Thursday, January 20, 2011

Irregular means

Although we must wait to be introduced to Lord William at the ball, we continued our efforts to find the Winslowes.

‘I think it is time to employ other means,’ Charlotte told me the next day in the library, ‘and judging by the noises I hear from the kitchen, those means have just arrived.’

We soon heard a knock at the door, followed by the housekeeper Mrs. Hutton leading a group of children. They were a dirty, ragged lot, but eager looking and noisy.

‘Here they are, Miss House. Why you would want them in the house is beyond me, but I brought them to you just like you asked.’

‘Thank you Mrs. Hutton, I am much obliged. Now if you might return with some cakes and tea?’

The children were listening to this exchange with rapt attention, their eyes darting back and forth to each speaker.

‘Yes, Miss House, as you say,’ the housekeeper said through clenched teeth.

The housekeeper left the library.

‘Close the door, Jane, if you don’t mind,’ Charlotte said. After that was done, she addressed the children.

‘Please sit children. We’ve only four chairs so two may sit with us on the edge of the tables.’

The oldest and largest children took the chairs, leaving two very small children, a boy and a girl, looking up at us. I judged them to be about the age of the children of one of the servants at my home, but they could not match their country-bred wholesomeness. They could never get up on the tables on their own so I lifted each child — a very light burden indeed — and placed them side-by-side on the table. They immediately separated, I assumed to make room for me in the middle, and so I joined them. It had been a long time since I had so carelessly sat on a table edge and I unconsciously did what I always did as a child — I started swinging my legs, in which my two companions joined.

‘Please Jane, set a good example,’ Charlotte said in mock seriousness. I stopped swinging my legs and meekly said ‘yes, miss,’ and the children followed suit.

At this time Mrs. Hutton and Mary returned with tea and cakes, served with the household staff’s mugs and plates, I observed. Mrs. Hutton ordered Mary to dole out the mugs and add astonishing amounts of cream and sugar. It took full ten minutes for the children to eat and drink their fill with much spilled tea, cakes and cookies on the floor, all the while Mrs. Hutton muttering: ‘Look at the mess. It’ll take forever to clean this. Oh, not another mug!’

Eventually Mrs. Hutton’s ordeal was over and the surviving mugs and plates were removed. The children looked pleased and covered in crumbs, which they were slowly transferring to their mouths.

‘Thank you all for coming,’ Charlotte said. At her words they stopped fidgeting and gave her their full attention. ‘I have another request of you. I need to find the whereabouts of the Winslow family. Do any of you know where they live?’

The children looked at each other and exchanged shakes of their heads.

‘No, miss, we don’t,’ the oldest girl said.

‘There was a family by that name,’ the oldest boy said, ‘but they moved last year, miss.’

‘Very well, Donna, Charlie, I need you to find the family for me. There was at least a father, mother and daughter. I do not know if there were other children. The father may be named Robert and he is — or was — a barrister. I believe him to be dead. The daughter’s name might be Catherine.’

‘That’s them,’ Charlie said. ‘I remember the old man died.’

‘Good, Charlie, I’m glad to have that confirmed.’ The boy smiled. ‘Now I want you to find where the family has moved, and be discreet.’

Donna and Charlie looked confused.

‘It means don’t let on that you are looking for them,’ I added. Charlotte looked at me and nodded. ‘Yes, don’t let on that you are looking for them, just get word back to me.’

She got off the table and presented Donna and Charlie two small handbags and the coins inside them chinked as she placed them in their hands.

‘Distribute this as usual. And the usual reward to whomever gets the information first. Now, off with you.’

Mrs. Hutton, who was obviously eager for them to leave and had perhaps been listening, immediately opened the library door. The older children moved to the door while I helped the two off the table.

‘Irregular means indeed,’ I said, after the noise of the children had retreated.

‘Yes, I find those little Arabs quite useful. They can go anywhere without being noticed and from their situation they’ve developed resourcefulness. Let us hope that they can find the Winslowes and let us further hope that information will do us good.’

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