“How fascinating. I’ll wager you cannot wait. And, in the meantime, has your father given you a man’s sword with which to learn your craft, or are you still using the wooden practice batons?”
I bridled. “I have my own sword, sir.”
“I should very much like to see it.”
“It is kept in the games room, sir, in a safe place that only my father and I have access to.”
“Only your father and you? You mean you have access to it, too?”
I coloured, grateful for the dim light in the passageway so that Mr. Birch couldn’t see the embarrassment on my face. “All I mean is that I know where the sword is kept, sir, not that I would know how to access it,” I clarified.
“I see.” Mr. Birch grinned. “A secret place, is it? A hidden cavity within the bookcase?”
My face must have said it all. He laughed.
“Don’t worry, Master Haytham, your secret is safe with me.”
I looked at him. “Thank you, sir.”
“That’s quite all right.”
He stood, reached to pick up his cane, brushed some dirt, real or imaginary, from his trousers and turned towards the door.
“My sister, sir?” I said. “You never asked me about her.”
He stopped, chuckled softly and reached to ruffle my hair. A gesture I quite liked. Perhaps because it was something my father did, too.
“Ah, but I don’t need to. You’ve told me everything I need to know, young Master Haytham,” he said. “You know as little about the beautiful Jennifer as I do, and perhaps that is how it must be in the proper way of things. Women should be a mystery to us, don’t you think, Master Haytham?”
I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about but smiled anyway, and breathed a sigh of relief when I once again had the plate-room corridor to myself.
Not long after that talk with Mr. Birch I was in another part of the house and making my way towards my bedroom when as I passed Father’s study I heard raised voices from inside: Father and Mr. Birch.
The fear of a good hiding meant I stayed too far away to hear what was being said, and I was glad I’d kept my distance, because in the next moment the door to the study was flung open and out hurried Mr. Birch. He was in a fury—his anger was plain to see in the colour of his cheeks and blazing eyes—but the sight of me in the hallway brought him up short, even though he remained agitated.
“I tried, Master Haytham,” he said, as he gathered himself and began to button his coat ready to leave. “I tried to warn him.”
And with that he placed his cocked hat on his head and stalked off. My father had appeared at the door of his office and glared after Mr. Birch and, though it was clearly an unpleasant encounter, it was grown-up stuff, and I didn’t concern myself with it.
There was more to think about. Just a day or so later came the attack.
It happened on the night before my birthday. The attack, I mean. I was awake, perhaps because I was excited about the next day, but also because I was in the habit of getting up after Edith had left the room to sit on my windowsill and gaze out of my bedroom window. From my vantage point I’d see cats and dogs or even foxes passing across the moon-painted grass. Or, if not watching out for animals, then just watching the night, looking at the moon, the watery grey colour it gave the grass and trees. At first I thought what I was seeing in the distance were fireflies. I’d heard all about fireflies but never seen them. All I knew was that they gathered in clouds and emitted a dull glow. However, I soon realized the light wasn’t a dull glow at all, but in fact was going on, then off, then on again. I was seeing a signal.
My breath caught in my throat. The flashing light seemed to come from close to the old wooden door in the wall, the one where I’d seen Tom that day, and my first thought was that he was trying to contact me. It seems strange now, but not for a second did I assume the signal was meant for anyone but me. I was too busy dragging on a pair of trousers, tucking my nightclothes into the waistband then hooking my braces over my shoulders. I shrugged on a coat. All I could think of was what an awfully splendid adventure I was about to have.
And of course I realize now, looking back, that in the mansion next door Tom must have been another one who liked to sit on his windowsill and watch the nocturnal life in the grounds of his house. And, like me, he must have seen the signal. And perhaps Tom even had the same thought as I did: that it was me signalling him. And in response did the same as I did: he scrambled from his perch and pulled on some clothes to investigate . . .
Two new faces had appeared at the house on Queen Anne’s Square, a pair of hard-faced former soldiers employed by Father. His explanation was that we needed them because he had received “information.”
Just that. “Information”—that’s all he’d say. And I wondered then as I wonder now what he meant, and whether it had anything to do with the heated conversation I’d overheard between him and Mr. Birch. Whatever it was, I’d seen little of the two soldiers. All I really knew was that one was stationed in the drawing room at the front of the mansion, while the other stayed close to the fire in the servants’ hall, supposedly to guard the plate room. Both were easy to avoid as I crept down the steps to below stairs and slid into the silent, moonlit kitchen, which I had never seen so dark and empty and still.
And cold. My breath plumed and straight away I shivered, uncomfortably aware how chilly it was compared to what I’d thought was the meagre heat of my room.
Close by the door was a candle, which I lit and, with my hand cupped over its flame, held to light the way as I let myself out into the stable yard. And if I’d thought it was cold in the kitchen, then, well . . . outside, it was the kind of cold where it felt as if the world around you was brittle and about to break; cold enough to take my cloudy breath away, to give me second thoughts as I stood there and wondered whether or not I could bear to continue.
One of the horses whinnied and stamped, and for some reason the noise made my mind up, sending me tiptoeing past the kennels to a side wall and through a large arched gate leading into the orchard. I made my way through the bare, spindly apple trees, then was out in the open, painfully aware of the mansion to my right, where I imagined faces at every window: Edith, Betty, Mother and Father all staring out and seeing me out of my room and running amok in the grounds. Not that I really was running amok, of course, but that’s what they’d say; that’s what Edith would say as she scolded me and what Father would say when he gave me the cane for my troubles.