Expulsion from Eden by Judith Cutler
Teigngrace Hall, in the county of Devon, was my favourite of the Earl of Teignbridge’s establishments. Very commodious and set in extensive parkland, it lay near the main roads to Newton Abbot and Exeter. It was a veritable paradise, with not even a poacher to spoil the calm air.
My employer, Lord Teignbridge, was a most learned man, eschewing outdoor pleasures, but not denying them to his guests. Indeed, her Ladyship, quite unequal to the rigours of his Lordship’s scholarship, whipped in any of either sex who would acquit themselves honourably on the hunting field.
Both hosted the dinner parties, musical evenings and balls for their guests, though that was where their participation ended. It was rightly assumed that I, as butler, and Mrs Lacock, the housekeeper, would see to all the guests’ creature comforts.
For luncheon and for dinner, which was eaten at London hours, our honoured French chef, M. Alphonse, actually from the Isle of Man, would send up an elegant repast; my selection from His Grace’s cellar always complemented it perfectly.
The only place where guests were not welcome was Lord Teignbridge’s library – no ordinary book room. In many other establishments, a room the length of the house would have been the long gallery, the social hub of the house. In Teigngrace, however, a mezzanine floor had been installed over half the width, for the portraits and other masterpieces, great and small. The lower half became the library, the piers which supported the gallery providing bays for all the shelves of the weighty tomes.
Lord Teinbridge had made the study of Italian religious paintings his life’s work. Occasionally he would permit a scholar – a man from Vienna or Rome, perhaps – to feast his eyes on one masterpiece or another, and they would refer constantly to these works of scholarship.
One, Signor Polpetti, was currently a house guest, having written imploring His Grace to accommodate him at very short notice. Unlike his fellow scholars, Signor Polpetti was a man of the world, flirting shamelessly with many of the younger ladies.
The damsels had plenty of other more eligible suitors, of course: what else is a country house party but a marriage mart in miniature? There were two heirs to titles, including Sir Harry Croyde, who might have lost an arm in Spain, but had thereby gained romantic interest, and a smattering of second sons, including Lord Fowey’s youngest lad, who had taken Holy Orders. The Reverend Dr Shaldon – he was a gifted scholar as well as a handsome young man – was unfailingly polite even to the servants, and tireless in standing up to dance with the plainest females. He was perhaps inclined to Methodism, and insisted on leading daily prayers for all the household, family, guests and servants.
At the end of each evening, Mrs Lacock and I would take tea together, while we reviewed the day’s work, and the accomplishments or failings of our underlings. Today, however, it was not a servant but a guest who was remiss.
Mrs Lacock leaned forward confidentially. ‘I have received a welter of complaints about one of His Grace’s guests, who seems to lurk in every corner. My girls are all good, virtuous creatures, and deserve to be treated as such.’
‘I thought as much. But he, being a foreigner, may not understand what is expected of him – or rather, what is not expected.’
‘I hear he is as free with the young ladies – but at least they have their mamas to protect them. These innocent country girls have no one. What can we do?’
‘It’s no use my speaking to His Grace, Mrs Lacock – I sometimes fears he does not understand what a young girl is, unless she is mother naked and in a gilded frame. So a word in Lady Teignbridge’s ear, perhaps?’
‘Since he doesn’t ride, she probably doesn’t know him from Adam – except, of course, that he is better dressed.’ She permitted herself a smile. ‘He is particular in his attentions to two girls, neither more than fourteen. Pretty young Nan, who used to be his chambermaid. Needless to say I have moved her to other duties, out of harm’s way. And that new girl, the quiet one. Molly Abbott. I thought, since she was so plain, she might escape his attentions, but it seems I was mistaken.’
‘Plain? I had not thought her plain. Serious, maybe,’ I mused. ‘As if guarding a secret, even.’
‘Secret! Let me tell you straight, Mr Dawson, I like to know where those wenches are every hour of the day – and night. I want no harbouring of secrets!’
I dropped a hint to the footmen: if they felt a guest were stealing kisses or more from any of their female colleagues, they should consider it their duty most discreetly to intervene. Just a cough, perhaps, to indicate that the would-be seducer did not go unseen. Perhaps, even, a false message that the main was wanted elsewhere. The girls’ virtue must not go unprotected.
As I had spoken out for her, I felt it incumbent on me to watch out for young Molly Abbott. And I fear I did not like what I saw. Or rather, did not see. For all Mrs Lacock’s strict timetable, there were definitely moments when she was not where she ought to be. But next moment, it seemed, there she was, doing exactly what she had been told, and doing it well. In fact, it would be hard to have found a more efficient girl. She would finish her task quietly and swiftly and then, bobbing a polite curtsy, head off for her next, minutes early. But she would arrive minutes late to start it. Once I thought she might be concealing something under her apron, but I might have been mistaken. Certainly I could see nothing missing, or even out of place. I should have reported her to Mrs Lacock, of course. Call me soft-hearted, but I just could not do it. So one morning I resolved to do what I should have done earlier. I would tail her.
Before I could start on this humiliating mission, I was summoned to the library. Never had His Grace sounded his bell with such urgent passion. I found him in the greatest distress. Indeed, he could not speak. Seizing me by the hand, he almost dragged me up the stairs to his gallery.
Against the silk wallcovering, a small brighter rectangle stood out. A picture was missing! Not only had Adam and Eve been expelled from the garden, they had left the gallery altogether, and not by his choice.
An immediate summons went out to our parish constable, and ere long we heard the peal of the great doorbell resound through the house. However much I wished that Mr Voke should present himself more properly at the tradesmen’s entrance, I could not fault him on his punctuality.
I attended him immediately.
Jedediah Voke, summoned from goodness knows what parochial transgression, was red in the face with his exertions. Without waiting for an invitation, he sank on to one of the heavily carved chairs in the hall, staring about him. He removed from his coat pocket a disreputable clay pipe, but, interpreting aright my astonished cough, he put it to his lips unlit. The family portraits gazed down, the Lely eyebrows lifted in surprise that such a low form of life as Jedediah Voke should be seated beneath them.
Indeed, he might have stepped straight from a comedy by the Bard, his red face, sleepy eyes and slow delivery giving the impression that he was naught but a yokel. Therein lay his strength as an investigator. No one suspected how shrewd he might be. If you put him, however, in the old-fashioned powdered wig and well-cut coat of a magistrate, you would be struck by the intelligence of his brow.
‘Let me take you to His Grace,’ I said quietly.
‘All in good time. Tell me all you know, Mr Dawson,’ he said, lowering his voice not a jot.
Aware of all the unseen ears, I ushered Mr Voke swiftly behind the green baize door. It is said that while a member of the nobility is born with a silver spoon in his mouth, a good butler is born with a brass padlock to his lips. Silver bends, of course, but never underestimate the strength of a butler’s discretion.
Before I could speak, there was a soft tap at the door. Mrs Lacock slipped in. Her underlings as much as my own would be under suspicion.
‘Now, tell me all you know – and then Mrs Lacock can do the same. I want to address His Grace with the authority of knowledge,’ he declared. ‘This picture. What was it of?’
‘It was indecent, if you ask me. I didn’t like my girls going anywhere near it. Not that His Grace let them. He said it was too precious to endanger with even a feather duster. Did you ever hear the like?’
‘So it had people in it in a state of undress?’ he suggested, licking a pencil and applying it firmly to his notebook.
‘Naked but for well-placed tendrils,’ I said, loftily, as befitted a man of the world.
‘The subject was… biblical,’ Mrs Lacock agreed. ‘The Fall of Man. Aye, and woman too.’
‘I didn’t see any gaps in the pictures in the hall.’
‘It was in the gallery, almost His Grace’s private room.’
‘Private? A man likes to show off his pictures.’
I nodded. ‘Many are the acres of naked limbs I have seen, Mr Voke, struggling with this monster or that, or being chased in battle. Indeed, you may find the like in many of our corridors. But this small item was one of His Grace’s favourites. He spoke of it being by a man called Michelangelo.’
‘Did he indeed? And who might have been a-looking at it lately?’
‘Signor Polpetti,’ Mrs Lacock and I said as one.
He pulled a puzzled face, but inscribed the name. ‘And anyone else?’
‘That you would have to ask His Grace,’ I said.
‘And what about these here maids, with or without their dusters? Who is responsible for cleaning the room?”
Mrs Lacock said firmly, ‘The older, most experienced ones. But let me see – because this signor cannot keep his hands to himself, I took the girl who normally sees to it and sent her to do his chamber instead. The new girl ended up in the library.’
‘And the new girl is?’
‘Young Molly Abbot. From Moretonhampstead originally. I thought I could trust her not to have an attack of the vapours every time she saw things she ought not to.’
Voke made another note. ‘While I am speaking to His Grace, I would like all the men and maids gathered together so I might speak to them. And find some excuse to keep the ladies and gentlemen in. The weather, I should think. ‘Tis like to be mortal bad, tell them. And that’s no lie, either,’ he added, as I raised an eyebrow at the bright sunlight outside. ‘You mark my words.’
His Grace had made rare inroads into the brandy decanter.
‘The work is priceless,’ he said, ‘and eminently portable. Though others dispute it, I believe it is Michelangelo’s sketch for the masterpiece now in the Sistine Chapel! Original Sin. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Everything about it speaks of its quality – it must be, is, by the greatest of the Italian masters! And now it is gone! It may be halfway across the Channel by now!’
‘And a lot of good it’ll do the thief to end up in Old Boney’s hands,’ Voke said, carefully measuring the bright space left behind. ‘But I’ll send my best lads to alert the harbour authorities in Newton, Teignmouth and Exeter. Though it’d puzzle a foreigner to find any of them the way the weather’s closing in. You won’t see your hand before your face within the hour, you mark my words.’
As one we looked out of the window: Devon mist was indeed swirling around, as if someone were waving a giant grey scarf in the air.
‘Your Grace, have any of your guests lingered over this picture more than most?’
‘They are guests! They are gentlemen!’
‘Even this Italian man?’
‘Polpetti? A gentleman and a scholar. An honourable man!’
‘That’d be Dr Shaldon,’ I explained. But as a Methodist, what would he be doing looking at such Papist stuff?
‘One of the tweenies – she seemed mighty taken with it. No idea what she’s called.’
Of course. They were trained to be invisible. But for all that I could see one face in my mind’s eye – that of Molly Abbott. And things were not looking good for her, not at all.
They looked even worse when I saw her gathered with the other staff in the servants’ hall. She kept pressing her hands to her little white face, and looking anxiously out of the window.
Jedediah Voke looked sternly about him. I had no doubt he noted Molly’s pallor too, and made the same damning assessment as I did. But he said nothing, simply explaining what had happened and asking of for help: ‘Folk like you aren’t supposed to be seen, but I warrant you see more than you let on,’ he added.
To my amazement M. Alphonse stepped forward. ‘I can tell you one thing for nothing,’ he said, his French accent much lighter than usual. ‘That Signor Polpetti is no more Italian than I am. Polpetti, indeed. What sort of man goes round calling himself Mr Meatballs? A charlatan, Mr Voke, that’s what our Signor Polpetti is.’
Voke jotted swiftly.
No one else stepped forward, so at last, with an adjuration to keep their eyes open and their mouths shut, I sent them about their business.
Molly Abbott hung back – no doubt about it. Voke noticed. ‘Many’s the guilty party who wants to get their crime off their chest,’ he said, in a hoarse whisper. ‘Let’s talk to her.’
By now she was wringing her hands and pleating her apron. ‘Sir, I know I should not put myself forward, but I do fear the moors in this weather.’
Voke frowned. ‘And what has that to do with anything?’
‘Young Dr Shaldon’s out there, sir. He slipped out early, while I was dusting.’
‘He must have slipped out from somewhere.’ Voke observed, ‘And I deduce it would not be through the front door.’
‘No indeed, sir. But I dare not say more. I fear for my place here, sir.’
‘And why should that be?’
‘I cannot tell you, sir. I truly cannot!’ With that she burst into tears. ‘But I promise you, sir, I was doing no wrong.’ She fled.
Mrs Lacock, who had been watching silently from the back of the room, caught my eye. ‘Let her have her cry,’ she said, ‘and then I will speak to her. She will not leave this house, never fear.’
‘So the Meatballs man isn’t what he seems, and young Dr Shaldon is missing. And a housemaid is in hysterics. Where do we proceed from here?’ Mr Voke was nursing a small glass of the estate cider.
‘I fear that I have been sadly remiss,’ I confessed. ‘I knew that little Molly was behaving oddly, and have done nothing about it. She slips into rooms late, and out early. But she accomplishes her duties excellently.’
‘And do we know where she goes between tasks?’
I shook my head. ‘I had it in mind to follow her. But such a thing would be demeaning, would it not?’
Voke gave a lopsided smile. Of course, that was what he did all the time. By way of silent apology I topped up his glass.
He sipped. ‘We have a room not open to everyday guests. We have two scholars permitted to study a priceless picture. And we have a tearful maid, whose duties take her into the vicinity of the picture, worried about the whereabouts of one of the guests. Is he handsome, Mr Dawson? Aye, I feared so. And she is smitten, poor wench. Well, I am tempted to go by her instincts, Mr Dawson – I suspect the young clergyman may be on the Haldon road. And I suspect he is carrying something of interest. Meanwhile, let us speak to Mr Meatballs.’
But by whatever name he went, he was nowhere to be found either.
Whatever Mrs Lacock said to Molly, it only served to make her more tearful. So eventually Mr Voke said, ‘Let me talk to the little maid. I do believe I’m acquainted with her uncle by marriage on her father’s side. Let us see how that approach may work. Yes, you may listen, Mr Dawson, but I’d rather she didn’t know you were there. And I’d rather you kept quieter than a church mouse, whatever she may tell me. Agreed?’
As a butler, I take orders from no one but His Grace. But if I failed to agree, the interview would take place without my knowing anything that passed, so I concurred. To overhear conversations without giving the participants any idea of my presence is not unusual for one in my position. The only difference I anticipated was that at least I would have the chance to discuss this encounter afterwards.
Voke must have talked Moretonhampstead gossip for at least ten minutes before Molly responded – and if I tell you that while the town has a long and venerable past, it is still a very small place, you will understand how tedious those ten minutes were. However, I did learn that young Molly was a favourite of the late parson’s wife, and would have liked to continue in her service but that on her husband’s death the good widow was forced to go and live with her family. I also learned that one of her tasks had been to read aloud to the lady.
Read! A village girl like that knowing her letters well enough to read aloud! The notion made me gasp. The Bible, poetry and sermons! Whatever next? Novels? I found it hard to keep my promise and my silence.
‘So when I can, I try to keep up my reading, Mr Voke. To keep the words in my head, you might say.’
‘And where would you be doing this here reading, Miss Molly?’
There was a long pause. ‘Once or twice in my bed, but then I think Mr Dawson saw me carrying a book, so I stopped. So now it’s in the library, sir. Most often His Grace doesn’t even know I’m there. If he does, I flaps my duster and he thinks I’m carrying out my duties.’
‘I think you should show me exactly where.’
My heart bled at the depth of her sigh. ‘Of course, sir. But please sir, for pity’s sake, send after Dr Shaldon. A stranger’s like to perish when the fret comes in like this.’
‘Lord bless you, Molly – don’t you worry about that.’
Nor need she, the head keeper and a team of outdoor servants having been already despatched on Voke’s orders.
‘Tell me, my girl, are you keeping company with some fine young lad?’
In the silence, I could almost see her hung head and deep, painful blush.
‘What, no sweetheart? What are the young men thinking of, not courting the cleverest girl for miles around? And are you sweet on anyone? Dr Shaldon, maybe?’
Catching the sound of a sob, to spare her further unhappiness, I made it my business to stride loudly towards them, as if I’d but just entered the corridor. Soon we were on our way, a dismal little procession, to the place where Molly said she read. Sure enough, a volume of Richardson’s Pamela had a feather between its leaves to mark the place.
Voke took the volume, and lent as she must have done against a sturdy shelf. He looked up, and smiled. ‘You could have seen anyone touching that there picture that’s gone, couldn’t you, Molly?’
She nodded silently.
‘But you wouldn’t dare tell Mr Dawson here or Mrs Lacock lest they asked you what you’d been doing in the library when you were supposed to be beating carpets or fetching and carrying. Now, Molly, weather apart, why were you afraid for the young reverend’s safety as he set off on the Haldon road – always assuming it was the Haldon road, and you weren’t trying to put us off the scent?’
Mutely she shook her head, her eyes awash again.
‘Now, my way of thinking is that this young reverend saw you reading. Was he kind to you, or did he make you fearful?’
‘Sort of both, Mr Voke.’
‘Both? How can that be?’
‘He gave me a guinea. And he promised to keep my secret if I kept his. That he kept on coming back to see the picture of the man and the woman.’
‘But I think someone else came to see it too? Keeping a quiet eye on Dr Shaldon?’
‘He wrote in a book, Mr Voke.’
‘He being Signor Polpetti?’
She nodded. ‘And then I was worried, because he didn’t write funny, like I thought Italian would be. He wrote in English.’
But Voke simply said kindly, ‘Good girl. Now, my girl, are you sure it was the Haldon road this young reverend was heading for?’ Turning to me he added, ‘So who is pursuing whom? Which man is the thief, eh, Mr Dawson, and which the thief-catcher?’
Mrs Lacock and I felt we deserved a little of His Grace’s Madeira wine when we sat together that evening, Mr Voke joining us, though in courtesy to Mrs Lacock he retired outside to smoke his filthy pipe. It had been a long hard day, but we flattered ourselves we had carried it off so well that none of the guests knew that anything had occurred to upset the even tenor of the hall. The picture was back in place, and Badger, the head keeper, had arrived in time to assist the unarmed Signor Polpetti when Dr Shaldon turned his pistols on him. When he realized the game was up, Dr Shaldon took the only path open to a gentleman wishing to prevent disgrace staining his family’s escutcheon – he turned the pistol on himself.
After a few minutes’ discussion, Mr Voke and Badger agreed that it might well be that in the thick mist he might have taken his pursuers for footpads, and, drawing his weapon, had mistakenly fired it as his horse reared, the bullet finding his own brain. A few guineas from His Grace’s purse would ensure that the story became the official one. Only part of the truth would find its way into Signor Polpetti’s notebook – a Bow Street Runner’s Occurrence book. It seemed that many establishments like ours had lost work of art after one of his visits, and the most recent victim had set the Runners after him.
A few more guineas found their way to Molly, for her timely confession. Mrs Lacock was inclined to demur at that, but Mr Voke pointed out that without the girl’s ultimate honesty, the picture would have disappeared into the mists and been lost for ever. But Mrs Lacock was adamant that she must find employment elsewhere, and I could not argue. A maid was supposed to be a maid, not a secret student.
So as we drank our Madeira, we discussed Molly’s future. She was not qualified to be a governess, Mrs Lacock mused, and I had seen enough of the miseries attendant on a governess’s life not to argue. Neither did I like Mrs Lacock’s suggestion that she should seek a place for her as an old lady’s maid companion: Molly deserved the chance of a bit of life and a handsome young man to share it with.
At last, Mr Voke spoke up.
‘I have a cousin down Okehampton way,’ he began, ‘who runs a small school for the daughters of farmers and so on; she might, if she were given a suitable premium, offer young Molly a place. The maiden could earn her keep as a maid-of-all-work, and learn as she went. In time she might become a pupil teacher, and better.’
‘Yes, indeed.’ Mrs Lacock cried. ‘Who knows what a bright girl like that might achieve in time?’
But I nodded more slowly, with a sudden pang coming from I know not where.
Read more about Judith Cutler including links to other books she has written.