The Duchess and the Maid: 1907

The Duchess and the Maid,

Walter E. Grogan

Mary, Duchess of Birchester sat in her boudoir in the Birchester town house, which is on the west side of Berkeley Square. She was in a peculiarly dissatisfied mood. Circumstances had combined to ruffle what usually was a complacent personality. She had been on a visit to Burnay— sufficient cause for considerable ruffling. Lord Burnay was a cousin of Birchester’s. It is a well-known truism that the relatives with whom one is hampered by birth are bad, but the relatives forced into one’s reluctant bosom by marriage are infinitely worse. Burnay, in addition to being an acquired relative, was a Cabinet Minister with a theological bent, a cumulation of horrors sufficient to depress the lightest-hearted Duchess. And Mary, Duchess of Birchester was that growing anomaly, a well-born Peeress, and had no humour of the music-hall with which to leaven dull decorum. Bridge was taboo at Burnay—another grievous thing. And, above all, on the way down her jewel-case containing the famous Birchester tiara had been stolen.

The manner of the theft followed the usual custom. It had no spark of originality to relieve its crudeness. There was some bustle at the railway terminus; the footman whose duty it was to look after the precious case had had his attention momentarily distracted, a substitution had been effected, and nothing had been discovered until the arrival at Burnay. The substituted case was a marvel of exactness. The Duchess herself had no apprehension until it was opened in her presence by her maid. A few stones—not precious— were all it contained.

Burnay had contrived to see in this unoriginal theft an intervention of Providence not unconnected with bridge.

“My dear Mary, I hope it will be a lesson,” he had said. “No doubt it is intended as a warning.” Being unconvincing, he invariably spoke impressively.

There had followed interviews with detectives, alert men who persisted in suspecting the unlikeliest people and demanded particulars of her Grace’s occupations, which her Grace found very inconvenient to give.

“My dear Burnay,” she had said, “why do we fuss? The tiara is insured. The What-d’You-Call-‘Em Burglary Insurance people will pay the amount—it was insured for a little more than its actual value, in deference to our family pride. And that’s an end to it. The thing is not very old—not two hundred years. Besides, by now they’ve melted it down or cut it up or done whatever they do to these things.”

“Birchester is my cousin. His only claim to fame was in the possession of that tiara, for as Dukes go nowadays a jewel two hundred years in the family is a notable adjunct to rank. And I like to have famous relatives. That also is unique in the Cabinet.” So had Burnay remonstrated, with other references to bridge “absurdly beside the point,” as the Duchess thought. In conclusion he had evinced some shrewdness. “Besides, my dear Mary, you have not yet received the cheque.”

That fact remained unaltered now, and was largely instrumental in rendering Mary, Duchess of Birchester dissatisfied. To her uncommercial mind the transaction should have been so simple. You insured your jewels against theft, your jewels were stolen, therefore you should at once receive a cheque for the amount. That happy simplicity of procedure had not obtained. She had received not a cheque but letters, admirably typewritten no doubt, but otherwise unsatisfactory. They had a clue, they were making all inquiries, and matters were progressing, were the brief epitomes of the insurance company’s lengthy epistles. She had written in answer that the details of their daily occupations were not at all interesting to her, and she would esteem a cheque by return. By return they had sent her a more than usually alert detective, who had suggested Birchester as the possible conjurer of the case, and had been more curious as to her Grace’s habits and customs than any of his predecessors.

Her Grace had been indignant.

“You don’t know his Grace!’” she had cried. “This theft required practice—it was uncommonly well done. My husband is on the board of only one company, and that does not pay even directors’ fees. You see how impossible it is that this could have been his work. Certainly I play bridge—I daresay you play draughts. But I hardly see how our predilections affect this matter.”

This last alert man had vacated her boudoir only half an hour ago. There were therefore admirable reasons why Mary, Duchess of Birchester was dissatisfied.

A rather peremptory knock at the door hardly roused her. She supposed vaguely that it was another alert detective who would insist upon suspecting the butler. She would have to be firm there. Such a butler as Miggs was not to be replaced. Husbands may be replaced, good butlers never.

The door opened, and a quiet, self-possessed woman of thirty entered. She was dressed in black, and she wore no hat. Her face was more shrewd than pretty, and more capable than handsome. She had a determined mouth and chin, and a certain pride was denoted by the way she carried her head.

“Ah, Parker,” Mary, Duchess of Birchester said, “I thought you had gone home. Surely your mother was dead, or your niece was to be christened?  Something of a family nature, I know. It was on the eve of that annoying journey to Burnay, too, and I had to go without you. With a cousin-in-law’s maid one cannot–Positively, my complexion wore atrociously, Parker. Everyone remarked on my ill looks. And I gave you a fortnight’s leave. I remember I thought it a long time for a funeral or a christening: but I really know nothing of these functions in your sphere of life.”

“I am sorry that I inconvenienced your Grace. I do not think your Grace’s complexion is much the worse.” Her manner of speaking conveyed the impression that she was thinking of something else.

“Oh, my dear woman, I had it renovated directly I got back from that terrible place. Really, Parker, Cabinet Ministers grow more like Dissenting ministers every year. And their wives like Dissenting Ministers’ wives.”

“Never mind them, your Grace.” She spoke sharply.

“I don’t, Parker, I don’t. If I did, life would be unlivable.” Her Grace sighed. “The political woman of our set masquerades in the virtues of the lower orders, and the virtues don’t fit. If one might say it of virtues, they seem a trifle loose.”

“I wish to speak to your Grace.”

“Surely they haven’t suspected you, Parker? Ah, you have been away, but you have heard–?” She closed her eyes wearily.

“I have heard about your loss of the tiara.” There was a distinct note of acerbity in the maid’s voice.

“Ah, yes, you would. I was never in the newspapers before, Parker—never!” Her Grace became querulous. “I used to boast of my immunity from print. Now they have dragged in everything about me. One paper brazenly asserts that I am fond of muffins and eat three for tea. What has that to do with the theft? I ask you, Parker, what possible connection can it have?”

“I wish to speak to your Grace about it.”

“The muffins, Parker?”

“No, the theft. I have taken the liberty of telling Miggs that you are engaged, and will be so for an hour.”

“That was thoughtful of you, Parker. Really, I am being slowly talked to death by detectives.”

“It is a personal matter with me, your Grace.” An angry light gleamed in the eyes of the maid, generally so passively capable.

“Then they have suspected you!” cried her Grace. “Take no notice of it, Parker. It is a common affliction I assure you. They have suspected Birchester, and I am in hourly fear that Miggs will be the next.”

“No, they have not suspected me. I am the last person in the world they would suspect.”

“Why? I really don’t see why they should not. One man seriously suggested my brother Jack. He was so positive, and sketched out poor Jack’s probable course of action so graphically that I nearly believed he was guilty. I was quite relieved when I remembered Jack was dead.”

“The reason why they are not likely to suspect me is—that I stole the tiara.” The maid could not altogether restrain an accent of pride.

“You, Parker!” cried her Grace, in amazement. “Why?”

“It is my profession, your Grace.”

“But—but you are my maid! And an excellent maid.”

“In the same way that an actress is an excellent dairymaid. It is all a matter of professional training. I own that I have never before achieved so high a position as maid to a Duchess. My testimonials were hardly sufficient, I thought.”

“No—they were not.” Her Grace paused for a moment. “I think it was the name. It was so typical a name for a lady’s maid.”

“Your Grace has always been an admirer of the British drama.”

“Ah, was that it . . . But the tiara. Really, Parker, after what you have said I must ask you to ring the bell. I shall have to give you in charge. It’s all most annoying.”

“You will not give me in charge,” the maid answered confidently.

“If you are going to crave for mercy—”

“Oh, no ; I shall not do that.”

“You are a very remarkable person, Parker.”

“I am, your Grace.” The maid spoke modestly, but with a certain accent of honest pride. “Professionally, I have no equal.”

“As a maid?”

“As a thief. It is there that you have hurt me. When I think of it I feel so mortified that I could burst into tears.”

“I hope you won’t, Parker. Tears always depress me. On consideration, I think it is unwise of me to continue speaking to you. Please ring, Parker.” Her Grace became perceptibly severe.

“I really do not think your Grace appreciates the position. In the first place, I shall not ring; in the second place, I have given strict orders that you are not to be disturbed; and in the third place, you are—if I may respectfully say so—in my power. Above all, you have done me a wrong, and I know that your love of justice, inherent in all members of the hereditary ruling Peers—believe me, I insinuate nothing against those Scotch and Irish families which are unrepresentative—will insist upon your righting it.”

“I was under the impression that you had done me a wrong,” gasped Mary, Duchess of Birchester. “Surely the theft of the Birchester tiara—”

“Your impression is erroneous. I stole a tiara.–not the Birchester tiara. That is how you have humbled me—that is how you have hurt my professional pride.”

Mary, Duchess of Birchester would have grown pale if her recently renovated complexion had permitted such a feat. As it was, she fell back limply in the embrace of the cushions of her chair.

“What do you mean, Parker?” she demanded in a shaking voice.

“I stole a tiara from your case—or rather, I engineered it. The absolute details are, of course, left to subordinates. I arranged everything. I had the substituted case made to my own designs. I myself ascertained the exact weight of your jewel-case when packed. I am not sure whether you weighed the substituted case with the pebbles it contained. Possibly not. For my own sake, I could wish you had. It was quite accurate. The mere trick of substitution was carried out by my subordinates. You can imagine my extreme mortification when I found that a paste tiara had been substituted. I subjected the tiara to no tests—reprehensibly careless, no doubt; but I relied on you. I confess I have been deceived in you–grossly deceived.”

“I don’t—don’t understand, Parker,” her Grace said weakly.

“Shall I continue?’’ said the maid, firmly but respectfully. “I have ascertained that the Birchester tiara is pawned, and that the counterfeit was then made. That was some time before I came to you. Since then you have done pretty well at bridge. Had you been incurring losses I should have been more careful. You will perceive that it is useless to protest further, as I am acquainted with all the facts.”

Her Grace thought for a while. Then she sat forward a little. This action caused the maid something of uneasiness. She would have preferred dealing with a perfectly limp Duchess.

“The theft even of a paste tiara is a theft, and punishable, is it not?” the Duchess inquired. “I daresay you know more about such matters than I do, Parker; but I believe I am correct.”

“That is so. But the fact of the paste substitution would be made known.”

“It might—I throw this out as a suggestion, Parker—it might have been made by you for substitution.”

“That is ingenious—but it will hardly hold water. I am used to thinking these matters out. It is part of my professional equipment. You forget the pawnbroker.”

“It occurred to me,” said the Duchess, gradually becoming possessed of more backbone, “it distinctly occurred to me that Erickstein, having in his possession an article worth far more than the amount lent upon it, would respect my secret. Surely his business would suffer if he were known to betray family secrets?”

“There would be the difficulty of disposal. But I confess I do not rely upon this. Erickstein, no doubt, made the paste copy?”

“He did. I am not a business women, Parker, but—but there is no correspondence between us, not even an account. My father used to say it was beneath our position to write on business matters. A bad memory is then so useful.”

“So there is only Erickstein in the secret?”

“Exactly. And having no absolute proof of the transaction, he would hardly accuse me of—of ordering a substitute. You see, Parker, one can really trust no one nowadays. For all Erickstein knows I might say he had substituted the paste one for the real, which was sent to him for cleaning. The discovery of the real tiara in his safe might lend colour to the statement.”

The maid glanced at the Duchess with admiration.

“I do not think I ever appreciated your Grace at your true worth before,” she said. “If we could be partners—”

“No, no,” murmured the Duchess. “Noblesse oblige. Besides, it’s a risky business at the best. If I have to go into trade I prefer marriage brokerage.”

“Then–I grieve to say it, but I really have no alternative; the confidence of my subordinates is shaken, my position at the head of my profession is threatened—then I must remind you that his Grace does not know of this transaction with Erickstein, and that he will be informed.”

“Ah, my husband—I had forgotten him,” said the Duchess, “The habits of years are so difficult to eradicate quickly. Of course, Birchester would believe anything to my demerit. Such a gullible man otherwise. It is strange, is it not? Well, what do you propose?”

“You grant I have a strong card there?’’

“There are certainly reasons why at the present moment I am not anxious that Birchester should have the whip hand of me.”

“May I presume to guess at the reasons:” smiled the maid.

“It would be, as you say, presumption,” answered her Grace.

“You have done fairly well at bridge lately.”

“I have been fortunate in discovering some enthusiastic players. They have had little experience. I helped to correct that. This is an age of education, Parker.”

“Not always free, your Grace.”

“Well, well. There are no scholarships tenable at the University of the World.”

“Of course I could not ask you for the full value of the Birchester tiara. That is fifteen thousand, I believe.”

“You flatter me and it. Ten thousand is the outside price. Some of the stones are Brazilian.”

“What did you get on it with Erickstein?”

“Three thousand. It was all I needed just to tide over.”

“Are you in a position to redeem?”

“Yes.”

“Suppose we say that amount? I am really dealing lightly with you. In view of those reasons concerning your Grace and his Grace, about which it would be presumptuous to assert a knowledge, I think I am dealing very lightly with you.”

“I am right in presuming you have the counterfeit with you?”

“Yes. It is in a cardboard box done up in brown paper in the hall.”

“And that I shall retain it ”

“You will redeem it with the three thousand.”

“Very well. I must give you a cheque—I have no cash by me. Will you ring for Miggs and ask him to fetch the cardboard box and the brown paper?”

“I should prefer cashing the cheque first.”

Mary, Duchess of Birchester smiled as she rose slowly from her chair and crossed the room to a small davenport.

“Naturally. But I should prefer possession of the counterfeit first—also naturally. An exchange, Parker, will be an alteration of your methods, of course, for we are told it is no robbery. But you must do me the favour of pocketing your professional predilections for once.”

“Your signature to the cheque will be a safeguard.”

“You perceive I place myself in your hands,” agreed her Grace. “Please ring.”

The maid thought for a moment, then rang. When Miggs appeared, she gave the necessary directions. In the meantime, her Grace chose a pen with elaboration, and wrote a cheque with the deliberation characteristic of her. She blotted it carefully and thoughtfully, and then held it in her hand.

“Not until the exchange, Parker,” she said. “I am so unused to these little transactions that I force myself to be as careful as possible for my own protection.”

Miggs returned with a package, a slight expression of disdain at the plebeian brown paper visible upon his face.

“Thank you,” said her Grace and Parker simultaneously, both holding out hands. Miggs considered the demands with care, and deliberately chose the Duchess, for rank will tell, even with a butler. “Your Grace –” commenced Parker,

“Oh, Miggs,” said the Duchess, clasping the box thankfully, “you will be glad to hear that the tiara is quite safe. Parker has only just heard of my loss–-she has a cultivated distaste for newspapers quite remarkable in this age of literary dissipation–and has hurried to me at once. It appears that, owing to a misunderstanding, she returned the tiara to safe keeping.” Her hand closed more firmly on the box. “If any more alert detectives call, you may say that it was mislaid. You can go, Miggs.”

“Very good, your Grace,” said Miggs, and went.

“Oh, here is the cheque, Parker,” her Grace observed, laying it on the davenport, and stripping the cardboard box.

“There is a mistake, your Grace,” cried the maid. “You have made out the cheque for two guineas!”

“Exactly,” answered the Duchess—“in lieu of a month’s wages. You have taken great care of this, Parker,” she added, taking out the tiara. “Thank you so much. Good afternoon.”

The Sketch 30 January 1907: p. 88-90

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil is quite dizzy from the to-and-fro-ing of the above dialogue. It is usually the clever servant who prevails in these exchanges, so this is a refreshing change. Parker rightly deserved to have her professional pride humbled: any actual lady’s maid worth her pay would have known how to detect pastes by their temperature (paste is a poor conductor of heat) or their wear.  Mrs Daffodil also wonders if the cheque was actually a good one. Of course, a neat twist would be if, in the sequel to this tale, the Duchess hired a lady’s maid, sent by Parker in response to the advertisement. Her Grace was fortunate that the code of the jewel thief precludes murder.

The theme of pastes substituted for real diamonds in aristocratic tiaras is a hackneyed one. One wonders what a random sampling of the tiaras of the Peerage would yield to-day.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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