Monday, 26 May 2014

The Love-Nest

9 June, 1928

"Scotland Yard, Detective Sergeant Paget speaking," the beloved voice came crooning over the wire.

"Twister, I need your help. Are you free this evening, or are you working late?" I implored into the telephone, having just completed a series of callisthenic exercises in order to sound breathless.

"I was just about to head home. What’s up?" he sounded concerned, as I’d intended.

"I’m on a case," I sort-of lied, "and there’s a house I need to be watching right now, but I can’t get there until the man I’m following comes to roost. It’s not far from your office, I hoped you could watch the house for me until I can get there."

"Where are you calling from?" he wondered, somewhat ungrammatically.

"A phone-box in a hotel lobby in Kensington," I lied outright. I was actually in the exquisitely appointed sitting-room of my suite at the Hyacinth House Hotel on St. James’s Street, Westminster.

"Where’s the house you need watching?" he sounded as if he’d bought thatI wasn’t sure he would, I’m such a terrible liar, though I frequently get away with it if I’m on the telephone and he can’t see my face.

"Fourteen Queen Anne’s Gate," I replied, my voice dripping gratitude, "I’ll meet you there as soon as I can get away from here."

"Nice neighborhood," he remarked, and I could hear him scribbling the address on a piece of paper, "I can be there in ten minutes."

"You’re an absolute angel," I dripped some more gratitude, and hoped nobody eavesdropping on the call would misconstrue the appellation. I always imagined a nosy-parkering switchboard operator listening to every call I made to Twister’s office, and censored my speech accordingly just in case someone was listening, "I owe you dinner for this."

After ringing off, I sat a moment or two longer in my chair, smoking a celebratory cigarette and gloating over the success of this leg of the plan. It was one of my better plans, if I do say so myself, and I was terrifically pleased with it; but if Twister hadn’t been in his office and just about to leave, or if he’d detected that I was fibbing to him, the whole thing would have fallen apart.

Getting up and crossing over to the bookcase to the left of my fireplace, I pushed a button concealed in the egg-and-dart moulding, and danced a little with excitement as the lower third of the bookcase swung outward, revealing a sharply descending tunnel into a dim emptiness. I’d recently had this swinging cupboard installed, with the gracious permission of the hotel’s owner (my close friend and mentor, Lord Arthur Longueville), and could spend several delighted hours opening and closing the thing, driving my valet to distraction and putting a year’s wear on the mechanism.

Sitting down on the floor, I thrust my legs through the opening and found foothold on the first of the steep steps that led down from the cupboard, grasping the new brass rails to steady my descent, and was soon standing inside a wardrobe, confronting the barest shadow of my own reflection in the glass inside the door. Pushing on the catch of the doors, I stepped out of the wardrobe into a comfortably furnished but perfectly anonymous-looking office.

Midway through the previous summer, I’d found a corpse in this office: exploring the original fireside cupboard in my sitting-room, I’d heard voices coming through the back of it, where the cupboard was recessed so far into the rear wall of the hotel that only a thin layer of wood separated me from the bricks of the abutting building; fired with curiosity, I’d gone around to find out what was on the other side of that wall, discovering an office-block with a shop on the ground floor that faced on Bury Street; on the floor nearly level to my own rooms, I discovered a long-unoccupied and sturdily locked office in which there should not have been any voices at all; prevailing upon the janitor, I got into the office, where the remains of a very recently and violently deceased Bulgarian gangster were partially concealed under a dust sheet.

I shan’t go into the details of that adventure, which are related elsewhere amongst my memoirs, but at the conclusion of the case I had taken the lease on the office so as to prevent anyone else moving in and disturbing me with noises through my fireside cupboardthe nice thing about being terrifically rich, or rather one of the many nice things about being terrifically rich, is that one can arrange one’s surroundings to the utmost convenience and comfort without regard to expense. More recently, when the opportunity to buy the whole office-block came up, I jumped at it, and was therefore in a position to knock a big hole in the party wall and build a secret passage.

Before donning one of the disguises that hung in the wardrobe, I took another gloating moment to examine my reflection in the glass of the wardrobe door. My perfectly cut suit of quietly pinstriped navy serge perfectly accentuated my graceful figure and exquisite strawberries-and-cream complexion, glossy auburn curls gleamed luxuriously on my shapely head, big chestnut-colour eyes sparkled with excitement and scarlet cheeks glowed on the face of a Botticelli angel. I was quite simply breathtaking.

I am not being conceited in reporting my extraordinary beauty, it is merely a statement of fact, no more or less relevant than my name or my age, backed up by scores of independent expertsincluding that great arbiter of æsthetics Cecil Beaton, who had declared me "The Realm’s Loveliest Lord" (taking a bit of poetic license, of course, since I was only Viscount Foxbridge by courtesy, and my father the 10th Earl of Vere still up and kicking) in the pages of The Tatler on which his photographs of me appeared. 

However, great beauty, like a grand title, can be a serious liability in the profession of detecting crime: one cannot slither around the streets of London unnoticed, a shadowy figure in the alleys and areas, observing without being observed. I had therefore stocked my secret office with a variety of disguises, provided by a theatrical costumier I know, that could turn the jewel-like flower of my perfection (also courtesy of Mr. Beaton) into a drab pile of anonymity indistinguishable from its background.

I first kicked off my shoes, noticeably but not emphatically elegant paragons of the cobbler’s art, and replaced them with a slightly grubby pair of cloth-top boots two sizes too large and comfortably stuffed with cotton wadding that gave me an extra inch of height; next came a deeply anonymous Burberry coat, also much too large and stuffed at the shoulders and waist with more cotton wadding, giving the impression of a burly figure, short neck, and sloppy midriff; then came a wide-brimmed slouch hat, much crumpled and big enough for a gorilla, filled out with the curling dark hair of a discreet wig; finally a pair of fawn kid gloves, again too large and lightly stuffed, a pair of thick horn-rimmed eyeglasses, and a lightweight muffler wrapped twice around my neck as if for fear of draughts. I put my shoes and a rather clever folding felt trilby into the commodious pockets of the Burberry and was ready to go.

It was rather warm for the balmy June weather (particularly with all the padding), but I see lots of men going about muffled to the ears in the midst of summerI’d always thought it was because so many people are afraid of germs since the Influenza, but have since learned it’s also because coats and mufflers keep the inevitable grime of City life off one’s suits and shirts, which saves money at the cleaners’.

If someone stopped directly in front of me and looked me square in the face, I might be recognized; but from the side or at any distance greater than five feet, I just looked like an ordinary chap, heavy but not fat, tall but not remarkably so, shabby but not disreputable. Completely anonymous, like a million other blokes wandering the streets of London.

This disguise had a name and profession: Mr. Rowland Mugg, a conveyancer for Lillie & Co. Importers, which was the name on the door of my office. There were other disguises in the wardrobe, each with its own identity: Mr. Everard Lillie, an elderly gentleman with a white beard and pronounced stoop; his thickset and quiet confidential secretary, Miss Jane Glossington; and his bespectacled half-caste clerk, Mr Aubrey Singh. Each of these persons had made brief and fleeting appearances in the last two weeks, coming in and out of the Bury Street offices, becoming familiar sights in the neighbourhood without drawing undue attention to themselves.

I nevertheless had elaborate histories of these characters memorized, in order to lend colour and authority to my voice when I spoke of them as if they were real people. I’d learned over the last few months that the only way I could ever get away with lying was if I believed what I said, or if what I said was technically true. The case I had mentioned to Twister over the phone was essentially fictional, an ongoing investigation into the lives and habits of fictional people in a fictional firm, but was nevertheless a real caseI only had to omit the facts that the client was myself and that I was inventing the information I received in the course of my "investigation."

It would be easier to simply not lie, I know, but not nearly as much fun.

As Rowland Mugg, I made my way out of the office and down Bury Street, cutting through Crown Passage to Pall Mall, where I crossed the street and continued down Marlborough Road to St. James’s Park, which I crossed at a leisurely pace (hurrying through parks is suspicious, I think); I exited the park and cut through the old carriageway into Queen Anne’s Gate, turned left, and hurried up the street to Number 14. I didn’t see Twister as I passed, but knew he must be there, as Scotland Yard was a good bit closer than the Bury Street office, and he hadn’t wasted time gloating to himself or getting up in fancy dress; he was probably concealed in a doorway a short distance up Carteret Street, where he could watch the house unseen.

I, or rather Rowland Mugg hurried up the short steps of Number 14, which was a narrow Georgian house of red brick and Portland stone with a discreet sign in the window advertising gentlemen’s rooms to let, opened the front door with his latchkey, and climbed up to the second floor front where he made an unnecessary fuss closing the curtains to draw Twister’s attention to the appropriate window. Then I hastily shed my disguise, put on my shoes and hat, and ran like a rabbit back downstairs and through the back garden onto Birdcage Walk, where my man Pond was waiting with a taxicab as arranged.

"Your lordship’s hat is somewhat disarranged," he said austerely as I came abreast, plucking the thing off my head and smoothing out the crown and brim with practiced hands. He disapproved of my novelty folding trilby, but had found it the lesser of two evils when presented with the only other option that would fit in the coat-pocket, a cloth capand he'd rather swallow hot coals than let his gentleman be seen wearing a cloth cap in Town. 

"Thank you, Pond," I took the hat back and placed it on my head at a rakishly negligent angle, watching with amusement as his neat fingers twitched and his dark ferrety eyes narrowed, the thwarted desire to reach up and put the thing straight straining his small frame; I love Pond dearly, but I cannot resist teasing him, any more than I could resist teasing my Nanny when I was little, "I’ll send the taxi back as soon as I’m done."

"No need, my lord," he bowed formally and adjusted his own smart black bowler instructively, "I shall enjoy the walk."

"See you at home then," I leapt into the taxi and waved it on. Continuing up Birdcage Walk, we turned right onto Storey Gate and then onto Old Queen Street, jogging around the short curve of Dartmouth Street before coming to a stop in front of Number 14 Queen Anne’s Gate again. I got out of the cab, tossed the jarvey a sovereign, and ambled about on the corner looking for Twister’s hiding-place.

"Not very discreet, popping out of a taxi on the very doorstep," he scolded me gently, lurking in the area steps of the house on the western corner of Carteret Street.

"I’m not trying to hide," I shrugged negligently, feasting my eyes on his matinée-idol face. While I might be the Realm’s Loveliest Lord, my beloved Twister (Sir Oliver Paget, 15th Baronet to you) was far and away the Yard’s Comeliest Copper, with his Roman profile and Grecian physique, crisp golden hair and glowing amber eyes, "What have I missed?"

"A uniformed maid came out twice," he consulted the notes in his regulation notebook, all business in public though his eyes had already telegraphed a greeting kiss, "Once to shake a rug and once to flirt with the postman. A middle-aged woman with dyed red hair and a yellow-and-green print dress came out to scold the maid for flirting with the postman. And a heavyset man in a Burberry and slouch hat went in just a few minutes ago and closed the curtains of the second-floor windows."

"That’s my man," I said.

"Who is he?" Twister wondered, putting his notebook back in his pocket and taking another quick look at the house in question before resting his eyes back on my face.

"Fellow by the name of Mugg," I explained, "He’s involved somehow with a suspicious importing business I’m looking into. I think he lives here."

"Pretty posh address for a shady importer."

"Well, it is just a rooming house, though it calls itself ‘gentlemen’s lodgings.’"

"Still, a far cry from Craven Street," he smiled at my attitude, referencing the perfectly respectable little street where he lived in comfortable rooms that unfortunately backed onto Charing Cross railway station. It wasn’t really noisy, but the back windows had to be washed daily to keep the soot off.

"I hate to ask, but can you keep watch on this end?" I said all in a rush, as if I’d just thought of it, "It occurs to me that these houses have gardens opening onto Birdcage Walk, he might come out the back."

"My pleasure," he smiled warmly, making my insides go all wobbly, "But how will we signal to each other if he comes out either end?"

"Oh, I don’t know," I frowned thoughtfullyand sadly, it was true, I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought of that wrinkle, but tried to come up with a solution on the fly, "I guess just follow him if he comes out this end, and I’ll follow if he comes out my end, and whichever one of us is on the track can try to get a message to the other one. Here’s a few crowns, you can send a taxi-driver after me if you’re on the scent, and I’ll do the same."

"That’s very good," he smiled again, all approval, which made me even wobblier inside, and pocketed the coins I’d handed him, "See you later."

I ran off back toward the carriage-gate and onto Birdcage Walk, singing a happy little song from nursery days and thinking about what I was going to do to Twister when I got him alone, then turned in at the garden gate of Number 14. Back in my Mr. Mugg disguise, I came out the front door and started walking slowly to Bury Street, confident that Twister was on the march not far behind.

I worried for a bit about what would happen if he sent a taxi-driver after me on Birdcage Walk and the taxi-driver didn’t find me there; but then as I was crossing over to the Park I heard a sharp whistle behind me, the short blast of an unmistakable police-whistle, and realized he was signaling to methe me who was supposed to be watching the back of the house just a hundred yards to the east, not the me he was followingand there would be no need of taxis and messages. Hopefully he wouldn’t wait around to see if I followed from my supposed vantage-post; to make sure he didn’t, I ducked behind a bush for a moment to force him to come looking for methe me he was following, don’t you know, not the me he expected to follow him (confusing, isn’t it?)

In due course I got back to the office and shed my disguise again, climbed up through the secret passage into my sitting-room, and dashed back out through the hotel onto St. James’s Street. Then I had to go the long way around the block, down past Boodle’s to Ryder Street instead of just three doors up to Jermyn Street, so that I would appear to be coming from the proper direction. I spotted him apparently examining the show windows of a shop called Monsieur Alcide’s in the ground floor of the Bury Street building.

"What kept you?" Twister eyed me with concern when I reached him, sweating freely and breathing rather hard, "I was starting to worry you hadn’t got my signal on Birdcage Walk."

"I ran into a friend on Pall Mall and couldn’t get away from him?" I panted, hearing the obviousness of the lie in my own voice.

"What’s going on, Foxy?" he narrowed his eyes at me.

"Tell me what you observed about Mr. Mugg as you followed him?" I countered, letting a pleased smirk grace my visage as I wiped my heavily bedewed forehead with a handkerchief.

"Nothing much to observe," he replied, still eyeing me suspiciously, "Just under six feet, I’d guess fifteen stone, around about forty years old, dark curly hair, horn-rim glasses, rather muffled up for June, maybe a hypochondriac. Nothing notable in his gait or behaviour."

"Do you think it may have been a disguise?"

"Perhaps the muffling-up was meant to disguise him, but he didn’t strike a false note, if that’s what you mean."

"Excellent!" I crowed happily, clapping my hands.

"What are you up to?" he demanded, grabbing my arm.

"Come with me, I’ll show you," I dragged him into the shop, which sold gentlemen’s luxury goods like velvet dressing-gowns and silver boutonnières; the proprietor was a friend of mine, and let me enter the building through the shop if I ever had occasion to enter in my own guise, since the well-known fashion-plate Lord Foxbridge was considerably more likely to buy a dressing-gown than to visit an office. Slipping through the back of the shop into the service staircase, I led him up to the second floor and down the corridor to the door at the end.

"Lillie & Co. Importers?" Twister read the legend on the door as I produced my key and let us in, "Is this the business you’re investigating?"

"Yes and no," I smirked again, leading the way through the outer office, where the fictional Mr. Singh and Miss Glossington had their own desks, into the inner office where the fictional Mr. Lillie might hold court, "I am Lillie and Co., as a matter of fact. And I am the heavyset, middle-aged, dark-haired hypochondriac Rowland Mugg you followed here."

"You!" he gasped, shocked to his core. It was one thing for me to play silly games, he was used to it; but to be told he’d followed his own lover for two thirds of a mile without recognizing him, closely observing a back that he should know blindfold in the dark but falling for a cheap trick of padding, that wounded his professional pride, "Why?"

"All in good time, I just wanted to confirm that you, who know me better than most, did not recognize me in Mr. Mugg."

"Not even a ghost of a suspicion," he breathed, his wounded pride giving way to a glimmering admiration for my clever disguise.

"Do you recognize this office?" I asked, sitting down behind the desk.

"No," he looked around him with interest, then suddenly realized when he’d seen it before, "Wait, this is the office where you found that body last summer. The one on the other side of your sitting-room wall."

"Precisely," I beamed, getting up again and going over to the wardrobe, where I pressed another hidden button and caused the doors to spring open, "Follow me."

"Well, I’ll be damned," he gasped, impressed, when we emerged into my sitting-room, where Pond was just laying out a Lucullan tea for the both of us.

"More than likely," I grinned, throwing my arms around his neck and kissing him soundly, "What do you think?"

"It’s very thorough, and very clever," he said, smiling into my eyes, "But what’s it all for?"

"Get me a cup of tea and I’ll show you," I released him and led the way over to the window, where a large-scale map of the City of Westminster was spread out on my dining-table, weighted down with a motley assortment of objets de vertu I’d gathered from around my rooms to demonstrate my plan.

"What’s the little blue bug?" he asked after he’d brought my tea and taken a hearty swig of his own, "It’s sitting on where I live in Craven Street."

"The lapis lazuli scarab is you, and be careful, it's four thousand years old," I explained, picking up the little stone object I’d chosen to represent Twister because it was the most precious thing I had to hand, then picked up a little gold fox studded with garnets that surmounted the agate seal I used on my letters, "and the garnet fox is me, here at Hyacinth House. The china matchcase on Bury Street is Rowland Mugg."

"All right," he said, leaning comfortably over my shoulder.

"Now, Detective Sergeant Paget has decided to let his country-house in Cheshire, since he never gets to go there anymore," I picked up the scarab and wiggled it as if it was a toy soldier I was about to put in play, "This means he’ll have a little extra money in his pockets, and what better way to spend that extra money than to find some nicer rooms that aren’t under the shadow of a great railway terminus."

"Okay," he agreed tentatively.

"Sergeant Paget’s good friend Lord Foxbridge has heard of some rooms in a very desirable location that are going remarkably (but not suspiciously) cheap," I picked up the garnet fox and wiggled it as well, and brought the two figurines together in the air an inch above where 14 Queen Anne’s Gate appeared on the map, "He takes Sergeant Paget to see these rooms, Sergeant Paget approves of the rooms, Sergeant Paget moves into the rooms."

"I’m not sure I want it to be known at the Yard that I’ve moved into Queen Anne’s Gate, especially on the Park side. I already get chaffed for living in Westminster."

"You get chaffed for everything you do," I plunked the scarab down squarely and decisively in Queen Anne’s Gate, "If you went and lived in Mile End or Limehouse, they’d still chaff you about your title or your school or something."

"True," he conceded.

"Sergeant Paget now lives in lovely new rooms with a Park view," I went on, dancing the garnet fox back and forth on the map between St. James’s Street and Queen Anne’s Gate, "and his friend Lord Foxbridge comes to visit every once in a while, since he’ so close by, but not more often than one would expect of a pair of ordinarily chummy chums, and always leaving at a respectable hour."

"As Sergeant Paget is always visiting Lord Foxbridge at his rooms, not too often and always leaving at a respectable hour," he added.

"Precisely. Now, in the meantime," I picked up the china matchcase, making galloping motions between Queen Anne’s Gate and Bury Street, "Sergeant Paget’s lodging-house neighbor, Mr. Mugg, works in an office on Bury Street that bears no apparent connection to either Lord Foxbridge or Sergeant Paget. Mugg can be observed leaving Queen Anne’s Gate in the mornings and returning there in the evenings, and sometimes he will take a third-class ticket to a place in Suffolk or somewhere that he might have family."

"Why?" Twister wondered.

"Because anybody who might be interested in watching Sergeant Paget’s movements," I picked up another piece, a diamond-eyed bulldog carved from amber that was meant to represent Scotland Yard or the Home Office, and set it on the corner of Queen Anne’s Gate and Carteret Street where it could ‘observe’ Number 14, "will, in observing his home and the behaviour of his friends, take notice of the inconsequential Mr. Mugg and follow him. Nobody, not even the conscientious Mugg, goes to the office on a Sunday. But he has to leave the house anyway, so he has to go somewhere. He takes a third to Suffolk, whither only the most diligent of bulldogs would follow him, gets off two stops later dressed in a different disguise, and effectively disappears for a couple of days."

"But again, why?"

"Because Foxy, who is deeply in love with Twister, dreams of nothing better than to regularly wake up in his arms of a morning. Of course, Foxy is a bit spoilt, and would rather wake up in Queen Anne’s Gate than in Mile End or Limehouse. And so, most evenings, Lord Foxbridge returns to his rooms in St. James’s, keeping peculiarly early hours for a gentleman of his age and station, but otherwise presenting no suspicious behaviour. Then Lord Foxbridge becomes Mr. Mugg," and here I put the garnet fox inside the china matchcase, then trotted it across to Queen Anne’s Gate, "who is a regular and innocuous feature at Twister’s lodgings; once inside, he becomes Foxy again, and spends the blissful night with Twister. Of a blissful morning, Foxy becomes Mugg again, trots back to Bury Street, slips through the passage and becomes Lord Foxbridge, and goes about the business of being Lord Foxbridge, plain for all the world to see."

"I see," he sounded a little worried, and a little steamed up, one of his more peculiar combination moods, "Isn’t that an awful lot of work? How long can you keep it up?"

"I only have to keep it up for a few months," I plucked another piece off the margins, the white queen from my chessboard, a beautifully fashioned silver figure with gold enamel details, "In due course, likely late next spring, Lord Foxbridge will marry Lady Caroline Chatroy. He will have to be absent from his beloved Twister because of this, but only for a couple of months. Returning from their honeymoon, the Viscount and Viscountess Foxbridge move into their new home at Number 16 Queen Anne’s Gate. A passage will, by then, have been built into the wall between the two houses, and Foxy and Twister spend every night together, all ease and comfort."

"And that’s not suspicious? Moving in next door to me?"

"Not suspicious at all," I said, arranging the figures in a row on the map, the silver queen on the left and the lapis scarab on the right, with the garnet fox in between, "You see, Lord Foxbridge already owns the house, he bought it months before Sergeant Paget moved to Number 14. It was while inspecting his new property at Number 16 that Lord Foxbridge discovered the desirable rooms available at Number 14, about which he told his good friend Sergeant Paget.  Lord Foxbridge is a happily married man, essentially above suspicion, and neither he nor Sergeant Paget is ever seen coming in or out of their respective houses at suggestive hours. What could be more natural?"

"Who owns Number 14, and why will he allow you to knock a hole in the wall?" he wasn’t convinced, but was getting there.

"Number 14, as well as the rest of that row of houses, is owned by Paschal Properties, Ltd, from whom Lord Foxbridge bought Number 16."

"And who owns Paschal Properties?" he pursued.

"I do," I replied, grinning like a Cheshire cat, "behind three layers of dummy corporations, one of which is Lillie & Co. Importers. That’s why Mr. Mugg lives at such a nice address."

"You created dummy corporations and bought a whole row of mansions in the most expensive part of London just for this scheme?" he gaped at me in astonishment.

"It was a good investment," I shrugged, "My broker pointed it out to me, a row of desirable houses, freehold no less, going at a very advantageous price from an estate being divided among a contentious lot of joint heirs. House property isn’t as lucrative as shares and securities, but it’s a good deal safer. And everyone uses dummy corporations to hide their money from the good old Inland Revenue, my broker set them all up long before this scheme. It was the combination of the dummy corporations, the houses, and the office on Bury Street that gave me the idea for the scheme."

"You’re brilliant," he said, kissing me passionately; that led to something of a tussle, but then he stopped suddenly, "Wait. What about Lady Caroline? Has she agreed to this?"

"Not yet, I wanted to get you on board first."

"What will you do if she won’t play ball? I mean, that’s pretty imperious of you to buy a house without consulting her first."

"It’s the lord’s duty to provide the house, and the lady’s duty to make it comfortable," I said pompously, "She’s the daughter of a duke and knows that, she would naturally expect me to already have a house. I mean, if I’d already acceded, we’d have gone to live at Vere House without question."

"I think you’d better consult her anyway, before you start counting your chickens," he advised, caressing my face gently, "She's a headstrong young woman, very much accustomed to getting her own way."

"Of course," I agreed, "Though I’m pretty sure she’ll like the scheme. It is a very nice house, after all. And part of the draw of a whole row of houses is that we can set up her lover, whoever she might be and whenever she might appear, on the other side in Number 18."

"That sounds very French," he teased, kissing me again, "What about when you do accede? What happens to me when you have to move to Vere House?"

"We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it," I said into his mouth.

"What would you have done if I didn’t agree?"

"You do agree?" I ignored his question to pounce on the implication.

"How could I not? It’s too beautifully planned. But what if I hadn’t agreed?"

"I’d have beat you with a stick until you changed your mind," I said with great decision and authority.

"What kind of a stick?" he asked playfully, his eyes smouldering all they could.

"If you’d care to step into the next room, I’ll show you."

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Verevale Hunt 1

"I feel like this ought to be one of those solemn, momentous occasions," I told Pond as I turned off the Piddinghoe Road toward the village of Verevale, "With a brass band giving us a rousing march as we enter the gates: 'The Saint-Clairs Return to Verevale.'"

"I can unpack the gramophone if your lordship would care to stop the car," he replied in what sounded like all seriousness but was just his subtle brand of sarcasm, "Though the closest thing to a march in your lordship's collection is Mr. Jolsen's 'California, Here I Come,' which hardly seems appropriate."

"No, I suppose not," I laughed, amused by the idea of driving about with a gramophone playing, "But this is a frightfully grand sort of village, what?  Georgian, by the look of it."

"It was built all of a piece by the fourth Earl in 1765, my lord," Pond informed me, as he'd been informing me all the way along the drive from London.  He'd read several guidebooks and histories in his off-time while I was adventuring about in Cambridgeshire without him, and was eager to impart his knowledge, "to replace the existing village when it burned down.  There were rumours at the time that the Earl started the fire on purpose to have an excuse to rebuild on more modern lines.  All that remains of the original village are the foundations and cemetery of the church."

"Well, it's nice to see a neoclassical church in the country instead of the usual Norman or Gothic," I opined as we rolled past the structure in question, a miniature Saint Paul's in dove-gray stone on the edge of the perfectly circular village green. 

The whole village was laid out like a compass, with the church on the east point, a sort of triumphal arch straddling the road into the village on the north point, the imposing lodge-flanked gates to the big house on the south point, and a village hall that looked a bit like Covent Garden on the western point; neat identical square houses lined the rest of the circle, not quite in crescent formation but nearly so.  In case the casual observer might have missed the reference to a compass, a large fountain in the exact centre of the green, shaped like a compass rose with a huge iron armillary rising out of it, was there to enlighten him. The fourth Earl had fancied himself a Great Navigator, having once traveled to Jamaica to inspect his sugar plantations there.

The ornate wrought-iron gates were standing open, though there was a sort of yokel leaning in the doorway of the left-hand lodge and pulling his cap-bill in our direction as we passed.  I could just make out the shape of the house on the horizon at the end of the long, perfectly straight drive, a gray box with a dome like a fireplug on top, flanked by two smaller boxes with identical domes.

"The house was built by the second Earl in 1672," Pond told me as we flashed past a herd of sheep grazing on the endless sea of lawn, "It is considered the first truly Baroque house in England, years ahead of the style, as well as one of the finest examples."

"You don't say," I said, though I already knew that bit, Lady Bea had told me about it when I lunched with her the day before.

"The design follows the principle of the Golden Mean," he continued, just the tiniest note of fanaticism in his voice, "and all the dimensions are found in the Fibonacci sequence: the main block of the house is one hundred and forty-four feet wide and eighty-nine feet high, including the roof; the rotunda is fifty-five feet high, comprising a thirty-four foot drum and a twenty-one foot dome, for a total of one hundred and forty-four feet from base to apex."

"How extraordinary!" I was impressed by the neatness of it, and his memory for figures; as I drove, the shape got bigger and more complicated with statues and chimneys and pilasters, but like a mirage in the desert seemed to not get any closer.

"When the third Earl added the flanking pavilions in 1751," he went on, "he followed the same principle, starting with a dimension of eighty-nine feet width and ending with a thirteen-foot dome."

"Really!" I exclaimed, simply to show I was listening—he certainly didn't require any prompting, he was so interested in the topic.  It was nearly five minutes more driving before we arrived in the courtyard, giving him plenty of opportunity to expound on the influences of Michelangelo, Bernini, and Palladio.

When we finally arrived at the house, the mass of the thing was so graceful yet overpowering that I felt a thrill of awe looking up at it, the statue of Victory at the tip of the front pediment cutting against the cloud-strewn sky like a ship's figurehead.

"Golly," I gasped when I brought the Rolls to a halt at the foot of the front steps, gawking at the elaborate façade.

"Indeed," Pond agreed, stepping out of the motor and standing to attention as a footman came down the steps to open my door for me.

"Good afternoon, my lord," the butler intoned impressively as I came up to the door; he was a terrifically impressive sort altogether, well-suited to so impressive a house, over six feet tall with a face reminiscent of the Duke of Wellington and a voice like the Last Trump, "Her ladyship awaits in the morning-room.  This way, my lord."

I followed the impressive party through a lofty square hall scattered with great throne-like chairs, its double-height walls all bas-relief medallions and florid portraits with a checquerboard marble floor; then the dizzying well of the rotunda, with a marble map of the world inlaid into the floor and white plaster garlands on robin's-egg blue walls, soaring up to a cobalt dome peppered with silver stars; then into another lofty room, oblong with a busily painted ceiling and brilliant red damask walls featuring more portraits in gilded frames and more regal chairs and tables; and finally into a rather more human-scaled room, filled with comfortable-looking chintz sofas and armchairs gathered around big draped tables of arranged flowers and silver-framed photographs.

"Viscount Foxbridge, my lady," the butler boomed in a voice that rattled the chandeliers and could likely be heard in the village but didn't seem to make much impression on the lady in the room, who didn't look up from the embroidery-frame on which her attention was bent.

"Oh, Lord Foxbridge, how nice!" Lady Levondale rose from her chair a moment or two later, once she'd finished the last bit of stitching on a particularly tricky curlicue, advancing on me with her hand out, "I do hope you had good weather for your drive."

"Oh, excellent weather, thank you, Lady Levondale," I gallantly kissed the hand she offered, which made her giggle a bit.  She was a pretty little thing, adorably plump with a pert smile and merry eyes; she had a fussy, fly-away quality about her, fluffy blue-tinted white curls escaping from inadequate pearl-headed combs and a beautifully made French lace tea-gown slipping sideways on her rounded shoulders—imagine the White Queen dressed by Callot Sœurs and you'll get a pretty clear picture.

"Are you hungry? We've just finished luncheon, but Winborn can bring some sandwiches," she rattled on solicitously, "Or something to drink?  Or would you prefer to go to your room?"

"A cup of tea would be wonderful," I smiled—she reminded me of Aunt Emily with her breathless enthusiasm—and the massive butler marched off, "I was delayed getting out of London this morning, so my man packed a basket lunch knowing we wouldn't arrive here in time.  I'm quite stuffed."

"I heard you've been staying with Lord and Lady John Chatroy," she said, taking a seat on a sofa and gesturing for me to take the adjacent armchair, "Such lovely people, they were so kind to our Michael in his first year at Cambridge."

"They are lovely," I agreed, "And so wonderfully unconventional.  It was quite an education, I got to feed pigs and milk a goat, and ate dozens of kinds of food I'd never heard of."

"It's nice to try new things, of course, but I found it a little discomfiting when we went to visit.  Calling the son of a duke 'Professor,' and his wife by a funny nickname the very moment I met her, and sending the gentlemen out to smoke and keeping the ladies in the dining-room.  So kind, but they quite put me off my balance, I thought it would have been much kinder to observe some of the conventions."

"I just pretended I was in Italy," I said, rather agreeing with her but thinking it would be disloyal to the Chatroys to do so aloud, "And I had their son, Claude, staying with me for a while, so I was sort of prepared for them.  A charming young man, but full of surprises."

"Surprises are much easier to take in stride when one is young," she reached over and patted my hand, "But at my age, I find convention so comforting.  One always knows where one is with convention, you know what to do and where to go at any given moment, where to sit, what to call people, what bedroom to give a guest.  It saves worry, don't you think?"

"Well, so long as the convention is comfortable for everyone," I pointed out, "Sometimes I think it makes us lazy and complacent, and we end up constraining others and making them unhappy just so we don't have to think."

"Oh, absolutely!" she lit up a bit, spotting a sympathetic soul, "I'm always telling Levondale that.  Convention is supposed to make things easier, not more difficult.  He thinks our daughter Lavinia ought to get married just because that's what young women are expected to do.  But it wouldn't make her happy, so why should she take all that trouble about it?"

"It would be rather different if it was your heir who didn't want to get married, though, wouldn't it?" I wondered.

"I don't know," she frowned thoughtfully, "Perhaps if ours was an old title with ancient estates attached, like yours; but the very name Levondale didn't even exist three generations ago.  It would be sad for any family line to end, but can a landless barony be more important than a boy's happiness?  I wouldn't think so—but then, I expect my husband would most strenuously disagree.  Of course, Michael's only nineteen, we have ages before we have to cross that particular bridge."

My tea arrived at that point, borne in state on a well-appointed tray by the butler Winborn—I've been accustomed to butlers who sort of shimmer into a room and then evaporate out, unnoticed unless you particularly wanted them, but this one strutted about as if he were leading a parade.  His demeanor went so well with the grandeur of the house that I wondered if the Winborns had been serving at Verevale for generations, as the Coldicotts had at Foxbridge, or if he was brought in to match the furniture.

We chatted for quite a while longer, exploring mutual acquaintance (it turns out we knew quite a few of the same people) and experiences of each other's counties (she'd gone to school at Cheltenham, so was quite familiar with my corner of the island, though my experience of East Sussex was limited to a couple of outings to Brighton when I was a boy), and I found her absolutely delightful.

"Oh, look at the time!" Lady Levondale exclaimed when the clock on the mantel started chiming three, "I must let you go freshen up before tea.  We have tea in the library at four, of course.  One does, doesn't one?"

"We have ours in the drawing-room at home," I said, watching her as she crossed over to the fireplace and pulled the bell, "The library is in the wing my aunt keeps closed most of the time, she's practically forgotten it's there."

"Exactly what I meant about weighing convention against comfort," Lady Levondale laughed, "Considering that most families live most of their lives in one sitting-room, why bother keeping a whole wing open just to drink tea in a library, when any room would do just as well?"

"The Chatroys have their tea in the kitchen," I pointed out mischievously.

"Well, I suppose not any room," she giggled, walking me to the door where a particularly tall footman had appeared, "You wouldn't have tea in a bedroom or a bathroom, either.  I've put you in the Venetian Room, by the way, I hope you'll find it very comfortable.  James will show you the way."

"Thank you, Lady Levondale," I kissed her hand again—not conventional among Englishmen, but something I get a kick out of and they seem to like—and then followed the footman back through the vast scarlet room and the vast rotunda into the vast stair hall, where marble steps rose in operatic magnificence into the upper reaches, surrounded by dozens of Rubenesque deities cavorting on cotton-wool clouds in a vivid trompe-l'oeil Olympus.

The Venetian Room, when I reached it at the end of some very grand corridors, was quite a dazzling chamber, all gold-embroidered blue velvet and practically-life-sized paintings of Venice in the style of Canaletto; it was also equipped with a quite stunning dark-haired boy in tennis whites lounging on the hearthrug before a cozy-looking fire.

"Hullo!" the boy greeted me cheerfully when he caught sight of me, "I wondered who they'd give this room to.  You're Foxbridge, aren't you?"

"'To whom they'd give this room,' I think you'll find," I corrected his grammar with a smile; I'd ordinarily bristle a bit on being addressed so informally by a strange youth, but after ten days of the Chatroys, I was proof against offense, "You must be the Honourable Mr. Levondale."

"Oh, you're not going to be stuffy, are you?" his handsome face fell with disappointment.

"They taught us manners at Eton," I walked over and kicked his leg to show I was joking, "Addressing viscounts you've never met as if they were school-chums makes me wonder where you were educated.  Borstal, perhaps?"

"Charterhouse, actually," he laughed, getting up to shake my hand properly, "But I'm glad they put you in here, Mum and Dad had quite a shindy about who'd get the best bedrooms.  He wanted to put his American chum in here, complete with wife, and I'd be worried all night about untoward noises.  My room's right above this one."

"Are you very noisy at night?" I wondered, watching his face; the tone in his voice when he told me where his room was sounded just a mite suggestive, "I might have to ask your mother for a different room."

"You know American men share rooms with their wives?" he countered, stepping even closer to me, almost close enough to kiss and certainly too close to mistake his intent, "Not sure my delicately nurtured sensibilities could stand proximity to such rampant debauchery, what?"

"What makes you think I won't be just as rampant and debauched?" I played along with the game, reaching down and grabbing on to the necktie he had knotted at his waist instead of a belt, "My mother was American,  you know."

"Ahem," Pond stage-coughed from behind a small door hidden in the paneling before entering the room, interrupting what was turning into a very interesting meeting, "Will your lordship wish to change before tea?"

"I suppose I'd better," I stepped away from the boy, who didn't appear at all disconcerted by Pond's entrance and merely looked at him as if he were an exhibit in a museum, "Lead on, Macduff."

"'Lay on, Macduff,' I think you'll find," Michael teased, goosing me on the backside as he left, "See you at tea."

"Fresh as paint, that one," Pond remarked in his non-valet voice.

"And pretty as a picture," I agreed, following him into the adjacent dressing-room, which was quite as grand as the bedroom despite being much smaller, with its own fireplace and more views of Venice on the walls, "This promises to be quite an entertaining visit."

"Isn't Mr. Levondale a trifle young for your lordship?" he divested me of my jacket and tie, took out my cufflinks, and pushed me toward the bathroom so I could wash my hands and face.

"Oh, I don't know.  I find my tastes expanding with experience. Anything interesting on in the servants' hall?" I asked, turning back my cuffs and fiddling with the old-fashioned taps; the bathroom was a bit of a disappointment after the splendours of the bedroom and dressing-room, a skimpy cupboard affair with the barest necessities and a tub no bigger than a hip-bath, "That butler's quite a specimen, like Westminster Cathedral in a tailcoat."

"Mr. Winborn is indeed very imposing," Pond agreed, "As are his sons, who both work as footmen here."

"A family affair?" I came back out, drying my hands, "I wondered if the Winborns had been here since the Georges, or if they were more recent additions."

"Mr. Winborn came here as a footman thirty years ago," Pond told me, taking the towel and my shirt and letting me deal with my trousers unassisted, "Though his father was butler at another important house not far away.  I have not yet discovered his earlier antecedents."

"I wouldn't be surprised to find Wellington on his family tree, the resemblance is remarkable."

"I also encountered Mr. Massingale in the servants' hall, my lord," Pond changed the subject and his tone, sounding very grave, "Lord Faringdon's valet."

"Jingo's here?" I exclaimed, astonished, "Could he be the 'mutual friends' Lady Levondale mentioned in her invitation?"

"Possibly, my lord," Pond finished buttoning my shirt and handed me a fresh pair of trousers, "Though Mrs. Pargeter is more likely to be the person meant.  Her maid, Miss Hibbert, intimated that her lady was looking forward to your lordship's arrival."

"Oh, well, that's all right," I was relieved, "I'd hate to think Jingo was making use of Lady Levondale to play some sort of trick on me.  It'll be dashed awkward just being in the house with him, it would be unbearable if he was up to something."

"I suspect he is up to something, my lord.  He's always up to something."

"Well, yes," I agreed, "But I'd rather it didn't involve Lady Levondale.  If Julia's the one who arranged the invitation, she might be involved in one of Jingo's schemes and wants help dealing with him."

"Mrs. Pargeter doesn't seem the type to need help, my lord," Pond frowned at the knot he'd just put in my tie, then took it apart to do over again, "What have you been doing with your neckties?  I'll need to put a new buckram in this one."

"I used some on Claude," I admitted, a little abashed but also rather pleased with myself, "He got me to tie him up.  It was surprisingly fun."

"Expanding tastes, indeed," he snorted, completing a better knot and sticking it with a small cameo-headed pin, "Next time, use your shoelaces or your braces.  They're better suited to the purpose."

"I'd no idea you were a devotee," I laughed at him as he stuck an artfully folded silk into my front pocket.

"I am devoted only to your clothes, my lord," he gave me one of his rare real smiles.

"I missed you, Pond," I grinned at him, and only a supreme act of will kept me from hugging him as well.

"If your lordship is going to be maudlin, I shall absent myself," he replied, back in professional voice.

"Thank you, Pond," I relented, stepping over to admire his handiwork in the glass, "You have excelled yourself.  My fellow guests won't be able to take their eyes off me."

"Thank you, my lord," he bowed and slithered out of the room.

I made my way back downstairs, taking my time since I wasn't trying to keep up with any Winborns marchant, examining the painted walls of the staircase and standing in the center of the rotunda to gawk at the far-away dome.

"Pretty impressive, isn't it?  Like the Capitol in Washington."

"I rather feel like an ant at the bottom of a vase," I turned to look at the owner of the American-accented voice, swallowing the irritation of being startled into nearly toppling over backward.

"Name's Vandekamp," the man put out his hand—his very large, square, strong hand—to shake.  He was a big, distinguished-looking chap, fifty or so with a handsomely rough-hewn face and thick salt-and-pepper hair, "Chester Vandekamp."

"How do you do?" I took the offered hand, which enveloped mine completely, "I'm Viscount Foxbridge."

"I never get used to you youngsters over here having titles," he gave me a warm smile that made me go a little bit weak in the knees.

"Just a hand-me-down thing," I deprecated myself shyly; a frolic with the lovely young Michael would be a jolly pastime, but Chester Vandekamp was my very precise cup of tea, and a frolic with him a consummation devoutly to be wished.  If he'd had a big mustache, as well, I might not have been able to control myself, "Not something one earns."

"So you reckon a knight is better than a viscount because it's earned?  Unusual viewpoint for an Englishman," he was still holding on to my hand.  Was he flirting?

"I am a bit unusual," I replied, looking up through my lashes at him.

"What are you standing around in here for?" another American-accented voice, female and harsh, echoed into the rotunda.

"Just chatting, my dear," Vandekamp turned to greet the newcomer, a brassy blonde with a spectacular figure and a face that was probably quite beautiful a few years ago but was starting to come to pieces under its careful paint, "May I present my wife, Lord Foxbridge?"

"How do you do, Mrs. Vandekamp?" I took her hand and kissed it, startled by the size of the diamond on her finger, practically a paperweight.

"Coo!" she exclaimed, vamping like a chorus girl, which I later discovered she had been before she married, "Just like a Frenchie!  What kind of lord are you, Lord Foxbridge?"

"Now, Mamie, that's not a nice question," Vandekamp scolded her gently, looking at her with eyes so full of love and affection that I was forced to dismiss any fantasies I'd been harboring about him—even if he was susceptible to my wiles, he'd never dally while she was around.

"Well, there's lots of lords here, honey.  I find it confusing," she complained, "I read about the peerage and all when we came here, and it was real interesting, but you-all don't say what kind of lord you are, not the way it is in the book."

"I'm a viscount by courtesy, ma'am," I explained, charmed by the lady's cheerful frankness, "My father is the Right Honourable the 10th Earl of Vere, Viscount Foxbridge, and Baron Saint-Clair, as it would say in the book.  I'm his heir, so I'm known by his second-best title."

"Well, how about that!" she smiled at me as if I'd pulled off a particularly clever parlour-trick, "I'm glad you explained it to me.  The other kid I asked got real huffy when I asked him.  Lord Rupert Something."

"I assume he's the younger son of a duke or a marquess if he says his Christian name."

"His Ma's a duchess," Mrs. Vandekamp hooked her arm around my elbow and started towing me toward where the tea was, "She's here, too.  A 'dowager,' but they don't call her that to her face."

"Well, it's not an insult," I pointed out, strolling along with the lady while her husband trailed behind us (giving me the distinct impression that he was examining one or both of us as we walked), "It's just one of the words we tend to drop out of sheer laziness.  Like just saying 'Lord' instead of what rank of lord one is."

"You should give a correspondence course, Lord Foxbridge," Vandekamp overtook us and draped his arm over my shoulder as we walked, "Help us ignorant Americans keep from sticking our foots in our mouths.”

“I never saw much point in expecting everyone else to know all our silly customs,” I laughed as we reached the library door and had to break apart, Vandekamp and I acting out a pantomime of after-yous while Mrs. Vandekamp sailed through ahead of us; he eventually went in ahead of me and I watched with interest as he caught up to his wife and gave her a surreptitious squeeze on the backside as they approached the tea-table.

"Oh, Lord Foxbridge, how nice you do look," Lady Levondale descended on me in an hospitable flurry when she caught sight of me in the doorway, and dragged me toward the centre of the room, "Such a pretty tweed.  I see you’ve met the Vandekamps, but I don't know if you’ve met everyone else?"

"Not everyone, no," I took in the large-ish group of people clustered around the fireplace of the quite magnificent room (what other kind of room was there at Verevale?  This one was done up in moss-coloured velvet and gold braid with the books imprisoned behind ormolu lattice in great glass-fronted cabinets), recognizing only a few faces.

"The Duchess of Tyne?" my hostess gently towed me over to the ranking personage in the room, a stately grande dame enthroned in a massive wing-back chair; she was just tipping over from middle-age into elderliness, her gray hair tinted to an unusual shade of jonquil that I suppose was meant to be blonde and arranged in an impressive old-fashioned pompadour, though her clothes were thoroughly up-to-date; her face was interesting, almost completely devoid of chin, with big watery blue eyes and a parrot's-beak nose, which should have been rather foolish but was instead imbued with an expression of immense dignity.

"Your Grace," I bowed low over her hand.

"How do you do?" she greeted me with a plummy woodwind voice and the roundest vowels I'd ever heard.  It was such a stagey sort of accent that I wondered if she was putting it on, or if she was the model on which theatrical grandes dames based themselves.

"Her son, Lord Rupert Gosforth," Lady Levondale turned me slightly toward a fair young man draped bonelessly over the end of a sofa.  He was obviously his mother's son, with the same long chinless face and big watery eyes, though with a different nose, a strong straight one that suited the face better and rendered him rather attractive.

"How do you do?" he said in the same sort of plummy round-voweled voice, but much deeper, a bassoon compared to his mother's oboe; his eyes were languid, the blond-lashed lids dropping slowly instead of blinking, but the handshake was admirably firm, the hand strong and hot.

"I'm sure you know Lord and Lady Faringdon?" I was dragged along to the next guests.

"How are you, Foxy?" Jingo beamed at me, taking my hand.  If he was in any way surprised or discomfited by my appearance, he didn't let on—but then, I wouldn't expect him to, any more than I'd expect him to let on that he was up to some sort of skullduggery.  The whole point of Jingo and Dotty was their invariable mask of bonhomous frivolity.

"As well as can be expected, Jingo," I said as nicely as I could, though I really wanted to punch him right in the face, "You're looking lovely, Dotty."

"Foxy, darling," Dotty cooed, pressing her bosom against my arm and kissing me on the cheek, leaving a smear of lipstick behind.

"Have you met Sir Peregine Pendersleigh?" Lady Levondale wasn't letting any grass grow, pulling me along to the next guest.

"We've met briefly," I conceded, taking the hand of the amiable-looking old man, "You gave a very interesting lecture at Oxford a couple of years ago, all about reconstructing the domestic life of the ancient Egyptian peasant by comparing tomb paintings with modern practices."

"Yes, I remember," Sir Peregine shook my hand vigorously, though his grasp was weak; he was slightly hunched over and terrifically wrinkled, his bald and beady-eyed head thrust forward like an old tortoise; his pale suit was foppish in cut and colour, but seemed to be too big for him—as if he'd shrunk a good deal since he'd bought it, "Foxbridge of Magdalen, you said some very complimentary things afterward over sherry in the Master's Lodgings.  Are you still interested in Egyptology, my boy?"

"Oh, certainly," I replied vaguely—in fact, I'd never been interested in Egypt per se, but I am fascinated by the way archaeologists figure out how things happened thousands of years ago.  Archaeology is just another form of detective-work, but with exotic names and everybody already dead.

"I'm sure you must have met Sir Wilfred Beckett Haven?" I was hauled inexorably on, despite Sir Peregrine's obvious desire to detain me in conversation.

"I don't believe so," I took the next hand offered, which belonged to a tall and extraordinarily rigid-looking man, with a pencil mustache on a distinguished face immediately recognizable from the newspapers, "But I know of your excellent work in the Cabinet."

"I know your father very well," Sir Wilfred stated, as if magnanimously prepared to forgive my existence over this fact, squeezing my hand in a painful grip, "We often dine together at St. Stephen's."

"How nice," I winced a little over the handshake and took an immediate dislike to the man.  Parliamentarians tend to annoy me, too many of them exuding an air of condescending self-importance, so a Cabinet Minister must be a very annoying creature, indeed; and allying himself with my father certainly did not endear him. 

"And his daughter, Miss Beckett Haven," I was pulled along again, this time confronted by a terrifically pretty woman of about thirty-five, smartly but not too fashionably dressed, with an intricate coiffure of black curls that must have taken her maid a full hour to assemble.

"I believe we met at Lady Paxton's ball last June," I said, taking her hand but not lifting or kissing it as I ordinarily would.  Her face might have been really beautiful if it didn't wear an expression of bitter disappointment bravely borne, and she had a strangely mincing way of speaking that I found off-putting—despite her obvious efforts to be charming, I disliked her the first time I met her, and was not sanguine that she'd grow on me now.

"How do you do?" she simpered, her fine dark eyes shrewd and assessing, her smile tight and neutral.

"And this is my daughter, Lavinia," Lady Levondale said with a sort of presentation tone in her voice, as if the girl was a fascinating celebrity.  She was an odd-looking creature with a sort of cylindrical face, barely prevented from being horsey by the tiny mouth and protuberant eyes of a Chinese goldfish.

"How do you do, Miss Levondale?" I said suavely, trying to cover the awkwardness I felt from being stared at like an inanimate object: the girl gave me her hand, but did not smile or respond, she merely gazed blankly at me as one would a painting in a gallery one didn't entirely care for.

"And of course you know the Pargeters, don't you?" my hostess completed the round of the room, leaving me there to return to her tea-table.

"Hullo, Foxy," Bertie greeted me with his mouth full of cake, glancing up from his plate with a friendly smile and then focusing sharply on my waistcoat, "That is a pretty tweed.  Where did you get it?  The cut looks like Anderson & Sheppard, but that wasn't in their swatch books."

"A little shop in Bond Street," I told him, amused by his astonishing memory for the tiniest details of gentlemen's suiting and haberdashery when he probably couldn't tell you his own address without looking at his cards, "They sell goods from the great Scottish estates.  This stuff comes from a place called Glenbogle, and I sent it along to Anderson & Sheppard to run up for me."

"Glenbogle, Scottish shop in Bond Street, I'll remember that," Bertie promised, returning his attention to his cake.

"I understand from my man, Pond, that you're responsible for my invitation," I said to Julia Pargeter, sitting next to her with the cup of tea and plate of cake the footman had just handed me.

"Aunt Cynthia is responsible for the invitation," she smiled at me, a twinkle in her storm-gray eyes, "I merely suggested it might be amusing to have you down, you were such delightful company at Castoris."

"Lady Levondale is your aunt?  I didn't know."

"Not really," she explained, "My father and Lord Levondale have been best friends since forever, they were at school together.  I've always known them as Aunt Cynthia and Uncle Felix."

"And 'Cousin' Lavinia?" I asked quietly, nodding faintly in the direction of the strange young woman, "What's her story?"

"She's ordinarily very friendly, if a trifle over-earnest about things.  The way she cut you just now was quite extraordinary."

"It was awkward," I admitted, "I felt like a cad out of Jane Austen."

"I'll find out from her later," she promised, "And in return you can tell me about your friend, Faringdon.  But not now.  So, what have you been doing reading Jane Austen?  Not at all the sort of thing I'd suspect of you."

"Really?  Just because I like pulps, people seem to think they're all I've ever read."

"Most people who read pulps can't read anything else," she shrugged.

"You're an intellectual snob," I teased.

"Hullo-ullo, sorry we're late," a man came caroling into the room, two young women trailing behind him, then stopped suddenly in front of me, "What ho, a new face! You must be Foxbridge.  I'm Levondale."

"A pleasure to meet you, Lord Levondale," I stood up and shook his hand.  He was a funny-looking old buster, stout and burly but with a very pointed face, slanted eyes and a slanted smile, like a bull-terrier that's very pleased with itself; he was dressed in grass-green tweeds and leather gaiters so spanking-new that one almost expected to see the tailor's pins still attached.

"We've just been down looking at some new pigs on the home farm," he said cheerfully, taking a cup of tea and waving away the cake.

"They were so sweet," one of the girls said, plumping down on the other side of me in the sofa.  She was dark and skinny and past the first blush of youth, but had the chubby cheeks and rosebud mouth of a little child, with huge swimmy brown eyes and frizzy unkempt hair, "Don't you think baby pigs are the sweetest things?"

"I don't think I've ever seen a baby pig," I replied, charmed.  The girl was very plain, but her enthusiasm was endearing.

"Oh, but you must!" she exclaimed, grabbing my hand, "Baby animals are always far the best kind, but baby pigs are particularly wonderful.  They're so very pink.  I'm sorry, we haven't even been introduced, have we?  I'm Abigail Smallridge, Lavinia's friend."

"Viscount Foxbridge," I took her hand.

"Oh, yes, I know.  You were so pretty in your Oberon costume."

"You were at my masquerade ball?" I was baffled.

"Oh, no, but the pictures were published in this month's Country Life.  I absolutely devoured them, it looked like such fun."

"I'll make sure to invite you next time," I promised.

"That's so kind of you!" she gushed, "I love looking at pictures of parties, they always look so exciting, but then I don't ever seem to enjoy myself when I go to parties.  Perhaps I don't go to the right ones."

"Those elaborate parties that end up in the magazines are never as much fun as they look," the other newly-arrived girl said, "I've been to parties that were crashing bores but the pictures looked like such a great time, I wondered if they were the same parties at all.  And the best parties I've ever attended would look quite dull if they were photographed."

"Really?  I had a whale of a good time at my party," I said cheerfully, though I felt obscurely offended.  The girl was quite good-looking, though not what you'd call 'pretty'—she was simply too impressive and hard-edged for that epithet, like one of your icier Classical goddesses.  She was also American and had the same epic profile as Chester Vandekamp, so I had to assume she was related to him, probably his daughter.

"Oh, I'm sure your party was fantastic," she said diplomatically, "But so many hostesses I know are more interested in how the thing looks than whether or not anyone is having a good time.  Like the guests are just decorations to be placed here and there for effect and moved about when the effect goes stale."

"Oh, I know what you mean," I saw her point, "I've been to parties like that.  But I always manage to have a good time, anyway."

"A man who can have a good time at a boring party is a pearl beyond price," she smiled warmly at me, a touch of flirtation in her voice that I found a tiny bit alarming, "I hope you don't mind if I stick to you like a limpet at the Hunt Ball."

"Not at all," I wasn't sure how to respond to that: did she mean for me to act as her escort, or just to show her how to enjoy a boring party?  "Though I doubt it will be boring, people are always so keyed up after a hunt, the dancing is always great fun."

With the topic of past parties both great and dismal, the conversation became general, as everyone has such experiences to share, and the rest of tea passed quite pleasantly.  When the party started to disburse, though, Julia and I clung to our places, chatting of this and that, until we were finally alone.

"Now, tell me about Faringdon," she said abruptly when the last footman left with the last tray.

"What do you want to know?" I didn't know why she was asking and so had no idea where to start... after all, I knew a lot about Jingo.

"I want to know why, out of the clear blue sky, two celebrated socialites like the Faringdons should suddenly start taking an interest in socially negligible people like me and Bertie, and the Levondales?"

"They're blackmailers," I said simply, "You have money, they want money."

"Really!  I thought they were very well off," she frowned and concentrated, rifling her own encyclopædic knowledge of the movements and dispositions of the nation's wealth, "Aside from living in rather fine style, Faringdon has been making quite a few very shrewd investments these last few years."

"They must be fairly rich, by now," I shrugged, "They've been at this game for a while, and they're very good at it.  They very nearly got me for fifteen thousand guineas; if they manage three or four coups like that a year, they'd be earning quite a lot."

"Yes, I see," she leaned back into the sofa, satisfied, "That explains a great deal.  Faringdon was essentially bankrupt when he came into the title, the estate sold for death duties; everyone assumed it was her money they were living on, but nobody knew where her money came from."

"Now you know," I shrugged.

"How is it worked, though?" she pursued, sitting forward again, "Bertie and I are as dull as ditchwater, we couldn't come up with a worthwhile secret between us, and the Levondales are respectability itself.  You aren't even old enough to have a past, what could he possibly have over you worth fifteen thousand guineas?"

"Well, um..." I stammered, not sure I could trust her with the delicate details.

"No, I don't mean for you to tell me all your secrets," she smiled comfortingly at me and patted my hand, "Though, by the way you're blushing, I can surmise what they are.  What I mean is, what are the mechanics of it?  How does he 'get the goods,' as it were?"

"Hidden cameras, mainly," I said guardedly, wishing that I hadn't mentioned my own involvement in Jingo's schemes, "He planted a confederate in my house in the guise of a footman, who installed cameras in several of the bedrooms and managed to photograph a some goings-on of rather damaging appearance."

"The footman who was murdered?" she wondered.

"Yes, though the murder wasn't related to the blackmail, at least not directly; and if it wasn't for the murder, I never would have found out about it.  Jingo and Dotty never appear in the case, you see: the photographs are taken by a confederate; if there isn't anything to photograph, a seduction is carried out by a confederate; and then the threats of blackmail are made by another completely separate confederate who doesn't approach the victim until months later.  If Jingo and Dotty do appear in the case, if they have to carry out the seduction themselves for any reason, they simply look like fellow victims."

"That's extraordinarily clever," Julia was looking off into the middle-distance again, examining the mechanism in her mind's eye, "An admirable system.  But I don't see how they can hope to catch me or Bertie in their toils, much less Aunt Cynthia and Uncle Felix.  I mean, even if Dotty did manage to seduce poor Bertie, and get photographs of it, I can't see what use they'd be.  It's not like I'd divorce the silly fish for something so banal as a one-off infidelity."

"In the character of a victim, Dotty could convince him to pay in order to preserve her marriage, though," I pointed out, "He's chivalrous enough to do it.  And worse, what if Jingo managed to seduce Bertie?  Divorce would be the least of his problems."

"Oh!  I see.  I don't think he's inclined that way, but you never know," her face took on a different sort of frown as her admiration for the Faringdons' cleverness gave way to her fierce desire to protect her husband, "It's so much a part of the public school tradition; most of you grow out of it, but men will be boys when they can, won't they?"

"More than you know," I smirked a little before I caught myself. 

"I know a good deal more than you seem to think," she said with a sly grin, "But I shan't embarrass you by telling you your own secrets.  At any rate, forewarned is forearmed, I won't let Bertie alone in a room with either of the Faringdons."