"When did you last wear these?" Bradford picked up the long diamond-and-emerald earrings and held them close to his ears.
"I'm not sure," Elizabeth—Lilibet to her friends and family—answered. "Montreal perhaps? You're the one with the list. What does it say?"
Bradford put down the earrings and picked up his clipboard. "You're right. Montreal."
"May I tell you something, Bradford? Strictly entre nous?"
"Of course, ma'am."
She looked into his gray-blue eyes. "I don't want to go on this trip. I'm actually quite dreading it. If you would change your mind and come along, it would make all the difference."
His eyes filled with tears. "Oh, ma'am. What can I say? If you order me to go, I will. But my back is in such terrible condition . . ." He patted his midriff where a heavy back brace made an uncomfortable outline through his jacket. "I would be more of a burden than a help."
"I know." It appeared for a moment that she might put her hand on his to comfort him, but then she remembered herself and withdrew the nascent gesture. "Of course, I won't make you go but I'm going to miss you so."
A blast of icy wind threw sheets of cold London rain against the windows, making them rattle.
"On the other hand," he said, looking outside, "when I think of the stop in the Seychelles, that warm air on my aching back—perhaps I'll resume my duties there."
"That could be arranged."
Although her formality—even with close friends and family—was legendary, she gazed at him with real tenderness, affection and heart-felt gratitude for his decades of service. He'd been her most-trusted servant and confidant. He'd never let her down, never been indiscreet, always there, right at her elbow, ready to do whatever she required or requested without complaint or question—all that in spite of his increasingly frail health, which in her heart of hearts, she attributed mostly to his hypochondria. He was her Rock of Gibraltar. She stepped to the next ensemble. "Let's finish," she said.
* * *
"Evening clothes are last." He picked up his clipboard and turned to the beaded gowns and silk evening suits that hung around the perimeter of her enormous dressing room like costumes from an extravagant opera. Each had a folding wooden camp table in front of it, arranged with the handbag, shoes, gloves, jewelry and medals to be worn with the ensemble. All the elements of each outfit had been tagged and numbered and were accompanied with written instructions as to where and when they were to be worn. There was no possibility for mistake or confusion.
Across the room, six black metal trunks the size of regular suitcases—they were, in reality, heavily armored transport safes—stood open on heavy-duty luggage racks beneath the windows, ready to receive the jewels as soon as they agreed each outfit was complete. At that point, Bradford would close the jewelry boxes—many of the pieces were still in the cases in which they'd been received, the leather and velvet linings worn with age and use, their original gift cards tucked inside—and place them in one of the trunks.
"What are your plans?" she asked as he double-checked his list.
"I'll be at my cottage in Sussex. You know how I love to garden, and I have an excellent man helping me until my back gets stronger."
She smiled. "I'll miss your roses."
"I'll send them up regularly."
"Good. I'll like that."
They had stopped in front of a plain white satin ball gown with a pleated decolletage and elbow-length sleeves. Wide bands of seed pearls and brilliants circled the cuffs and hem. The gown's attendant regalia was so complicated, it required two tables to hold it all.
"So beautiful in Sussex," she said, and picked up a five-inch-tall diamond tiara, each of its five points punctuated with a large emerald. The scrolls and festoons of its design were so intricate it almost looked like a crown of starched lace. "'May's best tiara,'" she said. "That's what Grandfather called it."
"This is for Delhi."
"I haven't seen the whole parure assembled for over forty years. It's quite breathtaking, isn't it?"
"Indeed. There is nothing else like it."
Lilibet picked up the emerald-and-diamond necklace with its negligee of diamond-and-emerald pendants of unequal lengths.
"Granny quite moved heaven and earth to get these pieces assembled, didn't she?"
"And," Bradford's eyes sparkled, "it's said she cracked a few skulls in the process, as well."
They shared a little laugh.
She studied the necklace. "I'm not sure I want to take it with me—not sure it should leave the country." She turned to him. "Perhaps I should take the copies."
Bradford shook his head. "Don't worry, ma'am. They will be well looked after. You haven't made a tour like this for many years. It requires such a show."
"I know you're right. As usual." She replaced the piece lovingly in its velvet case. "I wonder if it really will be my last, my farewell tour."
"I rather doubt it, but it will be stupendous, a royal tour of all the Empire's former colonies. It will be a grand time—practically all of Africa. When was the last time you were in Kenya? Or South Africa and Mozambique?" As he spoke, he stacked up the individual cases that held the parure—except for the tiara which had its own traveling box—and carried them to their designated transport safe. He kept his back to her as he set the jewel cases in the trunk and swiftly replaced their contents with strings of marbles he'd stashed in the trunk earlier. The original pieces slipped into his pocket more smoothly and quickly than the eye could see—at least an old, trusting eye, like Elizabeth's—tumbling silently into a nest of shredded cotton. "I understand the people in the Seychelles have planned a parade around all the islands! India, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, a state dinner at the White House. Oh, my. It will be positively majestic. A true 'Progress,' ma'am."
"More majestic if you were along to make sure everything goes just so." She was starting to sound a little peevish.
"Now, ma'am, we've been over this before. All will be meticulously looked after by Michael. I've seen to that."
Bradford and Elizabeth were well trained—possibly the best trained people in the world—in the art of keeping their emotions under complete control at all times. And he gave no indication that not only was he impatient with her growing petulance but he was also concerned that in fact she would change her mind and insist he come along. She certainly had the power to do so and he'd seen her impose her will more than once. This was no time to slip up, no matter how difficult the goodbye. They moved to the next table.
He picked up a sapphire blue evening suit and held it up in front of her. "This is the most perfect color. It is exactly the color of madam's eyes. Just beautiful."
"It's to be worn at the state dinner in Cape Town." A black leather jewel case with a faded blue velvet custom-molded lining sat open on the table. "I thought the Lesser Stars would be the right touch."
"Brilliant. You always think of the right thing. Michael won't be able to think of this sort of refinement." There was the tone again, getting close to a whine.
"Oh, ma'am, that's not true," Bradford reassured her, hiding his irritation at the bead of sweat that rolled down the back of his neck from beneath his toupee. "He's much more of a history buff and protocol expert than I."
"Hmmm," she said skeptically. "We shall see."
"I don't believe they've been back to South Africa since they left." She picked up the simple, unadorned brooch, one diamond above the other. With their combined carat-weight of 158, the Lesser Stars of Africa—the Cullinans III and IV—were so enormous they didn't require any dressing up. "I never wear them and they're so magnificent." She gently placed the diamonds back in their case, where they smoldered from the velvet like briquette-sized coals.
"Yes, madam." Bradford checked his watch. Her musing was beginning to put them behind schedule.
They continued their circuit, with Bradford naming each outfit and pointing out each suite of accessories and accompanying jewelry, and then, in a ceremony as old as time, she watched as he latched and locked each case and melted a large disk of wax across the rim sealing the safe shut. Together they pressed their signet rings into the soft red seal. Once the wax had cooled and hardened, Bradford zipped the cases into anonymous, tightly fitted khaki canvas covers, turning them into ordinary-looking luggage.
It was time to say good-bye. Lilibet faced him from a proper distance. She kept her hands folded in front of her.
"How long have you been with me?"
"Over thirty years, madam. I was only twenty-three when I joined your household staff."
She shook her head. "It seems like yesterday." Her eyes took him in—his frail countenance, and wonderful bright eyes behind his tortoiseshell bifocals, eyes that never missed a thing. The expensive dark brown toupée.
"I shall miss you, my Bradford Quittle."
He bowed deeply. "It has been my honor and privilege to serve Your Majesty."
She turned and left the room.
Shortly, Bradford rang for the guards to take the boxes to Norfolk Airport, where they would travel on their own unmarked business jet to Cape Town, the first stop on the queen's farewell tour of the Commonwealth.
"Kick?" Thomas's back was to me as he stooped to toss another log and a bouquet of dried lavender onto the fire.
"We need your help on something." He put his hand on the small of his back and straightened himself with a slight wince before turning to look at me, his bright blue eyes serious above his black-rimmed reading glasses.
It was wintertime in Provence and we were sitting in our living room, sipping hot cider laced with rum, and enjoying a rare snowstorm that hid the valley and Les Alpilles, the Little Alps, behind a wall of whirling white. Lamps on the side tables and my long book table beneath the picture window cast a warm glow silhouetting the drinks tray and stacks of books against the starkness outside. The bookcases on the far wall were in shadows but above the mantle, a small light illuminated my most treasured painting, Polonaise Blanche by Renoir—skaters whirling on a pond in an almost pink snowstorm. Our Westie, Bijou, was curled up on the cut-stone hearth, sound asleep, a fluffy little indoor snowball unconcerned by the change in weather and uninterested in anything not directly related to her stomach or her comfort.
"'We'?" I said, feeling a little like the dog, fully enjoying the snugness of my champagne-and-salmon paisley armchair and ottoman, and the cozy softness of my cashmere warm-up suit and the persimmon cashmere throw over my legs. It was absolutely heavenly, and I was completely unreceptive to anything that might mar this perfect day. "That sounds rather regal, Thomas. Are the snow and cold making you homesick for England? Missing the royal 'we'?"
"Well, in fact it is the royal we." He swept fallen bits of bark and spattered coals back into the fire before replacing the iron screen. He rubbed his hands together.
"Of course it is, darling." I returned to my needlepoint, a pale yellow canvas covered with bright red cherries with their stems and a few leaves attached here and there. I thought it would make an apt addition to the chaise in our bedroom. Some people have pillows scattered around their houses that say things like: 'Chocolate is Life.' Or, 'If You're Going to Run Away from Home, Please Take Me with You.' Or, 'Give Me the Luxuries of Life—It's the Necessities I Can Do Without.' A statement I can relate to fully. But the fact is, I'm not a talking-pillow kind of woman, I'm more interested in subtleties and refinements, in living the message, not talking about it. Living a life, not intending to. I loved the cherries because, in fact, our life was a bowl of them. What a thing to be able to say after years of running and hiding and lying. I've finally arrived at the safe harbor I pictured all those dozens of years ago. But interestingly, I'd never imagined a lover, a husband, a partner, a friend as a part of that vision, but here he was. My Thomas.
If people knew what a completely unlikely couple we are, they would never believe it.
"I'm not joking, Kick." There was an attention-getting sharpness to his voice.
"We need your help. It's serious and highly confidential."
"All right, Thomas." I put down my sewing and sat up a little straighter. I was an expert at confidentiality. I have more secrets than the Sphinx. You don't get to be the greatest jewel thief in history by blabbing what you know. Correction: the greatest retired jewel thief in history. "Tell me what it is."
Thomas, one of Scotland Yard's most distinguished, highly decorated and revered inspectors, also claims to be retired, but things keep cropping up here and there, assignments, secret calls. All very hush-hush. I don't care for it.
"The Queen has a problem."
It was my turn to look at him over my reading glasses. "The Queen? And she needs my help?"
Thomas nodded. "She does," he paused. "I do."
I studied his face. "I think you've had too much rum, my darling sweetheart, or else we need to go to the sun for a rest."
Being married, which I was very new to, is an extremely complicated affair. You make a number of serious promises, and if you want to keep a rich and honest relationship—honesty being something I was new to as well—you can't just say and do whatever you want, whenever you want. So, I bit the inside of my lip to keep from saying, No. Absolutely not. Whatever it is, I'm not interested. Find someone else.
"I know what you're thinking." Thomas retrieved my mug and took it to the cocktail tray which he'd set on top of stacks of art and antiquities auction catalogues. "Just let me tell you about it."
He measured double tots of rum and poured them into our mugs and then dropped a spoonful of clove-scented butter into each. Then, he added a small splash of steaming cider from a stainless steel electric pot that simmered away atop a massive volume of Impressionists that no one had looked inside of for years. He replaced the cinnamon sticks with fresh ones and stirred, absent-mindedly. The silence was deafening.
There was a small—I might even say, smug—smile on his lips when he brought me my drink. "Careful, it's hot," he warned and then circled the coffee table and sat down opposite me on the matching ottoman. He took a slow sip of the steaming rum, placed his mug deliberately on the table, and then examined his hands, as though he were considering whether or not to have a manicure.
"Thomas, if all of this pedantic pondering is some sort of police tactic designed to make suspects crack and spill the beans, as I believe you all call it, it's extremely impressive, and I thank you for sharing it with me. Now, kindly say whatever it is you have on your mind or pick up your book and read, because you're coming very close to ruining my perfect day."
"Sorry," he grinned and put his elbows on his knees, clasped his hands together and stared deeply into my eyes as though he were searching for something. I suspected, deep-down, he was wondering if he could trust me.
"Thomas. I'm going to count to ten."
"There's been a robbery," he finally said. "Some of the Queen's Jewels are missing."
© Marne Davis Kellogg