“Thank you, Digweed,” I said, and watched as he gave a short, sorrowful bow then dipped his head to avoid the low beam of the doorway as he left.
I stood there for some time, gazing emptily at the space where he’d stood, until Betty returned to help me out of my funeral suit and into my everyday ones.
One afternoon a few weeks ago, I was below stairs, playing in the short corridor that led off the servants’ hall to the heavily barred door of the plate room. It was in the plate room that the family valuables were stored: silverware which only ever saw the light of day on the rare occasions Mother and Father entertained guests; family heirlooms, Mother’s jewellery and some of Father’s books that he considered of greatest value—irreplaceable books. He kept the key to the plate room with him at all times, on a loop around his belt, and I had only ever seen him entrust it to Mr. Digweed, and then only for short periods.
I liked to play in the corridor nearby because it was so rarely visited, which meant I was never bothered by nursemaids, who would invariably tell me to get off the dirty floor before I wore a hole in my trousers; or by other well-meaning staff, who would engage me in polite conversation and oblige me to answer questions about my education or non-existent friends; or perhaps even by Mother or Father, who would tell me to get off the dirty floor before I wore a hole in my trousers and then force me to answer questions about my education or non-existent friends. Or, worse than any of them, by Jenny, who would sneer at whatever game I was playing and, if it was toy soldiers, make a malicious effort to kick over each and every tin man of them.
No, the passageway between the servants’ hall and the plate room was one of the few places at Queen Anne’s Square where I could realistically hope to avoid any of these things, so the passageway is where I went when I didn’t want to be disturbed.
Except on this occasion, when a new face emerged in the form of Mr. Birch, who let himself into the passage just as I was about to arrange my troops. I had a lantern with me, placed on the stone floor, and the candle fire flickered and popped in the draught as the passage door opened. From my position on the floor, I saw the hem of his frock coat and the tip of his cane, and as my eyes travelled up to see him looking down upon me, I wondered if he, too, kept a sword hidden in his cane, and if it would rattle, the way my father’s did.
“Master Haytham, I rather hoped I might find you here,” he said with a smile. “I was wondering, are you busy?”
I scrambled to my feet. “Just playing, sir,” I said quickly. “Is there something wrong?”
“Oh no.” He laughed. “In fact, the last thing I want to do is disturb your playtime, though there is something I was hoping to discuss with you.”
“Of course,” I said, nodding, my heart sinking at the thought of yet another round of questions concerning my prowess at arithmetic. Yes, I enjoyed my sums. Yes, I enjoyed writing. Yes, I one day hoped to be as clever as my father. Yes, I one day hoped to follow him into the family business.
But with a wave of his hand Mr. Birch bade me back to my game and even set aside his cane and hitched up his trousers in order to crouch beside me.
“And what do we have here?” he asked, indicating the small tin figurines.
“Just a game, sir,” I replied.
“These are your soldiers, are they?” he enquired. “And which one is the commander?”
“There is no commander, sir,” I said.
He gave a dry laugh. “Your men need a leader, Haytham. How else will they know the best course of action? How else will they be instilled with a sense of discipline and purpose?”
“I don’t know, sir,” I said.
“Here,” said Mr. Birch. He reached to remove one of the tiny tin men from the pack, buffed him up on his sleeve and placed him to one side. “Perhaps we should make this gentleman here the leader—what do you think?”
“If it pleases you, sir.”
“Master Haytham”—Mr. Birch smiled—“this is your game. I am merely an interloper, somebody hoping you can show me how it is played.”
“Yes, sir, then a leader would be fine in the circumstances.”
Suddenly the door to the passageway opened again, and I looked up, this time to see Mr. Digweed enter. In the flickering lamplight I saw him and Mr. Birch share a look.
“Can your business here wait, Digweed?” said Mr. Birch tautly.
“Certainly, sir,” said Mr. Digweed, bowing and retreating, the door closing behind him.
“Very good,” continued Mr. Birch, his attention returning to the game. “Then let us move this gentleman here to be the unit’s leader, in order to inspire his men to great deeds, to lead them by example and teach them the virtues of order and discipline and loyalty. What do you think, Master Haytham?”
“Yes, sir,” I said obediently.
“Here’s something else, Master Haytham,” said Mr. Birch, reaching between his feet to move another of the tin soldiers from the pack then placing him next to the nominal commander. “A leader needs trusted lieutenants, does he not?”
“Yes, sir,” I agreed. There was a long pause, during which I watched Mr. Birch take inordinate care placing two more lieutenants next to the leader, a pause that became more and more uncomfortable as the moments passed, until I said, more to break the awkward silence than because I wanted to discuss the inevitable, “Sir, did you want to speak to me about my sister, sir?”
“Why, you can see right through me, Master Haytham,” laughed Mr. Birch loudly. “Your father is a fine teacher. I see he has taught you guile and cunning—among other things, no doubt.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant so I kept quiet.
“How is weapons training going, may I enquire?” asked Mr. Birch.
“Very well, sir. I continue to improve each day, so Father says,” I said proudly.
“Excellent, excellent. And has your father ever indicated to you the purpose of your training?” he asked.
“Father says my real training is to begin on the day of my tenth birthday,” I replied.
“Well, I wonder what it is that he has to tell you,” he said, with furrowed brow. “You really have no idea? Not even a tantalizing clue?”
“No, sir, I don’t,” I said. “Only that he will provide me with a path to follow. A creed.”
“I see. How very exciting. And he’s never given you any indication as to what this ‘creed’ might be?”