Home > Masters In This Hall (Lilywhite Boys #3)

Masters In This Hall (Lilywhite Boys #3)
Author: K.J. Charles


Chapter One


Christmas Eve 1899



Mr. Abel Garland’s Christmas celebrations live up to his most appropriate name. The steel magnate is well known for his traditional celebrations of Yuletide at Codlin Hall, and this year is to be an especially extravagant Christmas, as the festivities will culminate in the private wedding of the Earl of Dombey to Mr. Garland’s only daughter, Ivy.

Among the guests will be Lord Sidney Box, son of the Marquess of Leeford. Mr. Garland purchased Codlin Hall from Lord Leeford in 1892.

Lord Leeford was recently robbed of the Box family jewels, which were due to be sold in an exclusive auction at Veneerings Hotel in Lamb’s Conduit Street. The theft was carried out, it is believed, by the burglar known as ‘Captain Algy’ although cognoscenti of crime are reminded of the infamous ‘Lilywhite Boys’ gang of jewel thieves. It remains to be seen if Captain Algy is a mere copyist, or if certain notorious villains are making a return to the London stage.



John tossed the newspaper aside. He’d have liked to toss it out of the window: he’d never read so much tripe in his life. Weren’t journalists supposed to be seekers after truth? Someone should tell this fellow.

Lilywhite Boys, indeed. It was a nice touch to raise their spectre over the robbery: misleading the police, laying a false trail. Exactly what he’d expect from the clever swine.

The train was approaching Chesham Station. He grabbed his bag, and stepped out of the train into billowing steam that didn’t so much warm the frosty air as make it feel unpleasantly damp.

It felt damp anyway, because they were in the depths of English winter. The 24th of December, Christmas Eve. According to Uncle Abel’s view of things, the land should have been carpeted with thick, glistening, virgin snow, the trees sparkling with attractively placed icicles and perhaps the odd robin for a splash of colour. In fact it was all mud, damp leaves, and bare branches, under a light but persistent drizzle.

Naturally there were no conveyances to be had: this wasn’t London with a row of hackneys waiting, and he wasn’t expected. Well, it was only three miles, and he didn’t want to waste a shilling on the fare anyway, given how few he had of them. He heaved his bag onto his shoulder, and set off towards Brazier’s End, and Codlin Hall.

Three miles in freezing drizzle that soon turned to undeniable rain didn’t improve his temper any more than his appearance. He looked like a drowned rat by the time he’d plodded up the long drive towards the house.

Even in this mood, he had to admire the building. It was a fine old place from the Jacobean era, enlarged and extended in Georgian times. It blazed with light, too, a hospitable glow in the early-afternoon twilight. God knew what Uncle Abel must spend on gas, but he could afford it. He had plenty of money. If John didn’t take action this weekend, he’d probably have a bit less. It wasn’t the most inspiring mission John could imagine—save Uncle Abel money he can well afford to lose—but it was all he had.

He knocked at the front door. The magnificent butler looked down on him blankly.

“John Garland. Mr. Garland’s nephew.”

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Garland.” The butler didn’t say, Were we expecting you? but only because he was extremely expensive. John made his soggy way inside, and stood dripping in the hall.

It was decked with boughs of holly. Of course it was. Also mistletoe, ivy garlands, and pine branches, though it seemed Uncle Abel still resisted the German fashion for decorated trees.

“John!” Uncle Abel emerged. His suit had been exceptionally well-tailored, and doubtless put onto him by a very superior valet. As ever, he made it look like he’d bought it off the wrong peg. “What are you doing here?”

“Coming for Christmas, Uncle Abel. You said I’d be welcome.”

His uncle’s exact words had been, “You’re always welcome, but really, under the circumstances...” John had replied that he quite understood and, indeed, he had understood very well. Uncle Abel did not want his worthless brother’s embarrassment of a son present, reminding everyone that the soon-to-be Countess of Dombey was not just the daughter of industry, but the cousin of incompetence and penury.

They didn’t want John here. He didn’t want to be here. They could all blame the same man for their mutual discomfort.

“I’m sure you said you didn’t intend to come,” Abel said. “We talked about it.”

“But it’s Christmas, Uncle. The season of goodwill and family.”

Abel’s jaw twitched at that shameless prodding of his weak point. He might have caved then, but a tall, elegant figure came into the hall behind him. “Father, you are taking an age. We were discussing— John?”

“Hello, Ivy,” John said, regarding his cousin. “Gosh, you look smart.”

She looked magnificent in an elegant ivory gown of doubtless eye-watering cost, her hair beautifully dressed, with a rope of pearls round her neck. Her appearance was that of a princess; her expression strongly reminiscent of the little girl who’d frequently kicked him on the shins. She pulled the door to behind her and strode forward. “What are you doing here? Father, did you invite him? I told you!”

“No, my dear. I’m quite sure I did not.”

“You said I was welcome,” John put in.

“And you are,” Abel said, looking justifiably harassed, “but we did not actually expect you. The house is full.”

“I can bunk down anywhere,” John assured him. “I didn’t realise it would be a trouble to find a room in this great place. Not for family at Christmas.”

“Well, you should have,” Ivy hissed. “I am to be married: the house is full. Full of people who don’t want to mix with a hotel detective who can’t even detect in a hotel! Oh, Dombey, my dear,” she added in a notably more pleasant tone, as a man came out to join them.

The Earl of Dombey was not a very impressive specimen, being of no more than medium height, with rounded shoulders, limited conversational horizons, and a tendency to let his mouth hang open. On the other hand, he was the Earl of Dombey, and thus a remarkably good catch for Miss Ivy Garland, who had no claim to noble birth and brought to the marriage nothing but shrewd intelligence, superb dress sense, and a massive amount of money.

“I say,” Lord Dombey remarked. “Where did you get to, Ivy? Talking about shares and things, what?”

“Yes, my dear, I will be back with you in just a moment. It—”

“I say.” Dombey’s thin brows creased. “Who’s this feller? He’s all wet.”

“My cousin, John Garland, who—”

“Come for Christmas? I say. Pleased to meet you, sir.”

“No, my dear,” Ivy said. “I was just explaining we have no space so he will be leaving very soon, won’t you, John.”

“I don’t know if I will be able to find a train, or a place to sleep. It is late on Christmas Eve,” John said, stretching the definition of ‘late’ rather, since it was not much past four o’clock.

“We’ll fit him in. More the merrier,” Dombey pronounced, gave John a slap on the arm, and looked at his hand as though wondering how it had got wet.

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