Maurice looked out through the fine large windows of the receiving-room of the establishment, empty at present. He had just given up the extremely depressing task of undertaking the monthly accounts, and had no notion how he might present them to Biddy in such fashion that she would not get into a pother. It made some difference, but not enough, that Mrs Lucas had indeed paid up on the nail for her gowns; would that more ladies did so.
His idle gaze upon the passersby suddenly struck upon a fellow scrutinizing the building through a spyglass. He ran down the stairs and out into the street to see could he catch the fellow; discovering when he did so that it was MacDonald, a hat concealing the hair that was still, though fading in parts, a quite remarkable and distinctive red.
MacDonald put down the spyglass. I had a thought, he said, that there were fine large skylights above the workroom –
- 'Tis entire necessary to have it well lit –
- and I wondered whether might be possible for one to get onto the roof, and peer through: but I cannot ascertain it at this distance, even with a telescope. Is’t possible to come at the roof at all from within?
Maurice conceded that there was a trapdoor onto the roof, and a ladder to it, and Mr MacDonald was entire welcome to make the essay.
So they went upstairs and MacDonald went up the ladder like a sailor up rigging – and a very fine view it was – and looked back down at Maurice, who realized that he was expected to make this excursion as well. He did not desire to display weakness before MacDonald, so he climbed up and stepped very tentative out onto the roof: it would probably be all right did he stay away from the edge, but his heart hammered and he felt slightly sick.
MacDonald was looking about the roof like a terrier after a rat. Maurice moved slowly towards the chimney-stack and set his back against it, as MacDonald remarked that he confided that had anyone been up upon the roof, would have left some marks of his passing, scuffing a line in the encrusted grime underfoot with the toe of his shoe.
He looked out and said, why, I daresay one might lay a plank, or swing by a rope, to cross from the next roof, yet that would require being able to come at the next building. He then went right to edge and crouched to look over the very low balustrade. Maurice closed his eyes.
I daresay, said MacDonald, that there are those might contrive to climb up, but 'twould be a risky business, though I apprehend there are burglars pride themselves on their skill in the matter. But, he went on, rising and dusting his hands together, I am like to think that there would have been signs, had any done so. Marks where they had passed; mayhap a spike or so hammered in to hold a rope. 'Twas merely a thought: considered it best to close that avenue of enquiry before proceeding to another –
- Mr Allard! Are you well?
Don’t – like high places, Maurice muttered between teeth clenched to keep them from chattering.
Why, you should have said, need not have come up. But we may go down now.
Maurice found himself entirely paralyzed, his legs weak under him.
Here, said MacDonald, take my arm, I will conduct you to the trap.
Maurice took the proferred arm, much against his will. It was a more muscular arm than he had anticipated – knowing MacDonald to be a scholar, had anticipated that 'twould either be scrawny or flabby, but had a pleasing firmness.
They came to the trap. Shall I, suggested MacDonald, go first down the ladder?
This was entirely sensible, even if annoying. He acquitted MacDonald of any interest in surveying his own still pretty arse in the process, and, closing his eyes, began the descent. At the foot, he felt his feet reach the floor, dropped his painfully tight grip, and found that his still shaking knees caused him to fall up against MacDonald.
Indeed in much finer physical condition than he would have supposed; and, oh, beautifully clean but with a faint scent of fine tobacco and – surely he did not employ perfume? – mayhap some good soap, or his linen stored with sachets of herbs?
Are you all right? enquired MacDonald. Here, you should sit down. He conducted Maurice over to a chair and looked about. Do you keep any brandy about the place, perchance?
Maurice waved towards the drawer in which he kept a small bottle of gin, and fumbled in his pocket for the key.
'Tis, he said, as MacDonald took it out and frowned at it, considered entire sovereign for certain female troubles, but should serve here.
MacDonald raised his eyebrows, found the glass, poured a generous tot, and handed it to Maurice. Indeed, he said, there is no shame in having no head for heights, 'tis a not uncommon affliction. 'Tis not a matter one may address entirely by the determined action of the will, any more than by wishing I might render my spectacles unnecessary. I am like to suppose 'tis some matter of the constitution, of innate nature.
He looked for a moment startled, as if overhearing himself, and frowned.
Maurice took a drink, and felt more like himself. Perhaps too much, because he found himself asking, Did no-one remark upon you peering about through a spying-glass?
MacDonald gave a small smile and said, Had any accosted me upon the matter, I would have represented myself as a devoted ornithologist and declared that I had heard report of an exceedingly rare bird nesting upon your roof. I confide I should have been most convincing. But, he continued, as I said, that line of enquiry goes nowhere, and I must pursue another.
You have another?
Indeed so, quite apart from Lady Bexbury going spy upon Madame Francine. But I had rather say nothing on the matter as yet.
Maurice, mindful that it was very good of MacDonald to be about this matter, that must seem to him much like a lady fretting that her lapdog had been took by dog-thieves did it not return home when it should, said that did he wish it, he might help himself to some gin – entire wholesome stuff, true Hollands geneva.
Why, I will take a little, thank you. He poured himself a small tot and perched up against the windowsill, looking about.
Surely no-one could take it for a den of depravity? Entirely clean and tidy, all in order.
Have you, asked MacDonald, ever met Madame Francine?
Maurice shook his head. Never to my knowledge.
Only I took a consideration that mayhap she had worked here herself at some time, and perchance there might be some matter of personal spite in the business.
Why, I cannot think of any that we let go with any bad feeling: there will ever be those go marry, or have some better place offered elsewhere. But I do not recollect any great resentments.
MacDonald sighed. Sometimes there are those that will go brood upon what they suppose slights. When I first came to know Lady Bexbury, she was being given a deal of bother by some fellow that had become vengeful because she had, he claimed, spurned his suit, that she herself did not even recollect: 'twas in those days when one may imagine she had so many suitors that one among 'em was readily forgot. But, he said, putting down his glass, I must be on my way. May take some little while until I come at more information.
He took up his hat, frowned, turned to look at Maurice and said, I trust you are over your disturbance of the nerves?
Entirely so, said Maurice, adding snappishly, do I find myself at all overcome there is a smelling-bottle kept in the drawer against attacks of the vapours.
MacDonald twitched his shoulders, said nothing, and departed.
Indeed it would be a great relief when MacDonald sounded out this tangle, if only that then Maurice would no longer have to encounter him.