Hester Aspinall knew something was wrong the moment Robert failed to appear at the breakfast table Monday morning.
Her brother was a creature of unshakeable habit. Only a calamity of the worst sort would dislodge him from his routine.
He'd gone out last night a little past six o'clock, to celebrate his forthcoming nuptials to Miss Charlotte Stroud, the very pretty, very well-jointured daughter of a London wool merchant.
In between freshening his cravat and washing his hands and face, he'd told her his destinationThe White Deer? The White Hart?and, quite emphatically, not to wait up, for he expected to be a great deal later than usual.
But Robert had not come home, late or otherwise.
Now, the tea had grown cold and the porridge had begun to congeal into a thick grey mass. With a sigh, Hester cleared the table. The kitchen of their third floor lodgings was even more oppressive than the front room, the bricks still radiating heat, as she filled the dishpan and set to washing up.
Since their removal to London three years previously, she could count on one hand the number of times her brother had deviated from his usual practices, for he was a young man with an uncommonly developed need to succeed.
During the week, he rose at six, washed and dressed, then ate his breakfast, insisting on grace before every meal. At seven o'clock, he would leave their small set of rooms on the third floor of number one Brewer's Court, stop briefly to bid their landlady, Mrs. Hannaford, good-day, then walked the three quarters of a mile to his shop, located in High Holborne, unlocking the doors at half past the hour and picking up from his tailor's bench the work he had left in readiness the day before.
Such was his practice every day from Monday to Saturday. From time to time, when he had an excess of jobs, Hester joined him, keeping his accounts and waiting on the clients who came to order new suits, jackets, waistcoats and breeches, helping them select cloth and buttons. But most days, she busied herself domestically, doing the marketing and mending, preparing their meals and keeping their rooms in order, and visiting among their small circle of acquaintances.
It grated at times. The only day that was ever different was the Sabbath and even that alteration was as regular as clockwork, for Robert made it a practice never to miss a sermon at the local parish church. Hester would have been satisfied with a little less evangelical zeal, but knowing how much she owed to her brother after their parents' deaths and all that he had done for her during her misfortunes she submitted with as much grace as she could summon to the minister's long-winded exhortations to goodness.
Through the open windows of the front room came the sounds of the busy city street outside, the disgruntled lowing of oxen and the heavy clatter of wooden casks being delivered to a nearby alehouse reminding Hester that the morning was progressing apace and that dawdling would not locate her brother. Quickly collecting the kettle from its metal hook, she poured scalding water over the dishes and left them to dry.
A thought occurred. Perhaps he had left a clue to his whereabouts in his room. Hurrying down the narrow hallway to her brother's bedroom, she stepped inside.