Read God Rob Ye Merry Gentleman Online
Authors: Andrea Frazer
GOD ROB YE MERRY GENTLEMEN
A Belchester Chroniclette
A short story in the Belchester Chronicles series by Andrea Frazer.
It's nearly Christmas in Belchester and the carol singers are out in full swing. So too are the thieves! A spate of burglaries is underway and the police are baffled.
When Belchester Towers becomes a target, Lady Amanda Golightly is determined to get to the bottom of it all. None of the usual criminal types in the city seem to be involved, but after a bit of lateral thinking and old chum Hugo's help, Lady Amanda is off, sniffing after a totally unsuspected scentâ¦
It was the first day of December, early evening, and all was peaceful at Belchester Towers. Lady Amanda Golightly was engrossed in a crossword puzzle in the drawing room, everything else just filtered out. Opposite her, sprawled on a comfy old sofa, his fingers laced over his stomach, Hugo Cholmondley-Crichton-Crump was indulging in his post-prandial nap, his hands rising and falling with his respirations, while a gentle snoring issued from his slightly open mouth. They ate early on these dark winter evenings, when there were no guests.
Beauchamp Senior and his wife Enid were in the dining room, Enid sitting as close to the table as her âbump' would allow, sorting out tree decorations for the coming festivities, her husband putting them into four separate boxes for the trees they planned to erect this year: one in the drawing room, one in the library, one in the dining room, and one in the hall. His son, Beauchamp Junior, was on telephone and door duty, in case of the rare instance that they had any callers to the property. None were expected.
Halting her furious lateral thinking, Lady Amanda called out, âBeauchamp!' It had occurred to her that it was about time they had a post-dinner cocktail, and she was rather thirsty after the saltiness of the smoked salmon they had consumed a little earlier. This hail disturbed Hugo's slumbers, and he made some rather coarse âgnam gnam gnam' noises with his mouth, finishing with a particularly loud snort.
Lady Amanda gave a sniff of disapproval, and then was immediately distracted by the efforts of two men attempting to enter the room simultaneously and getting wedged in the door frame. âSorry,' she apologised, and indicated that the elder of the two was the one whom she desired. Old habits died hard. There had been much confusion at first, when Beauchamp's long-lost son had turned up seeking employment as a footman, and a temporary solution had been reached, but Lady Amanda was getting on in years and her memory wasn't what it had been in her youth, especially when her memory was employed on something as tricky as four down.
The butler often appeared at her elbow when she rang or called, having approached as silently as a cat and giving her quite a start. When there were two of them, the arrival of the pair, one on each side of her body, she had feared for her heart, physically jumping with shock. The son was as cat-like as his father in the stealthiness of his tread.
Beauchamp the father had been in her employ for many years, his son was a recent addition to the staff, and only a short while ago they had arranged that she would summon them by either calling âMajor' or âMinor', but this she had forgotten, so engrossed was she in her mental tussles with the crossword.
âMy apologies, Minor: it's your father I really wanted. About your duties, now, and I'll mind my memory in future. âMajor â Beauchamp â would it be possible for you to rustle us up a cocktail. I feel the need, and if Hugo doesn't want his, I might polish that off as well.'
âAnd what would her ladyship prefer?' asked her butler, solicitously.
âI'll leave that to your own excellent taste. I just fancy a bit of a livener. I can't possibly contemplate turning into one of those old biddies' â here, she glared over at Hugo, still in the land of nod â âwho falls asleep every evening, and only wakes up in time to go to bed.'
He had barely left the room on his errand when there was a ring on the old-fashioned exterior bell-pull, and the slightly more tenor tones of the butler's son calling out, âGot it'. Really, she'd have to stop him doing that. It was so common; as if they lived in a
The door was heard to open, followed by the strains of young voices, almost in tune with each other, raised in the melody of a well-known carol. Beauchamp Minor held up his hand to silence them and explained that he was not the master of the house, and should they care to wait a minute, the owner would be summoned.
âYour ladyship â carol singers, if you'd care to listen.'
âHow delightfully nostalgic,' she called out, with the inner thought that she would also have to cure him of shouting from the front door, as if they were living in a little semi.
The light in the portico was on and, as she approached the door, having left Hugo muttering, âWha â¦ whass â¦ whassup?' and bestirring himself, she spied a group of children holding what she presumed to be carol sheets, a lone adult standing just out of reach of the illumination and, therefore, indiscernible. Two of them also held tea-light lanterns on sticks.
âHow delightfully Dickensian,' she uttered, clapping her hands, and realised that she was not now alone. All three members of the Beauchamp family had joined her, Enid shuffling like a fairground fat lady, and Hugo bringing up the rear, rubbing his eyes to clear his sight from sleep.
âWotcher want, Missus? We've got the lot on 'ere,' piped up one of the smaller children who, despite his size, was evidently the leader of this motley crew.
âHow about “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen?”' asked Lady Amanda, smiling horribly at him. None of this âRudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer' or âWe Wish You a Merry Christmas' for her, which is why she'd chosen something much more traditional. The size of the house might look like an easy touch, but she'd been caught like that before: one chorus of âWe Wish Youâ¦' and then off into the night with a fistful of coins.
âRight you are, missus,' agreed the little scamp, followed by, âGive us the opening note, Sophe,' and a small girl took a recorder out of her coat and blew a note. At this cue they were off, and sang all the verses, not just the first one.
This was followed by a short round of applause from their audience of five, and the kid asked, âD'yer want anuvver one, missus?'
âWhat about “O Little Town of Bethlehem?”' suggested Enid, as this was one of her favourites.
â“O Little Town” it is. Note, Sophe,' and they were off again.
âThat was absolutely delightful,' responded Lady Amanda. She whispered in Beauchamp Senior's ear, causing him to disappear in the direction of the petty cash box. âMy manservant has just gone to get you a contribution for your entertainment but, before you go, would you care for some hot chocolate in the kitchens?'
âThat's very kind of yer, but we've got uvver 'ouses to visit,' declared the leader, and they were just turning to go when a small voice piped up.
âMissus? Missus, could I use your lavvie before we go?' The little lad had his hand in the air like a schoolchild begging to be excused. âOnly, I don't really want to 'ave to pee in yer bushes.'
With a genuine smile of sympathy, for she knew well how he felt since she had grown older, she asked Beauchamp Minor to show him the way to the servants' lavatory, and then they started asking questions.
â'Ow old is this pile?'
âMy dad said you're a real Lady. Is that true?'
âWhat are yer gettin' fer Christmas?'
â'Ave yer got a Rolls-Royce?' This was the recorder-blowing Sophe.
âAs a matter of fact, I have, young lady, but it's a very old one.'
âCor, bet it's werf a fortune.'
âAnd this gaff.'
At that moment, and much to Lady Amanda's relief, Beauchamp Senior returned and palmed something into his employer's hand, and she asked the carol singers a question. âIt's very early in the month to be doing this. Why so?'
âYer gotter get in early like in everyfink else in society,' came the reply from the diminutive head honcho, then his eyes widened as she handed him a ten-pound note. âCoo! Fanks, Missus. We only usually gets a 'andful of change. Yer a real toff, you are.'
Beauchamp Minor had silently re-joined the group, and Lady Amanda suddenly began to wonder where on earth the little boy who had been caught short had got to. âDidn't you supervise his, er, visit?' she hissed to her footman.
âI didn't realise that was necessary,' he whispered back.
âWell, go and find him. He could be lost anywhere. This place can be a real maze to strangers.'
It was a further five or six minutes, before the little boy was located at the foot of the main staircase, looking very forlorn. âSorry, missus. Must've taken a wrong turning,' he offered by way of apology. âFank Gawd you found me. I coulda been wanderin' for days. Right rats' maze this place is. I don't know 'ow yer do it, find yer way around, like.' He really did look relieved to have been thus located and guided back to the front door.
âCome on, you lot. We've got loads of uvver 'ouses to go to before we've finished. Ta for the cash, missus,' spake their little leader, and suddenly they were all gone, trotting down the drive as if they were genuinely late for an appointment.
As Beauchamp Minor closed the door, Lady Amanda commented âWhat a bizarre little incident, and what forward-thinking children, to come right at the beginning of the month. Charming bunch, if a little rough around the edges. It really restores one's faith in human nature and young people in general, especially at this time of year.'
âProper carols, too,' added Hugo. âReally took me back.'
THE FIRST SUNDAY IN DECEMBER
âCome along, everyone, or they'll be starting without us.' It was the night of the annual carol service in Belchester Cathedral, and Hugo was making a great fuss of having mislaid his leather gloves. It was bitterly cold outside.
âPut your hands in your pockets if you're cold. You'll only be in the car for a few minutes.'
âBut it's as cold as the grave in that draughty old cathedral, Manda, especially with the weather like this.'
âThen wear your woollen mittens.' Lady Amanda was getting quite testy with him.
âWoollen mittens in a cathedral? That's most unseemly.'
âThen put your mittened hands in your pockets. And where's Beauchamp got to with that dratted Rolls?'
The beep of a horn soon provided the answer to that question, and they all went out to get aboard, the mood not quite one of the seasonal goodwill they had hoped would be infusing them. Hugo had found his gloves at the last moment in his mackintosh pocket, so at least he didn't have to worry about appearing in one of the superior houses of God with woollen hand coverings.
The cathedral was cold, but not as icy as they had expected, and their breath rose to the ceiling as they sang their hearts out, as if indeed it was ascending to heaven in praise of the season.
OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS â¦
âBeauchamp! Sorry, sorry, sorry â Major,' Lady Amanda called from the music room. As the soundless form appeared, she said, somewhat testily, âHave you seen Great-Aunt Jemima's silver baton anywhere? I'm sure I left it on the piano, and I'm going to help with choir practice in the New Year. I'll need to get used to beating in pattern again, especially if they're going to tackle anything very modern with, say, five beats in a bar.'
âI'm afraid not, your ladyship. I shall institute a search for it immediately. It can't have gone far.' Beauchamp Major's tone was soothing, as he knew his mistress had a habit of not remembering the last place she had anything, but the time before that as clear as a bell in her mind.
âBeauchamp Major!' shouted Hugo. Have you seen my gold lighter anywhere? âOnly I was considering having a cigar or two over the Christmas period, and I'm very fond of it.'
Beauchamp looked chagrined. âI'm afraid I haven't noticed it lying around, Mr Hugo. Could you possibly have left it in a jacket pocket and forgotten you've done it?'
âAbsolutely not, Beauchamp, old stick. The last time I saw it was at the weekend when it was on the table in the library. I used it to light a candle which purported to be scented, and then the smell proved to be so sickening that I immediately extinguished it and just abandoned my old faithful. I mean, it's only fourteen-carat â American, you know âbut I'm very fond of it.'