A most disturbing day. Walking down Bond Street, minding my own business. Not on duty, for once, out and about on my own personal time, I was assaulted by a high pitched, well bred voice. Her vowels were sharply enunciated, like shards of glass in my back, calling ‘Mr Fitzroy. I say, Mr Fitzroy.’ I kept walking, racking my brains to recognise the voice. It definitely sounded older than any of my paramours, past or present. My instinct was to get off the street and identify the speaker from a nearby vantage point that also offered me the opportunity of retaliation if necessary. I wouldn’t strike a woman, but it’s not unknown for assassins to work in pairs. Besides, one can always restrain a female assassin without hurting her. I’ve done it before.
Only, the bloody woman repeated her call, even louder. If I didn’t shush her, the whole damn city would be looking out for Mr Fitzroy. I turned on the balls of my feet, ready to duck if a missile should come my way, only to see Euphemia’s mother, the former Mrs Martins, also known to the brave as Philomena, parting the crowds with some frenzied umbrella waving, making her way toward me along the crowded pavement. I hurried to meet her, doubtless saving at least one gentleman the loss of an eye. ‘My dear lady,’ I said, ‘are you in some kind of trouble?’
She gave me a thin sort of smile and shook her head. ‘I thought it was you. You have a distinctive back and a peculiar gait.’
I accepted this description with the contempt it deserved, raising my chin slightly higher and saying, ‘How can I be of assistance?’
Whereupon the wretched woman linked her arm through mine and demanded to be taken to tea! ‘I am not as conversant with the metropolis as I was in my youth. So very much has changed, but I am certain a gentleman such as yourself knows where to find a decent cup. I am meeting the Bishop at Claridge’s at 3 o’clock.’
‘I would be happy to escort you there,’ I said, lying through my teeth.
‘Oh no,’ she replied, ‘It is an hour and half away. I wish to see a little more of London.’
‘You could hire a guide, madam,’ I said, in my coldest voice. She didn’t even flinch. Under any other circumstances I might admire her sangfroid, but I was trying very hard to have one pleasant afternoon to myself without having to deal with anyone.
‘You have such a sense of humour,’ she said. ‘How is Euphemia? You seem to see her more often than I. And, of course, dear Bertram, her husband.’
I’ve never been one to pursue a lost cause, so before she could communicate anything else to any more passers-by, I set off at a quick pace to a nearby tea-shop that offered a degree of privacy. I felt her quiver slightly on my arm and I glanced askance to see if the pace I set was distressing to her fragility. Damn woman was laughing at me! She’s suppressed it, but she knew exactly how I felt.
My family have the decency to either be dead or keep their distance. Euphemia’s family, conversely, seem to feel they have some kind of ownership over me. Her younger brother, Joe, greets me like a long-lost uncle whenever I see him and has, on more than one occasion, managed to leave me lighter of shillings - buying him sweets seems to be the only way to be rid of him. But being accosted by her mother in public is beyond the pail.
Once in the teashop, having ordered, I reminded her tersely that my work requires I keep a low profile, as she well knows. ‘I wanted to know if you answered to Fitzroy in public,’ she said. Only the arrival of our order stops my outburst of rage. ‘I have heard you have quite another name.’
‘Milton,’ I said. ‘It’s another of my pseudonyms. You will understand, in my line of business, I have several. You may also understand why I do not appreciate having my aliases bawled after me along a busy London Street.’
She raised an eyebrow at my rudeness. ‘You were not forced to respond,’ she countered.
‘It seemed, madam, that if I did not, you would continue to call after me until your voice reached the level of a town cryer. Indeed, when I turned and acknowledged you, you were close to such a volume. I cannot believe your Bishop would approve of you shouting like a hoyden in the street of our revered Capital. Not the done thing, I’m sure you’ll agree.’
‘Perhaps you would have preferred that I called you by your actual name,’ said the dreadful woman, and then named it.
I confess, I faltered. I may even have paled. ‘No-one has called me by that name in a very long time,’ I said. ‘And for the last person who did,’ I paused dramatically, ‘let me simply say it did not go well for them.’
‘Does Euphemia know?’
‘She does not.’
‘And you want to keep it that way? Why?’
‘I have my reasons,’ I said. At this point I was wondering how close Euphemia felt to her mother, and whether she would miss her dreadfully. The thought of what would have to be done with Joe stopped me. If he went to live with Euphemia, he would remark on my continued presence in her life and that would cause complications. Not to mention relieving me of yet more of my coin. I reigned in my desire to poison her tea.
‘Don’t look so aghast. I believe we can come to a certain agreement.’
‘Indeed,’ I said, grinding my teeth. ‘What would an Earl’s daughter want from me?’
‘My son, Joseph, could do with some guidance from a man younger and more worldly than my dear Bishop. For whatever reason, my son has taken to you.’
‘This is ridiculous,’ I snapped. ‘I know nothing of children.’
‘I am thinking more of when he becomes a young man. I had him late in life, and the Bishop is older than me. I fear there may be no guiding presence for him when he needs it the most.’
‘You have brothers,’ I said.
‘Then their sons, Joseph’s cousins.’
She shook her head. ‘And not dear Bertram, before you suggest him. We both know the chances of him surviving to middle age are slim. Since you have interested yourself in my family, I wish to charge you to watch over them.’
‘You know what I am, and you ask this of me?’
‘I cannot think of a better person to look out for someone than a spy - perhaps a master spy.’
‘Flattery will not aid you, madam.’
‘Yes, but neither have you poisoned my tea…yet. I did consider that a risk. It depended on whether or not you were actually fond of my daughter…’
‘Enough,’ I said curtly. ‘I will watch over your children, from afar, when you are gone.’
‘I think from when Joe turns eighteen would be most amenable. Perhaps a word to your old college too?’
‘My word would not help. I dropped out of Oxford,’ I said.
‘You underestimate your reach, but this is my price for keeping your secret,’ and then she said my full name again.
‘Will you stop that,’ I said. ‘Yes. Yes. I’ll do as you ask.’
‘As a spy or as a gentleman?’
She gave me another thin smile, ‘Oh, as a spy. I don’t believe the other is any longer within your capabilities.’
Bloody woman! I felt like tipping the table over her.
Oh Alice, if only you knew the things I do for you.