Want a taste of what sucked me in? Here you go:
It was intended to be an evening's entertainment. How little I knew.
I had, in point of fact, been looking forward to the occasion -- a ball to celebrate a milestone birthday, followed by a week in the country. The diversion came at a welcome point in my life, as I had little to do in London, and the constant reproachful looks my brother cast my way over the dinner table were weighing heavier upon me than usual. He never actually told me to make myself useful and less of a drain on the resources our father had left, or for that matter on society in general, but his opinion was obvious and one I did not share.
It was therefore with anticipation that I had accepted the invitation to Red Oak Hall, looking with a keen eye to the company I would find there. Of course, most of the assemblage would be boring in the extreme, but there was almost always something, or someone, to capture my interest there.
The journey had been easy, as the weather had cooperated for once. The carriage did not break a wheel as it had the previous year, there was no rain, and the horses all seemed to be in splendid health. Even the usual bumps and knocks were more gentle than I had hoped. So pleasant was the travel, I was almost regretful as we arrived in the late afternoon, but that soon passed as I saw a familiar shape in the entry, the light of the open door falling upon him.
Trusting my man Griffith to do his job and make sure my belongings eventually found their way to my rooms, I left the carriage and made my way up the steps. The butler, Dobbs, was as ever in control, managing to greet me, instruct Griffith where to take my cases, and direct the driver to the back of the house. With a few simple words I was made to feel welcome, assured that everything would be handled with ease, and escorted into the Hall to greet my host.
Barrett, the current Earl and master of Red Oak Hall, stepped forward with a smile and clasped my shoulder with one warm hand. "So good to see you, Munrow," he said. "I trust the journey was tolerable?"
"Pleasant," I replied, returning his smile. "Things look well in hand here." They did indeed. The Hall, from what little I could see, was already set to celebrate. There were no servants rushing about, yet the air seemed filled with anticipation, and the scent of summer flowers was strong. Barrett himself looked splendid, his smile genuine and natural, the tension I'd seen in him a few months before, gone. Yes, his hair was still grey and his skin a little slackened with middle age, but he was tall and fit, carrying his years well.
"It will be wonderful, my friend. But now is not the time to bore you with the details -- you'll see them soon enough." He cast his gaze to my left and nodded to Dobbs. "No doubt Mr. Munrow would like to rest after his travel." To me he said, "I'll see you at dinner, Munrow."
And with that, I was handed over to Dobbs, who very politely informed me that due to Lady Sophie's demand for morning light, I would be in the gold room rather than my usual suite, and would I please follow him?
I did not care into which room I was put, honestly. I knew that, as there were many guests for the next two nights -- after all, one cannot throw a ball and expect two hundred guests to make their way back to residences all over Berkshire that same night -- there would be less than a dozen for the week. As such, those of us staying on would get the better rooms.
Dobbs silently led me up the staircase and down the main corridor; I could see ample evidence of the preparations. The Hall gleamed, almost literally. Everything had been polished and cleaned to within an inch of its life, and Dobbs, when I happened to remark on something, informed me that the drawing room would be open for the gentlemen, the morning room for the ladies' cloaks, and the larger parlour was set up for card play. Of course, following him down the hall to the east wing, I was unable to see any of this, but it was good to know where I would be able to find certain people once the music started.
Griffith, for once, was already in my room when we arrived, putting my clothes away and laying out things for dinner and further clothes for the ball. Most of everything else was put away in the cabinet.
"Did you see about the brandy?" I asked, already tugging off my waistcoat, wrinkled from sitting in the carriage.
"Yes, sir. It shall be here when you return from your meal. Would you care to rest before dinner, or shall I send for water?"
I thought about if for a moment and shook my head. "I'll wash and then decide. If there is time I may rest, but I rather doubt I'll need it. A ball is a ball, and I suspect I'll be doing far more talking than dancing."
"Yes, sir," Griffith replied. He hung up the last of my shirts and crossed to the door -- I assumed for the water.
"Griffith?" I asked, a sudden thought occurring. "See what the talk is about this ball. I'd like to know how much truth is in the rumours before I walk into anything."
Griffith, proper for the moment, didn't even blink. It was his job to do just that, and he knew it. That I was telling him the perfectly obvious must have grated, but he gave no sign of it. But, then, it was entirely likely that he simply lacked the imagination to be offended.
When, at long last, Griffith made his way back up with the jug I washed and encouraged him to speak. "Well? Is it true?" I demanded, rinsing soap from my face.
"I'm afraid I don't know, sir," he replied, hastening to add, "No one does. It is, however, known without doubt that the Earl will make an announcement, and it is wildly speculated that it will be about a marriage. No one will admit to knowing as to whom the lady may be, however, and in fact there are many wagers being made on the name. The head footman says that the Earl has been cheerful and happy for almost six weeks and that it has been driving the maids to distraction. There has been nothing overheard, which of course speaks to how well the Earl is guarding his secret."
Interesting. And worrisome, if one were in service at the Hall, but of no use to me. I knew no more than I had the day or the week before.
"Well, it could hardly be a marriage, if the maids don't know," I said. "They know even before the poor lady."
"True," Griffith allowed me. "But there really is nothing else. An announcement will be made; the Earl has invited over two hundred people to hear it. One of the footmen saw him in deep conference with the Duke, and the housekeeper has been seen with lists of the staff -- and you know what that means."
I nodded. When the housekeeper started making lists of staff, there were changes underway. Usually the sort that involved people getting their notice and the promise of references.
I checked the time. "Well," I said, "I have time to read for half an hour, then I'll dress for dinner. Make sure the brandy is here when I want it."
Griffith nodded and withdrew, and I walked to the window and looked out at the wide lawn, the sun setting over the tops of the trees in the distance. "Let the games begin," I said softly.