I MAKE NO claim to be an author. Nor am I an astute student of the literary arts. To the eternal chagrin of my daughter, Miss Rebecca Lyon, I have not read a word written by the popular authoress Mrs. Ann Radcliffe. Therefore, even though the tale that follows is strange enough, there will be no lurid descriptions of ominously dark skies or oddly creaking staircases from me.
In truth, if my memory serves me correctly, the day my tale begins the sun was shining benignly upon the streets of that great metropolis called London and her many denizens, some of whom stopped their hurried dash from shop and carriage to cast a grateful glance upward at the celestial visitor. If you had been in Sweeting’s Alley, a narrow but pleasant alleyway in the City, you might have seen me engaged in such a salute. I am not often in Sweeting’s Alley at that hour, which was about two o’clock in the afternoon. My clock-making business on Cornhill Street is successful, thank God, and requires my presence for most of the day. But I am also a trustee of London’s Great Synagogue and my advice was sought about a delicate matter concerning our community.
Mr. Ezra Melamed, the well-known philanthropist, wished to discuss the matter at Baer’s Coffee House, a kosher establishment located in Sweeting’s Alley, and I felt it only right to defer to his wishes. Mr. Melamed is what we Jews call a parnass, or benefactor of the community, and he has selflessly come to the aid of several members of our synagogue during their hour of need, including myself. But that is another story.
To return to this one, I had only just turned into Sweeting’s Alley when I was accosted by a young man whose ragged clothes and outstretched hand identified him as one of the city’s more unfortunate inhabitants. Upon closer examination I noticed he was leaning heavily upon a wooden crutch and that the lower part of his right leg was missing.
“Peninsular War, sir,” he said, having followed the direction of my gaze with his own quick eyes. “Lost it at San Sebastian.”
I reached into my coat pocket and extracted a coin, which I placed in the former soldier’s hand. I wished to say something, to somehow express my gratitude to him and all those fine boys who had so bravely given life and limb for England’s sake. But when confronted by this young person and his wretched state, words seemed woefully inadequate.
“Are you hungry?” I did manage to say. “May I invite you to dine? I myself was just about to turn into this coffee house. I can vouch for the roast beef.”
“I thank you kindly, sir.”
And that is how we entered Baer’s Coffee House together. Asher Baer, the proprietor, hailed me at once. We have been acquainted many years. But he did look curiously at my companion.
“A veteran of His Majesty’s army,” I said, by way of introduction. “A hero of the Peninsular War.”
“You are very welcome, then,” replied Mr. Baer. “I, too, had a son who fought in Spain. What regiment were you with?”
“The Ninth, sir.”
“The Fighting Ninth, I believe you boys were called. Or so my son told me, in one of his letters. Perhaps you knew him. His name was Joseph Baer.” The young man’s gaunt face, which was crowned by an unruly mop of blond curls and enlivened by a pair of twinkling blue eyes, lit up in a wide smile. “Knew him? We marched side by side for more miles than I care to remember. Joseph was one of the best, both as a soldier and a friend.” The smile on Asher Baer’s face matched that of the young man, for what parent does not rejoice to hear his offspring praised. But then his face grew serious. “Would you happen to know, Mr. ...”
“Trent. Hugh Trent, sir, and at your service.”
“Do you know what happened to my boy? The last letter we received from him was dated July of 1813. The Army says he was wounded a month later, at San Sebastian, and shipped back to England in September. But after the ship docked, Joseph seems to have disappeared. I cannot imagine why he did not come home to recover from his wounds. I do not like to think he met with misfortune, but the months have passed without a word. Have you seen him, since your own return to England? Have you any information that could relieve an anxious father’s heart?”
Hugh Trent looked thoughtful. “It’s a strange world, if I may so, sir. Here am I, a lonely orphan with no one to care if I am alive or not — and here are you, a lonely father anxiously waiting for word from your vanished son. I wish I could help at least one of our situations, but I cannot. I too was wounded at San Sebastian, but I was in a delirium for most of the voyage home, or so my wounded comrades later told me. We were taken to a hospital to regain our strength and it was there I learned how to walk with this crutch. After we recovered, each in our own time, we parted ways, and it could be that Joseph was released before I fully returned to my senses. As for me, when I was well enough to leave I returned to London, where I discovered my elderly mother had passed away in my absence.”
“You have borne much for one so young in years,” said Mr. Baer.
“And borne it honorably, I hope.”
“Do you never see any of your old companions?”
“From time to time, and some are even worse off than me. But I have never seen Joseph, sir. I will keep a sharp lookout, though, if it will please you.”
“It will please me, Mr. Trent. And it will please me if you will come to my coffee house whenever you need a nourishing meal. But I must not keep you waiting any longer. If you will make yourself comfortable, I will get your dinner at once.”
While Mr. Trent was settling himself down onto a bench, Mr. Melamed entered the coffee house. There is not much light inside, because no windows look out onto the street and the candles give off as much smoke as flame. It therefore took him, as it takes everyone, a few moments to adjust his eyes to the dim interior. When he did see me, he nodded his head in greeting and went to his customary place, a table situated at the back corner of the room, where he can engage in conversation in privacy. While he owns a luxurious mansion on Bury Street, near the Great Synagogue, sometimes he prefers to do his business at the coffee house. Many do, thanks to the delicious meals prepared by Mrs. Miriam Baer, whom you will meet later in these pages. Furthermore, Mr. Melamed is a widower, with two married daughters living abroad. It is therefore only natural that he should wish to dine amongst the company of other people, rather than always eat alone in his own dining room. (Although Mrs. Baer has often expressed the opinion that he should remarry rather than eat meals in coffee houses, including her own, and I tend to agree.)
But to get back to the matter at hand, I made my adieus to the young man, who seemed happy enough to converse with the plate of roast beef and potato kugel that Mr. Baer had placed before him. I sat down at Mr. Melamed’s table. I was soon followed by Mr. Baer, who served us cups of steaming black coffee. Sometimes Mr. Baer joins in the consultations that take place in his coffee house. Although his visage is not imposing — he looks like the honest and hardworking coffee house proprietor that he is — he has a rare ability to cut through a thicket of confused ideas and impressions and arrive at the heart of the matter. But on this day Mr. Melamed signaled that he could return to his other duties.
Mr. Melamed is not a jovial man by nature. On the contrary, his lean features and usually serious expression are often mistaken for an austere temperament by those who do not know him well. The error works to his advantage in his role as parnass, when he must impose his will upon those who would prefer to shirk their duty to the community. In truth, though, it is only his kind heart that has forced him to spurn the quiet life he chose after his wife died a few years ago and take on a public and often irksome role. Yet even though I like to think I know Mr. Melamed as well as any man, even I misread his humor on this occasion.
“Well, Lyon,” he began, “there is more trouble for us.”
“Serious?” I asked. Of course, it was serious; otherwise Mr. Melamed would not have summoned me from my place of business in the middle of the day. But I am not a man who is quick with words in all situations, and I could think of nothing better to say.
“Oh, it is very serious.” Mr. Melamed then motioned for me to move closer. When I had done so, he whispered, “A lady has lost her handkerchief. There! What do you think of that?”
I laughed. “You cannot be serious.”
“I find it difficult, but the lady is most serious.”
“Dozens, if not hundreds of handkerchiefs are lost — or rather stolen — in London every day.”
“The lady does not care about your dozens or hundreds. She cares only for her own.”
“It has some sentimental association, I gather.”
“It belonged to her mother.”
“The bond between a daughter and her mother is a strong one.” I thought of my own wife and daughters. We are a happy family. Most of the time.
“I suppose the handkerchief can be found. It was lost only yesterday,” said Mr. Melamed. “Still, it is a bother.”
“It is also something of an insult to you, if you do not mind my saying so. Who is this lady who so little values your time?”
“The name sounds familiar.”
“Her husband, The Right Honorable The Viscount Lennox is a Junior Lord of the Treasury.”
I groaned. In my experience, there is nothing worse than a Junior Minister, whether he is a member of the peerage or not. I was already picturing in my mind a thin-lipped, humorless young man of thirty or so, filled to the brim with a sense of his own importance, as though the future of England depended upon him and him alone.
“And if I am not mistaken,” Mr. Melamed continued, “Lady Lennox is a rich heiress. A fabulously rich heiress, I believe.”
The comment jogged my memory about some news item I had recently seen, and I walked over to a nearby table where a small stack of newspapers was sitting. “I believe there is something about the lady in one of these,” I said as I quickly glanced through the pages.
When I found what I was looking for, I read aloud the paragraph: “ ‘Among the fair ladies with small dogs who frequent the park where the kidnappings have occurred is The Right Honble. The Viscountess Lennox, who arrived in London a few months ago, along with her astounding fortune.’ It takes rather a large amount of money to astound London society, I should think.”
Although I did not say this aloud, I was beginning to form a picture in my mind of this very rich Lady Lennox as well. I supposed she was one of those petulant females who was spoiled by a doting father in her youth and now expected the rest of the world to be equally admiring of her small wit and questionable charm.
Yet even as I was conjuring up this unpleasant pair, I could not help but wonder why I had been summoned. Mr. Melamed, as though reading my mind, hastened to enlighten me.
“I could call upon the pawnbrokers in Houndsditch myself to find the handkerchief,” he said. “It is true that when they see me the price of an object increases with remarkable speed. But I should not mind, if the handkerchief could be found with speed and the matter concluded satisfactorily for all concerned. However, Lord Lennox prefers that neither his name nor the name of his wife be mentioned, and if I were to pursue the matter myself it might bring unwanted attention.”
“Lord Lennox fears his wife may have lost her handkerchief under compromising circumstances?”
“Although he did not say so, I think we can assume there is more to this incident than he has divulged.”
“You want me to go the pawnbrokers, then?”
Mr. Melamed shook his head. “I had in mind your assistant.”
“Mr. Warburg?” I was surprised. Although I have sometimes assisted Mr. Melamed in his pursuit of criminals who have disturbed the peace of our little community, I do not like to involve my employees in my exploits.
“He and his wife are from Bohemia, if I recall,” said Mr. Melamed.
“Lady Lennox is newly arrived from Bohemia as well. Lord Lennox met her while he was on the Continent. He was a member of the diplomat corps before taking up his present duties. He informed me of all this when he called upon me. The handkerchief, by the way, is Mechlin Lace.”
“Precisely. It would therefore be natural for Mrs. Warburg to have such a handkerchief in her possession, perhaps as an heirloom — and to be anxious about its loss.”
I frowned. I insist upon my employees being honest in word and deed. I therefore did not like to ask Mr. Warburg to lie.
“I could say it was my wife who lost the handkerchief,” I suggested. “That would explain my visit.”
Mr. Melamed shook his head.
For the life of me, I could not see why it mattered who made the inquiries. And if he preferred Mr. Warburg, I did not see why this matter could not have been discussed in my shop, which would have been more convenient. While I am not a member of the government — as everyone knows, we Jews cannot be elected to Parliament; we cannot even vote — I am in my own way a busy man. I therefore resented being treated by Lord Lennox like an ordinary servant, expected to drop all my own affairs for this Junior Lord. In a word, I was becoming irritated by the matter. Perhaps what irked me most of all was the assumption that we Jews had something to do with the lady’s missing handkerchief, as though we held a monopoly on all the crime that plagues our otherwise fair city.
“Really, Mr. Melamed, are we not making too much of this?” I therefore said. “What do we care, after all, about the Viscount and his wife?”
“I have made inquiries,” he replied. “It is generally agreed that Lord Lennox is an ambitious man, and ambitious men can be very useful — or dangerous.”
I returned to my business establishment shortly afterward. I had in my pocket a drawing of the handkerchief, done by the lady herself. Lady Lennox had either a natural artistic talent or she had been an apt pupil, for the drawing was neatly done. If the original resembled the drawing, I could see why she would wish to retrieve it; the handkerchief was an intricate piece of lacework.
I had solved the problem of the lie by telling Mr. Warburg a partial truth: The wife of one of our customers had lost a valuable handkerchief, and this customer had asked if we might be able to assist in getting it back. Well, if we did succeed in finding the handkerchief, perhaps Lord Lennox would become a customer.
I commented to Mr. Warburg that I thought it was the gentlemanly thing to do to assist a lady in distress. I tried to make it sound as light and amusing as an outing in the park.
Even so, Mr. Warburg reacted to my request to prowl around the Houndsditch pawnshops much as I expected he would. He has been in this country only a few years, and thus he still has much of that Continental insistence on everyone knowing their proper place and behaving with the proper manners. I believe he is often shocked by some of our English aristocracy, with their vulgar language and careless dress and their propensity for throwing away their fortunes in a gambling establishment — which makes them more frequent visitors to pawnbrokers than one might think. Mr. Warburg, on the other hand, is always impeccably dressed; his boots are as polished as his speech and his linen is as spotless as his thoroughly sober morals.
“I am not in the habit of visiting pawnbrokers,” he said. The words were spoken with a cold civility that made me understand he had no wish to take up the habit. “Can no one else be sent?”
“It needs to be someone who understands lace — Flemish lace.” I pulled out the drawing and showed it to him. “You need tarry only a minute or two. Show them this drawing. Either they will recognize the handkerchief or they will not.”
“Simon could show them the drawing.”
Simon is a young orphan. He lives in the Jewish orphanage, where he receives an education during the morning hours. I employ him as a messenger in the afternoons. He is a bright lad and a hard worker, and I realized the truth of Mr. Warburg’s words. The drawing was so precise there was no need for the messenger to be knowledgeable about lace. But I was already in a bad humor and Mr. Warburg’s insubordination added more fuel to the flames. In my own shop I was determined to be the master.
“I wish you to make the inquiries, Mr. Warburg,” I said, with as cold a civility as I could muster. “I do not understand your perverse refusal to honor my wishes.”
The man winced and turned pale, as though he had been struck in the face. For a moment I thought with horror that he might challenge me to a duel. One can never tell with these Continental types, even the Jewish ones.
“No, you could not understand, Mr. Lyon. No one would think twice at the sight of you entering a pawnshop. They would assume your pocket had been picked and you wished to get back the object. But if someone should see me do this thing, if word should get to the butcher or the fishmonger ...” “I pay you a good wage, Mr. Warburg. I hope you are not in arrears at either place. If you have taken to gambling ...”
Mr. Warburg turned even paler.
“If it is not gambling, what is the problem?” I insisted.
He was reluctant to answer, but when he saw I would not give up the matter, he said, “My mother-in-law is sick. She needs doctors, medicines.” My cold veneer began to crumple. I had met the elderly woman once or twice. She does excellent beadwork and I purchased a reticule of hers for my wife. I paid a pretty price for it, too. The woman was a good businesswoman; she knew the value of her work and would not lower the price. If the woman was sick, she most likely was not able to do her beadwork anymore. Therefore, in addition to the expenses for her medical treatments, the family was experiencing a loss of income. No wonder they were in arrears!
“Why did you not tell me, Mr. Warburg?” I asked, reaching for my pocketbook. “I must raise your wages at once.”
Mr. Warburg, thus appeased, took the drawing and went on his errand. In the end, it was all for naught. None of our pawnbrokers, meaning the Jewish ones, had seen it. At least Mr. Warburg had profited from the incident, I thought somewhat cynically as I traveled to Duke’s Place later that day, to attend the Evening Prayer Service at the Great Synagogue. I did not mind increasing the man’s wages; Mr. Warburg is an invaluable assistant. But the way the increase had occurred did not increase my liking of Lord Lennox.
Indeed, by the end of the day I had a positive dislike for the man. After the prayer service, Mr. Melamed asked me to come along to Mayfair to report to the Junior Lord of the Treasury. Again, I did not know why I was being asked to continue my involvement in a matter that did concern me. Mr. Melamed has had too much experience with the world to be cowed by a senior member of the government, let alone a Junior Lord, and so he did not need me for support. Perhaps he thought it would look more impressive if a “delegation” from the Jewish community arrived at the Viscount’s door. It was only much later that it occurred to me that I was there to perform the duty of witness.
When we arrived at the Lennox home, the master and mistress of the house were still in the drawing room with their dinner guests, drinking their sherry before the meal. The drawing room was one of those cream and gold affairs, with a marble hearth done in the Grecian style and topped with a large mirror that went up nearly to the ceiling. The room had all the warmth of a snow-swept Yorkshire moor, and I hoped the family had a more comfortable room to do their real living. But I doubted it.
Lord Lennox was much as I had pictured him: fair-haired, cold blue eyes, thin lips, and a rigid posture that suggested an equally rigid mind. I suppose he was a good-looking fellow, in a British government official sort of way. But he was not the sort that I would wish to be seated next to at dinner, and I was glad there was no chance of our being invited to stay for the evening.
Lady Lennox, on the other hand, surprised me. I had expected a flaxen-haired, porcelain-skinned doll. Instead, she was a black-haired, dark-eyed beauty. At least, I supposed she had been a beauty. Like some foreign women transposed to our shores, the bloom in her cheeks had faded in our English gloom and the pallor of her complexion did not suit her. She was still an imposing woman, though, with a bearing that suggested an exalted ancestry. Upon our entry, she shot us a penetrating glance that might have sent quivers through an unlucky courtier in an earlier time. Then her haughty demeanor crumpled into what I can only describe as a spasm of fear. She obviously mistook us for unwelcome visitors. If I did not know about her “astounding fortune,” I would have said she looked at us like we were debt collectors come to haul away all of her shiny new furniture. Who it really was that could awaken such feelings of alarm I did not know.
Lord Lennox took his wife by the arm and whispered something that seemed to reassure her. Then, in a louder voice he suggested that she and their guests go into the dining room, where he would join them in a few minutes. They retreated, but not before Lady Lennox shot us another worried glance.
When we were alone in the drawing room, Lord Lennox said, “How may I be of service, gentlemen?”
I thought it strange that he appeared not to know why we had come. Mr. Melamed merely informed him that we had been unable to find the handkerchief. The man looked surprised.
“My wife did not send you the message?” he asked. “The handkerchief has been found.”
“I am very glad to hear it,” said Mr. Melamed. I was certain he was as chagrined as I was to hear this piece of news, but he did not show it.
“It was in her wardrobe all the time. I cannot think why she did not write to you, as I asked her to.” Lord Lennox glanced in the direction of the dining room. It was a worried glance, although there was a hint of displeasure too, if I was not mistaken. It did not take a prophet to see there was something very wrong in the Lennox household.
“Perhaps she did write and the message was lost,” said Mr. Melamed, with handsome chivalry. “It does sometime happen.”
Lord Lennox’s tightly pressed lips curled into a relieved smile. “Oh, yes,” he said. “That could explain it.”
As far as I was concerned, this was the end of the matter of the vanishing handkerchief. It was not, of course. When the lady herself vanished I found myself drawn into the strange tale a second time. But as I do not re-enter this portion of the tale until later, I turn my pen over to the next actor in our little drama, Mrs. Baer.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, why not read the rest? You may purchase The Vanisher Variations at Amazon.
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