‘What was that noise?’ The Countess sat bolt upright in bed, leaving her wig on the pillow. ‘Listen! We’re being burgled!’
Anastasia, Lady Ashby de la Zouche, Countess of Clapham, Baroness Penge, etc … was not accustomed to worrying about burglars. She never usually had anything worth stealing, but, for once, she was sitting upon a fortune: one hundred guineas in bright shiny coins. ‘Someone is upstairs. Don’t you hear?’
A body in an adjacent bed shifted, groaning, and a blanket fell to the stone-flagged floor.
‘Burglars, inside the house!’ repeated the Countess. ‘Listen! Hear the boards creaking.’
A series of dull squeaks and the muffled sounds of padding feet seemed to pass across the ceiling above.
‘Shut your row!’ growled Godfrey, the Countess’s ancient steward, letting another blanket slip to the floor. ‘Some folk are trying to sleep.’
‘Criminy, I hear it!’ In a flash of white linen, Alpiew, the Countess’s quondam maid, leaped out of the third bed and stood with her ear pressed to the door, a raised poker in her hand. ‘He’s coming down the stairs!’ She snatched the carving knife from a nearby shelf. ‘Watch out for me, milady. I’m going to check.’
The Countess held up her hand, signalling Alpiew to wait while she gave Godfrey a wallop and pulled his bedclothes right back. ‘Come on, you lazy slubberdegullion,’ she hissed. ‘You’re meant to be the man of the house. Get out there with Alpiew.’
Baring his gums in an ineffectual snarl, Godfrey got up and took a position behind Alpiew while the Countess lit a candle from the dying embers of the fire.
‘Wait till I have light.’ The Countess shielded the flame and moved towards the door. ‘Let’s get him.’ She gave Alpiew a nod.
Alpiew inched the kitchen door open. ‘Go!’ she shouted, dashing into the hallway just as the front door slammed shut. ‘I’m going after him.’ She loped the length of the hall, pulled the door open and stood on the step, looking left and right along German Street .
But she could see no one running into the moonless night.
‘Where the devil? Help ho! Watch!’ cried Alpiew from the doorstep. ‘Where is the night-watch?’ In her night-gown, still clutching the poker and knife, she ran along the cobbled street to the small box which housed the night-watch Charlie, and hammered upon the side.
An elderly man kicked the door open and lifted his head. ‘What an almighty noise,’ he grunted, pulling his coat around him. ‘What are you waking me up for? I was asleep.’
‘So I see, you bone-idle bugger. Might I remind you, you dribbling dotard, that you are paid to stay awake at night,’ yelled Alpiew. ‘Someone was just now inside our house and made their escape by running right past you while you snored away your hours of duty …’
‘That’s a nice pair you’ve got …’ The old man was focused upon Alpiew’s enormous bosom and quite lost to all reasonable thought. ‘Can I ’ave a feel …?’
‘No, you cannot.’ Alpiew pulled her night-gown up almost to her chin. ‘You’d better fetch the constable, and fast.’
‘But I’m a war veteran …’