The Duke Of South Florida arrived home the day after the United States House Of Lords had been gavelled into recess with annoying news.
He walked out of the Arrivals building and took a seat on the gold-tinted bench to wait for his chauffeur while his valet took care of the luggage. July the first, and an unusually hot one – where on Earth could the man be?
Not that he was anxious to get back to the estate and tell the Duchess that the House Of Lords had voted to pay an additional million dollars per year for each member to offset the economic scourge of recent years. Of course the government needed cash desperately, but so did his household, and he knew a great many of the households in Lords were in similar straits – why should he have to pay the extra?
But now, thanks to the shortsightedness of his fellow members, it was either pay up or try to hide more assets from the tax collectors. His accountants had told him only last month that Internal Revenue was already looking at South Florida with suspicion. Any more ducking and hiding and he might be subject to heavy penalties that he could ill afford, or worse, jail time. With the plebes of all people.
It didn't bear thinking about. Made him feel all sweaty and sticky.
Then again, it might be this Miami tropical heat making him feel that way. Where in God's name was that beast of a chauffeur? Not to mention that new valet of his – what was his name, Marcel? Yes, Marcel. What was he doing, taking his ease in the air conditioned luggage carousel while his master baked outside?
The limousine pulled up just as Marcel dashed out of the luggage pickup with the bags on a wheeled cart and staggered in the heat. He paused, took a deep breath, looked around, raced over to the duke. “I'm so terribly sorry, Your Grace,” he panted, “the luggage carousel-”
“Never mind, Marcel,” snapped the duke, “just put the bags in the trunk and let's go, I must talk to the duchess and I certainly can't call her in this heat.” He turned and approached the limousine.
No sign of the chauffeur. What was he supposed to do, open the door himself? What was the world coming to?
Marcel zipped over from behind him and opened the limo door. Well, that was better, anyway. The man might not be very effective, but at least he knew his job. The duke slid into the seat and Marcel shut the door behind him.
Still angry, the duke pressed the intercom button set into the seat's arm next to him. “Francis, he barked, “what on Earth kept you, may I ask?”
“Terribly sorry, Your Grace,” came an unfamiliar voice, “Francis wasn't available today. My name is Xavier and I'm not familiar with this airport or your particular needs just yet.”
The duke swallowed. Servants just disappearing? Unheard of. “What do you mean, Francis isn't available? He's a member of my staff! What on Earth happened to him? Where is he?”
“I'm sure I don't know, Your Grace. I work for the Advanced Staffing Agency. I believe the duchess called this morning and the agency sent me. What I told you about Francis is what I was told myself. I've never met the man.”
The duke could scarcely believe his ears. First government demands on his estate, now this. Honestly, what was the world coming to?
The trip home was about as comfortable as could be expected, given the infernal heat and the lousy news the duke carried. When they arrived at the estate, Xavier pulled into the garage without waiting for instructions. At least the man knew his job in some respects.
He also knew enough to get out and open the door for the duke. “Welcome home, Your Grace,” he said. Not the ordinary thing for a chauffeur to say, but the duke was inclined to be lenient, given that the man was unfamiliar with South Florida traditions. At least he was friendly.
The duke got out and looked Xavier over. He was quite a big man, tall and muscular. The uniform stretched over his chest and arms, obviously not made to measure. It appeared, given what the duke could see under his cap, that Xavier was bald too. Which made a certain kind of sense in the South Florida heat.
Unfortunately, Xavier complexion showed rough and red, like the face of a laborer rather than the servant of a gentleman like himself. And was that a broken nose, and a few broken teeth as he smiled? What was this man's background, anyway?
The duke, confused, headed into the house and left Xavier to take care of the vehicles. He walked through the back hallway, through the dining room, up the grand staircase and to the duchess' suite. There she was in her sitting room, reading the newspaper. The front page headline read “House Of Lords Votes Additional Taxes”. Seeing that, the duke relaxed a trifle. At least she would know the basics, and he would not be put to the trouble of giving her all the bad news. “Good afternoon, ma'am,” he said.
The duchess put down the paper and stared at him through a new pair of ornate spectacles. “Oh, for goodness sake,” she grinned, “you didn't have to come all the way down here to talk to me, the phone is working quite well.”
“Well, that's good news,” he smiled back, “but I had to get out of the capital somehow.”
“And I was a good excuse?”
“Quite.” His heart warmed. For all their difficulties over the years, it was nice to see they were still good at teasing each other. It made this time more tolerable.
“So,” said the duchess, flipping her paper to the front page, “you and your friends decided to give lots more of our money to the government?”
The duke stopped himself from rolling his eyes with difficulty. “Not exactly,” he answered. “I voted against it.”
The duchess stared at him. “Why on Earth did you do that? We can afford it!”
“That's not the point.” It was like being back at the Lords again. He had hoped for a little time to think of other things, at least. “I refuse to encourage the government to throw money away.”
The duchess sighed through her nose. She was getting upset. “Well, what are we going to do?”
That was better. Talking about future actions instead of about what was wrong with the past. “I was thinking about refusing to pay and letting the government sue me.”
The duchess' mouth fell open. “You can't be serious! Go to jail?”
“Why not? It's not as though I'd be in common prison. A little time in Lords' Tower wouldn't kill me, and it would give the Supreme Court an opportunity to declare this new tax unconstitutional.”
The duchess stood up and walked toward him, arms outstretched. “But what if they don't?”
“Then I pay the tax and come home.”
She embraced him.
Three and a half weeks later, the duke sat in Lords' Tower reading a communication from his butler while his valet shaved him.
“Your Grace,” said the letter, “I regret to inform you that the Supreme Court has declined to hear your case. Your attorney tells me that your new tax bill, plus penalties, is due and payable now. As per Your Grace's previous instructions, I have advised Her Grace of this development, and she has traveled to the Internal Revenue with two bodyguards and sufficient to bring Your Grace current.”
The duke sighed. At least it was over. The tower was not uncomfortable, but it wasn't home. He'd have to start arrangements for his return.
The letter went on. “In the meantime, I regret to inform Your Grace that I and the rest of the staff have sent our references to the Advanced Staffing Agency in search of new situations. Xavier, whom you may remember from his time as Francis' replacement, advised us to leave your employ as soon as may be, as it is unlikely to do us any good to remain in service to what he calls a 'tax dodge'.
“Roger, who I imagine will be shaving Your Grace when this letter arrives, has agreed to remain with Your Grace until you have left the Tower to assist you in setting yourself up in this new circumstance.
“I encourage Your Grace to face this development with that steadiness which so became your ancestors through the difficulties that your family has had to go through. It may comfort you to know that the entire upper class is now facing a similar change, as it seems unlikely that the Lords will be able to support a staff as before. In discussing this development with staff from other estates, I learn that we look forward to the future with surprising excitement. May I suggest that Your Grace endeavor to imitate that attitude.
The duke found himself crushing this letter and throwing it aside. He took a deep breath, raised his chin so Roger could finish shaving him, and tried to face the future.
It took him a long time.