Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 3 ¤
The remainder of the day passed in a whirl of games of Snap and Parchesi and Blind Man’s Buff; a brief snatch of quiet when Steed managed to get the children to sit still long enough for him to read them one of Kipling’s “Just-So Stories” from his very own boyhood edition, brought to his sister’s specially for the purpose; William trying to make a house of cards while Steed and Gracie played knights (Steed, of course, acting the role of Sir Grace’s noble steed); and attempts to keep the children from driving Mrs Jenkins mad by running in and out of the kitchen to ask her when the promised rabbit pie would be done.
Finally evening came. When the hunters were bathed and freshly dressed in their New Year’s best and the pie was ready, it was brought with great fanfare into the dining room, where Mrs Jenkins laid out the best china and lit the candelabra in honor of the occasion. Steed invited Mrs Jenkins and her husband to join them, but they said they would be quite content to have their meal in the kitchen, thank you, and would look in later to make sure Steed and the children had everything they needed. It was quite a feast. There was, of course, the pie, and fresh salad, and fruit and cheese, and then a splendid trifle for afters, and everyone on best behavior the entire time.
Once the meal had been demolished in a manner befitting its magnificence, Mr and Mrs Jenkins retired to their flat and their own virtuous rest, but not before receiving a New Year’s toast and profuse thanks from Steed. Then the children were sent upstairs to change into their pyjamas and dressing gowns. Their parents had given them permission to stay up with their uncle until midnight if they wished, but utterly worn out by the day’s adventures they both fell fast asleep on the sofa in front of the fire in the parlor while Steed read them more stories, this time of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. After watching them sleep for a little while, Steed removed his bow tie and dinner jacket and loosened his collar, then carried the children tenderly upstairs one by one and tucked them into their beds. It was startling how quickly they had grown in the five months since he last saw them. He certainly wouldn’t be able to carry William for much longer. The boy was already becoming all arms and legs, and definitely weighed more. He probably would have some of his father’s heft; Steed made a mental note to introduce the lad to the delights of rugger when the weather turned to spring. Gracie, on the other hand, was sylphlike and feather-light still; Steed suspected that she would be tall and lissome like her mother when she finished growing.
Unbuttoning his waistcoat, Steed crept downstairs and back into the parlor where he poured himself a well-earned snifter of brandy. He pulled off his pumps, sank into an overstuffed chair, and turned his stocking feet towards the fire, sighing and wriggling his toes with delight at the warmth and the freedom from confining shoes. The children weren’t the only ones thoroughly tired out after the day they had had. Steed couldn’t remember the last time he had been in nearly constant motion for that many consecutive hours. Today he had discovered a new respect for his sister and her husband, and for Mr and Mrs Jenkins. Children could wear one out faster than a whole roomful of diabolical master minds. He wasn’t quite sure how parents managed.
Steed sipped the last of the brandy and set the glass on the floor under the chair. He slid down further into the comfortable cushions, watching the diminishing flames licking at what remained of the logs. The house was silent, but for the ticking of the big grandfather clock in the entryway and the crackle of the fire.
As was their wont, Steed’s thoughts turned to Mrs Peel. He wondered whether she had had a good New Year’s Eve, and decided that she probably would have greatly enjoyed spending a day like today with William and Gracie. He hadn’t seen her interact with children much, but had been pleasantly surprised to find that she generally got on well with them. He was even more pleased to find that she treated them with grave courtesy, listened carefully to what they had to say, and never talked down to them. She would like William and Gracie, he thought, and they would be delighted with her. He must arrange to bring her here some time soon.
What with the warmth of the fire, the brandy, the good meal, and the long, difficult day’s work of being playmate to two active children, topped off with pleasantly domestic thoughts of Mrs Peel, Steed drifted off into a deep sleep.
He awoke with a start about two hours later, thinking he had heard a thump. Or was it a crash? The room was cooling; the embers of the fire barely glowed. Steed pulled on his shoes and jacket, listening intently. He wasn’t sure where the sound had come from. Or even whether the sound had been real and not something in a dream.
Another noise from the direction of the kitchen drew his immediate attention. He stalked out of the parlor, and keeping his back to the wall tiptoed to the kitchen door. Someone was definitely moving around in there. And they were moving towards him.
Steed plastered himself to the wall next to the kitchen door and waited. The door opened slowly. The beam of a torch played itself into the darkness beyond. This was followed by the muzzle of a shotgun.
In one smooth, incredibly fast motion, Steed grabbed the muzzle of the gun and twisted it out of the hands of whoever was carrying it. The torch crashed to the floor and went out. Steed held the weapon up, ready to jab the stock downward as a club against the gun’s owner, when he heard Jenkins’ voice say, “Mr Steed! Wait! It’s me!”
Steed froze, and slowly lowered the weapon. “Jenkins?”
“Yes, sir. I heard a noise out in the drive. I looked out the window, and thought I saw someone move towards the house. It looked like they were trying to jemmy a window open. I wanted to make sure you and the children were all right, so I grabbed my gun and came over quick as I could. You heard me, apparently.”
“Yes,” said Steed, “Sorry about that, Jenkins. I heard a noise too, but I was half asleep. Then I heard you and thought you might have been the source of the first noise. Which window did you think they were trying to use?”
“At first they seemed to be working at the one in Mr Burrows’ study, but then they headed around towards the front of the house. I thought it best to come into the kitchen, so as to be ready for them if they did get in.”
Steed nodded. “That was good thinking, Jenkins. I don’t think anyone got in. But we probably should check, anyway.”
The men crept through the darkened house, listening intently and checking for any sign of intruders, and seeing that the children were still safely in their beds. There was no sign of anyone indoors, the children were fast asleep, and a look round the outside of the house yielded few clues. The sky was clouded over and flakes of snow had begun to swirl down, but without Jenkins’ torch, which had broken in the scuffle, they didn’t have enough light to see by.
They walked down to the end of the drive, but all was quiet there, too. The road was empty of vehicles. The men paused, listening, their breath misting in the frosty air.
“Well, whoever it was seems to have gone, and we don’t have any way of tracking them,” said Steed. “I’ll keep watch in the house; you go make sure Mrs Jenkins is safe.”
“Yes, sir,” said Jenkins. “Do you want the shotgun? I have an old service revolver back in the mews.”
Steed shook his head. “No, thanks. You keep it to hand, though. Just in case.”
The men walked in silence back around the house. Jenkins took his leave of Steed at the kitchen door and returned to his flat. Steed stood in the cold night air for a few moments, watching to make sure Jenkins got in safely, and thinking hard. What could anyone possibly want with his sister’s family? Of course it was always possible that whoever it was was after him; he certainly had made enough enemies of one sort or another over the years. And was that van part of it, or not?
The excitement over, Steed began to feel the chill through his dinner jacket. He went back inside as quietly as he could, making sure to lock and bolt the kitchen door after him. The next thing he did was to make one last check on the children: they both were still sound asleep, completely unaware that anything untoward had happened. Well, he thought, at least two of us will have had a good sleep tonight. He went back down into the kitchen and prepared himself a cup of coffee. It was now past 1 a.m., and dawn a long way off. Steed knew he wouldn’t sleep much anyway, his nerves were too keyed up, even without the coffee. He decided the best thing to do would be to return to the parlor and post himself on the sofa. That way he’d hear or see anyone trying to get in on the ground floor, and he could always explain to the children that he had been so tired that he fell asleep there and didn’t wake until morning.
The fire was well out by the time Steed got back to the parlor, so he started a fresh one. When the logs were burning merrily, he took out the book about King Arthur and started to read. He also kept one hand on his umbrella, which he had fetched from the stand on his way back from the kitchen, the umbrella that had a sword concealed in its shaft. He might have refused Jenkins’ offer of that ridiculous blunderbuss, but he was damned if he was going to keep watch for enemies unprepared and unarmed.