He found the Forster twins in the face of Rob Jones, the junior footman. “We get the card room. We always do. It’s ourn,’” Hiram Forster shouted at the boy. The card room always had good hunting for stray coins and half-empty wine glasses. Valuables were meant to be turned in, but they all knew Fowler would pocket any coin they handed over.
“Then get you here early,” Harold snarled, coming up behind him. Hiram looked as if he might complain, but the miscreant looked up at Harold’s size and backed down. “Get up into the gallery, you two. Clean the floor. There’ll be wine stains, make no mistake. Mind you scrub it good.”
Hiram stuck out a defiant chin, but his brother Grady pulled his arm. “Told you to come sooner,” the brother muttered. “Let’s see what we can find in the gallery.”
Harold shook his head. If it was up to him, he’d fire the pair of them. As they walked away, something caught his eye. “What’s that sticking under your shirt, Forster,” he demanded stepping smartly to grab Hiram by the arm and spin him around. He reached under the shirt and pulled a silky white garment out, a pair of lady’s lace drawers.
“That’s mine!” Hiram shouted.
“Wear them often?” Harold sneered.
Hiram turned beet red. “Found it, din’t I? Keeping it for m’ sister.”
“Where would you ‘find’ something like that?”
“That big pot at the end of the portico where it meets the alley. Nice dark spot is that at night.” Hiram shrugged. “Some widow no better than she should be.”
Harold looked at the object he held between thumb and forefinger. It cost someone a pretty penny, but he doubted any lady of quality would admit to losing it. He tossed it at Hiram. “Go ahead. Keep it. Give it to your sister.”
“Yah. Yer sister,” Grady laughed. They scurried off and Harold shook his head. He peered up at the clock on the Octagon. Half-past ten, and still no sign of Fowler.
“Do I need to turn this in?” Rob asked. He held up one black leather glove. Harold nodded at him. “Sorry to say it after those two, but yes. You know where it goes. A gentleman might ask for that.” Rob glanced at the departing Forsters and nodded his understanding.
Maudy approached him when he went back about his work. “Here’s the flannel square, Mr. Randal. Bit damp yet.” She beamed at him, and his heart warmed.
“Put it on the subscription desk, Maudy. We’ll see what Fowler wants to do.” If the fool turns up to work.
He had moved the second row of chairs and was staring on the back one when Maudy returned. “It will go faster if I move them and you mop,” she suggested. He should send her into the tea room, he knew, but what harm in the pleasure of her company? They set to work, and it went quickly, until he found himself mopping the very back row by the wall while Maudy moved the last of the chairs. He looked over to see her bent over, gifting him with the sight of her rounded little behind, and rattling his brain so that he didn’t hear what she said.
“Mr. Randal,” she repeated. “Did you hear me? I found something.” She pushed herself off the dirty floor, and wiped one hand on her skirt, the other holding something. He leaned in and saw it was a book. “Miss Middleton’s Guide To Etiquette,” he read, “Some lady’s no doubt.”
“It’s well thumbed, for sure,” she murmured. “Do you think they’d let me keep it? I won’t want it if I have to ask Fowler.”
Harold didn’t blame her but, as it turned out, she didn’t have to. The Master of Ceremonies, Old King himself, appeared on the scene just as they got the chairs back in their proper places. And it just noon—odd that.
“Good man—Randal, is it? The men told me you sorted the work out.” He must not have spoken to the weasels in the musicians gallery.
“Aye, Sir. They’re good workers.”
“Have you seen any sign of Fowler?” King asked.
“Had complaints from no less than an earl last night. Went to fetch him and he’d scampered. Took the money from the safe with him.” King looked like he’d sucked a lemon. “We can’t have it out, mind you. I’m trusting you to keep it to yourself.”
“No problem, Sir. We don’t want our Assembly Rooms besmirched,” Harold said.
King nodded. “Can you manage the thing? At least for a while until I can sort it out?”
“Yes, Sir. I know I can.” Harold stood a bit taller. Over King’s shoulder he saw Maudy smiling at him. If a promotion was on offer he could afford—well, best left unsaid for now.
“It was a fine ball, though, wasn’t it?” King said. “Valentine’s Day Ball. We’ll have to do it again next year, don’t you think?”
“Yes, Sir. A night for lovers that was.” Maudy’s smile spread into a cheeky grin. Next year might be even better.
For Part 1 of After the Ball is over, see last Wednesday’s post.