by Pam Sears
Skimming is frowned upon...
|“Mr. Wincrest, what is the meaning of this?”
The voice came from the open door to the parlor as he strode past. Apparently his lordship’s new bride had found something else to complain about. Putting on his most sternly haughty expression Wincrest entered the Yellow Parlor.
“Is there something I can assist you with, madam?” He queried in his loftiest tones.
He didn’t care for the way this little upstart of a country mouse tried to run the household. He had run things just fine when it had been a bachelor establishment. Her interference and ridiculous ideas were neither needed nor wanted.
The problem was, madam was made of sterner stuff than the last female had been. It had been easy to run off his lordship’s previous fiancée. There was nothing as frightening to a young debutante as an upper class butler.
Except not to this young miss.
Clarissa, the new Lady Moreland, held out a ledger and pointed to a line. Slowly leaning forward at the waist, contempt in every line of his body, Wincrest read the line and noted it was for six pounds of beef. Then her finger moved and he read the line for an extra pound of butter. Another move, another line showing a bushel of fresh peas.
Clearing his throat and his face he slowly returned to his upright position which let him tower over Lady Moreland’s diminutive form. A move that many young women took as threatening. It merely meant Lady Moreland gazed *up* at him coolly, waiting for a reply.
“It appears to be the grocery list, madam. That would more properly be the domain of the cook, Mrs. Blunt.” Wincrest gave her a wintry smile that barely stretched his paper dry lips.
Clarissa gave Wincrest a wintry smile of her own and, if his smile had no effect on her, hers sent a slight chill down his spine. His own smile faded ever so slightly.
“I have been going over the household finances of the last two years, Mr. Wincrest.” she never called him simply “Wincrest”, it was always “Mr. Wincrest” which was subtly insulting. A butler’s last name was the same as a title. His lips tightened as she continued.
“It seems that there have been many such excessive purchases. I know his lordship has had balls and routes from time to time at his mother’s request, and extra food is always required, but the excess purchases I’ve noticed have *not* come during those times. They are from the regular day to day orders or weekly orders for what should be the *normal* upkeep of this establishment.
“On top of that.” She gave him no chance to speak. “In the last six months, the excesses seem to have gone up. Neither I nor my husband eat nearly the amount of food being purchased. And even allowing for the number of servants we employ, there is more food ordered than can be accounted for in the pantry. It seems it is missing.”
“Missing, madam?” Wincrest raised an eyebrow as if in incomprehension.
“I’m quite sure you know what the word “missing” means, Mr. Wincrest.” Clarissa kept her gaze steadily on his and Wincrest felt sweat bloom around his neck but refused to react.
“I have gone over the accounts. I have tallied everything in the larder with Mrs. Blunt’s help. I have even gone so far as to check the sheets and blankets and towels used by this household with Mrs. Quimbly’s assistance. You know, the housekeeper?”
“I’m aware of who Mrs. Quimbly is, madam. Is there a point you would like to make?” His tone was once again superior. She might suspect but there was no way to prove anything.
Clarissa gently set the ledger on a side table near her and twitched her skirts. Clasping her hands softly in front of her waist Clarissa once more met Wincrest’s gaze. Where his was superior and gloating hers was stern and disappointed.
“My husband is a good man, Mr. Wincrest.” She spoke softly. “He is also a trusting man and expects those he employs to be honorable, loyal, and devoted. If there is a reasonable explanation for the missing excess, I should be very glad to hear it and nothing more will be said.
“However, should the explanation *not* be satisfactory….” She simply let the words trail off and waited.
Wincrest tried to out-wait her, his stare haughty. It had no effect on her. She simply raised one delicate, sable colored eyebrow slightly even as she remained passive.
Wincrest shifted slightly. “I see no reason why this should land at my door, madam. As I mentioned, the larder is the domain of Mrs. Blunt and the household provisions are the domain of Mrs. Quimbly.”
“If you have something to say, madam,” he leaned sneeringly on the word. “Please feel free to do so.”
She continued to wait patiently.
As if of its own accord his hand rose and he carefully checked his perfectly coifed hair. Then adjusted the pin at his collar.
And she waited.
“I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation, madam.” He finally conceded through tight lips. “Perhaps one of the footmen made off with the excess. I shall look into it right away.”
He turned to leave but her words stopped him in his tracks.
“There is no need, Mr. Wincrest. The matter has been looked into and already resolved. This meeting was to give you a chance to not only give a reasonable explanation but to, perhaps, offer restitution.” She spoke firmly if softly.
He spun back, glowering at her. “I. Beg. Your. Pardon.” He bit out.
“The excess food stuffs from this week’s grocery order were found in your rooms, packaged to be shipped out. I might have been gracious if the food was for a family in serious need but, when we opened one of the boxes, there was a bill of sale in it for more than the grocer charged us. And when I checked on the person it was being shipped to it was someone who could *not* afford that amount although they obviously needed it and were in somewhat difficult circumstances. I’m not sure, precisely, what you’re about Mr. Wincrest but it stops now. You are released from your duties and there will be no reference.”
Wincrest gaped at the tiny termagant before him. It took a moment to pull himself together. His lip lifted in a sneer and he squared his shoulders. “I have been with his lordship for 30 years. I doubt he will believe these scurrilous accusations from an insecure country mouse who has no idea how to navigate Proper Society.”
“You are speaking to my wife, Wincrest.” The words were a whip of sound.
Wincrest paled as Lord Moreland rose from a seat near the window. He’d been in one of the larger chairs that his wife had brought in for men to sit comfortably when they came to visit and Wincrest hadn’t noticed him as the chair was, currently, facing the window.
There was a look of both disappointment and anger on Moreland’s face as he came to stand next to his wife. Accusation blazed from his dark brown eyes and his lips beneath his mustache were a firm line.
“Her Ladyship is an extremely intelligent woman, one of the reasons I fell in love with her. She made sure of all her facts before she brought them to me. You have ten minutes to pack and remove yourself from these premises, Wincrest. And she’s right, there shall be no references. At least, none you would be willing to present to any potential employer.”
Wincrest felt himself sag. He was in his sixties and had no doubt it would be more than difficult to find another job as butler. One did not leave a good position in Society if one could help it. He’d had a cushy spot, an employer who trusted him and rarely looked at the books too closely and who, if he questioned a purchase, believed what he was told like a trusting child.
He stared at the two people before him and felt his anger rise to rage. Who did they think they were? His betters? Not likely! With a sneer he again turned away when Lady Moreland’s next words nearly made him stumble.
“All monies found in your rooms, and any remaining salary due you, will be going to pay back the overage to those people you have cheated, Mr. Wincrest. Along with the foodstuffs they thought they were buying in good faith. They will receive no more, but they will receive what they believed they had purchased. Simply at a fairer price.” Clarissa stated quietly.
Wincrest felt his cheeks go numb. He had debts to pay. They couldn’t….
“I’m sorry, Wincrest. More than you realize.” Moreland stated sadly.
Wincrest gathered his wits and strode from the room without reply. At the door he paused long enough to glance back. Clarissa leaned consolingly against her husband, arms around his waist. Moreland stood with his head down as he held her in return.
With a quiet snort Wincrest headed straight for his rooms. He packed quickly, checking all the places he’d secreted the money he’d embezzled but that nosy female had managed to find every hidey hole he had. How had she done that?
Stuffing his few belongings into his two valises he gathered his dignity about him like a cloak and purposely walked down the front stairs rather than the servant’s stairs. The halls were conspicuously empty of all servants. That raised an alarm in his mind but he ignored it.
At the front door Wincrest paused to glance around uneasily once more. Still no sign of another living being. He opened the front door, determined to leave it wide open as he walked away. How dare they treat him this way?
He walked regally down the front steps and short front drive. He’d taken no more than three steps off Moreland’s property when he heard a voice he’d hoped to avoid long enough to leave London.
“Hello, Chester, old chum.”
“I’m sorry, Thomas, my love. I know you’ve had Mr. Wincrest in your life since you were a child.” Clarissa said softly.
“It hurts when you’re betrayed like that. I’ll get past it eventually.” He assured her, hugging her tight.
She glanced up and saw a strange gleam in his eyes. Her own narrowed.
“What did you do, Thomas?” She demanded suspiciously.
His mustache twitched as he fought a vengeful grin. “Well, love, I did a bit of investigating of my own. In areas a lady will never be able to go. Seems old Wincrest owed money to some very nasty people.”
“Thomas!” She exclaimed, hand coming up to cover her lips.
“Oh, don’t worry, I was at least kind enough to pay off his debt. But they will be giving Wincrest something to think about before he learns that fact. Hopefully he’ll be more honest with whomever he works for next.”
They both stood at the window for long moments. Watching.