My dearest Miss Pickering,
…oh, I do wish you had been able to come, I am quite beside myself without your company. The Duke only ever talks about his race horses and his investments–which to hear him talk might be the same thing–and Felicity and her set are all deep into politics, which you know I couldn't give a fig about. I was expecting to have Teddy and Charlie here to keep me amused, but they seem to have stood us up. Felicity is quite put out; it's thrown off all her seating plans. Sometimes I'm glad to be an only child, brothers seem to be nothing but trouble.
The only person of any interest here is Herr Müller from Frankfurt, who seems to be a partner in some kind of business venture with Teddy. Or he wants to be a partner? I'm not at all clear on the details. Something about railroads in Africa, I believe. It's all terribly confusing. Teddy's such a terrific writer, and the piece he wrote on the shocking atrocities in the Belgian Congo was so moving, I hope he hasn't suddenly decided to become another boring man of industry.
Whatever it is, Herr Müller clearly came expecting to talk business, but until that rascal Teddy shows up, he's quite at a loss. Teddy apparently didn't tell his sister that Herr Müller was coming either, so she's really quite put out about that as well. I pointed out that he does help balance the numbers at dinner and that seems to have mollified her for now.
Perhaps it's for the best that you couldn't come. The hall can be quite draughty this time of year, and you know I always worry about you catching a chill. And besides I'm afraid you'd find my behaviour quite shocking.You see, I've started up a bit of a flirtation with Herr Müller, just to give us both something to do.
Oh, Edith, I can see your judgmental frown from here, but I promise it's all harmless fun, and it takes some of the pressure off of Felicity, who was becoming quite tired of his pestering. Between you and me though, I wouldn't want to be Teddy if he doesn't show up before the party on Sunday. Felicity has been telling her political friends about his work all week, and she's invited a whole pile of Bright Young Things up from the city for the party. She'll be so disappointed if he doesn't show.
I must end this here. I'm supposed to be changing for dinner, and you know the Duke hates tardiness
Edith Pickering folded the letter firmly and slipped it back into her handbag, pulling out her knitting instead. She could think of many perfectly good reasons Teddy Ainsworth might want to avoid his sister's house party–starting with her standoffish husband and carefully curated guest list–but few that would lead him to actually miss the party. He adored his sister and was much too practical not to take advantage of the political connections afforded by having a Duchess for a sister.
While she'd been distracted, the conversation in Sylvie Winterthorpe's parlour had turned to theatre. Amelia Lovington seemed to be just launching into a highly-inaccurate explanation of the plot of W. Somerset Maugham's latest comedy.
"Speaking of Maugham," Edith broke in. "I ran into your brother at a quite excellent showing of Lady Frederick last year, Sylvie. What is Charlie up to these days? I haven't seen him anywhere in months."
"Oh, I don't even know. Some sort of business. He's terribly busy these days. I've convinced him to stop working so hard and come around for dinner on Thursday. Oh, that reminds me: Olivia Woodford's sister is ill and she's had to rush up to Manchester, leaving me one short for dinner that night. You should absolutely come instead, I'm sure Charlie would love to see you!"
Tell Felicity her wayward brother will be there Sunday afternoon. We happened to both be invited to a delightful dinner party hosted by Sylvie Winterthorpe yesterday evening, and I took the opportunity to remind him exactly how his sister would react if he failed to show. He claims he forgot entirely, but it's more likely he's nervous about the introductions Felicity has arranged for him. I will never understand why that man doesn't recognize his own talent.
I've sent along a shawl I've been working on. The lace is something of an experiment, adapted from that pattern we were working on last summer, and I'd appreciate your opinion.
My dear Edith,
Thank you ever so much for posting the beautiful shawl. It arrived Friday afternoon and it's really just the thing I needed. And what an interesting adaptation to our lace design; it's quite ingenious. I always learn so much from your stitchwork.
The shawl is particularly handy since I'm afraid I'm going to be staying in Dorset a few days longer than expected. Please do give my apologies to Lady Merriman for missing her dinner, but it absolutely cannot be helped, for you see Herr Müller was found dead in his bed Sunday morning! They say his heart gave out, the poor dear. It's quite a shock to us all, obviously, and since I've spent so much time with him, I am of course expected to remain until after the inquest.
Felicity is quite upset, as one would expect. But fortunately, Teddy and Charlie finally arrived that afternoon and Teddy has been an absolute dear about taking on the hosting duties for his sister, since of course the Duke is quite useless on that account. He immediately telegraphed to town to tell Felicity's guests not to come, but of course he couldn't reach everyone. There was quite a bit of a hassle keeping the socialites and the police out of each other's hair, but Teddy has risen to the occasion quite admirably. It's not at all what Felicity had planned, but I think he's made quite a good impression on some of her political friends.
Oh yes, Teddy has no intention of getting into business! We were all quite confused as to where Herr Müller got that idea. Charlie says they did meet him when they were in Rhodesia, but it was only a passing acquaintance–Herr Müller was something of an amateur photographer and they ended up in one of his photographs. But they certainly hadn't made any kind of business agreement with him, or invited him to call on Teddy's family. I know one shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but I am reevaluating everything Herr M— told me about himself; the man seems to have been something of a charlatan…
Edith had just begun unpicking the same row for the fourth time when she heard Mrs. Pierce at the door, followed by the familiar breezy tones of Miss Cora Delacourt. "Mrs. Pierce, how good to see a friendly face again, I tell you I am quite done with house parties. Never again. Is MIss Pickering in the drawing room? Wonderful. I'll go right in, if you could just show the Duchess's man where to take my trunks–" and then Cora was there, bright and alive and maddeningly beautiful in a travel-creased dress and a very familiar hastily-knit shawl.
Standing, Edith, found herself momentarily at a loss, unsure if she wanted to kiss her or throttle her. Cora decided for her; Cora so often decided for her. The door clicked closed and a moment later Cora was in her arms. Edith gave herself a moment to enjoy the reunion before stepping away. She could hear Felicity's chauffeur in the hall, exchanging pleasantries with Mrs. Pierce on his way out the door; this was already more of a risk than they usually allowed themselves. Mrs. Pierce was trustworthy, of course, but there was a reason they only kept Mrs. Pierce and a cook in full-time.
She barely held her tongue until she heard the front door close, "Honestly, Cora, I could throttle you! You're supposed to tell me when you're on assignment."
Cora laughed, "I wasn't, my dear. I swear it. Or at least, I didn't think I was. I may have to have words with our dear Mr. Templeton, I wouldn't put it past him to have arranged this whole thing somehow. Come, sit down, sit down, you must tell you everything from your end. And I must tell you how much I admire your quick thinking. And your nimble fingers! this shawl is a work of art."
"Well, if you hadn't told me off, I could have given you the whole story in person. 'Blackmail' and 'photos' were all I could manage in yarn, I'm afraid." Edith picked up her abandoned knitting and began frogging it completely. This pattern was not coming together at all; she might as well start from the beginning.
"I already suspected as much, all I needed was the confirmation," Cora said, picking up the other end of Edith's yarn. "Really, Teddy Ainsworth going into industry? And in Africa, at that? Even if he had the money–and the Ainsworths aren't at all what they used to be–he'd never stoop so low.”
Cora began haphazardly winding the yarn as she talked. "Felicity loaned him the money for this African trip–he refused to accept a gift, insisting on paying her back after he'd sold the story. And now it turns out he was already being blackmailed! Honestly, I could shake that man."
"Men have such fragile egos, it's quite tiresome," Edith agreed. "I'm afraid he and Charlie were a bit indiscreet. They've been quite beside themselves. "Are you sure there was only the one set of pictures?"
"Oh yes. Herr Müller was something of an opportunistic amateur. Do you know, he didn't even consider trying to shake down Felicity until I convinced him Teddy wasn't going to show."
"I would have loved to see that."
"She was marvelous! 'How dare you imply such things,' and 'Teddy would never!' and 'Even if these supposed photographs exist, I'm sure you'll find that you've been quite mistaken as to the subjects.' Sent him running straight to dig them out, and saved me a most inconvenient search. She's really quite ruthless, our Felicity, didn't even bat an eye at Herr Müller's too-convenient heart attack."
Having watched Felicity's pursuit of the Duke a decade earlier, Edith had no doubt about her ruthlessness. A nineteen-year-old Felicity Ainsworth had waged an absolutely masterful campaign. For all that there were twenty years between them, the Duke had never stood a chance.
"How did you manage that? I assumed it was one of your Mr. Templeton's concoctions, but surely you weren't expecting to need such a thing at a house party."
"Oh, I always keep a little something in the hidden compartment in my trunk. A woman can never be too careful." All the yarn was in Cora's hands now. She wrapped the last loop of yarn tight and set it aside. "But enough of this. I simply must wash and change into something less mussed before dinner. Won't you come help me with my buttons?"
Edith checked the clock. It was only half past four, more than enough time to clean up and change for dinner. Perhaps enough time to get Cora a little more dishevelled first. She put aside her knitting needles and headed for the stairs.