Sunlight woke him, a thin beam forcing its way into the room to bring him out of restless dreams of blue-painted tanks moving through woodland in search of the enemy and an overwhelming sense of being adrift in a strange world. He had slept in the chair, the fire nothing more than white ash now, his back aching and his feet cold. He forced himself out of the quilt’s cocoon, stretching to ease the stiffness in his shoulders, then halted.
Someone had come in his room while he was asleep, had taken his clothes and returned them later. Someone moving quietly enough not to wake him. A neat array of clothes lay on the end of the bed: his suit brushed and pressed, shirt pristine, socks dry and his shoes buffed to a military shine. His shaving kit waited on the washstand, his valise open and emptied. He checked the armoire and found the rest of his belongings put away in precise order, apart from his coat.
An impossible thing, and yet the evidence was clear. An unforgivable error on his part not to have locked the door, even after the rigours of the previous day. But exhaustion could make even the most highly trained soldiers careless. He rectified the omission with a swift turn of the key and a twist of the handle to ensure the door was secure then went into the bathroom, eager to loosen the stiffness in his neck and spine and more than a little concerned about his late night visitor.
He hadn’t used a canopy bath before; his billet in London was sparse and there was little enough money for unnecessary luxuries – not that he was there that often – and he spent a while working out the intricacies of the system but eventually he was satisfied and lost no time in stripping off and stepping under the hot sprays. He was rubbing himself down in the steamy warmth of the bathroom when he heard a light tap on the outer door and he wrapped the towel round his waist and, with more than a little apprehension, unlocked the door and opened it.
It was the driver from last night, Jackson, the same wry expression, head tilted in amusement. ‘Good morning, Colonel Straker. Did you sleep well? May I extend my apologies for any discomfort you may have experienced? I have found that Major Halliwell has a somewhat uncomfortable sense of humour and little respect for other people. It makes for an unhappy household and a poor welcome for strangers such as yourself.’
‘It was you. Last night. How did you – ’ He wrapped the thin towel tighter round his waist, tucking one end in to hold it securely.
‘Know? I make it part of my job to know who people are, Colonel, and I do read the papers. I apologise for the intrusion last night but when I returned from the stables it was made apparent to me that you had not been treated with the respect that should be accorded a visitor. Especially one with such an honourable war record as yourself. I informed Cooper that, as was my right, I was appointing myself as your valet for the duration of your visit here. The man knows better than to argue with me. And so-.’ He waved a slender hand at the clean clothes on the bed. ‘I did what any properly trained valet would do. I also removed your topcoat to the drying room. It is still somewhat damp even now. I trust I did not disturb your rest, though I have to admit that sleeping in a chair is not recommended. I believe it can have a deleterious effect on the vertebra. However, I will ensure the bedlinen is changed and the room aired this morning.’ He gave a half-bow and another quick smile.
‘No. I mean…’
‘Now. If you would go through to the bathroom and be seated, I will indulge myself with your razor.’
Jackson examined the blade with care, testing the edge against the pad of his thumb. ‘A Thiers Issard. A fine piece if I may say so. I have not had the opportunity to use one of these before. Beautiful balance, ivory handle and tortoise shell inlay, the blade unmarked and yet I think it has seen service with you? I notice a slight chip on the edge of the handle. Unfortunate.’ He put the blade down and busied himself lathering soap in the small bowl. ‘Come along, Colonel. No time to wait. Breakfast will be served shortly and your presence is required.’
Halliwell. He’d forgotten. ‘Major Halliwell? What can you tell me about him? Or would that be a breach of the rules?’ The bathroom was still warm and damp and he sat down, half-wondering whether it was wise to trust himself to this man.
‘As your valet it is my duty to keep you informed of anything that might be pertinent.’ Jackson held out the brush. ‘Now, please remain still and I will tell you as much as I know.’
Jackson’s eyes focussed on the task although his voice was quiet with disapproval as he relayed his concerns about Halliwell. There was little opportunity to ask questions, but Straker listened in silence to the litany, the suspicion that the man was little more than a war-profiteer who had remained behind in England to oversee production. An unpleasant man. The sort he had met far too often in France, bullying the weak and treading on those perceived as lesser men.
The touch of a hot towel on his face brought him back to the present. He had forgotten the pleasure of being shaved by a skilled barber, the touch of deft fingers on his throat, the quiet concentration, clean skin with not a nick or scratch, a splash of something soothing and fragrant on his cheeks before Jackson stepped away. ‘A smooth finish, if I may say so myself. Now. May I enquire if you intend joining the shoot this morning, sir? If so, your dark suit will do admirably and I will procure suitable footwear and a coat for after breakfast.’
The dining room was busy, a cluster of men helping themselves to bacon and sausages, kedgeree and devilled kidneys under the poker-faced gaze of two footmen and he stood in the doorway for a moment, an intruder and wary. The others were dressed impeccably, plus twos and polished boots, the outfits indicative of new money. He took a plate, added sausages and scrambled eggs and toast, turned round to find a seat.
‘There you are, Straker. Sleep well?’ Halliwell was at the head of the table, working his way through bacon and eggs, black pudding and kidneys. ‘Come. Sit. I want to know what you’re doing out here.’
‘Sightseeing. I hoped to look round the Hall, but they tell me it’s closed down.’ He picked up a piece of toast, smeared a thin layer of butter over the precise golden-brown triangle. The scrambled eggs were soft and redolent with fresh herbs and pepper and he scooped up a forkful while the other four went to sit at the far end of the table, out of conversational reach.
‘Nothing to see there now. The whole place is falling apart. Should have been demolished years ago from the looks of it. Waste of good land as far as I can see.’ Halliwell ate messily, talking with his mouth full and waving his fork at Straker to emphasise the point he was making. ‘Anyway, we’re trying along the east woods today, so you might as well join us. Show us what you’re made of and all that. I intend getting a dozen brace or more as long as things go better.’
‘Bad weather?’ The sausage was not as good as the eggs and he put his plate aside and sat back as one of the footmen poured him a coffee. A bone china cup, hand painted. A far cry from the chipped mug he had used in the war. The coffee was hot and fragrant and strong and he would have asked for a refill but Halliwell was talking again.
‘Far from it. Perfect shooting conditions, but the damned woods were practically empty the last few days. Never known birds to be so scarce. Bloody annoying considering the price I paid for this month. We were promised some fine shooting and so far it’s been a disaster. Never seen such a poor drive. It had better improve today or I’ll be wanting an explanation. I came here on the understanding the shooting was some of the best in the area. Rubbish.’ The speaker tore a piece of toast in two, cramming half into his mouth’ He held out a hand. ‘Didn’t introduce myself properly last night. Major Thomas Halliwell. Army Supply Corps. Based in Oldbury. So where are you from? Thought all the Americans had gone back last November.’
Oldbury. Jackson was correct then. One of the munitions profiteers. It was tempting to refuse the handshake but that would have been one more black mark and he needed to be accepted in the group, even if it was only for a couple of days. ‘Edward Straker. From Boston. I’m …’ What was he? A loyal soldier or secret agent, a callous murderer or timely saviour? ‘I’m working with Customs and Excise, helping with immigration.’ He buttered another slice of toast, adding a generous layer of thick-cut marmalade. A distinctly British taste and one he had grown to appreciate.
Jackson appeared in the doorway, a slender figure, his dark hair swept back and his eyes darting across the room as if taking in everything in one swift glance. A slow inclination of his head to Straker before he went out again, moving in that peculiar silence that all servants seemed to acquire. Halliwell grunted. ‘Jackson. Odious fellow. Thinks he knows it all. Tried to tell me we shouldn’t go near the east woods. Says it’s dangerous. What would he know? Bloody foreigner.’ He pushed his plate aside and stood, tossing his napkin on the table. ‘I’ll see you in half an hour. Sloe gin and all that fuss on the drive before we set off.’
A quiet calm settled over the room once Halliwell closed the door behind himself and Straker nodded a greeting to the other four, wondering if they had served with Halliwell or were just unlucky to be here at the same time as the munitions man. It was of no concern to him though. He would see the day out and then do his own more serious hunting when the sun had set and everyone was asleep. He followed Jackson, up the long stairway and back to his own room, now a hive of activity with housemaids changing the linen and setting the room to rights.
A change of footwear – the boots fitting perfectly as he suspected they might do – Jackson’s deft fingers making a tiny adjustment to his tie, the jacket and borrowed coat tweaked into place and a last sweep of the clothes brush over his shoulders before the valet pronounced himself satisfied. ‘I have taken the liberty of appointing myself as your loader for the day, Colonel. I hope you have no objections. I also acquired a pair of 12 bore shotguns that you should find more than adequate, however I suspect that the Major will be hoping that you fail to make much of an impact. He seems rather… ’ Jackson gave a discreet cough. ‘… competitive.’
‘I suspected as much.’ Straker turned to face the smaller man. ‘Is he likely to be a problem?’
Jackson tapped a finger against his thin lips. ‘It depends. He resents anyone who is a better shot than himself, finds fault with everything from the pegs to the beaters to the behaviour of the dogs. I believe he is attempting to find an excuse not to pay his dues, but I have no firm evidence. Having said that, the birds have been unusually scarce this season. The Glorious Twelfth was far from outstanding and matters have not improved since then.’ He held the door open. ‘I will be on hand should you require my assistance. For any reason.’