To be truly polite, remember you must be polite at all times, and under all circumstances. —The Ladies Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness
Rose was just beginning to fall into a peaceful slumber when she heard a woman scream.
Rose sat upright, her heart pounding, her eyes looking to her window and across the alley to the house next door, vacant up until last week and with a new occupant she knew nothing about. Another scream, long and drawn out and fairly blood curdling.
She swept off the covers and headed to her door to fetch her maid, Stacy, her heart pounding madly in her chest. Was it a murder? Since Rose’s husband’s death, she liked to have her lady’s maid nearby, and so had moved her into a room across from her own.
“Stacy,” she whispered harshly, opening her maid’s door. “Come quickly. There’s a murder being committed.”
Stacy immediately roused herself, pulling on her wrap. “Should I get a lamp?”
“No, I don’t want the murderer to see us. I heard screams coming from next door. I certainly do not want whoever it is to know there is a witness.” Stacy followed her mistress across the hall and to the window that faced their neighbor’s house, separated from them by an alley only a dozen feet wide. Rose’s window was closed, but they could still hear the terrible sounds of suffering from next door, dreadful sounds of bone-chilling whimpers.
“This is terrible. We must do something,” Rose said, her voice shaking. “Go fetch Robert and have him get the police.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Stacy said, her eyes wide with fright. She was turning to go when the screams took an odd turn, and Stacy stopped dead.
“Yes, Stacy,” Rose said with impatience. “Go. Time is of the essence.”
“Ma’am, it’s not a murder.” Stacy let out a giggle. “It’s, well, I do believe they’re doing it.”
The screaming took on a rather impressive operatic note—perhaps high c?—and Stacy giggled again. “He seems rather talented.”
“Stacy, really,” Rose said, her face turning a bright red; she knew because her cheeks were on fire and she was grateful it was too dark for her maid to see. She couldn’t imagine anything that happened in a bedroom to be so astoundingly pleasurable that it caused one to make such a ruckus. Just as the note was trailing off, she felt as much as heard a low rumble of male satisfaction and, if possible, her face burned even brighter.
“Thank you, Stacy, you may return to bed. I do hope there will not be an encore performance,” Rose said briskly.
“I’m thinking she’s hoping there is one,” her cheeky maid said before ducking out her room.
“Don’t be crass, Stacy,” Rose called, sounding more amused than bothered.
Rose padded back to her bed and glared at her window, wondering about her new neighbors. She knew nothing about them, except they apparently enjoyed one another immensely. The street had been so peaceful since the Rutherfords and their brood of ten children had moved to the country. It wasn’t only the noise that had been so bothersome, it had been that their house had seemed so lively, whilst her own had been so terribly quiet on the evenings they weren’t entertaining. It was the one thing she hadn’t fully thought out when she married Daniel, the fact she would have no children.
Her neighbors on the other side were a wonderful couple with three small but well-behaved children. She had so hoped an elderly couple would buy the house on the other side.
Pulling up the covers, she settled in. “Daniel, what do you think of our new neighbors?” she asked her husband, dead now for more than a year. She still talked to him for he had been her dearest friend and since he’d died, she’d had no one to talk to. Not really. She missed him terribly. Everyone loved Daniel and his death, so sudden, had left a large hole in her life and everyone he’d touched.
She turned to her side, her back to the window, and fell asleep, only to be woken up one hour later to the sound of another murder.
I would like to welcome you to our quiet little street. You’ll find your neighbors very agreeable people and I wish you years of happiness in your new home.
You may have noticed that our homes are quite closely situated. Perhaps you were unaware how well sound travels through the alley separating our homes, but I can assure you that even with windows closed, sound travels quite well. I am a fan of opera, as many people are, no doubt. I do, however, enjoy performances in a more traditional venue.”
Rose smiled at that last sentence and could imagine Daniel chuckling. He had so enjoyed her wit.
Perhaps in the future you could move the performance to a more private location so as not to disturb your neighbors.
Dear Mrs. Cartwright:
Please accept my sincerest apologies for disturbing your evening. I was unaware sound traveled so well between our homes. I will attempt to curtail the noise, but as some aspects of the performance are beyond my control, I cannot make any promises.
Rose looked at the response, scrawled on the back of her own note (no doubt the cad didn’t even possess stationary) and frowned. This was not the response she was expecting. Then again, what sort of response would she expect from a person who seemed to have no discretion?
That evening, Rose nearly dreaded going to bed. But she slept soundly the entire night through, waking up and smiling. Her neighbor had either not indulged or had chosen a different room. Feeling well pleased, Rose went about her day, not giving her new neighbor, whom she had yet to see never mind meet, another thought.
“Oui, oui. Mon dieu, mon dieu, mon dieu.”
They, or rather, he was at it again. This was clearly another woman. A French woman with a throaty voice, who was apparently having as much fun as the opera singer had the other night. Rose was sitting at her vanity, sixty-two strokes into her one hundred stroke regime of brushing her hair and Stacy was putting away her gown, when they heard the first obvious sounds of lovemaking.
Rose stood and marched to her window to look out. It was dark outside, but she could still tell the window across the alley was open; hers was closed. And still she could hear the rapid French. Touchez-moi là-bas. Oui. Là. Plus fort. Oui. Mon dieu, mon dieu, mon dieu.
“Do you speak French, ma’am?” Stacy asked coming up next to her.
“What is she saying?”
Rose let out a long-suffering breath. “She’s using the Lord’s name in vain. Over and over.” And with a rhythm that was impossible to not understand. Faster, louder, more frantic. This time, more than Rose’s cheeks became warm. She backed from the window, stunned, as she recognized that she was becoming aroused from listening to the couple copulate. “Disgusting,” she said, even though she didn’t really think it was. And that, in itself, was perhaps the biggest surprise. She hadn’t felt more than a tingle between her legs in years. What sort of depraved person was she that merely listening to another couple make love could excite her?
“I want to know about our neighbors. Neighbor. I think it’s a bachelor. What can you find out?”
Rose stood in her kitchen with her cook, the aptly named Mrs. Faring, not only for her occupation but for the obvious fact she enjoyed eating her cooking as much as the act of cooking. Rose had no idea how old she was as she had few wrinkles, but the hair beneath her cap was iron gray. “How am I supposed to find out anything? I’m too busy in here cooking.”
Mrs. Faring had never been a very agreeable woman, but she cooked wonderfully and Rose had gotten used to her crustiness over the years. Her mother would have never tolerated such back-talk, and Rose probably shouldn’t either. But no one made raspberry tarts like Mrs. Faring and she could never bring herself to firing the lady—especially since she seemed to know precisely when a raspberry tart was needed most.
“You could go over and borrow a cup of sugar. Strike up a conversation with their cook.”
Mrs. Faring took on an expression of extreme affront. “What sort of cook would I be if I got so low on sugar that I needed to borrow a cup?”
Rose sighed. At the moment, she really didn’t have another plan. She certainly couldn’t go up to a bachelor’s house and introduce herself. She supposed she could hover outside until she saw someone leave and pretend a chance meeting, but that sort of behavior was quite unfitting. She wished Daniel were alive. He would have gone over in a thrice, knocked on the door, and been best friends with the man within an hour.
“I’ll go, Mrs. Cartwright.” Annie, her kitchen maid, looked eager to get away from the cranky Mrs. Faring, who immediately took off her apron and hung it on a nearby hook.
“I’m going,” the cook announced. “I’ll make a neighborly gesture, ask if they know the butcher on Seventh Avenue has better meat and fairer prices than the one on Fourth.”
Rose smiled. “That’s a perfect plan.”
Twenty minutes later, Mrs. Faring returned, a smug smile on her face.
“What have you learned?”
“He’s a bachelor. Annie, do you know who it is?”
Annie shook her head. “Do we know him?”
“We know of him. Half the gadgets in our kitchen were made by his company. C.A. Kitchen Tools. You should see his kitchen. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before in my life, full of more gadgets than I thought existed.” Rose smile at her cook, who sounded like a young artist who had just visited the Louvre. “And the cook appreciated my help, you should know. They moved from another part of the city and she didn’t know where she should shop,” she said with a sharp nod.
“What else did you find out?” Rose asked, not really caring how the man made his living. “What’s his name?”
Mrs. Faring’s cheeks flushed slightly. “Wouldn’t you know, I forgot to ask. I learned only that he is a bachelor, as you thought.”
The information was disappointingly sparse. They now knew three things about her neighbor. He was rich. He was a bachelor. And he knew how to please a lady.
Rose wasn’t certain why she was curious about her neighbor, or at least she refused to think about why, but she was. Terribly so. Usually servants were a bevy of good information, but alas her own servants were of little help. And so, with a determination born of this strange curiosity, Rose climbed up the steps of the other neighbor to her left, the Campbells, bearing a gift of raspberry tarts (it was worth the sacrifice to share) in a pretty little basket prepared by Mrs. Faring, who felt a bit guilty for failing in her mission.
The Campbells were a lovely couple who moved in a bit after she and Daniel had gotten married. Rose had actually briefly met Genevieve Campbell in England, but she had quite forgotten her until Genevieve recalled meeting her. Over the years, they had become wonderful friends; Rose was godmother to their middle child, Claire. Genevieve was one of those women who could charm the shell off a turtle, so if anyone knew anything about their new neighbor, surely she would.
The door opened after her knock, revealing the Campbell’s unconventional butler, a beast of a man with a completely bald pate and a nose that looked like it had seen the inside of a boxing ring one too many times.
“Hello Mr. Spark. Is Mrs. Campbell in?” She revealed the raspberry tarts inside her basket and the butler took one with an appreciative smile.
Mr. Spark stepped back without a word; he’d lost use of his vocal chords during one particularly brutal fight and couldn’t utter a sound. Meeting the Campbell’s butler the first time had been a bit jarring for Rose, who had grown up with an impeccably trained staff, but it soon became clear he was well-respected and did his job well. Watching him give the staff orders was nothing short of amazing, and it also helped that he could write notes faster than most people could speak.
Mr. Spark led Rose to a sitting room, and a short time later, Genevieve entered, a bright smile of welcome on her face.
“I know why you’re here,” Genevieve said, her vivid green eyes sparkling as she sat down gracefully. “You’ve seen our new neighbor.”
Rose laughed. “Actually, I haven’t. Have you? The only thing I’ve learned is that he is a bachelor and creates kitchen gadgets.” Among other talents. Just the thought caused her cheeks to flush.
“I’ve seen him but I haven’t spoken to him or been introduced.” Something about her manner made Rose curious. It was more what she wasn’t saying than what she was.
“Oh?” Rose was trying valiantly not to appear too curious. Her interest in the man made no sense and, truth be told, was a bit embarrassing. She was just out of mourning, after all, and she’d never before shown any undue interest in a man.
Genevieve gave her a knowing smile. “I won’t make you beg for details, dear, mostly because I know you never would. He’s quite handsome. Tall. Blond. Striking, really. An Adonis.”
“Genny,” Rose said, slightly chastising. “You’re a married woman.”
“I can still appreciate a fine male form,” she said, laughing. Then she spied Rose’s basket and stopped mid-laugh, as if someone had put a stopper in her mouth. “Do please tell me those are raspberry tarts.”
“Did you think to bribe me with those for information about our new neighbor?”
“Of course,” Rose said without hesitation. “Besides, Mrs. Faring made too many.”
“You should take some over to your new neighbor.” From somewhere in the house came a delighted shriek. “Or I could give them to the children, at least the oldest two. They adore Mrs. Faring’s tarts.”
“That is a much better plan. It would be highly improper for me to deliver them to our new neighbor personally.”
Genevieve creased her brow. “Would it? I don’t see why it would.”
Honestly, Rose didn’t see either, but that wasn’t the point. She was not going to introduce herself to the man who had been creating such a ruckus nearly every evening. Just the thought filled her with mortification. Now that she’d had time to think about it, she sorely regretted writing that witty little note of hers. Meeting the man behind the note would be distressing and she certainly did not want to give him any ideas by presenting him with a gift, even one as simple as raspberry tarts.
The two women turned toward the door as the sound of feet stomping down the stairs grew louder and louder, until her two oldest children ran into the parlor, stopping abruptly and nearly toppling over one another. “Hullo, Mrs. Cartwright.”
“Hello, Thomas, Claire.” Rose hid a smile, for both children were eying her basket.
“Shall I put them out of their misery?” Genevieve asked.
“Mr. Sparks said Mrs. Cartwright brung—
“—brought,” Genevieve corrected.
“—brought a basket that might have raspberry tarts in it.”
“And how did Mr. Sparks know this?”
Thomas darted a look to Rose. “Because Mrs. Campbell gave him one.”
“Would you like a tart?” Rose asked, quite rhetorically.
“Oh, yes please!” Claire said. The two children hurried to the basket, Thomas taking two and Claire taking one—until she realized Thomas had taken two.
“One, Thomas, please,” Genevieve said. “Then we’ll have some left over for after dinner this evening.”
Thomas replaced the tart good-naturedly.
“Why don’t the two of you go out to the garden to eat those? I’ll join you in a little while.”
Rose took that as her cue to leave. “If I learn anything, I’ll let you know. As I’m certain you shall do.”
“Of course,” Genevieve said, rising.
Rose walked down her neighbors’ steps feeling a bit out of sorts. When she was a young girl and she’d felt like this, she would head to the stable and ride Moonrise until they were both exhausted. Of all the things in the world she missed since leaving England, her beautiful mare was at the top of the list, next to her brothers, of course. Daniel suggested bringing Moonrise to New York, but Rose couldn’t imagine her beautiful mare in the city. She’d be frightened by the traffic and a ride in Central Park would have been far too sedate for her feisty mare.
Rose had nearly reached the gate in front of her home when a hack pulled up in front of the house next door—his house. She paused, her hand on the wrought iron gate, and watched for the occupants of the hack to disembark. A man’s fine boot appeared, then a leg, then a hand holding a top hat. And then, the man, his blond hair swept back from…
The man stepped down and turned toward her and Rose grinned, seeing the dear face of her former head groom. “Charlie!” Rose said, stepping quickly over to him, not hiding how delighted she was to see him. Charlie had accompanied her to America five years prior and she hadn’t seen him since. Now here he was, looking fine in a tailored suit, standing in front of her.
“My goodness, Charlie, you’re a sight for sore eyes. How are you? And look how fine you look,” she said, holding out her gloved hands for him to take. He did, briefly, his blue eyes unreadable. He seemed neither happy nor sad to see her; it was almost as if he didn’t recall who she was, which would be quite impossible. And he was handsome, as Genevieve had said, even more than she remembered.
“Mrs. Cartwright. I was sorry to hear about your husband’s death. He was a good man,” he said, his dear voice so familiar to Rose she nearly wanted to weep. His ready smile was absent and he sounded so formal, so un-Charlie-like that Rose was momentarily taken aback.
“Thank you. I miss him every day,” Rose said, swallowing down the sudden sorrow that was still difficult to hold at bay. She looked up at her neighbor’s house, unable to hide her distaste for the owner. “What are you doing here? Do you work here? I’ve yet to meet my new neighbor. He’s quite a mystery.” Charlie was dressed so finely, she wondered if she was her neighbor’s new butler. Or perhaps a secretary. Charlie always had been smarter than a whip.
“I don’t work here, Mrs. Cartwright,” Charlie said, the oddest smile on his face.
“I live here.”
All Rights for the images reserved toHernan Irastorza from flickr, if you keep them,please keep the credit.