Thanks to Clio1792 for her encouragement to embark on this series of stories and for an idea that I was able to incorporate
It should not be supposed that my lovely lady gave up solving mysteries to help those in distress just because she was now able to live with her husband, her heart's desire, and had severed all official connections with Scotland Yard.
No indeed! Not only was Lady Molly too kind and compassionate a soul to resist aiding any in distress, her lively and clever mind could not resist a puzzle. And I, who remained her secretary in her married household, know too how often she was asked unofficially to help Scotland Yard to unravel some puzzle for them that the minds of mere men were unable to comprehend!
There had already been the hurried wedding, of course, some five years previously, before Captain Hubert de Mazareen had been arrested for that dastardly crime so carefully set up to implicate him; but my dear lady and her husband had a service of Blessing as soon as he had recovered from the privations of gaol to see fit to take on the duties of a husband.
It was a less private affair than the wedding, where only I and Lady Molly's father had been in attendance; He alas! Now dead three years; but still the company was select, for my lady would not invite those of her former friends who had been ready to point the finger at her beloved husband. However, her new friends from Scotland Yard were all there – the Chief, Inspector Danvers, Elliott and Pegram and all the women of the Female Department – and a few select friends who had always stood by Lady Molly even in her darkest of hours when she appeared to have given her own true love up into custody.
Oh! What a handsome couple they made, my lady's beauty and the Captain's noble mien gilded with the true beauty of happiness and love! And how our friends cheered as they left the little church! And now there was a wedding breakfast and a dance such as any woman might hope for at her wedding for the celebrations of her friends!
We retired initially to the little house at Kirk near to where so much drama had taken place; with little Emily our maid to care for the house, and a man named Peters, an erstwhile soldier in His Majesty's Household guards who had written to the Captain on his release to beg to serve him, having narrowly escaped dishonourable discharge five years previously for fighting anyone who believed the Captain's guilt. Peters was built on almost as noble proportions as his master and had reached the rank of Sergeant from which he had been broken for his partisan defence of the Captain's reputation.
And it was here that Lady Molly first discovered that her reputation had gone before her and she was called upon for aid.
We had a visitor to our little nest in the person of Miss Lily Kirk; who was by way of being a cousin of sorts to Lady Molly. You recall, of course, when Lady Molly's father died he was succeeded as Earl of Flintshire by a cousin, having only one female issue, which cousin resided therefore at Kirk Hall. The lineage was impeccable though little enough was known of the previous whereabouts of the current Earl. Enough years have passed and the Earl has seen fit to cry shame on his detractors and tell the truth to shame the devil; but at the time nothing was known.
It came about therefore that the title passed to Edward Kirk, who moved into the Hall with his Italian wife, Suzanna, and their two children, Lily, then eighteen and John, still a schoolboy.
Everyone who reads society magazines will know that Lily Kirk had become engaged to Captain Lionel Deburgh, scion of an old and proud family, whose own exploits defending the Hull trawler fleet from foolish Russians who mistook them for the Japanese is well known; and how he and his ship 'Indomitable' escorted the Russian fleet firmly all the way to Japan as one of His Majesty's observers. Captain Deburgh had recently taken an inactive post which was, as Lady Molly had said at the time, actually very active indeed since he was an adviser on improvements to the screw turbine; about which arcane technologies I had neither knowledge nor interest, and marvelled once again at the depth and breadth of my lady's understanding!
This promising young man, shy by several years of his thirtieth birthday, was the intended of Lady Molly's cousin Lily, who at just twenty-one should have been the happiest person in the world.
I was amazed therefore after Lady Molly had asked her to sit, and herself poured tea for our pretty visitor, that tears should well up in those lovely eyes.
Of course one has to remember that something of the volatile personality of the Italian could be attributed to such an excess of emotion in front of those Miss Flint had never met before; for she resembled her mother closely with dark chestnut hair, deep chocolate eyes fringed with long sooty lashes, and that creamy skin which so often occurs in those of mixed blood, neither English nor Italian but exotically beautiful.
"Cousin Molly" she said "Is it true that you are accounted an expert at solving dilemmas and helping people with troubles?"
"I have that reputation" said my Lady.
"And you are no longer connected to the police? Oh I could not bear it if you were still connected to the police, for they would be bound to make everything public!"
"You wrong them" said my lady sharply "I am no longer connected; but there have been efforts made to protect the innocent by not revealing certain facts; to my personal knowledge. What is your problem, my dear?" and she gave her sweet smile to her cousin, that smile so reassuring that no troubled soul can fail to be moved to confide in her!
"Oh Cousin Molly!" cried Miss Kirk "You know, of course, that my grandfather, your father's uncle, disowned poor father when he was young for some trouble at Oxford?"
"I knew he had been cast off by the family; I have never known any details, nor have I asked" said Lady Molly.
"It was because he was caught playing cards where he should not have been or something; I did not perfectly understand" said Miss Kirk "But he went to Italy and vowed that if the family name was ruined by him gambling moderately and just amongst friends then he would make gambling his career. It was perhaps a foolish vow, but you must recall he was very young; and he became a croupier in a casino in Naples, and when he worked there he met the owner's daughter. That is my mama. And in time father owned the casino when Grandpapa retired; and – and when he was short staffed I have helped him."
She broke down in sobs.
"Very commendable that a daughter should aid her father" said Lady Molly soothingly "And for being cast off in so wicked a way it is understandable that your father might take such an attitude; and though running a casino might be frowned upon in England, why, I presume there is no question of that?"
"Father has kept a half share in it in case any of the family need it; and has too used the profits to make many improvements at Flint Hall" said Miss Kirk with quiet dignity. "It is run by a cousin of mama's, to whom father has made over the other half for his acting as manager. But we are not likely to go there again; which is a shame. I liked living in Naples. However, I have a new life – and I love Lionel, Captain Deburgh that is, very much."
"Wherein then lies the problem?" asked my lady with much patience.
"Because of Mr Wilfrid Fanshawe!" sobbed Miss Kirk.
"Wilfrid Fanshaw? A darkly florid man who seems to have no means of support who is known to have been cautioned for frequenting illegal gambling clubs?" asked my lady intently.
"Well I know he is a gambler, and he is dark haired and florid of complexion" said Miss Kirk "For he had been to Italy not long before father was notified that he was the new Earl; and he recognised me. And he says…." she faltered "He says that if I will not break my engagement to Lionel and marry him, he will see that Lionel's family will see it broken and I will be ruined and thought to be no better than I ought to be; and my family will be embarrassed also!"
"What a monster!" I interposed indignantly.
"A monster indeed" said Lady Molly thoughtfully "And if he is indeed a blackmailer then that could provide his invisible support. Tell me, what does Captain Deburgh know of your past?"
"Everything" said Miss Kirk, simply "I have no secrets from Lionel. And he has no quarrel with what I have done; nor does he believe the terrible construction that Mr Fanshawe swears he will put upon it. But his family might indeed have reservations if they knew; and he would prefer not to become estranged from them. Even though he said he would do so for me" she added.
"Come now, in your favour in this business you have an estimable young man in your fiancé" said Lady Molly "And one who does not shirk knowledge of the truth. I am inclined to advise you to place all into the hands of the police, my dear, who know how to deal with a blackmailer."
Miss Kirk gave a little cry and paled, swaying. My lady gently held her elbow until she was herself again.
"Oh I could not! I could not!" cried Miss Kirk.
Lady Molly sighed.
If only more people had a little more moral fibre they would not find themselves in such straits; as Lord Flintshire himself later proved by making a funny story of his exploits – but you have all read it in the society magazines – so that no censure was ever spoken of him or the Countess or their offspring again. That day was yet to come, however; and Miss Kirk could not bear to let the world know her family secret.
"Tell me, does this fellow hold any proofs that you have worked in your father's casino, even that it exists?" asked Lady Molly.
"Proofs? He has recognised me; it is proof enough" said Miss Kirk bitterly "Even if it were not true, as the slur he casts upon my chastity is not true, he is plausible enough; and Lionel's awful aunt would believe him. Besides, I could not brazen it out; I cannot tell lies readily for I blush!"
"Any woman might blush, accused of being what he seems to feel needs to be added to the tale of your aid of your father" said Lady Molly "Perhaps he does not feel that acting as croupier is enough to have you shunned. Unless it is merely a cruel refinement made only in suggestion to you that he would not dare promulgate to others in the hopes of frightening you to comply. If you will not place it into the hands of the police then I shall have to think hard about what to do. It is not as straightforward as finding some lever to get him to hand over proofs; and there is moreover the moral dilemma of his likely blackmail of others. Do not worry, my dear Cousin Lily; I shall find a way to remove this impediment from your happiness."
Miss Kirk cried again and eventually we were rid of her; I never met such a woman for tears!
"Tell me, Mary" said my lady, once Miss Kirk had withdrawn "In the case of a misery merchant like a blackmailer, do you feel that almost any methods might be condoned?"
"I would not advocate anything as extreme as murder" said I, cautiously.
Lady Molly's merry peal of laughter rang out.
"Why Mary, can you picture me killing my cousin's tormentor? That is quite as melodramatic as anything an Italian might have made up!" she said.
"You did ask if almost any means might be condoned" I said, a little defensively.
"Why so I did!" said Lady Molly "I apologise, Mary; I should have said any REASONABLE means; reasonable that is from the point of view of common sense and NOT necessarily the sort of thing the chief might like."
"You are planning on blackmailing him into stopping this?" I asked, knowing my Lady's methods are not always orthodox.
"It crossed my mind" said Lady Molly "But I think we need a means in which he is entirely taken out of circulation so that he cannot blackmail anyone. Go and make another pot of tea, my dear; and take one to poor Hubert who is languishing in his study. You may tell him about this; I have no secrets from my husband, but no young woman is going to pour out her troubles in front of a man. That was why I banished him to the study."
"But how did you know that she would have troubles?" I cried. "It might merely have been a cousinly call!"
Lady Molly laughed.
"When she had written to ask if she might BEG a meeting with me as she had something PARTICULAR to discuss?" she said "Come, Mary – you read the letter from her; such wording is, when from a lady, almost always an indication that she wishes to consult another woman about a problem that she has, and it is almost always of a delicate nature. Couched in slightly more vulgar terms and from a lower class woman a similar note would be one hinting at blackmail" she added "Where the particular matter was a subject the writer might think the recipient would not like to be known."
I shook my head in chagrin; I still had much to learn.
Captain de Mazareen was glad of a cup of tea and buttered tea-cakes – I brought him a damp flannel in a little bowl too to remove the evidence from his fingers so he would not smear books or papers – and to find out what was troubling Miss Kirk.
"I did not think it would be long before Molly would be back in harness, even if only unofficially" he said tolerantly "She has had a taste of solving troubles; and she will not lightly put down that thrill, while the rest of us must trot to her command, eh, Mary? Well you had best go to her and find out what her orders are; if she needs me to play a part she will doubtless let me know."
I have often reflected what a gracious man the Captain is; owing his freedom to his wife's efforts it would be easy for a lesser man to be jealous of her successes which, allied with a resentment that the little woman had been the one to secure his freedom not he, might have led to him trammelling her. Not the Captain, however, who is a great man in his own way! And who has the confidence in himself, and in the love that lies between him and my lady, to give her every freedom and not to resent her involvement in the affairs of others who need her aid; and who will jokingly speak of taking her orders himself because he has no fear of any loss of face or that any should think him unmanned to follow her lead!
My Lady was sitting with her chin in her hands staring at nothing; but she had that brightness to her eyes that presaged ideas burgeoning within her fertile brain. I sat quietly with a book; for these reveries of hers should not be disturbed before she is ready herself to disturb them.
At last she stirred with a satisfied little smile and turned to me.
"We shall need to go up to town, Mary" she said. "I need to take an apartment somewhere fashionable; Mayfair perhaps. And it must have a guest room; I believe that I shall invite Lady Artemisia Deburgh to stay with me. She was a friend of my Godmother's you know; so as her nephew is also to marry my cousin I think that it would not be unreasonable. Ask Peters to come in; I have a number of commissions for him to complete."
"Am I to know what the scheme is?" I asked.
Her merry laugh pealed out again.
"Why Mary, you are to be central to it!" she said "I must trust your quick wits and deft fingers; for you are NOT known to Wilfrid Fanshawe, whereas I most certainly will be – though I doubt I have exchanged a dozen words with him, he will have seen all the publicity surrounding Hubert's release, and the part I played in it. He will mistrust ME; for he will be aware of the relationship no doubt. But nothing was published about Miss Mary Granard, who is to be the daughter of an industrialist, entering society. Fetch me Peters now; I will tell you more later."
With that, for the time being, I had to be content.
I was not to share a flat with Lady Molly in town; though I had one in the same building. Lady Deburgh, who had married her own cousin and so had a double dose of the family arrogance, was a formidable old woman and Lady Molly was in my opinion little short of a saint in the way she spoke so sweetly to her without – so clever as my lady has always been! – once permitting herself to be bullied. Captain de Mazareen stayed largely out of the grande dame's way; and who can blame him! It is one thing to face the Boer; it is another to be confronted by the artillery of an English Great Lady whose horse and foot contain innumerable ancestors stretching back to the Conquest and all of them hostile.
I however, as Miss Juliet Vanallen, was to have a positive whirl of gaiety, entering upon the town with a few carefully sown rumours that I was an heiress, with a father in some unspecified but profitable trade.
Naturally though wealth may make a girl more acceptable to society, one still has to be accepted; and to be acceptable. And Mr Fanshawe was soon in my circle, carefully digging for anything in my background that would mean that my supposed fortune might gently bleed into his pocket if one might put it slightly vulgarly.
Equally naturally, there were enough pointers for him to find; not least the uncomfortable but actually quite fetching permanent wave Lady Molly had insisted that I have; it is the invention of a German gentleman called Nessler, invented just a few years ago and demonstrated in Oxford Street and though I call it uncomfortable, it is preferable by far to sleeping nightly in curling rags and much more profound in its nature! It is however a trifle nervous to be wired up to an electric light fitting for some five hours with the stink of sodium hydroxide, and the fear that the weights and pulleys that hold the rods around which one's crowning glory is twisted might fail and cause horrible burns. However, for my lady and her poor cousin I would endure more quite willingly – especially to rid the polite world of a dastardly blackmailer!
My tight curls were to serve the purpose of a discovery by Fanshawe that my supposed family included a negress within it; and whilst one might carry that off in society with other connections, an industrialist's daughter seeking to MAKE connections might well be chary of anyone discovering her antecedents. And my hair was to be yet another 'proof' that he might threaten me with. I pointed out to Lady Molly that certain families of Dutch extraction also exhibit tight curls; but she told me to hush since I was not only better informed but far cleverer than Fanshawe, a compliment albeit delivered in slightly tart tones by my lady.
Consequently, when Fanshawe had been permitted to find the final 'proofs' he wanted he duly approached me to discuss the matter at a party we were both attending.
Naturally I cried, and begged, and pleaded; and finally called him a monster of unfeeling and suggested that he come back to my apartment where I might find him the money he required to keep his tongue still on the matter.
We mounted the stairs and I turned the key in the door and went to put on the light.
I had not, at this juncture, taken my gloves off at all.
"The fuse has blown" I said crossly "Or perhaps I forgot to put money in the meter."
"The latter is more likely you fluffy little fool" he said.
Somehow I preferred his honest contempt for the character I was playing to his spurious compliments.
"Go on into the lounge" I said pushing him through the door "Here, hold this" I put a box into his hand; and dropped a couple of items into his pocket. One of them was the necklace I had been wearing; a second was a lockpick; the other was a fuse. "I will go and feed the meter."
I did no such thing.
I left him in the dark and ran downstairs to blow a police whistle hard.
Upstairs the beams of those excellent inventions, the American Ever Ready flashlight sprang out; and there were cries of horror. My part was done and I slipped quietly back to MY apartment.
Yes, gentle reader! I had lead Fanshawe not to MY apartment but to Lady Molly's; where he was now being tackled by the redoubtable Peters and Captain de Mazareen; and where the police officer who pounded up the stairs found him with Lady Molly's necklace in his pocket, for such I had been wearing, and Lady Deburg's priceless emeralds in a box in his hand, where Lady Molly had taken them from the safe for me to find and hand to him; the safe wide open and too a missing fuse and incriminating lockpick within his pocket.
He might explain until he was black in the face that he had escorted a Miss Vanallen home; for there was no such resident in the building. And with my permanent temporarily held down with pomade, under a decorative scarf, and my face known to most of the officers in London no likelihood of ever finding a Miss Vanallen either nor – since the officer had no reason to suspect that I might be such a person – would he be asked to identify me, the only other young woman in the apartment building.
They would search his home of course and find some of his blackmail material; and would doubtless decide that he had taken to jewel robbery as a sideline. And now that Lady Deburgh had seen him as a housebreaker and thief she would never believe any tales against her nephew's bride from him.
Oh how the chief would have disapproved!
But Lady Molly withdrew all charges of housebreaking and theft – claiming that she had been through enough lately – so he was only prosecuted on the blackmailing charges that arose; and by Lady Deburgh. Which was, when all was said and done, quite poetic.
And when news of his arraignment was published in the paper Miss Kirk came to see my dear lady and proceeded to show that her Italian temperament was as equal to tears of joy as to tears of sorrow.