"A word, Lord Foxbridge?" Lady Heard popped out of the shadows as I entered the castle after my morning ride, startling me into a terrified yelp.
"Lady Heard," I responded shakily, "I thought you were a ghost."
"Why would you think that?" the woman stared at me in consternation.
"Oh, well, you know," I stammered, swallowing my innards and giving them a chance to shift back into place, "Castoris Castle is reckoned one of the most haunted places in England. More ghosts than the Tower of London, what?"
"That's quite ridiculous, Lord Foxbridge," she said crisply, "There are no such things as ghosts."
"Yes, ma'am," I conceded meekly. Lady Heard is a rather quelling sort of grande dame, gimlet-eyed and imperious with a severe dark suit and heavy iron-gray hair in a neat bun, very like the scarier sort of governess—though she is, in fact, a Member of Parliament. The fourth ever female MP, actually, and rather a celebrity in her own small, solemn fashion.
Like the famous Nancy Astor, Lady Heard had been elected to her husband's vacant seat, though Sir Roger Heard had gone to his Heavenly reward rather than a viscountcy and the House of Lords; unlike Lady Astor, though, Lady Heard was in deep with the women's suffrage movement, and quite serious about politics—which of course made her rather boring as far as the Press are concerned, so while Lady Astor's every inane utterance was printed within minutes of it leaving her mouth, Lady Heard was struggling in obscurity to make a mark on the policies of the nation.
She was a late addition to the party at Castoris, having arrived the day after my little mystery game with the pearls; she was meant to come earlier, but had been delayed by some business in her district. Lady Heard was a somewhat-distant cousin of the Duke, and Caro had taken it upon herself to snatch some of Astor's publicity by having her invited to house-parties where her presence would be mentioned in the Society papers. And so, though I found her earnestness rather tiring, I had invited her along to Foxbridge for my party.
"It's terribly rude of me to ask, Lord Foxbridge," she went on, taking my arm and walking me into the great hall, "but you'll understand my need to keep in touch with my constituency and Westminster while I am staying with you."
"Of course," I agreed.
"Then may I request that a room with a telephone be set aside for my use?"
"Oh, absolutely!" I was relieved. I was afraid she was going to ask for the whole library; she'd taken over Castoris's completely, shouting down the telephone all morning, every morning, "Aunt Em—Lady Emily, that is—anticipated you'd need a study, and is setting it up next door to your room. And all of the rooms at Foxbridge have telephones."
"Every room?" she raised her eyebrows at me, "Surely that's rather excessive?"
"Is it?" I wondered, not expecting criticism on that account, "I don't suppose I ever thought of it that way. My mother tended to be a little extravagant, but she believed in convenience and comfort. Telephones, bathrooms, electricity, the more the merrier. People used to say that staying at Foxbridge was nicer than staying at the Ritz. That was before the War, though, it's all a little old-fashioned now. But still quite comfy."
"I'm sure it's very nice," she said in a tone that sounded like she thought it sounded perfectly ghastly—though, in fairness, she always sounded like that: suspicious and disapproving, no matter what she was talking about, "Thank you, Lord Foxbridge. If you'll excuse me."
"By all means, Lady Heard," I waved feebly as she turned on her heel and departed in the direction of the library.
"That woman could give an iceberg lessons on chilliness," Julia Pargeter walked up behind me at exactly the same pace as Lady Heard left me.
"Rather brusque," I agreed, feeling a little fragile after the encounter, "I assumed it's the Parliamentary manner. My Pater talks just like that."
"Well, I'm glad you're taking her away with you this afternoon," she walked past me and lounged into a sofa by the fireplace, "She gives me a pain."
"What, no universal sisterhood with the estimable Lady MP?" I asked teasingly. I knew that Julia believed that a woman's place was in the home, whence she could best manipulate her husband into carrying out her wishes in the wide world; she felt women fiddling about with votes and seats and offices lacked delicacy and finesse, comparable to playing croquet with a sledgehammer.
"I suppose it's necessary progress," she reached into her skirt-pocket and produced a cigarette-case, and I leapt forward to light her cigarette, "To create a future in which women can enter Parliament, or the Exchange for that matter, without sacrificing our few privileges as women, we need to take some faltering steps forward with creatures like Astor and Heard, just as the first little fishies who crawled out of the water took a necessary step toward our existence."
"Oh, ah," I made agreeing noises, though I hadn't really followed her meaning. I'd write it down in my diary and work it out later, rather than waste time and hobble the conversation by asking her to clarify. My diary is packed with such abstruse statements I'd had to puzzle out after the fact, which will give someone a bit of a head-scratch someday when I'm dead, "I'd better go change. My man will be very cross with me if I don't give him time to air these before packing them."
"Mustn't have that," she laughed indulgently, "I'll see you at luncheon."
Climbing (and climbing and climbing) up to my room, I found Pond all in readiness: most of my luggage was stacked in a neat pyramid beside the door, one suitcase stood open to receive my riding-gear and my bath things, and a traveling suit was laid out on the bed. He was dancing around with anxiety (or as much as he's able to in his professional mode: like a Royal Guard with an itch) over my late entrance, and practically took off a layer of skin getting me out of my riding gear.
I toddled along to the bath and made my ablutions as quickly as possible so Pond could pack the bath things, and then returned to be suited up for the day. While I was standing about with nothing else to do, I looked around the room, trying to decide if I should ask for a different room next time I came: it was a pretty little chamber, circular and domed, the walls painted with chivalric scenes, and furnished with what looked like pieces salvaged from an old cathedral choir. But the interminable stairs and the distant bathroom took a good deal of the charm off.
"Your lordship is in need of a shave," Pond said in a shocked tone when he was doing up my tie.
"It happens sometimes," I said haughtily, a little offended, "I'm not a eunuch, you know."
"I only remarked on it because I've already packed your lordship's shaving things," he cast a worried glance over his neat pyramid.
"I'm sure nobody besides you will notice," I looked over at the tall glass, tilting my jaw toward the light. I couldn't see any whiskers, nor even a suggestion of whiskers, after four days since my last shave, "And if they do, I'll tell them I'm growing a beard. It will give them something to laugh about."
"If your lordship is sure," he peered disapprovingly at my chin.
"I'm sure no discredit will reflect on you, Pond," I turned away from the glass and went to put my lighter and cigarette-case into my pockets, then my note-case and a clean handkerchief, and finally a little white rosebud in my buttonhole. Perhaps it was the invisible glamour of the whiskers that made me feel extra-handsome that morning, but I was quite taken with myself, and it was with regret that I tore myself away from my reflection.
Climbing back down from my aerie, I found the great hall empty again, so I went over to one of the big windows and stared out at the view for a while: that particular corner of Leicestershire is very broad and green, with the gentlest roll of landscape, disappearing into an endless, hazy horizon. There was a lot of farming going on, tiny people and ox-drawn machines roving over the fields, too far away to see properly; I fell into a sort of reverie, wondering how it would feel to plough or harvest a field like that, what it would be like to live that sort of earth-bound life, like an agrarian hero out of D.H. Lawrence.
The pop and flash of a camera startled me from my reverie; I turned and was caught again, no doubt with a quite ridiculous expression on my face; the third time I was prepared, though, and gave the camera the sweetest smile I could. I know there was a person behind the camera, but he was quite as negligible a personality as the Bradfords; I'd grown so used to him since he'd arrived the day before that I just thought of him as 'The Camera.'
The Camera was part of Caro's campaign to launch Lady Heard on the society pages; and since Caro, the Duchess, and myself were the people readers of The Tatler and Country Life would be most interested in, we had to be in pretty much every photograph. Caro was quite used to it, being one of the most-photographed young ladies of fashion in our generation, but I found it quite intrusive at first.
However, my vanity overwhelmed my irritation when I got a look at the first shots: I looked gorgeous, in faultless riding-gear coming in from my morning ride with Caro, playing billiards with Petterby after I'd changed into equally faultless tweeds, and having what looked like a terrifically fascinating conversation with Lady Heard over luncheon (though in fact she was complaining about the dryness of her pork cutlet and I was feigning sympathy).
"Pardon the flash, my lord," the Camera said, lowering his equipment and fiddling with one of the attachments, "but you were back-lit. Without the flash you'd just be a shadow in the window."
"Oh?" I asked, not sure how to respond to that statement. I knew absolutely nothing about photography, though I instinctively moved away from the window and its offending back-light.
"Candid photography works so much better without a flash to disturb the subject," he explained, raising the camera again and snapping me against the backdrop of the massive fireplace, without the flash, "Please carry on and act naturally, my lord."
"I'll try," I promised, going to sit on a sofa.
"Her Grace's compliments, my lord," I was interrupted from acting naturally by young Lucius the page, "and would you care to join Her Grace in her morning-room?"
"By all means," I got up, hearing the faint click of the camera, and followed the boy into the State Rooms.
The State Rooms at Castoris are immense chambers of extraordinary grandeur, lined up like boxcars against the outside curtain-wall, crammed with treasures hoarded by twenty generations of Chatroys. The first one in the row is the Red Room, where we usually retired after dinner; then there's the Yellow Room, which is a good deal larger, next to the Green Room that is larger still; then the rooms start getting smaller, from the Blue Room to the the Boudoir, and finally the Royal Bedchamber, in which no one has slept for at least a hundred years but was kept aside 'just in case.'
Though there were a great many rooms closer to the family wing, and more convenient to the servants, the Duchess had chosen the Boudoir as her particular room, calling it her morning-room and spending at least half her day there. I think she chose it just so she could stroll through the grand enfilade of the State Rooms every morning and afternoon, gloating over her treasures.
The Boudoir is Edwardian in style, just as the Duchess is, crowded with delicately gilt French pieces that had once belonged to Madame Pompadour, done up in dainty floral needlepoint, and made fussy with kentia palms and great domes of wax flowers under glass. Her Grace occupied a chaise-longue in the very centre of the room, dressed in a long gown of mauve silk with an even longer robe of ivory Mechlin lace (the Duchess never displayed her ankles, fashion be damned), her famous pearls glowing on her bosom, a golden lorgnette held before her eyes as she read over a letter.
"Dear Sebastian," Her Grace crooned as I bent to kiss her hand, "We are going to miss you when you go."
"It has been a great pleasure to stay with you, Duchess," I replied,
taking a seat on an elegant little chair close by, facing her.
"I hope you'll come and stay more often, now that you and Caro are to be engaged."
"How in the world did you know about that?" I gaped at her.
"Oh, I always know what's going on with my daughters," the
Duchess twinkled at me, "I've set them to spy on each other since they
were in the nursery. Each one thinks she's the only spy, earning
special treats at her sisters' expense; so dares not tell the
others, which prevents them from uniting and conspiring."
"How brilliantly devious," I said admiringly.
"Not my own idea, I'm afraid," she patted my hand confidentially, "My
mother did the same with me and my sisters. One has to be so careful
with girls, their reputations are so fragile and their mistakes so
catastrophic. They can't be allowed to have secrets of any kind after
the age of twelve."
"I'd have thought the modern age would have relieved mothers of so much worry," I suggested.
"With middle-class girls, certainly, and working-class girls," she
folded up her lorgnette and let it dangle on its chain, "They have so
many more opportunities now to make their own way. But our sort are
still in the age of Austen, regardless of having the vote."
"Well, I hope you'll approve the match," I smiled at her with all the
charm I have, "when the time comes for us
to announce the engagement."
"Oh, absolutely," she grasped my hand again, "I don't mean to be gauche,
but aside from you being so nice and so good-looking and having such an
old name, you're quite rich. You'll be less likely to kick if we stint
a bit on the dowry. With four girls to marry off, one has to be
"I hadn't thought to ask for a dowry," I frowned thoughtfully, "It's not really the done thing, anymore, is it?"
"I suppose not," she conceded, leaning back again, "But a girl should
always have a settlement of some kind, in case things don't work out."
"I wouldn't dream of being so caddish as to toss her out without a
bean, no matter the provocation," I said airily, though I meant it very
"No, I don't suppose you would," she looked at me appraisingly, her head to one side, "But you are aware of Caro's — how shall I put it? — romantic inclinations?"
"Oh, yes," I assured her, wondering exactly how much she knew about her daughter, "There are no secrets between Caro and me."
"I know I'm prying most dreadfully, but... are your inclinations similar?"
"If I take your meaning," I said carefully, "Yes, it's something that we share in common."
"Oh, good," she relaxed visibly, "I thought as much, but you're not at
all girlish in your manner so it's hard to be sure. One more uncomfortably rude
question, which I know you'll forgive since it's my daughter's happiness
we're discussing: you don't suppose there will be any difficulty about
"I don't think so," I felt my face go red.
"Good, I am glad," she leaned forward to pat my hand again,
beaming, "Now tell me, does Lady Emily prefer marmalade or jam? I
wanted to send something from my still-room with you, but I didn't know
what she'd like best. We put down some excellent jams this year."
"She's partial to strawberry jam," I said, relieved to be out of that
particular conversational minefield, "We don't get very good
strawberries at Foxbridge, too much iron in the soil."
"Oh, wonderful, I'm especially proud of my strawberry jam. I'll
send some along with your luggage. Oh, I suppose it must be nearly time to go in to luncheon. Won't you walk with me?"
We walked back through the grand rooms—or perhaps I should say we promenaded, one cannot simply walk through rooms like those with a duchess on your arm—and arrived in the great hall just as Underdown arrived to inform us that luncheon was on the table. We didn't use precedence for luncheon, so one could sit wherever one liked, and I plunked myself down next to Julia Pargeter to continue our discussion of evolution and politics.
We were expected to leave immediately luncheon was over, so Petterby did a whole toast to those of us departing that afternoon, each with a very pretty speech. I thought that rather sweet and made a mental note to prepare such speeches for my own guests. But it gave luncheon a rather bittersweet tang, and though I can't say I was all that fond of all my fellow-guests, I felt like I was going to miss them all terribly.
"Oh, golly, I forgot the tips!" I cried when I stepped outside and found Pond
there waiting for me, his sober black suit reminding me of the Castle
servants, "It used to be a half-crown for the butler and a bob for the
stableman, but that's when I was in University. I'm expected to tip
more, now I'm of age, aren't I?"
"I already distributed tips on your lordship's behalf," Pond said,
unruffled, snapping his black bowler hat on his head and drawing on his gloves.
"Generously, I hope," I relaxed.
"Generous, but not lavish, my lord. Your lordship will no doubt be visiting Castoris frequently
in the coming years, it would not do to raise expectations below-stairs
"Quite," I agreed, though it's not what I would have done, if left to myself: I like throwing money around, it's great fun. But Pond always knows best, particularly in forms of below-stairs etiquette, so I bowed to his superior understanding.
"Your lordship left this under the bed, I found it when I sent down the
luggage," he handed me my little morocco-bound diary; I thought I'd put
in the bedside table, but I must have missed my aim.
"I don't mind you reading it, you know," I told him as I took the volume and shoved it into my coat-pocket; I knew he'd already read
the thing, but I wanted to give him permission so that we could discuss
its contents without me having to explain myself first, "It's not meant
to be secret."
"I thank your lordship for the confidence, but I do not wish to pry," he
lied again with such grace that I'd have believed him, if I didn't
already know him to be as inveterate a snoop as myself. I'd have to
take lessons from him: I was terrible at lying with a straight face, I
was always being caught out.
We parted ways, he into the big estate van with the luggage and the ladies' maids, I into the back of the Duchess's massive Rolls-Royce with the Chatroy crest painted on the side like a carriage of the last century. Then there was the seven-mile drive to Beveborough, crawling along at the stately pace of a carriage of the last century, giving me plenty of opportunity to enjoy the countryside.
All the way to the station, and then all the way to Gloucestershire on
the train, Lady Heard read a book and said not one word to any of us as she
devoured its closely-printed pages. It was a very thick book with one of
those impossibly long titles they put on very thick books (no doubt because there is plenty of room on the spine); but she made
pretty good headway through it during the journey, her eyes slashing back and forth across the pages behind her spectacles, her fingers flipping the pages noisily.
Caro had a book, too, a slim but serious-looking volume written in German, which I didn't know she could speak or read. But she was intent on its pages and when I asked what the book was about, she gave me one of her exasperated glares and told me I wouldn't understand—presumably because I am male, so I didn't pursue it: I'd learned by then that if a lady says you won't understand something, what she means is that you may very well understand it but will always wish you hadn't.
Claude wasn't any kind of companion, either: he went to sleep the minute
the train started. I was sorely tempted to toss things into his open
mouth, as one would flip cards into a hat, but I didn't want him to
choke to death on a salted nut. It was one of the most boring journeys
I'd ever endured.
Eventually, we found ourselves disembarking at Foxcliffe, the town that
stands at the opposite end of the bridge from Newbridge Saint-Clair, which in turn lies about five miles downriver from Foxbridge village. My grandfather had campaigned hard with the local railway to have the station built in Newbridge Saint-Clair in order to put our name quite literally on the map, but in the end Foxcliffe was chosen because there are sixteen towns called Newbridge in Great Britain, and the directors thought it would be too confusing. Of course, several of the towns and villages along the Fox River are named
Fox-something, and three of them contained railway stations, so Foxcliffe wasn't much less confusing in the end.
Mummy's old green Packard was there waiting for us, chauffeured by Grimmett, one of Foxbridge's
oldest servants: he'd been my great-grandfather's stable-boy, then my grandfather's groom and later coachman, and had been running the stables and the garages ever since. He looked like he was ready to
chauffeur my children and grandchildren, too: he was one of those
gnarled but hardy old creatures one finds in the country, like a
scrubby little oak tree that could cling to the side of a weatherbeaten
cliff for centuries.
When we pulled into the courtyard, I saw that Aunt Em was laying on the full treatment, with all of the servants ranged in a neat row at the bottom of the front steps, herself and Nanny at the top waiting to welcome us, and Coldicott in between with ancient jeweled silver cups of spiced wine on a tray; the only thing missing was a red carpet and a brass band.
"Welcome home, Bassie!" Aunt Em came flying down the steps and flung her arms around me, kissing me wetly on both cheeks, then pushed me to the side so she could get at my guests, "Dear Lady Caroline, I haven't seen you since you were a little girl! How you've grown, and so beautiful! That frock is quite simply the last word. And this must be Mr. Chatroy? Bassie has told me so much about you, but never mentioned how very handsome you are! He's probably quite jealous! It's so nice to meet you, welcome to Foxbridge, I hope you'll be terribly happy with us. And of course, Lady Heard, I have been following your career with great interest. And my very good friend Nanny is also a great admirer of yours. Nanny, come meet Lady Heard!"
Nanny came down the steps and shook hands solemnly with Lady Heard, correcting Aunt Em's introduction with her proper name, and mentioning three or four things she'd done in the House recently. I had to giggle over Aunt Em's effusions (I'd never mentioned so much as the existence of Claude Chatroy except to say he was coming to stay). The lot of us went into the house, Aunt Em chattering like a happy magpie the whole way, pointing out various notable aspects of the hall-screen and the Great Stair before we fetched up in the drawing-room, where tea had been laid out.
We only have the one drawing-room, but it's a very nice one, with a great deal of elaborate plasterwork on the ceiling and linenfold paneling at the wainscot, with acres of scarlet silk brocade in between, studded with dozens of smallish family portraits and Dutch still-lifes. The furniture is rather heavy, all scrolls and bulbs and high backs, though it was upholstered in bright damasks and crewel-work, and the chandeliers are French crystal that refract the light from the vast windows and make the room very bright and cheerful.
Though it hadn't been that long since lunch, and we'd had a basket of biscuits and chocolates to keep us busy on the train, I fell on the tea-table as if I'd not eaten in a week. Mrs. Stinchcombe, our cook, makes the best muffins in all of Great Britain, and I always stuff myself whenever I've been away from them for any length of time. Aunt Em took Caro on a tour of the portraits while Nanny and Lady Heard talked about the massive book she'd been reading on the train, which Nanny had also read; Claude joined me at the trough and between us we practically licked the muffin-plate clean.
After tea, the ladies went up to the second floor, where Lady Heard and Caro were to be lodged; I took Claude to his room in the Keep, the Boar Room, where I had intended to put Twister before the secret passage was discovered. Then I found myself at a loss, surprised to find that I couldn't remember where I had decided to sleep before I left Foxbridge a fortnight before.
With my eyes closed and counting on my fingers, I rehearsed the stations: Landseer, Queen's, Gold, Bear, Stag, Tapestry—ah, yes, Tapestry Room. Repairing thither, I found Pond in the dressing-room, which was quite simply not the room it had been when I left. All the frills and tufts were gone, replaced by good solid quarter-sawn oak and supple cocoa-coloured leather, with bronze lamps in parchment shades and a rich Persian carpet on the floor.
"Well, this is quite nice, eh, Pond?" I gazed around the room approvingly. Even the little porcelain stove had been replaced by an electric fire in a lovely modern brown-marble hearth.
"Most comfortable, my lord," he responded, coming forward to get me out of my jacket, "And the interior of the wardrobe has not been touched."
"Oh, ah, you mean the secret passage hasn't been bricked over? I hadn't thought of that. Would've been dashed inconvenient," he had me down to my skivvies in short order, and I went into the bath, "Golly, they did this over, too!"
The room had been plain and white, porcelain tile and porcelain fixtures with brass fittings, and the very last word in turn-of-the-century plumbing; now it was all brown and red, its tiles coloured marble and Bohemian glass, its fixtures of copper and bronze, and luxuriously modern beyond my wildest dreams of modern luxury. I wondered very briefly how much it cost, then remembered that it didn't matter.
"A gas water-heater, my lord," he came in and turned off the bath-taps, almost as giddy about the place as I was, "And a shower-bath. So many conveniences."
"My bathroom in London is going to feel like an absolute dump after this," I crowed gleefully, getting into the deep tub and letting the water slosh around my ears, "I wonder if Silenus will let me redo it to match. Aunt Em should take up decorating professionally, if this is what she can accomplish in a fortnight."
I shaved myself while I was in the tub, which was equipped with a tray and mirror for the purpose, extending from the wall on a sort of accordion arm, and then got out and brushed my hair briskly before going in to get dressed. Pond put me into the boiled shirt and black tie, and I toddled down to the great hall feeling very pleased with things in general.
Being on the first floor of the main block meant that I would likely be
the first one down for dinner every night, since I was closer to the
great hall than anyone else. Coldicott was there with the drinks tray,
conversing quietly with one of the new footmen, though they fell silent and snapped to attention when I came into the room.
I asked Coldicott to mix me a martini, which I'd taught him when I came in the summer. He was suspicious of the concept of cocktails at first,
with the very un-English ice and the specialized utensils, but he
eventually found he enjoyed the shaking, and the precision required of
pouring the ingredients just right. Minor details and exacting
precision, I've learned, are catnip to butlers and valets.
I took my drink over to the big bay window and watched the sun setting
behind the steeple of the village church, colouring the sky scarlet and
gold for a few precious moments. In most English houses, the curtains
would have been drawn against the sun to preserve the carpets and
paneling, but three extravagant countesses in a row had decreed that
seeing the sunset in summer was worth any amount of damage to the old
family portraits, and none had hung curtains in the hall...though of
course the better portraits had been moved. Extravagance is one thing, but letting a Holbein or a Van Dyck fade and spoil is just vandalism.
"That was gorgeous," Caro breathed out when the sky finally went from
purple to soft violet and the Evening Star glimmered into view.
"Don't sneak up on me like that!" I scolded her: I'd almost spilt my drink.
"Jumpy, aren't you?" she laughed at me, "I thought you'd go all serene and earthy when you were back in your own home."
"I don't feel quite settled," I admitted, "I'm glad to be home, but my room is different, and I've taken on the housekeeping. Everything feels strange, and oddly weighty."
"Petterby said something very like that when he moved out of the
nursery," she hooked her arm around my elbow and leaned against me,
"He said it was then that he really understood the whole show would be his someday, to have and to hold unto death do you part."
"It's a sobering realization," I agreed. I was glad to hear I wasn't the
only one to feel that way. I wondered if my father had felt the
same—and considering the estate was very nearly bankrupt when he
acceded, it must have been rather more harrowing. Mummy's dowry had put it back on its feet, and the rest of her fortune was now mine, so at least I knew I could take care of the place.
Our conversation was interrupted by the advent of Aunt Em, Nanny, and Lady Heard, who entered the room en masse, chattering as they came. I'd never before seen Lady Heard chatter, so I assumed that Aunt Em had already had a remarkably civilizing effect on her.
I realized with something of a start that Nanny was much older than I
remembered her being, with wrinkles around her eyes and grey threads in
her hair, and had become quite mannish in her middle age. When I was
little, she was very severe-looking, but she was pretty in her own way,
with a very motherly quality about her; a decade with no children to
care for seemed to have changed her, and she struck me as being rather a
fatherly type of person—not like my father, of course,
but like one imagines a father to be, sternly reserved but kind. And
though she was dressed in the same sort of dark and unadorned, almost military clothes as
always, they seemed more masculine in a way I couldn't put my finger on.
Watching her and Aunt Em talking with Lady Heard, not touching but still
speaking in tandem like two beings with one mind, I began to wonder if
there were something more between them than friendship and a
professional relationship. I had long thought of them as a pair, Aunt-Em-and-Nanny, rather than two separable and distinct people; but with my Lesbian
fiancée at my side, I looked at them through her eyes and started
wondering if Aunt Em and Nanny were Lesbians, too.
"Yes, they are," Caro answered my unasked question, before I could even
open my mouth, "Typical old-fashioned gentlewoman couple. I spotted it
"Do you read minds?" I wondered, thinking of several other times she'd said something aloud that I had only been thinking.
"Not that I know of," she laughed, pulling on my arm to encourage me to
move towards the others, "But you have an incredibly expressive face,
you're utterly transparent."
"Am I really that easy to read? No wonder I never get away with fibbing."
"You'd make a fine film actor," she pecked me on the cheek, "Your eyes
say what you're thinking as clearly as if they were flashing semaphores,
they wouldn't even need to caption you."
"Who is capturing Bassie?" Aunt Em wondered, having caught and misunderstood only the last bit of the sentence.
"Lady Caroline was saying that Sebastian could be a film actor, Emily,"
Nanny explained. She'd always had ears like a bat: you could whisper a naughty word halfway across the long meadow and she'd have the switch ready when
you came in for tea, "And that his face is so expressive, they wouldn't
"Oh, no, that would be quite unsuitable," Aunt Em frowned, her vagueness suddenly blown away by disapproval, "Though of course you're quite as good-looking as any film actor, and you did reasonably well in The Tempest when you were at Eton. But professional acting is simply not a proper occupation for an earl's son, my dear."
"Oh, I don't know about that, Auntie," I sat down beside her and took
her hand, fiddling with the ornate opal and moonstone rings on her
fingers as I had in childhood, "So many Society people are marrying
actors and actresses these days. It's much more respectable than it
used to be."
"Society people, perhaps," she sniffed, "But not people like us. We can't go around marrying just anybody. That's why I am so happy you and Lady Caroline are marrying. She has quite the right blood."
"Does everyone know about that?" I complained, "We might as well announce it in the Times!"
"Just us, Bassie, love," she soothed me, "The Duchess naturally told me about it when she found out."
"But I wanted to tell you," I pouted.
"This is marriage, Bassie," she said in a rather scolding tone
that surprised me, "not some little trifle to surprise and delight us.
It can't matter who tells us."
"And what about my mother?" I asked pettishly; that bit about 'the right
blood' had irritated me, considering I was half-American myself, "Was she the right blood?"
"Well, Charlotte had not as fine of blood as Lady Caroline, of course,"
she said as dispassionately as if we were talking about a horse or a
dog, "But she wasn't just anybody, I can assure you. Her mother was from a good Boston family, with antecedents in a very old Berkshire family; and her father, believe it or not, was the great-grandson of the Earl of Rutherford. A very cadet branch of the family, of course, and he had a quite unfortunate Irish grandmother, and a German mother of no apparent family at all."
"Really! I had no idea," I was actually stunned by this intelligence.
My parents' marriage had been the stuff of fairy-tales and novelettes,
the pretty and vivacious little nobody from Cincinnati falling in love
with the handsome nobleman of ancient pedigree. It rather annoyed me
that she was nearly as blue-blooded as he. It robbed them of their
"But, Lady Emily," Lady Heard inserted herself into the topic in her
usual forthright way, "That sort of thing is part of our past, not our
future. The aristocracy will never survive if it cannot adapt to the
"Perhaps so, dear Lady Heard," she smiled and fluttered her lace-edged
handkerchief in a sort of conversational surrender that didn't mean she agreed, "But one does fall
into habits of thinking. In my mother's day, and my grandmother's,
indeed for the last several centuries, these things were considered of paramount importance."
"Such habits of thinking have resulted in a terrible degree of
inbreeding," Lady Heard said earnestly; and though she hadn't changed
volume, her tone became one of speech-making, so we all dutifully
turned to listen, "The physical and mental weakness of our modern
aristocracy is evidence of this. Not all noble families of course, the Saint-Clairs and the Chatroys must surely be exceptions. But look at
some of the weak, wispy creatures currently filling the House of
Lords. Once the leaders of England were the tallest, the strongest, the
most intelligent men in the land, more than capable of ruling over
their subjects. But now it's the labourers and merchant classes who
have all the strength, all the determination, all the intelligence. If
the aristocracy refuses to breed with the other classes, the strength of
the Norman blood will continue to dilute and thin."
"It was my understanding," Nanny said rather excitedly, smelling a
good argument in the wind, "that it was the interbreeding of the
aristocracy with the lower classes, generally the wrong side of the
blanket, that produced the increased strength and intelligence of the peasantry, creating the labouring classes as they are today."
"Quite possibly, Miss Ingleby," Lady Heard rose to the challenge, "But the right side
of the blanket, to play on your excellent phrase, has produced an
unconscionable number of weaklings, who marry other weaklings and go on
to create even more weaklings. Lord Foxbridge here is a fine specimen
of young manhood, quite strong for his class; but I will lay you any odds that
even he cannot lift one of the maces or broadswords that hang on
the walls of this very room, much less use one in battle, as his
ancestors once did."
"But isn't that itself an adaptation?" Nanny argued, "Sebastian may
not be as strong in brute strength as the first Sieurs de Saint-Clair
that ruled here, but brute strength is no longer a useful tool in
government, nor even in war. Cleverness, knowing the right people, the
simple authority that comes of knowing one's ancestors and taking
for granted the right to rule? Aren't these of greater value in
leading England into the twentieth century than being able to swipe at a
man with a flail from horseback?"
"Yes, indeed," Lady Heard returned, "but the cleverness of today..."
I have to admit that their conversation became very technical at this
point, encompassing Darwin's theories, Mendelian genetics, and the
Utilitarian movement; it rather undermined Nanny's argument about the
cleverness of the aristocracy that I was completely unable to follow any of this, and I was vastly relieved when the dinner-gong went.
We trooped in to the dining-room in a straggling mass instead of
two-by-two, since there weren't enough of us to consider precedence, and
Aunt Em directed us to our seats. I was still becoming accustomed to sitting at the head of the table, where my father had always sat, and
my grandfather and great-grandfather before him. The sensation of
seeing things from a new point-of-view was intensified, looking at the
white-draped table from one end instead of somewhere on the sides.
It also put me in direct line of sight to my mother's best portrait,
painted by Sargent shortly after her marriage, which hangs over the
sideboard at the far end of the room. She looked so exquisite in that
picture, standing beside the marble fireplace in the Great Chamber,
luminous against the rich paneling, wearing a pale apricot-coloured
taffeta presentation gown, decked in her court jewels complete with the
famous Saint-Clair ruby tiara nesting in her piled-up auburn hair; there
was a twinkle of gaiety in her eyes and a laughing little half-smile on
her face, as if someone had just said something utterly delightful.
The companion piece of my father (also in court dress, his face glowing in ivory and gold
above the severe black and white, as sweet and pretty as a girl despite a long curling mustache) had already been donated to the
National Portrait Gallery, though a copy of it hung over the fireplace
in the study. Both portraits had originally hung on either side of the
pipe-organ in the music-room, but had been separated after Mummy died so
that Pater could look at her in her accustomed place at dinner. But
then he never came back to Foxbridge again after having the portrait
I sometimes wondered if it was only grief that drove my father
from Foxbridge, or if want of money played a part. After all, the
marriage settlement turned over the income, but not the principal, of
the greater part of her fortune to him, and then only until her death or
the dissolution of their marriage. When she died, her entire fortune
came to me, the income to be mine when I came of age and the capital
when I married; all Pater had left was some of the dowry and the income
off the estates: a considerable sum, but not enough to keep Foxbridge
Castle and Vere House going in the style to which he was accustomed.
But then, I had no idea what my father felt like. He never spoke
to me if he could help it; and when he did speak to me, he was brusque
and offensive. The only things I ever found out about him were filtered
through Aunt Em or the newspapers.
Over dinner, I had Caro on my left and Lady Heard on my right, with
Nanny between Lady Heard and Aunt Em at the other end of the shortened
table (the table was very cleverly made, and could be expanded by
hooking smaller side-tables into it, reaching anywhere from six feet to thirty feet long); it was only when we were seated that I noticed
Claude hadn't joined us.
"I'm so sorry I'm so late, Lady Emily," Claude gasped out,
running into the room a moment later and skidding to a halt behind his
chair, his face flushed and his breathing laboured, as if he'd run a
great distance. I was rather amazed by that, since his room was quite
close-by, at least in relation to the rest of the house, "I'm afraid I
"That's quite all right, dear boy," Aunt Em beamed at him, gesturing for
him to take his seat, then gesturing to Coldicott to serve the soup.
"I'd have thought you got enough sleep on the train, old bean," I said
to him, wondering why he was so sloppy about his clothes. His
shirt-front was slightly crooked, and his tie very poorly arranged—even
before the advent of Pond, I could dress myself better than that.
"Claude sleeps like a dormouse, all he has to do is sit still and he's
out like a light," Caro said to the company, then leaned over and said
very quietly to me, "I think 'sleep' was a euphemism. He may have been
in bed, but he certainly wasn't sleeping."
"Oh!" I said, seeing her point: on closer inspection, one could see
that the flush in his face was not the sort that comes from mere
running, but rather from more involved and pleasurable exercise; but
then, with whom had he been 'sleeping'? If he thought he could go
around getting my housemaids in trouble, he had another think coming.
The rest of the meal passed without much in the way of conversation—at least not general conversation:
Nanny and Lady Heard kept on with their debates of eugenics and
evolution and ethics, while the rest of us listened, or pretended to
listen while tucking into our really excellent dinner (we are very lucky in our cook, whose mother and grandmother had also been our cooks, and whose sauces and pastries rivaled those produced in any Parisian restaurant's). I had a feeling Nanny's role in
monopolizing the dinner conversation was going to earn her one of Aunt
Em's specialty non-scoldings, where she made you feel an absolute heel
for something you'd done without actually criticizing you or even
directly mentioning the wrongdoing.
But I figured, why not let them have their heads? I'm sure they were
both hungry for intellectual stimulation: for though Aunt Em is by no means
ignorant, her interests tend toward the ladylike—music and gardens,
watercolours and gossip, decorating and menus—while Nanny was more interested in
intellectual pursuits; and Lady Heard, no doubt accustomed to the
company of her own serious type at womens'-group meetings and in
Parliament, had just spent a week with nobody her own age and sex to
talk to but the Duchess of Buckland and Lady Ware, who were even less interested in intellectual matters than Aunt Em. It wasn't doing us any harm to have such
elevated talk at dinner, even if we couldn't participate much.
When dinner came to a close, I got up and started out toward the
drawing-room with Aunt Em, but she made a motion with her head to
indicate that I was supposed to stay with Claude for at least a few
minutes, being gentlemanly about the port and cigars. Though since neither of us
care very much about port, nor do we smoke cigars, the intermission
was rather pro forma.
"I say, old boy," I offered him my cigarette case, but he declined, "I don't mean to be personal, but what were you really doing right before dinner? And more importantly, with whom?"
"Oh!" he blushed scarlet at having been caught out, "I was, well... you know. With William."
"William?" the name was unfamiliar.
"The footman," he explained, "The dark, good-looking one."
"Aren't they all dark and good-looking?" I wondered. Aside from the numbers and novelty of the footmen, they did all look rather alike, making it even more difficult to remember which was which.
"I don't know," he blinked with surprise, as if I'd actually expected him to have an answer, "I haven't seen them all."
"But really, Claude, it simply isn't done," I chided as gently as
I could; at least he couldn't get a footman pregnant, but it was still a
bit beyond the pale of civilized behaviour to dally with the household
"I didn't mean to," he pouted a little bit.
"Not the sort of thing one does by accident, surely!" I laughed.
"Well, no," he picked up his port and took a hearty swallow, then made a
terrible face that would have given my grandfather (who'd paid five guineas
a bottle for it) an absolute fit, "But he sort of... I don't
mean to say he forced me or anything, but... he came in to help
me dress when I was just out of the bath, and he sort of started in on
me without asking, and, well... you know. It's not the sort of thing one can stop until it's finished."
"Yes, quite. I see what you mean," and I really did see: though I
didn't much fancy him, myself, he is a particularly
toothsome morsel, especially out of his clothes; William may not have
been able to help himself. I would, however, have to find some way of
communicating to the footman that he was not to molest my guests,
without going through the usual channels of involving Aunt Em and
Coldicott, "Shall we join the ladies?"
They weren't in the drawing-room, though, as I had expected: inspired by
an audience, Aunt Em had ordered coffee served in the music-room, so
she could play and sing. Aunt Em is something of a musical prodigy, and
if she'd not been born the daughter of an earl, she might have gone on
to the concert stage. When Claude and I came in, she was playing the
harp and singing a wonderfully melancholy Irish folk song; but there
weren't many instruments in that room she couldn't play: the pipe-organ, the piano, the harpsichord, the violin, the cello, even the Spanish guitar and the Elizabethan virginal. She didn't approve of ladies putting instruments to their mouths, or she would have mastered everything from the piccolo to the tuba, as well.
When she'd finished with the song, Aunt Em went over to the piano, which
was more centrally placed so she could take part in the conversation
while noodling away in a sort of free-form medley, much like a pianist
in a restaurant; without taking her hands off the keys, she motioned me
over to sit by her—she could say a great deal with only her eyes, as
big and round as my own though a different colour, soft silvery blue.
"We have to get a girl for Mr. Chatroy," she said, without preamble.
"Get a girl for him? Unusually accommodating of you," I smirked, "Do we always provide concubines at Foxbridge?"
"Don't be crude, Bassie," she tried to sound offended but couldn't hide a
smile of amusement, "I mean for dinner. I had all the seating
arrangements completed for the party, but I hadn't planned for Mr.
Chatroy. I need another girl at the table, so he won't be odd-man-out.
Do you have any lady-friends you could invite?"
"I'm afraid Caro and Lady Bea are the length and breadth of my feminine
acquaintance, at least so far as ladies I know well enough to ask down
without their husbands or brothers. Perhaps Caro can ask a friend?"
"Really, Bassie, now you're of age you can't spend all your time with men. You're not in Oxford, anymore."
"I don't spend all my time with men," I protested, though since I
live in an exclusive hotel for men, and belong to a half-dozen
different gentlemen's clubs—as well as doing all of my, shall we say, informal
socializing among men—she was very close to the mark, "I've met lots
of girls, I just haven't got to know any of them terribly well. There
are so many of them, after all, and I've only had one Season."
"Well, never mind," she dismissed the question with a delicate shiver as
she segued from one tune to another, "I'll ask Miss Brazington over from
Haresden Hall. If she's not available, I'll ask Lady Caroline to
suggest a friend."
"Haresden?" the name sounded familiar, "Isn't that one of ours? I seem to remember something about it."
"Sir Lionel's family have had the leasehold for three generations; but
yes, it's part of the Foxbridge estate, a few miles upriver."
"Oh, I remember! Mummy brought me along when she and Pater went to
visit there, once. I remember because I asked why it was called
Haresden when hares don't live in dens, they live in warrens. I don't
remember the Brazingtons, though. Do they not hunt?" the Cotswold Hunt
was pretty much the only time I met the neighbouring gentry.
"Sir Lionel used to hunt, but he lost a leg in the War, poor man, and
can't sit a horse anymore. And the animal strong enough to carry Lady
Brazington over a jump hasn't been bred yet," she said cattily, "Miss
Brazington rides, but she's one of those sentimental girls who feel
sorry for the fox."
"Well, they are awfully cute—when they're not eviscerating
hens," I laughed. One usually only met such girls in Town, country life
tends to afford girls a more realistic view of Dame Nature's messier habits.
"She is otherwise exceptionally intelligent. Nanny met her at Shrewsbury
College when she went to Oxford for the Gaudy. She's reading history."
"A University girl?" I gasped in mock-horror, teasing Aunt Em, "Is that quite suitable?"
"Mockery ill-suits you, Sebastian," she spared me a withering glance before changing tunes again, "I'd hate to think where your education would be if Nanny hadn't been to Oxford."
"Well, yes, you know I was only joking," I put down my coffee and
raised my voice a little so the subject of our conversation could hear
me, "My tutor at Eton was very impressed with how well-prepared I was
when I came. He said I was better-educated than the boys who came in
from prep schools."
"Michelangelo couldn't make a statue from gravel," Nanny said in one of
her rare, roundabout, and obscure compliments, which made me blush a
"Is anyone interested in a game of bridge?" Aunt Em suddenly abandoned the piano, turning on her stool and getting up, clapping her hands with enthusiasm when Caro and Lady Heard assented to play. I'm hopeless at bridge, generally incapable of thinking more than one move ahead, and so I usually try to partner someone who's good at it and follow their leads like a faithful hound; however, Aunt Em needed a fourth, so I stepped up as her partner, and she's just as hopeless at the game as I am despite being slavishly devoted to it. Caro and Lady Heard absolutely wiped the floor with us.
It was a pleasant evening, despite being so quiet; there's something about being in one's own home, rather than as a guest in someone else's, that makes quiet evenings somehow not so deadly.
"Are you joining me for a ride, Caro?" I asked when I came down to breakfast next morning, noticing the netted silk
top-hat and long gloves on the table when I set mine down. At
Castoris, she always rode in the afternoons, and as her guest I always joined her; it hadn't occurred to me that she'd change to my preference for morning rides when she was my guest.
"I hoped you'd give me the shilling tour," she replied, smiling at me over her
teacup, "show me your favourite places and such. My memory of Foxbridge
is very dim, I haven't been here in such a long time."
"I'd be delighted," I responded, passing over the sausages and bacon and
tomatoes and eggs prepared three different ways to load myself with my
favourite kedgeree, then nearly tripped over the train of her
riding-habit on the way to my chair, "Though I don't understand how you can gallop with all that fabric weighing you down."
"I'll race you," she said smugly, fluffing the lace frills at her throat
and wrists. Caro was the only young woman I knew who still rode
sidesaddle, and her riding-habits had a distinctly eighteenth-century
look to them, "A guinea to the winner?"
"You're on," I grinned, knowing full well that she wouldn't have bet me
if she had the least doubt of her ability to beat me. But I'd love to
see her galloping across the meadow with all those scarlet serge skirts
and black silk veils flying about, a Valkyrie as imagined by Fragonard.
"One does not make bets with ladies, Bassie," Aunt Em scolded me in a distracted manner, not looking up from her newspaper.
"It's not really a bet if I know she's going to run circles around me, Auntie. It's more of a gift."
"Yes, ma'am," I gave in with a laugh. My being of age didn't seem to cut much mustard
with Aunt Em, and she'd keep on scolding me out of habit until I was an
old man, "I'm afraid you've lost a guinea, Caro,"
"I'll just have to wait and get it from you over the card-table tonight," she
After I'd stuffed myself with a second bowl of kedgeree and swallowed
three more cups of coffee, Caro and I went down the Great Stair and
through the hall; Coldicott must have some sort of silent alarm system,
signaling overheard intentions to the rest of the staff from his post in
the breakfast-room, since both my and Caro's mounts were waiting in
the courtyard, held by Young Grimmett and the new stableboy, who was also a Grimmett but at
fourteen was deemed too young to have a surname and was simply known as
My Pippin was standing companionably next to a massive gray Irish hunter called Delilah—not the usual
morning-ride mount for a lady, but Grimmett's expertise could not be
questioned: Caro looked very well on the beast, and they seemed to have
an immediate affinity for each other. When I was a boy, Grimmett told
me that assigning mounts was much like breeding, taking into account the
rider's temperament and seat then matching it with the horse's
temperament and gait. He was so good at it that he could judge a
rider's temperament and seat just by watching them walk around for a
We cantered out through the gatehouse and got up to a gallop down the
drive, tearing hell-for-leather alongside the meadow to the bridge; we
turned there and cut up toward the old castle ruins on the headland.
Though Caro could easily have left me in the dust, her command of
Delilah so complete on her first ride (besides, Pippin is built more for grace than speed), she lagged back so that I could
keep up and give directions to our destination . We slowed to a good
trot when the path started to rise, so as not to exhaust the horses, and
dismounted when we reached the ruins to let them rest and graze.
"Can we go inside?" Caro indicated the restored Norman keep with her crop.
"I think so. It's not usually kept locked," I mounted the high, narrow
steps to the door, "Unless one of the local girls got herself into trouble, and the village busybodies demanded we shut it up for the safety of the community's morals. Are you good for a climb to the top? The view up there
"You seem to forget that I'm just as much a man as you," she whacked me
on the back of the leg with her crop, "And you're as much a lady as me."
"Well, it is easy to forget when you're gussied up like the
Dauphine of France," I rubbed my leg, hoping the bruise wouldn't be too
ugly, then pointed across the lofty great hall, "There's another
corkscrew stair over in that corner. I'll race you to the top."
I had a slight head start and made pretty good time, but she still beat
me, so I gave her the guinea I'd promised for a race at breakfast.
"Oh, it really is breathtaking!" she marveled at the view,
walking over to the crenelated parapet and leaning out precariously over
the edge, "It's not as high as Castoris, but the country is so much
more varied. Can I live up here when we're married?"
"You don't want to live in the house?" I was unexpectedly stung by the request. I hadn't given it much thought, but when I had envisioned
our married life, I'd thought we'd be in fairly close proximity to
each-other, and more importantly in close proximity to the nursery wing.
"I assumed you'd want to live separately," she turned to look at me, surprised by the hurt in my voice.
"Well, I didn't think we'd share a room, but I thought you'd want to be close to the children."
"I hadn't thought of that," she looked at me with her head to one side,
"I was thinking more of our love-lives. I didn't think you'd want to
share a house with my girlfriends."
"I wouldn't mind at all. But if you have an objection to my boyfriends..."
"Not in the least," she interrupted me, turning to lean against the
parapet, "We've just misunderstood each other. And perhaps I'm just a
little uneasy about taking on a thing as big as Foxbridge Castle. It
was so much smaller and cozier in my mind's eye, I guess because I was
mostly familiar with the nursery wing, and it's so much less vast than
Castoris. But so many rooms, and all these servants, and all the
traditions? It's a little intimidating. This tower seems so much more
"I know what you mean," I came to lean beside her, looking over to the
great house in the near distance, "But Aunt Em will stay as long as we
like. She was a great help to Mummy, I'm sure she'd be happy to help
you get settled, as well."
"I'm not an American, though. Your mother not only kept Lady Emily in
the house, she didn't let the Dowager Countess leave, either. Lady
Emily was telling me about it last night, that the dowager lived and
died in the room you've taken over, long after your mother became
Countess. It's unheard of, to keep a dowager in residence with the
incumbent, but her American enthusiasm overrode our English traditions.
I don't think the daughter of a duke would get the same consideration."
"I think we're going to have to invent some of our own traditions, Caro. We're not exactly the most conventional couple.
If you want to live up here, or in the Lodge, or in a tent on the
grounds for that matter, you'll do whatever you like so long as you're
"You're awfully sweet," she turned her head to look at me, then kissed
me rather more passionately than she ever had before—which I found
rather more stimulating than I would have expected.
"Golly," I breathed out when she let me up for air.
"Funny old world, isn't it?" her eyes looked as lustfully surprised as mine probably were.
"Distinctly," I agreed, then moved away from her. I was feeling an urge
that I'd only ever felt with men before, and it was disturbing—though by no means disagreeable. But to act on it at this juncture would be
idiotic: we weren't married yet, and didn't want to be married for a
couple of years. It would hurry things along considerably if she
started producing heirs before next Season even started, and I'd hate to
deprive Aunt Em or the Duchess of the grand wedding they were
no doubt already planning for us.
"There's a car coming across the bridge," Caro said after we both took a
moment to compose ourselves, facing in different directions, "Dark
green two-seater. A Lagonda by the look of it."
"Oh, damn, Bunny's here already? I thought he was coming on the train. I have to get back."
Rushing back down through the tower, we remounted and set off down the
path that led toward the house at a breathless gallop, slipped through the gatehouse just ahead of him, and reined in
at the bottom of the steps; I slid off and ran over to the car, where Bunny
and Lady Bea were just starting to disentangle themselves.
For those just dipping into my memoirs at this late date, allow me to fill you in on Bunny and Lady Bea, two of my very dearest chums.
'Bunny' is the school nickname of the Honourable Frederick Vavasor, son and heir to the sixth Baron Reedham, and my best friend. We were at Oxford together, though in different colleges (I'm a Magdalen man while Bunny was at Queen's) and were members of the same dining club, the Sons of the Hellfire Lords, which we'd both joined because we were in love with its president.
He's a big chap, tall and broad and beefy, so at first glance is just my type; but he's got to be the laziest young man I've ever met, and if he doesn't change his dilatory ways soon, his brawn will turn to flab pretty quickly. He simply can't be stirred to exercise his impressive physique beyond riding to hounds in autumn and a biweekly swim the rest of the year--the latter of which he only bothers with because it affords him the opportunity of ogling chaps in their altogethers.
Neither am I his type (though I have yet to figure out what, exactly, is his type), so we have been the best of friends ever since meeting, and shared digs in our last year. It was Bunny who introduced me to Twister back in June: they were at Harrow together, Bunny was Twister's fag when he first came up; they were having lunch at Brooks's on the day that I moved to London, where I ran into them and horned in at their table.
Lady Bea is a newer acquisition, met just the month before, and also in Bunny's company: Lady Beatrice Todmore, daughter of the third Earl of Oglesby and wife of the war-hero Sir Alan Todmore, was in a party with HRH Prince Henry, while Bunny and I were guests of HRH Prince George, at the closing opera of the Season at Covent Garden (HRH Princess Mary was there, too, while I'm dropping names all over the place, but she didn't talk to us). She was later instrumental in helping me rescue Claude from the slave-auction, and I suppose it was a just reward to hand the boy over to her.
She's older than my contemporaries, though not as old as my parents' generation, one of the dazzling pre-War débutantes who made up the Coterie, as the Diana Manners crowd was called. She is also a well-placed denizen of that steamy and intriguing netherworld of sadomasochism, called La Pantera in affection for her dangerous dark beauty, sleek feline ways, and inevitable slinky black gowns. Her husband is also a denizen of that world, known as the Black Knight for his collection of black leather uniforms and his medieval torture chamber in the basement of their Park Lane house. I was a little afraid of him, so I'd not gone beyond a nodding acquaintance with the man, though he's madly attractive.
"Bunny! Lady Bea!" I boomed out, striding over to them and helping Lady Bea out of the car, "Welcome to Foxbridge Castle!"
"How long have you been rehearsing that line, old sock?" Bunny teased
me, getting out and coming around to shake my hand. He looked very big
and extremely countrified in a slightly baggy Norfolk suit and a driving
cap turned backward against the wind, his handsome round face hidden
behind driving goggles.
"Weeks and weeks," I admitted with a laugh.
"It was pretty good," he leaned in and kissed me on the cheek, "I almost believed you were a country squire."
"I was expecting you on the two-fifteen train," I took Lady Bea's little
travel case, one of those surprisingly heavy square articles that ladies
keep by them on the train when the rest of their luggage has gone into
"I'm afraid I delayed Mr. Vavasor when he came to pick me up in Park
Lane. I had some difficulty with this hat," she indicated the terribly
chic little black cloche that enclosed her head, decorated with a large
glassy jewel and a bit of veiling, then smoothed down the rumples in her
sleek sealskin coat, "It's new and just a trifle too tight, I had to
brush my hair down flat to get into it. We missed the train.
Fortunately I'd already sent my luggage on, so it will arrive on time, at any rate."
"You mean you got here in less than two hours?" I gaped. The train I'd
expected them on took four and a half hours, including a wait and change
of trains at Gloucester, "How fast does this thing go?"
"Eighty-something most of the way here," Bunny beamed proudly, "Though
of course we had to slow down a bit when we left the main road."
"Golly!" I gasped, impressed. My Rolls-Royce, which I'd left in Town on
the assumption that I wasn't going to need it at Foxbridge (where we had three motorcars already), had only
ever got up to fifty, though the salesman swore up and down that it
would go eighty-five if I took it out to the proving-grounds at Hendon.
"What a beautiful house!" Lady Bea exclaimed, taking in the
facade that towered darkly over us like a cliff as we walked toward the
steps, "I thought it was Victorian when I first saw it, but close-to it
appears to be Elizabethan, and the towers look even older."
"Well spotted!" I was amazed at her perception, "It is Elizabethan,
with Victorian additions made from Norman bits and pieces brought down
from the old castle. You must be an expert."
"My father was devoted to the study of domestic architecture," she said
modestly, deferring the praise, "He had loads of books about it, filled
with lovely drawings, that he'd let me look through when I was little.
And he gave passing commentary on every building he entered. One picks
things up when one hears them repeated often enough."
When we entered the house, I took them to the morning-room to meet Aunt
Em and Nanny, then left them there so I could bathe after my ride. I hoped it wouldn't throw the servants off their game to have early arrivals, but I imagined that Coldicott was equal to such upheavals and surprises. He'd been my mother's butler, after all, and Mummy always had people turning up without warning. Pond reported that Coldicott was as happy as a pig in mud to be having a house-party after so long.
Fresh and dressed to the nines, I went out to hunt for luncheon; it was found in the conservatory built behind the south cloister of the Italian Garden, perpendicular to the new chapel. It was
the newest building on the estate, put up by my grandfather as a wedding
present for my grandmother. It is vaguely oriental in shape and design, with a fantastic roofline of domes and spires, made of soaring iron girders and plated
from foundation to roof-ridge with square panes of glass, filled with wild birds, butterflies, and
lizards living among hundreds of exotic plants from all over the
The luncheon-table was laid beside the fountain in the middle of the
central rotunda, which trickles gently rather than spraying or pouring, so as
not to disturb the brilliant-coloured fish that swim in its basin; Aunt
Em and Nanny were ensconced with cool drinks on the other side of the
fountain, where elaborate white wicker chairs and settees had been put
out for us to lounge on as we gathered for the meal. I accepted a
lemonade lightly spiked with gin from the footman (no idea which one),
and settled down in a chair to wait for the rest of the party, who
turned up in due course.
After lunch, I took Bunny and Lady Bea on an extensive tour of the
house, delighted by Lady Bea's superior knowledge of the various styles
on display in the different rooms, being able to tell the original
Elizabethan bits from the later Jacobean bits and the Victorian
reproduction bits. I'd had no idea how much of the house was Jacobean,
and before that afternoon didn't even know there was a real difference between the periods.
I left Lady Bea at the stairs to the second floor and went back with Bunny to his room (the Arctic Room, full of polar bear skins, caribou horns, and narwhal tusks), where we
settled down with a couple of whiskeys for a good long gossip about
mutual acquaintances and favourite queer haunts in London.
Bunny was particularly interested in hearing anything I had to tell him
about Claude; but knowing Bunny's almost complete lack of discretion
(he'd just told me a lot of things about people that I'm sure they wouldn't want known), I gave him an extremely Bowdlerized
version of my rather extensive knowledge of the subject. Of course,
Claude himself would probably tell Bunny everything I'd left out: he
wasn't very talkative but always answered any question put to him with
I left him to take his afternoon nap, and went back to my own room to
poke around in my new study, which like my dressing-room was done up in oak and leather, but rather more substantially and lined with empty shelves that I was going to have to be very ingenious about filling up. I wondered if I should be doing more to entertain my guests, making sure they were having a good time and devising pastimes for them if they weren't.
"Silenus!" I exclaimed when I found my friend from Hyacinth House in the
drawing-room at tea, "When did you get here? Nobody told me."
"I came on the two-fifteen train as I was expected to do," the old man
smiled jovially at me, though there was the tiniest hint of reproach in
his tone; he and Bunny and Lady Bea were meant to arrive together, but
with the early arrival of the latter two, I'd quite forgotten that the
former was still expected at the usual time. Silenus would never miss a train... and I suspect that if he was late, they'd have held it for him.
Lord Arthur Longueville, known to me (and in his professional capacities)
as Mr. Silenus, used to run a shadow-department of the
government, gleaning rather personal information from unofficial and
quite unorthodox sources and using it as leverage to ensure people
behaved in a manner beneficial to the government's aims—a spymaster,
really, though he laughed at me when I used that word.
When he retired, he converted his private mansion into Hyacinth House,
the exclusively gay hotel in St. James's Street where I and several
other well-to-do queers make our temporary or permanent abodes; and he
kept up his personal network of spies, but instead of utilizing his
specialized information on behalf of the government, he now uses it to
make London a safer place for our sort, preventing vice raids and
discouraging legislation in Parliament.
Before becoming a spymaster, though, Silenus had been an amateur
detective, resolving such mysteries as were frequently beyond the ken of
the police. The professional police have very little access to people
in so-called 'high life,' and crimes in those circles are difficult for
an outsider to solve: though they don't actively impede the police, as a
rule, the aristocracy and gentry are an instinctively clannish bunch.
The second son of the 7th Duke of Gelford, however, has all the access
to those circles one could possibly desire, and so was extremely
successful in a spectacular string of jewel-theft, blackmail, and murder
cases in Society during the Belle Époque.
He looked very different sitting in the drawing-room than he ever did in
London: I'd always thought he resembled a Trafalgar Square pigeon, sort
of gray and nondescript, sleek and plumpish with a small round head;
but for the country he changed his character altogether—instead of
misty gray, his tweeds were a rather loud brown and ivory with orange
and blue flecks, and his small steel-rimmed spectacles had been replaced
by large tortoise-shell frames that gave him a sort of wondering,
goggle-eyed look. Instead of a city pigeon, he looked like a tawny owl.
I suppose, though, that Silenus would look like he was supposed to look wherever he
was: if you encountered him in Jamaica, he'd look exactly like a
colonial planter in white linen and a great big panama hat; encountered
on the African veldt, he'd look like an explorer or hunter in khaki and a
pith helmet; so in an English country-house, of course he'd look like a
bog-standard country gentleman—one would never expect to see a city pigeon in the Cotswolds, so he became an owl instead.
When Lady Bea came in, accompanied by Claude, I could see at once that
she'd wasted no time in reestablishing mastery over the boy: he walked
two paces behind her, did not look up from his shoes and did not speak
unless addressed directly. I could also tell, from the excited blush on his cheeks and the furtive gleam in his eyes, that he was loving every minute
of it. It takes all kinds to make a world.
After tea, I consulted Aunt Em about how much entertainment I should be
providing my guests, and she discouraged me from being too forcible in my entertainment, horning in with games and outings when people wanted to sit and potter; I should, however,
spend my time in the main rooms instead of my own rooms, in order to
be available to anyone who might become unaccountably bored. So instead
of going back to my room to loaf and lounge until it was time to dress
for dinner, I parked myself in the library and took a stab at writing
"Your aunt is delightful," Silenus said from the depths of a wing-back
chair by the fireplace, giving me something of a start: even in his loud
tweeds, he'd simply blended in to the embroidered velvet upholstery,
and I didn't see him there until he spoke.
"I gather she had quite a schoolroom pash for you," I smothered the tiny annoyance over being startled under a dollop of charm.
"Oh, all the young girls were in love with me, forty years ago.
Something about me was especially appealing to prepubescent females. I
never knew what it was, though my brother insisted it was a resemblance
to Rossetti's illustrations for Tennyson's Galahad, and has been calling me Young Galahad ever since."
"How galling," I smiled, not seeing the resemblance, and making a mental
note to find some forty-year-old photographs of Lord Arthur.
"He married an exceptionally vicious woman, so I consider myself properly
avenged by Fate," he smiled back, a crocodile's grin, "And if you're
wondering where to find a photograph, I posed for a group Waterhouse
exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1882, I'm sure you have a catalogue on
these shelves. I'm the third courtier from the right, but with my hair long it rather
bears out my brother's opinion of my looks, so I don't usually admit to
"I need lessons on how not to broadcast my thoughts," I had reached the
point where I was no longer surprised when people appeared to know
exactly what I was thinking, especially Silenus who seemed always to
know what I was going to think.
"Practice in a looking-glass," he advised, "That's what I did. The
trick is to create a single expression, interested and pleasant but
emotionally neutral, and then hold tight to it regardless of what you're
doing or saying or thinking. Your face is made up of muscles, the same
as any other part of your body; if you can learn a good batting stance
at cricket, or how to sit a horse over a jump, you can learn an
inscrutable facial expression."
"Oh!" I exclaimed, delighted by how simple it was. This was exactly
what I loved about Silenus: he didn't just make fun of me, he taught me
things I needed to know so I could correct my errors. I got up and went
over to the shelves where I knew Royal Academy Exhibition catalogues
are kept, and pulled 1882, finding him right away among a melee of
Byzantine onlookers in a strangely bloodless martyrdom scene, "Well, you
were quite the Pre-Raphaelite beauty, weren't you?"
"Not my favourite style of art, but we can't choose how we look, can we?"
"I'm told there are doctors in Switzerland who can," I said, repeating a
bit of gossip I'd overheard recently that I thought was very
interesting, about private clinics that could whittle down an ungainly
nose to more Classical proportions, or tighten a dowager's face to
look ten years younger, or inject you with monkey-glands to give you the
energy of a child again.
This topic set us off on a feast of gossip about people who were
suspected of having had such operations; and the best thing about
gossiping with Silenus is that his gossip tended to be more factual than
the usual rumours. I was always amazed at the depth and variety of
information he collected about people, things you'd never think could be
important but which could, with proper use, influence entire
We chatted on until it was time to go dress for dinner; while being
put into my dinner-clothes I told Pond everything Silenus told me in the
library, and began practicing faces in the glass while he worked.
"What about this one?" I asked, my features arranged in a mask that I thought approximated intelligent interest.
"Like you just had a dose of cod-liver oil," he reported back.
"What about this one?" I tried another.
"Toothache," he pronounced. This was going to be harder than I'd thought.
Twister is coming today! That was my first thought on waking up
Friday morning, and it filled me with excitement. I leapt out of bed with a glad cry and did a bit of a dance around the room, but that only lasted through my bath: then the ghastly tedium of waiting set in.
Generally, in the country, unless there is a planned activity like a
hunt or village fête, one just sort of wanders around and occupies
oneself with whatever comes to one's notice; you might read a book or
write a letter or have a chat with a guest, maybe play billiards or
cards, or go outside and practice archery or croquet. But if you're
completely focused on one upcoming event, such pastimes just aren't very
After my breakfast and morning ride, and dressed in my country best, I tried not to think about Twister's arrival and how far away it seemed. I played some billiards with Bunny, ate lunch in the centre of the
walled garden, went out with my rifle and shot at some paper deer
against an ancient stone wall that had been used by my ancestors for
target practice since bullets were invented; I changed again (Pond would not allow me to walk about with cordite on my tweeds), read the newspapers from
London and Gloucester, and played a dozen rounds of Patience in the
great hall window with one eye on the gate, all in a writhing discontent
of unspeakable boredom.
When Coldicott brought me the telephone, plugging its cord into a tiny
hole in the floor under the table where I was sitting, I welcomed the
distraction; but then I was plunged into disappointment when he told me
it was Sir Oliver Paget on the line—Twister should have been on the
local from Gloucester, not on the telephone.
"Don't tell me you're still in London," I complained immediately into the mouthpiece.
"And hullo to you, too," he laughed in that way he has that makes my
highest dudgeons melt into little puddles, "But yes, I'm just now leaving the Yard."
"I've been dancing in front of the gate like an anxious spaniel, waiting
for you," I pouted, "I won't survive another whole day of this."
"I wasn't able to get away from the office in time to get the train," he explained, "I'm sorry."
"Is it a new case?" I hoped it wasn't something that would preempt his visit.
"No, just an annoyance with some misfiled paperwork. I'll get the very
next train, I promise. The Bristol train leaves Paddington soon, I
should be able to get the local, or even a cab, from..." I could hear
him flipping the pages of an A.B.C., "Chippenham, and be in time for
"A cab? My guests don't arrive in cabs," I said with comic hauteur, "I'll send our driver to Chippenham for you. Oh, wait! I have a much better
idea! Bunny got down here in two hours in his motor. Why don't you go 'round to Ryder Yard and get mine, then I'll have both you and my motor in one pretty bundle."
"You're willing to trust me with your seven-thousand-guinea Rolls?" he sounded a little incredulous.
"I'd give it to you if you wanted it," I said, in all honesty. Of course, I'd have to buy myself another one just like it, I love that
machine, "But you must promise to drive as fast as you can, with none
of your policeman's regard for the law. Bunny bragged he did
eighty-five most of the way here in that tin-pot Lagonda of his, let's
see if we can beat him."
"That's a promise," he laughed again, warming my heart, and other parts
of my anatomy as well, "Policemen have a gentlemen's agreement about
speed laws. Anything else you'd like me to bring you from London?"
"Just your own beautiful self," I crooned over the wire, then kicked myself for the indiscretion—I knew the
Foxbridge end was secure, we had so many extensions in the house that we
constituted our own exchange, so there was no operator any closer than
Cirencester able to listen in; but Scotland Yard was likely to be better
equipped with local busybodies who knew the speaker and might spread
"I'll be with you shortly, then," he said, not sounding annoyed but ringing off without the usual
meandering small-talk most people I know use when getting off the
"Hullo-ullo?" I demanded into the telephone, jiggling the cradle to get
someone's attention, "I need to call London, Hoskins' Garage in Ryder
"Right away, my lord," came Coldicott's voice, surprising me a little:
he must have run part of the way to get as far as the switchboard-room
outside the servants' hall in the short time since he'd left me in the
"Pond should have the number," I suggested helpfully.
"I'll ask him, my lord, he's right here in the hall."
"Oh! Since he's there, maybe he should call, they'll know him
better than me. Have him tell them that Sergeant Paget is coming by to
pick up my Rolls, and to have it fueled and ready for him."
"Very good, my lord. I'll be along shortly to retrieve the telephone."
"Thanks, Coldicott," I replaced the receiver and went about dealing another hand of Patience.
The Packard arrived with the guests who had made the train a
short time later; and since I knew it wouldn't have Twister in it, I had
calmed down quite a bit and was able to display the correct degree of
smiling graciousness when Jingo, Dotty, and the Colonel all came piling
out of the car.
They sound like a family of Beatrix Potter animals when I put their names together
like that, but they simply aren't the sort of people you can call by
their proper names after knowing them for any amount of time.
The Marquess and Marchioness of Faringdon are indecently high-spirited
and almost shockingly fashionable, giddy and gorgeous Bright Young
Things of the first water, and insist on being called by their
nicknames as soon as they meet you. And though I am allowed by
familiarity to call Colonel Gascoyne "Tony," he just looks so much like a Punch caricature
of an army officer, with his rigid posture and regimental mustache, the
sort of gentleman who can make pajamas look as formal as a uniform, that
I can't think of him as anything else.
I made small-talk about the train journey with the three of them as we
climbed the Great Stair, where I handed Jingo and Dotty (who were rather subdued, so I assumed
thoroughly hung-over) to a housemaid to show them to the Gold Room; I then took the
Colonel along to his room in the keep, the Bear Room next door to Bunny in the Arctic Room.
"My goodness!" he exclaimed over the huge Russian bear laid out on the
floor, its immense head bigger than the foot-stool by the fireside
chair, "Who shot this fine fellow?"
"My great-uncle, Lord Carton. He was quite the Great White Hunter in his day."
"Ah, good old Carton. I knew him well," he knelt down to examine the
beast's gleaming fangs; I should have known the Colonel would be a
friend of the late Earl, as he was a fairly famous big-game hunter
himself, "He took me out on my very first safari. I bagged a pretty
feeble-looking gazelle, but I was just a young lad, then, and Victoria
still on the throne. He brought down a wildebeest the size of a lorry.
He was quite a man."
"How well did you know him?" I asked teasingly, inspired by the tone of his voice to wonder if he did indeed know Lord Carton, "In the Biblical sense, as they say?"
"Not near Biblical enough," he answered with the appropriate note of
camp, "A dashed attractive brute, old Carton. But he had no taste for
boys, more's the pity."
"Nor for ladies, so I'm told," the fourth Earl of Carton had died a
bachelor, and the title went to his younger brother and thence to a
"The mind boggles to think where all that energy did go," he smirked, walking up to me and laying his hands on my waist.
"Listen, Tony," I said, not moving away from him but adopting as
businesslike a tone as I could manage, "I need you to do me an immense
"Anything for you, dear boy," he said, nuzzling into my neck and making me go all goose-fleshy. Mustaches are my Achilles heel.
"I need you to lay off on the familiarity," I did step away this time,
so he couldn't feel the immediate effect he'd had on me, "My lover is
going to be here this week."
"Lover?" he looked surprised, but obliged me immediately by stepping
three paces away and putting his hands behind his back at parade rest,
"You never struck me as the hearts and flowers type."
"It rather took me by surprise, too," I admitted, "But I am very
much in love with him. He's said he doesn't mind me tomcatting, but I don't think he'd like seeing the evidence right in front of him across the dinner-table. He's
quite the traditional sort of chappie."
"Well, drat," he smiled jovially and settled himself into a chair with
his feet on the bear's head, taking a leatherbound case from his jacket
and lighting a slim black cigarillo, "I was looking forward to a
bucolic idyll with you. But I shall take the disappointment with stoic
fortitude, as becomes an officer of His Majesty's Army, and find other
fields to harrow."
"That's a rather vivid turn of phrase," I laughed and settled
into the other chair, propping my feet beside his, "Just keep your mitts
off my footmen. I know from experience that your harrowing would put them off their stride."
"Footmen? Faugh!" he snorted like a mildly offended bull, "I don't dally among the household staff. Just not pukka, old man."
"I'm glad you think so, I've already had to speak to one of my guests about it."
"Oh? Fellow travelers at Foxbridge? Do tell!"
I went ahead and told him everything I knew about the proclivities of
the other male guests, which as I've said was unusually
extensive—unlike Bunny, the Colonel could be counted on to keep
reasonably mum. Loose-lipped fellows were not invited to live at
Hyacinth House, Silenus requires a pretty high degree of discretion
from his 'lodgers.' It's the only reliable form of security from
unwanted attention: if the fusty old busters at White's, Boodle's, or
Brooks's ever got wind of the true nature of their near neighbour on St.
James's Street, it wouldn't be long before uncomfortable questions were
raised in Parliament.
He caught me up on all the local gossip from Hyacinth House (we could divulge secrets all we liked about our fellow residents,
it was outsiders that we have to keep in the dark), and a few other
little tidbits from our mutual clubs and haunts, and then it was time
I took a roundabout route to the drawing-room in order to skirt through
the great hall and check if Twister had arrived yet. It had been two
hours since I spoke to him, but I hadn't been apprised of his arrival and was getting anxious
again. I went in to tea feeling very cross and attempted to soothe my feelings with hot muffins and jam.
"Ah, Foxy, old fruit!" Jingo came caroling into the room in disgustingly high spirits. I supposed he must have had a nap and some sort of restorative since coming in from the train, "How're you keeping?"
"Fine, fine, Jingo," I replied, a little puzzled. He seemed to have forgotten that I spoke to him already since his arrival, "Yourself?"
"Couldn't be better. Thank you, Lady Emily," he said to my aunt, accepting a cup of tea from her before coming to stand beside me by the window, "Everyone misses you in the old Metropolis."
"Everyone?" I wondered. I know I'm fairly well-liked among my own circle, but have not reached a level of universal acquaintance that could be called everyone.
"Well, some everyones more than others," he surreptitiously slipped his hand under my jacket-tail and gently groped my backside, "We haven't had one of our afternoon thés dansants in some time."
"Not here," I wriggled away from him, alarmed and unnerved to be groped in a drawing-room not ten feet away from Aunt Em and Nanny.
Jingo and I have a history, you see. He was my first conquest, a prefect in my House when I came up to Eton; he taught me a great deal about boys and men, their ways and wiles, and how to navigate between them to get what one wants. He was Earl of Jarrow then, before his father shuffled off this mortal coil, terrifically handsome and glamorous, mischievous and wonderfully clever.
But I was in my first year, he in his last, so we didn't have a long time together. In due course, though, his little brother came up and was assigned as my fag (though young Pongo was not the sort to start off seducing all and sundry, so we were altogether Platonic in our affection); Jingo and I became reacquainted when he came down for an Old Boys Day, and we'd kept in touch ever since.
Though he was a married man, and before marrying had been known as a great Don Juan with the ladies, he still liked a bit of boy on the side; we'd rekindled our romance on a number of occasions, if we happened to run into each other on a free afternoon. I would not go so far as to call him a lover, our encounters were too brief and far apart, but he was certainly someone who might expect a warm welcome in my bedroom if ever he presented himself at my door.
It probably should have occurred to me much earlier that it might not be such a good idea to have two former bedmates to stay (three, if you count one sodden night with Bunny that neither of us remembers clearly) at the same time as Twister. But then, I don't have an awful lot of male friends with whom I have not been physically intimate at one time or another, so I suppose it was inevitable.
"Jingo, you're not teasing sweet Foxy, are you?" Dotty was suddenly with us, her eyes bright and her hand replacing her husband's on my backside, "We need him to show us over this beautiful house of his."
"It's not mine yet," I smiled, taking her hand and raising it to my lips, mostly to keep it out of mischief, "But I'd love to show you around."
"Well, then, what's in here?" she put her arm in mine and started toward the music-room door.
Dotty Faringdon is a difficult woman to resist. She's extraordinarily pretty, like a porcelain doll with flawless apple cheeks and big China-blue eyes, bouncing golden curls, and a willowy but somehow sumptuous figure. She is also one of the cleverest women I've ever met, blessed with a genius for getting people to enjoy themselves, often in spite of themselves, and a further genius for hiding her cleverness behind a mask of frivolity.
Despite being a card-carrying Bright Young Thing, she was also a political hostess in the mould of the Duchess of Devonshire or Lady Palmerston, and was furthering her husband's career like anything—it was thought in some circles that Jingo would be the next PM to come out of the Lords, a thing that hasn't happened since Victoria dropped off her perch.
Dotty (short for Dorothy, of course) came pretty much out of nowhere, her family a branch of minor Norfolk gentry called Besthorpe, but expensively educated in Europe and launched into London Society by a professional chaperone only a few months before meeting Jingo and marrying him within the year. Nobody knew where her money had come from, but she was always lavishly dressed in the latest fashions; she even started wearing diamonds before she was married, causing a tiny but glamorous sort of scandal. She had a known talent for acting, though she never did so professionally, and could change her accent so quickly and seamlessly that people wondered if the rather mushy Mayfair accent she most frequently employed was actually her own.
All the time we were touring through the ground floor and the cloistered garden, the two of them flirted shamelessly with me, their hands all over me, though they didn't push beyond groping and caressing, even when we were alone, for which I was extremely grateful. Nevertheless, by the time I finally shook them off, I was feeling rather uncomfortably hot and bothered.
I went up to my room, mostly to hide, and poured myself a drink when I got there, splashing myself a bit with soda and shakily lighting a cigarette. I went and lounged into a tall chair beside the window and looked out over the courtyard, watching for my cream-coloured Rolls-Royce roadster to come through the gate.
"Ahem," came a cough from the bed, startling me into a yelp that brought me out of my chair. Twister was sitting up in my bed, naked, a brandy-snifter cradled in his hand, "Some detective you are, don't even notice a strange man in your room."
"Twister!" I bounded across the room and leapt on top of him, kissing him just as hard as I could, "When did you get here?"
"About an hour ago," he said when I let him up for air, "Pond smuggled me in."
"I've been absolutely dying, watching the courtyard for you," I punched him in the chest, "And you've just been sitting up here drinking my brandy! Beast!"
"Well, you were long enough at your tea," he grabbed my fist and kissed it, "As you can see, I had to start without you."
Some very long time later, exhausted and happy, we were lolling on the bed and chatting of this and that, when Pond slithered into the room, knocking first to give us a chance to get semi-decent, and passing into the dressing-room to start laying out my evening clothes.
"I guess I'd better go find my own room," Twister said, sliding out of the bed and putting his clothes back on, "Where is it?"
"More or less next door," I told him, getting up and helping him with his buttons, "The Bronze Room, it's one of the smaller rooms, no dressing-room and a rather tiny bath, but it has certain attractions. I'll show you the shortcut."
I took him through the secret passage, showing him how the mechanism worked so he could come visit whenever he liked, and toured him around the room, pointing out its various amenities—such as the unromantically unhidden door to the corkscrew stair in the corner, which climbs from the foyer all the way up to the top of the clock-tower, if he ever had a hankering for a spectacular (if noisy) view.
Returning to my own room, I had my bath and got dressed in another new dinner-suit; once I was buffed and polished to a high sheen, Pond went to Twister's room (by the conventional route) to offer his services, which gave me the excuse to follow him in and watch Pond do up his tie and put in his cufflinks. We went down to the great hall together, not exactly holding hands but still feeling very connected. It was quite a lovely feeling.
"Bassie, come meet Miss Brazington," Aunt Em called me over when I appeared in the hall, displaying a girl the way a shop-keeper displays a new range of goods.
"How do you do, I'm so glad you could come," I took the girl's hand and raised it to my mouth, though I didn't go so far as to kiss it. She didn't seem the type to appreciate Gallic gallantries.
If I hadn't already been told that Lavender Brazington was at Oxford, I would have thought her an unusually tall twelve-year-old: rather coltish of limb and narrow of figure, her cornsilk hair was very straight and unfashionably long, tied back with a blue ribbon, and her
gauzy white evening dress was built in such a way as to somehow suggest a
pinafore; her voice was a little-girl's voice, musical and cultured but slightly timorous, like a dove that's not very sure of itself. She was very pretty, in a little-girl way, but not the sort of girl I would ordinarily have noticed if my attention hadn't been drawn.
Caro, however, was watching her like a cat eying a particularly tasty mouse; apparently Miss Brazington was just my fiancée's type. It was good to know,
I had frequently wondered what sort of woman she'd be bringing home
with her when we were married. I wondered if Miss Brazington was the sort to return her regard, and hoped that Caro wasn't going to be thwarted in her desires: I was in love and wanted everyone else to be in love, too.
Going in to dinner behind Aunt Em and Jingo, Dotty Faringdon on my arm and the rest of my party paired off two-by-two in precedence, I felt a thrill of satisfaction: this is what it feels like to be a grown-up, I decided, and I really liked it. Dinner was a very lively affair, everyone chattering to beat the band and exclaiming over the food; afterward we went to the music-room, where Dotty asked if we could have a carpet rolled back so we could all dance to the gramophone records she'd brought with her from Town as a hostess gift.
Jingo's enthusiasm for the Charleston and the Black Bottom was
infectious, and soon we were all flinging ourselves about in accepted
nightclub fashion (well, most of us, anyway—Nanny and Lady Heard sat out the festivities, though Silenus and Aunt Em took a few sedate turns when there was a waltz or polka), and had a really good time.
It would have been an even better time if I had been able to dance with Twister, and looking around me at the guests and what I knew about them, it probably wouldn't have raised an eyebrow—with the exceptions of Lady Heard and Miss Brazington, whom I didn't know that well, yet, everyone in that room was at least partly queer. But there are conventions one does not defy, and men dancing with men is just not done in polite society. I suppose it's just as well, though, since the question of leading is always a touchy one among our sex.
We danced later, Twister and I, when he emerged from the secret panel in my wardrobe while I was getting undressed. I'd had the foresight to have champagne sent up and Pond booted out, so I brought out my portable gramophone, lit a lot of candles, and we had a quite romantic evening in my rooms.
I let him lead.
The next two days were a bit of a whirlwind. During my bored days at Castoris, I'd set up a half-dozen entertainments for my guests, little realizing that too much is even worse than too little, particularly for those who'd come from London and might want a rest.
On Saturday, we had a fairly large party in the evening, with fifty or so neighbours invited for dinner and dancing. Dinner was a great banquet in the hall, with musicians playing in the gallery; then we had dancing in the Long Gallery, with the orchestra set up at one end and a cocktail bar set up at the other; there were cards and chamber-music set up across the landing in the Great Chamber. I'd not seen either of those rooms since before the War, they are simply too vast and grand for everyday use, and it was wonderful to have them blazing with light and ringing with music and laughter like in the old days.
We also had photographers in, with the photographs to be sent out in albums to the guests afterward as souvenirs—though with the sure knowledge that they'd be passed on to the magazines by the most socially ambitious, without me having to be so gauche as to advertise my own party.
After such a blowout, I should have scheduled a day of rest after our trip to the village for Sunday services; instead, I put on a rather elaborate picnic on the island in the middle of the lake, where there stands a very pretty but architecturally questionable folly (it's meant to be a Chinese temple, but actually looks like a temple off a Blue Willow plate rather than an actual temple in China). There was Oriental-style food and drinks dispensed from the folly to be eaten on the lawn, a small orchestra playing popular tunes with Oriental themes, and real Chinese circus performers wandering around among the guests, showing off their particular skills. I had it photographed, as well, though wasn't sure how I was going to get Lady Heard's face in the crowd to the press without crassness.
Twister and I took turns sleeping in each-others' rooms, with Pond popping in and out through the secret passage with morning coffee and such; both of the beds in those rooms have four posts and curtains, and we were always careful to close them before we went to sleep so that the maid who lights the fires at dawn wouldn't see the wrong gentleman in the wrong bed.
During the days, he tried to keep a certain amount of distance between us, and during the large party ignored me completely; but whenever he wasn't trying specifically not to, he drifted to my side and we ended up having some really lovely chats during quiet games of billiards or walks around the cloister. It was what I would call a perfect weekend, and I hoped we could have more week-ends like this, maybe even whole weeks of this, in the future.
I didn't think about years and years from now, not the way I thought about my impending marriage with Caro; but at the same time, I couldn't really envision a future, years and years hence, where Twister wasn't there. But I put off thinking about that particular problem until another time. In the winter, perhaps, or in 1930, or something like that.