Glancing briefly at his watch, Jarvis frowned slightly in annoyance. The meeting with the other senior servants had taken longer than he'd expected and now he was running late to see the Earl. Striding sharply out of his office and down the corridor, he nearly bumped straight into Fred Matkin who was, as usual, not looking where he was going.
"Take a care next time would you Mr Matkin." Jarvis snapped, before making to storm off again.
"Sorry Mr Jarvis sir, but the post just arrived." Fred replied apologetically, holding out the bundle of letters to the butler "Three for you."
Taking the proffered mail, Jarvis nodded his thanks before carrying on down the corridor towards the main house, quickly flicking through them as he did so. One from the local butcher - he would recognise that dreadful handwriting anywhere, one he thought might be from an old friend who worked in London, and another one with handwriting he didn't recognise at all. Puzzling slightly over this, Jarvis then quickly dismissed it, putting the letters in his pocket and intending to deal with them later when he had a bit more time on his hands.
Settling down in his office after dinner, Jarvis turned to the mountain of paperwork that confronted him and grimaced. He'd been letting it build up for a few days and had intended to clear it properly tonight, but to be honest, he really wasn't in the mood for it at all, and it had been a tiring day. Reaching into his pocket he decided to deal with his mail instead.
Slitting open the first envelope, he glanced over the butcher's scrawl before putting it in his 'to do' pile for the next day. Next he turned to the envelope with the unfamiliar handwriting, neatly slitting open the seal, sliding out the enclosed letter and unfolding the pages. Glancing briefly down to the bottom of the last page to find out the identity of the sender, he raised his eyebrows in surprise upon seeing the name of his late cousin's husband at the bottom, a Mr George Riley. He had never met the man in person, a disagreement between his grandfather and his great-uncle some years ago having kept the two sides of the family not on speaking terms for some years now. Mildly intrigued, he turned to the opening paragraph and began to read.
Dear Mr Corey
I hope this letter finds you in good health. I know we have never actually had the good fortune to meet one another due to the rather infamous rift between our sides of the family. However I will come straight to the point and not tip toe around with niceties. As you may or may not know, my late wife's grandfather, your great-uncle, passed away recently and the contents of his will have just been disclosed this past weekend.
It seems that the old man was fairly canny in business matters towards the end of his life and had amassed a reasonably substantial fortune by time he passed away. His will stated that the money was to be split three ways; a third to go to my late wife's sister, a third to be divided between my two daughters, and then a final third of the estate which is where you are concerned.
With your great-uncle's death, you are the sole surviving male member of the Corey family and, while your great-uncle was very fond of his granddaughters, he was concerned that the Corey family would be no more upon your death. He therefore stated in his will that he was prepared to overlook the continuing disagreements between the sides of the family and leave the last third of his estate to you. There is however a caveat; there must be a likelihood that the Corey line will continue and so the condition upon you inheriting the money is that you are married, or at the very least engaged. I'm not aware at the moment that you are married but the old man was very emphatic on that point in his will and there is no way around it.
In any case, I would very much like to hear from you. It seems a shame that perhaps the only thing that will bring this old argument between the family to a close is money, however let us hope that we can finally lay it rest.
I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Jarvis pinched himself just to make sure he wasn't dreaming before reading the letter through once more to check he hadn't misunderstood. This had to be the most bizarre letter he had ever received. Taking off his spectacles, he placed the letter back down on the desk before staring distractedly out into the corridor, one thought now on his mind; just where the hell was he going to find a wife at such short notice!
"It's ridiculous Felix" the butler expounded to the chef the next day just before supper, when he was still no nearer to seeing a solution "That quarrel between my grandfather and great-uncle was donkey's years ago. Trust the old sod to still bear a grudge."
"Well he could have cut you out the will entirely" Felix replied reasonably "He didn't have to include you."
"Well why shouldn't he?" Jarvis retorted indignantly "I am part of the family. And it's no less than I deserve in retrospect; he refused to help out my father when I was young, the farm almost went under, it's a near miracle it didn't and we weren't all packed off to the workhouse."
"Hmmm" was the chef's non-committal reply "So what are you going to do?" he asked as the pair made their way along the corridor towards the upper servants' dining room.
"God knows" Jarvis replied despondently "Somehow I magic a potential wife out of nowhere or it's Taplows for the rest of my life and goodbye retirement."
"Ahh so gloomy my friend!" Felix responded cheerfully, clapping the butler on the shoulder "Just think, if you leave all this, you won't be able to moan about the Earl to me on a regular basis!"
Glaring back at the chef as they reached the dining room, Jarvis could only manage an unimpressed snort in reply as he opened the door and strode into the room.
"Mr Jarvis" the housekeeper called out suddenly, appearing before him just as he was about to take his seat.
"Mr Jarvis I was just wondering whether or not the Earl had decided to go to Bristol at the weekend or not?"
"No he hasn't quite made up his mind yet. I'll try and encourage him to do so this evening." Jarvis replied distractedly, glancing up at the housekeeper briefly who nodded in acknowledgement before moving to her end of the table.
Taking his place at the head of the table, Jarvis sat in silent contemplation waiting for the rest of the senior staff to take their places, a slight frown creasing his brow. This bloody letter had been virtually the only thing on his mind since yesterday evening. It just seemed so unfair, why should he be discriminated against by his great-uncle just because he had decided to remain a bachelor? It wasn't that he was unhappy with his life at the moment, in fact he considered himself very lucky in having a job that he enjoyed most of the time. But when the prospect of a decent retirement was so tantalisingly close it was utterly frustrating!
It was these thoughts that kept him occupied throughout dinner, so much so that he could only respond distractedly whenever anyone directed a question towards him. Finally the other staff got the hint that their butler was not in the most communicative of moods and left him to absentmindedly frown into space past the housekeeper at the other end of the table.
Sighing slightly as he leant back in his chair while the pudding bowls were cleared away, Jarvis let his eyes roam over the other members of staff present, taking them in properly for the first time that meal. Glancing round, his eyes skimmed quickly over the valets and Felix, before turning to the ladies present. He surreptitiously looked round appraisingly at the ladies' maids although giving a slight inward shudder at the thought of having to ask Mrs Diggins to be his wife, before briefly glancing over the housekeeper who was delicately sipping her glass of wine.
What a hopeless task he thought. Sighing despondently, Jarvis picked up his own glass of wine and drained the remainder before indicating for it to be refilled. Picking up his now full glass, he sat back in his chair, letting all the dinner table conversation flow over him, his eyes automatically coming to rest on the housekeeper opposite him. Taking a sip of wine, he watched as she responded to something Felix said to her putting down her wineglass before dabbing neatly at her mouth with her napkin. As he watched her focus on the chef, oblivious to his scrutiny, the most preposterous thought suddenly flashed across his mind. Shaking his head to clear it, he glanced down at the wine, had he perhaps had more glasses than he thought if he was coming up with ideas like that. However now it had appeared, the idea refused to go away completely. In fact, the longer he sat and watched Flora Ryan, the more it became the only thing on his mind. She would never agree to such a thing though. This was Flora Ryan; paragon of saintliness and virtue to the extreme. If he could even persuade he to think about it that would be a miracle in itself.
Eventually realising she was being watched; Flora looked up from her conversation with the chef, blushing slightly when she caught the frown of concentration on the butler's face as he stared at her. Unnerved by such scrutiny, she looked away, only to glance back again a second or so later to see Jarvis still staring.
Realising he had been caught; Jarvis finally looked away, shaking his head to try and rid himself of all these ridiculous notions. Persuade Flora Ryan to marry him for money? What was he thinking! Definitely must be the wine. Glancing up however, he caught the chef looking at him, an amused smile playing round his lips as he shook his head knowingly at the butler.
Pushing back his chair a few minutes later, the butler got to his feet, nodding goodnight to the ladies, he made his way to the door, intending to try and get a bit of that damn paperwork out of the way tonight. Striding down the corridor, he was about to open the door to his office when someone called out to him.
"I thought you might like some company over a brandy my friend?" Felix asked hopefully, catching up with the butler as he stood with his hand on the door handle.
"I wish I could Felix but I've had this bloody great pile of paper on my desk for god knows how long now, and if I don't clear it tonight then it'll just get worse." Jarvis replied wearily, rubbing his hand over his forehead.
"Five minutes that's all. Indulge me!" Felix pleaded "It will make the work go quicker afterwards!"
Sighing, the butler pushed open the door, making his way over to the drinks cabinet "Five minutes is all you're getting."
Cradling his brandy as he settled into the butler's fireside chair, Felix looked up at his friend as the butler poured his own drink. "So"
"So Felix" Jarvis retorted.
"You've found a solution to your problem!" Felix asked in amusement.
"What are you talking about?" Jarvis replied in confusion, his forehead creasing in a slight frown.
"I saw you at dinner!" Felix teased knowingly "Couldn't keep your eyes off her!"
"Felix!" Jarvis snapped, glaring at the chef.
"Don't deny it!" Felix laughed "Come my friend, admit it, you were thinking it!"
"Thinking what?" Jarvis retorted somewhat petulantly.
"That if you could persuade the illustrious Flora Ryan to marry you then it would rather nicely solve your little financial dilemma." Felix responded with a grin.
Taking a deep swig of his brandy, Jarvis turned to glare at the chef "I wasn't necessarily thinking that. I was simply thinking practically. I've only got another couple of months or so to find someone willing to marry, or at least willing to appear engaged to me. And with only one day off a month I'm not very likely to encounter a suitable fiancée in the near future. Therefore if I want to have any hope of inheriting, then I have to look at the women already in my acquaintance. In all honesty, who else at that dining table would possibly be a candidate? Or do you think I should perhaps ask Mrs Diggins if she would do me the honour eh!"
"No, no" murmured Felix, sipping at his brandy as the butler continued his rant.
"And anyway, why is it such a preposterous idea? I have known Mrs Ryan for years, she is a sensible woman, perfectly agreeable – well, most of the time." He added more to himself "I don't know why I didn't think of her in the first place, she's the only real option there is."
"How romantic!" Felix remarked innocently, raising an eyebrow at the butler.
"Do you have any better suggestions?" Jarvis demanded.
"No, no" Felix replied hastily "I think it's a wonderful plan, ingenious."
"So you will go to Mrs Ryan and simply ask her to marry or to pretend to marry you so that you can then go off and collect a nice inheritance, leaving her…..where?"
"I haven't worked out the details yet." Jarvis muttered, through a clenched jaw, taking another deep swig of brandy.
"Ahh of course…..Well I'm sure it will all work out."
"I'm glad to hear it!" Jarvis retorted half-sarcastically "Now why don't we talk about someth…"
"There just seems to be one minor flaw…."
"Which is?" Jarvis asked in exasperation, wishing he'd never brought the bloody subject up. Felix was just being irritatingly pernickety as usual.
"She'll never agree to it!"
A couple of days later, the butler found himself pacing up and down in front of the housekeeper's office door. No matter what Felix's objections to the idea, it had been pretty much the only thing on his mind for the last few days. Surely it was the only available option and he had carefully thought through how to put it to her so as to try and offend her as least as possible. He just hoped he didn't end up with a slap in the face for his troubles.
Taking a deep breath to shake off this uncharacteristic apprehensiveness, he knocked sharply on the door before pushing it open.
"Mr Jarvis" the housekeeper said in some surprise, having looked up from her fireside chair upon hearing the knock on her door "Can I help you?"
Closing the door firmly behind him, Jarvis stepped into the room, pausing as he wondered just how to begin. However before he could say anything else, the housekeeper had cut in.
"The Earl hasn't changed his mind about this weekend has he? Not when we've made all the arrangements already?"
"No, no" Jarvis replied automatically "Everything is still as it was."
"Very good." Flora replied quietly, watching the butler in some puzzlement as he paced over to the window.
"Are all the maids arrangements sorted for the weekend as well?" Jarvis asked absentmindedly, staring out of the window as he tried to work out how to bring up his suggestion.
"Naturally Mr Jarvis." Flora responded with a touch of indignation, since when did the butler concern himself with the maids anyway?
"Was there something else you wanted Mr Jarvis?" Flora asked tentatively when a few moments later the butler still had his back to her and was staring out the window. If that was all he wanted to do then could he not do it elsewhere and leave her to read her book in peace!
Turning back round to face the housekeeper, Jarvis pulled up another chair to the fireside and sat down. "There was something else I wanted to discuss Mrs Ryan."
"It's rather a delicate matter. I don't quite know how to bring it up…" Jarvis paused, looking up at the housekeeper who had now put down her book and was watching him with interest. "I received a letter the other day…telling me my great-uncle had passed away recently."
"Oh I'm sorry to hear that." Flora murmured automatically.
"We weren't close. In fact I hadn't seen the man for years, there was an argument between him and my grandfather some years ago that meant our two sides of the family weren't on speaking terms."
"Ahh I see." Flora murmured again, wondering what on earth this had to do with her.
"Anyway it seems my great-uncle was a man of not inconsiderable means by the time he passed away and a third of his estate has been left to me…..But that's not the end of the matter" Jarvis added as the housekeeper made to say something. "You see I'm the last surviving male in the Corey family, there is therefore a condition upon my inheriting the money; I must be married, or at the very least be engaged so as to ensure the prospect of the Corey name continuing."
Sitting back in her chair as she digested that particular bit of information, Flora's mind was working ten to the dozen, why was Mr Jarvis telling her all this? He couldn't seriously be asking her what she thought he might be could he?
"That seems a little unfortunate Mr Jarvis." She eventually replied diplomatically.
"It does indeed."
"But how does this concern me?" Flora asked, an unreadable expression on her face as she stared at the butler.
"I…I know this is highly impertinent of me and in the past we have had….well…let us say clashes over money matters." Jarvis began somewhat awkwardly "However I wondered if you consider a business proposal?" Looking up at the housekeeper and seeing no signs that she was about to throw him out of her office yet, the butler ploughed on. "The sum I stand to inherit is fairly sizeable and a half of that figure would still be a substantial amount. There is, however, a certain time by which I must collect the money and in my current position I think it is highly unlikely I will meet a woman willing to marry me, or who I would want to marry."
"So what are you suggesting Mr Jarvis?" Flora pressed as she leant forward slightly, wanting him to spell it out so she could be certain she wasn't mistaken.
"As I said, I only need to be engaged. Therefore there is a possibility that we could appear to be engaged, thus rendering me eligible to inherit the money, which I would of course then split equally with you. After which, there would be nothing to stop us from 'calling off our engagement and going our separate ways with a sizeable sum in our pockets."
Sitting back in her chair, Flora turned her head slightly so she could gaze into the fire. It was all so surreal, she still wasn't sure if she could believe what she had just heard. Mr Jarvis, her Mr Jarvis had finally shown some interest in her but in a way very different from how she had always imagined. It was hardly the most romantic of proposals she had ever received.
"Please take all the time you need to think about it." Jarvis muttered when the housekeeper continued to stare into the fire and not reply.
"Thank you." Flora said softly, finally looking back round at the butler.
"Not at all, it is I who should be thanking you for even considering it. I know I must seem abominably rude and out of line for ever suggesting such a thing, I just…can't see any other way." Jarvis replied seriously, trying to determine from her expression whether he had a hope in hell of her ever saying yes but getting nothing. "I'll leave you to your book now, my apologies for disturbing you." He added as the housekeeper waved his concerns away. "Goodnight Mrs Ryan."
"Mr Jarvis" Flora responded distractedly as the butler made his way to the door, leaving her to stare back into the fire, her mind now far too occupied to carry on with her book.
A day or so later, Flora Ryan was making her way through the main house and up to the second floor to supervise some of her maids with the preparation of the guest rooms. However, as had been the case for the past couple of days, her mind was not really on the task in hand. She had not slept well the other night, nor had she really been able to concentrate on anything else since Mr Jarvis's 'proposal', if one could call it such a thing.
She still had no idea what she was going to say to him. Her mood alternated between flattery that she was the one he had asked, and anger at the thought that that was all she was to him, just a means to an end. She could tell he was also desperately trying not to ask her whether or not she had made up her mind. She wasn't consciously trying to avoid him either but had not made any effort to spend any protracted amount of time with him alone and had made her excuses and left as soon as possible whenever it had been just the two of them. However she had noticed a slight difference in his behaviour towards her the past couple of days, he was definitely being friendlier; how he had been a year ago when he returned from Italy and that was certainly something she appreciated and something she was not sure would last were she to refuse his offer.
Turning into the room that was supposed to be being prepared, Flora nodded approvingly at the job her maids had already done, moving over to the dressing table to slightly rearrange the vase of flowers that sat there. So engrossed was she in checking the rest of the room that she did not notice the chef enter the room until he was only a few feet from her.
"My goodness, Mr Kraus!" Flora exclaimed, clutching a hand to her chest in shock "I didn't see you there."
"My apologies Mrs Ryan" Felix replied sincerely "I didn't mean to disturb you."
"No, no, it's fine" Flora replied as her heart beat returned to a more normal rate "I just wasn't expecting to see you. Can I help you with anything?"
"Mr Jarvis told me that you had the new list of dietary requirements for the hunt dinner next week so I thought I would come and find you."
"Oh yes I do, but it's on my desk I'm afraid, I can bring it down to you before lunch if you would like." Flora replied, wondering why the chef had seen fit to search the house to ask for such a simple thing.
"That would be wonderful, thank you Mrs Ryan."
"Was there anything else Mr Kraus?" Flora asked curiously a few moments later when the chef was still hovering and not making any move to leave.
"Well" Felix began tentatively "There was something else…...I spoke to Mr Jarvis earlier as I said and he happened to mention that he'd made a certain suggestion to you the other day."
"Oh and so he has sent you to find out what I'm thinking has he?" Flora retorted indignantly "Well if he is the sort of man to do that then I'm not sure that I want anything to do…."
"No, no, Mrs Ryan!" Felix cut in hastily "I assure you he has no idea I am talking to you at the moment. I merely was concerned as to how you were feeling.'
"Hmmm" was the housekeeper's unconvinced response.
"It is the truth I tell you!" The chef said earnestly, laying his hand over his heart "Have you made a decision about it yet though?"
"I….I just don't know." Flora sighed, twisting a duster she had found lying about in her hands "It was such a surprise; I suppose I'm only just getting my head around it."
"That's true." Felix murmured sympathetically.
"And how do I know how many other women he's asked anyway?" Flora added, a touch of anguish entering her voice "For all I know he could have said the same thing to half the women at Taplows!"
"Oh no" Felix said quickly "You are the only one he's asked I am sure."
"Although what he will do if you say no I am not sure." the chef mused, wandering across the room and picking up the clock on mantelpiece, adjusting it ever so slightly before placing it back down, oblivious as the housekeeper's posture stiffened slightly.
"What do you mean?"
"Well I can't really see him asking Mrs Diggins can you!"
"Perhaps someone younger though, that new housemaid, the blonde one, quite pretty….you know the one I mean….."
"I hardly think Mr Jarvis would ask Betty." Flora snapped "She must be half his age if she's a day."
"Well I still haven't made up my mind." Flora backtracked hastily "It's just not something to be entered into lightly."
"Although according to Mr Jarvis, you wouldn't actually have to marry."
"No….that is true." Flora murmured, half to herself, and for a moment Felix was sure he could detect a note of wistfulness in her voice.
"Ahh, I'm sure the two of you will come to some arrangement!"
"Thank you Mr Kraus." Flora retorted sharply, not liking the implications in the chef's statement.
"I'm sure it will all work out Mrs Ryan." Felix replied with a wink "I'll stop disturbing your cleaning now and collect that list later."
"Of course Mr Kraus." Flora replied crisply, watching as the chef backed out the door leaving her, if possible, even more confused than before as to what to do.