Chapter Two

"Why do I have to come?" Tristan asked, in a sullen-sounding voice which was, perhaps, even more churlish than his habitual tone.

His query was accompanied by a leaden-browed glower, which he directed at Lash from the opposite seat. As he spoke, their coach was rolling smoothly up Frognal Lane.

Tristan worked at Pembroke House, the impressive establishment where Lasher had been lodging for almost two years now. Lash's office space, where he had received Miss Carmody the previous day, and his all-important painting studio, were both located there (the latter threatening to spill out into the rest of the house, like a pervading type of weed that sprouted out in splodges of paint and jars of turpentine, much to his landlady's disgust).

The manor-house – its palatial proportions made it quite a rarity for a town dwelling – had once been the private abode of Lord Richard Pembroke, a crotchety old gentleman of privileged means. After his death, it had come into the possession of his granddaughter, Miss Katherine Agatha Mullane-Pembroke, a rather fierce, flame-haired Irishwoman who possessed all the determination and domination of a woman more than twice her age (at a mere twenty-eight years, she was a far cry from the tyrannical old matriarch whom she already resembled in temperament). Upon taking up her tenure as mistress of the house, Miss Katy had converted its hushed halls and peaceful parlours into the Pembroke Refuge Home for Wayward Youth, with astounding success. It was a place where boys, aged twelve years to late teens and with nowhere else to go, came to live and thrive. Even the most insolent urchins to cross the threshold would soon become meritous members of society, moulded into such by Katy's brisk brand of maternal kindness. Lasher, though quite a bit older than the average Pembroke boy at the tender age of twenty-three, had been given a courteous welcome there; defying Katy's frequent declarations that he was one of her few lost causes, he was well on the way to becoming a permanent resident.

Far from the genteel private residence that it had once been, Pembroke House now rang with the clamorous shouts and incessant chatter of a dozen boisterous boys – lads who tended to be as strong in voice as they were in appetite. Despite looking (and quite possibly behaving) rather more like a gamekeeper than a purveyor of fine cuisine, Tristan Elliot, Pembroke's resident cook, and jack-of-all-trades besides, was actually a dab hand at his allotted task. He sent fortifying breakfasts and hearty dinners out of Pembroke's kitchen every day of the week, with a formidable efficiency and in ample supply. Lasher had often sampled his gastronomic accomplishment first-hand and very positively appraised it. (Whether or not he could be deemed an authority on the subject was debatable, since he was known to have once anointed his bread, unwittingly or otherwise, with both raspberry jam and fish paste; furthermore, he had eaten the thing right down to the last crumb, without a single complaint.)

However, Tristan was rather more reluctant in his recent, impromptu role as an indentured detective's assistant.

Lasher met Tristan's glare with a genial smile. Immediate impressions aside, the surly young man was welcome company, so long as one became accustomed to his taciturn ways. Lasher was, in fact, rather glad to have Tristan along on this business, and admitted as much aloud.

"I am very grateful to you for sparing the time to accompany me, Tris. I would much rather have you with me than risk going alone. My client, Miss Carmody, was rather anxious that I didn't mention her name to anyone who occupies the house we will be visiting. I suspect she may have had good reason for that; young women who are otherwise capable and confident are often quite justified when they choose to practise caution. Perhaps the person – or persons –we are about to meet are more dangerous than we would otherwise suspect."

"You're leading me into a nest of cutthroats, then?" Tristan asked, his frown deepening about as much as his face would allow. Behind his thick fringe of curly brown hair, his eyes had a petulant glimmer which would have put a falling meteor to shame, and his expressive brows seemed to be at one with gravity.

"Only possibly," Lash countered, with imperturbable optimism. "You are welcome to run at the first sign of trouble; then at least one person shall live to tell what became of me. And you will still have Algernon to take you back home. I much appreciate you driving us, Algernon."

The sprightly, silver-haired figure in the driver's seat half-turned to glance back at Lasher. Though his eyes momentarily left the road, he made sure to keep a firm hand on the horses' reins, checking them as they negotiated the increasing incline of the cobbled street.

"It is no trouble at all, Mr Lasher," Algernon replied genially. "Really, I owe it to Miss Katherine; I told her that I would always be available to drive her, whenever and wherever she should require it. I gladly extend those same services to anyone who lodges under her roof."

"From what I last heard of Katy," Lash said, with a chagrined look, "she rather thought that you would be better employed at teaching the children than in ferrying us around. The boys usually have morning lessons on Tuesdays, and I'm keeping you from them."

Algernon Fitzroy Wakefield was the schoolmaster at Pembroke, and an invaluable one at that. Though his amiable, slightly dithery disposition was disarming, it was also somewhat deceptive; Algernon had once taught at a private boy's academy which was renowned for its strict discipline. Back in those days, he had been given the terror-tinged title of 'The Coachman' by his young charges, for his habit of carrying a riding crop in place of a cane, with which he was known to have whipped – lightly, but effectively – the knuckles of any boys who seriously misbehaved. Such extreme practices, however, seemed to have been restricted to his heyday. Though now officially in retirement, he still put in frequent appearances at the head of Pembroke's classroom, as a favour to Katy; he had been on friendly terms with her own mother and grandfather.

As a semi-retired educator, Algernon now had far more time to devote to his other passion: horses. With his family, he ran a highly successful carriage business, hiring his splendid vehicles out to a very discerning and highly-appreciative clientele. His favours to Katy extended as far as his mares and geldings; if ever Miss Mullane-Pembroke required a coachman to drive her, at any time of day and to any destination, Algernon was ready to provide, reins in hand and whip at the ready. As a schoolmaster, he was enough of a novelty to charm any pupils who would have otherwise approached their lessons with lassitude or resentment; average Tuesday and Friday mornings were rendered highly-anticipated events, as the Pembroke boys gathered around the front bay windows to watch Algernon arrive, driving his second-best covered carriage up through Rawlinson Square. The boys knew that if they did their lessons well and committed no grave transgressions against Algeron's gently-imposed in-class rules, they would earn themselves a complimentary drive about town on the last Friday of the month.

Today, Lasher (and Tristan, albeit reluctantly) were his fortunate passengers. Lash was well aware of just how great a great privilege this was. Not only was it impossible for 'common folk' to engage Algernon's services for any less than 10 shillings per trip; but Algernon was also due in the classroom at this very moment. It was pure chance that Algernon had overheard Lash talking of his excursion to Hampstead as he had been on his way out the door with Tristan in tow; he had offered to drive them to Chesterford Gardens, despite Katy's vocal protests.

"Miss Katherine is a most proficient teacher in her own right," Algernon said, with a fond smile. "I have every confidence that she will manage to keep the boys occupied until we return. I have no other pressing engagements today; we can make it an afternoon lesson. It's not every day that you and Mr Elliot require a trip to Hampstead, Mr Lasher. I know the area well enough, and my coach was standing at the ready."

"And it is a fine ride indeed," Lash interjected, as he watched the terrace-houses of Frognal Lane trundling past the window at a steady pace, "but I hate to inconvenienced you so. Especially when we could have just as easily taken a cab."

"Pish-posh," Algernon said, with a derisive sniff. "Hansoms are unwieldy, uncomfortable things, and cabman are too unreliable."

"Well, there's always the train."

"Even worse!" Algernon gestured in the air with his whip for emphasis. "I'm sure the windows of railcars are purposefully built to make them rattle; I avoid train journeys like the plague, they are so tedious and untenable. And don't even start me on those beastly motorcars! Just look at this vehicle here, which you travel in at this very moment," he continued, in a smooth, prideful tone which Lasher could do little to suppress; he listened politely, while behind Algernon's back, he darted bemused glances across at Tristan, who remained, as ever, in stolid silence.

"To compare it with any other mode of transport would be to set the sublime beside the ridiculous. This here is a premium-standard five-glass landau, and quite possibly the last of its kind in all of London, unless His Majesty has retained one for his own honoured service. Why wouldn't he, when it is less a piece of coach-building and more a work of art? This one may be a little bit long in tooth now, I admit; but it is a classic design, and she's been very well-maintained, if I do say so myself. The drive you are getting from this, gents, is far superior to anything you would get out of even the best London growler, or the loose-lidded tinderbox that they pass as a train-carriage these days, I assure you. I'm certain that no mere automobile could manage a hill of this gradient without a good many sturdy lads to push it the last twenty feet; no matter its horse-power, no engine can compare to the intelligence and grace of a genuine equine. Here, though, did you say earlier that your current client is one Miss Elizabeth Carmody?"

"Do you know her?" Lash asked, with surprise and eagerness. He had thought that he had detected an air of mystery about his well-coiffed client, and hoped to go some way towards dispelling it. He had counted on doing so at Chesterford Gardens; he was delighted to have so unexpectedly come across a clue en route.

Algernon, however, had little to impart, and that which he did seemed to be of limited use. "I can't claim the pleasure of the lady's acquaintance; however, I do know something of her. I saw a small mention of her in the paper the other day; I remember seeing that distinctive name in the gossip column, as I was flipping over to the racing forms. Apparently, she is rumoured to be on the verge of marrying a very rich man… Mr Douglas Merribank, if I remember rightly. As his surname would suggest, he is an immensely wealthy young man; his family built up a fortune in the textile industry, and he is said to be a very astute businessman. I imagine he will be able to keep her well-cossetted in silks and sables once they are wed."

This wasn't quite the insight that Lash had been hoping for; especially since he made a point of examining his clients' hands, searching for traces which might reveal something of their owners, and he distinctly remembered noting the absence of any ring, engagement or otherwise, upon Miss Liza's finger.

"What do you mean, 'on the verge' of marrying?" he asked Algernon, with curiosity; as an unmarried man himself, he was unfamiliar with the complicated terms of matrimony.

Algernon shrugged, his eyes focused directly between the upright ears of the horse before him, aligning its path with a slight curve in the road. "From what I remember, the deal was not quite finalized. The rumour mills have already begun to turn, though the claims remain as yet unsubstantiated. The sensation rags will play up a bit of society gossip for the sake of reader appeal; the light-witted, loose-lipped Londoner of the upper tier craves a constant supply of local hearsay and scandal. I'm sure, however, that the pair must be well on their way to becoming officially betrothed; they both seem like well-connected, worldly young members of the glittering social set, and such ilk seldom remain out of the harness for long."

Lash gave this titbit due consideration, paltry though it was. "She certainly seems like that sort of filly," he conceded, making Algernon chuckle appreciatively at the metaphor. "But I cannot see how it could possibly bear any relevance upon her hiring me. Unless she desperately wants the painting as a wedding gift…"

Algernon scoffed. "I should hardly expect that a lady whose chief preoccupations are opera gloves and garden parties should covet such a thing. Now, if it were Miss Katherine-"

"She appreciates everything about art except the artist himself, so it would seem," Lasher remarked dryly; he had been on the sharp end of Katy's tongue enough times to have formed such an opinion.

Respectful toward Lady Katherine though he was, Algernon allowed himself to smile at this droll line – even if, in his opinion, Katy's ire was largely justified. Lasher's paint had a curious habit of distributing itself all about the manor, often branding text books with unwanted blotches and rendering schoolroom slates unusable.

"Could she have perhaps used it as a pretext to hear news of the painting's owner, or to learn the ways of the house?" Tristan suggested, choosing to include himself in the conversation at last, despite his pervading reluctance to be any part of Lasher's side-profession.

Lash shook his head thoughtfully. "Surely she could find some other willing ally among her own friends to enter the house for her, if that was what she wanted. But she distinctly asked me to look at this particular painting. I had the impression that it was some intensely personal purpose that she had in mind; she was being far too secretive for it to have been any mere trivial matter. But I suppose we'll have a somewhat clearer view of things soon enough," he added, as the carriage swung round the wide street corner, turning into Chesterford Gardens.

Hampstead wasn't exactly a suburb that Lash tended to frequent. He had expected from its name that it might be a rather wealthy one; yet he was still quite surprised by the display of affluence he saw in the surrounding houses. Though hardly on the same scale as Pembroke House itself, the homes on either side of the street were stately and well-appointed, many of them bearing the elegant stamp of the Regency era upon their soaring architraves. Whilst the pretty terraces that lined Frognal Lane had appeared almost as crowded-together as the average urban conglomerate, rising from the curb like an even row of attractively-porticoed brick teeth, the abodes of Chesterford Gardens were, true to the name, set in generous swathes of greenery, their frontages shaded by mature trees and ornamented by a dazzling array of technicolour flowerbeds.

They had entered the far end of the thoroughfare, and once they turned the corner they didn't have far to go. Algernon expertly drew in rein with a gradual pressure; the horses slowed, then glided to a smooth halt directly outside Number 32.

Lasher and Tristan peered out of the carriage window. They shared a look of bewilderment; then they both turned toward Algernon.

"Is this… the right house?" Lash asked, hesitantly.

"I believe so," Algernon replied; though even he sounded unsure.

Normally, Algernon would have taken umbrage to his proficiency at his work being called into question like this; however, the house they had stopped in front of looked rather unlikely. The front garden was certainly profuse, though hardly inviting; it seemed to be filled exclusively with weeds. Downy white dandelions were clustered in the shade of wafting nettle-tops, and lush purple-headed thistles loomed out of the crowd like well-hatted ladies at Ascot (in colour, and perhaps in silhouette as well, they amusingly reminded Lasher of his current client). The house itself was tall and dignified; but its brickwork was crumbling almost as they looked at it, its paint was peeling off in long ribbons, and the drainpipe was dangling forlornly from one of its eaves. The rusted metal fence along the front of the estate had partly toppled over, flinging the gate across the overgrown pathway at an odd angle. Two large wrought-iron numbers that clung to it proclaimed it to indeed be number 32.

Lasher looked back at Tristan, then gave him a slight shrug which seemed to say: I'm game, if you are.

Tristan regarded him sceptically, perhaps pondering to himself whether the other could be talked out of the entire enterprise. However, he evidently deemed the required effort to be in vain; after a moment, he gave a heavy sigh of resignation, then clambered out of the carriage.

"We shan't be long, Algernon," Lasher said, looking up at the driver from the pavement; then he added, in an effort to avoid relegating his friend to the mere 'hired help': "If you would prefer to come in-"

"No, thank you," Algernon assured him. "Waiting out the front is the driver's lot. Besides, I'll be perfectly happy out here, with Samson and Regina for company."

He patted a powerful haunch with each hand. Samson, a large black gelding with a particularly luxuriant mane, took the gesture placidly, not reacting in the slightest; while Regina, an elegant bay mare, turned to regard him quizzically, then snuffled affectionately in his direction.

"I wouldn't dream of keeping a lady waiting too long – nor a gentleman, for that matter," Lasher replied with a grin, tipping his hat first to the horses, then to Algernon in turn. Then he followed Tristan, who had already managed to coax the haphazard gate into opening.

The path, as well as being banked on either side by verges of abundant green (which they both kept a wary distance from, mindful of stinging nettles) was shaded by two fine trees of extraordinary height. Tilting his head back to take them into full view as he passed them, Lasher could well imagine them clawing at a darkened sky, much like the soaring boughs that featured in Van Gogh's Starry Night. As they reached the lopsided porch that spanned the front of the house, they saw a plaque of bronze that was well mottled with green, affixed to the wall and bearing a name on it in imposing capitals:

THE POPLARS

After a moment's glance at the rickety roof of the porch, gauging the likelihood that it would stay where it was, Lasher ducked underneath it and strode up the few stairs to the front door, with Tristan close on his heel. The door had once been painted black, but had begun to show its natural brown in several places, particularly on the spot directly beneath the knocker where countless taps had worn it away, leaving a heavy indentation in the wood.

Judging this to be a sign of a friendly house that had received many visitors in the past (and assumedly let them back out again in due course), Lash took up the handle of the knocker and, with a rallying sense of purpose, gave it a few smart raps.


Author's note: I'm not a native Londoner – I live out in one of the colonies – so I had to write the geography of the city based either on extensive research (thank you, Google Maps!), or by inventing places entirely from my imagination (there is no Swinburne School of Fine Art near the Euston Road, and no Rawlinson Square or Pembroke House in Bloomsbury; I used the '221B Baker Street' gambit for Chesterford Gardens, since number 30 is the last house in the street).

As much as I don't want accuracy to get in the way of telling a story, I've tried to keep the setting as authentic as possible (that goes for the time period as well – I'm by no means an expert on either!). All you Brits or Edwardians out there, if you have any tips or pointers, send them my way! ~ W. J.