Disclaimer: Gosford Park and all related elements, characters and indicia © Sandcastle 5 / Chicago Films / USA Films / Capitol Films and the Film Council / Focus Features / Universal 2001. All Rights Reserved. All characters and situations—save those created by the authors for use solely on this website—are copyright USA Films / Focus Features / Universal.
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Author's Note: Written for Sängerin for the Yuletide 2007 Challenge. Thank you to hafital for beta reading beyond the call.
And Seas May Lie Between
by Tara O'Shea
Wormwood Scrubs Prison
11 July, 1944
From the personal journal of Ivor Novello.
My ordeal is almost at an end. As I sit here on this grubby cot, staring at the grimy walls, I cannot help but feel a profound sense of relief that by this time tomorrow, I shall be back at the flat with dear Bobbie and Olive at my side, as if the last four weeks never happened. It will be difficult to sit again in the Rolls-Royce as Morgan drives me home, knowing that all this arose out of my selfish and childish desire to get my own way. I shall never be able to look at another petrol coupon the same way again, certainly. I shudder still to think how I will be greeted by the world outside these walls, but oh to see Bobbie again. And to go home. This I long for more than I ever thought possible.
I have made one friend — if the type of acquaintance one can make among such sub-human creatures can in fact be called a friend — at Wormwood Scrubs. He is a deserter turned black marketteer called "Mad Frankie" Fraser. He's the lowest sort of fellow, but kind in his own way, though already a hardened criminal at scarcely 20 years of age. Frankie makes sure he is at my side whenever the bully-boy 'screws' (as he calls the guards) try and molest me, which they dare not do when he is nearby. He asked me to autograph a slip of paper for him to pass along to his dear mother, whom I can only think of (without ever voicing such a thought, of course) as 'Mrs Mad Frankie'. Still, one must honour one's fans. Even when it was a fanatic (in the truest sense of the word) who put me in this ghastly place.
Frankie noted, as I bid him farewell this evening, that it must have been a shock to a man like me (by which I can only assume he means "a man of the theatre") to be incarcerated among such men. That I must never have met anyone capable of killing another human being before being exiled to Wormwood Scrubs. Still, I chose not to disabuse him of this quaint notion, because it came to me then that of course I had.
What shocked me — to my core — however was not the realisation itself, so much as the acknowledgement that, even knowing what I know now, I still thought of him fondly. Even after all these years.
I wonder whatever became of Robert Parks.
Ivor almost didn't hear the knock.
He was bent over a bowl filled with hot water, a towel over his head and shoulders to trap the steam as he warmed up his vocal chords which protested due to a combination of fatigue and his usual daily allotment of 60 Abdulla cigarettes.
It had been a very long two days.
Usually Ivor never went out with the guns, choosing instead to spend the morning in bed and then go out with the ladies at luncheon. However, Morris had asked him to come along, and he could hardly send him out with just Henry. Used to props which fired blanks, Ivor had only half-jokingly worried they might get winged by a passing shot. The charade — that Morris needed to attend the shoot as research for his film — had to be maintained. As for Henry... well, Ivor had little doubt why Morris wanted him with him at all times. And Henry would have only sulked if left behind with nothing to do but smoke and read in the servants' hall. So he had been up with the sun it had seemed, and dinner felt like a midnight supper after all the day's excitement.
Then of course there had been the murder.
From the moment he'd seen the silver knife in William's chest, everything had slid sidewise and become slightly unfocussed. As if he were on a set, waiting for the director to call "cut" but it just went on and on. Morris of course was mining it all for his script, and Henry only seemed concerned his duplicity might arouse suspicion.
But for Ivor, it meant losing something quite significant. Not William per se, but the idea of safety. During the Great War, Ivor had avoided being sent to the front by enlisting in the Air Corps, at the suggestion of his dear friend Edie Marsh. There had been the assumption — never challenged by anything so mundane as reality — after he'd crashed his second plane and they had assigned him to a desk, that Ivor would witness no more death and destruction first-hand. Not unless it was carefully scripted, all the blood red-dyed syrup which could simply be washed away afterwards.
But there had been no blood, of course. That had made it all the more surreal. There William sat, grey-faced yet still appeared to be nothing more than asleep. The knife protruding from his ribcage shattered the image of rest. It had affected Ivor deeply, and he hadn't fallen into bed until nearly dawn the next morning, and even then barely slept a wink. He would have liked nothing more than to have lain in bed all day, but instead had accompanied Morris to breakfast in the dining room a scant four hours after he'd stripped off his boiled shirt and tails.
Sylvia had called off the shooting, despite Raymond's belief that what they all really needed was something to keep their minds off the terrible tragedy. The something in mind being of course tromping through the rain-drenched grounds for hours on end, after a few braces of pheasants. Ivor, however, believed that nothing short of another war or losing a limb could force Stockbridge to miss a shoot. The beaters had milled around the stables all morning, in the hopes that they might be needed (and earn a day's wage) before they were dismissed and headed, grumbling, back to the village. The entire schedule was thrown to the four winds, leaving everyone glumly making small talk in the salon, or hiding in their rooms as they awaited the dreaded summons by the police.
Immediately after breakfast, Inspector Thompson had taken Ivor into the library for the better part of an hour, but much of the conversation had been one-sided, as the man tried to find common ground to exploit between them. Apparently he had heard his mother's choir several times over the years, and thought the way to ingratiate himself to Ivor was by praising Clara as loudly and as often as he could. It would have been better for him had Ivor not just the week before paid off yet another of his mother's creditors, this time involving some mad scheme to relocate to New York. He adored his mam, he did. But she was not the path to his affections.
Thompson's subordinate had managed to sneak a few questions in — mainly asking who left the drawing room the night before, while Ivor was playing. And how long had he played, had he noticed anyone going in or out. Ivor could only truthfully recall Freddie Nesbitt slinking off while Mabel was left staring forlornly at the empty seat next to Isabel at the bridge table. Ivor had felt sorry enough for her to invite her to take a seat next to him at the piano, and then basked in the fierce glow of her adoration. Quite the balm to his bruised ego after Raymond's remarks, and it had the added advantage of positively infuriating Lady Trentham. That alone was reason enough to be kind to all the world's Mabels. Her knowing how a glove fit was more practical knowledge of the world and how it worked than any of Lord Carton's daughters had ever cultivated in their lives.
Ivor longed for the solitude of his flat above the Strand theatre, which he and Bobbie referred to only as "The Flat" as if it were the only flat in the world. Indeed, it sometimes was — his own private hide-a-way from sycophants and strangers, critics and curiosity-seekers, and most of all the legions of young women who gathered outside the stage door like children seeking Father Christmas.
Instead, he was to stay at least another night in the country — or more, if the investigation wasn't concluded swiftly. He'd wanted to call Bobbie, but the only phone was in the foyer, hardly the place for a private conversation. And he'd have to dislodge Morris, which would be a feat in itself.
At the second light knock, Ivor's reverie was at last broken, and he opened the door to a tall man in the ubiquitous dark suit of one in service.
"You're Lord Stockbridge's man, aren't you?"
"Parks, sir. Mr Jennings sent me to attend you, sir."
Ivor stepped aside, admiring the valet's broad shoulders as he stepped into the cosy bedchamber that had been assigned him. Parks was tall — taller than Ivor, but only just. Most valets were tall, of course, many having been hired as footmen specifically for their height. And, Ivor thought with a small smile, their looks.
Raymond's valet was no exception. His nose appeared to have been broken at least once, but it served only to lend his face character as it emerged from the nebulousless of youth into maturity. While he would never rival Ivor's profile, or the feminine beauty of Henry, he was still pleasing to the eye with thick dark hair, clear skin, a strong jaw line. Ivor placed him as perhaps ten years his junior, from the lack of silver in his hair.
"I appreciate Jennings' concern, but there's no need," Ivor said graciously as he indicated his boiled shirt, tails, and trousers hanging in the wardrobe. "As you can imagine, I've been looking after myself these past few days."
"It's no bother, sir," Parks insisted, and for a moment Ivor was worried he was a fan. However Parks' body language and tone were respectful and deferent, but also above all unconcerned. As if it truly did not matter to the man whom he attended. Only that the butler of the house had asked him, and he was doing his duty, or so Ivor assumed.
Ivor removed his dressing gown, feeling not the slightest bit self-conscious as Parks' expression remained blandly disinterested as he took the tuxedo trousers from their hanger. A pity, Ivor thought absently as he laid a hand on Parks shoulder and stepped into the trousers. Handsome servants really are the best he had told Morris the night before in the salon after the police had gone. George, as always, had merely smirked. Ivor was sure the first footman had his own war stories to tell where Sylvia was concerned. He had no fears of being indiscreet in this house. Say what you might about Sylvia, she always hired the best servants. They probably knew more secrets than the organisation at Cromwell Road, but never a breath of scandal passed their lips where anyone might hear. Well, anyone who might tell anyone who might matter.
"I do hope that Henry's little charade wasn't too trying for you."
"Sir?" Parks paused in the act of untying Ivor's dressing gown with brisk efficiency.
"It was Morris' idea, I'm afraid. It's this film he's working on. Henry has ideas about playing one of the roles, and Morris is indulging him."
As the valet laid out Ivor's tuxedo shirt, Ivor noted that Parks' hands were large, the nails immaculately clean as was expected.
"Anyway, when Henry approached him with the idea of tagging along to a proper manor house in the country, Morris thought it would be good research. William only went along with it I think because the idea amused him for a moment. I don't think he really was interested in films, truly. Just in having something of his own. An interest."
"As you say, sir."
"In any case, it was a foolish mistake. I hope it didn't inconvenience anyone too much. Other than Sylvia, of course."
Ivor considered the entire affair with Sylvia taking her pick of handsome visiting servants as tiresome. It wasn't as if William was exactly lily-white when it came to availing himself of the favours of the help. His little maid was proof of that, and there had been rumours going back to Ivor's childhood about the girls in his factories. Being male, no-one had thought to keep such lurid tales from Ivor, and William himself a time or two when in his cups had alluded to more than a few trysts with willing young females. Some of whom, Ivor dimly remember, still worked in the house.
Still, it had made the shooting party so much more complicated than it needed to have been. Ivor couldn't have come up with a more convoluted plot for a drawing room farce had he tried. Except those usually ended in lavish Gypsy weddings — not murder.
"Of course, sir." Parks turned away, then paused. "Although... I'm given to understand he gave one of the visiting maids quite a fright."
Ivor blanched, imagining — unfortunately all too vividly — Henry mistaking some poor scullery maid for a woman of easy virtue. "I see. Was — is she all right?"
"She's fine, sir. It went no further than a fright, that's all."
"I'll have Morris speak with him."
"I'd appreciate that, sir."
"Which maid?" Ivor asked as he searched his memory, trying to conjure an image of Henry's unusual favourite type and matching it against the faces he'd seen in the corridors since arriving Saturday.
"Lady Trentham's, sir."
Ivor knew he should not have been shocked, but he'd had a fleeting glimpse of the girl when they'd found Lady Trentham's car stopped by the side of the road. She'd been half-drowned, and looked perhaps all of fifteen years old, though he knew she must have been at the very least old to have left home and taken a job in London. Hardly Henry's usual quarry, to be sure. Ivor pitied the poor girl. Lady Trentham had spent most of tea in the drawing room listing the girl's many deficiencies, and painting herself as quite the saint for taking her on and training her up to be a useful member of society out of the goodness of her heart, rather than the meanness of her purse.
"What on earth was Henry thinking?" Ivor closed his eyes, as if in pain. "He wasn't thinking, of course. He never does."
Ivor had met Henry at a party in Los Angeles. He'd absolutely loathed his months in Los Angeles, where no-one seemed to take him seriously as an actor. Even his talents as a writer were wasted as he watched play after play of his re-written until completely unrecognisable by the gum-chewing children that seemed to populate the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offices. His last effort had been a polish on Cyril Humne's Tarzan script, starring a beautiful young Olympic swimmer. He'd spent most of his time with Douglas Fairbanks and Joan Crawford, who had given him his true entrée into Hollywood society.
Henry Denton was a contract player at Fox Studios, who had worked on dozens of pictures that year, but never in a speaking role. Henry had let it drop to anyone who would listen that he had been picked up by Friedrich Murnau, who had been his lover. As Murnau had just died — killed in a terrible auto accident with his valet, a beautiful Filipino — there was no-one there to nay-say him. It was just the first of a long string of prominent men with forbidden romantic pursuits Henry claimed to have satisfied during his brief time in Movietone City. But Ivor had allowed himself to be charmed by the almost unworldiness of Henry's beauty. The young man unfortunately knew exactly how attractive he was to both sexes, and Ivor soon tired of his narcissism.
In truth, Ivor was simply used to being the clever, charming one. Henry didn't seem to understand his place — and so Ivor had gently ousted him from his orbit. Still, Henry was a fixture at a certain type of Hollywood party, and it was no real surprise when he appeared, affixed to Morris like a barnacle to a whale.
"Well, he'll be gone in a week. Back to Hollywood, with Morris."
"Will you be going overseas as well, sir?"
"Oh no. No, I've served my time in that particular institution. I much prefer the theatre, truth be told. There's just something about performing to a live audience — that electricity that you can't capture posing for a camera, no matter how good the director. Do you ever go to the theatre, Parks?"
"Now and then, sir," Parks replied. "I saw you, sir, once."
"Really? Which play?"
"The one where you have the dodgy Russian accent, sir."
Ivor laughed. He tried to picture Parks in the pit at the Prince of Wales, towering above the other denizens. The mental image simply refused to form. A bare-knuckled boxing match in the street, certainly. Among the perfumed masses at an opening night? It wasn't that he found Parks at all coarse, despite the London accent that was more barrow-boy than Eaton school tie. But there was something about Parks that put Ivor in the mind of a completely different milieu.
"Did you like it?"
"It was alright, sir. I thought you were quite good in it."
"I wrote that, you know. They've asked to turn it into a film. I think Maurice will let me keep Ursula, at least. I'll try and do better with the accent. For your sake."
"Don't go to any trouble on my account, sir," Parks said, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards in a faint smile.
In that moment, regardless of whatever class barriers might exist between them, Ivor decided he liked Parks immensely.
"I suppose I shall have poor Mabel Nesbitt hanging all over me again this evening. We're quite the exclusive club, really. The jester, and the girl who married above her station and will be punished for all time for it. Unless Lady Trentham finds another target, which I find doubtful. She's a shrewd one. She can't snipe at poor dead William for being common. Not in good taste. Mrs Nesbitt and I present far too a broad target to miss."
"It's only for another night or two, sir."
"Yes, of course. That Inspector Thompson was more interested in telling me how he saw me perform during the war, than my whereabouts last night. Well, that, and asking me why I travel under an assumed name, at the prompting of Mr Dexter."
"He was very curious about how exactly I was related to William, when we didn't share a surname. An old family name, Novello. The old family in question may have been Italian. And not necessarily related to me by blood, no matter what my darling Mam might claim. It's hard to picture Drury Lane selling out for — " the pitch of his voice was suddenly the musical sing-song of South Wales, "David Davies from Cardiff."
Like a party trick, his voice returned to the cultured accent he affected around William and his family and their ilk. "After that, they just wanted to know why Henry was trying to pass himself off as Scottish." He shook his head. "Americans really don't have the slightest idea. To them, I suppose it all just sounds quite posh. I tried to talk Henry out of the accent, but he was convinced he could pull it off. Stupid.
"I wish I'd never mentioned William to Morris, now. Then none of us would be here. Maybe if we had... I suppose we'll never know." He sighed, leaning back on the bed as Parks knelt to lace his black patent leather dress shoes. "He was an odd mixture. Better and worse than people imagined him. Poor William. I always thought him the luckiest person I knew. I wonder what his star sign was?"
"Gemini, sir," Parks replied absently and without hesitation, his eyes still on his work as he brushed Ivor's trousers.
"Hmmm? Now, how on earth do you know that?" Ivor breathed, and Parks paused then, his face betraying a hint of something Ivor couldn't quite identify as he replaced the brush on the side table. Parks raised his head, making eye contact with Ivor. His eyes were a startling shade of green beneath dark brows. They simply stared at one another for the space of a few seconds, and then the moment was broken as Parks turned and collected Ivor's soiled clothes from the back of the chair.
"I think I'd better have these washed, sir. They still won't say how long you're going to be here."
Without a backward glance, Parks left. Ivor watched him go, the door clicking shut behind him. He felt, quite absurdly, as if he had been dismissed rather than the other way around. It was an extraordinary feeling, and not one Ivor much liked.
He took the last cigarette from the now-empty packet of black Turkish cigarettes, and inhaled deeply.
His chauffeur Morgan always joked that Ivor smoked in order to collect all the Cinema Stars cards inserted in each pack — his own card being a jealously hoarded prize by school boys and sighing factory girls for the last decade. But he'd begun smoking on-stage in "The Rat" and continued the habit off-stage long after the popular show had closed, despite the damage it did his voice. The truth was, Ivor liked having something to do with his hands. He liked the very business of smoking, and watching the patterns the smoke made as it twisted in the air.
Gemini, Ivor mused as he slipped on his jacket. The twins. That was very like William, in a way. It was difficult to reconcile the gruff old man who doted on his dog and, occasionally, his daughter with the cut-throat businessman who had kept two factories going thanks to an inexhaustible supply of teen-aged girls willing to sacrifice their youth and many cases their virtue in order to fill their families bellies.
Gemini, indeed, Ivor mused. After all, he had been murdered twice.
Dinner was subdued, with the exception of Lavinia fretting over her missing husband. Ivor kept up a stream of empty chatter with Mabel, but even she seemed to be wearying of the strain. The empty seat at the end of the table was not unlike being visited by William's ghost. The only thing to recommend his absence was his lapdog that no longer begged for scraps beneath everyone's feet, shedding on the gowns and trouser-legs. Ivor hadn't seen the little dog since it had been shooed out of the library the night before by Sylvia. He wondered idly what had become of it.
Ivor's thoughts continued to return to Parks.
He'd seen the valet in passing in the corridor over the last two days, travelling to and fro from the servants' hall and the Stockbridge's generously appointed rooms. Parks went about his business quietly, efficiently, and in as much as Ivor could tell, with a pleasant demeanour. While Meredith's man could barely disguise his hatred for his master, Parks' face never betrayed a hint of what he might actually feel, beyond mild amusement.
Ivor's own room was further down the carpeted hallway, next to Rupert Standish and his school chum Jeremy Blond, and across from Morris.
The first night in the house had been something like a French farce, as parties tried desperately not to cross paths on their various travels; Ivor's cousin Isobel sneaking into Rupert's room — scandalous behaviour for a girl her age, but hardly surprising given her upbringing; Henry slinking in and out of Morris' room, and heaven only knew where Jeremy Blond was off to at 1am. Ivor had wondered about Rupert and Jeremy. He knew from his own experience what life was like at Oxford, though in his case it had resulted in expulsion as he was, after all, a scholarship boy who ought to know better than to dally with Dons in the chapel. At least, not where anyone could catch him.
The order of precedence temporarily abandoned due to the ever-shifting number of guests to be waited on at table, Jennings had sat Henry between Standish and Blond, as they were all roughly the same age. But Rupert spent the entire dinner trying to coax a smile out of Isobel, while Blond in a stunning display of good sense, ignored all Henry's attempts at drawing him into conversation. Had he been born into the same class as Jeremy, Ivor had no doubt the complete rejection would have been benign in nature — blue blood seeking only to converse with its own nursery mates. However Ivor had it on good authority that Jeremy himself was the son of merely well to do bankers, whose blood was alas, as red as his own. So he assumed Jeremy was simply protecting his territory by freezing out the interloper. Whatever the reason, it appeared to be working quite effectively.
Like one of Ivor's mother's cats when presented with a locked door, Henry hated being left out and was convinced that whatever he was being denied was clearly that which would make him happiest in the world. But of course now that he had unfettered access to the glittering world he had been prevented from joining while posing as a valet, he was now wretched and miserable at being slighted. And Ivor had no doubt Henry had already convinced himself that he would be more comfortable downstairs with the visiting chauffeurs, valets, and maids.
Ah, Henry. Predictable to the last, Ivor thought as Henry drained his wine glass for the second time since he'd sat down, despite the fact that the wine was actually quite vile.
Henry hadn't even batted an eye when Ivor broached the subject of his accosting the poor maid. He was far too concerned with what to do about Sylvia, who continued to look right through him as if he wasn't there, while Morris sulked peevishly.
"I didn't mean anything by it," Henry had said with a casual shrug when Ivor took him aside in the salon before dinner. His attire — pure Hollywood young buck — stood out among the formal dress of the other men just as Henry stuck out like a sore thumb among his betters. He simply couldn't understand why the assembled jewels of the British upper crust weren't thrilled to have a budding film star in their midst. "Just a bit of fun."
"Do be more careful about your fun, will you?" Ivor had tried to restrain his ire. Henry might be headed back to Los Angeles on the first ship out of Southampton, but Ivor had to remain on good terms with the McCordles, for his mother Clara's sake if nothing else. He would never hear the end of it from his Mam if Sylvia barred him from all future gatherings solely due to his tenuous relationship with Henry Denton.
"Anyway, she follows Parks around like a terrier," Henry had added, his attractive features set in a sullen scowl.
Ivor raised a brow. "Parks?"
"Do you know they call everyone downstairs by their master's names? They call Parks 'Mr Stockbridge'. It's weird. He's weird."
"Just... You can't talk to the guy. Believe me, I tried. Everybody else sits around downstairs, gossiping. But not him. Even in his room, all he does is smoke and read. He talks in his sleep more than he does when he's up and walking around."
"Really? Whatever does he say?"
"Something about some woman named Jane." Henry had frowned. "That's not that maid's name, is it?"
The truth was, Ivor hadn't known the girl's name at all. But he began to understand why Parks had brought Henry's indiscretion to Ivor's attention. If Parks was fond of the girl, then he must be trying to protect her virtue. Either in the sense of an older brother to a young sibling or — and Ivor had to reluctantly admit this was more likely scenario — because he fancied her himself. Yet he had not brought it to Jennings, who would have discreetly informed Morris of Henry's faux pas. That is what he ought to have done, in as much as Ivor understood these situations. Instead, Parks had trusted Ivor with the information.
Having grown up in a relatively modest Welsh household, he had never quite got into the habit of viewing servants much like dumb pieces of furniture. Ivor didn't have servants so much as a surrogate family. From his secretary and right hand man, dear Lloydie, whom he had known since childhood and could not live without, to his chauffeur Arthur Morgan who did double duty in small roles in his plays as well, Ivor saw those he employed as people first. He hoped to God he never changed, either, as he felt he was gifted with truly loyal friends rather than paid sycophants and lackeys.
He couldn't imagine poor dear William as considering any of his servants — even Probert, who had been with him since he'd married Sylvia — as friends. They were symbols of his hard-won status among the upper echelons of British society. Accoutrements that came with the country house he'd purchased along with his baronet, and as such, were treated as props. Embellishments to complete the perfect image of the baron in his country house, even if William himself was the son of a coal miner from South Wales. Yet he must have showed a softer human side to his servants, to have Probert actually weeping as he had in the library.
Ivor tried to picture a man like Raymond Stockbridge — who, while thoroughly decent, was still only comfortable among peers — having any kind of informal relationship with a man like his valet. They came quite literally from two different worlds. Ivor's gazed settled speculatively on Stockbridge, who had taken what would have been William's place at the head of the table, no doubt thrilled to be sat as geographically far from Sylvia as possible.
As if he could feel Ivor's silent gaze weighing him down, Raymond met his eyes with almost a challenge.
"I must thank you for the loan of your valet," Ivor said with a charming smile meant to disarm, not in the least flustered to have been caught staring. "It was very much appreciated. Tell me, has he been with you long?"
"A few months. My man Carlisle was taken ill — influenza, I believe they said. He was my batman during the war. It was quite a blow when he died of it. Losing him was like losing a good right arm. He even loaded for me, during shooting season."
"You're lucky, then, to have found so competent a replacement."
Raymond muttered an affirmative and returned his attention to the soup. Louisa, however, smiled at Ivor, glad of the chance to make some small talk. Unlike her husband, Louisa didn't seem to care who Ivor's parents were. He'd always got along well with her, and he believed her tears for William were real. She was mourning an idea more than the man himself, but she alone of the shooting party seemed to actually be upset over William's death.
"It was our butler, Brooks, who secured the interview. He had excellent references."
"Really? What was his previous situation?"
"With the Earl of Flintshire, I believe," Louisa supplied, "wasn't it, Raymond?"
"Never met the man, but he spoke very highly of him," Raymond conceded.
"He's been absolutely marvellous, he really has," Louisa continued. "We've been up to Scotland shooting several times this year, and I can't imagine how we'd have managed without him."
"Quite." And the subject quite clearly, so far as Lord Stockbridge was concerned, was closed. Louisa caught Ivor's eye, as if to say 'so sorry, darling. At least you don't have to live with him'.
As the fish course was replaced by the soup, Ivor's eyes raked the forms standing stock still behind the table, waiting for the next course to be served. George, for example, could barely control his contempt for... well... everyone. The second footman Arthur appeared to be utterly star-struck by him, and Ivor often felt his eyes following him during dinner, and he very carefully never made eye-contact. Jennings was just Jennings, as he had always been. The very model of what a servant ought to be, yet almost kind in his gruffness. Like a father-figure of the household, sharing his ceremonial place as pseudo-parent with Mrs Wilson.
William had told him once that Wilson had been quite lovely in her youth. Ivor had taken him at his word. It could scarcely be believed that those grey cheeks had ever been alive with blushes, as she seemed more a shade than alive.
In the past two days, Ivor had only seen Wilson flitting from place to place, always behind the scenes, the engine driving the day-to-day operation of the manor. Below stairs was her domain utterly. Ivor was more accustomed to thinking of Sylvia's maid Lewis as running the house, but that was simply an extension of Sylvia's own belief that the sun rose and set because she commanded it. He knew that Mrs Croft and Wilson were responsible for everything from the table linen to the pot of chocolate that appeared in his room nightly. Yet he remembered now seeing Wilson above stairs once last night, through an open door. Just after the police arrived, he'd seen just a glimpse of the thin, stern housekeeper, and then she'd melted into the shadows again. Ivor almost thought he had imagined her.
As dinner continued on in tense silence, Ivor realised that he had never once wondered until now just how William could have known Mrs Wilson as a girl. He had always assumed like some ancient piece of inherited furniture too heavy to be moved, she had simply come with the house. But William had only purchased Gosford after his marriage, just before Isobel was born. Ivor could not imagine Mrs Wilson's girlhood to have been any more recent than at least thirty years ago, if not more.
Ivor made his way somewhat unsteadily down the long hall from the staircase to his bedroom, his footsteps creaking slightly in the darkened hall. The clock had chimed twelve some time before, and as no-one on the coast would be up for another few hours, even Morris had given up his vigil at the telephone, forsaking Winfield Sheehan for his bed.
Normally, Ivor detested drunkenness and never touched anything stronger than champagne. "Marvellous stuff, champagne. Every home should have some," he'd been quoted many a time. But Sylvia hadn't uncorked the champagne tonight for obvious reasons, so Ivor had made do with wine at dinner, somewhat unwisely followed up with single malt. As a result, he would most likely have a sore head in the morning, and found the laces of his dress shoes uncommonly complicated.
After pulling the bell, he laid down on the turned-down bed and stared up at the ceiling, allowing his mind to wander.
He sighed. He ought never to have come to William's shooting party. Pure folly, from start to finish. This was not his milieu any more than it was Parks', Ivor thought idly. They were both forced out of their comfort zones. Playing roles to which, while they were experienced and showed a deft hand for mimicry, they were ill-suited.
In any other circumstance — were Parks not in the employ of his late cousin's brother-in-law, and therefore safely distanced from social obligation by the manners and customs of service and those who serve and those who were serviced — Ivor would invite Parks to share a drink with him and talk plainly about their likes and dislikes.
However for the time being, it was too tempting to resist pulling the velvet cord knowing it would summon the handsome valet to his bedchamber. No harm in looking, even if he did not intend to buy, Ivor thought with a lazy smile as the door opened and the object of his idle daydream appeared.
"Ah, Parks, there you are. I'm having a bit of trouble with these shoes. You tied them very tight." Ivor waved at the shoes, but remained prone atop the counterpane. "So sorry to call you. I'm keeping you from your bed."
"It's no bother," Parks said, but there was a merry light dancing in his green eyes as he knelt and began working on the laces. "Lord Stockbridge hasn't rung for me yet, so I'd have been in the servants hall waiting anyway."
The sight of him kneeling at the foot of the bed made Ivor sigh.
"I do wish Bobbie were here. Still, it's just as well he isn't. Mind you, he can't stand these people and I hardly blame him. I'm not shocking you, am I?"
"Sir?" Parks deftly undid the laces of the first shoe, the knot not giving him any trouble.
"I've been with Bobbie since the war. As you can imagine, at times it can be... difficult. In certain circles. Sylvia doesn't mind, so long as I flirt with her in drawing rooms. William pretends — pretended, I should say, ignorance."
"I don't mind at all, sir. What's done behind closed doors is none of my business."
"That's a very enlightened attitude," Ivor said as he unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it over the back of the chair.
"I like girls." Parks shrugged. "The way I see it, with fellas like you around, well... more for me, sir. Works out best for everyone."
Ivor laughed. "Quite the evening, all around. Even Mabel appears to have grown a back-bone. She is a dear thing. I do hope she lands on her feet. And I suppose you've heard about Henry."
"Heard what, sir?"
"I don't think Mr Denton will be quite as keen, tomorrow," Ivor said in a conspiratorial stage whisper. "I'll hand it to George — he has excellent aim. Not a single drop on the carpet or the sofa cushions. Very good aim. We could have used him at the front."
Ivor stepped out of his trousers and Parks helped him into his red satin dressing gown, absently brushing lint from the lapels. Ivor lay down again on top the turned-down bed, ankles crossed as Parks busied himself with picking up Ivor's evening dress where he had draped it over a chair. It was almost mesmerising, watching him work. He moved at a steady pace, never pausing, his green eyes flitting around the room to ensure he hadn't left anything.
Ivor was struck by an odd thought. Henry had come to the shooting party to learn how to play a servant. Parks played the part to such perfection, yet Ivor was sure that somehow it was play-acting of a sort. All his actions were perfect, precise, and utterly subservient but the look in his dark eyes earlier, as he'd been helping Ivor dress, had been at once amused and almost challenging.
"I used to think crashing my plane was the most frightful wreck I ever walked away from, but sometimes I look at this house... Sylvia only tolerates me at these frightful gatherings to show me off like a string of pearls she's acquired." Ivor sighed. "The one I feel sorriest for is poor Isobel. I don't think Sylvia knows quite what to do with poor Izzie. Once she left the nursery and Sylvia had to face the fact that poor Izzie was never going to be her mother in miniature, I think she just took to ignoring her, hoping she would go away."
Ivor had always been terrifically fond of children, and got on well with Isobel ever since he had first met her as a solemn, gawky child of seven at a garden party. With her frizzy dark hair which refused to hold a style for more than the first few minutes after the curling papers had been removed, and her shy smile, she had captured Ivor's heart from the moment he had laid eyes on her. William had wanted to ask him to be her godfather, but the Countess of Trentham had put her foot down and suggested quite firmly that her son Christopher really ought to be the cherished heiress' guardian should anything dreadful and tragic happen to Sylvia and William. A twenty-year old cousin — no matter how much of a fortune he had made off royalties from 'Keep The Home Fires Burning' — would simply never do.
Ivor of course, thought of himself as a bit like Isobel's Fairy Godfather, lavishing attention on her when she came out and had her season. He'd even invited her to a party at The Flat, but she'd begged off, admitting to being beyond terrified of his friends — granted, Noel would terrify anyone, so he could hardly blame her. The feather in her cap was meeting young Rupert. Though Ivor knew Standish would hardly be considered a good match, given his annual income, she'd talked of nothing else for days. He was tall, fair-haired, infinitely polite and, as near as Ivor could tell, clearly doted on her.
The truth was, Ivor longed for children of his own. But in their absence, he made do with borrowing William's. It seemed all he could do, sometimes.
Watching her in the first blush of young love, Ivor felt like a proud parent in a way. He knew during her season there had been some sort of scandal involving Freddie Nesbitt, but as he had no valet of his own to listen to the servant's hall gossip and report back, he was left wondering how poor Izzie had become entangled in such a mess. Lavinia had told him at breakfast that Freddie had weaselled his way into the shooting party solely on her invitation. If Christopher, Lord Trentham, hadn't dropped out, Freddie would never even have been invited. Of course, then Ivor would have been deprived of Mabel's charming company. Then again, it might have been worth it, to be spared the Lady Trentham's ire.
"Do you have any family, Parks?" Ivor asked, suddenly curious.
"I've a half-sister, but I've never met her."
Ivor was astounded. "How on earth did you acquire a sibling, yet avoid her completely?"
"I was raised in an orphanage," Parks said simply. Ivor waited for him to elaborate, but no more knowledge was forthcoming. Parks clearly held his secrets close.
"I'm so sorry. I had a sister — an adopted sister. Her name was Mary. She learnt German just to study piano with Leschetizky. It was before the War, of course."
"Were you close?"
"Not very. Before I was born my parents had a daughter, but she only lived for a few weeks. I suppose Miss Williams was an adequate substitute. She did play piano divinely. It always helps to have another performing Novello in the family."
Ivor allowed his gaze to rest on Parks' bent head.
"Lady Stockbridge thinks quite highly of you."
Parks remained silent and Ivor wondered if he had encroached on some forbidden subject. After all, Louisa had made it plane on many an occasion that she found Raymond's snobbishness tiresome. Perhaps she followed in her sister's footsteps when it came to begging favours of a handsome staff.
"They both do. I took the liberty of letting them know how much I appreciated the loan of you this evening. I hope you don't mind."
"Inspector Thompson says we're all to be released, sir, so I'll bring your clean things up from the laundry while you're at breakfast."
"Have they discovered who killed poor William, then, while we supped and played cards?"
"I believe the prevailing theory is that it was a cracksman, sir."
"William wasn't poisoned by Raffles. Stabbed, maybe... I suppose we'll never know."
"The gentleman thief. Have you never read the pulps?"
"I just never pictured you for the type, sir."
"Oh, my life is spent travelling from one stage to the next. There's always some magazines that make the rounds among the chorus. I used to be quite taken with detective stories, in my misspent youth. Particularly Molly of Scotland Yard. Have you ever read it?"
"Can't say as I have, sir. I prefer the classics," Parks said, removing a slim volume from his jacket pocket. Ivor leaned forward to read the title off the spine. The Count of Monte Cristo. Just then there was a tapping at Ivor's door.
"Yes?" Ivor said, vexed at being interrupted. An ashen Arthur stood outside, nearly unable to speak for nervousness.
"I'm so sorry, Mr Novello, but Lord Stockbridge just rang for his man — "
"Of course. I understand. Duty calls."
Parks inclined his head, and set Ivor's shoes next to the chair.
"Oh, and Parks?"
"I'm given to understand from Henry that you talk in your sleep."
"Really. Did I say anything interesting?"
"Oh well, you'll have to ask Henry. I wouldn't dream of asking."
He closed the door behind him, and Ivor Novello didn't see Robert Parks again for two years.
The investigation into William's death was closed — unsolved — when Inspector Thompson had been unable to locate either witnesses or credible suspects. Sir William McCordle's funeral had been a quiet affair attended only by close family. Ivor had sent a floral arrangement but chose to remain at home at Redroofs. His decision not to attend was based partly on the knowledge that Lord Stockbridge was away in Scotland, and presumably his valet with him. Bobbie had teased him mercilessly, as only Bobbie could, but Ivor refused to be ashamed that he looked forward to someday meeting Parks again on more level footing.
His wish was granted one warm August afternoon when a heavy envelope arrived by post. Inside was a gilt-edged invitation announcing the engagement of Isobel McCordle to a Mr John Ferris, marriage to be celebrated at the McCordle family home at Gosford Park. Ivor debated attending for the space of 15 seconds before he picked up the telephone and rang Sylvia.
"Darling, I've just heard. Who is the lucky fellow?"
"Some rich American with plenty of money of his own, thank heavens. It's all too extraordinary. Oh, you will come, won't you? Isobel has her heart absolutely set on you being there. With William gone, Raymond will be walking her down the aisle. But there's no-one else to represent the McCordle side of the family. No-one I'd want to spend a week with, anyway."
Ivor swallowed a laugh at Sylvia's almost unconscionable rudeness as always couched in flattery. "I'd be delighted."
"I tried to talk her into having it at St Margaret's, but she absolutely refused. I don't understand the girl. She spent more time at St Clare's than she ever did at Gosford, yet you'd swear it was her ancient ancestral home from the way she carries on. It's been shut up ever since..." Sylvia trailed off. "Well, one last hurrah, I suppose. Oh do say you'll come. Please, do. It will be ever so frightfully boring if you don't."
"Would it be alright if I brought someone?"
"Just so long as she won't stand out, dearest. My Aunt Constance is coming, and you remember what a fuss she made over Freddie Nesbitt's little wife. I didn't hear the end of it, not for weeks. I could rather do without a fuss."
'Not this time' Ivor mouthed to Bobbie, who shrugged. "Of course, Duckie. I understand completely. I'll ring you next week, and you can tell me all the gossip."
"Ivor, darling, I don't know what I'd have done without you," Sylvia said, and then rang off.
"You don't mind spending the week-end at the Flat with just Fay and Eddie for company, do you?" Ivor asked as he replaced the phone in its cradle.
"It's not as if it's the first time," Bobbie sighed.
Gosford did not seem to have changed. When Morgan pulled up, Ivor almost expected to see William standing at the door to greet him. He smiled warmly at Jennings as he climbed the steps. Good old Jennings, a permanent fixture.
"I've brought my driver, Morgan. Can you have Mrs Wilson make sure he finds his way to the stable block?"
"Mrs Wilson has left us. But I shall instruct Mrs McCallum, I'm sure she will look after him."
Ivor was shown to his room — the same room as last time, with the long pier glass in one corner, bright yellow wallpaper making it seem cheery despite the slight Autumn chill in the air which one always seemed to feel in great old houses no matter how much coal was burning.
There was something decadent about arriving in one's room to find bags unpacked, his own shaving kit laid out neatly, and a roaring fire in the grate. He'd left his dresser, Bill Wright, back in London so he imagined Jennings had pressed one of the footmen into service on his behalf. He supposed it was too much to hope Parks might be assigned to him, as a lonely valet-less bachelor. But the house was thronged with wedding guests, all of them with their servants in tow. Still, the hope lingered as he crossed to the window to gaze out at the sunset.
His guest room faced the park and if he stood to one side, he could look down at the courtyard behind the house. Lanterns hung at the kitchen door casting pools of light across the gravel as the sky began to darken to an exquisite shade of blue in the East.
There was movement below and he recognised Parks' silhouette as it separated from the purple shadows closest to the house. As Ivor watched unseen from above, Parks crossed the yard toward a girl sitting on one of the benches that lined the wall, nursing a cup of tea. Her dark hair was bobbed, and held away from her cheek with pins. Ivor couldn't be certain, but he thought it might be Lady Trentham's little Scottish maid. The last time he'd seen her she'd been helping Elsie into his car, with her precious cargo of illicit goods — William's little dog, who had to its credit not barked once the entire journey to London. Ivor wondered idly if the dog had followed Elsie to Los Angeles, where Morris had made her something of a nine day wonder. His marvellous find from across the sea. Americans did so love their Cinderella stories.
Parks sat down next to her, his thigh close enough to her black crepe dress that Ivor found himself leaning forward, his breath fogging the pane of glass. They appeared to have a pleasant discussion, and Robert stole a biscuit off her plate. She reached up to ruffle his hair affectionately, and it was somehow an intimate gesture as it was witnessed solely by Ivor, who knew he should move away but was rooted to the spot.
The girl got up to return to the servants' hall and Parks caught her sleeve. He swiftly scanned the yard to make sure no-one was watching, a gesture Ivor was all too familiar with. As he bent his head and kissed her softly, Ivor noted she still had the teacup on its saucer balanced carefully in one hand.
Ivor let the curtain twitch shut, giving them their privacy.
The red salon was full of people, only some of whom Ivor recognised. Lady Trentham was ensconced on one long sofa, her grey hair expertly waved, chatting with another matron of a similar age that may or may not have been a lady in waiting to the Queen. There were simply scads of people milling about, but as soon as she saw him, Isobel ran over to give his hand a quick squeeze.
"Hallo, dearest." He bussed her cheek with a kiss. "Congratulations."
She was still tall and thin, but seemed less coltish, as if she had grown into herself a bit more. She moved with a bit more grace, and her clothes were stylish and seemed less like a costume than her natural attire. No longer a child, and clearly a young woman. And she positively glowed with happiness.
"Ivor, this is John Ferris, my fiancé," Isobel said, presenting her young man.
"Charmed," Ivor said, shaking his hand. Ferris was enormous — obviously the product of a lifetime of consuming vast quantities of American beef. He had black hair and black eyes, and seemed utterly besotted with his English Rose wife-to-be. Only the barest flash of recognition passed over his bland features as Isobel introduced him as her cousin and a composer. Isobel had clearly got over her devastating crush on Rupert Standish, which was a pity actually as Ivor thought they were well suited to one another.
Sylvia swanned over, kissing him on both cheeks as he took a cup of tea from the tray a liveried footman silently proffered.
"Ivor, darling, I'm so glad you're here."
"Of course. Isobel looks stunning, quite grown up."
"Her mother-in-law-to-be has spent a ridiculous amount of time with her and a veritable army of French dressmakers. The effect is quite astonishing to behold."
"And how are you, my dear?"
"Still a bit like a fly in amber, I suppose. I know I need to just get on with it, but I haven't quite decided yet in which direction I shall get on."
"You've done marvellously, I'm sure. This old place seems just the same. Although, Jennings tells me Mrs Wilson has gone?"
"Oh, Wilson and Croftie both," Sylvia said with a sly smile. "I can't say I was sorry to see them go — they made me feel quite superfluous, you know."
"How extraordinary. I can hardly imagine the place without them."
"It's poor old Probert's problem now. William left him a little money, and he got it into his head to open a small hotel by the sea-side someplace. Brighton, maybe. Or Margate. I can never remember. The Parks sisters turned in their notice and joined him."
Ivor nearly spilled his tea. "The Parks Sisters?"
Sylvia didn't seem to even notice his lapse as she took a long drag off her cigarette, tapping the ash from the glowing tip into a crystal ashtray. "Didn't you know? They used to work for William at his factory in Isleworth, I think it was. He made such a fuss when we bought this pile, insisting he simply had to have them here. Then once he was gone, they couldn't get out fast enough." She sighed dramatically. "Rats from a sinking ship, if you ask me. Once Isobel is safely packed off to the Americas, I'll probably sell this place. Let them turn it into a school, or let some wealthy American take it over so he can play lord of the manor."
"I'm surprised you've kept it this long. It must be terribly hard for you."
She stared at him as if he had quite lost his wits.
"The memories," Ivor prompted, earning a brittle laugh from Sylvia.
"Oh, of course." She drifted off towards a gaggle of bridesmaids and their mothers, leaving Ivor alone with his thoughts.
Ivor didn't see Parks again until the morning after the wedding.
The wedding had been a splendid affair, and Isobel made a beautiful bride. Ivor was glad that she had found happiness, and could only pray it would be lasting. He'd already received a call from Bobbie full of glad tidings, and threats of dire bodily harm if he didn't come home as soon as possible.
"Vivien keeps saying 'oh, what a lovely dress!' to anyone and everyone. I know you adore her, but really, Ivor... it's getting to be a bit much."
"This coming from a man who has told some of the same anecdotes — down to the gestures and inflections — a dozen times, unashamed."
Ivor knew it was only the stress of a looming opening night, but he packed his cases and rang for a hallboy to take them down to the car before going down to breakfast.
Ivor gave Jennings his vales as he exited through the front door. Then on a whim, he walked down the steps and turned, circling behind the stables to the kitchen courtyard. He spotted Parks leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette as Louisa and Raymond's cases were loaded. The car was still pulled around the rear of the house, so the cases could be taken straight from the luggage lift out the kitchen door, away from the sight of the guests. Ivor joined him, lighting an Abdulla with the match Parks offered.
"Still reading the pulps, then? What was it? Sally of Scotland Yard?" Taking his cues from Ivor's behaviour, he dropped the 'sir'.
"Molly," Ivor corrected, playing his part. "You know, in the last story, she was revealed to be the daughter of the fictitious Earl of Flintshire."
"'Ivor Novello, the Musical Detective'. I bet that would sell a lot of copies."
"I have it on good authority that I am an excellent confectioner of airy trifles, but I simply cannot tackle reality. As a writer of plays, that is. Perhaps I should stick to operettas that end with lavish weddings of beautiful people desperately in love. That seems to suit me better, don't you think?"
There was a companionable silence as they finished their cigarettes, grinding the butts into the gravel. Parks leant down and pocketed his. Ivor pulled out his cigarette case and offered him another. Parks smiled ruefully as he took it.
"Have you always been in service?" Ivor asked as Parks touched the burning match to the cigarette.
"Since I was thirteen. A lot of the boys went to war, so there were jobs going. When I left the orphanage, I didn't have anywhere else to go."
"Not a lot of jobs going in Isleworth?"
"Not unless I wanted to spend my life making soap." Parks' eyes suddenly narrowed. "Who told you I was from Isleworth?"
"It was either there, or Twickenham," Ivor said with a careful shrug. "I guessed. Did your mother—" Ivor began, but Parks cut him off, blowing a cloud of cigarette smoke out through his nostrils as he shook his head.
"My mother died after I was born. When I was little... I always said it was of a broken heart. I supposed that sounds more romantic than 'cirrhosis of the liver'."
"Have you ever heard of Horace George Raynor?"
"Not that I can recall. Should I have?"
"You would have just been a boy, I think. He walked into Whiteley's one day, introduced himself to the founder, William Whiteley, and killed him.'
"He believed — or at the very least, professed to believe that he was the man's illegitimate son. He tried to take his own life, afterwards."
"What happened to him?"
"Oh, he was hanged."
Parks looked Ivor straight in the eye. "Poor bastard."
Ivor knew he ought to be afraid. If what he suspected was true — that the man standing next to him had in fact either murdered William, or had come to this house fully prepared to do so and was only prevented from the act by being beaten to the punch — then he ought to be terrified.
Ivor ought to, but he wasn't. Because while The Count of Monte Cristo was a revenge story, it was also just as much about a man seeking justice. And no matter how kind William had been to Ivor over the years, no-one could deny that there was a certain justice in how he died.
"That your car?" Parks asked as Morgan pulled up the red Rolls Royce, gravel crunching beneath its tyres.
"Morgan, you go around front. I won't be a minute."
Morgan gave him a funny look, but used to Ivor's whims, did as he was told. Ivor motioned for Parks to follow him. With a shrug, Parks ground the butt beneath his heel and removed his hands from his pockets and fell in beside him. As they rounded the corner of the house, Ivor noted with a smile that Parks eyes followed Lady Trentham's maid as she hovered around her employer like a mother hen. Despite the relatively warm morning, she wore a cloche hat and a tweed jacket was slung over her arm. She was a pretty little thing. Ivor wished he could remember her name.
"Can I ask you something?"
Parks shrugged again, knowing Ivor was going to ask his questions anyway. "If you only took the position as Raymond's valet to get close to William..."
"Why am I still here? Maybe I've still got something to look forward to."
Ivor followed his gaze to where it rested on the young girl in a cloche hat, tucking a rug around Lady Trentham's knees.
"That seems like a worthy ambition."
"And what's your life's ambition, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Me? Oh, It's nothing. A trifle, really. I want to fill the house at Drury Lane. After that, I can die happy."
Parks' eyes creased at the corners as he laughed, displaying a quick flash of white — if charmingly crooked — teeth. A miracle, considering that most young men of his generation was malnourished due to a combination of the War and the influenza epidemic that followed.
Ivor held out his hand, and Parks shook it solemnly, but his green eyes were smiling. Ivor got inside the Rolls, watching out of the rear window of the car as Parks helped Lady Trentham's maid with her coat.
Ivor never saw Parks again.