“Peace, brother, be not over-exquisite”
amuel Lambert, all too aware of his responsibilities as a guest, saw with dismay that there were loose bits of tea leaf in the bottom of his cup. Lambert was not easy to alarm. He had no objection to tea leaves as such, but their presence made it probable that his hostess would once again try her dainty, inexorable hand at telling his fortune.
Mrs. Robert Brailsford cultivated parlor fortune-telling as an excuse to bring out some of her intuitions, her observations, and on rare occasions, what amounted to impertinent remarks. Fragile, blond, and as fashionable as the wife of a Senior Fellow of Glasscastle University dared to be, Amy's refined exterior concealed a lively appreciation of the absurd. That she could sometimes behave with boundless absurdity herself was no small part of her charm.
Lambert liked Amy. He appreciated the hospitality shown to him by both the Brailsfords, and he respected Mr. Robert Brailsford, even felt a bit intimidated by him. But he
Amy, and he felt quite sure that his liking was returned. In her, he found an appreciative audience for any reminiscences or observations he cared to make. She enjoyed his lapses into American speech and behavior. Indeed, she encouraged them.
Still, in the past six months Lambert had put up with Amy's examination of his handwriting, her analysis of the numerical value of the letters in his name, and an inspection of the bumps on his head that made him suppress a shudder every time he thought of it. Amy Brailsford's powers of divination had revealed that Lambert was a gentleman of keen perception, that he would take a long journey over water, marry well, and have seven children. Her evaluation of his handwriting was accurate enough to make Lambert reluctant to surrender to any more studies.
Enough was enough. Since his arrival at Glasscastle six months before, Lambert's experience of local etiquette had given him the confidence to brave most social perils. Afternoon tea was well within his capabilities. Impromptu fortune-telling was not. Lambert resolved to drink his tea with such fervor and dedication there would be nothing left in the cup to read. As Lambert took a deep breath and prepared to polish off his tea, leaves and all, the parlormaid joined them.
“Miss Brailsford has arrived, ma'am.”
Amy Brailsford put her cup down on its saucer with such uncharacteristic force that the porcelain chimed in protest. “
? That is, which Miss Brailsford?”
“Miss Jane Brailsford.”
Amy looked askance at the maid. “Goodness. How extraordinary. Set another place at the table and ask Cook to cut a few more sandwiches. On second thought, make that rather a lot more sandwiches. And a fresh pot of tea. I'll be there in a moment” Amy turned to Lambert, eyes wide, to explain. “It's Robert's sister. The youngest of the family. She teaches at a school in France.”
“A schoolteacher?” Lambert exclaimed. “That is, I meant to say, how interesting.”
Amy looked puzzled by his response but continued, “We haven't seen her for years and years. It almost seems more likely that Robert's great-aunt Susannah left Cheltenham Spa to call on us than that Jane should visit. Excuse me, please.”
Grateful for the unexpected reprieve, Lambert used the precious minute or so of solitude after Amy's departure to conceal the contents of his teacup in a brass pot that held a substantial aspidistra. When his sleeve brushed against the foliage, he roused a beetle from its afternoon nap. The insect flew low over the table, rose to an altitude just out of swatting range, and set itself to veer around the room for the rest of the day. After watching its erratic flight for several circuits of the room, Lambert helped himself to a few sugar cubes from the bowl. He wasted two shots before he got the hang of the insect's abrupt changes of speed and direction, but the third sugar cube closed its account. Lambert nailed the beetle on the wing at three paces, exactly over the tea tray. The corpse missed the milk pitcher with half an inch to spare and landed, legs to the sky, between the teapot and the sugar bowl. Uncomfortably aware that no etiquette book covered freelance insect extermination, Lambert retrieved the evidence. He deposited the dead beetle and the sugar cubes on top of the tea leaves in the aspidistra pot and resumed his seat.
Lambert was listening to the tick of the clock on the mantel and watching the progress of the afternoon sunlight across the oriental carpet when his hostess rejoined him. In Amy's
wake was a woman somewhere in her early twenties, no older than Lambert was himself. She had clear gray eyes and smooth dark hair coiled and pinned into a large knot. Only a stray tendril here and there betrayed that she'd just taken off her hat. Her clothing, of good material and elegant cut, showed little sign of the dust of the road, but her half boots did. For all her elegant appearance, Miss Jane Brailsford had apparently traveled a considerable distance. Lambert rose as Amy performed the introductions and the maid arrived with the new place setting and a fresh supply of provisions.
“Jane, may I present Mr. Samuel Lambert? He is an American visiting Glasscastle to help Robert and his friends with some studies of theirs. Mr. Lambert, allow me to present Miss Jane Brailsford, Robert's younger sister.”
“Ma'am.” Lambert didn't have to strain for sincerity. “I'm mighty pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Jane made the proper reply and took her seat. The maid withdrew. Introductions successfully concluded, Amy sat and devoted herself to meeting her guests' need for tea and sandwiches.
Jane removed her gloves and folded them in her lap. She regarded Lambert with interest as he returned to his seat. “Some studies of Robin's? I suppose it is useless to ask directly. What sort of studies?”
Lambert couldn't help smiling a little. “I'm the last one who could tell you. The boys in charge are all Fellows of Glasscastle. They give the orders. I just do what I'm told.” He inspected his teacup before he took a sip. No leaves. Maybe his luck had turned.
Jane reproached Amy. “You shouldn't have brought it up
if I wasn't to ask about it.” She turned her attention to a plate of stuffed mushrooms. Lambert had given them a wide berth after his first, since he detected the faint fishy presence of patum peperium in the filling. Jane appeared to find no fault with them, nor with anything else on her plate. Her manners were impeccable, but her appetite was fierce.
Amy dimpled. “My dear, why do you think I said it? I'm curious too. All I know is, Mr. Lambert is here as a marksman. He's allowed to take tea, but no other stimulants. Coffee, alcohol, and tobacco are forbidden. They would interfere with the accuracy of his aim.”
“No stimulants of any kind?” Jane gave Lambert a searching glance. “But surely tea itself is a stimulant?”
“I prevailed upon the committee. They granted Mr. Lambert the privilege of drinking tea, provided it is not too strong,” Amy said. “After all, what would life be without at least an occasional cup of tea? Hardly worth living.”
“I tried to make the same case for brandy,” said Lambert. “I gave it a game try, but somehow my opinions don't carry the weight that Mrs. Brailsford's do. I am a greenhorn here, and I appreciate her looking out for me.”
Jane studied Lambert for a long time before she spoke. Lambert expected her to take him up on the word “greenhorn,” but instead she said, “Then you make the ideal guest. Even a chicken sandwich constitutes adventure.”
Lambert met the challenge in Jane's tone with utter solemnity. “Mrs. Brailsford's company is intoxicating enough. I reckon any more excitement than that would upset the Fellows.”
“I reckon it would.” Jane didn't just match his words, she
matched his sober expression with one of her own, but there was a distinct gleam of humor behind her gravity. Lambert warmed to her.
“Isn't he a perfect lamb?” Amy asked Jane. “He says things like that all the time. Unfortunately, neither he nor Robert take the slightest notice of a woman's natural curiosity. Whatever they're doing, it involves firearms. Mr. Lambert is a genuine cowboy, but he is here as a professional sharpshooter. A dead shot.” Amy obviously relished the phrase.
“Are you indeed?” Jane looked at Lambert again, her surprise ill concealed.
Lambert was still wincing slightly from hearing himself described as a perfect lamb. Before he could answer, Amy went on.
“He was traveling with Kiowa Bob's Genuine Wild West Show, but when Glasscastle needed him, he obliged us and came here to stay.” Amy beamed at Lambert. “Luckily for us.”
Jane said, “How extraordinary. Is there really such a person as Kiowa Bob?”
“Yup. Well, his name isn't Bob and he's not really Kiowa. But the fellow in question was good enough to take me on and show me the ropes,” Lambert replied. “I only came to the tryouts to keep a friend of mine company. My friend got in with his roping and riding and then dared me to try the sharpshooting. To make a long story short, I was hired. I'll always be grateful to Kiowa Bob for giving me a chance.”
“Very amiable of Mr. Bob, I'm sure. Had it been a long-held ambition of yours to go into show business?” Jane asked.
“Nope. I liked it better than what I was doing before, through.” Lambert didn't give Jane a chance to ask him about that. Instead, he pushed on. “Thanks to the Wild West Show, I've had a chance to see the world. We toured America, of course. Spent months in New York City. When Kiowa Bob decided to arrange a European tour, I thought I'd come along and see a bit more of the world.”
Jane's gray eyes were keen. “If you loved it so much, what made you decide to leave and come here?”
“I was recruited. We heard there was a big shooting contest held in London every year. Kiowa Bob thought it might help plug our show, so I entered. First thing I knew, Mr. Voysey, Mr. Brailsford, and those other men from Glasscastle were there to sign me up.”
“You won the contest, then?” Jane asked.
“Of course he did,” said Amy. “He wouldn't be here if he hadn't.”
Jane looked puzzled. “Surely it defeated the purpose to have you leave the show just as you were, er, plugging it. Didn't your employer object?”
“At first I reckoned I'd just come down here for a day or so, straighten out your Fellows, and head right back to the show. Kiowa Bob gave me permission to miss a few performances. Then, once I'd seen Glasscastle and found out more about the job, I decided to stay here, at least for a spell. Kiowa Bob could have made me work out my contract, but he was a gent about it. He let me go with his blessing.”
“Remarkable.” Unlike most people, Jane did not subject Lambert to a cross-examination on the subject of the personal habits of Indians, cowboys, or buffalo. Instead, she
selected a cucumber sandwich from the offerings before her and began to consume it with obvious pleasure. Lambert was surprised at the degree of his disappointment. It seemed likely that Jane would ask more interesting questions than he was used to. What a pity she seemed so much more interested in the food.
Into the silence that ensued, Amy said, “Jane, it's wonderful to have you visit here at last. Robert will be so pleased. He would have met your train if only he'd known. You might have given us some hint you were coming.”
Surprised, Jane paused in the methodical demolition of her sandwich. “I certainly might have. I might have neglected to do so; I'm quite capable of it. But in this instance, I am not guilty, upon my honor, m'lady. I sent a wire from London yesterday.”
Amy frowned. “You did? How extraordinary. I wonder if Robert forgot to mention it to me. No, he wouldn't have.”
“Preoccupied with his studies, perhaps?” Jane suggested. “Wires do go astray sometimes. Not often, I grant you. Where is our gentle Robin?”
It was Amy's turn to look reproachful. “You know he hates to be called that.”
Jane merely smiled and took her time about selecting the next sandwich from the assortment before her.
“Robert is at a reception this afternoon. The new Vice Chancellor of Glasscastle is entertaining two cabinet ministers and Robert is there to help him. The plan is to establish warmer relations between the policy makers and those who carry out the policy. I quote.” Amy gave Lambert a sidelong glance of mischief, and then added, “Mr. Lambert is here to
keep me company while they are busy making their relations more warm.”
Jane was the picture of innocence as she thought this statement over. “Goodness. Luckily, they should have no trouble on a day like this.” After a pensive moment, she asked, “Which group does Robin think he's in? Not the policy makers?”
Amy looked scandalized. “Jane. As if there could be any question. All the official funding Robert's research project receives comes straight from the Home Secretary. It couldn't be more direct, or more vital to our imperial interests.”
“I suppose I needn't bother to ask about the unofficial funding. You won't say anything you shouldn't. I really must get Robin to tell me what it is he's working on this time.” Jane spoke half to herself, half to her cup of tea.