had been in on it.
Why had he ever trusted either of them? He must be some sort of…congenital imbecile.
Somebody else came out to smoke—another Guide Thomas didn’t know—and he quickly picked up the now-mangled letter. He’d throw it in the first fire he saw. The idea of anyone else reading it didn’t bear thinking about.
He did his best to compose himself on his way back upstairs, but he must not have succeeded. As soon as he entered the sitting room, his lordship said, “Thomas? Are you all right?”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said.
“Are you sure? I mean—you seem….”
He trailed off. Thomas didn’t finish the sentence for him—wasn’t sure he could, without crying or screaming or something equally inappropriate. He just waited, breathing steadily, until his lordship flicked his fingers in a gesture Thomas could plausibly interpret as dismissal, and escaped to the dressing room.
There, he spent some time working on his lordship’s clothes. Whoever had been looking after him before had tended to put him in the same things over and over; there were plenty of suits and shirts in the wardrobe that just needed a bit of pressing or buttons sewn on, and they’d be perfectly good again. It was calming, doing the work that he knew so well—as long as he didn’t think about who had taught him to do it. He did know his job, this part of it at least. His lordship had never appeared in public anything less than perfectly turned out since Thomas’s arrival, and that was something to be proud of, given that he’d be happy to slop around in his oldest trousers and that ragged smoking jacket if Thomas didn’t stay on top of things. The man sorely needed a good valet.
And Thomas was one, just like he’d always wanted. His lordship appreciated that; he’d remarked on it once or twice. So Thomas would be just fine here. He didn’t need Downton or any of the people in it.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Gerald asked, a day or two later, as Thomas helped him back to the sofa after lunch.
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said, arranging his crutches where he could reach them. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
That, Gerald didn’t know, but he was sure there was something wrong—he smelled like fresh worry and stale grief. Nothing so surprising in that at first, given the difficult time he’d had, but over the last few days he seemed to have gotten worse instead of better. “I hope that you would tell me, if there was anything wrong.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said.
And he wasn’t planning on saying anything else, Gerald realized. “Good,” he said. “I’ll just—read for a bit. Unless there’s anything you’d like to talk about.”
With a nod that was almost a bow, Thomas turned to tidying away the lunch things.
Not long after Thomas returned from taking the dishes back down, Franklin, one of the club Guides, came in. For a bare moment, he and Thomas seemed to circle each other like fighting cats—or like two Sentinels both sniffing after the same Guide. Could Guides be territorial about Sentinels? It hardly seemed likely. He supposed it was possible they’d just taken a dislike to each other.
“My lord,” Franklin said, when they had finished. “Lord Simon has called to see you.”
Damn and blast. If he’d bothered to send word that he was coming, Gerald would have made sure to be down in one of the public rooms to receive him. And possibly would have strapped on his wooden leg, for the look of the thing. Too late for that now, though. “You can send him up.” Once Franklin had gone, Gerald explained to Thomas, “My brother.”
With another half-bow, Thomas posted himself by the front door—ready, a minute or two later, to open it at Simon’s knock and take his coat and stick.
Really, Gerald thought with a flash of irritation, you’d think he’d have the tact to leave his dress cane behind when visiting his crippled brother. But that was unfair of him—if Simon hadn’t carried it, Gerald would likely have judged him as being punctilious. Reminding himself that it wasn’t Si’s fault he’d come through the war unscathed, he smiled and said, “Hullo, Si. Hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t get up.”
“Of course,” Simon said, coming over to sit on the armchair near him—the one Thomas used when Gerald was able to coax him into sitting down in his presence. “You look well.” He said it so convincingly that only a Sentinel would have known he was lying—but since they both were, that didn’t mean much.
“Thank you. To what do I owe the pleasure? Are Mama and Georgiana in Town?” Them, he wouldn’t have minded seeing—though he’d have to leave the club to do it, since there wasn’t another Ladies’ Day for months.
“No, just me. After we got your letter, I thought I’d pop down. Is this the greatest treasure of your house?” he asked, glancing up at Thomas.
“Yes,” Gerald snapped. “And don’t call him that.” Thomas was looking a little puzzled about it, like he thought Simon was making fun of him. “It’s from a poem,” he explained. “They used to make me recite it for guests when we were children. All about how after this old Sentinel died, his children squabbled over his possessions while the greatest treasure of his house—that being his Guide, of course—wept alone in his room.” To Simon, he added, “That kind of sentimental Victorian nonsense was hard enough to stomach then, but after one’s seen the greatest treasure of one’s house dead in the mud of France, it’s obscene.”
“Sorry,” Simon said insincerely. “I thought it’d be less of a sore subject, now that you have the new fellow.”
“I assure you, it will never be less of a sore subject.” Simon had wangled himself a general staff position; he’d spent the war dividing his time between Paris and London, and both he and his Guide had come through without a scratch. It was very difficult not to loathe him for it, and at that moment, Gerald gave up the struggle.
“All right,” Simon said with a lazy shrug. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
Still angry, Gerald said, “Simon, Thomas; Thomas, this is my brother, Lord Simon Pellinger.”
“My lord,” Thomas said.
“Thomas,” Simon said, with a nod and a puzzled glance at Gerald. “Or Tommy?”
“He likes to be called Thomas,” Gerald said, adding in an undertone, “I think.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas answered. “But whatever you like.”
“Thomas, then,” Simon said. “Goodness. You’re certainly…tall.”
Thomas didn’t like that much, Gerald thought. “Will there be anything else, my lords?” he said.
Simon glanced over at him. He knew, as Thomas likely didn’t, that it would be inappropriate for him to give an order to his brother’s Guide, even though Gerald, by introducing them, had indicated it was all right for Simon to speak to him directly.
“Tea?” Gerald asked. “Or something stronger?”
“Brandy and soda, if you have it.”
The club had it; Gerald only kept whiskey in his rooms. “Whiskey and soda for me, Thomas. Thank you.”
After Thomas had left the room, Simon said delicately, “I hope I haven’t come at a bad time.”
Gerald knew why he was asking: the Guides they were used to were only ever as formal with their Sentinels as Thomas had been if they wanted to make clear that their master had offended them in some way. Combined with how upset Thomas smelled—well, it was only natural for Si to conclude that he’d walked into the middle of a messy argument. “No,” said Gerald. “He’s always like that.”
“Oh.” Simon sat back, clearly startled.
“He’s not used to our ways,” Gerald reminded him. He’d explained in his letter how Thomas had been in service in an Insensate house before. “And he’s…not very happy. I don’t know why.” He’d been avoiding admitting it to himself, but now that he’d been forced to face it, it was plain that Thomas had been deeply unhappy for days.
“I suppose being arrested for something like that would be upsetting for anyone,” Simon allowed. “But you’d think being let out of jail would cheer him up a bit.”
Gerald shook his head. He gathered from what Alistair had said about the police report that the other fellow involved had been fairly beastly about the whole thing. Maybe Thomas had had real feelings for him, and had expected better. He didn’t like to ask.
He tried to force a change of subject with a question about the estate, but Simon gave only the briefest answer before wrenching them back on track with, “He isn’t quite what I expected. Of a Society Guide, you know.”
“I’m afraid I don’t,” Gerald said stiffly. “What were you expecting?”
“Oh, some--” He gestured. “Scruffy little gamin. I know,” he added, “you wrote about his illustrious former career as a valet. But one gets these ideas.”
“I’m not sure I like your tone,” Gerald said, listening to Thomas’s returning footsteps. If he wasn’t careful, Simon was likely to say something even more outrageous at the precise second Thomas was entering the room.
“I’m just saying, he has more polish than I would have thought.” Simon shrugged. “Of course, as a replacement for Euan--”
“Don’t.” There was absolutely no way Simon could end that sentence that would not be offensive. “He isn’t a replacement for Euan.” And there was the door from the servants’ passage opening. “I’ll always love Euan. Thomas is Thomas.”
“I never said he wasn’t.” Simon laughed, a brittle, artificial laugh. “Who else would he be?”
“I don’t know,” Gerald said, anxious to bring the subject to a close. “At any rate, I’m glad to have him,” he added as Thomas came down the passage. It was all right if he heard that.
“Of course,” Simon answered. “After two years without any Guide at all, I’m sure you’d be glad to have anyone.”
That wasn’t the point, but Gerald certainly didn’t want to try to tell him what was the point, particularly with Thomas in the room. He came in now, still smelling unhappy.
Taking his drink from the tray Thomas offered, Simon leaned back and said, “Well, Thomas, I hope my brother’s treating you well?”
It was, Gerald reminded himself, entirely possible that Simon genuinely thought he was helping.
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said, as Gerald could have predicted.
“Good, good,” Simon said. Glancing over at Gerald, he added, “You know, he is going to have to be presented to Cousin Rupert.”
“Officially, he’s a Society Guide for three months,” Gerald answered sharply. There was plenty of time. To Thomas, he added, “Cousin Rupert is Duke of Norfolk, Lord Mowbray, et cetera. The Pellingers are a cadet branch of the House of Mowbray, which makes him our head of House. Next time the House gathers, he’ll have to have a look at you. Purely a formality.”
“You call him ‘your grace,’ Simon said helpfully.
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said. “I know, my lord,” he added, giving Simon a thinly-veiled look of disdain that cheered Gerald immensely.
“Oh,” Simon said. “That, you know. I see.”
Gerald sighed heavily. Clearly, Simon was not going to let it go. “Thomas,” he said carefully, “it occurs to me that between one thing and another, it’s likely no one mentioned that Guides generally don’t call anyone else’s Sentinel ‘my lord.’”
Thomas froze like a startled deer. “My lord?”
Simon, the bastard, snickered.
“It’s not at all important,” Gerald continued, with a pointed look at Simon, “but you would usually call them ‘your lordship.’”
Thomas absorbed this information with a few rapid blinks of his eyes. “I see. Your lordship.”
Simon cleared his throat loudly, ineffectively hiding a smile behind the rim of his glass.
“Ah,” Gerald said. “You call me ‘my lord’—if you like.” If Simon wasn’t here, this would be a perfect opportunity to try to explain to Thomas that he could call him by his name, if he wanted. But correcting Thomas in front of Simon was awkward enough without dragging it out. “Lord Simon, for instance, would be ‘your lordship.’”
Thomas nodded, blushing. “Yes, my lord. I understand now. I’ll, ah. I’m sorry, your lordship,” he said to Simon.
Showing a single scrap of decency, Simon waved off the apology instead of forcing Gerald to explain that the insult, if there had really been one, was to him, not Simon. He doubted very much that Thomas would find that information comforting. “Speaking of Lord Simon,” Gerald continued, “I think he was just leaving, weren’t you?”
That point, at least, Simon didn’t try to argue.
“Don’t mind about Simon,” his lordship said when Thomas returned from taking that gentleman’s glass back down to the kitchen.
“My lord?” Thomas asked, managing not to stumble over it. At least he hadn’t been addressing his lordship wrongly all this time—he wasn’t sure he could have lived with the shame.
Except, of course, that he’d have had to. Just like he had to live with knowing that he could never measure up to Euan in his lordship’s eyes. And with his lordship making sure everyone else knew it, too. It was bad enough that he was stuck with this job whether he wanted it or not; knowing that his lordship was equally stuck with him, whether he wanted him or not, just added insult to injury.
“Brothers, you know,” his lordship continued. “And, well, Sentinel brothers. He likes to show me up. Don’t worry about it.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“And the business with Mowbray, don’t worry about that, either. It’s a formality.”
He’d said that before. Now that he’d been told twice not to worry about it, he was starting to worry. “Yes, my lord. What…what sort of formality?” Another opportunity for him to make a colossal ass of himself, just like he had with Lord Simon, no doubt.
“There’s nothing to your part of it—it’s usually done right after christening, so you don’t have any lines. He just has to look at you and say you’re a Guide of the House of Mowbray.”
“What happens if he doesn’t?” Thomas blurted out, before he could think about it. He added a, “My lord,” to cover the lapse. He wasn’t sure he could take one more person telling him he didn’t deserve this job that he’d never asked for in the first place.
“Nothing, really,” his lordship said. “In the middle ages, it would mean that if another House tried to assert a prior claim over you, we wouldn’t go to war to keep you. But that doesn’t happen anymore, so it doesn’t really matter.”
Thomas absorbed that with a nod. It wasn’t as if he’d ever expected anyone to go to war over him anyway, so he supposed he could live with that.
“But there’s no reason he wouldn’t accept you,” his lordship added. “And then—well, if something happened to me, the House would look after you.”
It had been a while since anyone had mentioned how Thomas, as a Guide, was supposed to need “looking after.” No one had really explained what it meant. It didn’t necessarily sound bad, but if it was one more thing he was going to have shoved on him, he wanted to at least find out what it was. “How’s that, my lord?”
“Hm? Oh, well—you could sit down if you liked—it’s a bit of a feudal relic, actually.”
Thomas sat, gingerly, in the chair Lord Simon had recently vacated. A feudal relic? It had seemed like the idea he needed looking after was what had gotten him out of jail; that didn’t sound like a relic to him.
“In the old days, Guide lineages were bound to the House. A bit like, ah, serfdom. Well, it was serfdom. But it hasn’t been for over 300 years. A Guide’s a freeborn Englishman; you can come and go as you please like anybody else.”
Could he? His lordship seemed to have forgotten about his sentence—and even before that, it hadn’t sounded like he was being given much of a choice about being his lordship’s Guide.
His lordship went on, “But there’s still a traditional expectation that the Houses take care of their own Guides. Make sure you have a job, or make arrangements if you’re--” He glanced down at his leg. “Crippled, or something.”
That wasn’t precisely the question Thomas had had in mind, but it sounded, at least, like this matter of being “presented” meant some kind of public admission that his lordship was planning to keep him as his Guide. He wouldn’t object to that, even if it was only because, as Lord Simon had said, it was a choice between him and no Guide at all.
“But my own household would look after you anyway—I mean, even if Simon were to inherit, he isn’t that much of an ass. And you’d have the Society to fall back on, if you were really in trouble. Not that you’re likely to be. But—well. We like to make sure.”
Another of those Sentinel things he didn’t really understand, Thomas supposed. He ought to be grateful, probably, that his lordship was planning on going through the motions, as though he really were a “greatest treasure of the house.” “I see, my lord.”
“Is that all right?” His lordship asked. “I mean, we wouldn’t have to present you, if you’d rather not. It would look dashed odd—and there isn’t really any reason not to; it doesn’t obligate you to anything.”
“Yes, my lord. It’s fine.” Now, at last, he was being asked about something—though since he’d repeatedly been told it was something that didn’t really matter, he supposed it didn’t mean much. He might as well do it—at very least, it might be something he could throw up as a last-ditch defense if his lordship found another Guide he actually liked and wanted to get rid of him. He remembered the feeling of being cast completely onto his own meager resources—not just from his arrest, but even before that, when Bates had come back and it had become clear that the job he’d worked so hard to get was being taken away from him. Having somewhere to turn, if something similar happened again, wouldn’t be a bad thing, even if it was vaguely connected to the idea of serfdom.
“Good. It’s easier to just do it than avoid it and have to explain why, even if it is all a bit silly—oh!” He sat up. “There is actually one thing you have to do when you’re presented.”
“What is that, my lord?”
“You have to make sure you don’t laugh at the ceremonial garb Rupert has to wear. It’s a sort of a cape and headdress made out of a stag’s hide, with the head attached. Been in use for centuries. Not the same hide, I mean—they’ve had to hunt down a stag and make a new one a few times. The antlers are gilded.” His lordship shook his head. “Every time I see it, I thank God our branch is as far down from the Headship as it is. Even after the War, there are sixteen men standing between me and those antlers.”
Thomas tried to picture his lordship wearing something like what he’d just described, and failed. He decided that he didn’t envy the Duke of Norfolk’s valet any more than his lordship envied the duke himself. He didn’t know how one took care of a stag-hide cape, and he didn’t particularly wish to. “It certainly sounds…historic, my lord.”
“It’s a bit like scarlet and ermine for the House of Lords, I suppose,” Lord Pellinger continued. “Or your livery, for that matter. Whatever was in fashion at the time, the rest of us are stuck with it. Although for House business it’s only Rupert who has to wear the fancy-dress. The rest of us just wear—oh, damn and blast!”
“My lord?” Thomas asked, alarmed.
His lordship sighed. “At the time that the antlers and cape were the height of fashion, the Head of House was a sort of…tribal…war…chief…thingy. And one tradition that has stuck is that if you’re entitled to a military uniform, you’ve got to wear it.”
“I haven’t any uniforms, my lord.” He’d given them back to the Army when he was de-mobbed; all enlisted men did.
“On, no—you just wear livery. But I’ll have to. I wonder if Murchinson’s still has those ones I never paid for? I’ll have to ask when we go about the dinner jacket.”
Given a choice between his Army uniform and this livery, Thomas would certainly have chosen the uniform. But maybe it would be whatever livery his lordship’s household wore. “Yes, my lord.”
He shook his head. “Damn. Well, I’m not happy about it, but I suppose if Rupert can stand wearing the antlers, I can bear khaki.” He smiled in a way that looked a little forced to Thomas. “Anyhow. That was my brother. You likely won’t meet the rest of the family until we go up to the house—unless my father comes down for the House of Lords. He usually doesn’t. The rest of them won’t…won’t give you a hard time. Simon only did to annoy me. And because he hasn’t any manners.”
It was good to know, he supposed, that the rest of his lordship’s family wouldn’t stoop to openly mocking him if he addressed them wrongly, or made some other basic mistake. Still, he wasn’t eager to humiliate himself in front of any of them, either.
In his years at Downton, Thomas had mastered the protocols and etiquette expected of a servant in a great house—and, having mastered it, he’d taken what he felt was an entirely justified pleasure in flinging his hard-won knowledge at the heads of those below him on the ladder. Having to start over, almost from scratch, seemed monumentally unfair.
Not that anything else about this situation was fair, either. But every time he thought he’d plumbed the depths of how unfair it was, something new came springing out at him.
At least this one he could do something about. He’d have to find some way to learn what else Sentinels did differently from everyone else. Perhaps there was a book. Or Mr. Weatherby might tell him, if he could think of how to ask.
Over the next week, Gerald waited for his Guide’s bleak mood to lift. He’d have liked to blame Simon for the state of affairs, but if he was honest, he knew it wasn’t so. His interference certainly hadn’t helped matters, but Thomas had been unhappy long before his visit. He hadn’t really been happy at all, since becoming Gerald’s Guide—there were some times when he was more miserable than others, but none when he seemed truly happy. He was so different from the Guides at home, who were rarely anything less than content, and were usually quite happy.
Nothing Gerald did seemed to help—not getting him out for walks in the fresh air, nor letting him hole up in their rooms. Not encouraging him to talk, or giving him his privacy. If asked, Thomas always said that he was fine, and, if pressed, added that he was grateful to be out of prison, all the while smelling anything but fine and grateful.
Nothing really seemed to make it worse, either. Gerald did his best to be patient, but it was inevitable that his Guides mood would affect his own. His occasional snappish remarks were met with the same withdrawn reserve as his attempts to draw Thomas out. As were his subsequent apologies. It hardly seemed to matter to him at all what Gerald did or didn’t do.
It was precisely the sort of situation he’d expect a Guide to know what to do about—but he couldn’t, in the circumstances, ask his own. So one afternoon, after coaxing Thomas into taking a little time for himself, he rang and asked for Weatherby.
“It’s about Thomas,” he explained when the butler had arrived. “I’m…concerned. About how he’s settling in.”
Weatherby nodded gravely; he seemed to have been expecting something like this. “Yes, your lordship.”
“He seems—well. Not very happy. He won’t tell me what’s wrong. I wondered if you had noticed anything…are the other staff being unkind to him?”
Weatherby went more than usually blank for a moment. “Ah. No, your lordship, I can’t say that I’ve seen anything like that.”
That had been Gerald’s only guess; the only cause for discontentment that Thomas had even hinted at was the cook being cross with him. “I see. Do you have any other ideas what might be troubling him?”
“I believe he finds life here a bit…different to what he’s accustomed to,” Weatherby said cautiously.
That was not precisely helpful. “I thought he might. But I’ve no idea how we might make him more comfortable.” He felt, really, as though he was already doing quite a lot. He accepted Thomas’s formality and reserve, didn’t ask him to sit close to him or to hold his hand. Thomas seemed to have gotten used to taking meals with him, as long as Gerald didn’t expect him to talk. Gerald talked to him a great deal, true, but he didn’t press Thomas to respond in kind. Not talking to his Guide was really too much to ask of any Sentinel.
“Being a personal Guide isolates him from the others, and perhaps puts him under a bit of a strain,” Weatherby offered. “Although I understand he’s familiar with many of his duties.”
“Yes, that doesn’t seem to be the problem. He seems to like puttering around in the dressing room well enough.” Gerald was a bit lonely, but he’d certainly never been better dressed.
“That’s something,” Weatherby noted.
“And he doesn’t seem to mind about my leg.” Many of the Society Guides seemed flustered by it, as though they didn’t know whether to look at it or not look, or to talk about it or pretend it didn’t exist, but Thomas was refreshingly matter-of-fact about it all. “Really, he’s quite good at his job. He just seems…ill at ease. I don’t know what can be done about it.”
“I’m afraid I don’t either, your lordship,” Weatherby admitted. “The situation is not ideal.”
It certainly wasn’t. “I’ve had the sense, a time or two, that he isn’t…isn’t planning on staying any longer than he has to.” He wasn’t sure precisely why—Thomas’s hesitation over the idea of being presented, perhaps. And, more simply, that he hadn’t shown much of an interest in getting to know Gerald himself. “I don’t suppose he’s said anything about that to you?”
“No. He hasn’t shown much inclination to talk about himself, to me at least.”
“Nor me.” And that was damned odd. The Guides Gerald knew loved to talk.
“Perhaps he simply needs more time, your lordship,” Weatherby suggested. “He has only been here a short while.”
“I hope so.” He mused for a moment. Weatherby didn’t seem to have anything to add. “Well. Keep an eye on him, when you can, and let me know if there’s anything…well, anything I should know.”
“I shall, your lordship.”
“Mr. Weatherby wants to see you,” Kip said as soon as Thomas stepped through the door.
“Fine.” Just what he needed. His lordship had more or less thrown Thomas out of his rooms, hinting heavily that Thomas ought to take a walk or “explore London for an hour or two.” Thomas didn’t have the slightest idea why, except that perhaps he was expecting his brother or another visitor and didn’t want Thomas around to embarrass him.
He’d halfway considered going to a place he knew nearby for finding company of a particular sort. In addition to his other problems, he was, he’d realized the other day, also rather lonely. A bit of uncomplicated conversation, followed by a bit of uncomplicated something else, might have gone a long way to relieving the frustration of his situation. But two things stopped him. First, if his lordship could smell his hand salve, God only knew how much else he could smell. He wasn’t at all confident he could wash off the smell of sex without being caught.
But the livery was an even bigger problem. Given enough time, he might still be able to attract a partner—Guides did feature heavily both in salacious novels and in outright pornography; there was bound to be someone eager for a chance at a real one—but you didn’t want to be conspicuous, in places like that. If the police showed up, your only hope was to disappear into a crowd before they got a good look at you. And the green coat would stand out like lipstick on a nun.
So that option was flat out, and he didn’t have any other ideas for making the best of the situation. His opinion of the matter hadn’t improved when, half an hour into his exile, it started to rain. He’d spent most of the subsequent hour sheltering under a shop awning while the shopkeeper eyed him suspiciously.
And now Weatherby wanted something. Probably, Thomas thought gloomily, to know why Thomas had been out wandering around when it was not his half-day. He might actually have to explain that his lordship had wanted him off the premises. He wondered if he might be better off letting Weatherby think he had been skiving.
Instead, Weatherby said, “Well, Thomas. You’ve been here a bit now.”
“Yes.” Thomas knew that; he could look at a calendar as well as the next person.
“How do you feel you’re…settling in?”
The answer to that really depended on what Mr. Weatherby had heard. He’d been making even more of an effort to keep to himself lately, since the proof of O’Brien’s perfidy had left him with even less confidence in his ability to tell friend from foe. But he’d also been finding it more and more difficult to keep his temper. More than once in the last few days he’d snarled at someone in response to something he later realized was most likely a perfectly innocent remark. “Well enough, I think,” he said cautiously.
“Good. I’m glad to hear that. Lord Pellinger had gotten the impression that you’re perhaps not…entirely happy here.”
Bloody hell. “I don’t know why he would think that, Mr. Weatherby.” He really didn’t, was the problem. He thought he’d been doing rather well at keeping his feelings to himself. Upstairs, at least. “I’m very grateful to be here.” And he was—he knew he was better off here than anywhere else he might realistically have been. But having to say so all the time just made him angrier.
“Good. That’s good. You see.” Weatherby hesitated as if he were about to broach some embarrassing subject. “Sentinels prefer it if their Guides are happy. It bothers him to think that you might be dissatisfied with your place here.”
“Do they?” So that was it—his lordship must have complained.
How anyone would expect Thomas to be happy when he’d been betrayed by his former best mate, thrown out of the only home he’d known for over ten years, narrowly escaped being sent to prison, and was now stuck wearing a ridiculous uniform and waiting on a man who understandably resented him for being alive, he had no idea. He hadn’t been happy even before all of those things had happened.
It was bad enough having to be grateful, but happy, on top of that, was just too much. “I’ll keep that in mind. But I’m fine.”
Weatherby nodded. “All right. And you’ll come to me if you have any problems?”
“I will, Mr. Weatherby. Thank you.”
He took his leave, promising to give his lordship no more cause for concern in future. That should be easy enough—all he had to do was stop doing whatever had tipped him off that Thomas was unhappy.
As soon as he figured out what that was.
The next thing Gerald tried was asking Ace and Morgan to dine with them. He had some vague idea that Thomas might be more inclined to relax a bit in the company of another Guide. He also hoped that the example of how Morgan treated Ace—not disrespectfully, but with familiarity and affection—might prove instructive for Thomas. The experiment was a dismal failure; Thomas had somehow gotten the idea that he was expected to wait on the party rather than participate in it, which he understandable resented. Even after the misunderstanding had been cleared up, Thomas was more than usually on edge, and barely spoke even when spoken to.
At least, not until the end of the meal, when Gerald took out his cigarettes and Ace his pipe. Thomas sat with his hands on his lap and looked uncomfortable, even though Gerald knew he smoked—he’d smelled it on him plenty of times.
Morgan offered Thomas his cigarette case. “Do you want one of mine? They’re Turkish.”
Thomas flinched a little and said, “I don’t know; am I allowed to?”
It was a reasonable enough question, the sort of thing Gerald might have expected Thomas to ask, but he was a little taken aback at his tone, which was almost…vicious. Thomas must not have meant it the way it sounded, he decided—it was so unlike him. “Of course you are,” Gerald said.
Thomas ducked his head and took out his cigarettes.
Mr. Langley-Smythe started making noises about an early morning at the office, and Thomas began to hope that the excruciating evening might be drawing to a merciful close. Everything about it seemed to have been designed to humiliate him. His lordship had said that Thomas would dine with him when he was alone. Naturally he’d thought that if his lordship had a guest, he’d wait at table and then get his own meal downstairs. Who on Earth had supper parties with their servants?
Sentinels did, apparently. As had been patiently explained to him before he was sent downstairs for more place settings.
Then he’d had to watch Morgan and Mr. Langley-Smythe being revoltingly happy, touching and giving each other gooey looks all the time. It was like they were trying to rub his face in how his own Sentinel barely tolerated him. Despite all the hand-holding in the jail and the courthouse, his lordship hadn’t touched him since they’d gotten here, apart from the usual, dressing and so on. He hadn’t missed it, since he wasn’t used to that sort of thing to begin with, but now that he was reminded of it, he looked on it as another sign of how little his lordship liked him.
It certainly would have taken a great deal of getting used to. Mr. Langley-Smythe was always pressing Morgan’s hand, or patting his arm—once he even caressed his neck in a way that reminded Thomas, with a physical pang, of a certain incident with Jimmy at the piano. He’d not have known what to do with himself, if his lordship carried on like that.
But he might not have particularly minded finding out.
All in all, Thomas had had more enjoyable evenings in the trenches. Now, at last, it seemed to be almost over, but there was one more bit of agony in store. Morgan stood up, saying, “I’ll just help Thomas clear the dinner things away.”
Right, because Thomas needed help with a job he’d been doing—in much more august surroundings, thank you very much—since he was sixteen years old.
Morgan was, at least, mercifully silent while they loaded the glasses and pudding dishes onto the serving cart. He also said nothing more than, “Mind the bump, there,” when they were taking it down the passage to the lift. But once they were inside, and had rattled down a few floors, he rounded on Thomas and said, “You know, Lord Gerald’s really very nice. You don’t have to be such a bloody bastard all the time.”
Startled by this open hostility, Thomas said, “He’s called Lord Pellinger. Actually.”
“That’s not the point. The point is, he deserves better. You could at least make an effort to be pleasant once in a while.”
It was almost a relief to have the pretense of syrupy niceness dropped. “He’s stuck with me, isn’t he? Doesn’t really matter what he deserves.” Thomas thought that he ought to get, at least, a vicious little bit of satisfaction at that—he wasn’t the only one stuck. But the thought only made him sadder.
Morgan huffed and threw up his hands. “Unbelievable. You are just—” He shook his head. “Yeah. He’s stuck with you.” The lift came to a stop. As they maneuvered the cart out, Morgan added, “By the way. Everyone at Bellerock calls him Lord Gerald. Just so you know.”
Why did no one tell him these things? It was enough to make him scream. “Yeah, well. We’re not at Bellerock.” He guessed that must be the name of his lordship’s estate—his father was called the Earl of Yarnemuth; Thomas had picked up that much.
“I grew up there,” Morgan said, between gritted teeth. “Lady Georgiana’s Guide? My sister. Euan was my cousin. I’ve known Lord Pellinger since he was four.”
“Then what are you doing working for a solicitor?”
“I wanted to, you arrogant little shit,” Morgan hissed. “Not everybody is as--”
Thomas didn’t get to find out what not everybody was, because Mr. Weatherby stuck his head out of his pantry door, and Morgan apparently didn’t wish to share the information with him. He stopped speaking to Thomas entirely, in fact, uttering only a few pointedly cheerful remarks to the kitchen girl who came to take custody of the cart.
Morgan kept his mouth shut on the way back to his lordship’s rooms, too. Fortunately, Mr. Langley-Smythe was ready to leave, and did so as soon as Morgan had helped him into his coat. Thomas steeled himself to be told off for barking at Morgan, resolving firmly to say absolutely nothing other than, “Yes, my lord.”
But in the end, his lordship didn’t say anything except that he was tired and thought he’d go to bed. Thomas ought to have been relieved to be off the hook, but instead, he found himself wondering if Lord Pellinger even noticed or cared what he did.
Despite the tensions in his relationship with Thomas, Gerald moved on with his plans to come out of the stasis he’d been in since losing Euan and his leg, and rejoin the world. Either his family title or his Sentinel status gained him the courtesy of a prompt appointment at the War Hospital, where it turned out that the prosthetics department had made great strides since the Armistice had ended the incoming tide of new patients and spared the specialists some attention for the old ones. In the course of one grueling afternoon, they replaced the harness and the (appallingly named) stump socket of his old wooden leg, and at the same time, took casts for the manufacture of an entirely new prosthetic, which would incorporate all the latest developments, including lightweight aluminum and a hinged knee. Gerald found the whole process exhausting; it would have been orders of magnitude worse if Thomas hadn’t been there
He made his way back to the Society using both the prosthesis and his crutches, the procedure the specialist recommended since he had declined the offer to check in for a course of rehabilitative therapy. He also followed the specialist’s advice to use the prosthesis for short periods at first, wearing it mostly when he left his rooms.
Thomas turned out to be relatively free with advice about using the leg—knowledge gained during his war service, Gerald supposed, although Thomas never took the topic as an occasion to talk about his war experiences. Gerald soon gave up one crutch, using the other mostly for balance. He’d be able to switch to a stick soon, he thought.
Thomas also came out of his shell a bit during the trip to the tailor’s. He hung back at first, while Gerald explained what he wanted. Rather foolishly, he’d thought that all he needed to say was that he wanted a dinner jacket, but Murchinson had all sorts of questions that Gerald didn’t have answers for, beginning with, “Will you be wanting just the dinner jacket itself, or a complete suit?”
Gerald was not entirely sure. “Well, I’ll need some black ties, of course.” Every chap he’d seen in a dinner jacket was wearing one of those, instead of the usual white. But as for the rest of it, he was entirely out of his depth. “Thomas, what do you think?”
Thomas came to the rescue quite swiftly—perhaps he’d only been waiting to be asked. “I’ve always felt that the v-shape fronted waistcoat is more effective with a dinner jacket, my lord.”
Having no idea what shape the fronts of his current evening waistcoats were, Gerald nodded and adopted a thoughtful expression.
Seeming encouraged, Thomas went on, “They’re also being cut straight across the waistline, and a bit higher than the pre-war style, which I think may provide a smoother fit.”
The prosthetic leg harness had made the points of his waistcoat stick out a bit oddly, Gerald remembered. It hadn’t been enough to bother him, but perhaps it did Thomas. “Then I suppose I shall have some new waistcoats, as well.”
Thomas and Murchinson then delved further into the arcana of waistcoats—single-breasted versus double, rolled lapels or straight, and then further details of fabric. At one point, Murchinson dared ask if Gerald wanted any waistcoats in black satin, or perhaps colours.
“Of course he doesn’t,” Thomas said, before Gerald could even open his mouth. From Murchinson’s approving nod, this was apparently the correct answer.
Once the matter of waistcoats had been settled, they moved on to trousers. Ordinary evening trousers could be worn with dinner jackets, apparently, but—“Trousers are being worn a bit longer, my lord, than before the war.”
Murchinson chimed in, “I don’t know if I should say it, your lordship, but if you’re concerned about your medical appliance showing, pleats would disguise the outline nicely, and they’re considered quite correct these days.”
Thomas nodded his approval of this proclamation. After the trousers were planned in detail, there was a brief foray into the topic of shirts, Thomas commenting, “You can wear soft collars with a dinner jacket, my lord—I expect you’d like that?”
Gerald felt rather as though he was being thrown a sop, but agreed that Thomas had correctly deduced his preference for soft collars.
Finally, the measuring began. At this point, Gerald began to feel rather like a doll as the other two men posed him and discussed, with much laying on of hands, precisely where the waistline of each garment should fall. The tailor’s touch, he could quite have done without, though he strove to bear it like an Englishman, but his reaction to Thomas’s touch was unsettling in a different way.
While he was as professionally brisk as he usually was, it felt different, in this moment when Thomas was nearly cheerful. Almost sensual. In the back of his mind, Gerald began to consider the opportunities afforded by a Guide with whom he had not been raised side-by-side as a brother.
Considering that they were in the middle of a public tailor shop, it was probably just as well that Thomas soon ran out of reasons to touch him, and left the tailor to do Gerald’s inside leg measurement entirely on his own.
As Murchinson wrote the measurements in his book, he said, “I see, your lordship, that we last made you a daytime suit in 1914.”
“That sounds about right,” Gerald agreed. After that, he hadn’t had much opportunity to wear anything that wasn’t khaki.
“And I can see you’re still wearing one of those I made for you just after you left University.” Murchinson did not sound like he approved.
Thomas nodded gravely. “Very good workmanship, of course,” he said, with a glance at Murchinson, “but the silhouette is a bit…conservative, my lord.”
Gerald didn’t much care if his silhouette was conservative, liberal, or socialist, but Thomas evidently did. And as choosing his dinner jacket had given Thomas more genuine pleasure than anything else in the time Gerald had known him, he had no objection at all to prolonging the experience. “What do you suggest?”
Thomas and Murchinson began talking enthusiastically about the number of buttons and width of the lapels, as well as some rather technical details about the set of the shoulders, which Gerald didn’t even try to follow. “The newer jackets are a bit more fitted to the waist,” Thomas added, “which you could carry well, my lord.”
“Not those ones with a belt, like a shooting coat,” Gerald objected. He’d seen a few fellows wearing those, and didn’t care for them.
“No, my lord,” Thomas said, politely aghast. “Not at all. But a dart just here--” He folded back the fabric of Gerald’s suit coat, holding it in place with his palm just below Gerald’s ribs.
Gerald could not have said whether or not the coat looked better, but the effect of Thomas’s touch was electric. Certain portions of his anatomy, just below Gerald’s shamefully-behind-the-mode waistcoat began to stir. Gerald went very still, reminding himself that he was in a place of business.
“My lord?” Thomas said, removing his hand and stepping back.
“Yes, that should be all right,” he said quickly. “Quite. What do you think about material?”
Fortunately, Thomas was not short of opinions on that subject, either, and after Murchinson had shown them several choices, selected the grey that Thomas seemed to like best.
“What are your thoughts on pin-stripes?” Murchinson asked. Gerald did not himself have any, but fortunately, it seemed that the tailor was asking Thomas.
“I’m in favor of them,” Thomas said. “On a young gentleman, at least. White or colours might be too fast for his lordship, but a grey or ivory could be all right.”
“But not a chalk stripe.”
“For town? No.” Thomas shook his head firmly.
Murchinson nodded, as though Thomas had passed some kind of test, and brought out several more bolts of fabric.
By the time they’d finished, Gerald had ordered not just the dinner jacket and its accompaniments, but two suits—one plain and one pin-striped—and some new soft collars for both day and evening. The bill would be extraordinary, and they’d been in the tailor shop all afternoon, but Thomas had spoken more in that afternoon than in the entire time he’d been with Gerald, and for that alone he’d have considered both the money and the time well-spent.
It was a shame that Thomas wasn’t getting anything, but all he was likely to need in the near future was the house livery for when his sentence was up, and they always had Thompson, the village tailor, do those.
“I wonder,” he said to Murchinson as they wrapped up talking about when he could expect the new suits, “if you might have time to take Thomas’s measurements, to send up to the village tailor.” Murchinson usually resented being asked to take measurements for Thompson’s benefit, but given the amount of trade they’d given him that afternoon, Gerald thought he ought to be able to bear it this once.
Murchinson made a show of checking his watch before saying, “I suppose I can manage it, your lordship. Take that coat off,” he said to Thomas.
Thomas shed the green coat with a look of undisguised loathing. “Why does the village tailor need my measurements, my lord?”
“So he can have our house livery ready for you when we go up,” Gerald explained. “He isn’t very quick, and we won’t have anything on hand that’s even close to the right size. I’m sure you don’t want to wear that one any longer than necessary.”
Thomas looked slightly mutinous. “I thought I was to be your valet, my lord.”
“You are,” Gerald answered, momentarily confused. Then he remembered that valets in Insensate houses usually wore plain dark suits, instead of livery. “Guides wear livery, even if they are valets.”
“I see, my lord.” Thomas submitted to being measured, but his earlier pleasure was very clearly dampened.
Gerald came very close to telling him he could have Murchinson make something for him, just to cheer him up again, but firmly quashed the impulse. Thomas would have nowhere to wear a town suit, since he had to wear the livery while he was at the Society. In the country, Guides sometimes changed out of livery for riding or shooting, but Thompson would be insulted if he had Murchinson make country clothes.
“Do you need any shirts?” he asked Thomas instead. “Or collars?” Thomas evidently had strong feelings about collars, and Gerald didn’t think Weatherby would notice if he wore different ones with his livery.
But instead of launching into another enthusiastic discussion with Murchinson, Thomas just said, “I have what I need, my lord, thank you.”
Livery. After getting his lordship settled in the sitting room, Thomas trudged downstairs for the tea, feeling very low. His lordship’s house livery might be more sensible than what he was wearing now—in fact, it damn near had to be—but he’d thought he’d be done with the stuff for good once his three months were up. Of course, he had nothing of his own to wear, but by the time he left the Society, he’d also have a pay packet waiting for him. And he’d had half-formed plans of suggesting that his lordship prune his wardrobe of a handful of items which might be altered to fit Thomas reasonably well. But now he didn’t need to worry about that, because he’d be stuck wearing bloody livery for the rest of his life.
“You look like a long, wet morning,” some other Guide—Jonas or Josiah or something—said as he arrived downstairs. “Something wrong?”
“Oh, shut up.” Thomas brushed past him without even appreciating the other man’s wounded expression.
The afternoon had started out well enough. Lord Grantham had never taken him along to the tailor’s, much less solicited his opinion about what to have made. It had been a great deal of fun, really, having his lordship ask his advice. And the tailor, who was clearly quite good at his job himself, had clearly recognized Thomas’s expertise.
He wished the bad news about the livery could have waited for another day, that was all. And that he’d been quick enough on his feet to claim he needed more shirts. Down in the dumps as he was, he hadn’t quite realized in time that his lordship was thinking he might as well have Murchinson—or, at least, one of Murchinson’s assistants—make him some. Apparently it had escaped his lordship’s notice that servants usually didn’t have their shirts made to measure, and Thomas had been an absolute fool not to take him up on it.
He supposed he might get some points for honesty, if his lordship ever realized the mistake. But really, Thomas would have rather had the shirts.
Apart from the War Hospital and the tailor shop, Gerald’s re-entry into society was still confined mostly to the club rooms. He perused the theatre columns regularly, but every performance seemed to grim or too frivolous, or like it would be dull for Thomas. Or if the content of the play was suitable, the theatre was too far away or had too many stairs. Gerald suspected that he might be looking for excuses to put off going out in public.
When Boko asked him to an evening of cards, though, he had no excuse available, since Boko had reserved one of the club rooms for the occasion.
“You’ll be all right on your own for the evening?” he asked as Thomas put the finishing touches on his evening costume.
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said.
By now, Gerald didn’t expect him to say anything else. He had some hope that Thomas might enjoy spending the occasional evening below-stairs and away from him; he certainly didn’t seem to like spending them in their rooms. But he’d seen no particular signs that Thomas was any happier in the company of his fellow Guides.
“I don’t know how long I’ll stay,” Gerald continued, “but if it gets late enough that you’d like to come up, tell me, so I’ll know where you are if I need you.” There—Thomas ought to be able to find some option he liked. If nothing else, he could come up the dressing room and iron things, as he seemed to spend half his time doing.
“Yes, my lord.”
Somewhat to his surprise, Gerald found himself enjoying the party. Boko’s friends’ high spirits had been dimmed but not entirely extinguished by the war, and conversation was lively and varied. And—as Gerald was guiltily aware—it was something of a relief to be free of Thomas’s oppressive gloom. In accordance with the club’s custom, the Society Guides in attendance were tipped lavishly on the occasion of successful hands, and were, consequently, quite cheerful. It felt vaguely disloyal even to think it, but the difference…well, it made a nice change.
Everything was going swimmingly until, suddenly, Boko dropped his cards and swore. Sensing something was wrong, Gerald—and every other Sentinel in the room—extended his hearing, instinctively seeking out his Guide.
The Guides’ hall seemed more crowded than usual, with the Guides of all of Lord Finsworth’s card party in attendance. All of the visiting Guides were dressed in their Houses’ livery—including the “footman” who had gotten Thomas in trouble for smoking a couple of weeks ago. He was, Thomas had since learned, actually Lord Finsworth’s Guide, Gregory. If anyone had told him that Guide valets wore livery, he might have known to take him more seriously. Confusingly, not all visiting valets wore livery—Thomas had never seen Morgan in it, for instance. How he was supposed to tell his equals from the inconsequential nobodies, he had no idea.
After dinner, the visiting Guides sat together, two of them playing a desultory game of draughts while the others held forth to a collection of young Society Guides on the subject of how to snare themselves a Sentinel. Apparently, it was taken for granted that everyone would want to.
“Do you want to play next, Thomas?” one of the visiting Guides asked.
Thomas looked over at him. He was trying to read a newspaper, but he could hardly concentrate on it, the way they kept making little comments, like they thought he ought to be hanging on their every word, like Kip and those others were. But he hardly needed their advice, did he? He had a Sentinel, whether he wanted one or not. And whether the Sentinel wanted him or not. “No,” he said, and looked back down at the paper.
“Suit yourself,” the other Guide answered.
And that was about enough of that, Thomas decided. Standing up, he said, “I’m going to have a smoke. Outside.”
“Good idea,” said Gregory, in a tone suggesting that he was giving encouragement to a particularly dimwitted dog or infant.
The cool night air was a relief after the stifling atmosphere inside, and the cigarette calmed his nerves, but as soon as he went back in, he was instantly on edge again.
“I’m just saying,” Gregory said, with a pointed glance in his direction, “looks aren’t everything. Most Sentinels would rather have a Guide who’s pleasant and helpful than one who’s handsome.”
The lads all looked over at him. Kip snickered.
“Well,” Thomas retorted, with an insincere smile, “That’s lucky for some, isn’t it, Gregory?”
Several of the others gasped. “You’re lucky your lordship’s such a hard match,” Gregory answered. “I can’t imagine anyone would have you, otherwise.”
Before he could stop himself, before he could consider what a monumentally stupid thing he was doing, Thomas put his hand on Gregory’s shoulder, spun him around, and punched him on the jaw.
Gerald couldn’t quite make sense of what he was hearing from downstairs, but a strong sense that something was wrong, and Thomas was mixed up in it somehow, had him reaching for his crutch, getting his leg under him, and trailing after Boko as he ran hell-for-leather downstairs.
The time it took him to stand up gave Boko a substantial lead, which widened even further on the stairs. Even ordinary stairs were a trial for him, and the servants’ staircase was steep and narrow. Gerald’s sense of urgency increased when he heard Boko roar in outrage, and as his sense of Thomas’s distress sharpened, but he simply couldn’t go any faster.
By the time he caught up, Boko had Thomas by the throat and was delivering what was clearly not the first sledgehammer-like punch to his face.
Filled with primal rage, and forgetting entirely that Boko, in addition to being possessed of both his natural legs, had been a boxing Blue at Oxford, Gerald launched himself at him, intent on tearing him away from his Guide.
Ill-advised though it was, the attack led Boko to drop Thomas in order to devote his full attention to Gerald.
Fortunately, Boko paused for a moment to consider his angle of approach, and in that moment, Weatherby interposed himself between the combatants, shouting, “Gentlemen! Control yourselves!”
Realizing that the only way to his rival was through an innocent Guide, Boko subsided slightly. He was wild-eyed and breathing hard, but lowered his hands and seemed to be taking in his surroundings. Gerald, not as far gone, came back to himself more quickly and looked down at his bloody and shaken Guide. Thomas had hit the ground hard, but was starting to sit up.
“Gregory,” Weatherby snapped. “Attend on your Sentinel, please. You two, get Thomas.”
Two other Society Guides picked Thomas up off the floor; he was conscious but dazed. Weatherby herded them and Gerald out of the hall and across the passage.
The room opposite had a sofa; the two Guides deposited Thomas on it, then moved out of the way. Gerald hurried to sit beside him, letting his crutch fall where it would. Thomas was shaking and crying, but his heartbeat was strong. Putting his arm around him, Gerald focused on that steady drumbeat and tried to control his own shaking, which he knew was born of equal parts fear and rage. Rage that another Sentinel had dared lay hands on his Guide; fear that he wouldn’t be able to protect this one, any more than he had Euan.
Some little time later, Weatherby came back into the room; Gerald hadn’t even noticed him leaving. “Your lordship? Dr. Selby happened to be on the premises this evening, and he’s offered to have a look at Thomas.”
The last thing Gerald wanted at the moment was another Sentinel pawing at his Guide, but he pushed those feelings aside—if Thomas was injured, Gerald’s sensibilities were not a good reason to delay care. “Yes, all right.”
Dr. Selby did all of the right things, approaching in a non-threatening manner and asking Gerald’s permission before touching Thomas, but it was still difficult to control himself. The examination was quick but Sentinel-thorough. He ran his hands over Thomas’s skull and looked into his eyes, asking, “Did he lose consciousness at all?”
“I don’t think so,” Gerald said, looking at Thomas.
Thomas shook his head, sniffling a little and dabbing a bit of blood away from his nose with one hand.
“Good. That’s good,” Selby said. “If you would have him open his shirt--?”
Thomas tried to obey, but his hands were shaking too much; Gerald had to do it for him. “It’s all right, Thomas. You’re going to be all right.”
Thomas made a sort of strangled sound at that, ending in a whimper.
“Your Sentinel’s right,” Dr. Selby said, running his hands over Thomas’s ribcage and abdomen. “It’s not as bad as all that.” To Gerald, he continued, “There’s no sign of concussion, or internal damage. I think we’re dealing with superficial injuries only.”
“Thank God,” Gerald said, breathing a sigh of relief.
Dr. Selby brought his hand up to Thomas’s neck; Thomas flinched violently.
“It’s all right,” Gerald soothed him, eyeing Selby suspiciously.
“May I try that again?” Selby asked. Both Gerald and Thomas nodded, and he quickly ran his hands over Thomas’s throat and jaw. “You can expect some bruising here. There isn’t any serious damage to the internal structures, but there may be some bruising to the larynx, as well. Speech may be a bit painful, for a few days. If it’s difficult to breathe or swallow, send for a doctor immediately—but I don’t expect that to happen.”
He examined Thomas’s face next. Several times, Thomas hissed in pain and drew back; Gerald rubbed his back and murmured to him soothingly.
“The nose is clearly broken; it’ll have to be set. The zygomatic arch—the cheekbone—may be cracked as well.”
Boko had broken his Guide’s face. Gerald was going to kill him.
“But it isn’t displaced,” Selby continued. “We can leave that alone; it’ll heal on its own. Really, I think he’s more upset than anything else, poor fellow. With your permission, I’ll give him something for pain, then set the nose—it’ll be easier on him that way. The narcotic will make him sleepy as well, which isn’t a bad thing in the circumstances. Rest and reassurance will help a great deal.”
Gerald agreed to the plan of treatment, and Selby left to fetch his medical bag.
“All right, Thomas?” Gerald asked.
Thomas sniffled and nodded, pulling away from him a little. Now that he was calmer, Gerald was surprised that Thomas had put up with being touched for so long—he’d certainly never sought it out before. Gerald felt a pang at the separation, but reminded himself that at least Thomas had accepted his touch when they both needed it most.
As he did so, Weatherby came in. “Do you need anything, your lordship?”
“I think he’s all right,” Gerald answered. “What the hell happened in there?”
Weatherby sighed. “I’m still trying to sort that out. I gather Thomas was…well, he’s clearly in no state to discuss it now.”
“No, it isn’t,” Gerald agreed. “The doctor wants him to rest.”
“I expect I’ll be able to piece together what happened, in time. There were plenty of witnesses.”
When Dr. Selby returned, Thomas rolled his sleeve up meekly for his injection, then slumped, leaning against Gerald just a little bit. He wasn’t quite unconscious—his eyes were open, and he managed to focus his gaze on their faces, though with some apparent effort. But he didn’t so much as whimper when the doctor cleaned his wounds and set his nose, the latter producing a moistly crunchy sound that Gerald rather wished he hadn’t heard.
“Will you need some help putting him to bed?” Selby asked when he had finished.
“I’ll ask Weatherby,” Gerald answered. He didn’t want another Sentinel in his rooms just at the moment. Fortunately, Selby understood.
In the end, it took two both Weatherby and Franklin to get Thomas to bed—Gerald was still not quite steady enough on his feet to be of any practical assistance. By the time they reached the dressing room, neither was Thomas. The other Guides had to undress him, put him into his pyjamas, and tuck him into bed like a child.
“Will there be anything else, your lordship?” Weatherby asked, when they had finished.
“No. I’ll just sit with him for a bit. Thank you.”
As they left, Gerald pulled a chair over and sat, taking care to prop his crutch up where he could reach it. As he did so, Thomas stirred weakly—trying to get up and help him with it, Gerald thought, as ridiculous as that was under the circumstances. “It’s all right, Thomas,” he said, taking Thomas’s hand in one of his. “Just rest for now. Everything’s all right. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”
Thomas was more relieved than anything to have the conclusion of the evening—and the exact process by which he ended up in his own bed—swaddled in a narcotic haze. When Lord Finsworth had erupted into the Guides’ hall, his first thought had been that there was now absolutely no way he could keep his lordship from finding out what he had done. That anxiety never entirely disappeared, even when he was reduced to sheer gibbering terror by the very real fear that he was about to be murdered.
He was far from certain that he could have pulled himself together even once the immediate danger was past. Realizing at the back of his mind that continued hysterics would put off the moment where he would be called upon to explain himself, he hadn’t tried very hard.
But he’d reached the point where he wouldn’t be able to keep it up much longer—and just then the doctor had come along with his needle and provided another excuse to keep his mouth shut.
Unfortunately, strong narcotics made it even more difficult than hysterics to come up with a plan to get himself out of the mess he’d made. He could barely see straight, let alone think. He soon gave up on trying, and, when he was tucked into bed, succumbed entirely.
He woke to grey dawn light, a throbbing face, and no more idea of his next move than when he’d passed out. The pain in his face and the lingering fog from the narcotic made it difficult to collect his thoughts, but he knew he had to try.
It wasn’t just that he’d hit Gregory first—although Lord Finsworth’s reaction suggested that doing so was a much more serious offense than he’d thought it was. The incident was all too likely to lead his lordship to take a closer look at how well—or rather, how poorly—Thomas was conducting himself downstairs. He was likely to hear quite a few things that he wouldn’t like.
Thomas thought that he might be able to come up with some satisfactory explanation or excuse for at least some of them, but applying his mind to the task produced only the realization of just how many incidents there were that could reflect badly on him.
On the other hand, it hardly mattered, did it? His position was secure—for precisely the reason Gregory had stated—and it wasn’t as though his lordship liked him now. Hearing the truth about Thomas’s behavior could hardly ruin Lord Pellinger’s good opinion of him when he didn’t have one to begin with.
But—Thomas admitted to himself for the first time—he still held on to some hope that in time, his lordship would come to like him better. Once he’d got used to him, once Thomas figured out exactly what he was doing wrong. But there wasn’t much chance of that if he thought—or rather, knew—that Thomas’s only real talent was for attracting enemies and getting himself into trouble.
Under the pain and panic, he’d guiltily enjoyed his lordship’s solicitousness last night. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had held him and told him it was going to be all right. Before he’d left home, certainly. It might almost have been the start of something new between them—except that his lordship’s sympathy was sure to evaporate once he knew that what had happened was Thomas’s fault to begin with.
Tears started to leak out of his eyes, and he sat up to relieve the pressure on his swollen nose. He’d always told himself that his problems at Downton—the way no one liked him, the way he always got in trouble for things others got away with, the way the valet job kept being taken away from him—were the result of everyone holding grudges about mistakes he’d made when he was young and foolish, and never giving him a chance.
But this was more than a fair chance—it was actually unfair in his favor. He’d had a golden opportunity handed to him on a platter. All he’d had to do was not cock it up. And he hadn’t even been able to manage that, had he?
No, he had not. He had a job he could probably hold on to, surrounded by people who hated him. Wonderful. Abso-bloody-lutely splendid.
Trying to pull himself together, Thomas got up to blow his nose—and regretted it deeply. After both a glance at his watch and a moment of careful listening suggested neither his lordship nor anyone else was stirring yet, he decided to venture to the lavatory for a cold cloth to put on his nose.
While doing so, he caught a glimpse of himself in the shaving mirror. He looked even worse than he had anticipated. His nose was purple and swollen, with traces of blood around the nostrils. Both eyes were blackened, and there was a necklace of bruising around his throat. A cut, swollen lip provided the finishing touch.
Thomas knew that making himself presentable was a lost cause, but he was long enough trying that when he came out of the lavatory, there were definite sounds of activity in the service passages. He hurried back toward the sanctuary of the dressing room, but he was not quite there when the service door began to open. Putting on a final burst of speed, he made it inside and closed the door behind him before whoever it was could see him.
An effort that proved to be completely wasted when Weatherby came in, catching him only halfway back to his bed. Looking him up and down, Weatherby said, “His lordship’s not going to be happy when he sees you.”
Thomas nodded. He was quite sure that he wouldn’t be.
“You should be in bed,” Weatherby went on, brushing past him and opening the wardrobe.
Nodding again, Thomas got back into bed and watched warily as Weatherby got out one of his lordship’s suits. Weatherby said nothing else before taking the suit off with him somewhere, and Thomas didn’t either.
He stayed in bed even as he heard Weatherby in the next room, getting his lordship up. He was reminded, somehow, of the day Bates showed up to take his job back. The thought made him want to cry again.
He could only hope that this exile would be temporary.
Gerald woke to the sound of someone who was not Thomas opening the curtains. He felt a moment’s panic, but his senses told him that Thomas was in the next room.
Yes, of course. He wouldn’t be up and about first thing, after the night he’d had.
Opening his eyes, he saw that not-Thomas was, in fact, Weatherby. “Good morning, your lordship.”
“Is it?” He sat up, rubbing his face with one hand. “Is Thomas resting?”
Weatherby stiffened slightly at the mention of Thomas. “Yes, your lordship. I looked in on him.”
When he leaned over Gerald to offer a cup of tea, Gerald could smell more than a hint of anxiety on him. “Is there something wrong?”
“Your Guide is not precisely in my good books just at present, your lordship,” Weatherby said.
“You’re suggesting he’s somehow to blame for last night’s affair?” Some rational part of Gerald’s mind was dimly aware that Boko was hardly likely to have charged down and attacked Thomas without provocation of some kind, but that awareness was largely overshadowed by his righteous indignation.
Weatherby hesitated. “I should have been more forthcoming the last time we spoke about Thomas, your lordship,” he admitted. “I thought to avoid adding to your burdens when I had no solutions to offer. I hoped that the problem might resolve on its own. I was mistaken.” He took a deep breath. “But surely you’ll want to wait until you’ve properly begun the day before discussing the matter further?”
“Yes, of course,” Gerald said, though his mind was now roiling with questions. “But Thomas is all right?”
“Yes, your lordship.”
Drinking his tea, Gerald remembered something else. “Dr. Selby gave me some tablets for him, in case of pain. Perhaps you’ll take them in to him. They’re in the pocket of my evening coat.”
“Yes, of course. I expect he’ll want them.” Weatherby found the pills, and clucked over the state of Gerald’s evening clothes, which he’d left draped over a chair after getting himself out of them last night. “Will you dress now, your lordship?”
Gerald usually dressed after breakfast, but decided not to argue. Weatherby might feel that he had to come back to dress him, rather than send someone else, and he likely had enough demands on his time.
Once dressed, he made his own way to the sitting room. He could hear Thomas and Weatherby’s voices from the dressing room, and had to make a real effort to stop himself from eavesdropping. Weatherby emerged soon enough, saying, “Thomas took one of the tablets. I’ll assign someone to look after you today, so he can rest.”
“I appreciate it. Thank you.” He hesitated. “And that discussion we need to have?”
“I’ll return after you’ve breakfasted, if that suits you, your lordship.”
Gerald agreed to this course of action. The Guide Weatherby sent up with his breakfast was Sammy. He’d never been assigned to Gerald before, but he’d waited on him in the common rooms a few times, and Gerald knew that he was earnest, if a bit slow. He piled the breakfast things onto the table with more enthusiasm than finesse, saying as he did, “How is Mr. Thomas, sir? I saw how he got hit last night.”
“He’s all right, Sammy. Thank you for asking.”
“Was he scared? I’d of been scared if something like that happened to me.”
“Yes, I expect he was.”
“Do you think he wants some toast? Mr. Weatherby said he gave him some tea, but he didn’t say if he had any breakfast.”
“I think he’s sleeping,” Gerald said. “But I’ll let him know you offered.”
The room seemed very quiet after Sammy had left. Gerald poked disinterestedly at his breakfast, worrying about Thomas. Damn it, he’d known something was bothering him. He appreciated Weatherby’s good intentions in not telling him about it—whatever it was—but maybe this episode could have been avoided if he’d only known about it.
Even more worrying, of course, was why Thomas hadn’t told him. He understood that Thomas might be reluctant to raise the subject—whatever it was—but Gerald had given him plenty of opportunities. Had he done something to make Thomas feel that he couldn’t trust him?
Giving up on breakfast, Gerald went to the dressing room. Thomas was lying on his side, facing the wall. He appeared asleep, but from the way the rhythm of his breathing changed when Gerald opened the door, he thought he was faking.
Still, faking or not, Gerald had no good reason to disturb his rest. He closed the door again, as gently as he could.
Not gently enough, apparently. A few moments after he’d returned to the sitting room, Thomas wandered in, leaning against the wall for support. For some reason Gerald could not begin to fathom, he was wearing his livery jacket over his pyjamas.
His face was even more startling than his attire. Bruises had started to bloom by the time Gerald left him last night, but they had darkened now. And his voice, when he said—what else?—“My lord,” was a raspy croak.
Reminding himself that indulging in outrage over his injuries would not help Thomas, Gerald managed to keep his voice level as he said, “Thomas. What are you doing up?” Perhaps he wanted some toast after all?
“Did you want something, my lord?”
“No—no. Weatherby has someone else looking after me. You should rest.”
Thomas blinked owlishly at him for a moment. Gerald wondered if he had even understood; he seemed quite profoundly drugged. But after that moment, he slowly turned and started back to his room. Gerald thought that perhaps he ought to go with him, to make sure he got there safely, but by the time he’d struggled to his feet, he heard the dressing room door closing behind Thomas. An absence of thumps or other alarming noises suggested that he’d gotten back into bed without incident. Rather than disturb him again, Gerald sat back down.
It may have been just as well; Weatherby returned not long after. After a few preliminaries, he launched into what sounded very much like a prepared speech. “Thomas has been having a great deal of difficulty getting along with the rest of the staff. You had asked if anyone was being unkind to him. Quite the reverse, I’m afraid. The others have tried to be friendly to him, but he snaps at anyone who talks to him. He’s curt, at best, and frequently actively unkind. At this point, it would be difficult to find anyone downstairs who doesn’t dislike him—with the possible exception of Sammy.”
“What?” Gerald said intelligently. That didn’t sound anything like the Thomas he knew. He wondered if Weatherby was mistaken, somehow.
“Well, it isn’t like Sammy to hold a grudge.”
Gerald shook his head; he didn’t care a fig about Sammy. “What has Thomas done, exactly?”
“It’s more a matter of how often he’s done it, than what he’s done. Apparently he began his first day by rebuking Kip for trying to tell him about your habits, and quickly followed up that performance by telling Sammy off for staring at him. To be fair, he hadn’t yet realized that Sammy was weak in his understanding. The next incident I’ve heard about is when he told Joseph….”
Gerald had to admit that the list of incidents that followed was impressive in its length. Any one of the incidents could have been easily explained, but the sheer mass of them was startling.
“I should note,” Weatherby added, “that most of these incidents came to light after I began making inquiries about last night. I recognized that he was having some difficulty settling in, but I didn’t realize the full extent of the situation. Once the floodgates had been opened, so to speak, nearly all of the lads realized that they had a story to tell.”
It all sounded absolutely ghastly to Gerald. No wonder Thomas was unhappy, if none of the others liked him—but no wonder they didn’t, if even half of what Weatherby related was true. “But why is he acting like that?” A Sentinel being snappish with other Sentinels was perfectly ordinary, but Guides usually got along quite well among themselves.
“That, I do not know, your lordship. As far as I can tell, the others made a sincere effort to welcome him, but he hasn’t confided in anyone.”
It was difficult to imagine a Guide not confiding in anyone—the ones Gerald knew loved sharing confidences. Almost as difficult as it was to imagine a Guide behaving as Thomas had. “And last night? What happened then?”
“By last night, Gregory had apparently grown quite tired of Thomas’s attitude. Some heated words were exchanged—the reports of those present vary as to precisely who started it. Thomas took exception to something Gregory said, and hit him. Gregory hit him back, and then Lord Finsworth arrived on the scene.”
“What did he say, exactly?” Knowing what had provoked Thomas into hitting him might provide some hint about the cause of his problems, or what to do about them.
“Gregory, apparently, was talking to some of the other lads about how to go about getting a position with a Sentinel—he’s an old Society lad himself, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Gerald said impatiently. He was before Gerald’s time, but he’d seen his tie.
“One of his remarks touched on how many gentlemen are more concerned with the Guide’s personality than his looks. Some of the witnesses feel that he was aiming this remark at Thomas. Thomas apparently thought so; he responded by saying that that was lucky for Gregory.” Gerald winced. That had to be a sore point for Gregory, given that Boko didn’t precisely make a secret of the fact that he didn’t think Gregory was much to look at. “Gregory responded that Thomas was lucky to be a match for your lordship, as no one would have him otherwise.”
Gerald winced again. “Well, that’s un-called for. Whatever Thomas said.”
Weatherby tipped his head. “I agree, but it was even more inappropriate for Thomas to hit him—which he did, immediately following the insult. Society Guides are strictly forbidden from fighting—for reasons that I should hope are now obvious to Thomas.”
There was no arguing that, Gerald supposed. He changed the subject. “What’s being done about Bo—Finsworth?”
“The membership committee is meeting to discuss the situation. The general sense so far is that he should be dealt with leniently.”
That was not acceptable. “Is the committee planning to bother speaking to me? Because I’ll have something to say about that.”
“I’m sure they will, your lordship.”
Gerald reined himself in. Weatherby was hardly to blame for the committee’s “sense.” “Please let them know that I would like them to do so as soon as possible.”
“Of course. As for Thomas’s behavior….”
“Surely he has been punished enough.”
“It isn’t a question of punishment, precisely, but something must be done. For his sake, as well as the others’.”
“Yes,” Gerald agreed. “What did you have in mind?”
“I don’t know yet, your lordship. I expect he’ll need to rest for at least a few days; that will give us some time to come up with a plan.”
Gerald nodded. “All right. But—we have to help him.” He knew he was being selfish, looking at these problems primarily as evidence of Thomas’s unhappiness—but Thomas was his Guide; he was allowed to put him first. Someone had to.
Despite everything, and owing to Dr. Selby’s tablets, Thomas managed to go back to sleep. He woke, muzzy-headed, to the sound of his lordship shouting.
“—don’t care what he did. There is absolutely no excuse for striking a Guide. None.”
This was bad. Very bad. His lordship hadn’t seemed too angry earlier—had no one told him, until now, that Thomas had hit Gregory?
Another voice answered. Thomas couldn’t quite make out the words, but it sounded like whoever it was was trying to calm his lordship down. It didn’t work. The next thing he said was, “I want him thrown out.”
Thomas had thought it was bad enough when his lordship thought he was slightly better than no Guide at all. Now, apparently, he was worse than no Guide at all.
Sacked from his second job in barely a month. His first thought was that at least he had enough warning to pack, this time, but as he got up to do so, he realized that he had nothing to pack. All he owned was the clothes he’d been wearing when he was arrested. Weatherby would probably be only too happy to send the Filth after him if he tried to sneak away with some of his Society clothes, even if he left the green coats and their gold buttons behind.
Only, he realized with dawning horror, it didn’t matter what he did or didn’t try to sneak away with. He’d been let out of prison to work for the Society; if they didn’t want him anymore, he’d have to go back. Mr. Langley-Smythe had said so. His lordship had said he wouldn’t let that happen, but clearly, his lordship had changed his mind.
There could be no last-minute rescue this time. He was well and truly beaten. And—worst of all—he had no one to blame but himself.
It was a relief to Gerald when the two gentlemen of the membership committee finally took their leave. They had set his teeth on edge from the start by informing him that they had decided to suspend Boko’s membership for a month—a mere slap on the wrist. When Gerald inquired, outraged, if that was really what the Society considered appropriate action to take for cruelty to a Guide, the pair of them had hemmed and hawed for a moment, then admitted that they were treating it as “behavior unfitting a gentleman” instead.
“Unfitting a gentleman? Unfitting any kind of man, I should say.”
George Fotheringay, the membership committee chair, answered, “Lord Pellinger, you must admit that Lord Finsworth was…provoked.”
And the Club secretary, some worm called Winchester, added, “There is an extent to which the Guide brought this on himself. All of the Society Guides, and quite a number of visiting ones, have been--”
Gerald cut him off before he could finish that sentence. “I don’t care what he did. There’s absolutely no excuse for striking a Guide. None.”
“He should have controlled himself, I agree,” Fotheringay said placatingly. “And that’s why he’s being censured.”
“What would you rather we did?” Winchester asked.
“I want him thrown out.” Remembering that Thomas was meant to be resting, Gerald lowered is voice, with an effort. “I don’t want him in the same city, much less the same building, as my Guide.”
It was at that point that Winchester reminded him that he had no actual standing in the matter, since Thomas was, technically, a Society Guide.
“We’re informing you of our decision as a courtesy,” Fotheringay added.
Holding in several suggestions as to where they could put their courtesy, Gerald offered the counter-suggestion that Finsworth be banned for at least three months, so that Gerald could take Thomas away before his assailant was allowed to return. Fotheringay and Winchester agreed only grudgingly to present this suggestion to the rest of the committee before informing Boko of the decision.
Once they had finally gone, Gerald poured a stiff drink to calm his nerves and extended his hearing to check on Thomas. He expected to hear nothing but his breathing and heartbeat in the slow rhythms of sleep, as he had all every other time he’d checked all morning. But there was something strange about his breathing now.
Concerned, he headed toward the dressing room. He kept listening as he did, and realized that Thomas was trying to cry without making any noise.
Possibly, Gerald realized with some guilt, all the yelling had woken him up. He hurried.
When he opened the door, Thomas, sitting on the edge of his bed with his arms wrapped around himself, turned his battered face towards him.
“Thomas, what’s wrong?” he asked, going in and awkwardly lowering himself to sit beside Thomas. His prosthetic stuck out in front of him like a doll’s leg; he ignored it.
Thomas turned away, muttering something that sounded like, “Like you care.”
“Of course I do.” Tentatively, he tried to put his arm around Thomas—he’d been willing to accept reassurance last night; perhaps he would again.
Brushing him off, Thomas moved further down the bed, away from Gerald. After taking several deep breaths, he turned back to glare at Gerald. “I’m not exactly happy about going back to prison, am I?”
God. Oh, Christ. They had told him he’d be sent back to serve his sentence if he didn’t stay out of trouble, hadn’t they? “That won’t happen, Thomas. I promise. No one’s suggested anything of the kind, and if they did, I wouldn’t let them.”
Thomas stared at him. “Why are you lying to me?”
“I most certainly am not. Where would you get an idea like that?” If it was Weatherby, Gerald would—well, he had just said that there was no excuse for striking a Guide, and Weatherby was one. But he’d be tempted.
“I’m not stupid.”
“Nobody said you were--”
“I heard what you said just now.”
Gerald’s stomach sank as he thought back over what he’d said to Fotheringay and Winchester—and which parts, in particular, he had raised his voice for. “I didn’t mean you. I meant Boko. Lord Finsworth. The one who broke your face.”
Looking bewildered, Thomas shook his head. “You said…” He seemed to lose his train of thought. “You said there’s no excuse for hitting a Guide. Gregory is one. I think.”
“He is, but that’s not the point. You’re a Guide. Boko’s a Sentinel.”
“So…it’s all right for Guides to hit Guides?”
“No, it’s not all right, but—I mean, you’re going to be all right,” Gerald hastened to assure him, not wanting another misunderstanding. “You shouldn’t have done it. But it’s different.”
Thomas shook his head again. “I don’t understand anything about this place,” he said plaintively, looking oddly young.
“It’s only dawning on me now how true that is,” Gerald admitted. On impulse, he tried, once again, putting his arm around Thomas. This time, Thomas tensed for a moment, but settled cautiously into the embrace. “I know you haven’t been very happy here.”
It seemed that, faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Thomas had finally given up on insisting he was fine. Instead, he sniffled and hugged himself a little—without pulling away from Gerald. Gerald began to wonder if perhaps he’d been entirely wrong about Thomas not liking to be touched.
“What can we do about that?” Gerald prompted him.
Thomas shook his head. “I don’t know.” In an undertone, as if speaking to himself, he added, “I hate it here.”
Carefully, Gerald concealed how rattled he was by that statement. “What do you hate about it?” If it was anything other than him, there might yet be a way to fix this.
“I don’t know.”
Noticing for the first time that Thomas hadn’t said “yes, my lord” even once in this conversation, Gerald wondered if “I don’t know” was going to take its place as Thomas’s response to every question.
But Thomas added, “Everything.”
“Well, that’s a bit of a problem,” Gerald said inanely. He supposed there was a silver lining in that “everything” included a lot of things that were not him.
Thomas let out a short bark that might have been a laugh. “Is it?” He let his head drop to Gerald’s shoulder and said vaguely, “My face hurts.”
“I’m sure it does,” Gerald agreed. “When did you last take one of your tablets?”
“I don’t know. When Weatherby was here.”
“Then I daresay you can have another. Perhaps you’ll feel better after you’ve rested a bit more.”
“Maybe,” Thomas said doubtfully.
After finding the tablets and seeing Thomas tucked back into bed, Gerald returned to the sitting room unsettled and optimistic in equal measure. Thomas’s unhappiness seemed to be an even larger problem than he’d previously thought, but at least he was talking about it now.
Admittedly, what he was saying wasn’t particularly helpful, but he had moved on from insisting that everything was fine, and that struck Gerald as a step in the right direction.
Around teatime, Sammy came up and asked if he was at home to Mr. Langley-Smythe. Gerald agreed that he was, and Ace came up, with Morgan in tow.
Once Ace had asked after Thomas and everyone was settled with a cup of tea, Ace said, “Pelly, I have to tell you, this business with Thomas has everyone a bit upset.”
“Has it? That’s not the impression I got from the Membership Committee,” Gerald said, a bit snappishly.
It turned out that the Guides’ Committee, of which Ace was a member, had met on the subject as well. Gerald was initially hopeful—that committee was made up of members particularly interested in the welfare of the Society Guides, so he expected they would agree with him that Boko deserved worse than a month’s suspension of his club privileges. But about that, Ace said only, “Of course Finsworth should be censured, but that’s more a matter for the Membership Committee. Apparently, the way Thomas has been acting is upsetting all the Guides. We wonder if it might be best to…give them a bit of a break. From him. Until things settle down.”
“You can’t mean sending Thomas back to prison.”
Fortunately, Ace seemed just as horrified by that suggestion as Gerald had been. “No, no, of course not. But perhaps you’d like to take him up to Bellerock for a bit. Introduce him to the family, that sort of thing. A change of scene might do him a bit of good, as well.”
Gerald would have liked to be indignant about the idea of shuffling Thomas off the scene, but given that Thomas hated “everything” about the club, Ace might have a point. “But he still has the rest of his sentence,” he reminded Ace.
“Yes, the Committee has me looking into that side of things. It’s been suggested that as long as the Society knows where he is, he’s still in our custody, even if he’s accompanying a member on a visit elsewhere. I’ll have to consult a few sources, but I think there’s something in it. If you don’t object to taking him, of course,” Ace added, with a sidelong glance at Morgan.
“I don’t object,” Gerald said, glancing at Morgan as well. “Is he really as unpopular as all that, downstairs? I rather hoped Weatherby might have…gotten the wrong end of the stick, somehow. He’s so quiet and polite with me.”
“He seems to have a keen sense of which side his bread is buttered on, your lordship,” Morgan answered. “He hasn’t been particularly awful to Mr. Weatherby, either. Anyone he feels a need to suck up to is spared the full treatment.”
“I see,” Gerald said.
“A few of the fellows are still trying to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Morgan went on. “Saying that he might not realize quite how unpleasant he’s being, or that perhaps he can’t help himself. But even they’re getting quite tired of it. The general feeling among those who witnessed the incident last night is that he’s better suited to a career as a prizefighter than a Guide. Apparently his right hook is rather impressive.”
“Is Gregory all right?” Gerald asked. He hadn’t really noticed, last night.
“He’s fine,” Morgan answered. “Black eye. I don’t entirely understand why what he said upset Thomas so much. It isn’t as though the notion had never occurred to Thomas before—he reminded me himself that you were stuck with him whether you liked him or not.”
“He said that?”
“Yes. He sounded rather pleased about it.”
“That’s something, at least,” Gerald muttered.
“Is it?” Morgan asked.
“I’ve never been entirely certain he even wants to stay,” Gerald explained. “I know he prefers being with me to prison, but that’s not precisely a ringing endorsement.” Suddenly, it occurred to him that that sort of thing cut both ways—and thinking that Gerald considered him the lesser of two evils could certainly go a long way to explaining Thomas’s unhappiness. “You don’t suppose he thinks it’s true, what Gregory said, do you?”
Morgan said, “Isn’t it?” at the same time as Ace said, “I’m sure I don’t quite know what you mean.”
In other words, Gerald thought, they both thought exactly that. And likely Thomas did as well. “It isn’t true. I’d be glad to have him as my Guide even if I had plenty of other choices.”
“Good,” Ace said, a bit too heartily. “I’m happy for you.” Apparently conscious of how unconvincing he sounded, he added, “Of course, I only know what I’ve heard from Morgan about him. I’m sure he has many fine qualities.” He made the mistake, then, of looking to Morgan for support.
Morgan, put on the spot, said dryly, “Yes. I’m sure we’ll all look forward to finding out what they are.”
“Ah, you’re up!” his lordship said as Thomas made his way into the sitting room, trying not to stagger. He’d woken, for the third time that day, slightly nauseous and vaguely remembering a conversation in which he’d accused his lordship of conspiring to send him back to prison and lying about it. His lordship had taken it surprisingly well, but still, it was only urgent need of the lavatory that drove from the limited sanctuary of the dressing room.
Fortunately, after Thomas had said, “Yes, my lord,” his lordship didn’t further delay him on his errand. On his way back, however, his lordship stopped him and asked him to sit down. Feeling a bit wobbly from spending all day in bed, Thomas acquiesced.
“Do you feel up having a bit of supper? Dr. Selby tells me it’s probably not a good idea to keep taking those pills on an empty stomach.”
He was probably right, as unappealing as the prospect was. “Yes, my lord.”
“Good,” his lordship said, reaching for the bell-pull.
It turned out that the other Guide they had doing his job was the half-wit. When he arrived in response to the bell, he gasped and said, “Thomas, you look terrible!”
“Thank you, Sammy,” Thomas answered.
“You sound bad, too,” he noted. “Are you going to be all right?”
“The doctor thinks I’ll live.”
“What?” Sammy asked, looking alarmed.
“He’ll be all right, Sammy,” his lordship told him. “Ask the kitchen to make up a tray for Thomas, please—soup or something like that.”
As Sammy scampered off to do that, Thomas reflected that, as undignified as it was to be replaced by the half-wit, he was probably the only person belowstairs who could be relied upon not to gob in his food.
“Are you feeling a bit better?” his lordship asked. “You seem to be.”
Thomas wasn’t sure if Lord Pellinger was referring to his face or the way he’d been crying all over him earlier. He wasn’t particularly keen to find out, either, so he just said, “Yes, my lord.”
“Good,” his lordship said. “I’m glad.” After a lengthy pause, he continued, sounding quite serious, “You know, I think--”
Before he could say what he thought, Sammy popped back in, wanting to know if Thomas wanted rhubarb crumble with his soup.
Thomas agreed that he did, and Sammy left again, but his lordship seemed disinclined to return to whatever topic he had been about to introduce. He spoke only on the most inconsequential of subjects until Thomas had finished his supper and Sammy had collected the tray—and been sent away with a fairly firm declaration that his lordship was quite certain neither of them wanted anything else at present, thank you.
Then he said, “Don’t go just yet, Thomas. If you aren’t too tired, I thought we could…talk.”
Thomas would have liked to claim that he was too tired to …talk, but sleeping all day had left him groggy, yet not at all sleepy. He’d likely be up half the night, and he didn’t think much of his chances of being able to convincingly pretend to be asleep. “Yes, my lord.”
“I understand that were a bit, ah, upset, last night. By what Gregory said.”
Thomas began to suspect that this was going to be the lecture about how he couldn’t go around punching people just because they’d upset him. He hadn’t had that one since he was about twelve, but since realizing he wasn’t about to be sacked, he’d thought it might be coming. “Yes, my lord,” he said contritely.
His lordship seemed a little flustered by that reply, as though he had been expecting an argument. What had Weatherby been telling him? “Yes. Ah, of course. Well, it was a rather unkind thing to say. I daresay Gregory—well, never mind about Gregory. He’s not important.”
Thomas decided that this would not be a good time for a “Yes, my lord,” no matter how strongly he agreed that Gregory was not important.
“What I wondered is whether perhaps you might have…that is, whether I might have inadvertently given you the impression that…well, that it was true. That I wouldn’t want you as my Guide if I had a choice in the matter.”
Thomas knew that he ought to say that of course, his lordship had never said anything like that. He didn’t have to. Thomas had thought at first that his lordship was just too attached to the memory of the sainted Euan to want anyone stepping into his place. But given recent revelations that he couldn’t touch anything without it immediately turning to shit, Thomas expected that the matter had more to do with him personally than he’d wanted to admit. He couldn’t say that to his lordship, though—he wasn’t sure he could say it to anyone—so he said instead, “I know you were very close to—to your other Guide. And I’m…not much like him.”
“That’s true. We were very close. We grew up together—I’d say he was like a brother to me, except you’ve met my brother. And you aren’t…anything like him. At all. But I think that’s just as well, really. Back…when I first lost him, I could scarcely stand to be in the same room with Morgan, they were so much alike. This way…well, it’s more of a fresh start, isn’t it?”
To Thomas, it sounded like his lordship was looking very hard to find a silver lining—but in the circumstances, he supposed that wasn’t such a bad thing. Since they were stuck with each other. “That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose, my lord.”
“Yes. I’ll always love Euan, of course. But there’s no reason we can’t come to be very close as well. And I hope that we will.”
This was not at all how Thomas had expected this conversation to go. He’d hoped for that, at the beginning, but his lordship had seemed quite sure it would never happen. Thomas didn’t quite know why he’d changed his mind, but if he had…. “I’d…like that too, my lord.”
“Good.” He smiled. “I know you’ve…gotten off to a bit of a rough start here. I hope that things will start looking up soon.”
That was a bit more like it. “I’ll do my best, my lord,” he said.
“I rather thought you already had been,” his lordship said mildly.
“Well, yes, my lord,” he said, trying to think of some way to end the sentence that would imply that his best was suddenly about to become better. “I, ah….”
“You’ve been unhappy, and confused. I rather hope that once we’ve done something about that, you’ll find it a bit easier to get along with the others.”
So he had heard about that. “Yes, my lord.” He tried to think of an appropriate way to ask what, exactly, he’d heard. Too drugged either to manage it or to keep his mouth shut, he blurted out, “What have you heard?”
“A great deal that I did not enjoy hearing,” his lordship answered. “I gather that you’ve been trying very hard not to let me or Weatherby see that you’re having difficulties. That’s made it rather difficult for us to help you.”
Thomas didn’t suppose it would do any good to insist that he didn’t need help. The cat was out of the bag on that one. “Yes, my lord. I’m sorry, my lord.”
“We’ll talk more about it when you’re feeling better,” his lordship said. That wasn’t precisely thrilling news, but Thomas certainly preferred it to talking about it now.
“But in the meantime—you might make a start by asking when you aren’t sure of something.”
“Ask who, my lord?” There wasn’t anyone in this place he could trust.
Thomas blinked. Carson would have had his head if he’d gone around asking Lord Grantham, or any of the family, about anything.
But Carson, he reminded himself, was not here. If he was going to do better as his lordship’s Guide, the only person whose opinion of him mattered was his lordship. “I suppose I could do that, my lord.”
“Good. And for my part, I’ll try to tell you a bit more about…how things usually are, for Guides. I thought I was letting you adjust as your own speed, but I rather suspect I was just confusing you more.”
He certainly was now. “My lord?”
“Well, for instance—you don’t have to do anything you aren’t comfortable with, of course. But you might try sitting on the sofa with me, in the evenings.”
That wasn’t at all how Thomas had expected that sentence to end. It had sounded, at the beginning, like it was going to end with a proposition—something else Thomas had largely given up on ever happening. Still, he was a bit relieved it wasn’t happening now. He was hardly feeling up to it, and if his lordship had found his present appearance alluring—well, that would have suggested that his tastes were a little more exotic than Thomas was prepared to deal with.
Sitting on the sofa, on the other hand, he could deal with quite easily, though he couldn’t begin to imagine why his lordship wanted him to do that. He shifted over. “Like this, my lord?” he asked, perching on the edge of the cushion, at the opposite end of the sofa from where his lordship was sitting.
“Er. Well, that’s fine, of course. But do you remember how we were sitting earlier? When we were talking in your room?”
How they’d been sitting on his bed? Of course Thomas remembered that.
“You seemed to rather like it,” his lordship explained. “Of course, perhaps that was only because you were…tired.”
“Tired” was an interesting euphemism for “drugged and crying,” but Thomas had liked it.
“But if you wanted,” his lordship went on, “you could sit, well, here.” He patted the cushion next to himself.
Carefully not giving himself much time to think about it, Thomas slid down to the spot indicated.
“Yes, that’s it. Here.” He put his arm around Thomas’s shoulders. “You could relax a bit. Here, put your feet up,” he added, moving his own foot to one side of the ottoman.
Thomas obeyed. Putting his feet up required him to lean back, into Lord Pellinger’s arm. It was…nice, in a startling sort of way.
It was, Thomas thought, suspiciously like snuggling. Valets, in his experience, did not snuggle. Not even if there was something a bit dodgy about the situation—snuggling had not been a prominent motif in his relationship with the Duke of Crowborough, for instance.
But Morgan and Mr. Langley-Smythe had come pretty close, during that supper party. Perhaps it really was all right. It was one strange thing about the Sentinel world that he thought he might enjoy getting used to. “I think I like it, my lord.”
“You’re looking a bit better,” Gerald observed a few days later, when Thomas emerged from his room after his afternoon nap. His lip had returned to its normal size, and the bruises around his eyes had faded to mostly yellow.
“I suppose,” Thomas said, making his way to the tea tray that Sammy had brought a short while ago and fixing Gerald’s cup. For the last few days, Sammy had been bringing their meals but leaving Thomas to serve them, a compromise that Thomas indicated he found satisfactory. It sometimes left Gerald sitting at the table staring at the tray until Thomas turned up, but he considered that a small price to pay for domestic harmony. “My lord,” he added, handing Gerald the cup. He had started being a little more forthcoming about how he felt, and, while he still punctuated everything he said with “my lord,” there were times when it seemed he almost forgot.
“Thank you. How’s your head feel?” he asked, helping himself to a cucumber sandwich.
“Better than it did, my lord.” He fixed his own cup and sat down.
“Once you’re back on your feet, I thought we might go up to Bellerock for a bit,” Gerald said casually. He’d decided Thomas didn’t really need to know that they’d been asked to leave. “The family estate, you know.”
“Oh,” Thomas said, putting his teacup down carefully. “I see. Very good, my lord.”
It was still quite difficult to tell, with Thomas, but Gerald thought that the retreat into formality meant that he was unhappy about the idea. He smelled a bit anxious. If Gerald edged up to the subject delicately, Thomas just might eventually tell him what he didn’t like about it. It had only taken about a day and a half to get him to admit that he didn’t like watching another Guide doing his job for him, and that had been days ago. “I spoke with Ace, he said it should be all right, legally speaking,” he added, in case Thomas had thought that he was going to be left behind. Another thing he’d learned recently was that Thomas absolutely hated being seen to be mistaken about anything. He was much happier if his misunderstandings could be corrected without acknowledging that they existed.
“Very good, my lord.”
Apparently that wasn’t it. “I thought we’d stay a couple of weeks. Maybe a month. Simon will be there, but it’s a big enough house it shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid him.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Nor any of those. “We’ll wait until you feel up to travelling, of course.”
“That’s kind of you, my lord.”
That was definitely his “you’re being a fathead and I don’t want to tell you why” voice. “You think so?” Gerald asked.
“Well, I don’t exactly want to meet your household for the first time looking like I just lost a prizefight. My lord.”
Now they were getting somewhere. “Of course,” Gerald said. “You’ll be back to normal by the time we go.”
“Very good, my lord.”
Closing his eyes for a second, Gerald helped himself to another cucumber sandwich. He had a feeling he was going to need it.
Somehow, his lordship had come to the conclusion that Thomas was less than entirely pleased about the prospect of visiting his family home. The fact that this conclusion was completely true did not make it any less important to disabuse him of it.
He’d been at Downton for years before achieving the universal dislike of the entire staff. Here at the Society, it had taken a matter of weeks. If there was any kind of a pattern there, it was entirely possible that everyone at Bellerock would loathe him within minutes of his arrival. His lordship had, against all precedent, taken his side in this latest debacle, but Thomas knew full well that he really shouldn’t have, and it would be a grave mistake to count on it happening again. Particularly if the next problem he created for himself involved Guides his lordship had known since infancy.
He’d known that he’d have to go to Bellerock eventually, but he’d thought he’d have until the end of his sentence. That was still nearly two months away—plenty of time that, for all he knew, he might be a better person by the time it came around. Theoretically, at least.
Now that he had only as much time as it took for his bruises to fade, it became clear that a miracle of self-improvement was not in the cards.
He managed to avoid the subject during tea and dinner, but his lordship brought it up again during the part of the evening that Thomas had started thinking of as “evening cuddle time.” They’d done a bit of it each night since that first time, and his lordship hadn’t even tried anything improper. Thomas wasn’t sure if he was glad or sorry—it would have made a great deal more sense if he had. He couldn’t remember ever having been given that sort of affection when he wasn’t ill, distraught, or about to have sex. It was oddly nice to be close to his lordship, though, and Thomas would have quite liked evening cuddle time, if only he’d been able to keep his mind off how O’Brien and the rest of them would laugh themselves sick if they could see him now.
That, and how his lordship liked to combine evening cuddle time with “nosy questions time.” Once Thomas was tucked up by his side, he said, “You seem a bit worried about our visit to Bellerock.”
“It’s fine, my lord,” he said.
“I’ve already tried all the Guides there, you know,” his lordship said. “You needn’t worry about being replaced, or anything like that.”
That hadn’t even occurred to him. “I’m not worried, my lord.”
His lordship sighed. “Not about that, perhaps. But there’s something.”
He seemed quite sure, and if he kept guessing, he might eventually stumble on the right answer. Thomas began thinking about possible explanations that would be less damning than the real one. An ingrained dislike of country houses? Unlikely, given that he’d worked in one for most of his life. Suggesting that the distaste was recently acquired would only lead to a conversation about his arrest that he was not particularly eager to have, either.
If he had to, perhaps he could admit to being concerned about making more mistakes like the one he’d made when Lord Simon visited. If he said that, it was just possible that his lordship would start telling him what he needed to know in order to avoid making any such mistakes…but no, at the time he’d only said that no one but Lord Simon would mind, which was as unhelpful as it was obviously untrue. Even if the rest of his lordship’s family was gracious enough to say anything about it, the other servants wouldn’t be.
Finally, he hit on something. “Er. I suppose I’d have to wear my livery, my lord?” he asked diffidently. His lordship already knew he didn’t like it—they’d talked about it on his first day, and he’d been wearing his own suit during his recovery, on the grounds that it was more practical for as many naps as he took. He really wasn’t eager to have to wear a green brocaded frock coat in a house full of people not so ridiculously costumed, but the admission would not precisely be news to his lordship.
“You really should,” his lordship said regretfully. “The Society doesn’t like people dressing up Society Guides in house livery. It bothers you that much?”
“It’s all right, my lord.” It would have to be, since he didn’t have anything else fit to be seen in anyway—even after the best brushing and pressing he could give it, his former third-best and now only suit looked like it had seen the inside of a prison cell. If it were his choice whether to face the Bellerock servants’ hall in it or in the Society livery, he honestly wasn’t sure which would be worse.
“No it isn’t.” Taking Thomas’s hand in his and lacing their fingers together, he contemplated the ceiling for a moment. “Your house livery won’t be ready—it’s nearly two months before I thought you’d need it, and Thompson’s unlikely to be that far ahead.”
Even though Thomas would have preferred the new livery to what he was stuck with now, he still wasn’t keen on it. “I just wore a dark suit when I was Lord Grantham’s valet.” Damn. He shouldn’t have said that, and he definitely shouldn’t have sounded so petulant about it. This was supposed to be about the Society livery, which his lordship had already more or less agreed was horrid, not the concept of livery in general. “Like Morgan does,” he added.
“Did you? I don’t see how the Society could object to that. As long as Weatherby isn’t there to see it. If it’s, er…a bit nicer than that one.”
Thomas looked at him in surprise. He hadn’t expected complaining about the livery to have any real effect, other than to put his lordship off the scent of his real problem. But now it seemed he could have gained a few more weeks’ reprieve from the damn livery—except for one thing. “It was, my lord,” he said. “But I don’t have it anymore, anyway.”
“Oh, right. I suppose it belonged to Lord Whatshisname’s house?”
“No, it was mine, my lord. But I didn’t exactly have time to pack before I left Downton.”
“Hm? Just write to them and ask to have your things sent on.”
“I tried that, my lord. Mr. Carson refused to send them. And said if I bothered the house again he’d have me arrested, again.”
“For what?” his lordship asked. “No, I’m sorry, that’s unacceptable.”
“I don’t see what else I can do, my lord,” Thomas said cautiously.
“Perhaps not, but I can. This Mr. Carson—whoever he is—won’t send the police against me.”
“He’s the butler,” Thomas said, imagining his lordship confronting Mr. Carson. He wasn’t sure if the prospect was thrilling or horrifying.
“I don’t care if he’s the gardener. He can’t hold your personal effects hostage. I’ll write—no, we’ll go there, and make it clear to him that we won’t be leaving without your things.”
“You don’t need to trouble yourself, my lord,” Thomas said, although he would be glad to get his belongings back. “I don’t really need them.”
“But you want them. And even if you didn’t, it’s the principle of the thing. I’m not letting some pipsqueak of a butler bully my Guide.”
This was, Thomas supposed, some of that “looking after” that he kept hearing about. He’d have liked to claim that he could handle the situation on his own—but he’d already tried that, and it hadn’t worked. The fact was, he didn’t have any leverage, but Carson would find it harder to say no to his lordship.
And if he was already in for a penny…. “Thank you, my lord. He isn’t being very reasonable. I even told him he could take the cost of sending them out of the wages I was owed, but he said I wasn’t owed anything.”
“We’ll see about that,” his lordship said darkly.
Gerald was not entirely convinced that Thomas’s dislike of the Society livery was the only reason he was hesitant about their upcoming trip, but he was determined to treat the problem seriously.
He’d realized, of course, that Thomas didn’t entirely trust him—the conversation about sending him back to prison had been a bit of a hint. But he was still surprised Thomas hadn’t told him earlier that he was being defrauded by his former employer’s butler. What good did having Gerald for his Sentinel do if he wasn’t even going to ask for help with something as simple as that?
Clearly, there was a lot he still didn’t understand about Thomas. Maybe he thought he didn’t have a right to ask for anything else, since he’d already gotten out of prison. Or that as a Society Guide, he couldn’t expect much from Gerald. Or maybe Gerald had been moping around like an invalid so much that Thomas didn’t think he could help him.
Whatever the reason, Gerald didn’t know how to explain it to Thomas, given how prickly he was about the slightest suggestion that he was mistaken about anything.
So he would show him, instead, by taking the one problem Thomas had entrusted to him and fixing the hell out of it. Surely then he’d see.
Thomas’s bruises faded much more quickly than he would have liked them to, now that he was on a deadline. It seemed like no time at all before they were leaving the club for the railway station, bound for Norfolk by way of Yorkshire.
He had to wear his livery to the station, but, feeling that he would literally rather die than have anyone at Downton see him in it, he changed into his rumpled and threadbare third-best suit. Better to look like a street beggar than something that had fallen off the back of an 18th century coach.
It turned out that the railway company disagreed. The next time he went forward to check on his lordship, the conductor asked him what he was doing in the first-class carriage, and, when he answered, clearly didn’t quite believe that such a ragged-looking person could be a genuine valet. Thomas thought he might have ended up turned over to the railway police if his lordship hadn’t come out of the compartment to rescue him.
“Perhaps you had better just stay here for the rest of the journey,” his lordship suggested once they were back in the compartment.
“The conductor won’t like that either, my lord,” Thomas pointed out, with a nervous look back at the door.
“If he says anything, I’ll just remind him I’m a Sentinel and say that I need you here. He won’t ask any questions—they never do. Euan used to ride in first class on third-class tickets all the time.”
His lordship was right—the conductor didn’t bother them for the rest of the way to Yorkshire. Getting out on the platform at Downton, Thomas was suddenly nervous. He didn’t know why—surely both his arrest and the reasons for it had been kept quiet; it wasn’t as though the first person who recognized him would yell, “It’s him! The sodomite!” and arrange the rest of the villagers into an angry mob.
Probably not, anyway.
Their first stop was the pub. Railway schedules being what they were, they would have to stay the night in the village and depart for Norfolk the next day, so Thomas had booked rooms by telephone. The accommodations wouldn’t be quite what his lordship was used to—visiting nobs usually stayed up at the house—but his lordship reminded him that the rooms in a perfectly respectable pub were sure to be considerably more comfortable than a trench dugout.
And they were, but there was one problem Thomas hadn’t anticipated. As he unpacked his lordship’s overnight case, his lordship wandered around vaguely for a bit, then asked, “I say, where are you going to sleep?”
“My room’s up on the third floor, my lord,” Thomas explained. The Grantham Arms didn’t run to dressing rooms, and even if they had, they wouldn’t have expected anyone to sleep in them.
“Oh. I don’t like having you so far away. Especially in a strange place.”
Thomas wondered what he wanted him to do—curl up on the hearth rug like a dog, perhaps?
But his lordship continued, “Aren’t there any other rooms on this floor?”
“I expect there are, my lord, but the servants’ rooms are on the third floor.”
“I’ll speak to the publican.”
And he did, when they went back downstairs. The man who ran the pub hemmed and hawed for a while, then told his lordship that he’d be happy to put Thomas wherever his lordship liked, but he’d have to pay the full rate for a second guest room. His lordship stared at him as though he had grown another head and answered that he didn’t care a bit about that.
It was rather satisfying, though Thomas worried the barman might think there was something funny about it. Thomas resolved to find some reason to make a point about his lordship being an invalid; that way, it would be clear that he wanted him nearby for strictly professional reasons.
After that, his lordship sent a boy up to the big house with his card and a note for Mr. Carson, asking if he wished to come down to the Grantham Arms to discuss the matter or if he’d prefer to have his lordship call at the house, and they settled in the saloon bar to wait.
They didn’t have to wait long before the boy returned with a curt reply, which his lordship read aloud. “He ‘regrets to say’ that his ‘duties do not permit him the leisure to discuss Thomas Barrow with anyone.’” His lordship folded the note and tucked it into his pocket. “In that case, I’ll have to go up.” He hesitated. “I’ve been thinking, perhaps it would be best if you waited here.” Thomas had been thinking precisely the same thing, but as he considered how to express his agreement, his lordship misunderstood his silence and went on, “I’m sure you’d like to see your old friends, but…well, this interview may be a bit unpleasant. And while I’m quite sure there would be no long-term consequences if this Carson followed through on his threat to involve the police, there might be a bit of a scene, and I’m sure you don’t want that.”
“No. No, my lord. It’s fine. There’s no one up there that I want to see, anyway.”
“Oh,” his lordship said. “All right, then. No time like the present,” he added, planting his crutch and standing up. “I’ll let that strange little man know that if you would like anything while I’m gone, he can put it on my bill.”
Downton Abbey was less than half a mile from the village, so Gerald decided to walk, rather than return to the train station and try to find a car to take him. He rather enjoyed having the option, but began to regret it near the end of the walk—his prosthetic leg fit better now, but it was still quite heavy.
By the time he arrived, a place to sit down and perhaps a drink would have been quite welcome, but what he got instead was a butler looking down his nose at him and repeating that, while he was greatly sorry that Gerald had inconvenienced himself, he had no time to discuss Thomas Barrow.
“Yes, that’s why I came,” Gerald said pleasantly. “This way it should only take a short time.” Remembering a trick from comic drawings about pushy salesmen, he casually planted the tip of his crutch just inside the door.
Carson took in both the spoken and unspoken messages. “If you would like to step this way, your lordship.”
The butler showed him to a small sitting room that somehow managed to give the clear impression of infrequent use, without anything so obvious as dust. Perhaps it was the rather last-century wallpaper, or the unharmonious collection of china ornaments over the marble fireplace.
Once Carson had closed the door, he said, “What, precisely, is your connection to Mr. Barrow?”
“He’s my Guide.” He saw no reason to explain the complicated details of Thomas’s relationship with the Society.
“I beg your pardon?”
Unless, of course, this butler already knew them. “That is, he’s a Society Guide at present, of course, but he’s acting as my Guide. I understand that he wrote to you recently about his personal belongings.”
“The…Sentinel Society, your lordship?”
“You mean to say that Thomas Barrow is a Guide, my lord?”
“That is why the Society took an interest in his case,” Gerald said impatiently. It rankled, being “my lorded” by this…person. He knew Insensates did things differently, but not even Guides he’d known for years would presume that intimacy. “I’m not certain why you thought it appropriate to refuse to send his effects to his new place of employment, but I am not at all pleased about it.”
Carson blinked a few times. “Indeed. Perhaps you would understand more clearly if you saw the letter. If you’ll excuse me, while I fetch it?”
Gerald nodded graciously. He had no idea what Thomas could have said that would justify the butler’s conduct, but he was willing to let the thing play out. In Carson’s absence, he sat in a late-Victorian chair whose decided discomfort made as plain as could be that this room designated for the reception of unwanted visitors.
A few moments later, the butler returned and wordlessly handed Gerald a letter. It took only the briefest of moments to read—the contents, in full, were, “Mr. Carson. Please send my things to the above address. You can deduct the freight charges from my wages owed. Thomas Barrow.” The Society’s address was hand-written at the top; he hadn’t even thought to use the Society’s notepaper. “Oh, Thomas, you silly creature,” Gerald said.
Carson said, “I’m afraid I was unfamiliar with the address, your lordship, and having been informed through the papers that Mr. Barrow was sentenced to three months as a guest of her majesty, I formed an incorrect impression.”
“I see,” Gerald said, his sense of righteous indignation collapsing like a pricked balloon. Naturally, if the butler had thought Thomas had—what, staged a prison break?—he would be reluctant to involve himself.
“I understand that Guides are granted a certain degree of latitude regarding crimes such as Barrow’s, but none of us were aware that he is, in fact, a Guide.”
“Nor was he, as it happens,” Gerald said. “But he is, and he’s now quite respectably employed by the Society, so I trust there’s no further difficulty about his belongings and wages.”
“I’ll have his things collected and taken down to the Grantham Arms, my lord. As to his wages, I’ll have to speak to Lord Grantham.”
“All right,” Gerald said, not moving. When Carson didn’t take the hint, he added, “I’ll wait.”
Carson appeared to be swelling with righteous indignation himself, but before he could erupt, the door opened, and another man came through, saying, “Carson, where is my—who is this?”
“Lord Pellinger, my lord. Apparently,” he gave Gerald a skeptical look, “Mr. Barrow is now his Guide.”
“I see,” said the new man, who Gerald supposed must be Lord Grantham. Carson went on to explain the purpose of Gerald’s visit, prompted Grantham to repeat, “I see. Well. Perhaps you could see about that, Carson. I’ll take over entertaining Lord Pellinger.”
Carson had little choice but to agree to that. Once he’d gone, Grantham offered Gerald a drink—which he gratefully accepted—and said, sounding shocked, “Barrow is a Guide?”
“Yes, he is.”
“That’s certainly unexpected.”
“He wasn’t aware of it either, until a police Sentinel identified him.” Despite the fact that he was now drinking Lord Grantham’s liquor, Gerald couldn’t help adding, “The Sentinel Society provided for his defense.” As Grantham should have, for one of his own people, even if he wasn’t a Sentinel. He’d come here to defend his Guide, and while the first foe had proven to be mistaken rather than malicious, Lord Grantham was a readily-available secondary target. “We didn’t think it quite right that a Guide should be imprisoned merely for kissing another boy.”
“Kissing?” Grantham asked. “I was told—after he’d already been arrested—that he crept into another servant’s bedroom and perpetrated an act of gross indecency.”
“That’s broadly true, but a very inflammatory way to describe it,” Gerald answered. “I’ve seen the police report—the act of gross indecency was one kiss.”
Grantham looked a bit puzzled. “In that case, I rather agree that bringing in the police seems a bit of an overreaction. I’d assumed, since I wasn’t consulted beforehand, that the matter must have been…unequivocal.”
“It wasn’t,” Gerald said. “The other man’s report and Thomas’s report of the situation matched precisely; there was no indication of anything further.”
“We all knew he was inclined that way,” Grantham went on, “but he’d never caused any trouble—any of that sort of trouble—before. We can’t have him bothering the other male staff, of course, but if I had known it was as innocent as that, I’d have advised James—the fellow in question, he’s a footman—to be more forgiving. Provided it didn’t happen again.”
“I’m glad to hear that. I’ll tell him.” Now Gerald couldn’t be properly angry with him, either. Still, he reminded himself, the objective had been achieved—Thomas would know that Gerald was willing to stand up for him, even if it had not actually been necessary to do so. And he would have his things back. “As you can imagine, he was rather distressed by the incident, even though we were able to spare him a custodial sentence.”
“Hmph,” Grantham said. “You can tell him, as well, that we missed him at the cricket match.”
“Did you?” Gerald asked, wondering what that had to do with anything.
“Yes—the house plays the village, once a year. He was always our best player.”
Gerald hadn’t had the slightest idea that Thomas played cricket. It dawned on him that this might be an opportunity to learn a bit more about his puzzling Guide. “Had he worked here for some time, then?”
“Years,” Grantham answered. “I don’t quite remember when he first came. It was well before the war.”
“He must have been quite satisfied with his position here, then.” Perhaps Gerald could find out what he had liked about it.
“Satisfied? Thomas? No, I don’t think so. He was always trying to convince me to make him my valet. He was very…single-minded about it.”
“Wasn’t he your valet?”
“Only for the last year or so; he was a footman for most of his time here.”
Guides usually worked as footmen in Sentinel households, too, but everyone knew that being a personal Guide was the job they really wanted. Being stuck as a footman for years on end might go some ways toward explaining Thomas’s burden of built-up resentment.
“There’s nothing wrong with his qualifications,” Grantham added, apparently under the impression Gerald was concerned about that. “He’d filled in before, when I was between valets, and he often looked after overnight guests.”
Stuck as a footman, and having the job he really wanted waved under his nose. It sounded quite dreadful. “Then why wasn’t he a valet?”
Grantham considered the question. “He was a bit unreliable, when he was younger. Before the war. But mostly, I suppose I just didn’t…care much for his company. There’s something a bit off about him—sullen, and sneaking.”
“You didn’t care much for him,” Gerald repeated numbly. That was the problem in a nutshell, as far as he was concerned—though he knew Grantham was using the word in a slightly different sense. Here, now, was something to battle against, but he was unsure where even to start. And who knew what further revelations would unfold if he could keep Grantham talking?
“It hardly matters whether one likes footmen or not,” Grantham said, as though it were the most reasonable thing in the world to say. “And he was still only filling in as my valet, really, this past year. My other one…had to go away for a while. He’d just returned when Thomas—well, when it happened.”
“Why, ah, why did you keep him on here? It seems that he might have been happier in another household.”
“Quite possibly, but I couldn’t sack him for being unhappy. He did his job well enough—for the most part—when he wasn’t making a nuisance of himself about wanting to be a valet.”
Who had said anything about sacking him? “Didn’t you know anyone who was looking for a valet?” Keeping an unhappy and resentful Guide on ice was no good to anyone. At Bellerock, they would have sought out a suitable place for him in another branch of the family, or even another House entirely if necessary.
Grantham scoffed. “I don’t run an employment agency, Lord Pellinger. He could have given notice at any time, of course, but it’s hardly my responsibility to find him another place.”
Narrowing his eyes, Grantham said, with what sounded like genuine disbelief, “You think that it is? Why?”
“Because he’s--” A Guide of your House, Gerald had been about to say. But he wasn’t. “We ordinarily would,” Gerald explained rather weakly. “For Guides.” Did all Insensates think like that? That it wasn’t any concern of theirs if their servants were unhappy?
“Would you?” Grantham asked, with vague interest. “Well, as I said, none of us knew he was a Guide.”
“What are you doing here?”
Thomas looked up to see Bates, of all people, standing in the doorway of the public bar. The barman had shooed his shabby self out of the saloon bar shortly after his lordship left. “Having a pint; what’s it look like?”
Bates came closer. “I didn’t realize you’d got out. I wouldn’t try going up to the house, if that’s what you were thinking of.”
“Really,” Thomas said. “Funny, I got the impression people who’d been to prison were welcomed back with open arms up there.”
“It’s hardly the same.”
“Suppose not. I never killed anybody.”
Bates opened his mouth to speak, then stopped himself, taking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “What is it you want, Thomas? Money? A reference? I’ll speak to his lordship, if it’ll get you to go away without making another scene.”
“I don’t need anything from you,” Thomas informed him. “And it’s Mr. Barrow, thanks.”
“Really. Whose valet are you now?”
“His name’s Lord Pellinger.” Enjoying the look of surprise on Bates’s face, he added, “He’s up at the house now, seeing about getting my things and my wages out of Mr. Carson. As soon as he’s finished, we’ll be on our way.”
The barman came in then, and asked Bates in a pointed sort of way what he wanted. Thomas didn’t get rid of Bates that easily, though—once he had his pint, he brought it over to Thomas’s table and sat down, quite uninvited, thank you very much. “This new place of yours. Is it all right?”
“Of course it is. He’s the inheriting son of the Earl of Yernemuth.” That much would make it plain to Bates that it was a good position; Thomas didn’t think he’d understand about his lordship needing him, or thinking he might come to like Thomas one day. Thomas wouldn’t have wanted to try to explain that part even if Bates would understand.
Bates took another deep breath and let it out slowly, again. “Thomas. I can’t think of too many good reasons the son of an earl would want to hire a valet who’d just got out of prison on charges of--” He glanced over at the barman, who was obliviously polishing a glass. “You know what kind of charges. Are. You. All. Right?”
Once he worked out what Bates was implying, Thomas wasn’t sure whether to be amused or offended. Bates thought he was, what—prostituting himself for a valeting job? Even if he was, he wouldn’t stoop to asking Bates to save him. He settled on saying, “Glad to know you’re concerned about my virtue, Mr. Bates. But it’s nothing like that. Sentinels don’t care so much about ‘you know what kind of charges.’”
“Sentinels?” Bates asked.
Now it was Thomas’s turn to be surprised. He hoped he did a better job of keeping it off his face than Bates had. “O’Brien didn’t tell everyone?”
“Tell everyone what? If you think she’s still on your side, you’re wrong—she’s made no secret that she’s glad you’re gone.”
“I know about that,” Thomas answered. “No, she didn’t tell everyone I’m a Guide now?”
“You?” Bates asked. “A Guide? I thought they were…nice.”
“Apparently it’s not a requirement.” Not quite, anyway.
“And this Sentinel gave you a job, just like that?”
“Yes.” Got him out of prison and gave him a job that was his for as long as he wanted it—it was almost like he was Bates or something.
“Well, then.” Another deep breath. “I’m pleased for you.”
“Of course you are.” Bates would say that—hell, maybe he even believed it. Leaning back, Thomas lit a cigarette.
“No, I am. Not even you deserve to be ruined over something like that. You do know O’Brien set you up, don’t you? She’s been bragging about it.”
“Figured that out on my own, thanks.” It stung to know that all of Downton knew what a fool he’d been—but at least he never had to see any of them again.
“A lot of us think she went too far this time.”
“She’s gone further,” Thomas answered.
There was the faint outline of a sharp expression on Bates’s doughy face. “What do you mean?”
Thomas almost told him. But they’d been mates once, him and O’Brien, and he didn’t owe Bates a thing. “Nothing.”
“Did she have something to do with Vera—”
Naturally, Bates would think Thomas was referring to his troubles—after all, the world revolved around him, didn’t it? “No. No. I mean, she was the one who told her you were at Downton. But she didn’t kill her.” Thomas considered for a moment. “Far as I know, anyway.”
“You sure know how to choose your friends, don’t you?” Bates asked, shaking his head.
Thomas didn’t have an answer for that—he had never chosen O’Brien as a friend. She was just the only one who had taken his side.
Bates didn’t seem to have anything else to say, either. But he didn’t leave, just sat there sipping his pint and watching him like Thomas was some kind of insect under a microscope. Thomas thought about leaving—back to his room, or the saloon bar—but he didn’t want to give ground.
The standoff only ended when his lordship returned. “Ah, Thomas,” he said, as Thomas stood up. “You found a friend after all?”
“No, my lord,” Thomas said, glaring at Bates.
“Arch-enemy, perhaps,” Bates said, getting to his feet. “I should be getting back. Lord Pellinger,” he added, with a nod.
“Good day,” his lordship said, looking after Bates for a moment with a puzzled expression. “I didn’t realize you had an arch-enemy.”
“He isn’t that, either, my lord.” Not anymore, at any rate. “He’s Lord Grantham’s valet,” he said, for lack of any better explanation.
“Oh,” his lordship said, nodding as if that actually meant something. “Ah, shall we?” he added, looking towards the door to the saloon bar.
“Yes, my lord.” In they went. After his lordship had settled himself and gotten a drink from the barman, he took an envelope out of his jacket pocket. “Your wages. They’re sending someone named Wallace down with your things in a bit.”
The under-gardener. Thomas supposed that was all right; at least they weren’t sending Alfred.
Or worse, Jimmy. “Thank you, my lord. I appreciate it.”
“Of course. As it happens, I had rather an interesting chat with Lord Grantham.”
“He says to tell you they missed you at the cricket match.”
“That was kind of him to say,” Thomas said. That couldn’t possibly have been all he said. Rapidly, he tried to think of what Lord Grantham knew about him that his lordship didn’t. The stealing, possibly. But that had been so long ago.
“He also said he hadn’t been told precisely what happened, with the footman, and if he had known, he’d have advised him to—what did he say? Be more forgiving, that’s it. For whatever that’s worth.”
“That was kind of him to say as well,” Thomas murmured, still waiting for the hammer to fall.
“How he didn’t know, I don’t begin to understand. Apparently upon hearing his valet had just been arrested, he elected to shrug his shoulders and not ask any questions.”
Yes, that was more or less what Thomas assumed he had done. He wasn’t sure why his lordship sounded so surprised about it. “Well, my lord, Bates had just come back, so he didn’t need me anymore.”
“Yes, about that,” his lordship said.
Oh, yes, there it was. He’d told everyone at the Society that he’d been Lord Grantham’s valet. He’d never mentioned the part about it being temporary.
But how angry could his lordship be about that? It wasn’t really a lie, just an…omission.
“How long were you trying to be that man’s valet?”
“Well,” Thomas said, thinking. “I valeted him for a while in…1912.” It would sound better if he mentioned that part, wouldn’t it? “Before Mr. Bates showed up. He was his lordship’s—Lord Grantham’s—batman in the Boer war. So he got the job. But he left and came back a few times. And I was away in France for a while. Then when Bates was first arrested, I filled in again--”
“This Bates was arrested? What for?”
“Murdering his wife, my lord. Apparently he didn’t do it, but after he was convicted, his lordship said I could have the valeting job until he’d proved his innocence and got released. I didn’t think he really would. Be released, I mean. But his lordship had a lawyer working on it, so he was. Eventually. Just before I…did what I did. So I was his valet off and on from 1912 until this year.” That was, Thomas was certain, a completely legitimate way of looking at it.
“So this other fellow was accused of murdering his wife, and Grantham arranged for his defense and held his job open for him even after he’d been convicted.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“But you kiss one footman, and he washes his hands of you?”
“He’s always favored Bates, my lord.”
“You don’t say.” His lordship shook his head. “Why on Earth did you agree to this preposterous arrangement?”
“‘Filling in’ as his valet until this other fellow managed to prove he hadn’t killed anybody. If I understand correctly, you’d have been out on your ear whether you’d kissed any footmen or not.”
“I might have gotten my footman job back. Or something. That was never quite made clear, my lord.”
“It just gets better and better,” his lordship murmured. “Why did you put up with it?”
“I…wanted to be a valet, my lord. I always did.”
“Of course you did. But his valet?”
“I’m sorry, Thomas, but the man’s an ass. If I showed such an appalling lack of consideration to any Guide on our place, I’d expect him to tell me to go soak my head. If the rest of the family didn’t do it first.”
Thomas was stunned into silence. He’d long thought himself ill-used at Downton, but he knew his was the minority opinion. He never, really, expected Lord Grantham to notice or care that all Thomas wanted was to be his valet and that it hurt and angered him every time the promotion slipped from his grasp. People like Lord Grantham didn’t have to concern themselves with whether their servants liked their jobs or not. “I don’t…my lord.”
“I know you don’t.” He shook his head and drained his glass. “We should probably finish this conversation up in the room.
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas agreed automatically, going around to help him to his feet. What in God’s name was he going to say next? He still expected, somehow, that this conversation would eventually work its way around to his many deficiencies as a valet, servant, and human being.
Or at least to the stealing.
Up in the room, Gerald had Thomas help him take his leg off, then sat on the bed, on top of the covers and leaning against the headboard. There was only one chair in the room, and he rather thought Thomas would be more comfortable sitting in it than on the bed.
Even so, getting him to sit took more coaxing than it had any time since the beginning. Anxiety was practically pouring off of him—and now, Gerald thought, he was finally starting to get a handle on precisely why he was so miserable all the time.
Gerald had been thinking all along that because Thomas had been in service before, he knew what it meant to be a Guide—that being Lord Grantham’s valet meant, more or less, the same thing that it would have meant to be a Guide.
Thomas thought the same, and they were both so, so wrong.
Talking to Lord Grantham, it became clear that the man thought his responsibilities to his servants began and ended with providing them with their wages and a roof over their heads. For certain ones, the favorites, he might do more—like he had for this Bates, for instance. But for the most part, their needs, their happiness, was beneath his notice. Thomas may have been unhappy, but as long as he wasn’t “making a nuisance of himself,” Grantham simply didn’t care.
Sentinels couldn’t operate that way. Not because they were inherently kinder or more generous than other people—at least, not as far as Gerald knew—but because having one’s dinner served by someone who literally reeked of misery tended to dampen the appetite. At Bellerock, if the boy who cleaned the boots was half as unhappy as Thomas seemed to have been at Downton, the entire family would have surged round to find out what was wrong and fix it.
And he had been unhappy. A few anecdotes that he had pried out of Grantham, and a few others he’d later pried out of the butler, painted a picture of a Guide who had been absolutely desperate to be noticed and cared for, which Grantham called “making a nuisance of himself” and “sneaking and sullen,” to which Carson had added “sulking and scheming.” They were a very alliterative household, it seemed.
Gerald had to admit that Thomas’s reported behavior had been, from time to time at least, fairly beastly—the way he’d been acting belowstairs at the Society was, apparently, quite normal for Thomas. He’d gotten on very poorly with the Downton staff, and Gerald didn’t suppose they could all have taken a baseless dislike to him. And his being “unreliable” when he was younger had apparently consisted of a few incidents of petty theft and ongoing feuds with a few servants in particular. Gerald wasn’t particularly pleased to hear about any of it—though he could hardly get too excited about the theft of the odd bottle of wine, given that Guides were generally given free access to anything their Sentinels kept around to drink—but he was even less pleased to hear that Grantham and his butler had responded to these problems by denying Thomas promotion and hoping he’d eventually go away. While Gerald was not entirely pleased with the Society’s collective response to the Gregory-Thomas-Boko incident, it was at least more effective and compassionate than that.
Gerald had concluded that Thomas’s misbehavior was a symptom of his unhappiness, and he still thought it was—just a more far-reaching one than he’d initially suspected. He could still be wrong, though. He had been wrong before. So he asked, “Were you happy, when you worked at Downton?”
“Happy, my lord?”
Gerald wondered if he even knew what the word meant. “Happier than you have been at the Society?”
“I wouldn’t say that, my lord. I don’t want to go back, if that’s what you mean.”
He was glad to hear that, at least. “But you were there for—what, ten years?”
“About that, my lord, yes. Minus a couple of years of the war.”
“So I suppose you liked it well enough.”
“I must have. I was glad to be back after the war, I can tell you that much.” He managed a weak smile.
Of course he had been—even though they hadn’t been glad to have him back. Grantham had chuckled saying that he thought he’d got rid of him after the war, but he’d managed to worm his way back in by pitching in while much of the staff were down with Spanish ‘flu. It had been all Gerald could do not to bash the fatuous idiot over the head with his crutch.
Looking down at his hands, Thomas went on, “I suppose I ought to have looked for another place—somewhere I could be a valet without standing in line behind Bates. I don’t know. I guess I’d been there so long I thought it was home.”
“And Grantham—you found him to be a good employer?” Grantham had certainly seemed to think he was, by Insensate standards. Gerald wondered if Thomas agreed.
“Ah—yes, my lord. He’s all right. He was quite generous to—some of the others. Not just Bates. Years ago, he sent the cook to London to have her cataracts operated on, and he held her job for her, too. Things like that.”
That was “quite generous”? Compared to what, turning the woman out onto the street, blind? Gerald was certainly glad to hear that Grantham adhered to some minimal standard of decency, but he wasn’t about to award him a medal for it. “Was he ever particularly generous to you?”
“Well, no, my lord. But I wasn’t one of his favorites. And I don’t think I ever asked for anything, besides the valeting job, anyway.”
And that, he’d asked for quite often, Gerald understood. “What about the rest of the staff? How did you get on with them?” Again, he thought he knew the answer, but he wanted to know what Thomas thought.
Gerald wouldn’t have thought it possible for Thomas to smell any unhappier than he already had, but now he did. Looking down at the floor, he said, “About as well as I did with the others in London, my lord.”
“That’s something we’ll have to work on,” Gerald said.
Thomas looked up at him suspiciously. “How, my lord?”
“I’m not sure yet. But you’ll be able to make a fresh start, at Bellerock. And I’m sure the others will do their best to help you feel at home.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said.
They could return to that later, Gerald thought. “So you weren’t any happier there than you were in London?”
Thomas glanced up, meeting his eyes briefly. “I suppose not, my lord, now that you put it that way. Except when I thought Jimmy liked me. I was pretty happy then.”
“Jimmy—your footman?” Thomas nodded. “What happened there?”
Thomas breathed in sharply through his nose and blinked his eyes a few times. Gerald wondered if telling him he wouldn’t make fun of him if he cried would help matters. Probably not.
Once Thomas had recovered, he said in a brittle, falsely cheerful voice, “That’s quite simple, my lord. I fell for him, and my former best mate realized I’d handed her a weapon to use against me. So she convinced me he felt the same way, and as soon as I fell for it enough to do something stupid, they called down the law on me.”
No wonder he’d had a bit of trouble making new friends in London, after an experience like that. A few questions about the former best friend produced even more shocking tidbits. She had a nasty streak a mile wide, and it was a little troubling to see how Thomas had been amused by that nasty streak as long as they were on the same side, but the falling-out had been vicious. Apparently, she’d been his only ally in his quest to become a valet, but even she hadn’t understood why it was so important to him, or she wouldn’t have expected him to turn around and help her nephew jump into that position.
Gerald had his own theory about that. Guides thrived on close personal relationships—not only with their Sentinels, but with each other, as well. Some of Gerald’s fondest childhood memories were of visiting the household Guides downstairs and being enveloped in an atmosphere of warmth and caring.
Downton was nothing like that. It was, apparently, not quite the noxious den of vipers Gerald had initially imagined—apart from O’Brien and, disturbingly, Thomas himself—but it also wasn’t the sort of warmly supportive environment that produced happy, affectionate Guides.
Thomas had had no Sentinel, no other Guides, and, from the sound of it, not even any Insensates who genuinely liked him. The isolation must have been crushing. But some part of him had known the shape of what was missing, and he’d reached out blindly for the only thing he knew that even resembled a proper Sentinel-Guide relationship: being Lord Grantham’s valet.
He’d done exactly what any good Guide would have done, exactly what Gerald had been trying for weeks to get him to do: he’d figured out what he needed, and he’d asked for it. He’d asked for it clearly enough that even Grantham, who Gerald thought must be the densest man in Britain, had noticed. He must have been practically screaming, for God’s sake.
And in response, he’d gotten…nothing. Until he finally achieved his goal, and it turned out to be a mirage: Grantham still disliked him, still didn’t even care enough to inquire into why he’d been arrested.
No wonder he was unhappy. No wonder he was so willing to believe, on the flimsiest scraps of misunderstood evidence, that Gerald considered him a poor second best to Euan and would happily discard him if any alternative presented itself. He’d never known anything else.
But while Gerald was thinking about that, Thomas was apparently doing some thinking of his own. And the conclusions he drew about Gerald’s line of questioning were—as always—nearly accurate, but skewed out of recognition by the enormous gaps between his basic expectations and Gerald’s own. He said, “I know I’m supposed to be…happy, my lord.”
“Mr. Weatherby said. It’s just…a bit difficult, that’s all. I’m trying.”
“Weatherby told you that?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Damn Weatherby’s eyes. “What did you think he meant?”
Thomas looked startled. “My lord?”
“I’m not angry at you,” Gerald said quickly, realizing how that must have sounded. And what an unfair question it had been. “Can I ask you—no.” That wasn’t a fair question, either, and if he asked it, Thomas would likely feel that he had to answer it, even if answering it made him miserable. “Let me tell you what I think these last few weeks have looked like, from your perspective. And you let me know if I get anything wrong. All right?”
Thomas nodded mutely.
“So. A couple of months ago, you were working at that house up there.” Gerald gestured in the direction of Downton Abbey. “You finally had the job you always wanted, but your--” Not his Sentinel; Gerald kept making that mistake, and that was the whole point, that he wasn’t. “Grantham was making no secret that he was just waiting to get this Bates back and give you the boot.”
Thomas stirred. “It was a bit of a secret, actually, my lord. I didn’t know he was coming back until a day or two before.”
“All right.” That was even worse, somehow. “But he was….” He didn’t know how to explain the problem in a way that Thomas would understand—Grantham wasn’t his Sentinel. “It wasn’t as satisfying as you thought it would be. He didn’t favor you the way he did Bates.”
“I didn’t really expect him to, my lord.”
Gerald decided to let that part of his theory go. Perhaps Thomas hadn’t ever expected what Gerald thought he had a right to expect: to be cared for and paid attention to. “All right. You had no close friends anymore, since this O’Brien person turned on you, and the one bright spot was that you thought Jimmy might let you kiss him.”
He glanced over at Thomas and, this time, got a nod of confirmation.
“Then Bates turned up, and you lost the valeting job and weren’t sure if you would have any job at all. Which would mean….” Gerald wasn’t sure, precisely, what it would mean. “Would they have done anything at all to help you find another position?”
“I’m not sure, my lord. They’d have sent me off with a reference, but…probably not a very good one. I thought I might have a pretty difficult time finding another place. That’s why…well, I didn’t think I had much to lose, taking a chance with Jimmy.”
“Yes. So you did that, and it went spectacularly badly, and you wound up in jail with no one to help you and even worse prospects for future employment than you had before.”
“Yes, my lord. And I know I ought to be grateful, to you and Mr. Langley-Smythe and everyone. I am, really. I just--”
“You’re just dreadfully unhappy because you’d been thrown out of your home and treated badly by people you hoped you could trust,” Gerald interrupted. “And there’s no reason to expect that your new position will be any better. It’s slightly more secure, for reasons that you don’t entirely understand, but you’re still playing second fiddle, this time to a dead man. What’s expected of you is just familiar enough that you think you know what you’re doing, except every once in a while something completely baffling will happen. You don’t want to ask too many questions because….” Gerald wasn’t sure why not. “What do they do to you, up at that place, if you ask too many questions?” He gestured vaguely in the direction of the Abbey.
Thomas stirred. “Ah…Carson yells at you. And makes fun of you at the servants’ dinner, if they were particularly stupid questions.”
That didn’t sound particularly heinous to Gerald, but even well-brought-up Guides were sensitive, their feelings easily hurt. He wondered if Thomas had always been so sensitive to criticism, or if Carson’s approach had worsened it. But he supposed it didn’t much matter; one way or another, Thomas had learned not to ask questions. “So you’re mostly guessing about what we want from you. Meanwhile, Weatherby tells you that you’re supposed to be happy. Since you’ve never actually been happy before, and you’ve had several particularly terrible things happen to you recently, this seems like a cruel and insane demand, but you’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t manage to find a way to achieve it. Somehow, this fails to make you any happier.”
Thomas was staring at him. “Can Sentinels read minds?” he asked in a small voice.
“No,” Gerald said. “But we can sense how people are feeling—particularly Guides. It has to do with scent, mostly.”
“So that’s why….”
Gerald waited, but Thomas didn’t seem to be planning to finish the thought. “That’s how I knew you were unhappy. The rest of it was putting two and two together. Was I right?”
“I think so. I never really thought about it before.”
“I realize now that I’ve been a bit thick,” Gerald admitted. “All this time, I’ve been asking you if you’re all right, when I knew perfectly well that you weren’t. And I even had a fair idea of why you were unhappy—some of the reasons, at least. What I ought to have been asking is, how can I help?”
Gerald had to admit, he’d had some unrealistic hopes that finally asking the right question would have dramatic results—that Thomas would, perhaps, immediately reveal a plan by which Gerald could fix everything in three or four easy steps. What he actually did was look anywhere but at Gerald for a few moments, then say, “I don’t know, my lord.”
“Well,” he said, “give it some thought. Because I want to help. It’s….” He struggled for words. “It’s normal for Guides to ask their Sentinels for things. Or even if you just want to talk about what’s bothering you. I understand it’s different up at that other house. I didn’t realize how different it was. I thought you’d already know.”
“I’m sorry, my lord--”
“It’s not something for you to be sorry for. It’s something you never learned.” He remembered Nanny Morgan, when they were little, telling Euan, If you’re sad, it’ll make Gerry sad. What do you need to be cheerful again? When they’d been very tiny, she’d set about fixing whatever it was herself; once they were a little older, she’d taught Euan to come to him—to say that he wanted a turn with whatever toy they’d been squabbling over, or that Simon had said something mean to him and a hug might help.
Most Guides weren’t raised in their Sentinels’ nurseries, but perhaps they were taught the same way, at home. And he’d been taught, in his nursery and outside of it, that keeping the estate’s Guides happy was Mama and Papa’s job, and that when he was a man, it would be his job too.
Whatever lessons Thomas had learned on the same subjects had been rather different.
If he was going to remedy that, he’d have to begin at the beginning—but he’d have to be very careful to avoid the childlike language Nanny had used; Thomas would almost certainly find it insulting. “You see, Sentinels are affected by Guides’ feelings and moods.”
“Because you can smell them,” Thomas said, sounding a little skeptical about the whole idea.
“Yes. And Guides are, too, though we’re not entirely sure how. You don’t much like to be around someone who’s cross, or who--” Doesn’t like you. God, Thomas. “Or anything like that, do you?”
“Does anyone? My lord,” Thomas added hastily.
“I suppose not. But you can tell, even if they’re trying to hide it.” Thomas looked dubious about that, so Gerald went on, “Some Guides can, at any rate. And Sentinels can. So it’s much more comfortable for everyone if the Guides are happy.”
“That’s what Mr. Weatherby said.”
“Did he?” That made much more sense than saying that Thomas was “supposed to be happy.” Perhaps Weatherby had come closer to understanding the problem than Gerald had—he just hadn’t quite gone far enough. “What he meant was that there’s no reason to feel that asking for help is…a nuisance, or anything like that. We’re used to it. If there’s something you—or any of the Guides--don’t like about your job, or where you live, or anything really, we want to fix it. It isn’t—I mean, in a way, it’s completely selfish of us. Happy Guides are more pleasant to be around, so we do what we can to make sure the Guides are happy. And to us, that’s just the usual way of running a household. It’s nothing to do with who happens to be anyone’s particular favorite. Does that make sense?”
“I suppose so, my lord. A bit.”
Gerald was fairly sure that that meant, “Not in the slightest.” He tried again. “Let me put it another way. If you had started your career as a footman at Bellerock, when you started to feel that you were finished with being a footman, you’d have come to one of us—me, or my father, or perhaps even Simon, and said so, and that you’d set your eye on being a gentleman’s personal Guide. Then we’d have talked with the butler about whether you really were ready. If you were, we’d find you a place—you’d likely have had to go to another household, unless one of us happened to be without a Guide, but we’d have talked with you about that, and about where you might like to go and which other branches of the family already employed people you knew or were related to, and found somewhere that suited you.”
Thomas looked skeptical. “What if Mr. Carson—what if the butler says they aren’t ready?”
“Then we’d have expected him to tell you, and us, what you still needed to work on and to come up with a plan for bringing you up to scratch, in some reasonable amount of time.” Something less than, say, eight years. “I know that’s what we’d have done, because it’s what we have done. The situation comes up fairly often—hardly any Guides like being footmen. They do it for a few years, to learn how the house is run and see what the different jobs are, and then decide what they’d like to do. It’s the same way with housemaids.”
“Your butler and housekeeper must spend a lot of time training new maids and footmen, my lord.”
“I suppose they do.” Gerald shrugged. “The only alternative would be to keep them waiting around with vague promises that they might be promoted someday. And they’d be, understandably, a bit resentful about that.”
He trusted the parallel was not lost on Thomas, who swallowed and said, “I see, my lord.”
“I thought you might.” He went on, “So that’s just one example of how, even as a footman, you’d have expected us to help you. As my personal Guide, you have a correspondingly greater right to my time and attention.”
“I—Yes, my lord.”
Gerald considered his next words carefully. “You aren’t going to be sacked, or be in any kind of trouble, for being unhappy. Do you understand that?” That was the most important detail.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Good. But I would like it better if you were happy, and I’m sure you would too.” That was the second-most important details. “So think about what we might be able to do to make things better for you, and tell me. All right?”
Thomas swallowed hard, then nodded. “Yes, my lord.” His expression was worried, but his scent was…well, less so. It seemed that they were finally getting somewhere.
His lordship had announced his intention to rest until dinner, so after Wallace brought his trunk down, Thomas took it up to his room so he could check that nothing was missing and re-pack it properly.
Oddly enough, it was already packed fairly well—some of the things were folded a little oddly, but nothing was wadded up and stuffed in the corners, as he would have expected. And everything seemed to be there, even the Whitman book and the photographs he had stuffed inside it.
Still, unpacking and re-packing gave him something to keep his hands busy while he thought over the strange conversation he’d had with his lordship. He was still surprised that the stealing hadn’t come up. He was even more surprised by his lordship telling him how he felt—and being, as far as Thomas could tell, pretty much right about it.
He’d thought he’d done a pretty good job of keeping it all under wraps. Having so many of his insecurities laid bare at the same time had not been entirely pleasant. In fact, he was fairly sure that, had he been given the option beforehand, he would have said he’d rather walk down the village high street stark naked. But then, he’d have expected his lordship to laugh at him, or tell him he was being stupid and childish. Instead, he’d acted as though they were perfectly acceptable ways to feel.
Having his feelings understood and accepted was certainly an improvement…but he still wasn’t sure he liked it.
What his lordship had said, about what would have happened if Thomas had been a footman at Bellerock, that had to be a bit of a fairy story. No one would take that much trouble with all of their servants. It might be that way for a few—like how Lady Sybil had helped that maid become a secretary, back before the war. Not everyone.
But his lordship wanted it to be true. Thomas didn’t think he was lying. To suppose that his lordship had decided to go to elaborate lengths to deceive Thomas into believing that he wanted him to be happy was beyond even the reach of Thomas’s natural suspicion. For one thing, there was the question of motive: all he could possibly gain from such a ruse was the dubious pleasure of eventually revealing the deception. For, say, O’Brien, Thomas could almost believe that might be motive enough. But if his lordship was the sort to enjoy that sort of joke, surely he’d find it more sporting to play it against someone of his own class.
And Thomas didn’t think he was the sort to enjoy it. His concern over Thomas’s injuries, and his outrage at Lord Finsworth for causing them, had seemed genuine. If there was one thing Thomas could recognize when he saw it, it was petty cruelty.
So, as insane as it seemed, his lordship wanted him to be happy in his new place. He’d kept on asking what was wrong, not because he wanted Thomas to do a better job of hiding it, but because he wanted to help.
The trouble was, Thomas didn’t know how he could. It was all very well to talk about how, if everything in the world were different, he’d have found Thomas a job as a valet years ago. He had one now. He ought to be happy. He knew he ought to be.
So why wasn’t he?
Unfortunately, the only answer that came to mind was something his mum used to say when she thought he was being uppish: If you’re so clever, why aren’t you rich?
Not particularly relevant to the circumstances. It brought to mind one of her other sayings: Wish in one hand, cry in the other, and see which one gets full first. He’d never been entirely sure what that one meant, since she tended to trot it out whenever anyone cried or wished. He’d gotten tired enough of hearing it to make sure he never did either in her hearing—which he supposed was more or less the result she had wanted.
And more or less the opposite of what his lordship wanted. All right then, Barrow, he told himself. Go ahead. Wish for something. See what happens.
All he could think of was that he wished he didn’t have to wear that stupid green livery. Not particularly helpful, since—
Since he already didn’t have to. For the next couple of weeks, anyway. He sat down on the edge of the bed with a thump, as it occurred to him, for the first time, to think, really think, about what they were doing in Downton Village. His lordship had said that they’d simply stop, “On the way” to pick up his things.
It was not even remotely on the way. It was an entire day’s travel out of the way. And they’d come for no better reason than because he’d said he didn’t want to wear his livery in Norfolk. If he’d needed proof that his lordship was willing to go to a certain amount of trouble on his account, he had it.
Again, he knew he ought to be pleased and grateful. For a while, as he located a pressing iron and put his suit to rights, and as he dressed in it and admired how completely unremarkable and not-ridiculous he looked in it, he tried to convince himself that he was.
Instead, he found himself feeling rather bitter about it. His lordship had more or less tricked him into coming to Downton, hadn’t he? After all, Thomas hadn’t asked him to get his clothes and his wages back for him. What right did he have to just assume that Thomas wanted his help?
Except he had sort of asked. But he hadn’t meant to. He’d meant to use his lordship to get what he wanted. He hadn’t asked his lordship to….
To what? To want to?
Realizing that that was a fairly silly distinction to make, he hastened on. He certainly hadn’t asked his lordship to ask Lord Grantham a lot of questions about his life. Or to go around sniffing him and making deductions about why he was unhappy. What business was it of his? Thomas could be unhappy if he wanted to. If thinking that Thomas smelled unhappy was upsetting to his lordship, he could just keep his nose to himself.
Or perhaps he couldn’t; Thomas wasn’t sure about that part. But still, he didn’t have a right to insist that Thomas talk to him about it, or tell him how he could fix it. Maybe Thomas didn’t want to be happy. Maybe he was just a naturally unhappy person. What about that? What if he just plain didn’t want to be taken care of?
The question loomed. Thomas skittered away from it, telling himself it didn’t matter whether he wanted to be or not—it was, apparently, part of the job. Bring him his meals, brush his suits and press his collars, cuddle with him on the sofa of an evening, get taken care of. He’d got used to the cuddling part well enough. He even sort of liked it. So maybe he’d come to like being taken care of.
Even if he didn’t, you had things you didn’t like in any job. You just had to put up with them if you wanted to keep the job.
But did he-- Thomas’s breath caught in his throat. Did he want to keep the job? Because nobody had ever asked him about that, either. He’d always wanted to be a valet—not that his lordship or anyone else had known that when they decided to make him one—but valets didn’t cuddle, they didn’t get asked about their feelings, they didn’t get cared for. Guides did, and if his lordship was to be believed, most of them liked it. But so what? That didn’t mean he had to. Maybe he didn’t want to be a Guide.
Except he had to be. They’d gotten him out of prison to be a Guide. He could wait until his sentence was up and then leave—but then he’d be in the same position he’d expected to be in before the Society stepped in: on the street with no job, no reference, and no prospects. He’d have his clothes and a bit of money put by—the Society paid pretty well—but there’d be no help with finding another place if he refused to be a Guide, he was sure of that.
If he refused to be his lordship’s Guide, in particular. It sounded like if you weren’t somebody’s personal Guide, you might be able to just about manage to be left alone. Mr. Weatherby, for instance, spent most of his time downstairs, where he could feel whatever he felt like without having Sentinels nosing into his personal business.
There were probably other positions like that. His lordship had said that footmen came to Bellerock to see what the different jobs were and decide what they wanted to do. If it weren’t for this business of being his lordship’s only match—which had seemed like such a terrific bit of luck at first—it might have gone the same way at the Society. They’d probably have started him in the dining room, since he had so much experience as a footman. He wouldn’t have liked that much, but it would have given him some breathing room to see how things worked, and to sort out what he wanted to do. If they were all as kind and as concerned about Guides’ well-being as his lordship said they were, he’d have ended up a valet again eventually—if he wanted.
And perhaps he would have. He’d have had his eye on it from the beginning, of course. And when he saw the other valets being fussed over—having their Sentinels ask about any little thing they could do to make them happier—he’d have wanted it even more. It certainly sounded good. Why on Earth didn’t he like it, now that it was actually happening?
Gerald couldn’t quite face strapping his prosthetic leg on for another hair-raising trip down the inn’s steep staircase, so he had Thomas bring their supper up to the room, where they sat on opposite sides of the small writing-desk to eat it.
“The suit looks quite smart,” Gerald noted as they began. He was relieved to see that it was in much better condition than the one Thomas had been wearing—though he hadn’t had much doubt that if Thomas thought it was better, it would be.
“My lord,” Thomas said cautiously, as if he wasn’t entirely sure why Gerald was mentioning it.
Gerald shrugged. “We came all this way for it.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said. “All this way.”
He fell silent, and Gerald concentrated his attention on the fairly good rabbit pie.
“I don’t have any ideas yet, my lord,” Thomas said when they were about halfway through the meal. “About…what we talked about.”
“That’s all right,” Gerald assured him. “It isn’t a time-limited offer.”
Thomas nodded. After a moment, he said, “Can I ask something else? My lord?”
“Of course you can,” he said, pleased that Thomas had asked. He put his wine glass down to give the question his full attention.
“You were saying, earlier, about how it would have been if I’d started as a footman at Bellerock.”
“Yes,” Gerald said, nodding.
“I was just wondering, my lord. With me being your only match apart from Euan. How that would have made it different. It seems like you wouldn’t have wanted me going to some other house. To work, I mean.”
“That’s a good question,” Gerald said. He wasn’t sure how useful it was, really, for Thomas to be exploring that particular scenario in detail, since none of them could go back in time. But if he was trying to understand how Gerald’s world worked, that was all to the good. “We didn’t really know until after the war, how difficult it would be to find a match for me. I’d always had Euan. And his mother—she died of the Spanish flu. But if we had known that you and Euan were the only two candidates for my personal Guide, we would have been eager to keep both of you in the household, you’re right about that.” What was Thomas really asking?
“We’d probably have tried to find something else in the household for—whichever of you I didn’t choose.” Perhaps Thomas wanted to know which of them Gerald would have chosen, but he couldn’t answer that and was not going to try. “We’d likely have encouraged you—either of you—to give serious consideration to some of the other options. In fact,” Gerald added, remembering something he’d left out of his earlier story, “now that you mention it, I remember Euan saying that Clement has a sort of potted lecture he always gives the lads about whether they really want to be personal Guides and how the other jobs are just as good, so you’d have got that anyway. But if you were both determined to be personal Guides, we’d still have helped one of you find a place elsewhere.”
Thomas considered that. “So…being a personal Guide is what everyone wants? My lord.”
“Not everyone,” Gerald said. “But it’s the most…glamorous, I suppose. Especially to the younger fellows. We do our best to look after all the Guides, but personal Guides get the most attention. And they go along with us on visits and hunting and things. So I suppose it’s more varied and interesting than being a cook or a butler or something like that. Although I remember, when the family got our first motorcar, Euan decided he was going to be a driver when he grew up. We were about twelve, I think. For about a year or so, every afternoon when we were done with lessons he’d be down in the garage pestering the chauffeur to let him poke around under the bonnet.”
Thomas’s brows drew together. “But he wouldn’t have been able to,” he pointed out. “Oh—but you said you didn’t know then that no one else could be your Guide.”
Gerald shrugged uneasily. The idea of Euan deciding not to be his Guide was ghastly to contemplate. “He gave it up, anyway, when he realized he couldn’t be a driver and my Guide. We decided that when we were older, I’d get my own car and he could drive it. And we did, although he’d gotten over his boyhood fascination with the things by then.” Picking out the new motor had caused a brief resurgence of the obsession—Euan had spent a month poring over informational circulars from all the major manufacturers.
“Does it ever happen, though? That one of you picks somebody for your Guide, and they don’t want to do it?”
“I suppose it must.” No examples sprang to mind, but it must. “Simon asked Morgan to be his Guide, but he turned it down.” That hardly counted, seeing as it was Simon. “He wanted to be Guide for a professional Sentinel, a doctor or something like that. That’s how I met Ace, actually. I was up at Oxford, and Mama asked me to keep an eye out for a nice middle-class Sentinel Morgan might like.”
That didn’t seem to be quite what Thomas had in mind, however. He kept on frowning, and said, “What if he hadn’t wanted to be anyone’s Guide? What if they wanted to—I don’t know. Do something else. Not everybody’s cut out for being in service, are they, my lord?”
“Most Guides seem to like it,” Gerald said, puzzled. There were enough different jobs in and around to house to suit most of them. “But there are some, certainly, who do other things. We have a few Guide farmers on our place—oh, and there’s Thompson, the tailor in the village; he’s a Guide. We have him do all the livery for the house, and most of our country things. And his wife makes ladies’ hats; she’s a Guide as well.”
Thomas nodded solemnly. “I see, my lord. Thank you.” Gerald wanted to point out how well he was doing asking questions now, but thought it might embarrass him.
By the time the train neared Norfolk the next day, Thomas was fairly optimistic about his long-term future. His lordship didn’t seem to have noticed that he’d been feeling him out on the subject of leaving—which was just fine, because he had several weeks to go before he could leave, anyway. It sounded like his lordship and the rest of the family were familiar with the idea that some Guides might sometimes want to leave service. And they had helped Morgan find another place even after he’d turned down the honor of being Lord Simon’s Guide.
Of course, he couldn’t expect them to take it nearly as well if he said he wanted to leave—there was the matter of him being the only Guide for his lordship, and also the matter of his lordship rescuing him from a life of desperation and ruin, for which he ought to be extremely grateful. They would probably be appalled by his repaying this kindness by leaving his lordship with no one to look after him.
But they were also very likely to think they were punishing him enough by sending him packing with his wages owed and a fair reference and making him find his own next place, instead of finding one for him. And if not, Lord Simon was clearly not nearly as kind as his lordship, and might be holding a grudge against his brother for helping Morgan get away. If he couldn’t come up with some way to use that to his advantage—well, then, O’Brien had taught him nothing.
Just knowing that he had a way out let him breathe a little easier. All right, so no one had asked him if he wanted to have his life turned upside-down and inside-out. He could turn it right way up again if he wanted, before too much longer.
He could put up with anything for three months—he’d put up with the trenches for nearly two years, and that had been bloody awful. And there had been plenty of times during his first few months at Downton when he would have chucked it all if he’d had a home to go back to. Army life had gone from bad to worse, and when he couldn’t take it any more, he’d gotten himself out of it. Downton had gotten better, once he’d gotten used to it. This business of being a Guide could go either way. He’d get used to it, or he’d get out. His choice.
That just left him with the more immediate situation to worry about: in a short time, he’d be turning up at a strange house, full of people he didn’t know, with strange ways. Probably very strange. There were God knew how many new mistakes to make—and all of the old ones, too.
He’d keep his eyes and ears open and his mouth shut, downstairs, that was all. Just lie low. He couldn’t make any enemies that way. Or make the wrong sort of friends.
A car met them at the station. It was only mildly disconcerting to be riding up to the house with his lordship, instead of with the luggage. He was surprised—but also a bit relieved—not to find the household arranged at the entrance to greet the returning heir. Instead, there was just a butler and a footman.
At least, Thomas thought they were a butler and a footman. Here, God only knew. As the one Thomas thought was the butler approached, his lordship said, “Clement,” and that was what he’d said the butler’s name was. So: butlers here dressed like butlers. Good to know.
“I can’t say how pleased we are to have you back, your lordship,” Clement said, extending his hand. He barely came up to Thomas’s shoulder, and the footman was, if anything, even shorter. That was odd.
His lordship shook the butler’s hand in both of his. “I’m just as pleased to be back. Ah, this is Thomas, my new Guide.”
Thomas stepped forward. No hand-shaking for him. All right. He nodded his head.
“Welcome to the household,” Clement said. Gesturing to the maybe-footman, he said to his lordship, “I believe Douglas is new since you were last home.”
“Yes, but don’t tell me….Maisry and Emmet’s son, and Francine’s brother.”
“That’s right, your lordship,” Douglas said, grinning.
“Very good,” his lordship said. “Well, I suppose they’re all in the gallery?”
“Yes, your lordship. And her ladyship is very anxious to meet Thomas.”
Glancing over at him, his lordship said, “Well, she can wait until he’s had a cup of tea, at least. And perhaps a bite to eat—we didn’t have anything on the train.” He started up the stairs, leaning on his crutch on one side and Thomas on the other. “Thomas, Clement will show you where to go. I’m fairly sure I remember how to get to the gallery on my own. Clement, don’t let everyone down there pounce on him at once—he’s a bit shy. You can bring him up to the gallery when he’s ready. All right, Thomas?”
“Yes, my lord,” he said.
They parted ways in the hall—a very normal sort of entrance hall, with a grand staircase, a fireplace big enough to roast a whole ox, and some bits of statuary sitting around. Douglas went on with his lordship, presumably to the gallery. Thomas followed Clement through a very normal green baize door and down a very normal set of service stairs. He felt as if the house were trying to lull him into a false sense of security.
There were a few people sitting around the table in the servants’ hall when they arrived—a couple of girls and an older woman, all wearing dark dresses like ladies’ maids, and a man about Bates’ age wearing livery. They all stood up when the butler entered, as Thomas would have expected them to in a normal house, but the action revealed that they, too, were all rather short. One of the probably-maids said brightly, “Lord Gerald’s home, then?”
“Yes, he’s upstairs,” Clement said, waving for them all to sit down again. As they did so, a probable-cook and probable-kitchen girl turned up at the other door, and several more people popped out into the corridor behind them, everyone more or less obviously staring at Thomas. The fact that they were all staring up at him did not make it any less disconcerting. “And yes, this is Thomas. Lord Gerald would prefer that you let him catch his breath before you, ahem, ‘pounce on him.’”
Part of the crowd dispersed, and those who remained tried to pretend they had some other reason for being there.
“Mrs. Pirbright,” Clement continued, “they haven’t eaten. If you could get Thomas his tea, I’ll see if they need anything else upstairs.” He departed, and the probable cook started back for the kitchen, returning a second later to drag the kitchen girl off with her.
Thomas took a few steps toward the table, counting chairs and trying to remember if his lordship’s father was alive. Yes, he was—otherwise his lordship would be Lord Yernemuth and not Pellinger. So his man would be first valet, and Thomas’s place would be the third one down from the head of the table—unless that was completely different here too. And it might be, because one of the probably-maids was in that spot.
Noticing his indecision, one of the probably-maids said, “You can sit down if you like. We won’t pounce on you.”
Smiling stiffly, he said, “Thank you,” and made a hasty choice of a place near the middle of the table.
“I’m Margery,” the maid added. “And these are Susan, Eileen, and Baxter.”
Eileen was the older woman, and Baxter was the man. Perhaps he was a valet, since he was called by his surname. But in that case, Thomas ought to be, too. “Thomas Barrow,” he said, indicating himself. He’d wait and see what they did with that, instead of sticking his foot in it.
“We heard,” said Susan.
“Susan,” Eileen said reprovingly.
“What?” Susan answered. “I’m not pouncing.”
“See that you don’t,” Eileen said. She must rank higher than Susan, then. Even though they were both called by their first names. He filed that away to sort out later.
Mrs. Pirbright returned then, putting a slab of cold meat pie in front of him and saying, “You just get started on that, dearie,” before bustling off again.
Thomas reminded himself that he was keeping his mouth shut, and did not object to the “dearie.” It was fairly good pie, and the tea that the kitchen girl delivered was strong and sweet. He was a bit startled, however, when they came in and out several more times, surrounding his tea and pie with an array of sandwiches, small cakes, and other tidbits. He wondered if perhaps they had taken Clement’s words—or his lordship’s—to mean that he hadn’t eaten ever.
It was a bit late for tea, but the whole family was still in the gallery: Mama, Papa, Georgiana, Aunt Matilda, and—yes—Simon, along with Louis and Felicity, Simon’s and Mama’s Guides. The others, he supposed, had opted to go downstairs and see Thomas first. Gerald shook his father’s hand and bent awkwardly to kiss Mama on the cheek; he skipped Georgie, because that way he could skip Simon, too, without it seeming pointed.
“Gerry, you look so thin,” Mama said, looking him up and down. “Georgie, doesn’t he look thin?”
“Not any more than usual,” Georgie said. “D’you want tea? Oh—it’s gone cold.”
In lieu of tea, Gerald browsed the rest of the trolley—still overloaded with delicacies, even though the others had clearly already had theirs. “Mrs. Pirbright pulled out all the stops,” he observed, selecting a couple of sandwiches and an éclair.
“Why wouldn’t she, with Our Gerry finally home from the wars?” Simon asked.
“No reason at all,” Mama said reprovingly. She patted the sofa cushion beside herself; Gerald went to sit, then realize that his chances of doing so without spilling the contents of his plate into his mother’s lap were very low.
“Douglas,” he said. If Thomas were here, he wouldn’t have had to ask. Douglas hurried over, and Gerald got him to hold the plate while he went through the production of sitting down. “Thank you.”
“Where is your new Guide?” Mama asked.
“He’s down having his tea,” Gerald answered. Douglas had brought over an ottoman; he gratefully put his leg up on it. “He’s been on a train all day; the last thing he wants is to come up here and be gawped at.”
“I wasn’t planning to gawp,” Mama said.
“And don’t worry, we all know better than to believe anything Si said about him,” Georgie added.
“What did he say?” Gerald demanded.
“Oh, nothing,” Simon answered.
“I thought you said he had strange manners,” Aunt Matilda objected.
“We weren’t going to speak of that, Matty,” Papa said, from his armchair by the fire.
“He doesn’t have strange manners,” Gerald said. “Just…he doesn’t.” What was it about being in a room full of his family that made him feel about six years old?
“I’m sure he’s perfectly charming,” Mama said. “And I’m sure that Simon will be on his very best behavior when you introduce us. Won’t you, Simon.”
It wasn’t really a question, but Simon said obediently, “Yes, Mama.”
“Is the muck pile still where it used to be?” Gerald asked. He’d thrown Simon into it once, when his teasing of Euan got to be too much, and he thought Simon could use the reminder.
“I’d like to see you try,” Simon growled.
“I’ll help!” Georgie said brightly.
“Children!” Mama said.
“Sorry, Mama,” they all said.
Further arguments were prevented by the arrival of Clement with fresh tea. Gerald happily accepted a cup, asking, “Thomas is all right?”
“Yes, I believe Mrs. Pirbright has him well in hand.”
“Good.” He hesitated, not quite wanting to broach the subject with Simon right there, but…. “We should talk about him a bit, later on.”
Clement nodded. “Your lordship.”
He then asked if Gerald wanted anything else, indicating the overloaded tea trolley. Gerald considered asking for a roast joint and potatoes, just to see what would happen, but instead said that he thought he could find enough on the trolley to sustain him until dinner.
Once he had gone, Mama and Georgie got down to the business of filling him in on all the family and household news—marriages and children, new places for Guides and new Guides for relatives. Two of the maids he remembered from before the war had married, and one had her first child already. Another had gone to be personal Guide to one of the cousins on Mama’s side. “What about Wallace?” Gerald asked. He’d been a footman when Gerald was last home.
“Wants to be a butler,” Papa said, making a rare, but characteristically brief, contribution to the conversation.
“He’s at Aunt Viola’s now,” Georgie explained. “Getting some training. If one of us decides to set up our own household, we’ll need someone with experience in a smaller house.”
“Who’s setting up their own household?” He hoped it was Simon.
“Oh, I don’t know, any of us,” Georgie said evasively.
“Is there someone?” he asked. He’d thought Georgie would have mentioned it, if she was thinking of marrying.
“No,” she said. “But I can have my own house if I like. I am a widow.” She glared at Mama as she said so.
“Right you are.” To be honest, Gerald had almost forgotten. When the extremely limited life span of junior officers on the Front became clear, Sentinel families with sons of military age had scrambled to arrange marriages, with the aim of having heirs in the oven before departure. Georgie’s hadn’t caught, so when her husband was killed she’d come home, only having been away a few months. But that reminded him of something else he’d forgotten. “Where’s…” What was her name? “Sophia?” Simon’s marriage had had the desired result, so his wife must be around somewhere.
“In her room, I expect,” Simon said shortly.
“Can’t stand the smell of food, poor thing,” Georgie elaborated.
“Oh, is she…?” Gerald trailed off delicately.
“Didn’t Simon tell you when he went down to see you in London?” Mama asked.
“Slipped my mind,” Simon answered.
“Congratulations,” Gerald said, as sincerely as he could manage. If Simon had two children—especially if this one was another boy—there shouldn’t be much pressure for him to sire an heir of his own. Just as well, really—with things so unsettled with Thomas, tossing a courtship and marital responsibilities into the mixture would only make everything more complicated. “When is it due?”
“December,” Mama said.
“Ah,” Gerald said. “Well, I suppose I ought to look in on Dennis later.” He vaguely remembered having the squalling infant shoved in his face the last time he was home, but since he’d still been reeling from his losses, he hadn’t noticed much beyond the salient facts that the child was a Sentinel and male. “I suppose he’s walking and talking now?” He knew that the boy must be about three, but he wasn’t sure what they did at that age.
Mama and Aunt Matilda told several amusing stories about the child—or, at least, what they thought were amusing stories. They mostly seemed to involve his unsuccessful efforts to clearly speak the English language. Gerald wasn’t sure if the stories were, perhaps, more amusing if you had been there, or if he was simply running low on patience for dealing with his family en masse. Ordinarily, the gathering would have broken up long ago, but clearly no one would be going anywhere until they had seen Thomas.
“He is getting a little more interesting now,” Georgie admitted. “The other day, we took him down to the stable and put him on Snowflake. Just to take him around the yard on a leading rein, but it’s a start.”
“Good lord; Snowflake’s still around?” All three of them had learned to ride on Snowflake; he had to be nearing thirty. Even for a Shetland pony, that was old.
“Probably not for much longer,” Georgie said. “They had a terrible time keeping weight on him last winter.” She went on talking about the pony’s health, how they’d have to get a new one for Dennis before long, and the efforts to rebuild the stable since losing so many horses in the war. Along the way, Georgie mentioned that he ought to stop by the stable and talk to Clint.
“I will,” Gerald agreed. Clint had always been the one to look after his horses; he couldn’t neglect him just because he didn’t have any horses anymore.
“He’s not still carrying on about that colt, is he?” Simon asked. “It’s been months.”
“He isn’t carrying on,” Georgie said. “But he’ll probably be reminded of it since Gerry’s home.” Turning to Gerald, she explained, “The one he was hand-raising—Bella’s foal?”
Gerald vaguely remembered reading something about it in a letter—the mare had died of foaling complications. “It didn’t survive?”
Georgie shook her head. “He was rather upset.”
“I’ll talk to him about it,” he promised.
Mama moved on to her supply of news about relations too distant to have been covered in the first round. Fortunately, before she could finish the third cousins, Clement returned, bringing Thomas with him. The headache that had been simmering unnoticed behind Gerald’s eyes suddenly eased. “Thomas!” He started looking around for his crutch, then remembered that Mama would surely not be satisfied with a fleeting glimpse at Thomas, so he might as well stay seated.
Thomas approached, looking hesitant. “My lord?”
“Here, sit down,” Gerald said, patting the ottoman next to his leg.
That was a mistake; Thomas stiffened and smelled more-than-usually anxious. It was a bit late to change course now, though. Thomas perched warily on the edge of the ottoman.
“Goodness, he is tall,” Mama said.
Thomas didn’t like that much; Gerald could tell from the set of his shoulders. “Yes, Mama,” Gerald said dryly. “He’s practically a giant. I expect we’ll need to go to a circus outfitter to have his livery made.”
Mama frowned. “I’m not certain that I would go that far, dear.” With a pointed look, she added, “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
As soon as he had, she’d start interrogating him, Gerald knew. But he couldn’t really get out of it—not being introduced wouldn’t stop them from talking about him, and Thomas would likely want to know who everyone was, anyway. “Mama, this is Thomas. Thomas, my mother, Lady Yernemuth. Aunt Matty, Thomas; Thomas, Lady Matilda….” At least by introducing everyone in a rush, he could stop Mama from having a conversational monopoly.
She did get in the first question, though. “I hope Lord Gerald is treating you well?”
“Yes, your ladyship.” Thomas gave Simon just the tiniest fraction of a glare at that. “Thank you.”
“I understand you worked in an Insensate house before,” she continued. Gerald, being familiar with Thomas’s habits, was unsurprised when he didn’t answer, but it took Mama a moment to rally. “This must be quite a change for you.”
“Yes, your ladyship.”
Georgie was the first one to pick up that he was not going to elaborate, no matter how long Mama kept staring at him. “I expect you’re very tired after the train journey,” she said.
That got another, “Yes, your ladyship.”
“Told you,” Simon said in a singsong voice, too low for the Guides to hear.
“It was very tiring,” Gerald said. “In fact, I’d like to go up to my room until dinner.”
Thomas shot to his feet and offered his arm to help him up.
“Yes, about that,” Mama said tentatively, as he stood and got his crutch under his arm. “I had Clement move you to the oriel room.”
“All your things are just the way they were,” Felicity said soothingly. “The furniture and everything. Just in a different room.”
Even so, she had no right to just move him. “What happened to my old room?” A terrible thought occurred to him. “Did you give away my room?”
“I wasn’t going to,” Mama began, “but Simon--”
“If my room is full of Simon’s things, there will be a bonfire on the lawn! Thomas will help me!” Euan had always argued for a conciliatory approach to Simon, but based on what that butler had said about Thomas, Gerald didn’t think he’d have those kinds of scruples.
“But,” Georgie picked up where he had interrupted Mama, “Simon was going to steal it if it stayed empty, so I moved in, because I knew you wouldn’t mind that quite as much. And now Sophia has my room; the one she was in had a smoky chimney.”
She was right that he didn’t mind that quite so much, but it was hardly the point. “Then why not put Sophia in the oriel room? Wherever that is.”
“Thomas knows where it is,” Clement spoke up. “I showed him when we took your things up.”
Naturally, Thomas wouldn’t understand this monumental betrayal—he had never seen Gerald’s old room. But he was looking—and smelling—very nervous about the whole thing, so Gerald knew he had to calm himself down. “Good,” he said, starting for the door. Thomas hurried after him. “Let’s go and see this cupboard my own mother’s stuck me in.” He hurled this parting shot at the door Thomas had just closed behind him, but Mama was a Sentinel; she’d have heard anyway.
“It’s just at the top of the stairs, my lord,” Thomas said cautiously.
“Good.” Gerald forced a smile as he started up the stairs. “Thirty-seven bedrooms in this house, and she had to give mine away?” he grumbled. “Unbelievable.” This staircase was a lot longer than he remembered it being. “Get your leg blown off defending your country, and how do they show their gratitude? By stealing your bedroom, that’s how.” Just because he hadn’t used it for six years; that didn’t mean it was open season on bedrooms.
By the time they reached the top of the staircase, Gerald had run out of complaints. He also realized that in the back of his mind, he’d been waiting for Thomas to step in with some calming and reasonable remark—as Euan would have. Likely he’d have pointed out that out of the thirty-seven, there were only a handful of really good ones. The others had smoky chimneys or windows that rattled in high winds, or there was a shared bathroom, or the dressing room was down the hall….
If he had, Gerald could have pointed out that since he was the heir, he was supposed to have one of the good bedrooms. Whether he was using it or not.
But Thomas just said, “It’s this one, my lord,” opening the door and standing aside.
Once he was inside it, Gerald realized that the “oriel room” was one of the good ones. In fact, it was the one that Simon had been arguing since leaving the nursery should be his, but Mama insisted it had to be kept open for important guests. And seeing all of his familiar things—his bed, his writing desk, his books on the shelf and his pictures on the wall, did settle him down somewhat.
Still, he prowled the room uneasily, peering into the corners and opening the windows to get an idea of the air currents and views. His old room had gotten a nicely herbal-scented breeze from the kitchen gardens; this one didn’t smell right, and the light was coming from the wrong direction. And his carpet, which had been made to fit the old room, didn’t quite reach the corners here.
Once he’d catalogued the room’s deficiencies, he checked the connecting doors. The bathroom was all right—a little bigger than his old one, and it had a fireplace in it. He supposed he could get used to that.
The dressing room looked strangely bare—nothing in it but a bed and a bunch of his clothes and so forth. It slowly dawned on Gerald that what was missing was Euan’s things. Because, of course, the dressing room of Gerald’s old room had been his room since they were sixteen. Euan was naturally tidy, but he’d still managed to accumulate quite a bit of clutter in all that time—books and bric-a-brac and presents Gerald had given him.
All that had been packed away somewhere. Gerald would have to find out where. But maybe it was for the best, them having moved him. Seeing Euan’s room without Euan’s things in it would have been awful, but seeing Euan’s things when Euan was gone might have been worse. And it would be rather difficult for Thomas to make himself at home, as well.
Realizing that Thomas was hovering at his shoulder, Gerald took a few deep breaths, then said, calmly, “Well, this isn’t so bad. I suppose you’ll be all right in here?”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas agreed. He hesitated. “I haven’t finished the unpacking yet.”
“That’s all right,” Gerald said, turning back towards his own room. “Sit with me for a minute, before you get to it.”
They’d brought his sofa, too, though he didn’t like where they’d put it. The sun was in his eyes. Still, it would do for now; he sat and held out his arm for Thomas to settle in under it. Once he had done so, he said, “I’m not really cross about the room.” He stopped. No, lying to his Guide was not good. “That is I am, but I know it isn’t your fault. You know that, right?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“And I suppose Mama had her reasons.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said again. “Mr. Clement mentioned your other room was…a bit difficult to get to.”
He hadn’t even thought of that. How astonishingly thick he was. His old room was at the top of the east tower. He’d liked that about it; good views in all directions. But perhaps not entirely suitable in his current condition. “Yes, well. I suppose this is better in the circumstances.” He sighed. “Still, I wish they’d asked.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas agreed, with a note in his voice that suggested there was something he wasn’t saying.
“Is there something you’re wondering about?” Gerald hazarded. “Or perhaps a lot of things?”
Thomas hesitated again. Finally he said, “Why is everyone so surprised that I’m tall? Are Guides…supposed to be short?”
“No,” Gerald said. “No, it’s fine. It’s just that our ones here are usually short.”
“Noticed that,” Thomas muttered.
“I suppose you do stand out a bit,” Gerald admitted. There wasn’t anything that could be done about it, but he hoped it wouldn’t bother Thomas too much, if he could be assured that it wasn’t a problem. “They’re all related, you see. The same Guide families tend to stay with the same Sentinel families for generations. I expect the first Earl of Yernemuth must have happened to have a rather short Guide, and some of his siblings and cousins came to live on the estate, and there you have it.”
“I see, my lord,” Thomas said, looking thoughtful. “Is that….” He fell silent.
“I’ve been trying to work out who gets called by their surnames. Downstairs, I mean. But I suppose if a lot of people have the same ones, that makes it more complicated.”
“I never really thought about it,” Gerald answered. “You’re likely right. Why, who do you think—who are you used to hearing called by their surnames?” He hastily revised his question midway to avoid implying that what Thomas was used to was incorrect.
“Ah—butlers, housekeepers, cooks, chauffeurs, ladies’ maids. Valets.”
“Goodness. Yes, that would be confusing. Half of them would be called Owens or Morgan.” He considered. “Here, we call the cook by her surname because she’s an Insensate from off the estate, and that’s what she prefers. And we used to have an Insensate driver who went by his surname, but he left during the war, and the new fellow’s a Guide. I assumed we call him Timothy, but I haven’t actually asked. Other than that, we use Christian names for everyone.”
“What about Clement and Baxter, my lord?”
“Those are Christian names. Guide mothers sometimes give their sons names that sound like surnames—they say it means she wants him to grow up to be a butler.”
“Oh. So--” Thomas stopped himself again, but this time it only took a glance from Gerald to remind him that he was allowed to ask questions. “So do I call the butler Clement or Mr. Clement?”
“I…have absolutely no idea,” Gerald admitted slowly. “Euan always called him ‘Uncle Clement,’ but that doesn’t really apply.” What did the other personal Guides call him? Gerald couldn’t remember. “He won’t mind much either way,” he essayed. But given how Thomas hated being wrong, he’d be more comfortable if he knew he had it right. “We’ll have to ask him.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said unhappily.
“No one is going to give you a hard time for asking questions,” Gerald told him. “I’m quite confident of it, but if they do, you can tell me and I’ll take care of it.”
“Yes, my lord.”
That was definitely his “you are a fathead and I don’t believe you” voice, but Gerald didn’t know how else to convince him other than to let him see. “Is there anything else that…seemed unusual to you?” He hoped that phrasing the question might get Thomas to open up more, since he wouldn’t have to actually admit to being mistaken or confused.
Thomas shifted his weight a little. “I’d never been taken into a drawing room to be introduced to an employer’s family before, my lord. So that was a bit unusual.”
“No?” Well, he had been at Downton Abbey for ages, and he’d started as a footman, so it made sense that he wouldn’t have been—he’d have been known to the family already by the time he was made Grantham’s valet. But he seemed not to mean just that he’d never experienced it himself, but that it was unusual for any servant in his position to be introduced. “Does the rest of the family…not speak to valets?” he guessed.
Thomas seemed just as puzzled as he was. “They can, my lord. There generally isn’t much reason to, but it’s not…forbidden, or anything.”
“But how can they, if they haven’t been introduced?”
Thomas stared at him as if he had grown another head. “They just…do, my lord.” Then he looked away. “Are Guides not supposed to speak to people they haven’t been introduced to, then?”
“No,” Gerald said, as understanding began to dawn. “The other way around, in fact. Sentinels don’t speak directly to another Sentinel’s personal Guide. There is a great deal of potential for…misunderstanding.” He was explaining this badly. “Does that make sense?”
“Very little, my lord,” Thomas said tactfully.
“Let me try again.” Before he could begin, he had to think about why Thomas didn’t understand. Why hadn’t Lord Grantham cared who spoke to Thomas?
The answer was staggering in its simplicity: because Thomas hadn’t been his Guide. Now he knew where to start. “Do you remember what happened with Lord Finsworth?” This time, Gerald didn’t need to wait for the “you are being a fathead” voice to realize that he was being a fathead. Of course Thomas remembered.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Perhaps you noticed that Sentinels tend to get rather upset when their Guides are hurt.” That was surely the understatement of the century. “Finsworth was quite wrong, of course, and should have kept his temper, but…he was under a certain amount of strain. As was I. Sentinels are usually very careful in their dealings with other Sentinels’ Guides, in order to prevent such…regrettable losses of control. If a Sentinel were to say or do something to a Guide that was thought, even mistakenly, to be threatening or insulting, the Sentinel of the Guide in question might—as my nanny used to put it—forget that he is an Englishman. This was an especially significant problem in centuries past, when most Sentinels were trained in hand-to-hand combat and carried swords everywhere they went, as you might imagine.”
“I think I see, my lord.”
“Do you? What do you think I said?” They were clearly confronting this topic with vastly different assumptions; God only knew the many terrible ways Thomas could misinterpret what he was saying.
“In the old days, if a Sentinel said the wrong thing to a Guide, the other Sentinel might murder him?”
All right, so he did understand it. “Yes. So the custom developed that Sentinels don’t speak to attached Guides unless they’ve been given permission. The idea is that if you know someone well enough to introduce him to your Guide, you know that he won’t deliberately insult or threaten the Guide, and you expect to be able to keep your temper if there’s a misunderstanding. These days, of course, the chances of a poorly-chosen word ending in actual murder are low, but it’s still the custom not to speak to a Guide you haven’t been introduced to.”
“I’m sure I’ve been spoken to a time or two by other gentlemen at the Society,” Thomas said. “Was that…wrong?”
“Not exactly,” Gerald admitted, although he didn’t like the idea much. “Society Guides are usually considered to be…like household Guides. Butlers and footmen and so on. Anyone can speak to them.”
Thomas was still looking confused, so Gerald added, “The details aren’t that important. Everyone in the household can speak to you now…except my sister-in-law and my nephew; we’ll have to meet them later.”
“What if they do speak to me? My lord.”
“They won’t. Well—Sophia won’t. If you passed her in the corridor before you’ve been introduced, she rightly ought to ignore you. But she’s in confinement, so even that is unlikely to happen. I suppose Dennis might—he’s only three, so he probably hasn’t been taught yet not to speak to strange Guides. In any case, if someone who shouldn’t be speaking to you does, it’s perfectly all right for you to answer.”
Thomas nodded. “What about visitors?”
“As far as I know, we aren’t expecting any in the near future. But if we do have any, you’ll be introduced if there’s a reason to—if you’re in the drawing room with us or something.” Gerald smiled. “But you aren’t hauled in for the express purpose of introducing you. That’s just for family—and now that we’ve got it over with, you won’t need to do it again.” Curious, Gerald asked, “How did you do it in that other house? You just go around speaking to anyone?”
“Ah, no, my lord. We speak when we’re spoken to.”
“Oh.” How strange. “In that case, there’s another detail you should know, for the future. It could happen that you stumble across a guest who has gotten lost or needs some other sort of assistance, but hasn’t been introduced to you. In that case, one is permitted to address a question such as, ‘I wonder how one gets to the drawing room from here?’ to no one in particular. You’re expected to answer.”
“Very good, my lord.” Thomas considered. “So I suppose—at Downton, I used to valet guests sometimes. Even after I was Lord Grantham’s valet, if it was somebody important. Will—”
“Good God, no.” The words burst out of him before he could think about them; the idea was just that obscene. Thomas flinched away from him, a sharp note of fear in his scent. “I’m sorry,” Gerald said, patting his shoulder. “Ah, no, we don’t do that. It would be very, very unusual for a Sentinel to travel without his or her own Guide. Unless they were looking for a new personal Guide, and one of the maids or footmen were interested in the position. Then they might be invited for a visit to give the two a chance to get to know each other. Or if a visitor’s own Guide were ill, or something like that, a maid or footman might be asked to assist. But not a personal Guide, no. Never. It’s considered very poor manners to even touch someone else’s personal Guide.”
“Oh.” Thomas settled back against his side, still a little hesitant. “I’m sure I’ve seen Morgan touch you. At the—place. Prison. For one. Is he—I thought he was Mr. Langley-Smythe’s valet. Is he something else?”
“No, you’re right; he’s Ace’s Guide,” Gerald said. “That was a bit of an emergency, at the prison. He has attended on me a few other times, when I was…when I didn’t have a Guide of my own. But that’s very unusual, and it was very generous of Ace—of both of them, really. I’m sure they’d discussed it beforehand between the two of them. I expect they only allowed it because my situation was so desperate, and because I’ve known Morgan since childhood.”
Thomas nodded. “All right. So no speaking to Sentinels you’ve not introduced me to, and no touching other Sentinels. Have I got it right, my lord?”
“Yes,” Gerald said. But as soon as he said it, he began to imagine any number of scenarios where Thomas’s concern with hewing to the letter of the law might lead to disaster. “Except in an emergency—if Mama or Georgie stumbled on the stairs, for instance, you’d be quite right to steady her without waiting to check with me first. And young children are generally considered exceptions.” Gerald remembered being quite affectionate with Baxter up until he was about twelve or so. “I’m not sure how much we’ll be seeing of Dennis, and his nurse will be trying to teach him not to indiscriminately grab strange Guides, but if you should end up being close with him, that’s fine.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said. “I…haven’t much experience with children.”
“Neither have I.” But Thomas wasn’t mentioning that to make conversation; small-talk was not part of his repertoire. He was trying to ask a question, and given that this was Thomas, it was a question about what Gerald wanted of him. “You aren’t expected to take any particular interest in Dennis—it’s just that you’re allowed to, if you wish. We’ll have to get to know him eventually. He’ll be my heir—well, after Simon, of course—unless something changes drastically, but I expect I’ll wait until he’s a bit older before I have much to do with him.”
“Yes, my lord.” Thomas sounded more confident this time, so that must have been the sort of answer he was looking for.
They sat for a bit longer. Thomas didn’t ask any more questions—or comment hesitantly on any additional topics—and Gerald decided not to press him for any more. He’d already done quite a bit of blathering, without managing to impart much of any immediate practical value, as far as he could see. His first day in a new house, Thomas probably needed to know where the towels were kept, and things like that. Gerald not only had no idea where the towels were kept, he also didn’t know what else “things like that” might consist of. But Thomas seemed reasonably relaxed and content—at least, by Thomas’s usual standards—so Gerald let himself relax too.
Thomas had very nearly dozed off, cuddled on the sofa with his lordship, when the butler—Clement, or Mr. Clement, or whatever he was supposed to call him—came in. He jumped away with a start when he heard the door open, as if he were about to be caught doing something he oughtn’t.
He was very nearly certain he wasn’t doing anything wrong, but by the time he had figured that out, he was already standing up and halfway across the room.
Perhaps a quarter of the way across the room. It was a big room.
“Ah, Clement,” his lordship said, sitting up a bit straighter and shooting an anxious glance at Thomas.
“Lord Gerald,” Clement answered. “I came to see if everything was to your liking, in your new room.”
“I’m getting used to it,” his lordship said. “I think I’ll manage to survive the experience. We’ll need to fix Thomas’s room up a bit, though.”
“Of course,” Clement said, although what exactly was wrong with the dressing room, Thomas wasn’t sure. “And are you settling in all right?” he asked, turning to Thomas.
“Yes,” Thomas said. “I haven’t quite finished the unpacking. And I suppose you’ll be dressing for dinner, my lord?” Even if the cuddling was allowed, he wasn’t entirely sure what the butler would make of him doing it when he had tasks at hand.
“I think I have to,” his lordship agreed. “Clement, Thomas was wondering how he should address you. Is it Clement, or Mr. Clement?”
“Most of the younger staff call me Mr. Clement, your lordship.”
Was he one of the “younger staff”? He supposed Mr. Clement thought he was, and he was not, he reminded himself, going to argue about it.
“Ah,” his lordship said. “Well, there you are, Thomas. And of course,” he continued to Mr. Clement, “Thomas should feel entirely welcome to come to you with any questions he may have?”
“Certainly,” Mr. Clement answered. “Will you need any help with the unpacking, Thomas?”
“I think I can manage,” Thomas answered, withholding any remarks he may have wanted to make about how well he knew his job. “I expect I’ll have to press a few things for tonight, but if someone can point me to the place for doing that, I should be fine.”
“Do you remember how to get back down to the servants’ hall?”
“Yes,” Thomas said, with slightly more confidence than he felt.
“Then it’s at the end of the passage to the left. You can ask anyone, if there’s something you can’t find.”
“Thank you, Mr. Clement.” He scurried off.
The unpacking went quickly—his lordship hadn’t brought much, since his country things were still here where he had left them before the war. Mr. Clement seemed to have settled in his lordship’s room for a cozy chat—about the other staff, from the occasional stray remark Thomas could make out—so he gathered up a set of evening things and went looking for the servants’ area.
He found it with only a couple of wrong turns, and the pressing room was right where Mr. Clement had said it would be. The pressing irons, clothes brushes, and other tools of the trade were all perfectly ordinary, and arranged so that it was easy to find what he needed.
The normality of it all was a bit comforting, after what Thomas was willing to admit—in the privacy of his own head, at least—had been a trying couple of days. At least for the next little while, he knew precisely what he was supposed to be doing.
He’d given the coat and trousers a bit of a touch-up, and had moved on to a hotter iron for the shirt and tie when Margery, who’d been in the servants’ hall earlier, came in. “Oh, Thomas,” she said with a smile, setting up another ironing board. “Hard at work already, I see.”
“Yes,” he agreed.
“I just have to press a blouse for Lady Georgiana. I’m running a bit behind today.”
So what? He wasn’t behind; he’d have had his lordship’s evening things ready ages ago if they hadn’t just been on a long train journey.
“How is he?” she asked. “Lord Gerald, I mean.”
“M’lady says said he was a bit tired—but Lord Simon was giving him a bit of a hard time.”
“Yes,” Thomas said vaguely. He wasn’t about to be caught gossiping.
“He must be better than he was, if he’s dressing for dinner,” Margery continued. “When he was last here—after the Army sent him home—he never got up, barely even spoke. M’lady said he was like a shadow, or a ghost.”
Thomas hadn’t realized things had been that bad—at the Society, his lordship had tended to mope and avoid dressing, but he didn’t seem to have a problem speaking. “Yes, he’s a bit better, then.”
“I’m glad.” She lowered her voice to a confidential tone. “We thought he might pine away and die; we really did. When we couldn’t find another Guide for him.”
Thomas didn’t know quite what to say to that; he just took the small iron and began working on the shirt cuffs. Margery took up the larger iron that he’d put back to keep warm, and licked her finger to test the heat of it.
For all he knew, Thomas reminded himself, it was perfectly acceptable in this household to steal a man’s hot iron out from under his nose. He put another one on the stove without comment.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Margery said. “I thought you were finished with this one.”
“I’ve still the back to do. But it doesn’t matter.”
“I always finish with the larger iron first, and then start on the details.”
Fascinating. He nodded.
“You’re a quiet one, aren’t you?”
“I suppose I am.” He was finished with the cuffs now, but the new iron wouldn’t be hot yet. Might as well start on the white tie; he usually did it with the big iron, but it could be done with the smaller one.
“That’ll make a bit of a change, around here,” Margery said cheerfully. “Have you met anyone yet, apart from us who were there when you had your tea?”
“What do you mean, ‘not really’?”
He meant, not really. “Lord Simon’s man and Lady Yernemuth’s maid were there when I was introduced to the family, but we didn’t speak.”
“Mm. Well, you’ll see everyone at dinner. If you don’t mind a bit of friendly advice, it’s probably best you keep your distance from Louis. With the way Lord Simon and Lord Gerald get on, it’s more trouble than it’s worth trying to be mates with him.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” In fact, he’d already planned to be a bit cautious of Louis, given what his master was like. But he wouldn’t go looking for trouble on Margery’s say-so, either. He’d had enough of being led round by the nose by scheming ladies’ maids. But the topic did give him a chance to ask a few questions she’d have no reason to lie about. “You’re Lady Georgiana’s personal maid, then?” She must be, given what she was doing, but he’d start there.
“Yes. Miss Eileen is Lady Matilda’s Guide, and Baxter is his lordship’s—your lordship’s father’s, I mean.”
That was more or less what he had thought. “What about Susan?” There didn’t seem to be any ladies left, unless the absent Lady Sophia’s maid had been lollygagging in the servants’ hall while her mistress was ill in her room.
“Oh, she’s a housemaid. She just likes to leave her apron off when she thinks she can get away with it.”
So the housemaids wore dark dresses here, but you could tell them from ladies’ maids by the aprons, except for Susan. All right. He wondered about the men’s uniforms—but since he knew Louis and Baxter were valets, and Douglas was a footman, he should be able to sort it out on his own. “I see.”
“The other housemaids are Dora, Agnes, and Ruth,” Margery went on, “and the footmen are Douglas and Gordon. Mrs. Hope is the housekeeper, and you know Mrs. Pirbright….”
She went on to name all of the rest of the staff, from kitchen girls to boot-boys and laundresses. Thomas knew he’d never remember all the names—they were all fancy sorts of things, not a plain John or Mary among them. But had a handle on the important ones, at least, and the house seemed to be organized in much the same was as he was used to, so that was a start.
Gerald talked of this and that with Clement until they heard Thomas leave the dressing room by the hallway door. Clement brought his description of his niece’s courtship with an under-gardener to a swift close, and said, “About Thomas, your lordship?”
“Yes,” Gerald said with a sigh. “I’m not sure where to start.” Might as well just jump in somewhere, and start swimming. “First off, his manner toward me will probably strike many of the others as cold.” He might as well be blunt. “Or even rude. He’s not used to our ways, and his previous training was…strange. You might want to reassure the others, if they’re concerned, that he doesn’t mean it the way it sounds. He tends to be at his most formal when he’s worried or thinks he’s done something wrong, so I expect we’ll be seeing a lot of it over the next few days. He is a bit warmer when it’s just the two of us and he feels comfortable.”
“Very understandable, your lordship,” Clement said. “Service in Insensate houses is…different.”
So he knew that, did he? “I’m not sure I realized how different, until recently. I’ve made a bit of a botch of things, in more ways than one. But I suppose the most important thing for you to know is that he’s had a very hard time of it, and it’s left him unhappy and fearful. I don’t think he’s ever been properly looked after.” He explained what little he knew of Thomas’s childhood—mostly that his family had rejected him because of some sort of indiscretion with another boy. “He doesn’t like to talk about them, and I haven’t pried, but I can’t imagine his upbringing was much at all like a normal Guide’s. And then at that Insensate house….” He described Thomas’s struggles to become a valet, his lack of friends downstairs, and Lord Grantham’s distant treatment of his servants in general and his particular dislike of Thomas. “Somewhere in the middle of all that he went into the Army Medical Corps and spent two years at a battalion aid station in the Somme, entirely on his own. He was wounded—you saw his hand?”
“He doesn’t like people looking at it; that’s why he wears the glove. He doesn’t talk about the war, either, but I’m sure he had a terrible time of it, because everybody did.” He went on to explain Thomas’s arrest, and how he had been tricked into his indiscretion by the one person on the staff he considered a friend. “Then we brought him to the Society, and that’s where things become really strange.”
He described Thomas’s behavior towards him—how quiet and shy he’d seemed, both hungry for affection and wary of it. Then the assault by Lord Finsworth, which caused Clement to utter an oath under his breath. “After that happened, I found out from Weatherby that he’s shown an entirely different face downstairs. Very aggressive towards the other Guides.” He described a few of the incidents. “I don’t quite understand it. I’m sure they were welcoming to him; they always are. One would think he’d be relieved to be among his own sort, and to be shown some kindness, but—well.” He shrugged helplessly.
“Mr. Weatherby sent me a letter, which makes a bit more sense now that I’ve heard a fuller description of events, your lordship,” Clement said. “I may be able to offer an explanation.” He paused, seeming to gather his thoughts. “I gather from Mr. Weatherby that the Guides at the Society tend to welcome the new lads by offering a great deal of unsolicited advice. Given recent events, I think it likely that Thomas was…suspicious of their motives.”
“Oh, yes,” Gerald said, nodding. “I expect he would be. And there’s another thing—he doesn’t like it at all when he’s told he’s made a mistake.” Much of the unsolicited advice must have seemed like precisely that.
“Doesn’t like it in what way?”
Gerald thought about it, calling to mind how Thomas smelled at those times. “Frightened and angry. I expect he’s mostly angry at himself, but….”
“But he strikes out at anyone nearby who he thinks is weaker than himself,” Clement concluded. “Not a very pleasant habit, but not unusual in the Insensate world. I expect he learned it from any number of sources.”
“Now I think I understand.” Gerald sighed again. “That doesn’t help answer the question of what to do about it. I’m sure the others downstairs will be as patient as they can, but there’s only so much we can expect them to take. I’d like it if he made a friend or two, but it’s even more important to keep from getting the whole staff in an uproar.”
“Indeed, your lordship,” Clement said firmly. “I’ll have to give the matter some thought, but I think perhaps—with your permission—I might share a bit of what you’ve told me with a well-chosen few of the other Guides, and encourage them to, as you say, be patient, and to try to find a way of talking with him which does not upset him. The rest can be advised that he likes to keep himself to himself, and asked not to snub him, but to maintain a bit of distance and to respect his privacy.”
Gerald nodded. “That sounds as though it may work. It’s certainly a place to start.” He went on to explain a few more points—Thomas’s fear of asking questions, and how he seemed particularly anxious about points of protocol. “I thought at first to avoid overwhelming him with those sorts of trivial details, but he seems to find it reassuring to know what’s correct. When Lord Simon came down to London a few weeks ago, he made fun of him for calling him ‘my lord,’ and I swear he’s still smarting from it.”
Clement nodded. “I’d heard about that. I’ll make sure the others know that there should be no mention of the incident.”
“Good. But that’s another thing.” One that Gerald hadn’t thought of until now. “Someone must impress upon my brother that he cannot speak to Thomas the way he did Euan. Euan was used to his teasing; he was able to take it calmly and to encourage me to take it calmly as well. Absolutely none of that is true of Thomas, and if Simon insists on antagonizing him, it will end in bloodshed.” Whose blood, he wasn’t prepared to say—if they met on level ground, Gerald thought he could manage to acquit himself decently, but there were plenty of ways for Simon to gain the advantage. “I’m not sure who is the best person to make this clear to him; certainly if I try it will only encourage him. But it’s vitally important and should be done today.”
“Yes, your lordship,” Clement said. “I agree. I’ll begin by speaking to him myself. I might also ask Louis, Lady Georgiana, and perhaps Nanny Rose to contribute their voices to the task.”
“Yes, good ideas,” Gerald agreed. Particularly Simon’s old nanny; Simon still visited her regularly, so she must have some influence.
“But along the same lines,” Clement added, “Thomas should be warned to be on his best behavior toward Louis. It will be difficult enough to persuade Lord Simon to restrain himself; Thomas must not provide him with an excuse to lose his temper.”
Gerald nodded. “You’re right, of course.” He hadn’t thought of that, either. “I’ll speak to him about it personally. He’ll understand he’s to take it seriously, if it comes from me.”
“Very good, your lordship.” He looked expectant.
“I think that’s all for now,” Gerald said. “I’m sure we’ll have reason to speak again; if anything happens that I should know about, please tell me right away.”
Clement stood. “I shall.”
Oddly enough, when Thomas went back upstairs to dress his lordship for dinner, he repeated Margery’s warning about Louis. “Not that I would encourage you to be unkind to the others, either, but Simon is…touchy. And we don’t want a repeat of what happened with Finsworth.”
“I understand, my lord. I’ll be careful.”
“Good,” his lordship said, smiling slightly and turning so that Thomas could help him into his waistcoat.
Once he’d seen his lordship into the drawing room, Thomas went down to the servants’ hall, assuming that—as at Downton—they’d all sit around and wait until the upstairs lot had finished before having their dinner. But to his surprise, half of the servants’ hall table was laid, and the other valets and the ladies’ maids were taking their places. “Here, Thomas,” Margery said, indicating the place between herself and Eileen.
“Thanks.” As he sat, Thomas studied the seating plan. Baxter was at the head of the table, with Eileen and Felicity occupying the places on either side. Louis was next to Felicity, and then on the other side, he was next to Eileen, followed by Margery. He ranked lower than the spinster aunt’s maid, apparently—perhaps because she was older? Or perhaps they just liked to have the seating alternate between men and women, like at an upstairs dinner party. The rest of the table was empty. “The others eat somewhere else?”
“There’s a second seating, after the upstairs dinner is finished,” Margery answered.
Thomas nodded. That made a bit of sense, when he thought about it. At Downton, the valets and ladies’ maids sometimes had to abandon their suppers when their ladies or gentlemen decided to go up a bit early; here, they’d probably stay in the drawing room longer than they wanted to in order to make sure that didn’t happen.
Their dinner service was a bit more formal than Thomas was used to, with platters brought round by hall-boys, just like the footmen were—he guessed—doing upstairs. The hall-boys wore livery, too, but with short coats instead of tails.
He gathered from the conversation that it was a bit unusual for the whole family to come down to dinner. There was a formal service in the dining room every evening, but on any given day, one or two or three of them might have trays in their rooms instead. Lady Grantham would never have put up with that—although, given the way family dinners often deteriorated into squabbling between Lady Mary and Lady Edith, perhaps it would have been a good idea.
The others left him alone, except for occasional questions about how he liked the food or suggestions that he try this or that dish. He was a bit grateful for his lordship’s admonition about “pouncing,” even if Susan did seem to find it amusing. It was much easier to stick to his resolution about keeping his opinions to himself if no one was peppering him with questions. He did keep a wary eye on Louis, but he didn’t seem interested in causing any trouble—at least not on this first night.
His lordship went up shortly after the family left the dining room, and made an early night of it, getting into bed with a glass of whiskey and a book. Thomas did the same, minus the book—all he had was the Whitman poems, and he didn’t particularly want to read them. Being able to make occasional, licit forays into his employer’s liquor was one bit of Sentinel strangeness that he entirely approved of.
Since he had nothing to read, he thought about the day instead, as he sipped his drink. It had gone all right, really—he didn’t think there were any unnoticed disasters looming ahead in the mist. The way his lordship had carried on about his bedroom was a bit funny, looking back on it. He wondered what his lordship would have said if he’d pointed out that when he, Thomas, came back from the war, his own family didn’t even let him in the house. And Downton barely had—although he had gotten his old bedroom back.
He did wonder about what Margery had said, about how they thought his lordship might die, before. A girlish exaggeration, maybe. But you did hear stories about Sentinels dying because they didn’t have Guides. How that could happen, exactly, Thomas wasn’t sure. But his lordship had mentioned something about a three-day enthrallment, once. That could have killed him, if it had lasted much longer.
He’d have to find out more. Get other people talking about the last time his lordship had been here, and build up a complete picture that way. Not right now, though—now he would sleep.
The next day, his lordship roused himself to dress in country tweeds after breakfast, in order to go for a walk with Lady Georgiana. Thomas noted a few alterations he’d have to do, to make the trousers fit better over the prosthetic leg harness. And the low boots he liked to wear for country walks were difficult to get onto the prosthetic foot; Thomas would have to think about that.
He expected to have a chance to do some work on his lordship’s country wardrobe while he had his walk, but it turned out that he and Margery were expected to accompany them. Margery took up a position a few steps behind her mistress; Thomas, for lack of any other instructions, copied her.
His lordship seemed easier and more comfortable talking with his sister alone than he had been in that odd interview in the gallery the day before. They talked about any number of people Thomas didn’t know, and laughed over childhood episodes—occasionally, Margery or even his lordship would explain these to him with parenthetical remarks, which struck him as unnecessary, but nothing in particular seemed to be expected in terms of replies, so that was all right.
“You will go and see Clint soon, won’t you?” Lady Georgiana asked at one point.
“Yes, I will—this afternoon, perhaps.” Looking back over his shoulder at Thomas, he added, “One of the stable lads.” Back to her ladyship, he said, “I don’t entirely understand why my being home is going to remind him about this horse, though.”
“He had in his head he was going to train it up for you,” Lady Georgiana explained. “He thought it would cheer you up, after everything that happened.”
“That was kind of him,” his lordship said. “Odd, in the circumstances, but kind.”
“Anyway, he’ll want to show you your horses.”
“I don’t have any horses,” his lordship objected.
“Yes, you do. The ones you asked him to pick out for you once the war ended.”
“I have no recollection of that.”
Lady Georgiana sighed. “What you actually said was, ‘Do whatever you want,’ and then you turned your face back to the wall. But I managed to convince him that you meant that you’d like it very much if he took charge of rebuilding your stable.”
“Oh,” his lordship said. “In that case, I’ll make sure to go down there and be pleased about it. And thank you, for looking after him.”
“He’s rather easy to please, as long as there’s a horse nearby,” Lady Georgiana said with a shrug. “But he has missed you.”
Why a stable boy would miss a son of the house, Thomas wasn’t sure, but his lordship and her ladyship seemed to take it completely for granted. So once the walk was finished and they were alone in the library, Thomas asked.
“Hm?” his lordship said. “Well, he’s a Guide. And he’s always looked after my horses.”
Not long ago, that answer would have seemed completely nonsensical, but now Thomas thought he could put it together. “So he expects you to take an interest in him?”
“Yes, precisely. He’s one of Euan’s cousins, as well—a bit younger than us, but we did see a fair bit of him growing up. He was horse-mad from the time he could walk, so we’d let him have rides on our ponies and so on.”
Thomas thought of William, who’d often said he’d be happier being a stable-boy than a footman. “And that’s why he doesn’t work in the house, my lord? Because he likes horses?”
“Right again. I think Mama did have him try being a footman for a little while during the war—since most of the horses and the men of military age were away—but he hated it.”
Thomas wondered if they’d have made him stay in the house if he’d been a match for his lordship. Or if he would have wanted to stay.
On the way down to the stables, Gerald wondered if he ought to warn Thomas to be nice to Clint…or reassure him that he wasn’t a rival for Gerald’s attentions. But he didn’t seem particularly anxious at the moment; Gerald decided not to stir the pot.
Clint seemed well and happy, more or less. He drooped a bit when he raised the subject of Bella’s foal, but brightened under Gerald’s reassurance that it had been a kind thought, but he was sure Clint had done all anyone could. It struck Gerald how easy he was, not twisted into knots like Thomas. He positively radiated contentment as he brought out the gleaming horses one by one for Gerald’s admiration.
“But you know, Clint,” he said, stroking one velvety nose, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to ride. With my leg the way it is.” He hated to upset Clint, but it needed to be said.
But Clint said, “I’ve been looking into that. Ladies can ride with no legs a’tall on the off side; you ought to be able to manage it with half a leg there.”
“You have a point,” Gerald said. He hadn’t thought of it that way before.
“I picked some nice, steady ones for you,” Clint went on, “and I’m trainin’ ‘em to take cues with a crop on the off side, like ladies’ horses. Then you just need to work on getting your balance back. Been talking to the saddler, too—might have to modify it somehow. Put on a leapin’ horn or suchlike.”
“It sounds like you have it all figured out.” Gerald was impressed; he’d assumed that riding and other country sports were lost to him. “I’m not sure how I’ll get a riding boot on my false leg,” he added, remembering the difficulty they’d had with his walking ones, “but I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
Thomas, who had been hanging back, took half a step forward. “We might ask the bootmaker to put some sort of fasteners along the back seam, my lord. Laces, or perhaps hooks; that’d be less visible.”
“Well, there we are,” Gerald said, impressed again. “I don’t think I’m ready quite yet, but perhaps soon. Although--” He glanced over at Thomas. “Thomas may not know how to ride.”
“My lord?” Thomas said.
“You’d go with me,” Gerald explained. “But with a few lessons and a steady mount, it should be all right. I won’t be doing any galloping or jumping—not for quite some time, at any rate.”
“You might want to start out in the paddock anyway, your lordship,” Clint said. “Till you get the hang of it. So you can learn together,” he added to Thomas.
Thomas nodded, still looking a little wary.
“I expect you’re right,” Gerald agreed.
“I ‘aven’t picked out any cobs for you,” Clint added. “But I’ll find one. A nice, gentle one.”
Euan had always ridden cobs—they were rugged and just over pony size. “Ah, perhaps a horse,” Gerald said, glancing at Thomas. “But gentle, yes.”
Clint looked at him too, and nodded. “Nice, gentle horse,” he agreed.
The next week went…well. Thomas managed to keep biting his tongue when he was downstairs, and the other staff seemed to accept the explanation that he was shy. Margery tended to chatter at him whenever she caught him alone. Much of what she said was irrelevant, but there were occasional useful tidbits. He was careful not to act on anything she said unless he’d confirmed it either through his own observation, one of the other staff, or asking his lordship, and he never said much of anything in response. He wouldn’t cry himself to sleep at night if she got tired of these one-sided conversations, but he supposed he didn’t mind them, either.
Eileen was in the habit of pulling him aside and reminding him that he could come to her if he wanted to talk about anything, anything at all. That was just plain annoying. He wondered what secrets she thought he was keeping—and, more to the point, if she was on the trail of any of the ones he really was keeping. But he wasn’t confident he could sound her out on the subject without giving anything away, so he just smiled and said he was fine.
Mr. Clement also pulled him aside from time to time, but he only asked if Thomas had any questions. That wasn’t too surprising after the way his lordship had carried on about it. He didn’t want the butler reporting back to his lordship that he was refusing to ask questions, so he generally tried to have a couple of innocuous ones ready.
The others mostly let him alone to do his job in peace, which suited him just fine.
Not quite so with his lordship. During most meals they took together, as well as evening cuddle time, he asked questions about how Thomas was settling or how he was getting on with the others, and he didn’t seem pleased to take “Fine, my lord,” for an answer. Even worse were the questions about what was bothering him and how he could be made more comfortable. At first, he didn’t know and didn’t want to think about it. As the time wore on, however, it became more and more evident that the real answer was “You could stop asking.” But he couldn’t say that, and he was running out of ways to avoid the questions.
His lordship only got like that when they were alone in his rooms, though. He spent a fair bit of time with his family—occasionally turning up for meals in the dining room or tea in the gallery, but more often seeking the others out one at a time. He’d stop by Lord Yernemuth’s study for a drink, or Lady Georgiana’s sitting room for tea, or chat with Lady Yernemuth in the conservatory. He also visited Mrs. Pellinger in the kitchen, Mr. Clement in his pantry, and Mrs. Hope in her sitting room. Outdoors, too, he made the rounds. In the days following the stable visit, he went into the various gardens and talked to the gardeners; walked down a couple of rows of cottages, greeting the children as they played and the women as they swept the steps or hung washing on the lines; and toured the home farm, conversing with the farm workers about soil acidity and so forth. Thomas was expected to tag along to all of these places, and his lordship usually talked to him on the way there, and sometimes even drew him into the conversation with whoever he was visiting, but he didn’t ask personal questions at those times, so Thomas didn’t particularly mind.
Still, every time it seemed like he was getting a handle on things, some new surprise would pop out. For instance, one afternoon when his lordship went walking with Lady Georgiana again, she said something about Lord Simon’s governess, which ended, “I know he thought Simon was going to break his neck.”
So the next time they were alone again and his lordship informed Thomas that he looked like something was troubling him, Thomas asked about that. “It sounded like her ladyship was saying Lord Simon’s governess was…a man?”
“Yes,” his lordship said uncertainly. Then, “Oh, yes, I see. An Insensate governess is…like a woman tutor, isn’t it? Like Jane Eyre.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“For us, it’s the Guide one has when one’s too old for a nanny but isn’t quite ready to choose a personal Guide yet. A steady sort of man, you know. Chosen by one’s parents, to keep one from running too wild out from under Nanny’s eye. I never had one, because of Euan, but lots of fellows still had them up at Oxford.”
In a way, that sounded reasonable enough to Thomas—he knew plenty of valets who were paid extra by a young gentleman’s parents to provide reports on any particularly outrageous behavior. Why they put up with being called governesses, though, he had no idea.
And apart from when he was asking Thomas personal questions, his lordship seemed healthy and content, as well—much more so than he had been in London. All those walks in the fresh country air were doing him good. Both staff and family had a tendency to marvel at how well he was doing compared with when he’d last been home.
Occasionally, they also said things like, “Thank God for Thomas!” The words would have been music to his ears in other circumstances, but now, when he heard them, he felt his escape tunnel narrowing. If his being there really made that much of a difference, he couldn’t just leave, not and live with himself after. His lordship had been nothing but kind to him—nosy and overbearing, but kind.
He decided to ask Mr. Clement about it, hoping he’d say that things weren’t quite as bleak as the women made them out to be. “A lot of the others have mentioned how much better his lordship is now than when he was last home. Was he really so badly off, then?”
“Yes,” Mr. Clement said, dashing his hopes. “It’s very likely you’ve saved his life by coming to him, Thomas. He was frequently in pain, and quite often he would become enthralled on the pain. Getting him out of it was…difficult. Sometimes it would last for hours. And the senses tend to fluctuate, in the absence of a compatible Guide. They can become painfully acute, or almost entirely numb. Sometimes the smallest amount of light would hurt his eyes, other times he could barely see at all. Fluctuations in the senses of taste and smell made it particularly difficult to eat; there were times when he wouldn’t take anything for days. I’m given to understand that one of the doctors suggested putting a rubber tube down his throat and forcing nutrition that way. He indicated that he’d prefer to starve.”
That was worse than anything he’d imagined. He was reminded of Lieutenant Courtenay, and wondered if his lordship had hoped he would starve to death. “But it can’t have been like that the whole time—can it? It was almost three years. And he was up and about a bit at least, at the Society, before I came.”
“Taking up residence in the Society seemed to help,” Mr. Clement allowed. “He was initially taken there in hopes of finding a compatible Guide, and as you know he did not, but he did improve. There was still a great deal of pain, but the enthrallments and sensory fluctuations became less frequent. He theorizes that being around a large number of Guides, even incompatible ones, brought his senses under some measure of control. Still, during the two and a half years he was there, there were--” He paused in thought for a moment “—four episodes that lead Mr. Weatherby to write telling me to prepare for the worst.”
Four? “What kind of episodes?” Thomas asked.
“He’d go through…spells, or phases, where he’d have a great many enthrallments and sensory fluctuations, nearly constantly throughout the day. Sometimes his spells would only last a day or two, but sometimes much longer. Mr. Weatherby feared—and I expect his lordship did as well—that one day one of these episodes would simply go on until he died.”
“They never worked out what caused them?”
Mr. Clement shook his head. “No. They were never entirely sure why he wasn’t in that state continuously, either.”
That was it, then. He couldn’t leave—not unless he wanted to have his lordship’s death on his hands.
“Are you all right?” Gerald asked. Thomas had arrived to dress him for dinner smelling more deeply of despair than he had since they left London. He was moving stiffly, too, and avoiding Gerald’s eyes. “Did something happen?”
“No, my lord. Nothing’s happened. Which cufflinks do you want?” he asked, holding out the box.
Gerald wanted to say that he didn’t care, but clearly it mattered to Thomas. “You choose. You seem upset.”
“What about these?” he said, selecting a pair. “I haven’t seen you wear them. I’m not upset.” He held the cufflinks out for Gerald’s inspection.
The cufflinks really didn’t matter right now, but Thomas was holding them out where Gerald couldn’t avoid looking at them—silver ones, with the house crest on them. “Ah. Those are…were…Euan’s, in fact.” He wondered if Clement hadn’t noticed them when he’d been packing his things, or if he had left them on purpose. “They go with the livery.” Perhaps he ought to give them to Thomas, but he rather liked having something of Euan’s to remember him by. “You’ll have a set of your own, later on.”
Thomas put them back in the box. “I’m sorry, my lord. These, then?” He offered another pair.
“Yes, those will do nicely.”
Thomas replaced the box on the shelf, and started putting them in.
“Thomas, I can tell you’re upset—something must have happened.”
Sighing heavily, Thomas stopped his work. “Mr. Clement was telling me about how much better you were than when you were here during the war,” he said, looking down at the shirt in his hands. “I’d heard a few things, so I asked. I just hadn’t…realized quite how ill you were, that’s all, my lord.”
Oh. That was…not at all what he’d expected. Not some disastrous run-in with one of the other Guides, after all. “I see.” Perhaps he’d under-estimated Thomas. “I was very ill. It’s made a tremendous difference, your coming to be with me.”
Thomas did not seem noticeably reassured—in fact, he seemed to smell even more anxious now.
Gerald went on, “I know that there’s a great deal to learn and to adjust to, in our world, and I think you sometimes feel that perhaps you aren’t learning quickly enough. But the only really important part is that you’re here. And everyone here—the family, the Guides, and even the other staff—knows how very grateful we should be that you are here. So no one’s going to be upset with you if you make mistakes or need time to adjust. All right?”
Thomas said, “Yes, my lord,” and held out the shirt for him to put on. Gerald didn’t take it until Thomas further prompted him, “They’ll be wanting to go in to dinner soon, my lord.”
He hadn’t really understood, if the thought that was more important than the talk they were having—but Gerald supposed that if he were late, it would only upset Thomas more. He finished dressing without further discussion of the subject.
After the servants’ dinner, Thomas went outside and smoked several cigarettes in rapid succession. He had an idea that it might help prevent his lordship from sniffing out how he was feeling. The odor did, as he’d been told at the Society, tend to linger, and it just might cover up whatever smells his lordship was using to not quite read his mind. He’d have tried aftershave or scented soap, but given what had happened with the salve, he figured his lordship would just tell him to wash it off. He hadn’t objected to cigarette smoke before now, so, if it worked, he might be able to get away with it.
He’d managed to do a neat enough job of diverting suspicion about precisely what he was upset about—his lordship didn’t seem to have the slightest idea that Thomas had been thinking of leaving or felt trapped. But having his lordship go on about how grateful he was didn’t precisely help him feel any less trapped. He already knew he had to stay.
The parts about giving him as much time as he needed to adjust didn’t help much, either. He’d hoped that his lordship might, eventually, get used to the idea that Thomas didn’t much like talking about whether he smelt happy or not, and just leave it alone. But it sounded more like he’d just go on pushing for as long as it took. Quite possibly ten years down the road, or even twenty, he’d still be being asked about his feelings every time he turned around. The thought made him feel like he was struggling to breathe in a cloud of phosgene gas.
Best just not to think about it. Thinking about it probably made him smell unhappy, too. Today had been all right, apart from one obstacle he’d managed to get over. Tomorrow would likely be all right, too. If he didn’t look any further forward than that, it all seemed perfectly manageable.
His strategies seemed to work. When they settled on the bedroom sofa for a drink and a cuddle, his lordship didn’t bring up the subject of his unhappiness, for a change. Instead he said, “We’ll be having some visitors soon. My Aunt Elizabeth and Cousin Imogene. They’re coming Friday, and staying at least through Monday.”
“Very good, my lord,” Thomas said, wondering what that had to do with him. Perhaps nothing; sometimes his lordship told him things for no particular reason. “Do I have any particular responsibilities, when they’re here?”
“Nothing in particular, no. Imogene’s coming to get to know Susan, and I’ve always gotten on well with her—with Imogene, I mean—so we’ll probably spend some time with them. Walks and things, maybe a picnic.”
The only Susan Thomas knew was the housemaid; why his lordship’s cousin would want to get to know her, he had no idea. Had he meant to say Lady Sophia, perhaps? But she was still suffering from morning sickness and rarely left her room. “Susan, my lord? The housemaid?”
“Yes. She wants a place as a personal Guide, you see, and Imogene is looking for one. So she’ll be coming without her governess, and Susan will attend on her.”
Susan would be getting a trial as lady’s maid, Thomas translated. That made sense—for Sentinels, at least. “I see, my lord.”
“I’m not sure why Aunt Elizabeth is coming—she’s Mama’s sister; they’ve never gotten on well. Sentinel sisters often don’t, just like Sentinel brothers. But I suppose she thinks Imogene is a bit young to go visiting on her own without a governess.”
“Is her governess a man as well, my lord?” Thomas supposed he didn’t really need to know, but his lordship didn’t seem to mind explaining things like that to him—and he didn’t mind asking, particularly when it distracted him from more personal subjects.
“No, no. Girls have women governesses. But she is a Guide, not a tutor. I expect Imogene’s out of the schoolroom by now.”
Thomas nodded. That was all clear enough. That a single male cousin would be acting as host to a young girl seemed a bit odd to him—but perhaps Lady Georgiana would be along on those walks and picnics as well. And, perhaps, Susan was not the only reason she was here. Now that his lordship was no longer at death’s door, her ladyship might be hoping to make a match for him. “And is she Lady Imogene, or….”
“No—Aunt Elizabeth is Lady Elizabeth, but Imogene’s just an Honorable. You call her Miss Imogene.”
That was what he would have thought, but he was glad to know for sure. “After we’ve been introduced.”
“Yes. Since we will be seeing a bit of her, it’s probably best if you come to the gallery for tea on the day they arrive. I’ll introduce you to both Aunt Elizabeth and Cousin Imogene, and then there won’t be any awkwardness later on.”
Since that first day, his lordship had been skipping family tea in the gallery in favor of having it in his rooms, or else with just Lady Georgiana. Thomas wasn’t too keen on making a reappearance, but with any luck, it wouldn’t be quite as bad as their arrival, since the family would—he hoped—be more interested in the guests than in him. “Yes, my lord.”
Over the next few days, the upcoming visit was the talk of the servants’ hall, and Susan was the center of it. She twittered constantly about all of the things she was doing to make sure Miss Imogene would be comfortable, and sucked up to the ladies’ maids, hanging on their every word as they gave her tips on how to make a good impression. It all seemed like good advice, too—as far as Thomas could tell, there were no efforts to sabotage her into making a mistake that would keep her in her place. And the other housemaids, while they were vocally envious, didn’t seem to be planning to undermine her and seize the opportunity for themselves. It seemed universally agreed that Susan was getting a wonderful chance, and everyone was sincerely happy for her. It was unsettling.
Friday morning, as his lordship sipped his tea before getting out of bed, he said, “I suppose downstairs is in a flurry of preparations for the visit?”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas agreed. “Susan seems quite excited about it.”
“I expect she is.” His lordship set his cup down in the saucer. “She’s been stuck as a housemaid for longer than she liked to be, I think. The war disrupted a lot of things, for women as well as men.”
“I suppose it has, my lord,” Thomas agreed. There were fewer men to marry, for one thing. He wasn’t sure how that would have affected a housemaid’s chances of becoming a lady’s maid. But perhaps Susan would have married, otherwise?
“In a way, it’s a bit like your situation at the other house,” his lordship went on. “She’s gotten a bit disgruntled, picking on the other maids and so forth. But Mama and Georgie have had their eyes open for another place for her.”
Thomas was a bit put out by this sudden left turn into the subject of his feelings, as well as the comparison between himself and a silly maid. But she was the only one of the Guides downstairs who ever said anything that even approached sarcasm or complaint, in his hearing at least. “That’s kind of them, my lord.”
“She’ll be happier once we get her settled in a position she enjoys.”
Yes, all right, point taken. His lordship thought he’d have been a nicer person if he hadn’t been stopped from being a valet all those years. Perhaps he was right, but Thomas didn’t see what difference that made. “Yes, my lord. Are you ready to get up?”
His lordship spent most of the day in his room, reading. If it had been him, Thomas would have called it saving his strength for the upcoming ordeal; perhaps his lordship felt the same way. Thomas himself used the time to do some sewing. He’d noticed that a great many of his lordship’s country things wanted taking in—even accounting for the bulk of the prosthetic leg harness, he had lost quite a bit of weight. There were a few things that fit fairly well; Thomas suspected they were from his lordship’s adolescence, when he’d reached his full height but hadn’t filled out yet. He’d have more choice in what to wear—or Thomas would have more choice in what to put out for him—if some of the other things were altered.
He started out doing his sewing in the dressing room, but after lunch his lordship asked him to continue in the bedroom with him. It was a bit odd, doing that sort of work where his lordship could see him—but not bad, Thomas supposed. He was getting a bit more used to the idea that things could seem strange without being wrong.
A couple of hours later, his lordship closed his book with a snap. “The station car’s just turned up the drive; we’d better get downstairs.”
Thomas hadn’t heard a thing, but then, he wasn’t a Sentinel. He put aside the jacket he was working on and helped his lordship stand up.
It turned out that the household was expected to turn out for the guests’ arrival—why they hadn’t done so last week when his lordship arrived, Thomas didn’t know. Most of them were already there when Thomas and his lordship arrived—the butler, housekeeper, maids, and footmen on one side of the front door, and the family to the other. Margery, Eileen, Felicity, Baxter, and Louis, however, stood at their ladies’ and gentlemen’s shoulders. Thomas followed their example.
The car soon pulled up and came to a stop directly in front of the house. Douglas, the footman, went over to open the doors, but he only helped one of them out—an older woman in a plain dark dress, similar to the ones the maids here wore. She then turned and helped the two ladies out, falling in behind them as they approached Lady Yernemuth.
“Welcome back to Bellerock,” her ladyship said graciously. “How nice to see you, Lizzie dear, and Imogene, how you’ve grown!”
After another minute or two of small talk like that, Susan was called forward to be introduced to Miss Imogene. “Elizabeth, Imogene, Susan will be looking after Imogene during your stay. Susan, Lady Elizabeth and Miss Imogene.”
Susan curtsied and stammered out something about being, “Pleased to meet you.”
“I’m sure we’ll be great friends,” Miss Imogene said.
Then Mrs. Hope, the housekeeper, was made known to the visiting lady’s maid, Miss Simpson—a surname if Thomas had ever heard one; he’d have to sort that out later. Now the group was breaking up, with Mrs. Hope and Susan talking about how the ladies would surely like to see their rooms before tea, and the footmen going after the luggage.
They went inside at the tail end of the group. “Let’s go to the library until tea,” his lordship said. “I’m not keen on going up and down the stairs again, when it’s less than an hour.”
“Very good, my lord.”
Once they were there, his lordship asked Thomas to sit with him. He was sitting on a sofa, as Thomas suspected he had snuggling in mind—but Thomas was not about to do that in a public room of the house. Not unless his lordship explicitly told him to, and perhaps not even then. He sat in a nearby armchair instead, and that was bad enough.
Another unwelcome surprise was in store when they went to the gallery for tea. Thomas had expected they’d go in, he’d get his lordship settled and get the introductions over with, and then with any luck he’d be able to escape to the servants’ hall on grounds of wanting his own tea.
It was not to be. The other valets and the ladies’ maids—including Susan—brought cups of tea and plates of sandwiches and things to their gentlemen and ladies, as he thought they might. But after that, they went back to the tea trolley and fixed cups and plates for themselves. Thomas couldn’t believe it, even when he saw Baxter lifting a teacup to his lips right there in the gallery, in front of God, the Earl, and everybody.
“Thomas?” his lordship said, looking at him in alarm.
Schooling his features, he answered, “My lord?”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“You look a bit wobbly. Here, sit.” He moved his legs aside to make room for Thomas on the ottoman. “Perhaps one of the others could bring you a cup of tea,” he added as Thomas sat.
One of the others did—Eileen, in fact, and she brought a minced chicken sandwich and a rock cake as well as the tea. All available evidence suggested that he was expected to eat them.
At the same time, his lordship was leaning forward to look at Thomas with a concerned expression, while patting his shoulder. He felt very conspicuous—although in fact, no one but his lordship and Felicity were actually paying much attention. He had to act normally—the way these people thought was normal—if he didn’t want to cause a scene. “Thank you, Felicity,” he said, managing a sip of the tea. “I’m all right, really. I just. Felt funny for a second. My lord.”
His lordship looked doubtful, but he at least let go of Thomas’s shoulder and sat back.
Fortunately, the rest of the family, valets, and ladies’ maids left him alone long enough to gather his wits. A bit of observation proved that yes, the other valets and ladies’ maids were all eating and drinking, and usually sitting down near their Sentinels. Susan seemed a little nervous about it; each time she took a bite or a sip, she looked around as if to make sure no one objected. It might have been a bit comforting to see that someone else felt as he did about it, but the fact that it was a silly housemaid was just irritating.
Watching the others, he began to draw some conclusions about what was expected. The valets and maids often sat on something a bit lower than their employer’s seat—he was certainly not the only one perching on an ottoman. They were always closer to their own master or mistress than to any other Sentinel. They didn’t converse amongst themselves, but they did talk to their own ladies and gentlemen. If the ladies and gentlemen were talking, their Guides listened attentively and occasionally contributed a remark or two, but they didn’t talk much.
Sorting out these rules, and realizing that the scene was not the anarchistic free-for-all he’d initially perceived, Thomas was able to accept the matter a little more calmly. By the time Miss Imogene came over—she had been trapped in a conversation with Lady Yernemuth and her own mother—he felt more or less ready to face the introduction.
“Lovely to see you, Cousin Imogene,” his lordship said. “You’ll excuse me for not standing up, I hope.”
“Of course,” Miss Imogene answered. “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.”
“Thank you. I expect you’ve heard about my new Guide, Thomas. Thomas, Miss Imogene.”
“How do you do?” Imogene murmured. “And you know Susan, of course.”
His lordship lifted his teacup to his mouth, seemingly to hide the smile that was threatening to break out. Thomas guessed that Miss Imogene hadn’t been supposed to introduce Susan, not when she was a housemaid in this very house. Either Imogene didn’t know that, or she was trying out adult manners for the first time. “Yes, I hope you’re getting to know Susan.”
“She’s a dear,” Miss Imogene said.
They talked a bit about what Miss Imogene had done in London during the recent Season—“So sorry I wasn’t able to see you there,” Imogene said, to which his lordship replied, “I expect you were rather busy, and I wasn’t up for much society.” Then they talked a bit more about plans for Miss Imogene’s stay. A picnic was tentatively slated for the next day’s luncheon.
Not too long after that, Miss Imogene was informed by her mother that they would be resting in their rooms until the dressing gong—whether Imogene liked it or not, was unspoken but very clearly implied.
After Aunt Elizabeth and Imogene retired, the rest of them were free to do the same, and Gerald wasted no time in doing so. With guests in the house, dinner would be both grueling and mandatory, and there was no sense wearing himself out early.
“What happened in there?” he asked Thomas, once they were alone.
“My lord?” Thomas asked, sitting down and picking up the sewing he’d laid aside two hours ago. He certainly spent a great deal more time on Gerald’s wardrobe than Euan ever had.
“In the gallery. You seemed--” Panicked, was how he’d seemed, but Gerald didn’t think Thomas would appreciate that choice of word. He settled on, “Startled.”
For a long moment, Thomas studied the seams of the jacket he was working on, and Gerald thought he might not be going to answer at all, not even a “My lord.” But finally, he said, “I was a bit startled that we were having tea with the family, that’s all, my lord. It doesn’t happen in Insensate houses.”
“You’ve had tea with me hundreds of times.” Well, perhaps not that, but dozens. “And with Georgie, too.” Having tea with Gerald had startled Thomas the first time, too, but he’d gotten used to it. He’d have taken care to break the news about tea in the gallery gently—if he had realized Thomas wasn’t expecting it.
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said. It was the “you are being a fathead” voice, which he hadn’t used in days. Gerald had almost missed it.
“But that’s different,” Gerald essayed. Somehow. If he understood how, perhaps he could anticipate any similar surprises.
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said, without elaborating.
In an effort not to be too much of a fathead, Gerald tried to figure it out on his own. What was different about it? It was in a different room, to begin with—if Thomas had been a Sentinel, Gerald would have considered that the most likely problem. But Thomas had been in and out of unfamiliar rooms for the last two weeks, with no sign of any particular difficulty. The family, then—he’d seen a fair amount of each of them, but not en masse like that. Except for when they welcomed the guests, which Thomas hadn’t seemed to mind. The tea and the food were the same things they had in his rooms, so that couldn’t be it.
He gave up. “How is it different?”
Briefly looking up from his sewing, Thomas said, “It just is, my lord. But it’s fine. Now I know, and there’s no harm done.”
“Yes, of course, but I’d like to understand.”
Now Thomas smelled not just of anxiety, but of something sharper. Anger, possibly. Or fear. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. “There’s nothing to understand, my lord. I’m fine.”
Thomas’s voice was absolutely level; if Gerald hadn’t been able to smell him, he have believed he really was perfectly fine. “That isn’t true,” Gerald said gently.
Thomas stood. “I’ve just remembered I need to press your evening coat, my lord. If there isn’t anything else.” Before Gerald had time to think of an answer, he’d disappeared into the dressing room.
Gerald considered getting up and going after him. Thomas had to be very upset to run off like that—it was rather a breach of decorum by anyone’s standards, and probably a worse one by Thomas’s lights than Gerald’s own. He wouldn’t have done it if something wasn’t really wrong.
But for precisely the same reason, if Gerald did go after him, his first thought was likely to be that he was in trouble. Gerald didn’t want to pile another source of worry on top of whatever was already bothering him.
He’d let Thomas press the coat, he decided—even though it surely didn’t need it. He’d be back in time to dress Gerald for dinner, and they could talk then.
On the landing of the servants’ stairs, Thomas stopped and leaned against the wall, pressing his forehead against the cool plaster. He knew he’d been wrong to run off—and God knew what he’d be in for when he went back—but he couldn’t stand another second of his lordship’s prying. For God’s sake, why couldn’t he just let it go? Thomas said he was fine—and he had been. He’d handled it himself.
But no, his lordship wanted to understand. It was bad enough that he even knew there had been a problem to begin with; the absolute last thing Thomas wanted to do was help him understand it. Thomas wasn’t sure himself why he had been startled to see the other servants having tea in the gallery, or why he hadn’t been able to shrug it off the way he’d shrugged off so many other strange things since coming to Bellerock. He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to know.
As he continued down the stairs, he considered whether there was any possible way he could say that to his lordship. There didn’t seem to be. His lordship wouldn’t understand why what he thought of as a kindness was, to Thomas, like touching a raw nerve. Thomas wasn’t sure about that himself, either. And if he tried to explain it, his lordship would want to know why, and the whole problem would just be even worse.
No, strict denial that there was a problem was the only way. He’d make up some excuse. The evening coat, perhaps—he’d say he was angry at himself for forgetting to press it earlier. His lordship would tell him it didn’t matter, and he’d pretend to be grateful for the reassurance, and the matter could be stuffed back under the carpet where it belonged.
With that decided, he made his way to the pressing room—if the pressing of the jacket was going to figure so heavily in his story, he had better actually press it. But when he approached, he heard voices inside, women’s voices. Thomas stopped, considering. He really didn’t want to talk to anyone. And what were the chances that his lordship would actually check his story about pressing the jacket? Fairly low, he thought—but it could come up, given the way the servants here gossiped with the family.
“—a bit strange, really.” That was Margery, speaking.
The answering voice was unfamiliar. “Strange how?”
“He just has all sorts of odd habits. Apparently he was quite nasty to everyone down in London. His lordship wants us to be patient with him. We’re giving him a bit of privacy—be cordial, but let him keep to himself if he’d rather. Except Lord Gerald’s asked a couple of us, me and Eileen, to try and draw him out a bit.”
That was just the bleeding limit. Boiling over with rage, Thomas jerked the door open. The two women turned to look at him—Margery and the visiting lady’s maid. If the content of the discussion left any doubt that they’d been talking about him, the expressions on their faces removed it.
“Hello, Thomas,” Margery said cautiously.
Thomas stared at her. “So his lordship’s been--” He wasn’t even sure what to call it. “Talking to you lot about me?”
“A bit,” she answered. “To Mr. Clement, really. He told the rest of us.”
“Told you what?”
“That you’d…had a bit of a hard time. That it’s left you…bitter, and not always very nice?”
“Typical,” he said, although it wasn’t typical at all. He should have realized. He’d only thought that he’d been managing rather well for himself. Really, he’d been managed. His lordship just had to meddle, didn’t he?
“He were only trying to help,” Margery said, watching him as if he were a shell that might explode at any moment.
By spreading Thomas’s personal business across the whole house? Some help that was. “Very kind of him,” Thomas said sarcastically.
“It was,” Margery answered, looking over at Miss Simpson as if for support. Miss Simpson stepped back, her expression blank.
“Pardon me if I don’t agree,” Thomas said, his voice as cold as ice. “I have to press this,” he added, raising the coat slightly.
The two women left quickly. Thomas heated an iron and pressed the coat, trying to smooth away his troubled thoughts with each stroke of the iron. If he went back upstairs as angry as he was, his lordship would surely notice, and he would ask, and Thomas would…he wasn’t sure what he’d do, but it wouldn’t be pretty.
Thomas didn’t return until the dressing gong sounded, and Gerald could see as soon as he entered the room that he hadn’t calmed down at all. He was holding himself very stiffly, and his movements were sharp and controlled. His face was completely blank, but his heart was pounding, and his scent was a roil of confused emotions.
“Thomas?” Gerald said tentatively.
“My lord,” Thomas said. That wasn’t even the “fathead” voice; it was something worse—absolutely flat and hollow.
“Nothing, my lord.” Briskly, he began taking off Gerald’s jacket.
“No, my lord.”
Gerald was startled into subsiding, shedding the rest of his day clothes in silence. Thomas had never spoken to him like that, had never shut him out this completely. His impulse was to pursue the problem like a terrier after rat, to chase it down and fix it, but it was clear Thomas did not want to talk about it. Not right now, at least. “All right,” he said. He’d talk to Clement, see if he knew about anything that had happened. It might be easier for Thomas to open up if Gerald already knew something about it. “Perhaps we can talk later.”
Thomas didn’t answer that at all, just shoved Gerald’s evening trousers at him. He didn’t even brush the back of Gerald’s coat, once he’d put it on him.
When Gerald entered the drawing room, Clement was handing round the pre-dinner drinks, and Simon hadn’t arrived yet. Good. He pulled Clement aside, and asked, “Has something happened with Thomas?”
“Not that I know of, your lordship,” Clement said.
“Look into it, please. We’ll talk later.”
During dinner, he tried to put the matter out of his mind and concentrate on playing host to Cousin Imogene. That she mostly wanted to talk about Susan didn’t help, but fortunately, she didn’t require, or even expect, that Gerald would say much. All he had to do was nod and smile as she talked about what a dear Susan was and how much they had in common.
“She was telling me earlier that her favorite doll growing up was called Gladys, and so was mine! I really think that’s a sign, don’t you?”
“Mm, yes, certainly.”
After the ladies withdrew for the drawing room, Gerald, Simon, and their father stayed in the dining room only long enough for a perfunctory glass of port, just enough to give the ladies time to sit down. With no male guests, there was no need to linger.
“Shall we go through?” Papa said once they’d finished.
They all stood up. “I’m just going to speak to Clement for a moment,” Gerald said. “I’ll be along shortly.”
The others left; Gerald listened to make sure Simon was really gone. He’d been on his best behavior lately, but Gerald didn’t want to hand him any ammunition he could use against Thomas. Once he was sure, he nodded and looked expectantly at Clement.
“Something has happened, but I haven’t been able to find out what, your lordship. Thomas has indicated that he does not wish to speak about it, and none of the others have come to me with anything. Shall I make inquiries?”
Gerald considered, and nodded. “Yes, I think you had better.” If there was some misunderstanding they could clear up, or a problem that could be nipped in the bud, it was better to do it now than to wait for Thomas to say something. “Where is he now?”
“Having a walk,” Clement answered. “He expressed a desire for fresh air, and I encouraged him to take as long as he needed to think things over.”
“Good.” Gerald nodded again. “That’s good. Thank you. Let me know what you find out, and when he comes in.”
Going through to the drawing room, Gerald chatted a bit with Mama and Aunt Elizabeth, who managed to be at each other’s throats in a much more polite and restrained way than he and Simon ever did. But he couldn’t stop thinking about Thomas, and periodically caught himself casting out his hearing in search of him. It was a bad idea, with Thomas so far away and Gerald in a room full of other people who were all talking, breathing, and moving around. When he caught himself doing it, he forcibly drew his attention back inside the room, but it kept happening every time his attention wandered.
In the circumstances, enthrallment was nearly inevitable. Gerald wasn’t the least bit surprised when his hearing caught, not on Thomas, but on a barn owl pursuing some fleeing bit of prey. He first keyed in on the eerie, screeching call, but once he’d found the animal, he could hear the whisper of the great wings and the rapid beat of the heart.
It was fascinating. He could almost picture what the owl was doing, based on what he heard—stooping after the prey here, missing and crying out in frustration. Circling in search of another. Catching something small and squeaky, and perching in a tree to eat it.
He was abruptly pulled back into himself by the touch of a cool hand on his, and the words, “My lord.”
He blinked down at Thomas, who was crouched in front of Gerald’s chair. “Ah,” he said. “Hullo, Thomas.”
A fresh scent of worry overlaid the previous tangle of confused emotions; now relief swept over, making both, as Thomas said, “My lord.”
Gerald breathed in deeply. Compared to the other things, relief smelled good. It meant Thomas cared. “I’m all right now,” he said to Thomas. Noticing that his family were standing around, all looking worried—even Simon—he looked up at them and added, “Really, it’s fine.”
“Perhaps you should go up, dear,” Mama said.
Gerald nodded. “In a few minutes, I think.” The family did not disperse. “Really, I’m all right now. You can…go back to what you were doing.”
Most of the others wandered off, or at least turned away, but Mama continued to hover. Felicity brought him a fresh whiskey and soda, and Douglas came in to mop up the mess from his old one, which had slipped from his unheeding fingers at some point during the enthrallment.
The glass had only cracked, though, and not shattered, so neither Thomas nor Douglas was in danger of injury. One less thing to worry about.
One by one, he focused each of his senses on Thomas—the feeling of his hand, which was still entangled in Gerald’s. The sound of his heartbeat, which was slowing and steadying now. The smell of cigarettes and worry and relief. The contrast between his dark hair and pale skin, his blue, glittering eyes.
For taste, he had to use the whiskey instead. If it had been Euan, he’d have brought his hand to his lips and tasted him there, but Thomas, he somehow knew, would not welcome that. So, the whiskey. He sipped, letting the notes of oak and smoke roll over his tongue.
The exercise was one he’d been taught in his military Sentinel training, for recovering from an enthrallment, settling sensory fluctuations, or preparing to do sensory work. He’d done it hundreds of times, though only a handful of them with Thomas. Nevertheless, it settled him back into himself. He was here, his Guide was there, and all the other sensory information that bombarded him could be fitted into place around those two facts, or dismissed entirely.
After a few moments of breathing heavily and looking distant, his lordship said, “I’m ready to go up if you are.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said, rising gratefully from his crouch—his thighs and calves had started to ache. He helped his lordship to his feet, and they started upstairs, slowly.
Thomas kept his mind carefully blank. His lordship was sniffing him now, and he didn’t know what that might give away. Or what effect it might have. His lordship was all right; Thomas had helped him. Focus on that. Nothing else.
Sitting his lordship on the edge of his bed, Thomas went into the dressing room for his pyjamas and dressing gown. He’d undress him in the bedroom; less chance for anything to go wrong that way.
“Thank you, Thomas,” his lordship said as he returned. He pulled off his white tie, which someone had loosened before Thomas arrived in the drawing room. One of the other valets, maybe. Don’t think about that. “I’m sure I’m all right,” he went on as Thomas got him out of his jacket and waistcoat. “Enthrallments happen; it wasn’t a long one. I was listening to an owl outside. I shouldn’t have done, not without a Guide in the room. Silly of me, really. I’ve always liked owls. They’re so…quiet. Not like bats. Hate bats.”
His lordship was babbling. Thomas wondered if that was a good sign, or a bad one. Don’t think about that, either. “I can’t say I care for them either, my lord,” he said. He didn’t have much of an opinion either way, really. Except for the time, when he was a footman, that he’d been woken from a sound sleep to get one out of Lady Edith’s bedroom. On that particular occasion, he’d hated them.
“We’d be swarming with bugs without them, though. Valuable creatures. Just noisy. But it wasn’t a bat I was listening to, it was an owl.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said, laying the waistcoat aside and getting to work on the shirt studs. What difference did it make? He supposed he ought to be glad that his lordship had been listening to birds and not him, walking around and muttering to himself. If he’d heard—no, don’t think about that. Not now. “Perhaps in future you might save the bird-watching for when I’m with you.”
“Yes, I think I will. Not precisely bird watching, though. Bird-listening. Less chance of enthrallment if I could see them, really. We could go for a walk, sometime, and look for owls.”
“Yes, my lord. If you could just stand up for a moment.”
He stood, steadying himself with a hand on Thomas’s shoulder, while Thomas unfastened his trousers.
“All right, my lord.” Now there was just the leg to deal with, and putting the pyjamas on. Those tasks were accomplished quickly, and he turned down the covers.
His lordship said, “I’m not—oh, never mind,” and got into bed. “I’ll just read for a while.”
“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said, gathering up his clothes. The book his lordship had been reading had been left on the sofa; he brought it over. “Will there be anything else?”
“Ah, I think I’m all right.”
“Very good, my lord. I’ll be nearby if you do need anything.”
He went into the dressing room and shut the door behind him.
Now, Thomas thought, he could have a private thought or two, if he was quiet about it.
He’d seen his lordship enthralled before, but with Clement’s description of his “spells” fresh in his mind, Thomas couldn’t help but wonder if this was the start of another one. And if he’d brought it on somehow, by leaving his lordship alone for too long, or by being angry with him, or—or what, he didn’t know. It was more important than ever to keep his temper, at least until he was sure that the enthrallment had been an isolated incident.
That meant he couldn’t think about what his lordship had done, or about what the others downstairs must think of him. Nor could he think about how the incident proved—if he needed more proof—that he couldn’t leave. He had to block those things completely from his mind. Just focus on the next thing. He put away his lordship’s clothes. He smoked a cigarette. Washed. Changed into his pyjamas. Got into bed, and laid there, carefully not-thinking about anything at all, until he fell asleep.
The next morning, Thomas seemed more subdued than he had been for a while, but his scent was better—still anxious and a bit angry, but not overwhelmingly so. Gerald kept the conversation light through breakfast, then tentatively broached the subject. “About yesterday….”
“Yes, my lord?”
“We never did get to talk about what was bothering you.”
“Nothing important, really, my lord,” Thomas said, and this time his scent didn’t blatantly contradict what he was saying. “I was a bit upset with myself for forgetting about your evening things, when we have guests. You know how I am about things like that.”
“Yes, I do,” Gerald said. He was relieved—perhaps. “Are you sure that’s all it was?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Gerald nodded. “I do appreciate how well you take care of my clothes, but it’s not worth upsetting yourself over. I won’t be angry with you, and the world won’t end if I’m late to dinner or my coat has a wrinkle. Try to remember that, all right?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Good.” Enough of that—for now, at least. “Do you feel up for the picnic this afternoon? I have a feeling Mama’s going to fuss, but Imogene is looking forward to it….”
They went out for the highly-anticipated picnic in a governess cart driven by Clint. Thomas knew that his lordship suspected there was something more than he’d admitted to about yesterday’s upset, because he explained every detail of the picnic itinerary in advance: where they were going, how they’d get there, what they would be eating, that he and Susan would be eating…everything he could think of, apparently.
But he was still taken by surprise by some things. Susan and Miss Imogene walked from the house to the cart arm-in-arm, and spent the ride whispering to each other behind their hands. When they reached the picnic site—a spot near a stream, where a small pavilion had been set up, complete with table and chairs—they separated only reluctantly so that Susan could help Thomas and Clint carry the picnic things over. They kept glancing at each other and looking away quickly, in a way that could only be described as gooey.
At first, Thomas thought they were acting like friends, or sisters, but when they gooey looks started, it began to seem more like they were flirting. It wasn’t quite a alarming as it would have been if two men had been carrying on like that—girls of that age, in Thomas’s experience, were always a bit gooey, even with other girls—but it was still a bit strange. Strangest of all was that his lordship didn’t bat an eye. Not even when, after luncheon, Imogene decided to lie down in the grass under a tree with her head in Susan’s lap. And when they wandered off to pick wildflowers, all his lordship said about it was, “They seem to be getting on well.”
“Yes, my lord.” Had his lordship and Euan been like that? Was his lordship expecting him to be like that?
Don’t think about that.
Besides, if he was, he was going to be disappointed. He hadn’t even been like that with the Duke, back when he’d been about Susan’s age. He might have wanted to, but—don’t think about that. “I suppose this must be a usual spot for picnics, my lord?” he asked, in order to introduce a neutral subject.
“Yes, rather,” his lordship said. “There’s another place we go that’s further up in the hills, but it’s difficult to get to if you don’t ride. This one’s just as good for a small group, really. And it’s cooler on a hot day, with the water.” He went on to talk about picnics he’d had there as a child—sailing toy boats and trying to catch minnows in the stream, and—in what must have been a rare moment of cooperation—he and Lord Simon attempting to build a dam and create a swimming pool.
Thomas had just about managed to distract himself from Susan and Miss Imogene’s odd behavior, and all that it implied, when they came back with armloads of flowers, which they braided into crowns for each other’s hair.
Yes, really. They did. Thomas did not know where to look.
His lordship plucked a bachelor’s button from the pile of discards, and presented it to Thomas. Thomas took it, wondering what on Earth he was supposed to do with it. Finally, for lack of any better option, he put it in his buttonhole.
It was nearing teatime by the time they headed back. Gerald decided on tea in their rooms—there was another formal dinner slated for that evening, and he saw no reason to overdo it. He was a bit anxious about sending Thomas down for the tea-tray, but he came back seeming only a bit pensive and mildly subdued.
Gerald ate two sandwiches and drank a cup of tea quickly, without talking much—he’d managed to work up a bit of an appetite, with all that fresh air. But once he’d finished those, he poured a second cup and sat back in his chair. “You seemed a bit…startled by something about the picnic,” he noted. “I thought I’d prepared you for everything. What did I miss?”
Thomas froze for a second, wide-eyed, a spike of anxiety in his scent. “Ah,” he said. “Well. I was just…I found Miss Imogene’s manner with Susan, and Susan’s with her, a bit…unexpected, my lord.”
“Did you?” Gerald frowned; he hadn’t noticed anything unusual. Except for how quickly they had hit it off, perhaps. “Unexpected how?”
“Well,” he said again. Then, “My lord.” After a long pause, he went on, “Just a bit…familiar, I suppose.”
“That’s normal,” Gerald said. “It would be more alarming if they weren’t like that, really. It’s important for a Sentinel and Guide to get along well, to feel comfortable with each other.”
“All right, but they were carrying on like a courting couple! My lord.”
“I suppose it is a bit like that.” Gerald would never have thought of it that way himself, since Sentinel courtships tended not to be like that at all. “They’ll be spending a great deal of time together, for the rest of their lives if everything works out.”
The anxiety-scent increased even more. “Yes, my lord,” Thomas said stiffly.
“I know it was a bit different with us, of course,” Gerald said, feeling his way across what he imagined as a mine-strewn path. “We’ve had to get to know each other as we go along. But we have grown more comfortable with each other—haven’t we?”
“Yes, my lord.” Thomas looked down. “But--” He sighed.
“Why….” He fell silent again, then rallied. “Do most Sentinels expect to have the same Guide for the rest of their lives, my lord?”
“That’s the ideal,” Gerald said. Now he thought he had a handle on the issue; it was the one about not being good enough to replace Euan. “But of course things happen. People realize they’ve changed, or what they want has changed. Or—well, people die. Not just in the war, but there are all the usual illnesses and accidents. One has to move on.”
“But…I suppose I don’t see why it’s so important. I mean, I understand that you, that Sentinels like to be close with your Guides, but…” He shook his head. “I mean, Miss O’Brien was close with Lady Grantham, and Bates was close with his lordship. But not…like that.”
Gerald clearly hadn’t reassured Thomas enough; he still smelled anxious. His first impulse was to focus on that, rather than on the question—in this case in particular, because he wasn’t sure what the answer to the question was. But Thomas found it reassuring to have his questions answered. If he really wanted to help, he should try to work out the answer.
He found it by thinking about what Thomas had said about courtship. “I suppose it might be because we—that is, Sentinels—still go in for arranged marriages rather more than other people do. To have a Sentinel heir, it’s best to marry another Sentinel, but we don’t…don’t often care for a great deal of one another’s company. Marriages tend to be a bit…businesslike. But one has to be close to someone. And for most of us, that’s our Guides. They’re the ones we talk with, the ones we spend time with. Touch. All that sort of thing.”
Gerald could tell at once that Thomas did not find this particular answer at all reassuring. He opened and closed his mouth several times, as though unable to find the words to speak. His breathing was ragged and his heart raced. And as for his scent—it roiled with confused emotions. Angerfearsadnesspanic. Finally he said, “And that’s—that’s what a Guide is supposed to be. To you. Like a—” He shook his head and opened and closed his mouth several more times before spitting out, “wife? ”
“If you’re worried about, ah, the physical…aspect, that’s—I mean, sometimes we do, but it isn’t required. And I certainly wouldn’t ask you to do anything you weren’t comfortable with. It’s more--”
“I don’t care about that,” Thomas said, rising to his feet, his hands planted on the edge of the table. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask about that. But—” He did more head-shaking and mouth opening-and-closing. “I don’t even—you’re insane,” he declared. “You are absolutely and completely barking.”
“I beg your pardon?” Gerald said, startled by Thomas’s sudden vehemence.
“You take me out of prison, and you say you’re offering me a job, but you actually want me to be your bloody wife. And you not only never ask if that’s what I want, but you never even tell me what I’m getting into. How is that not insane?”
He was nearly shouting now, and leaning over the table. Gerald pushed his own chair back a little. “Thomas, please. Try to calm down. Maybe the comparison to, ah, to marriage was…misleading.”
“No,” Thomas said, shaking his head and backing away from the table. “No, I don’t think it was. You think you get to…to take over my life. You get to…tell me how I’m supposed to feel, and you think you have a right to know every thought that goes through my head, and you can pry into my private life and spread it all over the house, and it’s all all right because it’s for my own good and you care and you want me to be happy. Well, I never asked you to, did I?”
“Thomas--” Gerald began, not sure what he was going to say next, how he could apply brakes to this runaway train speeding toward a wreck.
“Did I?” Thomas demanded, almost shouting.
“No,” Gerald admitted. “No. I didn’t. But--”
“But nothing. Good God, you throw a temper tantrum because somebody changed your bedroom without asking, and you can’t see why rearranging my entire life without asking might upset me?”
He had a bit of a point. He’d only wanted to do what was best for Thomas—but so had Mama. “I…I was trying to help. I’ve been asking how I can help.”
“Yeah,” Thomas said. “Yeah. You’ve been asking. But you haven’t been taking ‘no’ for an answer, have you? Maybe you can’t help. Maybe I don’t want you to help. Maybe I want you to just bloody well back off.”
“I….” Gerald couldn’t understand what Thomas was saying. Guides thrived on Sentinels’ attention. Thomas couldn’t really be asking for what it sounded like. Or if he was, he wasn’t thinking clearly about what he was saying. “I understand that you’re angry,” he said. “I was wrong not to…not to ask if you wanted to be my Guide.”
Thomas nodded sharply at that, and his anger started to taper off, just a little.
Encouraged, Gerald went on, “But you are. It’s…you can’t ask me not to care about you.”
Thomas nodded at that, too, making a visible effort to steady his breathing.
“There has to be some way we can fix…this. What is it you really want?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas said quietly. His shoulders slumped, and grief overcame anger in his scent.
Gerald wanted to go over and take him into his arms, but he didn’t think Thomas would welcome that right now. “Think about it,” he said gently.
Anger surged again. “I. Don’t. Want. To. ” He spat the words out one at a time. “I don’t want to tell you how to fix me. Can’t you understand that?”
The true answer was no, not really. But before Gerald could say anything, Thomas spun and started for the door, saying, “I have to get out of here.”
He stopped, his hand on the doorknob. “I’ll come back. I just—I can’t be here right now.”
Then he left.
Thomas ran down the service stairs and out the kitchen door. Someone—maybe Eileen—called out to him as he passed, but he ignored them, bent on getting as far from this madhouse as he could before his anger burnt out. He hurried down the lane and to the village. He hesitated at the train station—but he’d said he was coming back, and he didn’t have enough money with him for a return ticket to anywhere. He kept walking.
He shouldn’t have said any of those things he’d said. They were true, but he shouldn’t have said them. He’d deserve to be sacked for any one of them—if he were able to be sacked. But he wouldn’t be, and that was the problem, wasn’t it? No matter what he did, his lordship would just keep trying to make Thomas into what he wanted him to be. He wouldn’t give up; he’d just go on being patient and kind and not giving Thomas a minute’s privacy inside his own head. For as long as it took.
Thomas didn’t know if he’d ever be able to be what his lordship wanted. If he could ever come to trust him, to be happy about having him prying into his life. To have his lordship help him, and actually be pleased and grateful instead of reminding himself that he ought to be. To have conversations about his feelings without wanting to scream and run away.
And, to be honest, the idea that he might, one day, be, was even more frightening than the idea that he wouldn’t.
He took out the idea of leaving again, turned it over in his hands. He could. His lordship wouldn’t stop him—couldn’t stop him, once the last bit of his sentence was up.
But if he did leave, his lordship would probably die. And if he didn’t, he’d suffer. Thomas didn’t want that, no matter how angry he was with him. Thomas still liked him, underneath it all. And even if he hadn’t, he didn’t want to kill a man for trying to help him.
So he had to stay. But they couldn’t go on like they had been. Just the thought of going back to the house and having his lordship press him to explain each and every little detail of what he’d said, to pry out the underlying thoughts and fears that caused him to react the way he did, and then—like as not—to tell everyone in the house about it, made him want to throw himself off a cliff. Something had to change.
By the time he reached the next village, Thomas realized that the only solution was precisely the one his lordship had proposed: he had to think about what he really wanted, and then go back and tell him.
Going into the village pub, he ordered a pint—he had enough money for that—and sat down to think about what he wanted.
Gerald begged off of dinner—Mama would understand, even with guests in the house. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to stop the tide of visitors to his room: Mama, Georgiana, Felicity, Baxter, Clement—all wanting to know what had happened and how they could help. He didn’t want to think about it, wanted even less to talk about it, and wished fervently that they would all just go away.
The brutal irony of that desire did not occur to him until he’d banished his fourth unwanted visitor.
By the time Clement came in and asked one of the usual questions—“Lord Gerald? What happened?” in this case—Gerald was curled up on his bed, hugging the pillow and feeling sorry for himself.
“I’ve ruined everything, I think,” he said into the pillow.
The mattress shifted as Clement sat on the edge of the bed. He put one hand on Gerald’s shoulder. “You and Thomas had an argument.”
“You could say that,” Gerald agreed, with a hollow laugh.
“These things do happen,” Clement pointed out gently. “What did you argue about?”
Clement pressed for a more detailed answer than that one. Gerald forced himself to give it to him, feeling that it was the least he deserved, after the way he’d been treating Thomas. He relayed a few of the things Thomas had said, and concluded, “It sounds like…like he doesn’t want to be my Guide. Doesn’t want to be a Guide at all, really. There’s nothing I can do about that. He doesn’t want to talk about it, doesn’t want me to…to do anything, really. He was pretty clear about that.”
“He might feel differently once his temper has cooled,” Clement suggested.
“Perhaps. But…I think this has been the problem all along. He’s just been…telling me other things, putting me off. He might—at best, he might start doing that again. And I can’t…I can’t make him talk about the real problem, and I can’t solve it without him. That’s the problem.”
“Yes, I see that, your lordship,” Clement said, rubbing circles on his back. “Perhaps you’ve simply been a bit…over-enthusiastic, in your efforts to help Thomas. Giving him a bit more time to think things through on his own before pressing your assistance upon him, might have been a better approach.” He hesitated. “How often have you been asking him about how he’s feeling?”
“I don’t know. Whenever he seems upset.”
“And he seems upset…most of the time, doesn’t he?”
“Yes. So—oh.” In an average day, that added up to…well, to quite an impressive number of instances of what Thomas referred to as “prying into his private life.” “I’ve been a bit…overbearing.” He hugged the pillow again. “What good does that do me now, though? He said he wanted me to back off, but…it’s gone too far for that, I think. I have to—make it up to him somehow. But I don’t know how, and he doesn’t want me to ask, and….oh, it’s hopeless.”
“You’ll need to wait and see, your lordship. Follow his lead. When he comes back. Don’t bring up the…argument. If he wants to pretend it never happened, let him. Let him come to you when he’s ready. That’s all I can suggest.”
“What if—he said he was coming back, but what if he doesn’t? Or he comes back just to say he’s leaving for good?”
Clement’s hand stilled. “It’s my understanding that he has some weeks left on his sentence.”
“Yes, but I can’t—I can’t use that to force him to stay. He has to work for the Society; he doesn’t have to be my Guide.”
“In that case, my lord, we’ll have to carry on as best we can.”
It was well after dark by the time Thomas got back to Bellerock. He’d worked out a plan that he thought he could live with—and which, more importantly, his lordship could live with, too. Even if he didn’t like it much. There might be some adjustments to be made—he didn’t know precisely what Sentinels really needed, and what they just liked and were used to. But he was fairly confident that the basic idea was sound.
He let himself back in through the kitchen door—still unlocked, fortunately. There were a few maids and footmen in the servants’ hall; they looked up at him as he passed. He ignored them.
His lordship was in his room—fortunately. If he hadn’t been, Thomas might have lost his nerve. He was lying on the bed in his clothes, on top of the covers. He looked decidedly rumpled; he may even have been crying. “Thomas?” he said, sitting up.
“My lord.” He cleared his throat. “I’ve…been doing some thinking. As you asked. About what I want.”
“Yes?” his lordship said, leaning forward as though to touch him.
Thomas stepped back, tucking his hands behind himself. “I don’t want to be a Guide. The…trusting, being close, all of that. I can’t do it. Maybe I’m just an unnatural Guide; maybe I’m damaged, but I just can’t do it.”
His lordship started to say something about patience, about giving him all the time he needed.
“No,” Thomas said, interrupting. He’d expected that. “It’s not about time. It’s…it just isn’t who I am. I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to learn to do it, I don’t want to try to do it or be coaxed or cajoled into doing it. I’m not a Guide.”
“So you’re—you’re leaving.”
“If I do that, you’ll die,” Thomas said. “Won’t you?”
“Yes, probably. But--”
“But I don’t want that, either. You’ve done what you think is right, for me. You’ve…been wounded in service of your country.” He really had, unlike Thomas. “You don’t deserve to die for that. So here’s what I think.” He took a deep breath. “I won’t be your Guide. I’ll be your valet.”
“What…I’m not even sure what that means,” his lordship said.
“I bring you your tea in the morning. I dress you. Run the bath, put out your shaving things, whatever. If you need to change in the afternoon—into riding things, or the like—I come back and do that. I dress you for dinner, and undress you for bed. I look after your clothes. Keep the dressing room in order, and make sure everything’s as it should be in your bedroom. Pack and unpack if you go anywhere. Buy the tickets and things. You also get to make me act as a third footman at important dinners, but I’m allowed to resent it as long as I don’t actually say so.” He’d almost decided not to mention that last part, since he wasn’t keen to do it, and anyway, his lordship probably wouldn’t want to make him, since the other Sentinels would surely have something to say about it. But he wasn’t talking about what he wanted; he was talking about what normal valets did. The distinction seemed important.
“All right,” his lordship said in a small voice. “But--”
“But the more important part is what I don’t do. I don’t eat with you. I don’t go for walks with you. I don’t sleep in your dressing room. You don’t ask me how I am unless I appear to be at death’s door. We don’t have long, meaningful conversations. You can just…find somebody else for all of that. Somebody who likes it.”
“I’m…not supposed to talk to you? At all?”
“We talk about what you’re wearing, and about any plans you have that affect my duties. If you feel the need to hear my voice, I suppose we can talk about the weather. Apart from that, you can talk about whatever you want, as long as you don’t expect me to say anything other than, ‘Yes, my lord.’ Anything I may be feeling, any problems you may think I have, you pretend you don’t notice. Can you live with that?”
His lordship nodded. “Yes, I…if you’re sure that’s what you want, Thomas.”
“It is. The rest of them downstairs probably won’t understand it, and they won’t like it, but that’s my problem to deal with.”
“I—yes, yes, fine.”
“This is the last conversation we will ever have about my personal feelings, happiness, or desires.”
“All right. I understand. If that’s the way you want it.”
This was going a bit more easily than Thomas had anticipated. He’d expected more questions about why he was doing something so drastic, suggestions that everything could be worked out if he would only let his lordship help him. Slightly off-balance, he went on, “I’ll be…nearby. I’ll make sure Mr. Clement or someone knows where I am, during the day, in case you’re enthralled, or something like that.”
“Yes. Yes, I understand, Thomas.”
“And I get called Barrow.”
His lordship almost bucked at that, of all things. Thomas had only thrown it in because he thought it would help them both remember the new rules. But eventually he gulped, nodded, and said, “Yes. All right. Barrow.”
“Very well, then.” He took a deep breath and settled into his new role. His old role. His proper role. “Would you like to undress now, my lord, or shall I come back later?”