The Final Draft Tavern was, said the Marquis of Aldridge, a considerably more reputable place than it had been just before the turn of the century, when he came down from Oxford during his holidays and caroused there with his student friends.
Nonetheless, he insisted that his mother wait in the carriage while he and Jonathan, shadowed by two of the larger Haverford footmen, checked that the tavern held no dangers and nothing unsavoury.
Foolish boys, but the duchess would allow them their precautions as long as she had her way in the end.
She was here in Paternoster Row to meet the Marchand family, proprietors of a tavern of some kind since shortly after their ancestors crossed the English Channel in the army of William the Conqueror. As did her own, though they sat, Eleanor thought, considerably further up the would-be-king’s table, on the noble side of the salt.
Still, heritage was heritage, and there was something to be said for a family property that stayed with the same line for eight hundred years, even if it was a tavern.
The tavern and the Marchands were not the attraction, however. But Aldridge had warned that the tavern cat might not be present. A cat, after all, cannot be commanded, and this cat, more than most, was an uncanny beast.
Aldridge reported the all clear, and Eleanor entered the tavern on his arm, her younger son alert at her heels and a phalanx of stout footmen before and behind.
“It has always been a place that welcomes dissenters and independent thinkers, Mama,” Aldridge murmured, “as long as their coin was good. But the meeting rooms and private parlours are empty this early in the day.”
The public bar was fast emptying, too, the early drinkers sliding out the door as unobtrusively as possible so as not to catch the eye of the ducal party. Eleanor must be sure to leave a suitable purse to recompense the owners for any loss.
Aldridge led his mother to the young woman waiting by the fire place. She was pretty in a buxom kind of a way: brown hair neatly tucked into a cap trimmed with a discrete edge of lace, a gown in green worsted, long-sleeved and buttoning to the neck, and a crisp white apron she was twisting in nervous hands that belied her calm face.
“Your Grace,” Aldridge said, “may I present Mistress Marchand?” Mistress Marchand sank into a deep curtsey. A wife? Or a daughter of the house? Aldridge continued before she could ask. “Mistress Marchand is the eldest daughter of the proprietor, duchess, married to a third cousin and mother of a lovely little girl. She is also the designated– er– carer of the cat.”
“Please rise, my dear,” Eleanor suggested. “Shall we sit down?” The chairs by the fire place looked a little scruffy, but clean enough. Eleanor sat, and the young woman, after a hesitant glance at Aldridge, followed suit. “It is the cat I wished to see, Mistress Marchand. Is he within the premises at present?”
“Whiskey comes and goes as he wishes, my l– Ma’am. I went looking for him when Lord Aldridge said you wanted to meet him, but he wasn’t in any of his usual places, and he didn’t come when I called.”
Eleanor must have looked disappointed, because Mistress Marchand added, “I am sorry, Ma’am.”
“Is it true that a cat called Whiskey has always lived in the Final Draft tavern?” Eleanor asked. “A marmalade cat?”
“So family legends say, Ma’am.”
“I have heard that the legends go further, and say it has been the same cat, for eight hundred years,” Eleanor added.
Mistress Marchand looked reproachfully at Aldridge, who said, “I didn’t tell her that, Molly.”
Eleanor looking between the two, wondered just how old Molly had been when Aldridge came here as a student. He had said the attraction was the beer and the egalitarian conversations with a street’s worth of printers and the like, but there was something between the two of them that spoke of more than mere acquaintance.
The tension was broken when a large ginger cat strolled nonchalantly out from under a table. “Where did he come from,” Jonathan exclaimed. “I looked there!”
“Whiskey, come and meet the duchess,” said Molly. The cat sat in its tracks and bent to lick its own stomach, then, with an air of conferring a great favour, sauntered to the chair where Eleanor sat, and sniffed at the hand she offered.
“Hello, Master Whiskey,” she said, and made an attempt to pat the animal, but it ducked so that her hand did not connect, and slid out from under, moving several feet away before turning back to regard her with a lordly disdain.
“You have been found wanting, Mama,” Lord Jonathan said, and tried to scoop the cat up, but it evaded his clutch, and when Aldridge joined the chase, it disappeared back under the table.
Both men, and several of the footmen, bent to look. But the cat was gone.
“I am that sorry, Your Grace.” Molly was blushing. “Whiskey is… Well, I don’t know what to say.”
“You warned me, Mistress Marchand,” Eleanor pointed out. “Whiskey comes and goes as he pleases. Shall we have a cup of tea and wait to see if he will grace us with his presence once again?”
The Final Draft Tavern, formerly the Final Draught Tavern until Paternoster Row was given over to booksellers whose proprietors and patrons rebaptised it, features in the novellas of the holiday box set that the Speakeasy Scribes are producing for this holiday season.
Watch for stories set at different times, in different moods, in both London and (after the Marchands move to the New World) Boston, and linked in some cases to the other work of the author responsible. Mine is a stand-alone, though; a post-apocalypse story called A Midwinter’s Tale. My heroine is almost the last of the Marchands, though she might also be an ancestress of the charming Molly.
Cover, title, and pre-order links to come.