Summary: A pampered young nobleman's path to becoming a notorious murderer whose ultimate destiny lies in forces beyond human understanding: the story of Grell Sutcliff.
Warnings: Strong language and off-color references.
Disclaimer: Kuroshitsuji and recognizable characters belong to Yana Toboso.
Author's Note: I know it's been a while since I updated this fic. I was working on This Immortal Coil then the Grell fandom pretty much collapsed into a fit of bickering which promoted another fic idea. Now I'm back and have a better idea of where I'm going with this.
Bloody Red Doll
As much as I begged and pleaded with the masters of fate for this not to happen, I kept it in the back of my mind that it probably would. I should have readied myself for this every time I was alone with Jacob, though a few quiet weeks made me complacent.
“Grell, we received an invitation to Earl Arlington’s Christmas party; the earl himself told me the Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn was planning to attend,” Jacob said in the carriage on the way to work one morning.
As in Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn; the king’s brother. I knew immediately where this was going and hid my awaiting shudder.
“The party is on Saturday night. This is a very important appearance; you will need to inform Mr. Avery you will be unable to do the performance that night.”
My logical mind reminded me over and over that this wasn’t a surprise. Unfortunately it was drowned out by the screaming and cursing in the other side of my brain.
“It will be an easy arrangement, there are several understudies,” I said.
I just rattled off a quick statement of understanding so I could go back to my mental tantrum and stew quietly all day. By the time I returned home, I had somewhat cooled off though was no less thrilled about the prospect of speaking to Colin on Wednesday. I wasn’t concerned he would be cross; I knew he would understand my circumstances. Perhaps it was just the prospect of admitting defeat.
I approached Colin at the next rehearsal, face hot with embarrassment once again though a bit more intense this time. This wasn’t a rehearsal I would be missing; this was a whole performance. That was one less moment for me to shine in front of my audience because some gallivanting prince was allegedly going allow a group of noble peons an audience with him. It wasn’t as if His Majesty himself was going to be there, why the bloody hell should I lose my evening for his much younger brother? Perhaps that was the opinion others had of meeting me, though I couldn’t have given a sauntering fuck.
I found Colin upon entering the building and told him I had an evening of surprise inventory lists to deal with; I’m terribly sorry, but I am not going to be able to take part in Saturday night’s show. There is no way I can get out of this.
“That’s all right, Rich, these things happen, in fact we expect this time of year they might be happening a lot,” Colin said.
He called over Elias, one of the backstage boys; he was handsome, a bit on the plump side though passable. He played Mercutio before and just needed a quick brush up on some of the lines. All was set, I should just go forward with work and not worry about a thing. Colin had a knack for reassurance, I even felt a little calmer afterwards though I was no happier.
Saturday nights I left home wearing rougher clothes, looking forward to donning my costume later and putting on my make-up. This particular Saturday, however, I grudgingly wore the costume of a respectable nobleman going to rub elbows and nuzzle the backsides of those of bluer blood than I. This didn’t have to be all that bad, I told myself. Prince Henry was known as a bit of a man about town himself; maybe he would be an interesting chap to spend a second with.
I was still looking at my watch entering the lavish townhouse decorated in the most holly and bows money could afford. It was 6 o’clock, I could be wrapping up a quick rehearsal whilst listening to people file in. Instead I was shaking one hand after another and politely bowing whilst waiting for the special guest to arrive. A few cordials relaxed me a bit; I was so on edge right now I could have a few more drinks and still keep decorum.
This party had all the cheer of a stiff pair of shoes. Everyone had on their smiling masks underneath all the ruffles and curls. It was now 7 and the reason for my coming to this nonsense had not shown.
At last the host of the party — a small man with this long, poofy wig that made him look like some sort of poppet of nobleman — stepped in front and tapped his glass. All eyes fell on his ridiculousness. Was that velvet coat he was wearing really that bright green? Christ Almighty, could one get any tackier?
“Attention everyone,” he said to the masses. “I have just received word from the private secretary of His Highness the Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn. Unfortunately…”
Oh fucking hell! I clutched the stem of my glass and strained every muscle to keep from reacting. I knew with that one word was coming next.
“…His Highness’ ship returning from Bruges was delayed due to the weather and he will likely not be returning to London until the morning.”
A few polite “Aww’s” went around the room, though most people toasted to the Duke’s safe journey. I wanted to toast my glass over Jacob’s head. I gave up my bloody play tonight to see some wanker who never even showed to the party. I kept my mask on and had a few more drinks. I wanted to get totally rat-arsed if only to piss off Jacob; it was his fucking fault for leading me here. If I did though I’d only be hearing about it for eternity, besides did he know the Duke’s ship was getting held up by weather? I could imagine some lowly page boy running into said private secretary’s office with the letter after hopping from whatever port His High-arse was spending the night entertaining himself with expensive booze and equally expensive muff.
It was only then when I reminded myself of a more daunting reason to stay on my best behavior tonight, one I had known about for a few weeks though did not really think on it until now. Jacob and I would be returning to the manor for Christmas. If I made a fool of myself now, not only would I have to deal with Jacob in a week or so but I would have to deal with Matthew and everyone else who received the word. I took it easy on the drinks and kept my charming demeanor.
“Grell I am so very sorry with what passed tonight,” Jacob said in the carriage on the way home. “Such is the hazard of the social scene, one never knows when that regal guest gets caught up by forces beyond control.”
This wasn’t helping me at all.
Nevertheless I was back at the theater on Sunday getting into my true attire. Everyone said Elias did a decent job, though people were apparently asking where I was. That perked up my spirits a bit more. I went onstage and savored every moment of adoration; I had missed the stage for only one performance yet it was one performance too many.
Colin cleared all performances and rehearsals for the week of Christmas. Christmas fell on a Wednesday this year and he paid heed to Boxing Day as well. He wanted the company to enjoy all time they could get with their families amid their holiday work schedules, though anyone who would be alone on Christmas was welcome to meet at the theater for some food and conversation.
If only I could stay around with much more pleasant company here than what awaited me in Essex. After a few days however, especially a few more days at the office, I was actually becoming intrigued with the prospect of returning. It had been six months since I left for London. Six months later I had a steady job, my own money, and my own apartment. I was no longer the child of the house, perhaps I was in fact one of the men now. Jacob talked to me a bit more like an adult, I didn’t see any reason why Matthew wouldn’t as well. I was a working man who would be surrounded by children, perhaps the title of “uncle” would hold a bit more weight now. Plus I did hold an executive title at our family’s company, I doubted I would return to the manor and be regulated to the nursery. Matthew and Jacob were already preening me last year, this year I was in more of a respectable form.
I had left in June a little lamb awaiting my slaughter, perhaps I would return in December a wolf joining the rest of the pack. That didn’t mean I was anything more than the omega wolf who still had to look out for his packmates, though I wouldn’t ever return to the position of sheep. Perhaps this little trip could be a validating one.
Friday was the last workday before our departure. Jacob said we would be leaving for the manor on Monday, the office would be in the hands of the other managers for the holidays. I had a hard time imagining anyone willingly working on Christmas, though I was of a high enough standing to avoid this apparently. This should have made me feel special or entitled, though I was more bemused if anything.
Sunday night was the last performance before the Christmas pause. We all put holly wreathes in our heads for the final bow and wish a Merry Christmas to everyone. Many of the players said they had to work on Christmas, though a few spoke of their kind employers who actually gave them Christmas Day off. I also said I was working the whole holiday, it wasn’t necessarily a lie; seeing my family wasn’t exactly a fun occasion and I anticipated we would all be discussing work more than anything.
I took off my costume with a bit of a heavy heart. I wouldn’t have this experience again for another week, not only that but I had to deal with my family for the next few days. I tried to remind myself that this whole week would make me all the more eager to return here. We would all come back in triumph and say hello to our admirers once again. Not only that but Colin said something backstage that night about the play for next season. He would have an announcement sometime in the new year what production we would be putting on next.
“I know Auntie will be joining us again, and Rich and Ephraim I assume you will be reading for us again too,” Colin said.
We both nodded our heads with great enthusiasm. It felt like being invited all over again; true validation that this really was my home.
I returned to my apartment that night and finished packing for our journey, placing articles of clothing for the next four days in my trunk between sips of claret. We would leave London in the late morning and arrive at the manor sometime in the early evening. Then we would spend Christmas Eve and Christmas with the family. Jacob said he had wanted to leave for London on Boxing Day, but Lady Sutcliff apparently pleaded with her husband to have us stay at least until Friday. It would make for a full holiday week for us. Maybe by Monday I would be kissing my desk in happiness to be back. I downed a glass just considering this.
It was nice to have a few extra hours of sleep on a Monday morning, though it was a loan I would have to repay with a day in a carriage. Normally we would travel a short ways to the office, this time I actually had to be in Jacob’s presence for much longer than I normally was. The carriage came as usual, though this time Simon was loading my bags on top with Jacob’s effects. I went inside the carriage and exchanged a few of the usual pleasantries with Jacob, who was simply reading the newspaper.
The journey itself ended up not being all that bad. There was quite a bit of idle chit-chat between us, which actually relaxed me a bit. A part of me almost sarcastically expected some type of new news being dropped on me during this journey but there was none. The biggest piece of news I heard was that Earl Phantomhive was hosting a party at his manor on New Years and extended us an invitation. I was a bit intrigued at this announcement; if a normal party at his townhouse was so amusing, what would a full out New Year’s bash be like at his manor? There was a good possibility that bizarre Arthur fellow would be there, but by now he was no longer a bother for me. I somewhat wanted to see him again, prove to myself that he was nothing more than a weasel of a man. If I was proven wrong it would be to my amusement.
We both mostly read and kept to ourselves the rest of the journey. It was around 7 when we arrived on familiar roads, the glow of the manse coming into view through the darkness. I put down my book and straightened myself in my seat; neatening up my cravat and smoothing out my coat and my ponytail. I saw Jacob give me a little extra glance with a small smile, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some idea what was going through my head.
At last the carriage pulled up in front of the manor. I saw David emerge from the house and take his standard stance awaiting us. Simon opened the door and Jacob stepped out first. I then descended, walking from that carriage with my head a bit higher than I usually did at these arrivals. David greeted us both as usual and escorted us inside. How odd it was to be back in this house. Now I felt like a visitor when I had previously been pent up in here like a calf. Now I was one of the men of the family returning to the manor, it indeed felt rather good.
All the family was here, we were the last two being awaited. Matthew’s boys returned home from school during the week and Elijah and family arrived just this morning. Soon Matthew emerged from the dining room and gave us both warm welcomes. He gave me the same merry smile and firm handshake he gave Jacob. I was waiting for the moment when he would talk to me like a young boy pretending to be a man. Instead he kept his straight tone and patted me on the shoulder, remarking on how pleased he was to see me and how smart I looked. He sounded genuinely impressed, I was waiting for condescension but was really hearing none.
“You both arrived just in time for dinner,” Matthew said. “Come into the dining room, we have been waiting for you all.”
Matthew went in front and opened the doors. Jacob and I entered and were immediately rushed by familiar faces. Elijah was front and center followed by his cheery wife with their four young children soon rushing up to embrace us. Lady Sutcliff, Charlotte I suddenly remembered, gave us her polite greetings. Robby went up to me and gave me a firm handshake, which I returned with his pleasant bow. His older brother Timothy gave us his own proper handshakes, though the eldest boy Isaac greeted us with only a bow and a couple words before returning to his seat at the table.
Matthew saved seats for the both of us near the front of the table, which was notable for me at the time. I found I was actually happy at the moment. Normally I greeted these reunions from the bottom of the doldrums, now I was actually going about this exercise in a much more agreeable mood. Perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder, or maybe a little less annoyed. I dare say this actually gave me some optimism for how the rest of our time here would go, though I was content to play this by ear.
The round of chatting started almost immediately. Robby was asking me all about London, I gave him a few details of my small life there; it felt good to have the floor and a wide-eyed audience of children. I was rather intrigued by how social Robert had become. Just a year ago he was an overly proper little boy, now he was a bit more of a social young man. It was a nice change, perhaps he would give me no more reasons to destroy his playthings.
All of Matthew’s boys were at the age where they were becoming men with their own personalities. Timothy talked about how Uncle Elijah took him along during his ministering to families in a poorhouse. He was right fascinated with how bad the conditions were and how good he felt to spread the Word to provide some comfort. Good for him that he found such a noble cause, even amid such ghastly conditions that were a novelty to him. Elijah and Matthew were apparently still negotiating whether young Tim would be able to join his uncle on a trip to Canterbury. I entertained him with a few tales form our own brief stop there on the way back from Paris.
I guessed Timothy wanted to join the clergy himself, though naturally that depended on Isaac’s securing of his father’s title. If Isaac were to snuff it young or do something to gloriously disgrace the family, it wouldn’t be proper for the spare to hole himself in the vestment closet. Isaac in fact was the only child doing the least amount of talking. The stick up the arse was probably hereditary.
I enjoyed the twittering of Elijah’s brood for a few minutes until it overstayed its welcome. Then I merely tolerated hearing them talk about new clothes and the bird that flew into their house one night. Apparently Elijah’s 18-year-old stepdaughter Rebecca, the daughter of his wife Maryanne, recently birthed her own son. In his ripe thirty-second year, Elijah was now a grandfather in a respect and he was surely beaming about it. I did wonder how old Maryanne was; she didn’t look too much older than her husband. The thought of how old she could have been when squeezing out her puppy made my toes curl a bit.
“That’s right, Grell, you are only a year younger than Rebecca,” Elijah said. “Is there a lucky girl in London you will be planting a little life with?”
Alas, Elijah, I have not yet found the ideal child bride. I guess I had better get on that; 17 is getting on in years apparently. Perhaps I should be perusing some orphanages for the perfect wife. I wanted to say this so badly.
“Yes, her name is Sutcliff Agriculture and she is rather far along,” Jacob quipped, “Alas I will admit Grell and I are both her husbands.”
This prompted a round of chuckles around the table, including from me. I was actually thankful to Jacob for taking the heat off me.
“We must be her harem,” Matthew said chortling.
Amidst the droll response, I glanced at Isaac, whose gaze was locked on his dinner plate. I swore I saw a bit of an annoyed expression; he was cross about something though I didn’t really care about what. Last I heard he was 15 now, being 15 in and of itself is cause for some sour decorum. Maybe he was also angry to not be a father by now. I knew I shouldn’t have let that comment bother me as much as it did.
Idle conversation was the run of the evening. We later congregated in the drawing room for some mulled wine. Maryanne goaded me into taking to the piano with many others cheering me on behind her. I was more than willing to take the stool and play a few carols accompanied by merry voices singing along.
The young ones retired around 9 and most everyone else was in bed by 10 save for Matthew, Jacob, and myself. We bantered a little about business, though at one point Matthew actively discouraged any such talk.
“I’d prefer enjoying each other’s company this holiday rather than spending the whole time going on about the shop,” he said.
Idle conversation still felt a bit stiff with him, though the fact I was actually being welcomed into Matthew and Jacob’s banter about the weather and what new wallpaper would go good in the master bedroom was a bit of an honor. Matthew whined a little about how pious his wife was being. Christmas was going to be a quieter, family affair this year.
“She’s adamant; no other guests, only family, and no one had better act foolishly,” he said rolling his eyes. “‘I will not have another tragedy in this house after what happened to poor Mr. Benton last year.’”
I simply sipped my wine. Oh damn, did I ruin Christmas for everyone?
“Bloody hell, how many years did we have the Christmas parties in London?” Jacob said with a huff. “No one got anything more than a nasty hangover. Danny Benton was a drunk anyway and all of us know how he ate; we should make sure to only invite those in better health next time. Your woman is just looking for an excuse to keep all of us from having any fun.”
“Believe me, Jacob, I tried telling her that but she wouldn’t budge,” Matthew said, pouring himself another glass.
“And who is the lord of this manor?” Jacob said.
The glare Matthew gave him was pure gold. He wasn’t merely annoyed with him, this was a lot more venomous. I was certainly intrigued, perhaps there would be an interesting show in this.
“She said it was ultimately for the sake of the children, and I did agree with that point,” Matthew said.
Jacob nodded but I could tell he was biting his tongue hard.
“But she does have a point; we have been doing little as a family in this past year,“ Matthew said. “The boys have been at school, Elijah’s family has been mostly accessible through letters, then of course you Grell have started your fine career.”
I raised my glass to this.
“This has been a tumultuous year,“ I said. “Perhaps it is best to enjoy the holiday in the quiet company of family. I have indeed missed seeing everyone, this is a good time to reconnect.”
Both Jacob and Matthew drank to this with their own smiles in my direction. I supposed Matthew was impressed with such mature words coming from such a little ruffian. Jacob was likely pleased with my ability to keep the peace; not to mention all our temperance this Christmas would be more than made up for during New Year’s at the Phantomhive manor.
We retired around midnight, Matthew said he wanted to have a private breakfast with us both to go over some business matters; get those out of the way so we could enjoy the rest of our holiday. He also said my room was freshly prepared and all set and ready for my return. I said my goodnights and went back to the room I had left six months ago. It felt bizarre entering it again. Most of my effects had been cleared out save for a few things I had not needed in London. I felt like a refugee returning to his ransacked home after years in safe territory.
My last few months here saw me recovering from the nasty beating I took from my traitorous mates, it saw me still healing from Reg, and I would spend time in here contemplating my upcoming time in London. It was a bit unsettling to see this white wallpaper with these silver flowers and these red bed curtains again. The only thing that had really changed about this room in seventeen years was size of the furniture and the nature of the toys. This was an adult’s bed, though I still felt like a child climbing into it again.
I met with Matthew and Jacob the next morning as planned. Matthew said he wanted separate breakfasts throughout the house in anticipation of tomorrow’s grand feasting. That and the executives needed some time to work out a few things.
“I will advise caution, Isaac might either scowl at you both or ask you incessant questions about the business while you’re here,” Matthew said. “Especially you, Grell.”
“I recall you saying you would wanted him to focus on his studies,” I said.
“You recall correctly and I have told this to him numerous times,” Matthew said after shoveling a spoonful of egg into his mouth. “Yet he has been bringing up the subject nigh incessantly. His tone became a bit heated the other day, unfortunately he was bringing you up quite a bit. ‘But Grell is 17 and not in university yet, why shouldn’t I get a position? I am the heir after all, I will be managing this company someday.’”
“Because 15 is still a boy in my humble opinion,” Jacob said, sipping his cider. “I will not have our company in the hands of a child. No offense brother, but your son is not all that mature for his age.”
No wonder why I was still being shoved away up until last summer; apparently 16 makes for ripe pickings.
“None taken, Isaac has been acting like a child and not as a young man should,” Matthew said.
Matthew had raised his boys to be young men from the moment they were out of the womb; now he was so offended that one of them actually wanted to take part in his adult business. Apparently maturity means staying in one’s iron nursery and immaturity was wanting anything more.
Or perhaps he would rather they sat in their own cushioned chairs their whole lives growing as fat as their father, in fact Isaac was a good ways there already. The hard work would be left for the family castoffs and the “talented partners.” This was an intriguing line of thought that only grew. I tried to stifle it for a moment lest I aggravate my temper, though perhaps it was best to think this through if only to laugh at it later.
What were the odds Matthew was taking most of the credit at parties gatherings of businessmen and everyone else was doing the work for him? What were the odds he would rather none of his children filthied their hands with any sort of labor (no matter how safe and dour) and would rather pass his title to the eldest along with all the credit for everyone else‘s successes. Perhaps the castoff youngest child was perfect for such labors, though what if he felt the same about Jacob: the second-born and fourth in line?
If I was able to see this, I was sure Jacob knew this full well. However I had never heard him say one disparaging word about the baron, though that could have been out of respect as well. Perhaps this was a matter of which I should be especially wary. There was something a little more in Matthew’s glare last night for Jacob’s “lord of the manor“ comment, it would behoove me to take this into consideration.
“Perhaps it is a matter of he wants to feel useful,” I said stirring my tea. “He sees all the men around him doing important things knowing he is destined to inherit great things himself. It was not that long ago that I was his age, one feels like an adult then even if one is still a boy.”
“Such may be the case, however he is at the age when young men are better suited learning more the ways of the world as opposed to diving in ignorant,” Matthew said. “He is better off filling his mind with knowledge so it makes him better prepared to wrap that educated mind around the important matters of business.”
It was a marvelous speech, one I was sure had been recited to Isaac on numerous occasions. I could only imagine the boy finding more agitation than any comfort in these words.
“And with that I agree, though young men are so easily vexed and more reactive than considerate,” I said. “I firmly agree with your reasoning, though I bear some measure of sympathy for the lad. Alas he will learn this is better for him in the longer term.”
“Indeed, I am sure you appreciate the education you received before being put into such a difficult business situation,” Matthew said. “No matter how headstrong you were at 15, do you regret waiting two years before being given such an opportunity? Or would you rather have been thrown of the financial wolves with rudimentary education and no knowledge of the world?”
I wasn’t quite appreciating his accusatory tone. It was a tone elders seemed to enjoy using on smart-mouthed children who needed a strict lesson on the ways of the world. I wanted to smack him upside the head, “I’m actually agreeing with you, you plunker; ease up on the lesson.” Naturally I held my tongue to these words and replaced them with something more suitable.
“Oh I most certainly do, in fact I am eternally grateful,” I said. “It is a gratefulness that is often learned after hard experience.”
“Experience is what truly separates men from boys, dearest brother,” Jacob piped in, though I didn’t know if that quip was directed at me or Matthew. “Alas young Isaac lacks such experience at the moment, though I do think shutting him out entirely is an unwise move. I would be willing to throw him a couple bones, allow him in on a few discussions if only to see the difficulty of what we do.”
“I shall ponder that offer, though at the time being I would rather he kept his current course,” Matthew said, ever the stubborn bastard as always. “Regardless the executives from the London office here. How does the end of the year look?”
And just like that he changed the subject. Jacob and I both let the whole thing be and updated Matthew on the run of the office. Actually Jacob did most of the talking, though he allowed me to chime in on a few small details. Let the child have a few strokes on this painting to say he contributed.
I was supposed to be a man of the house, instead I was once again the small boy in the smart uniform for everyone to talk to as if he were big. Though apparently I was in my prime for marrying and spreading my seed to actually cultivate life. Oh how I loved this family.
I had my gentleman mask on for the rest of breakfast and mentally applauded when it was finally over. I was in the process of leaving when I heard Jacob and Matthew make under-the-breath arrangements to meet at teatime today. This unsettled me a bit more for whatever reason, perhaps it was because the adults could go back to their talking. Or maybe they had specific subjects to talk about; only normal among the true executives of a company. I couldn’t help the small pricking at the back of my brain that told me they could be discussing me. This was only natural too no matter how much is irked me.
I was happy to go along my merry way for the rest of the day, though I kept an eye on the clock. I was curious as to what those two would be discussing, perhaps a little walk past the door of Matthew’s study at the right time might put my mind at ease a bit. I stayed in my room mostly, after the quality family time I had endured to this point, I was uninterested in having any more for a long while.
After a few hours the walls closed in a bit and I was rather thirsty. I was about to ring for David, but decided now was a good time to wander about. I did catch up with David in the hallway and asked for a bottle of wine to be brought to my room. He gave his standard “Right away, sir,” before going off. Just then Maryanne and four little ones were walking down the hallway and saw me before I could sneak off. My niece Sarah ran up to me and started tugging on my sleeve, which both amused and annoyed the hell out of me.
“Uncle Grell! Uncle Grell!” she said jumping up and down and yanking my arm. “Come make some gingerbread with us, uncle, it will be loads of fun!”
The other kids cheered the same behind her. Oh God what the hell did I just walk into?
“We’re going to do to the dining room and cut out some gingerbread for Christmas,” Maryanne said with a little giggle. “Archie’s making the dough now and we’ll roll it out and cut out stars and angels. Would you like to join us?”
My mind initially formed words of polite refusal, besides I was in my nicer clothes at the moment and did not care to get anything stained. Though what else did I have to do today besides sit in my room and get drunk? At least I would be around some members of my family who counted me as an adult. Children annoyed me to no end, though perhaps I needed some merry laughter that was lacking from my existence. It was the Christmas season after all.
I did take a glance at the clock in the hallway, 2:45: Jacob and Matthew were meeting for 4 o’clock tea. I assumed this little afternoon with gingerbread would end around 4 as well so the children could take their own tea. I would just have to go back to my room then and change clothes after taking part in such a messy activity.
“I would be delighted,” I said, patting Sarah on the head and trying to smile for the little cheers I got in response.
I actually found myself enjoying the activity more than I thought I would. I did remove my coat and aided the process in my rolled-up shirtsleeves. Archie the cook came out with a large bowl of gingerbread dough, Maryanne rolled it out on the table covered in a plain white cloth, and the children took their clay molds and stamped out little Christmas shapes. I stamped a few out too and helped roll some of the dough scraps into a ball and flatten them out for more stamping.
I actually enjoyed their laughter, how they stretched out the shapes, how they snuck little gobs of dough into their smiling mouths. It was fun getting my hands dirty with such a mundane substance. Gingerbread was so pure, so innocent; such a polar opposite of blood. I was happier getting my hands sticky with this substance; it was sweeter, it smelled nicer, it conjured images of fun and calm as opposed to dread and panic.
Elijah eventually joined us, I had no bloody clue as to what he had been up to but he did walk into the kitchen with similar pleas from his children to join the fun. He did so with a merry laugh, digging right in and stamping out some angels.
“This is a bit of a tradition for us, Grell,” Elijah said. “We usually do this the week before Christmas, though Lady Charlotte gave us leave to do it here. I don’t know if you remember, Grell, but mother told us she used to make gingerbread as a child.”
My heart sunk a little at the mention. This was probably the first time mother had been discussed in a long time.
“Alas I don’t recall,” I said.
“Actually I believe it was two Christmases ago, I think you were spending the holidays at school,” Elijah said. “The children were very little then. She put out a plate of gingerbread and told them she would stamp out little shapes like this when she was a child in Germany. Her family’s servants would help her and her brother through the process.”
Two Christmases ago; the last Christmas mother would ever see. And I was so happy to be spending my holiday at King’s Crest with friends who would never speak to me again. I recall raving about the holiday in a letter to Oskar; the last letter I would ever send him. I never did get a response back; the distance between England and America was rather wide, not to mention he was a bit busy with that whole revolution nonsense. I wonder if he ever wrote a response back, though such a response was probably blown up with the rest of him.
“We make these for Gran now,” Elijah’s eldest boy Paul said. “Something to remember her by.”
“This is such a lovely tribute,” I said, leaning down into little Paul’s face. “I am sure mother is looking down from Heaven and watching us in happiness.”
I wasn’t so sure that my vain mother would ever dirty her dainty hands so. Perhaps things were much different when she was a child, or she could have told such a lovely story to try to make some conversation with the brats. Maybe Matthew and Jacob’s boastfulness was an inherited trait.
Elijah said he told David to serve us a late tea so we could finish our project. That was fine timing for me, it meant Matthew and Jacob would be nicely settled in when I passed their door. At last all the dough was put to a purpose and the biscuits were now in the oven. The clock read 4:15 and Elijah said he would fetch Jacob for the tea service while Maryanne took the children to get changed. I excused myself for the same purpose, reassuring my niece and nephews that I would return and join them for tea.
I purposely spaced out my steps and wandered through a few other corridors toward my destination. I wanted to be out of sight for everyone and alone in the hallway when I reached Matthew’s study. Thankfully my destination was clear of any interference. No one was milling around in the hallway at the time, though I gave myself a thirty second count before approaching the door. I positioned myself at the crack in the door, though listened first for any suddenly loud voices or shuffling lest I be caught by surprise. At first I was a little worried that their conversation would be so soft I wouldn’t pick up on anything. I was proven wrong the moment I got right to the door; I could hear Matthew speaking in a raised voice, his words rather clear.
“No I am not in London,” was the first clear sentence I heard. “I am here managing the core of our household or in Boreham managing our company. You, however, are in London and it is your responsibility to keep a handle on what’s going on there.”
Oh he sounded pissed. This was entertaining already.
“In all due respect, brother, how much time do you spend in the one as opposed to the other?” Jacob said, his tone a little more even though still loud enough to hear clearly.
“You’re not getting started on this again,” Matthew said.
“And every time I do I do so with valid reason,” Jacob said, his own tone rising a bit. “Perhaps you’re the one I should be keeping a better eye on.”
“I am not even going to dignify that with an answer, Jacob and you know exactly why.”
“Because you are giving him little credit. I have given him the benefit of the doubt and kept a damn close eye on him. As I already told you, there is nothing he can do behind my back without my knowing.”
My blood turned to ice, though I knew I had struck gold.
“Oh yes, he can’t do a little play behind your back, Jacob, but he can do damn near anything else. You found out about the theater group, or maybe he even let you find that out.”
I wanted to tear the door down and rip Jacob’s head off. He fucking told to me he wouldn’t say a damn thing about this to Matthew, but then I knew better to keep him at his word.
“Now you’re insulting my intelligence, my knowledge of these things,” Jacob said. “You rely on me for so much information yet you challenge my ability to keep grasp of it. Now that certainly offends me.”
Matthew huffed a bit, Jacob had him in a nice little corner.
“I am not challenging your intelligence, brother, but I am challenging your ability to manage a boy with a history of being a bit difficult. Just because you’ve established a safe niche there doesn’t mean he is mature enough to do the same. You’ve set up the perfect playing ground for him and to do something disastrous.”
“Do you really think I would have gotten as far as I have to be so naïve as to let some boy run around behind my back? Please, Matthew, after all I’ve done. He is a deer, we are all wolves, there is no place he can hide. Do you think I would have allowed him into my world unless I had him in full rein?”
“But you’re not exactly keeping a tight grip on that rein either. No, you send him on a trip to Paris supervised by little more than idiotic quill-pushers and think nothing on him getting drunk and paying private visits to an infamous libertine.”
Oh balls, what did Jacob say to Matthew about the Paris trip? I started sweating a bit more at this turn of the conversation.
“I instructed those quill-pushers to keep a close eye on him and report back everything to me. Every report said that save for those couple nights of drunkenness — of which I also share your concern — he was on his best behavior. Besides those little visits turned an infamous skinflint into a generous investor.”
“And how do I know he got that deal through diplomacy and numbers as opposed to paying for Marteille’s opium and whores.”
“Matthew, I have seen his negotiation skills plus I am more than familiar with Comte de Marteille’s methods. Even if such debaucheries were transpiring, which I highly doubt they were given the reports I’ve gotten, the comte bends to nothing. I believe our younger brother deserves a bit more credit.”
I allowed myself a small sigh of relief. Jacob hadn’t told Matthew anything, or perhaps Jacob suspected nothing at all. Perhaps I was being a bit paranoid, though I could not afford any less.
Matthew paused for a long moment.
“Jacob, you need to keep a better eye on him,” Matthew said. “I know he is intelligent and witty, though he is still an impressionable boy who has not yet proven himself all that trustworthy. I do not like what I’ve been hearing.”
“You need to have a bit more faith in me, brother,” Jacob said. “And you certainly would benefit from having a little more faith in Grell.”
Talk went quiet from there. It was probably best if I moved on lest the door open. There was no more I needed to hear anyway. I pulled away from the door and walked back to my room, clenching my fists at my side.