Sidney raised his long legs as Mrs. Chapman née Maguire came at him threateningly with the hoover. On the carpet next to the sofa where he sat, his black Labrador puppy Dickens whined worriedly, so Sidney gave him a pat of comfort on the head and glared at his housekeeper who turned her nose up and continued to ignore master and dog. Sidney sighed and tipped his head back, resting briefly on the cushion with his eyes closed as he counted backwards from thirty. He wouldn't be able to get back to his book until Mrs. C moved to the next room with the hoover and knowing how irritated she was with him, it'd be another two minutes. Couldn't a man get any peace at all to read in his own house?
Granted, the vicarage didn't belong to him, exactly, but it was his home for the foreseeable future--possibly till his dying day--so for all intents and purposes, he did belong here. Surely that must afford him some measure of peace? He was the bloody vicar, after all. To his surprise and relief, the infernal racket of the hoovering suddenly ceased.
"I can practically hear you cursing me in that head of yours, Mr. Chambers," grumbled his housekeeper, yanking the cord of the hoover from the plug on the wall and wrapping it around the body. "I'll thank you not to do it any longer. One would think a hard working body deserves a thimble of respect around here." She sniffed delicately. "Will ye be wanting your tea now, my liege?"
Where the hell was Leonard, anyway, Sidney wanted to know. For his first three years as Grantchester's vicar, he had dealt with Mrs. Chapman née Maguire on his own, but for the last two, he'd also had Leonard, as a buffer. Ever since he moved in, the three of them had been more like a family. Sidney knew that it was because Mrs. C never had children of her own that she focused all of her attention and solicitousness on him, but now that there was also Leonard, Mrs. C had eased up on him a little bit.
Dickens once again whined piteously and Sidney reluctantly cracked one eye open. "I would like tea, my good woman, and some of your warmed up buttery scones, if you'd be so kind." He forced himself to smile at his housekeeper, who rolled her eyes.
"Oh, bother. You're starting to sound like Old Ronnie, burning in perdition as he is. I should be glad you're finally wanting something in your stomach other than that rotgut whisky. I can whip you a couple of eggs too, if you like." Mrs. Chapman scowled at him and wiped her hands on white, starched apron. "Once you get some food in you, you ought to take that devil dog of yours outside for a long walk along the Cam. You could use the sun yourself, vicar."
Sidney groaned inwardly and glanced at the book he had placed momentarily face-down on the armrest next to him. He had foolishly believed he'd be picking it up again within minutes of dispatching his ubiquitous housekeeper. He'd been about to discover if the bloody playing card that the scullery maid had found in the butler's pantry had been dropped there by accident during the weekend party's parlor game or if it had been planted there by the killer as Sidney himself suspected to draw attention to the old butler. That was, until Mrs. C decided to invade his study with her trusty hoover. And guilted him into taking Dickens out for a walk. He had to admit that for the last six months, he had left all the dog-walking responsibilities to Leonard, and that couldn't possibly be fair because after all, he--Sidney, not Leonard--was the master of Dickens. He was given to him as a present by Amanda Kendall who became Mrs. Amanda Hopkins and was now Miss Amanda Kendall again.
Amanda... no, he was not going to think about her now.
"Sidney," Mrs. C prodded. "You will be taking Dickens out for a walk?"
"Yes, ma'am, I will," he answered promptly, propping his head back against the cushion and closing his eyes again. He sighed gratefully as he heard the housekeeper make her way to the kitchen and begin preparatory noises. Alone was alone even if it were just for a few moments.
Leonard wasn't the only one who took Dickens out for a walk, Sidney thought sullenly even as his dog pushed his snout into his open palm and licked it. He scratched the growing pup's ear in affection. Daniel Marlowe accompanied Leonard sometimes, so it's not like Leonard was alone in the chore. And Leonard's friend Will Davenport, who was a chaplain in Cambridge, came along for a visit on his motorbike sometimes and shared in Leonard's dog-walking duties, so really, lots of people walked Dickens. Mrs. C's husband, Jack, was fond of the pup, too. Dickens never lacked company, far from it. Sure, Geordie, Cathy, and the kids hadn't come around in a while and Dickens probably missed them, but he was a dog, for Pete's sake. It wasn't like Dickens even knew the name of Geordie's four kids. Of course, he himself hadn't seen the Keatings in so long that he was starting to forget their names. There was Esme and the boy, the two other girls...
Oh, Christ, was it really down to this? Torturing himself because he momentarily couldn't remember the name of his best friend's kids? One guilt trip at a time, Chambers. He pushed himself up from the sofa and made his way to the drinks cabinet to pour himself a finger of Johnnie Walker into a snifter. Looking over his shoulder, he made sure that his housekeeper wasn't about to sneak up on him before tossing back the drink and enjoying the deep swallow of the silken burn as he surveyed the vegetable garden that Leonard had grown and tended over the past several months with Daniel Marlowe. Leonard was awfully good with growing things. Leonard was good with people, animals, and plants, period.
He glanced down as he felt the slight weight of Dickens dropping his muzzle on top of his shoe. Sidney smiled down at his dog. The little guy asked for almost nothing of him and yet he could begrudge him of it. What the hell kind of man was he these days? It was almost as if he were afraid to step outside of the vicarage in fear that a meteor would hit him right on the head the moment he did. He hadn't even been on his bicycle in almost a month. A vicar was supposed to go out and visit his parishioners. Save for a few that he could get to within walking distance, he hadn't seen any of his regulars outside of service. As Mrs. C had told him, he was turning into a veritable hermit, he was.
He finished his drink with another long pull, then took out his handkerchief from the pocket of his trousers and wiped the snifter dry and clean of liquid and his prints before returning it to its proper place and his damp handkerchief in his pocket. He was back in his spot on the sofa and had his book in hand by the time Mrs. C had returned to the study with the tea service and a small plate of her buttery scones, along with a side of scrambled eggs. She made a clucking sound at the sight of him with his book, but said nothing else, only placed the tray on the coffee table in front of him.
Sidney peeked at her from the top of the book in time to catch her throw a piece of cold chicken to Dickens. He raised an eyebrow. "What have you got against my reading material these days, Mrs. C? I haven't seen you this upset since you came across a copy of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx on my dresser."
"For my sins, I will never understand your taste in women, music, cinema, or literature. You are a right heathen, you are, Sidney Chambers, and I don't mind telling you," she said with an offended sniff. "Not only are you obsessed with the devil's music, now you've got it in your head that the devil's rubbish is quality reading, too. How do you get yourself to sleep at night when you read about nothing but murder and the evil of men, night and day, every day the Good Lord has created these past several months?"
"I'll have you know that Ngaio Marsh is considered to be the preeminent authoress of literary crime fiction, second only to Agatha Christie," Sidney retorted in a lofty tone, stirring a hint of cream into his tea. "Her detective protagonist, Mr. Roderick Alleyn, is nobility, you know."
The housekeeper snatched the book out of his hands and scowled at its cover, which she had already told Sidney she thought was obscene. "But this isn't one by Mrs. Marsh, is it? I've never even heard of this person. Who is this S.L. Cooper?"
"An American, Mrs. Chapman," Sidney said with mock disapproval, shaking his head. "Who dares to write these cozy, little mysteries based in our tiny English villages as though he were born and raised in one. The cheek!" He lifted his cup to his mouth and sipped his tea, so he could hide his smile. It wouldn't do for his housekeeper to figure out he was teasing her. The woman made his food, after all. He joined his teacup with its saucer and set it back down on the table. "The prose could be cleaner and smoother, I suppose, but the storylines are riveting and the pacing is always tight. Just when I think I've got the killer figured out, the author bowls me a right googly and I'm left with my mouth hanging open at the end of the book like a proper civvie."
Mrs. C snorted indelicately. "You are a proper civvie. You were never a true sleuth, no matter how long you played cops and robbers with Geordie Keating."
Sidney grabbed a scone from the table, broke it apart with his hands, and shoved half into his mouth to avoid having to answer. Immediately seeing through his ruse, the older woman scoffed in disgust, rolled her eyes, and stalked off toward the kitchen. Sidney chuckled quietly and chewed his food, washing it down with tea. He was in no mood to discuss his amateur sleuthing days, either. He ate the other half of the scone, put away another, and polished off the scrambled eggs, along with a second cup of tea. By the time he was wiping his mouth with his whisky-stained handkerchief, he felt like a whole new man.
Maybe it was a good idea to go outside, stretch his legs out, and get some sun. Even Leonard sported a tan these days, but that came courtesy of the few days he spent in Corfu with Daniel Marlowe and some friends last month. Imagine Leonard, the once awkward curate who was afraid of his own shadow, having a better social life than Sidney these days. It really beggared belief.
He whistled for Dickens and patted the side of his leg to summon the dog to him. At the door, he put on his anorak and a red scarf that Cathy Keating had knitted for him and given him last Christmas. It had been an unusually cold winter and he was given more homemade scarves and hats than usual. He grabbed the dog's lead from the closet and attached it to his collar before opening the front door.
"Mrs. C, Dickens and I are heading out!"
His housekeeper grunted something in response.
The first person he encountered right out of the gate was old Mr. Brant, the village crank who always had a bone or two to pick with Sidney, looking about as displeased at the world as though the Good Lord Himself saw fit to make everything in the man's life terrible. Sidney nodded at him in acknowledgement as he silently wished for Dickens to drag him away, but alas, the infernal dog only parked his rear end on the snowy ground and chose to scratch his own ear with his hind leg.
"Good afternoon, Canon Chambers," said the old man, casting a suspicious glance at Dickens before returning his rheumy stare to Sidney. "Are you feeling better, then? Mrs. Chapman told me you haven't been yourself these last few days."
Sidney flashed him his teeth in a mockery of a smile. "It was just a bit of a cold, Mr. Brant, nothing more," he prevaricated, taking advantage of the man's tendency toward hypochondria. "Dr. Farber says I shouldn't be contagious anymore."
Mr. Brant walked a few steps back away from him. "Right, then. Have you met our new neighbors? Foreigners have gone and moved into Ravenwood Manor three weeks ago. Can you imagine?"
Neighbors. Sidney scoffed silently. Ravenwood Manor was ten miles outside of town. He was not going to be on the welcoming bandwagon for that one, no matter how expectantly Mr. Brant was looking at him. "I thought that property was shut down and condemned. No one has lived there since the old marquess died seven years ago, right?"
Mr. Brant shook his head. "The old sister of the marquess lived there with a skeleton staff until she died early last year. The niece and nephew visited once or twice, but Lady Beatrice was alone at her deathbed."
"Ah, yes. I wasn't able to minister to her, I'm afraid. I was in a conference in Germany for a month." Sidney stuck his hands in the pockets of his anorak and rocked back on his heels. "My younger sister Jennifer attended Girton with the niece, Lady Zöe."
"Did she?" Mr. Brant murmured with interest. "I believe the brother went to Oxford, but was sent down. Never finished his schooling."
Sidney meant to make his excuses and go on his way, but his own curiosity stayed his feet. "Is he the current marquess?"
The old man appeared scandalized by this suggestion. "Heavens, no. A college drop-out? No, that one is a second son. And to a second wife, no less. The new marquess was a graduate of Corpus Christi, which is your own alma mater, isn't it?"
Sidney nodded. "Yes. And he has allowed strangers to move into the Ravenwood estate, you say?"
"Foreigners, worse yet," Mr. Brant replied with disgust. "Orientals, the lot of them. What would Orientals be wanting to do here in Grantchester, I ask you? Probably here to spy for China."
Sidney rapidly remembered why he didn't like the crotchety old man so much: he was small-minded and mean. "The Ravenwood Manor is actually situated in Cambridgeshire and quite outside my purview. I'm sure the new tenants aren't spies for China, Mr. Brant." He tried to keep his tone light, though he was starting to lose his patience.
Mr. Brant frowned. "No, I don't suppose the new marquess would allow that to happen. He's a copper, you know, a Detective Inspector for the New Scotland Yard. Didn't take up his seat at the HoL."
Sidney chuckled. "The Marquess of Ravenwood works as a detective for the New Scotland Yard?" Why, that was practically straight out of one of his novels. "By Jove, what a character he must be."
In the end, it was Mr. Brant who made his excuses and ended their conversation, much to Sidney's dismay, which had to be a first, since he was always the one eager to escape the old goat at first opportunity. However, he found himself curious about his new neighbors and wanted to find more about them. Goodness knew that it had been a while since anything remotely interesting happened in his corner of Grantchester and he was willing to concede his own fault in that. Perhaps he ought to pop in at the Eagle and have a pint or two to see if anyone knew about the new residents of Ravenwood Manor.
If they were indeed spies and he inadvertently did his part in uncovering them, he would only be doing his due diligence as the unofficial guardian of Grantchester. He laughed to himself. Sidney Chambers, you've a nose for trouble indeed, and I don't mind telling you. When exactly did his common sense begin to take on the voice of his redoubtable housekeeper?
He tugged on the lead attached to Dickens to remind him who was master and get the lazy animal going. The dog whimpered in protest as though he were determined to freeze his rear end in the snow, but got up when Sidney gently prodded him with his boot.
"Come on, boy. I thought you wanted to go for a walk. Were you just trying to get away from the hoover like I was?"
Dickens barked as though in agreement and pulled on the lead as he began to get going. For several minutes, dog and man walked along the white, quiet landscape of Grantchester fields side by side. There was no one else about right now. It was simply too cold, even though the sun was out, and Sidney was all right with that. Dickens stopped occasionally to sniff at the base of the tree and water it or investigate a fallen acorn, but for the most part, he walked companionably with Sidney and didn't dawdle too much.
For his sins, Sidney wanted to reach his favorite bench, which he dearly hoped wasn't buried in snow. It sat along the bank of the river Cam and had been there for as long as anyone could remember. He had many fond memories of that bench. It would take him and Dickens about fifteen minutes to get there as it was about a mile away from the doorstep of the vicarage. He patted the book he had tucked into the pocket of his anorak to ensure that it was there as the snow crunched under his boots and he walked on.