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Chapter 19

Trying to rationalise for the umpteenth time Lady Melsham’s reactions the previous evening and failing, Slipper strode thoughtfully across the courtyard to the Stable block to meet Fullerton and Melsham on a final visit of inspection. It was, by now, a Stable block in name only. In fact, no self-respecting horse would have been seen dead in it. The thought amused Slipper. In all probability many a horse would be seen dead in it - minced through Melsham’ s machines to fill his pies and sausages. It was a scurrilous thought, but Slipper’s was increasingly a scurrilous mind.

There was nothing inside the Stable block that pointed to its former function. The walls were now one ceramic glaze of tiles. The passage that Fullerton had discovered had long since been blocked in again. Slipper had thought long and hard about that.

When Fullerton and his crew had departed for the evening after its discovery, Slipper had reconnoitred the passage again with the benefit of a better torch. As he had suspected, the smaller passage adjoining the dungeon led up to the Dining Room. A thorough examination of the Dining Room some moments later through the unconventional entrance had quickly revealed the particular panel which concealed the hidden staircase. All that remained for Slipper then to do was to clear the blockage at the foot of the staircase and locate the entrance into the dungeon, and there was the avenue to reveal Melsham’s degradation when, in all innocence, Slipper conducted the dinner guests on a tour of the dungeons only to find a mysteriously missing Melsham was the star attraction.

After a solid night shifting fallen masonry and timbers from the foot of the hidden staircase, Slipper had leaned on the wall, and fallen into the cellar, now masquerading as a dungeon, as a section swung in. He had sprawled on the stone flags with a smile of satisfaction, located the mechanism on the inside of the dungeon wall that sprang the secret doorway, and had gone to bed exhausted but happy. The following morning he had instructed Fullerton to block up the passage in the Stables. There was no point in advertising his secret. That done, the builder had quickly finished the conversion and all that now remained was the tidying.

“Though I say it myself, Mr. Slipper, it’s a fine job,” Fullerton said as he and Slipper waited for Lord Melsham to show up.

“I’ve no doubt in your expertise, Mr. Fullerton,” Slipper said sourly. “What I do doubt is your sagacity. These are historic buildings that you’ve just desecrated.”

“Look, I only do as I’m told, Mr. Slipper. There’s nobody keener than me on preserving an old building but it doesn’t pay the mortgage does it? I’m in this job for money, as much as anyone else.”

Slipper sniffed, frostily, looking around at the transformed Stable block “Well, his Lordship has certainly got his money’s worth, I’ll grant you that Mr. Fullerton. The late Lord Pemberton-Horrocks must be spinning in his grave.”

Fullerton took a drag at his cigarette and stuffed it back behind his ear. “Don’t know anything about that, Mr. Slipper. All I know is I had to get this lot tidied up for this afternoon. His Lordship’s fixed up for a television crew to come and interview him and he wants everything ship-shape.”

Slipper snorted. “Television indeed. Things have come to a pretty pass when Staddon Hall is invaded by the hoi-poloi of the media.”

Melsham had told Slipper of the interview at breakfast. Lady Melsham had pricked her ears up at that. She had crept into the family dining room looking a lot better, if still a little fragile. Slipper had tried hard to avoid her eyes. He could not believe that his indiscretion of the other afternoon had not yet been broadcast. He felt as if the Damocletion sword that he imagined had been swinging over his head for the past few days had decided to gather itself for one last, almighty, swipe before parting it from his shoulders for evermore.

Whenever their eyes did meet, however, Slipper was disconcerted to note that, far from any sense of recrimination flashing between them, there was what he could only call a look of hungry yearning exuding from Lady Sylvia’s steady gaze. Slipper had left the breakfast room a puzzled and confused man.

Melsham strolled up to join Slipper and Fullerton in the Courtyard. “I’ve just been round everywhere myself, Fullerton. I don’t want you steering me away from places you don’t want me to look at too closely. I’ve had builders work for me before, you know.”

Fullerton scowled. “Well, if you’re satisfied I’ll be off then, milord.” He doffed his cap, miraculously leaving the burning cigarette untouched behind his ear. Melsham stared at it transfixed, then jerked himself out of his fascination. “Er, yes. Well. Good job, Fullerton. I didn’t expect it, but there you are. It just goes to show what you can do when somebody puts a bomb under your arse.”

Fullerton had a mental picture of Melsham with a stick of dynamite stuck, not under his arse but up it, with Fullerton himself igniting the fuse with his lighted cigarette. He found the picture pleasing. “My pleasure, milord,” he said through gritted teeth, and mounted the cab of the waiting lorry.

Slipper hovered at Melsham’s shoulder, ready to interject in case Fullerton attempted to mention the secret passage - that was something Melsham didn’t need to know. Nothing could have been further from Fullerton’s thoughts however, and with a squirl of gravel, the lorry sped thankfully from the courtyard of Staddon Hall.

Despite himself, Melsham had to admit that Fullerton and his men had done a remarkable job of transformation. Outwardly no-one would have guessed that a factory lay within the former stable block, but the latest hi-tec equipment inside left one in no doubt that here was no ordinary stable. Possessively Melsham swept an arm at the array of equipment. “All the latest stuff here, Slipper. State of the bloody art. This lot could make sausages until Kingdom Come with only one person to push a button, provided the other bastards could keep the meat coming.”

Slipper was unimpressed - he was still smarting from the changes wreaked within his former quarters in the Gate House - but he made the right noises. Melsham grunted. “Trouble with you, Slipper, is you’ve got no soul. Money, Slipper. This little enterprise is going to make me a bomb.” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “Right then, we’re all set. Staff come in soon. Invitations are out. All that’s to be done now is the caterers for the banquet. How’s that coming?”

Slipper checked on his clipboard. “Three responses to date, milord, but the closing date for tenders isn’t until tomorrow. You can make the choice then.”

Melsham rubbed his hands again and chortled. “I feel generous, Slipper. You can have a whisky with me,” and he strode briskly off into the Hall, followed by an unwilling Slipper who would rather have shared a cup of hemlock with the Borgias.

Slipper found Melsham extraordinarily lugubrious. He tossed back drink after drink (while Slipper himself nursed the one) regaling him with tales of business coups that made the Borgias look amateur. The iron could not have been hotter to mention the dungeon tour and Slipper seized the opportunity eagerly.

“Dungeon? I didn’t know anything about a dungeon, but it sounds a damn fine idea to me, Slipper,” Melsham exclaimed. “Fancy that. We could do special dinners down there, what? Come on then. Let’s have a look.”

Slipper led the way down the conventional staircase. As the door swung open rustily, Melsham’s eyes lit up. “Bloody hell!” he swore, “you’ve been busy. I didn’t know you had it in you.” He moved from instrument to instrument, fingering them with awe and more than a little excitement and Slipper saw the possibilities positively tumbling over themselves in Melsham’s mind. None of them, he was sure, involved dinners in any way at all.

“It might make an unusual end to the banquet, milord?” ventured Slipper.

Melsham dragged himself back to the matter in hand. “Damn right it will, Slipper. It’ll certainly loosen the arses of one or two of the hoity-toity pieces we’ve got coming. Get some dummies,” he said, warming to the theme. “That’s what it needs. Hang ’em up in gibbets and hack them about a bit. Plenty of red paint. Give it a bit of atmosphere.” He chortled again. “You’re a dark horse, Slipper. What other surprises have you got up your sleeve?”

Slipper smiled, thinly, and led the way from the dungeon. ‘Lappit’, he thought, ‘you don’t want to know’.

Slipper prepared the letter of acceptance with some relief. Finding a suitable catering firm capable of providing a mobile, high-class waiting service had been one of the most difficult tasks that Melsham had set him. The preparation of the food and the baking, naturally, was all to be done in-house but, for the size of the banquet that Melsham had laid on, additional waiting staff were essential. References supplied had been impeccable and, after initial reservations, Melsham had been persuaded. Slipper also presented a separate order for the manikins Melsham had wished to be delivered.

Melsham signed the correspondence in his florid style, sitting back at his desk in the self-satisfied manner of a man well pleased with his command of affairs. “That’s it then, Slipper. Orders out. Speech is all done, now” – he tapped a pile of handwritten sheets in front of him and screwed the last of the drafts up and tossed it into the waste-paper basket. “It’s all go now.”

Slipper agreed, tacitly, collected the signed correspondence from Melsham’ s blotter and sidled off to post it. Later, while Melsham was taking a walk, he sidled back to rifle the waste-paper basket. Smoothing the crumpled sheets he found there, he folded them up, put them in his pocket, and sidled back out again.

Evening found Slipper still hunched over the small table in his sitting room, where he had been all day, scribbling away until his hand ached. On the table in front of him lay sheet after sheet of paper filled with facsimiles of Melsham’s signature. The one that Slipper was working on at the moment was indistinguishable from the real thing. Pinned up on the wall were the sheets he had filched from Melsham’ s study - first drafts of the welcoming speech he intended giving at the banquet, set out in Melsham’s distinctive handwriting.

At Slipper’s elbow also were the first drafts of his own surrogate literary efforts. Less lengthy than Melsham’s speech it was nevertheless destined to be more memorable - to Melsham at least - than anything anyone had ever written before. Extremely short, and to the point, it read, in Melsham’s flowing script: MEET ME IN THE DUNGEONS NOW. YOUR ‘NODDY LIDDLE BOY’ ARCHIBALD.

Slipper put down his pen with satisfaction. Forgery was yet another accomplishment he hadn’t known he possessed. Life was full of surprises.

He had just destroyed the evidence in the grate when another of life’s little surprises grabbed him by the throat. So engrossed was he that he had failed to hear the soft tap at the door and, as his back was turned away, he had failed also to notice the door open silently.

Lady Sylvia glided diaphanous across the floor like a billowing cloud, fluffed out in a startling white negligee that did more to reveal the transparent nightdress underneath than it did to conceal it. She was feeling much better. Two days in bed with nothing to do but think had led her to a number of conclusions. One was that solace in a bottle was no way to live one’s life - and on the way down to Slipper’s quarters she had tipped all her stock of gin out of the bedroom window - the other was that if Archie could have his fun, then she was fully entitled to some of her own. The third was that Reginald slipper was more than Sylvia’s fun: he had supplanted everything she had ever believed in. She no longer felt any embarrassment at what had happened the other afternoon. That had been the catalyst waiting to catapult her into an alter ego. That alter ego now padded softly over Slipper’s carpet with nothing more philosophic on its mind that pure, plain, lust …with a leavening of love thrown in.

She put out a gentle hand to the delicious hollow in the nape of Slipper’s neck. The delicious hollow stiffened as Slipper shot up with a gasp, knocking over the companion set in the grate, which clattered across the stone flags.

“Lady Melsham!” Slipper turned and half-backed away.

“Sylvia,” she breathed huskily reaching out a hand to stroke Slipper’s face. “After the other afternoon you can call me nothing else … Reginald.” Her bosom heaved beneath her flimsy clothing like a pair of humping whales and Slipper swallowed, as transfixed by the sight as he was unnerved by the occasion. Stammering, he continued to back away, followed by Lady Melsham who caught his gaze in her own unblinking stare, made opalescent with unshed tears of rapture.

“Say nothing, Reginald. Nothing at all. I know how you must feel. You, a servant, me a Lady. It doesn’t matter to me any longer.”

Slipper gulped. “Milady ….”

“Sylvia. How can you call me ‘Milady’ after what we did?” she gasped throatily, adding ” … Darling!”

Slipper reeled as if assaulted by the endearment.

“Oh, I know how it must look. The other afternoon I let you take advantage of me … ”

Slipper squawked feebly in protest.

“No. It’s all right. I was drunk. I know that. But I was also lonely and then … you.” She caught her breath in a tiny sob. “I don’t even want to know what you were doing in my bedroom. I only know that, ever since then, all I want is more of you.” Her hands went to the ties of her negligee. “The other afternoon was for me. This is for you.” With a deft flick of her fingers, the garment fell to the floor, followed quickly by the nightdress drawn over her head in abandonment, and Lady Melsham stood before an aghast Slipper, naked. Her gaze never left his face and, despite himself, Slipper felt his feet move towards her and his hands reach out to grasp her pendulous breasts.

After that it was like all Slipper’s Birthdays and Bank Holidays rolled into one and, some time later, when an exhausted Lady Melsham had finally rolled off him, Slipper didn’t know whether he was on his arse or his elbow. It was only when she had gathered her clothes together and, whispering sultry endearments into his ear, had stolen from his room as silently as she had entered, that Slipper finally came to terms with what was happening.

He recognised the emotion only from post-coital meanderings in Fat Lil’s bedroom. But this time, he recognised them for what they were. He was in love.

He crawled into bed in as confused a state of mind as a manservant was ever likely to be.

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