Berkeley House, Spring Gardens, as it looked in the 1850s
When Lord Berkeley conferred the name 'Miss Tudor' on Mary Cole at the time of their secret 'first' marriage, he little expected that fate would contrive some spectacular confusion.
At number 55, Brook Street, the premises of Messrs Boodle & Partington, Mr John Scriven, took a pinch of snuff, sneezed heartily into a discoloured linen handkerchief and attempted to realign his focus upon the parchments before him. The firm had never been busier. It serviced more than one hundred clients, true patricians of British society, of which the Lords of Grosvenor were the most notable. Since the demise of his father two years ago, the 2nd Earl was running amok with elaborate extensions at Eaton Hall, Cheshire, and buying rambling estates in Dorset and Hampshire. In addition, he was laying the foundations of a grandiose plan for the restructuring of Mayfair which would take decades to realise, the acquisition of racing bloodstock and fine paintings, meanwhile, occupying his leisure hours. He was, in short, not a man to twiddle his thumbs and kept Boodle’s clerks permanently at their quill-driving.
Mr Thomas Whalley Partington of Manchester had been a former attorney of the Grosvenors. His passing, in the nineties, had left Edward Boodle, himself past his salad days, to reflect upon the future. He had since set on a handful of eager colts from among whom a business partner might emerge. The latest of these was John Boodle, his nephew. Though the young man had a quick brain and was keen to make his mark, his slowness in coming to terms with the baffling genealogy of interbred aristocrats who drew their baptismal names from the same font, had caused some perplexity.
As he pored over the conveyance deed of Shaftesbury acres for Lord Grosvenor, Mr Scriven, the clerk, could not help catching the drift of a conversation between the elder and younger Boodle. The door into Mr Edward’s office was slightly ajar.
“Ours not to query, dear boy. Always remember, we deal in abstracts. We are paid to interpret the law in the best interest of our clients. Have a humbug!”
Boodle, junior, stared at the striped comfits and shook his head. “But there is a Lady Berkeley, is there not?”
“I have been encouraged to think so. But to tread the labyrinthine ways of his lordship’s mind, upon my word, it is beyond the very limits of human endeavour! Perhaps it suits his purpose now to abandon all pretension of that estate.”
“There must have been marriage lines. Did the House of Lords not ask to see them?”
“I believe so. Recollect, evidence of an older ceremony was also produced,” said Mr Edward in tones of shuddering gravity. He glanced at his nephew in a pointed manner from under his caterpillar brows and lowered his voice. “He may wish to make a more conducive match for the succession before it is too late. Tempus fugit. Nature is not always complicit in matters corporal.”
Young Boodle hooked his thumbs under his waistcoat sleeve-holes and observed a pigeon foraging the gutterspouts of a roof on the opposite side of the street. “But then he’d need a divorce by Act of Parliament if he is to be believed, and if not...”
“It does not bear scrutiny, dear boy. If mankind got its just deserts, Berkeley should have swung long ago! It may interest you that when Mr Scriven was down at Cranford last autumn, he chanced upon Mrs Price in St John's church. She was a governess with the family, whom he had met during the period the missing entry turned up. She gave him her solemn opinion that the second rite would prove no sounder than the first. She states Miss Tudor’s name remained unchanged until the clergyman who was supposed to have married them in 1785 had passed on. Now that good woman was employed by the Berkeleys for several years in a trusted capacity and ought to know a thing or two.”
John Boodle whistled through his teeth. “Let’s hope he cautioned silence!”
“But to the matter in hand,” said Mr Edward, tying some ribboned manuscripts, the air heavy with peppermint. “Take these to Miss Tudor, witness her signature and that of any second party, and bring them back without delay. Berkeley is most anxious now to close the book on this.”
Mr Scriven could not help but eavesdrop. He glanced across at his colleague, Mr George Bastard, a paragon of discretion, wondering how aware he was of what was being said. The Bastards claimed descent from William the Conqueror and their history had entwined with the Grosvenors’ ever since. Lawyers and politicians, the knub of present generations was based in Devon and familiar with the Barings, causing Mr Scriven to ponder the ever decreasing circles within the corridors of power.
“Bear in mind, Mr John,” he warned, peering above his wire-rimmed spectacles as the lad passed his desk, “that Lord Berkeley had a great deal to hide concerning Miss Tudor's relations.”
“Trade, if I recall, Mr Scriven. Guaranteed to send an upper customer into a rare old taking, that."
“If only that were the measure of it!”
The clerk slipped the deed into his brief case, along with documents to be copied by a law-writer in the rundown Grosvenor Market, and left the office in resigned mood. His uncle was right. To fathom the ways of the aristocracy was not his remit. To carry out their instructions was.
He strode smartly along Davies Street and up to bustling Piccadilly and the more sedate area of The Mall, then turned into Cockspur Street past the premises which were the subject of his mission. Whatever his plans for the dynasty, the crafty old rascal, Berkeley, clearly meant to keep his mistress close, for Berkeley House was just around the corner in Spring Gardens, on the edge of St. James' Park in a pretty wilderness first tamed and planted by George London, Master Gardener to Queen Anne. Berkeley's grand pied à terre was leased from the Crown and the grounds of Carlton House were just over the way. Boodle cut through the narrow passage by Wigley's Rooms, mentally bracing himself to execute orders.
The exterior of the mansion was forbidding, shadowed by a holly tree of venerable proportions, now beaded with scarlet berries, but the white paintwork was flawless and the lion's head rapper gave a good account of itself around the neighbourhood. The aging retainer who answered looked as puzzled as his office would allow. His head was permanently kinked to the right as if the habits of obeisance had moulded him.
"His lordship made no mention of an appointment this morning. No, indeed. I fear he is not at home."
"Actually, my business concerns Miss Tudor," said Boodle hopefully.
"Oh no, sir. We don't go by that name any more. Not since Nelson's glory in Egypt, sir. One moment. Pray step inside whilst I make enquiry."
Boodle gave a low gasp as he ventured over the threshold and swept off his hat. The inside of the house, like any Venetian palazzo, offered an entirely contrasting impression. It was engulfed in a calm such as he had noticed in the paintings of the Dutchman, Vermeer. The sinuous lines of the balustraded staircase were supported on fluorspar pillars topped with ebony acanthus leaves. Arched islands of sunlight fell obliquely across a floor refulgent as the Serpentine in winter's vice and almost as hazardous. The clatter of the servant's departing tread was soon softened by carpet and Mr Hughes, the boys' tutor, could be heard declaiming a speech of Shakespeare's Anthony, enlisting all ears. A muffled conversation within one of the nearer rooms resolved itself and presently a young woman of quite exceptional beauty appeared. She seemed a little surprised. "Oh! I see you are not Mr Boodle."
"John Boodle, Mr Edward's nephew, but recently articled, ma'am. At your service," declared the clerk with an extravagant flourish designed to confound his trembling shins.
"Come into the Morning Room where we shall not be disturbed. Thank you, Reynolds."
The visitor gave his hat to the butler and followed the Countess into a room awash with light and exhibiting many pictures of naval engagements in which members of the Berkeley family had figured. She indicated a carved sofa in the latest Egyptian mode that looked as if it might put to sea given orders from the Admiralty.
"Now please feel at liberty to explain yourself. I am no stranger to his lordship's business affairs in Town and country. I am also very familiar with the casting up of accounts."
The clerk wrestled with his shiny new brief-case which slithered about most disconcertingly upon the silk-pile carpet.
"It concerns your property is Cockspur Street, ma'am."
"Do we have property in Cockspur Street, Mr Boodle?"queried the Countess with an elegant frown.
"Number twenty-five, above Morley's Hotel and next to the British Coffee House?"
"I think I am not aware of it."
Boodle's heart began to thud, on the brink of panic. "Your own property, ma'am," he said, withdrawing the conveyance deed.
"Let me see."
The moment he relinquished the document, he knew there had been a mistake. Her ladyship's brows arched and her gaze expanded. A cold electricity crackled through the atmosphere. The parchment slipped to her lap while she considered a puff of cloud gliding past the window. Lily Tudor! A pretty serving-maid with a will of steel. After all these years! No wonder she had been so keen to leave the Castle. "Tell me, " she said at length, "are you acquainted with this female?"
"No, indeed. I know nothing of her saving that she sometimes goes by the name, Amy Knight. An actress, I believe." The damning echo of his own words, consigning the party in question to the third person, made its impact. Boodle's face was incandescent. "Profoundest apologies, my lady. I see there has been a grievous error. I do not know how such a thing has come about. What can I say?"
Lady Berkeley handed back the deed. "You were merely executing your duties, Mr Boodle," she said with grace and gravitas. "I'm afraid your journey has been quite fruitless and am very sorry for it. Reynolds will show you out." She lifted the handbell and dismissed him politely to his fate.
He could not get outside fast enough. He left with his coat unbuttoned and stood on the portico step, absently tossing his hat over his unkempt curls and tugging it down. The cross-wind was strong enough to carry him off to the antipodes. Indeed, he wished it might! There would be ructions. This would mean total loss of the reputation for efficiency he was so anxious to foster. It could even ruin his prospects! He'd be relegated to tea-making, like Joe Slack, the minion who was struggling to master calligraphy.
Boodle, senior, hearing the news, bowed his head and covered it with his hands. "Armageddon! This signals the departure of a revered client, cornerstone of this practice. What could you have been thinking of, boy? The address was trumpeted loud and clear upon the documents."
"Wasn't to know the lady was in situ prior to the Agreement."
"A simple enough commission and you have failed to cut the mustard! What have you failed to do, eh?"
"Cut the mustard, Uncle. I thought...Miss Tudor...from what you were saying..."
Edward Boodle's eyes shot up to the gods and his flabby jowls shook. "Meteors will rain!"
"To be candid, sir, I think you exaggerate," said his nephew, gaining command of himself, his vision a little glazed. "Lady Berkeley is uncommon pleasing. She has the patience of a seraph. I'd warrant she won't breathe a word."
The judicial paw came down upon the desk with an almighty thud. "Nonsense! You have no idea of the gentle sex! The next time Berkeley returns from some infernal gambling venue unable to redeem his vowels, he will hear from her, mark my words!" Boodle rose from his chair and strode stiffly to the window, his hands linked behind his back. "But we shall not anticipate matters, I think. Well goes the case, dear boy, when wisdom counsels. Remember that."
From THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS, Second Book in the Berkeley Series