“That you do, Jack,” one chimed in.
“Ain’t it a shame, yer duchess, but Mr. Honeybutt went down the hillside to deal with a little problem with the pipes. We’ll have to help you.”
The closest man held out his hands, caked with brown.
The dowager made a choking sound and clutched her jewelry box.
“Tush, tush,” Bartlebee said. “You’re affronting the ladies, Wiglet. You was always too forward in your approach. Ladies like the gentle word, the sweet tongue, ain’t that right?”
“Sir,” Isidore said, “if you would move to the side, I would be grateful to take my mother-in-law into the open. She faints for lack of air.”
“I’ll help you,” Bartlebee said genially. “Of course I will. I’ll take that wee little box that the lady is holding—”
“Don’t touch it!” the dowager said, her voice a strangely airy version of her normal peremptory tone. “I can’t have you touch my—”
All three of them had their hands stretched out. Isidore took a step to the side, dragging the dowager with her. She could leave through the ballroom, rather than out the front door. The men were enjoying causing fear. Their faces were alight with some sort of strange pleasure.
“How dare you terrify an old woman!” she shouted at them, suddenly furious. “You’ve frightened her!”
Bartlebee just laughed at her, and even his eyes, those horrible flat eyes, looked amused. “It’s a valuable lesson she’s learning. Duchesses shit as well as everyone else. And once you’ve been in the shit as much as we have, you learn that the color of the stuff is the same, ain’t it, lads?”
There was a chorus of agreement.
“Let’s cut the sauce,” Bartlebee said suddenly. “We’re only halfway through these privies, duchess. You wouldn’t want us to leave the job undone, would you? Because no one else is going down into that pit. No one in England. So we’d like a little present to keep us going.”
“No,” Isidore stated. “You’ve been well paid.”
The dowager was utterly silent, staring at the men with horrified eyes.
“The young lady don’t even look frightened,” Bartlebee said, turning to his men. “That’s unusual, that is.”
“I’m not frightened,” Isidore spat. “I’m disgusted by your lack of kindness. Have you no grandmother yourself?”
“Is that a grandmother?” Bartlebee asked, interestedly. He moved closer to the dowager, who cowered away with a stifled little moan. “Oh, I see. It must be the wrinkles, am I right, Wiglet? The more wrinkled you are, the older you are? I’ve heard of that. Course, we on the Dead Watch don’t generally live to collect all that many wrinkles, so we don’t bother. We don’t have families in the regular way of things.”
They all guffawed.
“You’ll excuse me for not pitying you,” Isidore snapped. “If you have no families, it’s due to your criminal tendencies. Doubtless, no woman will have anything to do with you.”
“Doubtless, doubtless,” Bartlebee said. “But just to make you feel better, miss, I will tell you that Wiglet here married Betsy as does behind the livery stables on Pond Street. Now there, does that make you feel better?”
Isidore looked at Wiglet. He had no teeth and a leer.
“Did I express any sorrow over your lonely condition?” Isidore asked, politely enough. “If I did, I assure you it was an error.”
“Enough of this charmin’ banter,” Bartlebee said. “We’ll be having a jewelry box, since you was daft enough to bring it into the shit, if you’ll pardon my plain speaking. And just as payment for this delightful little chat, we’ll be having the large box, not the smaller.”
“The duke will have you all thrown into jail,” the dowager half screamed. Her fingers were digging into Isidore’s arm like small talons.
“That he won’t,” Bartlebee said. “I’m happy to reassure you there. Where the Dead Watch go, nobody sees. That makes us above the law, as they’ll be happy to tell you in London.”
“No one is above the law!” Isidore snapped. If she could just keep the conversation going. Simeon would finish his letter. Honeydew would return. She took another cautious step to the side, dragging the dowager with her. She almost had her back to the ballroom door.
“Now if I murdered someone,” Bartlebee said, with that horrible mirthless grin of his, “I reckon you’d be right. A parish constable might knock on my door, if he could find it, of course. It’s such a temptation sometimes. All you’d have to do was tip someone into a pit, and they’d fall into a permanent sleep due to a sad, sad accident. Ain’t it a temptation, lads?”
Only Wiglet answered: “Ay!” Bartlebee was grinning, but his other man didn’t look as comfortable.
“You should all be ashamed of yourselves,” Isidore said, schooling her voice to a clear, high severity. “We’re paying you a fair and honest wage for the work you’re doing. And how do you repay us? By frightening an old woman half to death.”
As if on cue, the dowager groaned and sank against Isidore’s shoulder, though Isidore noticed that her mother-in-law kept tight hold of her jewelry box. Now the door was directly behind her.
Bartlebee stepped smartly forward, and she realized that she was going to have to give up the jewelry box, that all the jewels in the world weren’t worth one touch from his finger. She couldn’t turn around to open the door without letting go of the dowager, or letting go of the box.
Just then she heard a voice behind her, like a thread of sound. “Isidore.”
It was Simeon. The door at her back started to ease open. Bartlebee was reaching toward her, grinning; any moment he would see the opening door.
Without hesitation, Isidore shrieked “Now!” Then she lifted the box she held and dashed it to the ground at her feet. With an ear-splitting crack, it opened and jewels skidded across the floor.
The door behind her whipped back and Simeon leapt forward. He landed between his mother and the men, standing in the midst of a pile of dusty-looking necklaces.
“What is this, gentlemen?” Simeon asked. His voice was as calm as if he were conversing with Honeydew.
Isidore’s heart skipped a beat when she saw that Bartlebee was utterly unafraid. And his men stopped looking abashed as their eyes brightened at the prospect of a fight.
“It’s the duke himself!” Bartlebee said, delighted. “See, gents, he’ll know about the law of the land. He’ll know that we’re doing a loathsome job, and all we’re asking for is a bit of a treat. And as we just told the duchess here, we might not be able to finish the job if we’re not given something to lighten our labor.” He suddenly kicked Wiglet, who was on his knees, scrabbling amongst the jewels. “Hist now! There’s no need to act undignified-like!”
It all happened so fast that Isidore couldn’t follow it. One moment Simeon was standing perfectly still before her, and the next moment his foot connected with Wiglet’s jaw. He whirled, and Bartlebee’s head snapped back. He whirled once more, and kicked the third man in the jaw.
He turned to his mother. “I do apologize, Your Grace,” he said, his voice as tranquil as ever. “I was reluctant to use my fists given their lack of cleanliness. I hope my delayed arrival didn’t cause you any undue alarm.”