Midnight at Marble Arch - By Anne Perry



PITT STOOD AT THE top of the stairs and looked across the glittering ballroom of the Spanish Embassy in the heart of London. The light from the chandeliers sparkled on necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Between the somber black and white suits of the men, the women’s gowns blossomed in every color of the early summer: delicate pastels for the young, burning pinks and golds for those in the height of their beauty, and wines, mulberries, and lavenders for the more advanced.

Beside him was Charlotte, her hand resting lightly on his arm. She had no diamonds to wear, but he knew that she had long ago ceased to mind that. It was 1896 and she was now forty years old. The flush of youth had gone, but the richness of maturity became her even more. The happiness that glowed in her face was lovelier than flawless skin or sculpted features, which were mere gifts of chance.

Her hand tightened on his arm for a moment as they started down the stairs. Then they moved into the throng of people, smiling, acknowledging this one and that, trying to remember names. Pitt had recently been promoted to head of Britain’s Special Branch, and it was a heavier weight of responsibility than he had ever carried before. There was no one senior to him in whom he could confide, or to whom he could defer a difficult decision.

He spoke now to ministers, ambassadors, people of influence far greater than their casual laughter in this room might suggest. Pitt had been born in the most modest of circumstances, and gatherings like this were still not easy for him. As a policeman, he had entered homes through the kitchen door, like any other servant, whereas now he was socially acceptable because of the power his position gave him and because he was privy to a range of secrets about almost everyone in the room.

Beside him Charlotte moved easily, and he watched her grace with pleasure. She had been born into Society and knew its foibles and its weaknesses, even if she was too disastrously candid to steer her way through them, unless it was absolutely necessary, as it was now.

She murmured some polite comment to the woman next to her, trying to look interested in the reply. Then she allowed herself to be introduced to Isaura Castelbranco, the wife of the Portuguese Ambassador to Britain.

“How do you do, Mrs. Pitt?” Isaura replied with warmth. She was a shorter woman than Charlotte, barely of average height, but the dignity of her bearing made her stand apart from the ordinary. Her features were gentle, almost vulnerable, and her eyes were so dark as to seem black against her pale skin.

“I hope you are finding our summer weather agreeable?” Charlotte remarked, for the sake of something to say. No one cared about the subject: it was the tone of voice, the smile in the eyes, that mattered.

“It is very pleasant not to be too hot,” Isaura answered immediately. “I am looking forward to the Regatta. It is at Henley, I believe?”

“Indeed it is,” Charlotte agreed. “I admit, I haven’t been for years, but I would love to do so again.”

Pitt knew that was not really true. Charlotte found the chatter and the pretentiousness of lavish Society events a little tedious, but he could see in her face that she liked this woman with her quiet manner.

They spoke for several minutes more before courtesy required that they offer their attention to the others who swirled around under the lights, or drifted to the various side rooms, or down the stairs to the hallway below.

They separated with a smile as Pitt was drawn into conversation with a junior minister from the Foreign Office. Charlotte managed to catch the attention of her great-aunt, Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould. Actually she was great-aunt by marriage to Charlotte’s sister Emily, but over the years that distinction had ceased even to be remembered, let alone matter.

“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” Vespasia said softly, amusement lighting her remarkable silver-gray eyes. In her prime she had reputedly been the most beautiful woman in Europe, certainly the wittiest. Did they but know it, she was also one who had fought at the barricades in Rome, during the turbulent revolution that had swept Europe in ’48.

“I haven’t forgotten all my manners,” Charlotte replied with her usual frankness. “I fear I am reaching an age when I cannot afford to wear an expression of boredom. It is terribly unflattering.”

Vespasia was quite openly amused,