Just around this time three years ago, I was between books. I started toying with a few different projects. One was a sweeping epic about two cousins, beginning around the turn of the century, and moving up through the 1920s. (You may recognize that one as The Ashford Affair.) The other was a novel about Ned Tholmondelay.
You may remember the Tholmondelay brothers (pronounced “Frumley”). They’re the bumbling twins at the Selwick Spy School in The Masque of the Black Tulip. They’re rather on the silly side, and, at the time, I felt in need of some undiluted nonsense.
In the end, I wound up being swept away by that 1920s epic and the Tholmondelay brothers were filed away along with all my other unfinished bits and pieces.
Here, to warm up a cold winter day, is the first page of the unfinished Tholmondelay novel. Enjoy!
Among the Tholmondelay family, it was universally acknowledged that of the twins, Fred was the one with the whatchamacallit in the brain box.
And then there was Ned.
As far as the aunts were concerned, the fact that he had got lost on the way to being born was testament enough. Fred had made his appearance, stalwart and squalling, at half-past seven on a Monday morning. Ned had wandered out eight hours later, apparently having forgotten that he had an appointment. His mother, foolishly fond, liked to say that Ned merely did things in his own time. But, then, Lady Tholmondelay had been a little, well, you know, herself. She read poetry. And if that didn’t say it all, the aunts didn’t know what did.
They said this frequently.
They also said it loudly, although it was matter of some dispute whether the volume was meant to add emphasis or merely an unintended byproduct of Aunt Agatha’s refusing to acquire an ear trumpet.
“What’s to be done with Ned?” was a common refrain among the aunts, as they gathered for a bit of tea and bloodletting.
Fred, they had no doubt, in the fullness of time, would land an heiress. Fred was the elder, after all, by those crucial eight hours, and would someday be Baron Tholmondelay, with a nice little place in Wiltshire. It might not be Chatsworth, but, then, what was? It had fireplaces by Adams and paintings from Italy and a family ghost who only appeared on a ten year schedule, which everyone agreed was awfully considerate of it, clanking chains tending to be a bit annoying on a regular basis.
Besides, Fred kept himself, as far as the aunts could tell, bang up to the mark (this said with a little titter at their daring at reproducing such slang). He wore his collars high and his shirt points higher and jangled with no fewer than three cameo watch fobs. Fred might not have quite made the esteemed heights of the Four Horse Club, but he had been accepted to their lesser cousin, the Three-in-Hand, with their unmistakable waistcoats of purple and yellow stripes. He boxed with Jackson and culped wafers at Manton’s and lost just what it was—the aunts agreed—acceptable for a gentleman to lose at the tables at Watiers.
“Debutante fodder,” croaked Aunt Agatha, and all the other aunts solemnly agreed. There would be no trouble at all in settling Fred.
But what was to be done with Ned?
On the face of it, the twins were utterly indistinguishable. They had the same mop of red hair, the same rangy frames (and if Fred’s was getting a bit wider about the middle from all those lobster patties at Carlton House, only his tailor knew for sure), the same bright blue eyes and sun-browned faces. But where Fred put himself out in society, Ned was happiest in the stable—dressed like a common groom!—poulticing a pony’s knees or opining on a mare’s chances of maternity. Yes, yes, the aunts agreed, it was all very well for a gentleman to know his horseflesh, but that was for the hour between five and six, when the fashionable paraded in Hyde Park.
And then there were the clothes! Ned’s preferred costume was a loose shirt and elderly breeches of the just-about-to-spring-a-hole in the knee variety. His valet could scarcely hold up his head in the servant’s hall.
“I’m comfortable that way,” he liked to say, as though, agreed the aunts, comfort had anything to do with fashion.
“Haven’t been comfortable since 1763!” barked Aunt Agatha. “And look what it’s done for me!”
True, she might have a permanent dent in her left side from an unfortunate experiment in extreme corsetry, but she had bagged a viscount in her day… and an earl… and a baronet. Her husbands had a regrettable tendency to expire on her, but fortunately (as she liked to remind her sisters) there were always more peers in the sea.